What the Next Steps Plan Means

This post is going to dive into the weeds a little bit of history and polity in the Methodist Church, so I apologize in advance if that’s not interesting to you. I’ll put a video of an otter swimming with people in a swimming pool at the end as your reward if you read the whole thing.

I wanted to dive into this a little today because of the response to the “next steps” proposal from the Council of Bishops that was voted forward by the General Conference and which I wrote about yesterday. As review, what this next steps proposal does is 1.) deferred discussion of all issues related to LGBTQ inclusion at this General Conference, 2.) created a special commission to start meeting to discuss these issues in order to propose a way forward (or a Church split if a way forward isn’t possible) and 3.) call a special General Conference to legislatively deal with those proposals.

The biggest response I’ve seen is the “kicking the can” response, i.e., we’re just creating another committee to deal with something that the General Conference doesn’t want to deal with. (I think I started this whole blog journey with a joke about committees, didn’t I?) Well, it is and it isn’t and here’s why.

First, Some History

There’s always been a democratic tension in American Methodism. Remember, John Wesley started Methodism as a protest movement within the Church of England. But in America, there was no established church to protest within, so the slate was basically clean for Methodists to take over. And they did, becoming the largest religious body in the US by the end of the 19th century. The historical theory on this, for all you nerds, is that the religious movements that succeeded in America (the Methodists and Baptists) grew faster than others (the Episcopal Church and Lutherans and Congregationalists) because they embraced free market democracy. Other denominations grew less, or didn’t succeed, because they were stuck in the State Church mentality of Europe. Current sociologists of religion find that this trend still holds; the fastest growing churches in the US tend to be able to take market share in the same way that a corporation would.

But even within the Methodist Church there has always been a struggle over democratic representation. The biggest split in Church history occurred in 1844 over slavery, but there was actually a significant Church split before that in 1830 when a group left the Methodist Church to form the Methodist Protestant Church because they were angry that laity were not included in Church leadership. In fact, laity were not given voting rights at Annual Conferences or at General Conference until 1866 in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the northern branch of the Church (just called the Methodist Episcopal Church) never gave laity voting rights (that only happened in the 1939 merger).

However, when laity did finally get voting rights, the Church and its clergy leadership started to tilt (in words, though not always action) towards lay empowerment. You can still hear it today; there were several petitions at this General Conference that changed wording in the Discipline from “ministry to so and so” to “ministry with so and so.” A ministry “to” someone is largely clergy based; a ministry “with” someone is laity based. So, you can see that this tilt towards an ever more democratic Church still lingers.

The Bishop Tension

What this means is that in our history there is a strong bias towards democratic decision making in the UMC. We made sure it was in our Church constitution that the General Conference (not the Bishops) speaks for the Church. Which is why, since 1972, when the issue of LGBTQ inclusion is presented it is always up to the General Conference to make the decision, not the Bishops or anyone else.

But there’s tension here as well, because in the UMC there’s also been a swirling question of the role of Bishops in the Church for a long time. First, laity can’t be Bishops…only clergy. And not just any clergy, only elders. But unlike other denominations, a Bishop in the UMC is not some higher, or more important, type of ordination. Bishops are all elders in the Church. I’m also an elder. Which means Bishops are no more important than me (ha! yeah, right! A little bishop/elder humor there). However, there’s a practical issue here because Bishops are functionally tasked with leading the Church in a way that elders like me are not. Also, they’re elected for life (although some tried and failed to change that this year) and their Church membership is in the Council of Bishops, not the Annual Conference, so there are structural differences that makes Bishops different.

This all boils down to the tension that the Church functions in a highly democratic way (a legislative General Conference) but elects certain people to be leaders (Bishops) that structurally function differently than other clergy.

From Democracy to Corporation

And this is why it was a big deal for the General Conference to, first, ask the Bishops to propose a way forward and then, secondly, to adopt the suggestions of the Bishops. While it may not seem like a huge thing, it is a functional shift of authority that might have implications for the way the Church functions for the next 100 years. The General Conference, which is the only body that speaks for the Church, basically said, “we can’t come up with the right way to say things, so help us!”

My initial interpretation on this is that we, as a Church, made a slow move at this General Conference away from a democratic way to run things and towards a corporate governance way of running things. Corporate governance puts leadership responsibilities into operating officers and boards of directors who are accountable to share holders. Whether you agree with this move kind’ve depends on how you feel about companies and corporations.

It’s clear that a move towards this corporate model has been an underlying theme of this General Conference, from the proposed $20 million investment in an entrepreneurial committee to this referral to a commission who will be appointed by the Bishops. So, while it’s true that the GC chose not to deal with LGBTQ inclusion legislation this session and defer it until later, it’s not true that this is “just another” kicking the can down the road moment. There could be long term impacts on how the Church runs because of the action that was taken.

And now, your rewards for reading all of that is:

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