By Thomas Lambrecht
With the recent election of thirteen new bishops, the active Council of Bishops will be made up of one-third new members on January 1, 2023. As such, they will play a powerful role in setting the direction of The United Methodist Church into the future. What do their election and the other actions of the jurisdictional conferences tell us about what that direction might be? This article is the second of two surveying that question. The first may be read here.
Traditionalists in the Post-Separation UM Church
Some traditionalists will unquestionably remain in the UM Church following the current spate of separations. A 2019 survey found that 44 percent of United Methodist grassroots members identified as theologically conservative or traditional. Twenty-eight percent identified as theologically centrist or moderate. Twenty percent identified as theologically liberal or progressive. Even if half of the traditionalist members leave the UM Church, those remaining would be more than one-fourth of the church’s members. Their share would still be larger than those identifying as progressive.
The question is whether traditionalists will be represented in leadership of the denomination after separation. In 2016, seven of the 15 bishops elected in the U.S. (nearly half) could be considered theologically traditionalist. (Some of those might be classified more as institutionalists than by their theological perspective, but they at least come from a traditionalist viewpoint.) By contrast, none of the 13 bishops elected now in 2022 could be considered theologically traditionalist.
Due to bishops’ retirements, seven of the 39 U.S. bishops going forward could be considered traditionalist, and even some of them would again be more institutional than traditional in their approach to leadership. At best, that means around 18 percent of the active bishops are traditionalists. If current trends continue and no new traditionalist bishops are elected, that percentage will shrink further, and traditionalists will be grossly underrepresented on the Council of Bishops.
Even more stark is the realization that nearly all the general secretaries of the general boards and agencies of the UM Church reflect a centrist or progressive theology. Traditionalists are underrepresented on the agency staffs and among the agency board members and have been for decades. The same is true in many annual conferences when it comes to district superintendents and conference agency heads and staff.
For the foreseeable future, the traditionalist voice in the UM Church will be a minority voice and not well represented among the denominational leadership. Traditionalist members are not likely to hear their perspective communicated from bishops or general church or annual conference leaders.
When the jurisdictional delegates were elected in the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference, there was a notable swing toward more progressive delegates being elected, particularly among the clergy. Since then, some of the traditionalist delegates have resigned due to their disaffiliation from the UM Church, further reducing traditionalist voting strength.
The projections made in 2019 were born out by the vote counts at the various jurisdictions. The three progressive resolutions (see page 25 of the link) passed by every jurisdiction obtained over 80 percent support in most cases. The most conservative jurisdiction is the Southeastern Jurisdiction. There, centrists and progressives made up two-thirds of the delegates.
Based on these vote counts, it is likely that the U.S. delegates to the 2024 General Conference will be at least 80 percent centrists and progressives. This would give centrists and progressives a solid majority of the conference if this year’s delegates continue to serve during the General Conference.
If new delegates are elected for the 2024 General Conference, there will be a reduction in U.S. delegates and an increase in African delegates due to changing membership numbers. Unless traditionalists are completely shut out in the U.S., this shift will result in a much narrower margin for centrists and progressives. The wild card here is what would happen in annual conferences that experience high rates of disaffiliation. If those conferences, like Texas, South Georgia, and Alabama-West Florida, shift markedly toward centrist and progressive delegates, that would increase the margin and give centrists and progressives a solid majority at General Conference.
Future Directions of the UM Church
It is abundantly clear from the three resolutions passed by the five jurisdictions that the affirmation of LGBTQ+ persons and lifestyles will be a primary agenda item for the denomination. The Queer Delegates’ Resolution (the official title) affirms that each jurisdiction:
Commits to a future of The United Methodist Church where LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered in the life and ministry of the church in our Jurisdiction, including as laity, ordained clergy, in the episcopacy, and on boards and agencies.
One jurisdiction held a two-hour presentation for all delegates on combatting heterosexism, which affirmed all sexual orientations and gender identities and promoted the acceptance of same-gender relationships and transgender reassignment.
Another priority for the UM Church going forward will be to continue addressing the challenge of racism. Two of the jurisdictions encountered difficult circumstances around bishop elections and nomination of candidates that contributed to a perception that racism had entered into the process. One jurisdiction adjourned into executive closed session to address issues of racism connected to the conference.
The United Methodist Church is the second most white mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. (94 percent white), following the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Unfortunately, even a decades-long focus on representation and gender and ethnic diversity in the church’s leadership has not translated into a growing diversity at the grass roots of the church. Nevertheless, the emphasis on diversity continues. This strategy deserves rethinking.
A third priority for the UM Church will be instituting a regionalized system of governance. The Christmas Covenant proposal was overwhelmingly endorsed by all five jurisdictions. This proposal would create the U.S. part of the church as its own regional conference, along with three conferences in Africa, three in Europe, and one in the Philippines. Each regional conference would have broad powers to create its own rules and standards and adapt the Book of Discipline to fit the context and opinions of that region. The driving force behind this proposal is to allow the U.S. and Western European parts of the church to affirm LGBTQ+ relationships and lifestyles, while allowing Africa and perhaps the Philippines to maintain their more traditional understandings of marriage and sexuality. (I have written a critique of this proposal.) Although there may be a majority of delegates supporting this proposal, it will not have the two-thirds vote needed to pass General Conference unless the African delegates can be persuaded to support it. African leaders have previously said they could not remain in a church that endorsed same-sex relationships, even if they themselves were not forced to join in that endorsement. African delegates and members have the numbers single-handedly to block regionalization if they do not support it.
A fourth priority for the UM Church going forward will be a realignment of conference boundaries. Due to the disaffiliation of 10-20 percent of United Methodist members and churches, some annual conferences will become too small to be sustainable. There will likely be mergers and consolidation of some annual conferences. The jurisdictions recognized this reality by not filling all the vacant bishop positions. There will be seven episcopal areas with no resident bishop, with those areas being covered by nearby bishops (three in Northeast and two each in Southeast and South Central; additional vacancies will occur in North Central in 2024 due to episcopal retirements). Some annual conferences may remain intact but share a bishop with an adjacent annual conference.
There is also a working group studying the possibility of revising or eliminating the jurisdictional system altogether, which came up during floor debate in some of the jurisdictional conferences. The jurisdictions are a holdover from a racist past, having been formed in the 1939 Methodist Church merger of North and South, which also created a separate jurisdiction for Black Methodist congregations and clergy. That separate jurisdiction was eliminated in the 1968 United Methodist merger, but the regional jurisdictions remain and have fostered regional differences in the church that led to disunity. Changes to the jurisdictional system will require a two-thirds vote to amend the church’s Constitution.
Given these four priorities, two of which would entail major structural changes, it is questionable whether denominational leaders will have the bandwidth or energy to pursue essential components like evangelism, church revitalization, caring for the poor, church planting, and cross-cultural ministry. Local churches will be expected to assume primary responsibility for these areas, and they may or may not be equipped to do so.
The 2022 jurisdictional conferences provided an illuminating look at the current reality of the UM Church in the U.S., as well as some of the potential directions the denomination might take into the future. In the words of Jesus, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!” (Matthew 11:15).
This article was originally published by Firebrand and is reprinted with permission. The full article may be read at: Firebrandmag.com.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and is the vice president of Good News.