Bishops Pivot to Annual Conference Survival

by Chris Ritter


Watch closely the actions of savvy U.S. bishops as we march on toward General Conference 2020. The General Superintendents of our church, having found the denomination to be generally beyond superintending, are pivoting to strategize the future of their own annual conferences. If they can’t save the denomination, can they perhaps preserve their little piece of it?


The general church pays episcopal salaries. It is only able to do so, however, because of the money that flows through the annual conferences. These are multi-million dollar nonprofit organizations in their own right with donor bases, legal incorporation, assets, properties, and ongoing obligations. Most U.S. conferences have existed much longer than the UMC. A UM bishop may do significant work with the general agencies, but they spend the bulk of their time with the staff and people of their annual conference. A bishop was once a pastor in a previous life. The conference is now their flock, their charge, their pastoral appointment. And the flock is currently gravely at risk.


This week Bishop Ken Carter, President of the Council of Bishops, gave a speech in Tampa that was livestreamed out to his Florida Annual Conference. The purpose of the event was to “grow the center.” (If you want to capture the heart of this event, I suggest listening in at 57:30 for about ten minutes). Floridians have become adept at spotting oncoming hurricanes. A storm that divides the UMC in two would be disastrous for a conference like Florida. No matter which side was chosen, neither would be sustainable under the present business model. To preserve a recognizable conference, the bishop appeals to the middle:


\We want to preserve as much capacity as possible… negotiating for the sake of sustainability… Any plan or model for the future of the church (and there are several) must take place with the annual conference clearly in mind.  This is where our greatest strength and trust resides.  This is where decisions related to clergy and property are lodged.


Carter commended the April 2019 article by Lovett Weems entitled, “General Conference is Broken; Annual Conferences are Not.” Post-GC2019, Weems lamented the dysfunction of the denomination and called for solutions centered around the annual conference, the “basic unit” of the church. He said more decisions should be made at the AC level, but failed to acknowledge AC’s are often as divided as the denomination at large.


Bishops like Carter are in the know:  The greatest risk of schism was never to the general church.  General Conference and general agencies only consume or pass along the funds given by local congregations through their annual conferences.  The general agencies, as currently configured, have been living on borrowed time and are largely unsustainable even if the human sexuality crisis miraculously disappeared.  In spite of decades of decline, the annual conference is the breadbasket of the denomination.  And it is at the conference level the threat of schism is most complex, irregular, and least understood.


Bishops Serving Progressive Conferences

If you are a bishop serving a more or less uniformly Progressive U.S. conference, the greatest risk is General Conference maintaining a Traditional direction in terms of marriage and human sexuality. The standards of the UMC have been out of practical operation for some time, but they remain an atrocity to your core constituency. If GC2020 does something like pass the rest of the Traditional Plan, congregations and clergy of Progressive annual conferences will begin to leave as a matter of principle. What remains may not be enough to maintain an already tenuous financial existence. The best shot at a sustainable future is to move together as a group.


Consider the process launched by Bishop Elaine Stanovsky for the three annual conferences of her Greater Northwest Episcopal Area. The press release begins: “In the wake of the exclusionary and punitive actions of General Conference 2019, Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky is announcing the formation of a Greater Northwest Area Guiding Coalition.” Notice the contrast with General Conference and the prominent place of the bishop as leader. This is us versus them: “The coming months may require us to move quickly and rely on our collective strength.” She is not representing the General Conference in her leadership. She is positioning herself as the leader of a set of conferences who may need to chart their own course. Nothing draws folks together like a common enemy.


Another example is Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Mountain Sky Conference.  In July she circulated to the clergy via her cabinet a now-famous brochure stating: “If GC2020 continues the pattern of GC2019, then we intend to create a new Methodist connection that preserves the best of the Wesleyan Movement and the United Methodist Church while gaining the freedom for vital, inclusive ministry in the 21st century.”  Some believe the separation will not be complete and that she would have the UMC pay her salary as long as possible.  But it is clear that she envisions a future independent of the guidance of General Conference.


[What is the level of authority for the bishop of a group that together so (formally or informally) separates from the polity of our church?. Near absolute. A topic for another day.]


Bishops Serving Centrist Conferences

Strategies that work for homogenous annual conference do not work for the majority of U.S. conferences where opinions are seriously divided. These bodies face the greatest challenge as they stand to lose no matter what. Unlike the general church, however, time may be on the side of Centrists and Progressives.  As General Conference grows more conservative due to growth in the Central Conferences, a continuing sexual revolution in the U.S. will tend to advance the acceptance same-sex marriage, non-binary understandings of gender, and plural relationships. Bishops of centrist conferences want to slow things down and keep everyone at the table.


In divided conferences, the appeal is to Big Tent Centrism.  Capture and keep the middle. Bishop John Schol convened a special session of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference this month to consider their own Way Forward.  In his episcopal address Schol announced that he would no longer entertain complaints against clergy for issues surrounding homosexuality.  The conference voted to honor individual covenants adopted by congregations to govern their ministry with LGBTQI persons, including hosting same-sex weddings.  The bishop, however, acknowledged the friction these move would cause:


I recognize we all do not share the same beliefs. Good people of faith will disagree. I have never found the people of the United Methodist Church to completely agree with any number of significant beliefs or policies within the church. I welcome and thrive in the midst of difference. I learn from difference and continue to be shaped by other ideas, beliefs and understandings. 


What is going on here?  The Greater New Jersey Conference is adopting its own version of the One Church Plan.  Like the OCP, the default for each congregation is heterosexual marriage only.  But individual churches can opt differently.  The cabinet will work to keep everyone happy:  


Friends, we can make this work. We can be faithful to God and rely on God to lead us through this time. We can bless our congregations to thrive in ministry. We can create space for congregations to covenant with God to be in ministry with and by LGBTQ persons.


Notice the contrast in tone from Bishop Stanovsky’s statement.  This is conciliatory.  He wants to break with the General Conference only to create a big tent for everyone.  We will watch closely to see how the conference treats congregations who cannot live in such an arrangement. We know middle ground is eroding quickly in the UMC and conferences have any number of ways to coerce change.


Bishops Serving Conservative Conferences

One might argue that bishops in the +/- ten conservative-majority U.S. conferences have borne the heaviest load. Progressive bishops have to explain why church policies are out of harmony with the ethos of the annual conference.  Conservative bishops have had to both enforce restrictions and convince their people to financially support a dysfunctional denomination that does not follow its own standards.  The UMC is a spider web in which vibrations reverberate in strange ways.  When a high-profile same-sex wedding is performed in Portland, a congregation exits the denomination in Mississippi.  


Mark Holland of Mainstream UMC has thrown around the phrase “WCA Conferences.”  This reveals a deficient understanding of the Traditional side of the U.S. church.  There are no WCA conferences.  Traditional-leaning annual conferences may want out of the UMC, but this does not mean they are ready to declare sides in the UMC debate.  A friend in the Mississippi Annual Conference tells me that his conference, one of our most conservative, will probably go on its own, at least for a while, rather than join any new denomination.  


Surprised?  It all has to do with strategies for preparing for the various eventualities.


If the UMC flips on human sexuality and marriage, a Traditional Conference will have no choice but to separate if it wants to hang onto its congregations.  Joining an emerging Traditionalist denomination, however, may not be the best option.  If they go on their own, they can argue to centrists they are simply continuing in the same open and biblical spirit they have classically followed.  Rather than shoe-horning themselves into a binary choice, they can appeal to their own tradition.  Autonomy may be an attractive option even if the UMC keeps its current stance on human sexuality.  If Progressives want to stay and continue the fight, a conservative conference may quarantine itself through some sort of separate status.


The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s best immediate opportunity may be as a clearinghouse for congregations leaving their annual conferences. There may be a longer process to unite existing Traditional-leaning U.S. conferences into a new connectionalism.


Bishop Machiavelli

When the stock market collapses, shrewd investors look for opportunities amidst the panic. Let’s say you are bishop of a Progressive-leaning Conference in the Southeast, or a Traditional-leaning conference in the Progressive Northeastern Jurisdiction… or perhaps you simply have a neighboring conference that is of a very markedly different ethos. There may be opportunities on the horizon to actually expand the financial base of your annual conference by accepting dissident churches.  I know of at least one bishop who is exploring the possibility of their annual conference becoming independent and extending their geographic limits to accept like-minded congregations and clergy. They are considering becoming their own autonomous Methodist denomination… defined by their own parameters and not the debates currently consuming the UMC.


Fluid Borders

If we shift our thinking from denomination to annual conference, the complexion of the UMC crisis changes significantly.  I submitted a constitutional amendment to GC2020 that guarantees the right of each congregation to transfer to any annual conference willing to receive it.  It also guarantees the right of any annual conference to join any jurisdictional or central conference it wants.  I see two positive outcomes.  First, we introduce a system of meritocracy.  Over time, what works would be rewarded and what does not work will be punished by a free market.   Second, opening the borders of our church gives time and space for everyone to find a place that fits.  From there, we can less painfully divide, reorganize, or find ways to live together.  The Open Borders Plan is a way of taking annual conferences seriously.   This would pair well with a decision by GC2020 to allow conferences to set their own chargeable offenses… we sort of do that now anyway.*


Looking Ahead

The UMC Schism is quickly turning into a game of three-dimensional chess.  One of those dimensions is certainly the annual conference.  It would be an overstatement to say general superintendency has collapsed. But certain bishops are working very hard presently to make sure there is a future for the individual multi-million dollar institutions for which they are directly responsible.  It is only natural that this would be the case.  In the future some conferences may thrive at the expense of others.


Decline has become a difficult pattern to interrupt in all U.S. conferences. We see bishops working to defend the worthy ministries in their annual conferences and cast vision for new effectiveness. One wonders if starting over with like-minded players might be better in some locations. Schism may be an opportunity to reshuffle connectional alignments in helpful ways.


It remains to be seen how the needs of annual conferences will factor into decisions made at GC2020. There is currently no mechanism for annual conferences to exit the denomination. But the Judicial Council has ruled that AC exits are possible under the current constitution if General Conference should create a process for this. If AC autonomy holds significant advantages over participation in a binary split, we may be looking at a very dynamic and complex post-GC2020 landscape.


*The jurisdictional conferences have it presently within their power to remap their annual conferences to allow for greater peace. William Lawrence, former head of the Judicial Council, has written about this, as have I. But these are half measures that continue to leave deep questions about general superintendency, theology, and the overall direction of the UMC.

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