Each year the annual conference acts to discontinue congregations upon the recommendation of the bishop and the cabinet.
Discontinuances are never routine because they mark the end of the lives of congregations which had been means of grace for people over a long period of time. Because of the existence of these congregations, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed, people received the gift of faith, and lives and communities were affected. Often remarkable events have happened in the lives of the congregations. Moreover, there is usually still an active group of people who love one another and who love worshipping together who have to give up their customs and become attached to other United Methodist congregations. There is always sadness at the discontinuance of a congregation.
The main reason today to discontinue a congregation is that it can no longer fulfill the mission of the United Methodist Church. This is a different time than a generation ago. In the past, as long as a congregation could pay its bills, including its connectional giving, it was allowed to continue. Today, the Church expects every congregation to possess missional vitality. If the congregation is no longer able or willing to accomplish the mission of the United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then the Church has a responsibility to discontinue that congregation and seek new ways to fulfill its mission in that location.
In our polity, the decision to discontinue a congregation is made by the annual conference. The authority for making this decision does not reside in the Charge Conference of the congregation. It is true that District Superintendents call a Charge Conference to permit the members to vote to discontinue voluntarily. However, this is done for pastoral reasons because it is better for the members to acknowledge and to accept the necessity and wisdom of the discontinuance. Occasionally, members lack the perspective to make this acknowledgment or to accept discontinuance, and they may even try to convince the annual conference not to vote for discontinuance. The wisdom of our system is that the authority for discontinuing a congregation resides in the annual conference, whose members are able to see the bigger picture, rather than in the congregation, whose members sometimes have difficulty being realistic or keeping a focus on the missional responsibility of the Church.
In his Commencement Address of 2011, The Translatability of the Christian Gospel, Dr. Timothy Tennant, the President of Asbury Theological Seminary, stated, "North America is on the verge of the most stunning collapst of churches in the history of the country." But he also stated, "North America is also, simultaneously, moving into one of the most dynamic phases of fresh church planting in our history." I think both statements are true. Congregations which served Christ's cause well in the past will either transform or discontinue. At the same time, the Church must vigorously plant new congregations which are able to fulfill its mission today. While all of this is very painful for many of us, we need to be aware that God is re-arranging the Christian map, and that the call to mission must be the defining feature of the Church and every congregation at this moment in history.