Rethinking Regionalization

By Thomas Lambrecht

The top agenda item for the 2024 General Conference in April for most progressives is to adopt “regionalization” as the new mode of United Methodist governance. This proposal would be a dramatic shift in how the UM Church functions. It would move from being a connectional church to a regional church, or even an association of national churches.

The regionalization proposal is similar to the U.S. central conference proposal that passed General Conference in 2008 but was overwhelmingly defeated by annual conferences in 2009. It would set up the U.S. as its own regional conference, along with three regional conferences in Europe, three in Africa, and one in the Philippines.

The key is that each regional conference would have the authority to create its own policies and standards in a number of key areas. These include:

• Clergy may not be able to easily transfer from one region to another if the qualifications and standards for ordination are different. Currently there are many African clergy serving in the U.S. That ability might be limited in the future if the qualifications for being ordained in an African conference differ significantly from those in the U.S.

• Local church membership could mean different things in different regions. Some regions could require extensive probationary periods before becoming a member and exhibit strict accountability to behavior standards for members, compared to other regions that have a “y’all come” approach to membership.

• Each regional conference would need to adopt its own regional Book of Discipline. They could not simply take the U.S. book and use it, since there would be significant differences. The only central (regional) conference that currently has its own Discipline is the Africa Central Conference. It was adopted in 1990 and has not changed since then, even though the UM Discipline has undergone massive changes in the last 30 years. And it was adopted before the Democratic Republic of Congo became a major center of United Methodist ministry, so there is a question whether that book governs only the current (Eastern and Southern) Africa Conference or whether it also governs the Congo Central Conference. Regardless, all seven central conferences outside the U.S. would need to write their own regional Discipline in order to function under regionalization – something that is currently not required, nor practiced. Not only would they have the heavy work of writing their own new Discipline, but they would have to maintain it with appropriate changes every four years as a regional conference, rather than relying on the work of General Conference to keep the Discipline current.

• Each region would have its own accountability process. We have seen, especially in Africa, how the current accountability process is not being followed properly. A few bishops are excommunicating lay members and defrocking clergy without any due process, completely contrary to the Discipline. If the accountability process (including investigations and trials) is removed from the general Discipline, one can imagine how the rule of law would go out the window in certain areas and bishops would become dictators, to the detriment of the church’s life and ministry.

• The current practice of holding bishops accountable only within their region has not worked. Regionalization would codify that practice and make it even more difficult to ensure that bishops behave with integrity, respecting due process and the rights of clergy.

• With the ability to have different chargeable offenses in different regions, clergy will be held accountable to different standards. What is not allowed in one region could be perfectly legal in another. These unequal standards not only create inconsistency as to what is expected of clergy across the church, but they could occasion resentment between clergy of different regions who are treated differently. Again, it undermines the connection.

• United Methodist bishops are bishops of the whole church, not just their episcopal area. But opening the legal possibility of having openly gay bishops means they could participate in meetings and events in countries where homosexuality is against the law. Will bishops be redefined as only regional bishops, able to serve only within their region? Regionalization raises problems with having a general episcopacy.

Regionalization Rationale. The rationale for regionalization is to allow each geographic region of the church to adapt the above provisions of the Discipline to fit the missional needs of its region. There is also the argument that many of the resolutions on social issues that General Conference addresses relate mainly to the United States and are not of interest to the rest of the global church. Creating a U.S. regional conference would allow the U.S. delegates to issue specific resolutions or take positions on issues that are U.S.-centric without the need for other delegates to participate in discussions that do not concern them.

On the surface, it may seem like the regionalization idea makes sense. Greater flexibility to adapt the rules of the church to meet the needs of each region could make the church’s mission more effective. It seems that the Discipline has moved in the direction of micro-managing the life and work of the church over the past 20 years, not just in the area of sexual morality, but in many other ways, as well. Do we really need 850 pages of rules to run the church by?

One approach to this problem would be to make the rules in the Discipline more general and flexible, so that different cultural contexts could function equally well within the same framework without needing to adapt any of the provisions. This is the approach taken by the new Global Methodist Church Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline.

The other approach is to have a general Book of Discipline that governs some of the functions of the church, while then allowing each region to pass its own Discipline to govern the functions of the church in that region. However, there are some philosophical problems with that approach, as well as some practical problems.

Why Regionalization? This type of regionalization is a relatively recent development. In 2012, the General Conference began to move toward allowing central conferences outside the U.S. greater flexibility in adapting the Book of Discipline to their particular context. However, this was not finalized in 2016, but only in process until 2020 (which was of course postponed by the pandemic).

The original concept of adaptability for the Discipline was meant to allow for different laws and property procedures in different countries outside the U.S. But the expansion to other areas of adaptability was (I believe) a precursor to justifying greater adaptability for the U.S. church. If the central conferences outside the U.S. had the ability to adapt the Discipline in the ways listed above, one could hardly deny the U.S. church the same ability to adapt the Discipline. Never mind that the majority of General Conference delegates has always been from the U.S. and the Discipline has always been written primarily from a U.S. context, meaning that such adaptation was hardly necessary.

The real reason for regionalization and adaptability is to allow the U.S. church to liberalize its standards regarding marriage and LGBT persons. Each of the bullet points above has a direct relationship to LGBT persons. Adapting the qualifications for ordination would allow the U.S. church to ordain non-celibate LGBT persons. Adapting the qualifications for lay membership would allow the U.S. church to forbid pastors from preventing non-celibate LGBT persons to become local church members and serve in leadership in the local church, district, and annual conference. Adapting the rules of procedure for holding clergy and lay members accountable would allow the U.S. church to prevent trials for LGBT clergy or for clergy performing same-sex weddings. Adapting the chargeable offenses would allow the U.S. church to remove from the list of chargeable offenses anything related to same-sex marriage and non-celibate LGBT persons serving as clergy. Adapting the hymnal and the rituals would allow the U.S. church to create liturgies for same-sex weddings and potentially alter the ordination vows to mandate support for LGBT persons.

In the wake of the 2019 General Conference’s affirmation of a traditional perspective on marriage and human sexuality, progressives have rebelled. They decided to move ahead with same-sex weddings and the ordination of non-celibate LGBT persons regardless of what the Discipline said. Regionalization would give them the legal ability to do so within the Discipline by codifying different standards and policies for the U.S. church than those adopted in Africa and other regions.

This is the goal of regionalization, as articulated in a recent “Mainstream UMC” fundraising letter. “Homosexuality is the flashpoint in this conversation.  A US-only vote likely would have permitted LGBTQ ordination and marriage as many as 12 years ago, just like the US Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Disciples have done. … The mean-spirited Traditional Plan of 2019 – which doubles down on the harm – has proven to be the tipping point in the United States. Either this policy is completely repealed at General Conference 2024, along with the other anti-LGBTQ language, or the exodus continues, and likely accelerates, in the United States.” (The letter is referring to an exodus of progressives and LGBT persons, which Mainstream UMC blames for the decline in UM membership over the past 40 years. Never mind that, while LGBT-affirming mainline denominations have all declined precipitously, non-denominational evangelical churches and Pentecostal denominations with a traditional understanding of marriage and human sexuality have grown.)

Weakening the Connection. Methodism has always understood itself to be governed by a unique form of polity called “connectionalism.” It started with John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who oversaw the growing Methodist movement through all the preachers who were “in connection” with him. There was the emphasis on personal relationship, along with accountability, as the preachers met annually to determine “what to teach, how to teach, and what to do.” Decisions were made corporately (although heavily influenced by Wesley during his lifetime) and governed the actions of all the Methodist societies in connection with Wesley.

Following the regionalization approach runs the risk of beginning to undo the connection that binds all United Methodists together. Wesley identified that Methodists share a common doctrine, a common discipline, and a common spirit that binds us together. Theoretically, visiting a Methodist church anywhere one would find the same doctrines being preached, and same method of operating as a church, and the same spirit bringing unity to the body.

Importantly, the regionalization proposal keeps doctrine and the Social Principles as part of the general Discipline that applies to all United Methodists. However, the proposal also opens the various regions to have different levels of accountability for our common doctrine, codifying what exists today in a rather lax approach toward doctrinal accountability in some parts of the church.

Other aspects of the church’s life and ministry that really are of significance for our connection are also given adaptability. This includes clergy standards, qualifications for lay membership and leadership, and worship rituals. When these connectional items begin diverging from one region to another, it weakens the connection we have as United Methodists. Important areas of church life that were once decided by General Conference for all United Methodists would now be decided differently for each region of the church.

The ultimate end of such a process of disconnection could be that United Methodism becomes an association of regional or national churches, each one different from the other and having its own way of doing church. We could end up as more of a communion than a denomination. It could be similar to the Anglican Communion that has an Anglican denomination in each country overseen by an archbishop, but where the various national churches function quite differently from each other and have different standards, rules, and even beliefs.

What about colonialism? It is unquestionably true that UM governance has always had a U.S.-centric approach. Particularly in the realm of social issues and resolutions on particular justice issues, the focus was predominantly on the U.S., although that had begun to change by 2016 with greater attention and sensitivity to global issues and how resolutions could be worded to be more inclusive of global concerns.

The question is whether to solve the problem of U.S. centrism by decoupling the connection through allowing wholesale adaptability of the Discipline, or by allowing greater input from non-U.S. delegates to the forming of a global Discipline. Most progressives and the church’s “establishment” chose the route of adaptability, first through the defeated U.S. central conference plan and then through initiating changes in the Discipline in 2012. Traditionalists have consistently favored the second approach of moving toward a more globally inclusive Discipline. That was the stark contrast between the One Church Plan in 2019 that would have allowed maximum adaptability, and the Traditional Plan that maintained a global standard.

But in its quest to rid the denomination of its U.S. centrism and colonial undertones, does the new regionalization proposal codify a new form of colonialism? Some African leaders have said yes. A closer analysis of the proposal shows they are right.

Curious Timing. It is interesting that the big push for regionalization comes just as the U.S. church membership has moved into a minority status. Even before disaffiliations began, membership outside the U.S. had pulled even with U.S. membership. This was not reflected in the percentage of delegates at General Conference, particularly for Africa, as the formula for delegates favors the U.S. with its very large number of retired clergy and clergy serving in extension ministry.

Even as African membership was increasing by 10 to 20 percent per quadrennium, their delegate percentage would only increase by less than five percentage points. It was going to be at least a decade or more before African delegate percentage more accurately reflected their percentage of membership. That, of course, changed with disaffiliation, which has drastically cut U.S. lay and clergy membership.

But Mainstream UMC is panicking over the fact that U.S. delegates will soon be in the minority. “In 2012, … international delegates totaled nearly 1/3 of the votes. For General Conference 2024, the delegates from outside the US will be close to 45 percent. In four years, it will be almost 55 percent.”

In other words, just when non-U.S. delegates are poised to have a significant voice in denominational governance, progressives want to marginalize them through regionalization. No matter what the non-U.S. delegates believe, the U.S. delegates that are a majority progressive can do what they want. Non-U.S. delegates will no longer be able to “interfere” with what the U.S. delegates want. In another fundraising letter, Mainstream UMC states, “There is a growing sentiment in the US that we will not fund a church that constrains our outreach to our local mission field. Period.”

No Override Option. The current regionalization proposal has no provision for the General Conference to override the decision of a regional conference. If a regional conference enacts something that is contrary to UM governance, the only recourse is to file an objection with the Judicial Council, which is difficult to do and made more difficult by the regionalization plan itself. Another region may not have standing to bring an action before the Judicial Council under the new regime of regionalization.

A previous version of the regionalization proposal allowed a regional action to be overturned by a two-thirds vote of the General Conference. Of course, the U.S. would have more than one-third of the votes, so its actions would not be overturned. But Europe, the Philippines, and the three African regions would each have less than one-third of the votes, so their actions could be overridden, while the U.S. would not.

Other Favorable U.S. Treatment. There are other ways in which the U.S. gets favorable treatment under the current proposal. Other regions could set the tenure of their bishops, but the U.S. bishops would be guaranteed life tenure by the Constitution.

The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters would continue with its current 30 to 40 percent U.S. representation. But the U.S. regional conference would have only 14 non-U.S. delegates, making up only 3 percent of the conference. Thus, the U.S. would have a bigger say in non-U.S. matters than non-U.S. delegates would have for U.S. matters.

The General Conference could change the boundaries of non-U.S. regional conferences without the consent of its annual conferences but changing the boundaries of jurisdictions in the U.S. would still require annual conference consent. Again, U.S. conferences would have more say in their affairs than non-U.S. conferences in theirs.

It is no wonder that some African leaders and delegates are opposing the regionalization proposal. In an effort to ostensibly remove colonialism from UM governance, regionalization as currently proposed installs new, discriminatory provisions that reinforce U.S. autonomy and superiority. One must ask whether the UM Church is exchanging one form of colonialism for another. It is enough to cause second thoughts on whether this is the direction the UM Church should take going forward. Time will tell how the General Conference delegates and annual conference members evaluate this proposal.

Inconsistent Identity. What does it mean to be United Methodist? Already, there is confusion and inconsistency between different local churches who claim the same name but teach a different theology and practice Methodism differently. Regionalization will only accelerate the inconsistency of identity. The United Methodist “brand” will suffer a loss of identity.

For traditionalists in Africa and elsewhere, the worst consequence is that they will be tagged for being part of a denomination that performs same-sex weddings and has openly gay clergy and bishops, even if that does not happen in their particular region. What affects United Methodist identity in one region affects that identity in all regions. And each region affected is powerless to change that reality.

Regionalization sounds good until one begins to unpack the intended and unintended consequences. At the very least, it would mark a dramatic shift in how The United Methodist Church functions as a denomination. It is being done at the behest of promoting LGBTQ equality and cementing control by the American part of the church of its own affairs. Delegates should think long and hard before taking such a drastic step.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.


  1. It seems there are a great many inequities in the regionalization plan, and the author is also correct that it calls into question our identity as Methodists. Deviation from God’s word is made worse by cloaking it in the guise of a church. This is a grave error.

    Also, there is inequity to the traditionalists in the US, as the plan takes as a given that all United Methodists in the US are of one mind. Thus it seems designed to force out the traditionalists. This process has already happened as a small self-appointed group has successfully shifted the narrative away from the 2019 conference result to a ‘friendly’ way for traditionalists to leave, despite their worldview having prevailed in 2019. Completely backward. Now the 2024 GC seems ‘fixed,’ as the African delegates have been shamefully treated regarding travels plans with the result that more will be shut out of the process.

  2. One side is still trying to controll the other even upon leaving. You mention the church as a brand I am pretty sure Jesus would be appalled.

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