The Role of Conferences in the New Methodism
By Thomas Lambrecht
“Conferencing” is at the heart of Methodist history and tradition. In 1744, only a few years after starting the Methodist movement, John Wesley called together the small group of preachers who formed the core of the movement for a “conference” meeting. They gathered to discern “how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us.” Their agenda was simple: “1. What to teach, 2. How to teach, and 3. What to do, that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.”
Ever since, the “conference” has been part and parcel of how Methodists do church. The 1744 conference became an annual affair, a gathering of all the preachers (lay and clergy) who were “in connexion” with John Wesley. Thus, the “annual conference” became the center of Methodist organization. As the church was formed in America and grew, the number of annual conferences multiplied, covering different geographical parts of the country, and later, of the world. Each annual conference formed a geographical section of the general church. To maintain unity, a General Conference consisted of representatives from all the various annual conferences, making decisions on behalf of the whole church. When the church was broken up into regions in 1939, those bodies were called jurisdictional conferences and later central conferences (i.e., jurisdictions outside the U.S.), for the purpose of electing and assigning bishops. Within each annual conference, there are sub-regions called districts that have a “district conference.” And of course the basic building block is the local “church conference” or “charge conference.”
Conferences are far more than geographical organizational units. They represent the intuitive genius of Wesley’s organizational mind that identified collective decision-making as an essential component of church structure. Many Protestant denominations in Wesley’s time were governed by irregularly meeting synods or councils that would gather only when necessary. Wesley saw the strength to be gained by collective decision-making by a body of people that is held in constant relationship and mutual accountability.
The idea of collective decision-making was instituted early in the Church’s history, at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which was called to decide whether Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the Law of Moses. Such collective decision-making allows the Holy Spirit to speak through the diversity of voices who are part of the collective. Reaching agreement among a broad group of leaders often results in a more faithful decision and one that is able to consider more of the ramifications of that decision. It has the added benefit of gaining “buy-in” from the same group of leaders that will have to implement the decisions that are made.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) today releases Part Seven of its draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” addressing the role of annual conferences in a new global traditional Methodist denomination. This part joins sections previously released which may be reviewed here and here.
As the WCA considered the wisdom of retaining our conferencing system of decision-making and organization, we also realized the current United Methodist system had strayed off the path in a number of ways that need to be corrected if Methodism is to recover its vitality.
First, the UM system has reversed the hierarchy in an unhelpful way. The annual conference and General Conference were instituted as means to support and empower the work of the local church, which is (we say) “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” Instead, in recent years, it seems like the local church has existed to support the work of the annual and General Conference. In its reformation of the conference system, the WCA strives to make crystal clear conferences exist to support the local church, not the other way around.
Second, and relatedly, the annual and General Conferences have grown too large in structure and demand too many resources. The “needs” of ministry at the regional and global levels siphon off too much of the time and financial resources of local churches, which then weakens the local ministry rather than strengthen it. This is seen in the amount of time pastors spend on annual conference business outside their parish and bishops spend on global church business outside their annual conferences. Many local churches do not see the value to them of the work that annual conference and general church agencies do “on their behalf.”
Accordingly, the WCA’s proposal calls for a lean annual conference structure demanding lower apportionments and less time investment in bureaucracy and meetings, with more time and financial investment in work that explicitly supports the ministry of local churches, including the aggressive planting of new ministries. Bishops and district superintendents are relieved of many of their administrative responsibilities and expected to focus their time and energy within their districts and annual conferences, while still building connections to the worldwide church based on mutual ministry, rather than meetings (see Part Six of the draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline”).
The general church would have only five agencies (called “commissions”) to handle the coordinating and facilitating work of the denomination. (More details on these commissions are found in Part Eight of the WCA’s draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” which will be released soon.) The annual conference would have only four required boards or committees to facilitate its work. (It could form more as needed.) The emphasis is really on reducing the amount of structure and reorienting the work of the annual conference and general church to support the local church’s ministry.
Third, as the church has grown over the last 100 years, its Book of Discipline has gotten too prescriptive and controlling, with all kinds of mandates and requirements that often hamper the work of the local church. The current Discipline is 819 pages (not including the index). I have a 1926 Discipline that is only half the size and includes worship rituals, judicial decisions, a description of the course of study, and a directory!
Accordingly, the WCA proposal allows annual conferences to structure themselves in a way that makes sense for them, aside from the minimal requirements for four agencies. This will allow conferences to stay lean in structure, yet nimble enough to adapt to changing circumstances. It will also allow for cultural differences in various parts of the world to be reflected in variations of structure and process. At the same time, nearly all the provisions in the draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline” would meet the needs and requirements in conferences around the world. The WCA has worked to craft a book that would apply equally well in Bulgaria, the Philippines, the U.S., or Zimbabwe. This will allow for greater uniformity on the essential matters, while allowing flexibility in many other matters.
Finally, in an effort to take the focus of the church off of the (sometimes contentious) General Conference, the WCA proposal in ¶ 203 (Article VI) of the draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” envisions General Conference meeting only once every six years, instead of quadrennially. For the first six years, it would meet every two years in order to fine tune the general church’s core teachings and governance structure as we live into a new reality. But thereafter, General Conference will be reserved for making the larger policy decisions and letting annual conferences and local churches focus on their ministry.
The WCA’s proposals are just that – proposals. The WCA’s proposals will be presented as legislation to the convening conference of a new global traditional Methodist church. We hope you will consider them and give constructive feedback as we compile ideas to guide the formation of a new Methodist denomination that focuses both on biblical faithfulness and on ministry effectiveness and fruitfulness.
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News, an elder in the Wisconsin Annual Conference and member of the WCA’s Global Council.
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