The United Methodist Church itself was formed when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged in 1968.[i] The new denomination created a structure whereby The United Methodist Church itself is not a legal entity, the denomination has no leader, and self-describes itself as a “connectional” denomination but did not define the term in the Book of Discipline.[ii] The preamble of the Methodist Constitutional affirms that by describing itself as “Connectional,” it is in practice, “Congregational.” Most recently, the Methodist Judicial Council defined “Connectional” as “Congregational” in its opinion concerning Separation. The Council wrote:
As a primary principle in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church, connectionalism denotes a vital web of interactive relationships—multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust—that permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality.[iii] (Emphasis added) [iv]
Congregational denominations are unique in that every member of a local congregational church possesses full liberty of conscience in interpreting their own version of the Gospel.[v] They believe there is strength in diversity and by it, there are unending opportunities to learn from each other and to grow in faith.
The rules of the United Methodist Church is set forth in its Book of Discipline which is amended every four years by the General Conference.[vi] Notably, the Discipline describes the role of a Bishop as an Elder. The Bishop is not a member of the General Conference, has no voting authority in the General Conference or Annual Conference, and does not makes rules for the Church.[vii] Rather, the main function of a Bishop is to provide Spiritual and Temporal Support to local churches and pastoral staff and to enforce the rules set forth by the General Conference in the Discipline.[viii] While there is a Council of Bishops, and a President of the Council of Bishops, none of these individuals have any authority over local churches that are outside of the Annual Conference.[ix]
The Methodist Constitution provides that “Jurisdictional Conferences” are regional bodies whose main duty is to elect Bishops who are to enforce the rules of the Church as set forth by the General Conference.[x] As with the General Conference, there is no headquarters, no leading officer or staff, no person in charge and no formal body. Rather, it is a name for a geographic area of the world in which the Methodist Church is located. The “Central Conference,” as outlined in the Methodist Constitution, performs the same role as the Jurisdictional Conference, except that they are located outside of the United States.[xi]
The “General Conference” is the supreme legislative body of United Methodism.[xii] It is not a standing organization, it has no headquarters, no staff, no leadership structure, no leader, and its members are voted in by the local Annual Conferences for the two week General Conference that occurs every four years.[xiii] Half of the delegates are clergy and the other half are lay members and they meet to consider matters related to inclusion or removal from the Book of Discipline.[xiv] The constitution of the Methodist Church provides that the powers of the General Conference are broad outlining sixteen areas in which it may act.[xv]
The “Annual Conference,” is the “basic body” of the Church.[xvi] The most important duty of the annual conference is to elect delegates to the General Conference.[xvii] Unlike the United Methodist Church denomination, the Annual Conferences are separate legal entities who have a headquarters, an office led by a Bishop, have office staff and are incorporated under state law so that they can sue, be sued, hold property and employee individuals.[xviii] The Annual Conference is made of up two classes of member: clergy (which are elders and deacons) and laity.[xix] Clergy membership is conferred by the clergy members in full connection with the annual conference and is for life.[xx] Lay membership is based on the principle of representation of each local church or, more correctly, pastoral charge which may consist of more than one local church but be served by one pastor.[xxi]
The annual meeting of the local Church is called the “Charge Conference.”[xxii] The Discipline provides that the local church must have a business meeting once a year with the purpose of electing leaders, approving budgets, ratifying the decisions of the committees within the local Church, determine the parsonage allowance for pastoral staff, reviewing the membership role and dropping members who have not attended in the prior two years, and provide a yearly review of what the local Church has done and what it plans to do the following year.[xxiii] The Discipline clearly defines the relationship between the Annual Conference and a local Church as consulting and reporting, only.
Thus, the Methodist polity is congregational – a network of interconnected gatherings for consultation and discernment. Within this structure, Bishops are “Spiritual guides” to the Annual Conferences and officers to General Conference – ordained Elders who are chosen and sent as emissaries of the General Conference to oversee the proceedings of Annual Conferences for the General Conference. Pastors are elders, chosen and sent by Annual Conferences, to oversee local Churches. However, there is no accountability, no oversight and no true “connection” amongst the local Churches.
[i] Tuell, supra, p. 12
[ii] The United Methodist Church, 2016 Book of Discipline, p. 19
[iii] Methodist Judicial Council Decision, 1366, p. 11
[iv] Given that the Discipline states that, “all decisions of the Judicial Council shall be final,” the congregational governance of the Methodist denomination is confirmed. See, UMC Book of Discipline, p. 19 (Sec. 57).
[vii] Id., Para. 401-450, p. 323-362; Section IV, Para. 414, p. 339.
[viii] Id. Para. 401, p. 323; Para. 414 p. 339
[x] Id. Constitution Sec, IV, Para. 23 through 27, p. 32-33
[xi] Tuell, supra, p. 33
[xii] Id. p. 26
[xv] UMC Book of Discipline, Constitution Sec, II and III, Para. 13 through 22, p. 28-31
[xvi] UMC Book of Discipline, Constitution Sec, VI, Para. 32 through 36, p. 34-37; Chapter 4, The Conferences, Section IX, The Annual Conference, Para. 601-657, p. 407-506.
[xvii] Tuell, supra, p. 35
[xviii] UMC Book of Discipline, Chapter 4, The Conferences, Section IX, Para. 603-606, p. 411-418.
[xxii] Id. Part VI, Para. 246, p. 173-182.