One of the sad stories in today’s United Methodism is the story of growing and vital churches and their pastors leaving the denomination. One recent example is Central Waterside Church of Pensacola Beach, Florida. It’s pastor, Jack Kale, was an elder in the UM Church and the Waterside Church was a campus of the nearby Gulf Breeze UMC, a church of 4,300 members. That campus left the denomination and became a stand-alone congregation.

In an interview with The United Methodist Reporter, Kale mentioned several factors that led to his and the church’s exit from the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference. “Our vision of starting beach-bar type churches up and down the coast was not embraced by the district in which I served. The UMC church planting process is laborious and prohibitive.”

This same complaint was echoed by other pastors who have led their congregations to leave the denomination. Often, these are entrepreneurial type pastors who find the whole United Methodist system too constraining. As Kale put it, “I would say that overall UMC structure is so big that it has lost its ability to adapt and move with the culture. Apportionments are the currency of the UMC, not changed lives.”

Our process of organizing a new church is somewhat cumbersome. It requires the consent of:
1) The bishop
2) The cabinet, including the district superintendent in whose district the church will be located
3) The district board of church location and building
4) The annual conference board/committee in charge of congregational development
5) If the new church is to be planted from an existing congregation, obviously that congregation must consent as well

Annual conferences may place additional requirements on the process for organizing a new church, including establishing the minimum number of members and other criteria. Often, other United Methodist congregations in the area are consulted, which can result in “turf battles” when a new church is seen as a threat.

All of this process is in marked contrast to how churches were planted during the early decades of Methodism in America. Local and itinerant preachers were expected to add preaching points and start Methodist class meetings as part of their regular weekly rounds. All without much supervision, and certainly not the approval of the bishop. John H. Wigger’s book, Taking Heaven By Storm, contains the account of Jacob Young, who in 1802 took on the task of forming a new circuit along the Green River in Kentucky. “Young devised his own strategy for evangelizing the region: ‘I concluded to travel five miles, as nearly as I could guess, then stop, reconnoiter the neighborhood, and find some kind person who would let me preach in his log-cabin, and so on till I had performed the entire round.’ … On most days Young managed to find a place to preach. Several times he found groups already gathered, eagerly awaiting the rumored appearance of a preacher. On other occasions he was aided by local preachers who had settled along his route. Wherever possible, Young established new class meetings to carry on in his absence” (p. 21-22).

Wigger explains, “While itinerants were expected to stay within the bounds of their circuits and to keep the appointments made by their predecessors, the culture of Methodism demanded individual initiative. Ezekiel Cooper’s circuit notebooks reveal that he never made exactly the same circuit twice. Like all Methodist preachers, Cooper exercised a great deal of freedom in choosing where he would preach, omitting places where he met with an unfriendly reception and adding others where prospects were more encouraging” (p. 27).

What a difference between the “culture of Methodism” then and now. Today, pastors are prohibited from “arbitrarily [i.e., on their own initiative with permission] organiz[ing] a pastoral charge” (Discipline, ¶341.3). Indeed, pastors are prohibited from even holding “a religious service within the bounds of a pastoral charge other than the one to which appointed without the consent of the pastor of the charge, or the district superintendent” (¶341.4). Of course, it is often difficult to say what constitutes “the bounds of a pastoral charge.” Especially in a community where there are two or more United Methodist congregations, there is not a geographical boundary that distinguishes a charge. These rules appear to be a relic of a small-town church, where there was only one congregation per community.

What can we do to recover the culture that “demanded individual initiative?” How can we make the UM Church hospitable once again to entrepreneurial personalities?