What the Regionalization Agenda Tells Us about the Future of the UMC, Part 1

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By Thomas Lambrecht

In a recent article, Mainstream UMC (a centrist advocacy group within The United Methodist Church) outlines the case for the regionalization of the church. They consider the article important, calling it “an important baseline and reference point for where we are as a church.” It advocates for a plan that would set the UM Church in the U.S. as its own regional conference, with wide latitude to “adapt” the Book of Discipline according to the views of U.S. delegates and different from how other regions of the church might position themselves.

The most prominent issue motivating the push toward regionalization is differences over the definition of marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBT persons. Regionalization would allow the U.S. and Western Europe to adopt one definition of marriage that would allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of partnered LGBT persons, while Africa and Eastern Europe could maintain the current definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, while continuing to refuse ordination to practicing gays and lesbians. This strategy is seen by some as an attempt to allow the U.S. to have its own way on these issues, while keeping Africa in the United Methodist fold.

Going beyond the individual issues, however, the article’s rhetoric gives some hints as to the bigger picture implications of moving forward with the regionalization plan.

Culture Vs. Scripture

The Mainstream UMC article frames the regionalization proposal as a way to accommodate differences in culture. The article speaks of the ability “to adapt portions of the rules to fit their cultural contexts.” It goes on to say, “If the structure does not change, cultural values will continue to be imposed upon one region of the world by another.” In fact, the word “culture” or “cultural” appears seven times in the article.

Mainstream UMC apparently sees the definition of marriage as a cultural issue. The main reason for adopting a non-traditional view of marriage given in the piece is because, according to the Pew Research Center, “back in 2014 60 percent of U.S. Methodists supported same-sex marriage.  They note that ‘Americans’ views about homosexuality have shifted further since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.’”

Most traditionalists, however, see the definition of marriage as a moral and Scriptural issue. Jesus defines marriage in Matthew 19:4-6, quoting Genesis 2:24). Throughout Scripture, marriage is defined as between male and female, and the New Testament clarifies that marriage ought to be monogamous, not polygamous.

The larger implication from this difference of perspective is that the future UM Church is more likely to adapt to the surrounding culture than live differently, no matter what Scripture says. It appears the church may take its cues on moral decisions from what is culturally acceptable, rather than from what the Bible teaches.

This is a dangerous approach to setting moral standards of behavior. Scripture repeatedly urges us not to go along with what a godless world does but to stand against it to live the Jesus way. “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:2). “So, you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires” (I Peter 1:14). “Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Philippians 2:15).

Backtracking on Being a Global Church?

The article makes the astounding claim that The United Methodist Church is “not really a global church.” The article says that United Methodists make up “only about 30 percent of all Methodists in the world and just above 50 percent of the Methodist family in the US.” Apparently in Mainstream’s view, because United Methodism does not make up the vast majority of global Methodists, it is not a global church, despite the fact that it has congregations on four continents and dozens of countries.

What Mainstream is arguing is that United Methodism is governed in a different way from many other Methodist bodies in the world. Most other Methodist denominations are country-based or allow the church in each country to be at least somewhat autonomous, governing its own affairs. Uniquely, United Methodism over the years has striven to be a truly global church, where Methodists from many different countries determine together how they will live out the Christian faith.

Now, Mainstream apparently wants to backtrack on that unique commitment. It wants to let each part of the UM Church govern itself, with much less connection and foreclosing the influence of other parts of the global church. Coincidentally, this push for regional autonomy comes at a time when the church in Africa is poised to exercise greater influence on the direction of the UM Church. While the U.S. was in the clear majority and could call the shots, Mainstream had no problem being part of a global church. But now that the U.S. is moving toward being a minority of the General Conference delegates, Mainstream wants to back down from being a global church and adopt a regional autonomy model.

This move toward regional autonomy has the potential of weakening the international connection between various parts of The United Methodist Church. It is the equivalent of the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Or the head saying to the feet, “I don’t need you” (I Corinthians 12:21). While it is understandable that Methodists who do not agree on foundational issues might choose to govern themselves separately, it seems to reflect a hypocritical attitude to say, “We want to be all part of the same church, but we don’t want you to influence our decisions on how to be church.”

In any case, the regionalization proposal seems to reflect a renunciation of the attempt for the UM Church to be a global denomination, and it moves the church toward being a confederation of regional or national churches.

A Faulty Understanding of the Globalization of United Methodism

Mainstream UMC portrays the growth of international United Methodism as the result of decisions made by General Conference to “absorb global annual conferences” beginning in the 1990s. However, that is only true of the Cote d’Ivoire Annual Conference in Africa. Its 677,000 members at the time were admitted by the 2004 General Conference for partial representation at the 2008 General Conference and for full representation at the 2012 General Conference.

When the UM Church was formed in 1968, annual conferences outside the U.S. were given the choice of whether to become autonomous Methodist churches or remain in the UM Church. The Board of Global Ministries actively encouraged conferences to choose to be autonomous. All of the annual conferences in Latin America and most in Asia chose that status. The small conferences in Europe and in Africa (at the time) chose to remain United Methodist.

Then what accounts for the shift in the percentage of delegates from being almost entirely U.S. to being more evenly divided? As Mainstream documents, General Conference delegates from outside the U.S. accounted for only 8 percent of the total in 1980, while it has grown to 44 percent today.

The first reason is the decline in U.S. membership. When the UM Church was formed in 1968, it had over 11 million U.S. members. Currently, it has declined to less than 6 million U.S. members even before disaffiliation began. Through disaffiliations, the U.S. church stands to lose an additional 1 million members. If growth of the U.S. church had kept up with the growth in U.S. population over that time, there would now be 18.7 million U.S. members, over 70 percent of total UM membership.

The second reason is the dramatic growth of members in Africa. Just as an illustration, while Cote d’Ivoire had 677,000 members in 2004 when it was received into the UM Church, it now has double that number at 1.2 million. In 2005, the Congo Central Conference had 1.2 million members in 12 annual conferences. It currently has 3.7 million members in 14 annual conferences. Many other African annual conferences have also experienced exponential growth. The UM Church has usually seen that growth as something to celebrate. Mainstream seems to view it as a threat to U.S. dominance and a reason to separate the U.S. as its own regional governing structure.

The third reason for the shifting imbalance is the provision in our Constitution that gives every annual conference at least 2 delegates, one clergy and one lay. This has resulted in an imbalanced representation from Europe and the Philippines. The 20 European annual conferences have 40 delegates, which gives them one vote for every 1,300 members. This is far above the churchwide average of one vote for every 14,500 members. (Note that Mainstream’s chart of delegates dates from the 2016 General Conference. I am using the more recent 2020 numbers.)

Similarly, the Philippines has intentionally taken advantage of this system to multiply the number of annual conferences there. They have 26 annual conferences, giving them 52 delegates, or one vote for every 2,700 members.

Mainstream UMC tends to focus on Africa, however, since their 278 delegates dwarf the 92 other international delegates. The African delegates also tend to vote in a much more uniformly conservative direction, while Europe and the Philippines have been more evenly divided between conservatives and progressives. However, Africa is actually underrepresented for General Conference delegates, at one vote for every 19,000 members. If Africa were fairly represented based only on professing lay membership, it would have 42 percent of the delegates, rather than the 32 percent it currently has.

Mainstream portrays the allocation of delegates at General Conference as a “growing imbalance.” What they really mean is that the U.S. is receiving a shrinking percentage of the delegates. This is hardly an imbalance, but rather reflects the shifting membership in the global UM Church. The overrepresentation of Europe and the Philippines could be corrected by changing the formula allocating at least two delegates per annual conference to two delegates per episcopal area. But the root issue is the long-term and increasing decline of U.S. membership. The only way for the U.S. to maintain its percentage of the General Conference delegates is for the U.S. part of the church to start growing, which it has not done since the 1950s.

Relying on a faulty understanding of the growing globalization of the UM Church leads to “blaming” General Conference decisions for increasing international membership. This in turn leads to searching for a General Conference solution to the shifting representation, namely regionalization. It is a mechanism for the U.S. church to maintain its governance status quo without addressing the root issue of its 55-year membership decline. It is adopting a bureaucratic solution to a missional problem. Such an approach sustains the decades-long denominational ineffectiveness and holds no promise for a quick turnaround to growth in the future UM Church.

This Perspective has observed that, to the extent that Mainstream UMC speaks for the broad center of United Methodism, the future UM Church is likely to adapt to cultural trends, rather than maintain biblical distinctiveness.  It is likely to weaken its global nature and connection. And it is unlikely to address its membership decline in the U.S.

Next week’s Perspective will examine more implications of the Mainstream UMC regionalization proposal.

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