What the Regionalization Agenda Tells Us about the Future of the UMC, Part 2

Bishop Kenneth H. Carter gives the sermon and benediction during opening worship for the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

By Thomas Lambrecht

In last week’s Perspective, I surveyed a recent article  by Mainstream UMC (a centrist advocacy group within The United Methodist Church) outlining the case for the regionalization of the church. This important article 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.

Continuing our survey in today’s Perspective, the article gives some hints as to the bigger picture implications of moving forward with the regionalization plan and the conception of the UM Church envisioned by many centrists.

Addressing a Global “Divide”

The Mainstream article portrays the 2019 “Traditional Plan” as being “imposed” upon the church, primarily by delegates from outside the U.S. and especially in Africa. It states, “60 percent of the votes to impose the Traditional Plan on the U.S. church were cast by international delegates.  In fact, 80 percent of all non-U.S. delegates and 90 percent of all African delegates voted against two-thirds of the U.S. church on a policy that only affects the practice of ministry in the United States.”

The article presumably makes this claim because it was primarily the U.S. delegates who were agitating to change the denomination’s position and institute the “One Church Plan” that would have allowed same-sex weddings and ordaining partnered gays and lesbians. However, even this portrayal is inaccurate because Germany, Denmark, Norway, and some other Europeans, as well as some in the Philippines favored a change in the church’s policies.

More importantly, this characterization misrepresents the church’s decision-making process. While the “Traditional Plan” is congruent with most African culture, not all African countries outlaw homosexuality. Notably, South Africa has adopted a permissive attitude toward LGBT relationships. Some other countries do not have laws criminalizing same-sex relationships. So the “Traditional Plan” applies just as much to the African church as to the U.S. church.

Furthermore, if the UM Church is truly to be a global church, it must respect the voices of all parts of the global church community. If all are not agreed, how can we walk together (Amos 3:3)? Rather than the African delegates seeking to impose the “Traditional Plan” on the U.S., the Council of Bishops and progressive/centrist UM leaders attempted to impose the “One Church Plan” on the African church. African, European, Filipino, and U.S. traditionalists were not willing to agree to the “One Church Plan.” By their words and actions since 2019, most bishops and progressive/centrist UM leaders have continued to try to impose the “One Church Plan” on the church. They would not take “no” for an answer.

There is no question that there is a global “divide” over these questions. The problem is how to resolve that divide. Progressives/centrists are unwilling to accept the “Traditional Plan.” Most traditionalists, including those in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, are unwilling to accept the “One Church Plan.” The divide is not geographical, but theological.

Given that neither party is willing to accept the other’s way forward, it seemed that separation was the only viable way to resolve the divide. However, most bishops and many other UM leaders have bent over backwards to prevent separation from occurring outside the U.S., as well as in some conferences in the U.S.

They want to impose “unity” and the “One Church Plan” by making it impossible to disaffiliate. Now they want to impose regionalization as the way to implement the “One Church Plan.”

The Mainstream article seems to envision a future UM Church where it is acceptable to impose a solution on parts of the church that disagree with it, as long as it is the “right” solution. Traditionalists have been willing to make substantial sacrifices in order to resolve the divide through separation. Many progressives/centrists have instead imposed barriers outside the U.S. and in some parts of the U.S. in order to impose the “right” (“One Church Plan/Regionalization”) solution to the divide. Which is more respectful of the consciences and voices of church members and leaders?

Is UM Governance “Undemocratic?”

The Mainstream article makes the claim that the United Methodist system is “quirky” and “not very democratic.” Many centrists envision a need to change the system, but are unclear how they would change it.

Complaints center around several points:

  • Almost all voting at General Conference is done by secret ballot (electronic voting).
  • In some cultures, particularly in Africa, delegates tend to vote as a block, meaning that some annual conferences vote nearly unanimously for or against particular proposals.
  • Lobbying by Good News and other traditionalist groups over the years has somehow distorted democracy in an effort to “prop up the views of a shrinking minority of conservative delegates in the United States.”

The article acknowledges that secret ballot voting in the past has been seen as “help[ing] advance social justice issues in the church.” But now that the General Conference has passed legislation objectionable to progressives and centrists, secret ballots are a problem. It seems the only real reason to do away with secret ballots is to open the delegates to being pressured to vote in line with a centrist/progressive agenda.

The theory of electing General Conference delegates is that they are elected to act according to their best prayerful wisdom. They are trusted to be representative of the opinions of their annual conference. But they are delegated authority to act according to their own conscience (which is why they are called “delegates”). Doing away with secret ballot voting would open a can of worms allowing the kind of pressure politics seen in the secular world to invade the church. It would also favor the promotion of a politically correct agenda via shame and intimidation. That is not how our church should conduct its business.

It is true that some cultures, particularly in Africa, value community solidarity higher than individual opinions. At times, this can result in unhealthy block voting. But on the issues that the Mainstream article focuses on, African delegates are nearly unanimous in their opposition to allowing same-sex marriage and ordination in the church. To decry block voting is to deny that Africans can agree on a particular topic and all vote with a similar mind. It is also to disrespect a culture that manifests different values and priorities than American ones. The article gives no mechanism for doing away with block voting. Again, it seems to want to resort to shame and intimidation to force delegates not to vote in the same way with each other.

Lobbying by caucuses and interest groups within the UM Church is not a new phenomenon. Even the official boards and agencies of the church lobby the delegates. They host meals and briefings to persuade delegates to support agency initiatives and budgets. The Methodist Federation for Social Action has been around since 1907 lobbying for liberal and progressive causes within the church. Lobbying and persuasion are part of the very fabric of democracy. Just because some progressives and centrists do not like the causes that traditionalists lobby for does not mean that all lobbying ought to be ended. Nor is it justification for excluding only traditionalist lobbying, while allowing centrist and progressive lobbying. It is those actions that would be antidemocratic, not lobbying itself.

Follow the Money

Lastly, the Mainstream article critiques the fact that the U.S. part of the church contributes 99 percent of the money to support the functioning of the denomination, but it may in the future have less than 50 percent of the votes. The article asks, “the U.S. church is willing to fund mission and ministry around the world, but why should it fund a governance structure that is actively harming the remaining 80 percent of U.S. churches?”

This is a real issue that any global denomination needs to address. There is financial power for those who have resources. There is political power for those who have votes. But when the financial and political power do not line up, it can cause division in the body.

Part of the solution is for the churches in Africa and the Philippines to become less financially dependent upon the U.S. and Europe. Long-term, the goal needs to be for each part of the church to become financially self-sufficient or self-supporting in its own context. The sharing of financial resources from the U.S. and Europe ought to be tailored to empowering churches in less developed countries, rather than on keeping them dependent.

But it would be unfortunate for the U.S. church to use its financial resources to leverage political power away from the churches outside the U.S. The fact that the U.S. possesses the bulk of the financial resources of the denomination should not give the U.S. the ability to do whatever it wants without the input and agreement of the rest of the church. Otherwise, the church would return to seeing itself with a colonial mentality of a U.S. church with mission outposts overseas.

In a healthy marriage the husband and wife may contribute unequally to the financial resources of the family, but the couple still sees their financial resources as belonging to the couple, rather than to each individually. The same should be true in the church. The financial and non-financial resources of each part of a global church belong to the whole church, not each part separately.

At the same time, the churches outside the U.S. will need to face the reality that the U.S. church will have diminished financial resources to share with the rest of the world. While the U.S. church may have lost over 20 percent of its congregations, the General Council on Finance and Administration believes ultimately the church will see a 40 percent drop in income for the general church. That is reflected in the budget proposed to the 2024 General Conference. After the cash windfall of disaffiliation fees is expended, the U.S. church will not be able to support churches outside the U.S. at the same level as before.

The shifting availability of financial resources and the shift in membership will cause change to happen in the UM denomination. That change could bring about a healthier relationship between financial power and political power, or it could cause a deepening divide between the U.S. church and the financially poorer parts of the church outside the U.S. Using the shift in financial resources as a reason to adopt regionalization could lead to a deepening divide.

Where will this lead?

The Mainstream article states, “Our entire global governance/administrative/ financial structure must change. … the current apparatus is an outdated relic of Western colonialism and is irreparably broken.” The question is what kind of change will happen.

The proposed answer of regionalization only tends to cause further separation between the UM churches in the various parts of the globe. It continues to reflect and enable a U.S. church mainly interested in preserving its own autonomy and self-governance, at the expense of global connection and interrelatedness. The mindset behind many progressive and centrist proponents of regionalization is to create a system where they can ensure that the church makes the “right” decisions and adopts the “right” positions, even if that means disregarding the voices of those outside the U.S. who might disagree. Such an approach would unfortunately trade one sort of colonialism for another.

One wonders why, if having churches outside the U.S. with enough power to thwart the wishes of American progressives and centrists is such a problem, would not the church be better off going the whole way and allowing separation for those who desire it outside the U.S.? Why the intense desire to hang on to churches outside the U.S. that pose such a threat to the U.S. that they must be disenfranchised through a regionalized governance? Let those who agree walk together, and those who disagree walk separately. Anything else ends up being an attempt to impose the will of one part of the church on another part. We have seen how that movie ends.

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