What Would Regionalization Look Like?

Back row delegates at the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C.  Photo by Steve Beard.

By Thomas Lambrecht

Before pivoting to today’s topic examining the likely evolution of regionalization, it is important to note some significant developments in the aftermath of the 2024 UMC General Conference. Anxious congregations have been inquiring from renewal group leaders how to move forward in disaffiliating from the UM Church in light of the changes made at the General Conference.

Local church disaffiliation at the denominational level was shot down and removed from the Discipline by the General Conference. The argument was that annual conferences can provide their own mechanisms for congregational disaffiliation. The question is: would they? We are beginning to see mixed answers to that question.

A few annual conferences have already announced that they are working on disaffiliation processes that can be used by local congregations – some based on the Par. 2549 closure process. Some of those may come up for a vote at next month’s annual conferences or at least be announced as in process.

On the other hand, at least one annual conference has come out with a resounding “no” to the question of disaffiliation. The Susquehanna Annual Conference leaders have announced, “In the Susquehanna Conference there is no longer a process in which a local church may leave the United Methodist Church with their facilities.”

This is a doubly disappointing answer because Susquehanna was one place where leaders on the ground report that conference leaders promised there would be such a disaffiliation process available after the General Conference meeting. According to renewal leaders, churches were encouraged to “wait and see” the results of GC rather than disaffiliate because things “might not change.” Many of those same churches were told that it would be “likely” that disaffiliation would be renewed as another reason for waiting. This was shared not only by the disaffiliation team sent out by the bishops but also by other district superintendents.

Over the years, renewal leaders have become accustomed to some centrist and progressive leaders honoring their commitments only as long as it was convenient for them to do so. As long ago as 2004, some institutional leaders violated a pledge of confidentiality to share information about closed-door discussions about separation ideas. And it did not take long for the “changed circumstances” of the Covid pandemic to give cover for all the centrist and progressive signatories to the Protocol to renounce their support.

It is particularly disturbing that conference leaders promoted the idea that disaffiliation would be possible after the General Conference and then did not lift a finger to keep that promise. Not one centrist or progressive delegate at the General Conference spoke in favor of any of the various proposed disaffiliation pathways. Now that the ball has returned to the annual conference court, it remains to be seen how many annual conference leaders across the U.S. will honor their word.

History may harshly judge those who exhibit a coercive, authoritarian treatment of their local churches. United Methodist members are not children, nor are they stupid. One way or another, they will not be coerced to violate their consciences. By trying, some UM leaders are only portraying the denomination as devious and heavy-handed – a church few will want to belong to. It is up to other UM leaders to demonstrate that the UM Church believes and practices grace and respect, even toward those who disagree with its new direction. The greatest exhibition of respect is to honor conscience-driven decisions without exacting a heavy penalty. One hopes that common sense and Christian charity will win out.

Whither Regionalization?

At the 2024 General Conference, all the components of regionalization were adopted by nearly three-fourths votes or greater. Those enactments do not take effect immediately, however. What happens next?

The next step in the process is for the General Conference secretary to prepare the constitutional amendments for ratification votes in every annual conference. In order for regionalization to take effect, a series of constitutional amendments needs to be ratified by a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members in aggregate. The legislation required that the amendments be prepared for ratification within 30 days of the adjournment of the General Conference. But the first ratification votes are unlikely to take place until this fall, with some annual conferences outside the U.S. being the first to vote.

Most U.S. annual conferences will vote on ratification in 2025. The Council of Bishops is responsible for collecting the results from each annual conference, tabulating them, and then announcing whether the amendments were ratified or not. (It is ironic in this era of doubts about election integrity and pushes for greater transparency that some or even most annual conferences decline to announce the results of their individual annual conference vote. One must trust that the votes are being fairly tabulated and accurately transmitted to the Council of Bishops, but there is no public transparency of the results.)

The earliest the ratification results could be announced is probably at the Council of Bishops meeting in the fall of 2025. It is more likely it will be announced at their spring, 2026, meeting, just before the special General Conference is supposed to meet. It all depends upon when bishops decide to hold the ratification vote in their annual conferences. In the last cycle, some non-U.S. bishops postponed ratification for a year beyond when they could have voted, which delays the ability of the Council of Bishops to tabulate the full results and announce the outcome.

A Regional Reality

It is likely that, if the amendments are ratified, they would go into effect at the 2026 General Conference. However, there would not have been time to plan that conference in light of the regional reality. Practically speaking, then, the first General Conference to be significantly affected would be the 2028 General Conference.

At that conference, there would probably be a shorter meeting with fewer days devoted only to issues of global relevance (in the mind of the organizers). The U.S. Regional Conference would then meet following the General Conference to act on matters relevant to the U.S. and adapt any provisions of the Discipline to fit the U.S. “context.” The outcome would be a U.S. Book of Discipline that contains the general Discipline binding the whole denomination as determined by the General Conference, plus all the provisions adopted by the U.S. Regional Conference that would govern the church in the U.S.

The Central Conferences outside the U.S. will have a bigger task in 2028. They would share the same general Discipline adopted by the General Conference, but they would also have the task of coming up with their own rules and policies related to all the parts of the Discipline that are adaptable to regional context. Since they have not had to do this before, it will be an intimidating task. Because the Central Conference meeting is where they also elect bishops, they will need to add days to their meetings at U.S. expense (for Africa and the Philippines) in order to have time to accomplish all they need to do. The U.S. will also need to pay for the printing of all these Central Conference Books of Discipline, so that church leaders have copies to work from.

For most matters, the newly adapted Disciplines for each region will go into effect on January 1, 2029.

Regionalization Lite

What if the ratification of amendments fails? Does that mean regionalization is dead? Not entirely.

First, the 2026 General Conference could try to pass the regionalization amendments again, for ratification in 2027. This would be especially likely if African votes sink regionalization in 2024-2025 but then significant portions of Africa disaffiliate from United Methodism. With those opposition votes gone, regionalization would stand a much better chance at passing on a second attempt. It would be similar to this year’s General Conference where, in the absence of a significant number of traditionalist delegates, the progressive agenda sailed through with supermajority margins. (Of course, it is also possible that some parts of Africa will disaffiliate before even taking a ratification vote. That would make it more likely that ratification would pass on the first attempt.)

Second, the last regionalization petition passed by the plenary session in Charlotte set up a Standing Committee on U.S. Matters to deal with U.S. concerns. This is parallel to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters that deals with issues relevant to areas outside the U.S. However, the Central Conference Committee only has about 35 members, while the U.S. Standing Committee would have all 500-odd U.S. delegates.

The U.S. Standing Committee would meet prior to the 2026 General Conference and also future General Conferences, if ratification fails. They would weigh in on any petitions or resolutions that uniquely affect the U.S. Since U.S. delegates are likely to still have a built-in majority at the General Conference, decisions made by the U.S. Standing Committee will likely be rubber stamped by the General Conference plenary. Judging by recent experience with the Central Conference Standing Committee, the U.S. Committee is likely to be more effective at killing legislation that it does not like, rather than promoting positive legislation for the General Conference to adopt. However, it is a new situation, and it will be interesting to see how these structures are used and evolved.

So, if ratification fails, the U.S. Standing Committee would still meet to care for U.S. interests. They would not be able to adapt the Discipline, however. As was seen at the Charlotte General Conference, it is likely that U.S. delegates will continue to dominate the agenda and votes in the next few General Conferences, making adaptations unnecessary.

One way or another, then, regionalization will go forward. The interim structure of the U.S. Standing Committee provides “regionalization lite.” Once the constitutional amendments are ratified, on the first or second attempt, the U.S. Standing Committee goes away, and full-blown regionalization and adaptation takes its place. It will be instructive to follow the evolution of this new form of “connectionalism” in the years ahead to measure its impact on the church’s ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

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