Dreams for the Future of Methodism-Part 1

Much has been made for the last several years of “The Next Methodism.” This has mostly been in response to the growing theological divide between those who self-describe as traditionalists and progressives. I have intentionally omitted the category of “centrist”, a label I once proudly claimed. As the gap has widened theologically, I believe the middle ground has crumbled to the point that “centrists” are kind of like unicorns…I really want to believe they exist, but all evidence points to the contrary. I tend to think that Methodist doctrine in general is pretty centrist, but everyone has gone to their corners over “the issues” and there is less and less middle ground. At any rate, both sides have talked about the next methodism and their theological hopes for a more evangelical or progressive, orthodox or revisionist, etc. church.

In what is not quite a foregone conclusion, the denomination known as The United Methodist Church is expected to amicably separate at the next General Conference. It’s close to being a foregone conclusion because the protocol for separation was crafted and endorsed by a broad coalition of people representing both sides. General Conference was supposed to meet in May, but was postponed until August of 2021 due to COVID-19. I say that the passage of the protocol is “not quite” a foregone conclusion because I won’t put anything past a global gathering of Methodists. It will be interesting/terrifying/exciting/vomit-inducing to see the only denomination I have ever known split into two or more groups and move forward toward their preferred futures.

My intention in what follows is not to pontificate about the doctrine or theology of the next methodism for either side (there are people way smarter than me planning this). Rather, I’ve been thinking a lot about structure. I’ve had several conversations of late that have reminded me that while many of the voices at the table are seasoned leaders who are….how do I say this nicely….closer to retirement than I am, it is the young leaders who align with either of the two (or more) expressions who will have to live into the system that is now being created. In one conversation a mentor said to me, “We’re midwifing something new. But once the baby is safely delivered, the midwife doesn’t stay in the room. That’s when the parents take over.” So as the proverbial parent (as a leader in the Church), I’ve been asking myself, “What do I dream for the STRUCTURE of the next methodism?” What follows in the next several posts is my offering as a young clergyperson who loves this Church about my longing for a renewed structure.

  1. Invert the Pyramid Financially
  2. Invert the Pyramid Missionally
  3. Leadership Development
  4. Reimagined Itineracy and Clergy Deployment

1-Invert the Pyramid Financially

umc-connectional-structure-infographic
Infographic of the structure of the current UMC. Credit: ResourceUMC. https://www.resourceumc.org

The United Methodist Church as currently structured is very top-heavy. The institutional side of our church really had its birth along with the United States. There is no denomination that is more American in its structure than the UMC. Think of our basic administrative structure at the top. The Council of Bishops functions as the executive branch, the General Conference as the legislative branch, and the Judicial Council as the judicial branch. Add to those entities 13 general boards or agencies each with their own staff and operating budget (supported by the $310 million world service fund). The 4-year total denominational budget for 2016-19 was $604 million. This is funded by the apportionments of local churches paid to their annual conferences, which in turn pay apportionments to the general church.

Now hear me. To be sure, I support an institutional structure of some sort, and the work of general agencies provide resources and allow the average local church to be engaged in mission far beyond their own scope. However, the top-heaviness of the institution hinders ministry. By nature, institutions exist to preserve the institution. And institutional preservation costs a lot of money. The 2016 General Conference was estimated to cost nearly $1,400 per minute, I imagine we can all think of ways that money could have been better allocated.

The local church I currently serve pays almost 10% of our annual operating budget in apportionments to the annual conference. I’ve heard of some churches (in other conferences) that pay closer to 15%. I love that our apportionments go to support missions, theological education, church planting/renewal, disaster recovery, etc. I’ve been on the receiving end of the apportionment system as well. As a former church planter, my salary and initial budget was funded by the apportionments paid from other churches. Likewise, I previously served as the chaplain of one of our UM-related institutions and my salary was subsidized by apportionment giving. As the church I currently serve recently went through a capital campaign for a building project, all of our graphic design and video production was provided by the conference….apportionment dollars at work.

So it still goes without saying that I support the sharing of apportionments to allow our mission net to be cast wider than ourselves, but I imagine a system where that percentage is much lower. If the local church is the primary arena of disciple-making, then let’s invert the structural pyramid to keep more money in local churches.

Let’s invert the pyramid of the institution by creating a nimble and flexible structure. In the next methodism, this will mean facing some hard realities when it comes to organization. But facing those head on will mean freeing ourselves of institutional shackles to be more effective in accomplishing our mission. I imagine this will mean reducing the number and budgets of our agencies, boards, and councils. It may mean that some of those agencies are merged. It may mean that agencies and boards have to come to rely more on other income streams such as direct giving, grants, etc. I imagine it may mean reducing the number of episcopal areas (and this is already happening in some places). 

It will mean living in a system that looks very different from what we’ve been used to, the only system I’ve ever known. But I think the potential for ministry and urgency for renewal dictate that we take this crucial first step. In fact, everything else that follows in subsequent posts assumes that we invert the financial pyramid. Local churches should not by propping up the institution, rather the connectional structure should be equipping, resourcing and supporting local churches. I know this is being done by many great conference and general church groups and individuals, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tighten the belt. 

Imagine what could be done if we reinvest our financial resources more fully in church multiplication, fresh expressions, church renewal. So I’m dreaming of a renewed and realigned structure that does just that.

I am not a delegate to the General Conference, so I don’t have any immediate say over how this pyramid gets inverted, but in my next post I’ll take a stab at what inverting the pyramid looks like structurally and missionally. 

3 thoughts on “Dreams for the Future of Methodism-Part 1

  1. The institutional church is too big and controlling. Theology is too dogmatic. Our ceremonies too rigid. What we are missing most is that a life in Christ means observing His religion not having a religion about Him. The most important thing we do is to give birth to our spiritual self, join with the Holy Spirit to grow and mature our spiritual self. Developing the ability to love God, love others and help others give birth to their spiritual selves. That must become our focus.

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