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Regionalization Series, Part 1: It’s already here (UMCom)

If you have been in or around United Methodist leadership circles, you may have heard the word “regionalization” more frequently in recent months. Some speak of it as a solution to a General Conference that is too U.S.-centric. Others appreciate it for its value of creating more regional control and autonomy worldwide. There are also some who oppose it because they believe it is primarily a way for United Methodists in the United States to change the rules about human sexuality in ways they cannot abide.

In this series, Ask The UMC will explore the ways that regionalization already exists for central conferences and the opportunities it gives them, as well as the implications of enabling regionalization on an equal basis worldwide, including for United Methodists in the United States.

Series Map:
Part 1: Regionalization is already (partly) here
Part 2: Regionalization is customization
Part 3: Regionalization requires communication
Part 4: Regionalization legislation enables needed regional differences while maintaining unity
Part 5: The path to greater regionalization in the future

Part 1: Regionalization is already (partly) here

The Constitution of The United Methodist Church, Article IV, Paragraph 31.5, allows central conferences to reject or alter decisions of the General Conference, including items in the Book of Discipline, to fit their particular contexts better. The central conferences are regional administrative bodies outside the United States that, like the jurisdictional conferences in the United States, elect bishops, assign them to episcopal areas and create the boundaries for annual conferences within their areas.

Unlike jurisdictional conferences in the United States, however, the Constitution of The United Methodist Church permits central conferences to “make such rules and regulations for the administration of the work within their boundaries including such changes and adaptations of the General Discipline as the conditions in the respective areas may require, subject to the powers that have been or shall be vested in the General Conference” (emphasis added).

This ability of central conferences to make “changes and adaptations” in the Discipline has been part of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church since its founding in 1968. Central Conferences, and in some cases the annual conferences within them, have from time to time used authorization to avoid adopting parts as enacted by General Conference and amend others for their own use. 

Central conferences, and with their authorization, the annual conferences within them, have the authority to make these changes. Jurisdictional conferences and annual conferences in the United States do not and never have.

One example of some central conferences not adopting a General Conference action is the ordination of deacons. The 1996 General Conference created a new permanent order of deacon in full connection and abolished the two-stage process of ordination from deacon to elder. It also replaced that two-stage process with a different two-stage process that involves commissioning probationary (now called provisional) members of the conference for a period of two or more years before approving them for full conference membership and ordination as either deacon or elder. Some central conferences have never enacted this system because they preferred to stay with the previous system as better suited to their context.

An example of adapting policies approved by the General Conference is the tenure of bishops. General Conference calls for bishops to be elected to serve for life until mandatory retirement. Several central conferences, however, have had a variety of different processes. The Congo Central Conference, for example, initially chose to elect a bishop to a four-year first term, followed by a new election. If the bishop was elected a second time, the bishop could then serve for life. The 2018 Congo Central Conference changed the policy again, this time to align with the General Conference version. The Congo Central Conference also made the new policy retroactive to all seated bishops at the time, including those most recently elected. So, the Congo Central Conference has used the provisions for regionalization twice to adapt General Conference polices regarding the tenure of a bishop.

How ministry is ordered and the tenure of bishops are not minor differences! Yet variations in these structures and practices have never been seen as a barrier to the unity of the church nor to its ability to function as a single church worldwide. Indeed, the flexibility given to central conferences to structure ministry as they find most helpful is widely understood to have enhanced the effectiveness of the church in its widely varying contexts.

While such significant variations have been allowed under the constitution of The United Methodist Church, there has also remained a critical question about the line between what “conditions in the respective areas may require” and “the powers that have been or shall be vested in the General Conference.” What exactly can a central conference reject or adapt, and what must it simply accept and apply?

Ongoing conversations about that line led to what is now Paragraph 101, “General Book of Discipline,” proposed by the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and adopted by the 2012 General Conference. Paragraph 101 marks Parts I-V of the Discipline as adaptable only by the General Conference. Parts I-V include the constitution, Paragraph 101 itself, the Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, the Ministry of All Christians, and the Social Principles. Whatever else may be adaptable by the central conferences or the conferences within them, these foundational elements of United Methodist polity and belief are not.

The entirety of the rest of the Book of Discipline comprises the current Part VI. Part VI includes a wide variety of administrative matters at all levels of denominational life, from the local church to general agencies. Among the matters it covers are the structures and governance of local churches, district conferences, annual conferences, jurisdictional conferences, central conferences, General Conference, the work of bishops and district superintendents, the purpose and responsibilities of the various general agencies of the denomination and matters related to church property and judicial administration. It also includes the standards for clergy to be licensed, commissioned, ordained, or consecrated and how clergy remain accountable in ministry to the annual conference.

Some of these may easily be administered more locally. It may make sense and be generally uncontroversial for central conferences to determine how annual conferences within them are structured, and for annual conferences to be allowed to determine how local churches within them are structured provided basic connectional relationships are maintained.

Others, by contrast, will necessarily require General Conference approval. General agencies serve the entire denomination, worldwide. So do the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council. How central conferences are organized and relate to one another and to the church as a whole are critical to the connection itself.

The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters has developed and submitted legislation that answers some of the questions about who may adapt what. Their legislation would also expand the ability to adapt or not to adopt some parts of the Discipline to all geographical areas of the denomination, including the United States. Under this legislation, all central conferences would be renamed as regional conferences, and a new regional conference for the United States would be created. We will discuss the details of this legislation in more detail in Part 4 of this series.

Also in 2024, the Standing Committee will ask to be in ongoing collaboration with leaders across the worldwide church to reorganize the Discipline in such a way that what regional conferences can adapt is clearly separated from what they cannot adapt. As the existing Paragraph 101 describes, this will involve proposing a re-written Part VI, which will include materials not adaptable by central conferences, and then, at some point, a new Part VII to include what can be adapted by regional conferences. We will discuss these proposed ongoing efforts in Part 5 of this series.

Even now, however, regionalization remains available in many ways to central conferences. Indeed, they may adapt and customize much more of the existing Part VI than they currently have done, should they so choose. We will explore some of those opportunities in Part 2 of this series.

Read more from the series “What is Regionalization?”