The UMC's General Conference wonk-fest



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It Was an Anti-Wonk Fest

I was at General Conference from the opening to the closing gavels. What troubled me is that all of the proposed changes in the church came from well-intentioned folks who even see themselves as visionary---but they failed to understand the institutional realities of The United Methodist Church. That is why restructuring failed. Would that the real "wonks," the bean counters and the ones who study the ins-and-outs of our polity, and the history out of which it had developed, been proposing the restructuring.

United Methodism's polity and structure make this church the last relatively unadulterated institution in the U.S. that operates on the historical political form known as "Jacksonian Democracy." Once a member, everyone is elected to everything, and each group has delegates that vote for those who go higher. Even candidates for the Ordained Ministry have to be voted upon by their Charge Conferences. And, those who have a majority vote, win. "Winning" has been accomplished by creating enough "seats" at the various levels of leadership that folks from every constituency have a realistic chance of being voted into one. That is why we have had such large and perhaps unwieldy boards and agencies.

Being "nimble" and hopefully "efficient," as all of the restructuring efforts envisioned, meant cutting down the number of decision makers in our denominational boards and agencies. If people feel that they, or those who share their viewpoints, won't have a chance to get elected to a seat at the table of decision-making, they will rebel against the change. Because we come out of that "Jacksonian Democracy" model, "efficiency" and being "nimble" are both going to be difficult to accomplish.

Likewise, we have such a large number of boards and agencies because historically we did that to make sure that most constituencies got represented. Those who sought to consolidate the program agencies apparently forgot the "shotgun wedding" that created the General Board of Discipleship out of five previous programmatic agencies---or the infighting and the quarter-century that it took before that "wedding" was finally consummated.

The visionaries who dreamed up the various proposals for restructuring failed to look at the long history of Judicial Council rulings regarding the restructuring of Annual Conferences. They required, because the General Conference previously said so, all of the connections between Annual Conferences, local churches, and General Church Agencies be maintained intact. There are literally hundred of those kinds of connections in this "connectional" church. Even a conference of real "wonks" would have to take a lot of time doing detailed work to make sure they were all "attached."

Being a visionary, or even being "prophetic," is fine---but someone has to count the beans, the money, the connections, within a firm knowledge of the heritage that created what is. Alas, those folks weren't "visionary" enough to be invited to the table.

Tom Griffith more than 9 years ago

good starting point for conversation

Thank you, Dalton for dealing with some important issues in a sensitive way. Your direct experience in Africa gives us valuable insights and you take on the various perspectives in the US that keep us divided.
I must say that my simple solution is to go with Yap Kim Hao's proposal that we figure out a way to separate and maintain our relationships in a different structure. The division between Africa and the US will widen not lessen. We simply do not agree, not only on gays and lesbians but in terms of whether or not our current connection is viable.
I don't know how to separate without schism but it would certainly help if the Council of Bishops spoke honestly and called us not to restructuring but to true national autonomy.

Jeff Conn more than 10 years ago


Thanks for the comments, everyone. I have replied to some of them on the comments on my blog ( I'm also blogging the book of Acts in response to our reorientation to the future post-GC. Hope that is useful to you.

Dalton Rushing more than 10 years ago

Central Conference

I resonate with Dalton Rushing sentiments about the relationship of Central Conferences and UMC General Conference. He has shown understanding due to his personal involvement as a mission volunteer in Africa. His comments deserve attention and support.

I speak as one who evolved from a Central Conference to an affiliated autonomous status Methodist Church with UMC since 1968.

The time has come for US Methodism to become an autonomous church by itself to further its mission to develop vital congregations. It will require relevant and appropriate boards and agencies to fulfill its calling. It will continue to help existing Central Conferences to develop autonomy and develop its peculiar mission and service in its own local and national context.

The divergence of church development and difference of resources between the respective Central Conferences and US Methodism has to be acknowledged. To bring the disparity together to form one "global" structure of administration is unrealistic in this complex world. It is hard enough to deal with the differences in the local and national context. It is an exercise in futility to manage the differences in a "global" context as Tampa has revealed.

The direction is to develop autonomous churches in each nation and to relate to one another in sharing in mission as it is being done right now in countries like Cambodia forming annual conference for a Methodist Church in the country. This will be pursued further in Vietnam and Laos where Methodism never existed before. This is the form of partnership in mission with other autonomous Methodist churches and moving away from the old pattern of relating annual conferences throughout the world into one General Conference.

Yap Kim Hao more than 10 years ago

Worldwide Church

Some great points, Dalton. I appreciate your interaction with Andy Langford, particularly around what model of church we are following.

I would disagree with you, however, that it was the central conference delegates who held up progress on any of the issues. They voted their consciences and convictions (not because someone "told" them how to vote) on issues of importance to them. They voted against some of the structure plans because they believed the plans would have hurt their interests, which are being served currently by our existing structure. The church's stance on homosexuality is alive issue for them, as it becomes their stance, as well.

I agree that we need to become much less U.S.-centric in our Book of Discipline and much more permission-giving and flexible. That is for all of us, however, not just for Central conference churches.

General Conference did have an opportunity to define which parts of the Book of Discipline are for the global church and which parts can be adapted to fit cultural contexts. The legislative committee (and the plenary session as a result) decided not to decide. That was the biggest missed opportunity to recast our global sense as a church. However, there were many other instances where the global nature of our church did come into play and was acknowledged in our language (of resolutions and petitions).

Tom Lambrecht more than 10 years ago

Dalton Rushing

Dalton, thank you for some very cogent thinking. I look forward to more such rumination from you! Jay Brim

Jay Brim more than 10 years ago