August 21, 2023
The effort to put The United Methodist Church’s different geographic regions on equal footing has crossed a critical threshold.
The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, in an online meeting Aug. 19, unanimously approved proposed legislation for the denomination’s worldwide regionalization.
That means the plan’s eight petitions are now heading to General Conference, the denomination’s international lawmaking assembly scheduled for April 23-May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The standing committee’s vote also means the legislation is more likely to clear the first hurdle faced by all legislation at General Conference — making it out of committee.
The standing committee is a permanent committee of General Conference and deals with matters in central conferences — seven church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The standing committee also acts as a legislative committee during General Conference. The committee expects to be able to move its recommended legislation to the full General Conference for consideration.
“Regionalization is a way forward to keep the UMC alive and relevant in a worldwide context,” Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco, the standing committee’s co-chair and a retired bishop in the Philippines, said in a press statement. “It addresses the mandate of Jesus Christ in Matthew 28: 26-20 ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’”
The Connectional Table, a leadership body that coordinates denomination-wide ministries and resources, also unanimously gave its affirmation in July for the regionalization legislation to move forward.
“The shift from central conference to regional conference is a recognition of the maturity of the current central conferences, which were once mission points of the then missionary-sending churches in the U.S.,” Bishop Mande Muyombo, Connectional Table chair, said in a press statement. Muyombo leads the North Katanga Area that encompasses parts of Congo and Tanzania.
“No region can claim to be the center and others the peripheries,” he added. “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ remains the center of God’s mission.”
Under the plan, the seven current central conferences and the U.S. would each become United Methodist regional conferences with the same duties and powers to pass legislation for greater missional impact in their respective regions.
The regionalization proposal aims to address what many United Methodists see as a longstanding problem limiting the denomination’s missional effectiveness — namely that the church in the U.S. and the central conferences have unequal standing in decision-making.
The goal is to empower each region to act more nimbly in reaching people for Christ — without waiting for General Conference, which typically meets every four years.
Another goal is to decentralize the U.S. and work toward the decolonization of the global denomination. At present, the U.S. tends to be the default to which central conferences must adjust.
The United Methodist Church’s constitution gives central conferences authority to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.
But no such structure exists to deal with matters solely related to the United States. The result is that General Conference ends up being largely dominated by U.S. challenges and debates.
A number of United Methodist leaders see new urgency for the U.S., Africa, Europe and the Philippines to each be on equal footing now that the standing committee is developing a draft of a new General Book of Discipline.
Since 2012, the standing committee has been working to determine which parts of the current Book of Discipline’s Part VI are essential for all United Methodists and which can be adapted. Part VI, the largest section in the Discipline, deals with organizational and administrative matters. That work remains ongoing.
The regionalization plan does not mean The United Methodist Church will become a free-for-all, Bishop Patrick Streiff stressed.
Streiff, now retired from leading the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, is a former chair of the standing committee who has long overseen the work on the General Book of Discipline.
“The doctrinal standards are very important for giving the same identity to who we are as United Methodists,” Streiff told the standing committee.
The United Methodist Church’s commitment to core Christian beliefs and the theology of Methodism founder John Wesley are “unadaptable,” he added.
Under the regionalization legislation, regional conferences must uphold the denomination’s constitution and the decisions of General Conference. The proposal also requires each region to operate in harmony with The United Methodist Church’s policies toward racial justice and ecumenical relations.
“We need conferencing on the level of General Conference around what is really nonadaptable,” Streiff said. “And at the same time, give this possibility to the regions that are in very different situations legally in how they can live the mission and there give the freedom to adapt … to the forms that are needed in each region.”
The petitions also include enabling legislation for the creation of a U.S. regional conference including the creation of an Interim Committee on Organization to plan for the new U.S. body.
The petitions also include the creation of a separate U.S. Regional Committee, a General Conference legislative committee. The committee would include all U.S. General Conference delegates as well as a clergy and lay delegate from each central conference.
The committee would serve a similar role for the U.S. as the standing committee does now for central conferences. However, both the interim committee and the U.S. Regional Committee would dissolve upon the establishment of a U.S. Regional Conference.
The creation of the regional conferences around the globe requires amending the denomination’s constitution — a high bar. For ratification, amendments must receive at least a two-thirds vote at General Conference and at least two-thirds of the total votes from annual conferences, regional bodies consisting of voters from multiple congregations. The regional conferences planned under regionalization would each consist of multiple annual conferences.
However, the proposed U.S. Regional Committee — the General Conference legislative committee — only needs a majority vote at General Conference to become a reality. It also could remain in operation if the regional conference structure goes unratified.
The worldwide regionalization legislation also leaves untouched the different ways United Methodists around the globe handle bishop elections.
At present, the seven central conferences hold bishop elections in Africa, Europe and the Philippines while five jurisdictions in the U.S. hold elections for bishops within their borders.
Under the proposed legislation, regional conferences will handle bishop elections except in the U.S. where the jurisdictional structure remains in effect — at least for now.
The regionalization legislation also would mandate a study to update and perfect the new regional conference structure, including examining whether the U.S. should continue to have jurisdictions.
Grassroots efforts are already underway across the U.S. to eliminate the jurisdictional structure as part of The United Methodist Church’s efforts to dismantle racism. The jurisdictional system formed in 1939 as part of the reunion that created the then-Methodist Church after a split over slavery ahead of the U.S. Civil War.
The creation of jurisdictions stemmed from a desire to prevent Northern bishops from leading churches in the South and vice versa. The original jurisdictional system also included the Central Jurisdiction, which segregated Black clergy and members and meant their second-class treatment in church life. The establishment of The United Methodist Church in 1968 brought the official end of the Central Jurisdiction, but many United Methodists increasingly see the jurisdictional concept itself as tainted.
However, eliminating jurisdictions would require another large number of constitutional amendments and other changes to the Book of Discipline.
Dr. Peniel Kasongo, a standing committee member from Congo who helped draft the worldwide regionalization plan, told the committee that the hope is to keep the legislation as simple as possible. He addressed the question of whether the U.S. should become two or more regional conferences.
“For now, we just need to go in a way that we are all thinking that United States of America will become one region,” he said.
Trying to keep changes uncomplicated, he added, “will help us to move forward in the work we are doing.”
Even getting the legislation on a path to a General Conference vote has required the collaboration of United Methodists around the globe.
“For me, it’s almost a miracle,” said Germany Bishop Harald Rückert, the standing committee’s co-chair who facilitated the group’s conversation about the legislation on Aug. 19. “There have been so many of you who have been so much engaged in doing this work.”
Earlier this year, the standing committee and the Connectional Table formed a joint task force to combine two regionalization proposals that shared the aim of providing parity between the U.S. and central conferences.
The task force worked to integrate the Connectional Table’s proposal to create a U.S. Regional Conference and the Christmas Covenant, a grassroots plan that central conference leaders introduced shortly before Christmas in 2019. The Christmas Covenant incorporated the U.S. regional conference and went further to transform the existing central conferences into regional conferences.
The 10-member task force included United Methodists from Congo, Germany, Mozambique, the Philippines and the U.S. The task force also consulted with the creators of the Christmas Covenant in developing the worldwide regionalization plan heading to General Conference.
Karen Prudente, a member of both the Christmas Covenant team and Connectional Table, told the standing committee after its vote that the Christmas Covenant team plans to work for the legislation’s ratification.
“We are supportive and plan to be with you as we share and advocate about regionalization around the world,” Prudente said, “as we get it approved on the floor and as we get it ratified for the future of the church.”
After the vote, Fred Brewington, a standing committee member from New York, posted in the meeting’s chat his gratitude for all involved in the process. He also quoted the beloved Christian hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians.”
He wrote: “This speaks to the real concept of being ‘One in the Spirit.’”