Main Menu

United Methodists explore changing U.S. church’s designation

United Methodists explore changing U.S. church’s designation

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

United Methodists explore changing U.S. church’s designation

Feb. 23, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0802}

NOTE: This article was produced and distributed Feb. 6 by United Methodist News Service.

An e-Review Feature
By Linda Green**

FORT WORTH, Texas — Would making The United Methodist Church in the United States a regional body be the best way for the denomination to function as a worldwide body?

The Rev. Tim McClendon speaks against proposed changes to the structure of The United Methodist Church during a Jan. 25 panel discussion on "The Worldwide Nature of the Church: What It Means." The discussion was part of the United Methodist Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Fort Worth, Texas. The Rev. Larry Hollon (left), chief executive of United Methodist Communications that sponsored the briefing, served as moderator of the panel. A UMNS photo by Larry Nelson. Photo #08-0762.

Ten speakers explored that question during a Jan. 25 panel discussion on “The Worldwide Nature of the Church: What It Means” during the Pre-General Conference News Briefing sponsored by United Methodist Communications.

General Conference, which meets every four years, is the denomination’s top legislative body. During its meeting April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, the 2008 assembly will consider proposed structural changes to the denomination that acknowledge the church is growing outside the United States and 30 percent of United Methodist members now live outside the United States.

Proponents say the structural changes would make the church more effective and equitably organized for worldwide ministry. Opponents say the changes may actually serve to fragment the denomination into national entities, among other things.

A task force examining the issue has proposed four substantive changes to the denomination’s constitution in an effort to make regional and jurisdictional structures similar worldwide. Task force members say the current structure gives the U.S. church too much influence and marginalizes United Methodists in Africa, Asia and Europe.

The constitutional changes would pave the way so that legislation could be proposed to the 2012 assembly that would eliminate U.S. concerns from General Conference. Those concerns instead would become the business of a U.S. regional conference.

Specifically, the legislation would make the church’s five jurisdictions in the United States a regional body, similar to the church’s central conferences that currently exist outside of the United States.

The six-member task force has sent 24 petitions to General Conference to make changes in 24 paragraphs of the constitution. Most of these changes are grammatical or change the words “central conference” to “regional conference.” The committee, chaired by Nebraska Bishop Ann Sherer, also will ask General Conference to allow the task force and the Connectional Table to jointly continue their study of the church’s worldwide nature and report to the 2012 legislative assembly.

Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote of General Conference delegates and must be ratified by two-thirds of the aggregate annual conference voting members.

Favoring change

Kansas Bishop Scott Jones, a task force member, said the proposal does not change the number, purpose and function of jurisdictional conferences; the way bishops are elected or assigned; the purpose or mission of any churchwide agency; the size or power of General Conference; the way the Social Principles are decided upon or amended; or the apportionment formulas and allocations. 

“It disempowers central conferences from being fully actualized within the body and allows the church in the U.S. to escape from dealing with its internal issues.

Nebraska Bishop
Ann Sherer

The proposal seeks to examine how the church should to carry out its ministry in a world that is increasingly interdependent, he said. 

In a videotaped message, Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Area said United Methodists outside of the United States view General Conference as an entity that deals with “issues that do not directly relate to us.”

Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Area echoed that sentiment, saying changes are needed in the church’s infrastructure and governance to make the denomination more effective worldwide. In his videotaped message, Yemba told the gathering “the church of Jesus Christ is both local and universal, and we need to struggle with tension of how to be local, but at the same time be a church that is worldwide.”

Sherer said the task force is seeking a worldwide structure that “keeps us connected in mission, ministry and discipline.”

Echoing Strieff, she said U.S. dominance in denominational governance damages both the church in the United States and in the world. “It disempowers central conferences from being fully actualized within the body and allows the church in the U.S. to escape from dealing with its internal issues,” she said.

Sherer also said there is a sense of urgency to reorganize because “our war-torn and broken world needs a better model of unity and interdependence.”

“Recent developments in the world and in Christianity call for a new emphasis on the concept of mission that addresses a world community and our connectedness that is not impeded by national, cultural and economic barriers,” she said.

Questioning the changes

Two panelists disagreed with the proposed structural changes.

“The church is global. We do not have to make it global,” said the Rev. Eddie Fox, a staff executive of the World Methodist Council. “On the day of Pentecost, it was declared global. God spoke, and God understood.”

Fox questioned why a “global” proposal would create a national U.S. entity, particularly at a time when the church is becoming more global and the number of delegates to General Conference from outside the United States is increasing. He called changes to the church’s constitution “a very serious matter” and said the proposal’s language is problematic because it would mandate central conferences.

Fox questioned the desire to push international delegates away from the discussion table on matters related to the United States. “More and more, every decision we make affects the whole world just as it affects one spaceship called earth,” he said.

“This is not the time for us to be creating national entities,” he said, citing the structure of the Anglican Church. He called the proposed legislation irresponsible for “asking to change the constitution without knowing the effects of it.”

What is needed, he said, “is to walk side by side, not separate, so together we might do our part so the world may know Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Tim McClendon, a district superintendent in the South Carolina Annual (regional) Conference, said he feared the proposal would make the church more fragmented instead of more connected.

“We would lose the important voices of those outside the United States, and we would be left among ourselves debating issues upon issues upon issues that lead us into schism,” he said.

McClendon said that while The United Methodist Church attempts to be global, “we are not a global church and we need to realize that.” Outside the United States and sub-Saharan Africa, there are only 250,000 United Methodists around the world, he said. Thirty of the 65 annual conferences outside the United States have less than 5,000 members.

Both Fox and McClendon said the 62 proposed word changes to the church’s constitution move the denomination toward the unknown.

Questions of equity

McClendon noted that jurisdictional conferences will still exist in the United States, but conferences outside the United States will only have regional conferences.

The church is global. We do not have to make it global. On the day of Pentecost, it was declared global. God spoke, and God understood.”

Rev. Eddie Fox

“This is an equity issue,” he said, and “a lot of this legislation seems to be about who gets to keep those votes from conferences outside the United States.”

“Who keeps them?” he asked. “I am pushing for the middle to hold us together. I believe in the unity of the church.”

Erin Hawkins, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, said the church can live into the possibility of a worldwide church, if it consistently holds in tension the balancing values of unity, difference and diversity.

Hawkins said it is time for The United Methodist Church to reassess what it means to be the body of Christ in a global landscape fraught with the complexities of language, culture, politics and economic inequality.

“The sign of the times point to the fact that the future of the church lies in our ability to be able to reach and include in all aspects of the church those who we in the U.S. consider to be racial, ethnic minority people,” she said.

Hawkins said the principal challenge of living in a multicultural reality in the United States and across the globe is inequality. The worldwide nature report begins an important conversation, she said, that could help dismantle institutional racism within the church.

“The benefits of any new worldwide structure or organization must be distributed justly in order to truly develop a worldwide church,” she said.

Ratification process

If General Conference approves the proposed constitutional amendments by a two-thirds majority, annual conferences would be asked to vote on the 24 proposed changes and the exact tally would have to be reported in order for the Council of Bishops to determine whether a two-thirds majority of all annual conference members had been attained. Jones told United Methodist News Service that the manner in which these votes are taken would be decided by the presiding bishop.

Members of the global nature task force were appointed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. The members are Sherer, Jones, Bishop Ruediger Minor, Kristina Gonzalez, Forbes Matonga and Dora Washington. Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader serves as staff executive.

More information is available at


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. United Methodist News Service is the news service for The United Methodist Church and part of the ministries of United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.