Methodism Means Connectionalism

I take it for granted that the UMC will begin a formal division after the 2020 General Conference. We no longer practice a common polity, and thus we cannot hold together as an institution.

As the Academic Dean of a seminary, I have lots of conversations with pastors. Most understand the reality we now face in the aftermath of GC 2019. When I ask them what their plans are moving forward, one common answer is, “We’ll probably just go independent.” Given all the denominational woes we have endured, this answer is understandable.  We should bear in mind, however, that to “go independent” as a long-term strategy is deeply un-Methodist.

Churches that “go independent” may of course retain certain Weslesyan emphases, such as preventing grace, the freedom to accept or reject Christ, and entire sanctification. What they will lose, however, will be connectionalism, and without connectionalism, there is no Methodism. (And yes, I know that some people like the British spelling, “connexionalism,” but I’m from Texas, and we’re just not that sophisticated.)

When Wesley said that there is no holiness but social, he meant that holiness is something we receive in community with each other. When we pray together, worship together, encourage one another, and confess our sins to each other, we grow in holiness. In short, Wesley felt that “watching over one another in love” was essential to our formation as Christlike people.

This principle applies not simply to individuals, but to communities. Baptists affirm the “autonomy of the local church.” It is a core element of Baptist polity. Methodists do not. We affirm connectionalism. We believe that churches, just like individuals, may become more Christlike through connection, hence our episcopal polity and system of conferences. The fact that our polity has broken down does not meant that connectionalism itself is flawed. It simply means we have not lived connectionally.

Connectionalism also means that we share in mission. For example, as we engage in ministries to help the poor and provide education, we are much more effective through an organized, shared connection than we would be as individual churches. Despite the brokenness of our denomination, it is true that we can do more collectively than we can by ourselves.

Unfortunately, we’ve made some critical mistakes in our implementation of connectionalism along the way. In 1939 the Methodist Church in the United States formed the Central Jurisdiction as a way of segregating African-American Methodists. I doubt that any reader of this post will disagree that this decision goes into the World Series of Bad Ideas. At its formation in 1968 The United Methodist Church eliminated the Central Jurisdiction, opting instead for geographical jurisdictions.* These geographical jurisdictions, however, have no real accountability built into them. As we have seen, if a jurisdiction decides to reject the decisions of the General Conference, there is really nothing to be done about it. In this sense, jurisdictionalism has undermined connectionalism. (H/T to Scott Kisker for this insight.)

In the Next Methodism(s), I hope that we will learn from our past mistakes. The connectionalism of the UMC had a broken link from the get-go. Broken connectionalism, however, doesn’t mean that connectionalism is bad. It just means that we made a critical mistake in the past that we should avoid in the future.

I still believe in conferences–charge conferences, annual conferences, and general conferences. I still believe in bishops–the episkopoi, or “overseers,” commended to us in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers. (The office of bishop, as we have conceived it in the UMC, needs serious conceptual revision, but it will be nonetheless crucial to our life together moving forward.) I believe local churches need accountability, as do clergy, as do laity. At every level of the church, we need cooperation, mutual prayer and support, and accountability. We need to watch over one another in love. That is an essential part of what it means to be Methodist.

So whatever happens denominationally, if you decide that your future is as a freestanding, independent congregation, you may still be a very fine church, but you will not be Methodist. To be Methodist is to be connectional.

* Correction: When the UMC was formed in ’68, we retained regional jurisdictionalism implemented in ’39, rather than implementing regional jurisdictions for the first time.

16 thoughts on “Methodism Means Connectionalism

  1. What does the ASSOCIATION OF INDEPENDENT METHODISTS say about this concept? I am sure that those Independent Churches that break-away from the UMC will have ample opportunity for “connectionalism” with other “like-theologically-minded” churches.

  2. I’m always consoled by your writings. They are a place of rest while the world glides by on fire. If only we could get a grand concept like connectionalism to actually function coherently over time. But we have divagated too far off the mark. The scholarly elites of Methodism have led us off the path. They are now justifying lawlessness in pasquinades mocking faithful connectionalism.

  3. I sense you good heart in this. With hat in hand, I offer a few notes in response to your historical paragraph:

    From my friend Rev. Gil Caldwell, a contemporary of King and one of the founders of Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), I learned that the Central Conference was done away with because E.U.B reps required the action as a condition of merger. That was the trade-off for preserving Methodist lifetime Bishops. EUB bishops were term limited. Apparently, EUBs abhorred the Central Conference as segregationist. I think I learned this in Bonebrake Hall while I was a student at United. However, Gil told me Black leaders wondered how they would fare with diluted power as they were poured into predominantly White American Methodism in 1968. This led to the founding and general church financial support of BMCR as a leadership recognition and development mechanism.

    From my friend Rev. Rick Newbury, formerly a leader of Red Bird Mission, I learned that jurisdictions were favored by southern church leaders so they would “not get no Yankee bishops” (one can infer other preventions simmering in the 1960s). Knowing that, I observe today that some may be thinking without strong boundaries legislatively connectionalism could mean, if ordained, a gay pastor might be appointed to a church that does not want one – like women were. Add this to the reasons anti-gay voting persists.

    There are numerous denominations that the separatists might join. Several denominations have come from fallings out with the Methodist Church heritage, e.g., Church of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Salvation Army, Wesleyan Methodist. Also, there remains the possible welcome of new affiliations with the Southern Methodist Church, which, as I am sure you know, is the long-time hold-out on Methodist Episcopal Church South roots. Any of these connections in new organizations might serve as continuing the social goals of Wesley you are presenting. To go independent gives witness that they were never truly committed to the connectionalism some of us find/found dear. Perhaps the gay fight is simply a cover for this latter condition.

    As for me and my house, as you know, we finally went UCC. While the welcome for us remains extravagant, congregationalism is not a perfect situation — though perfection is neither claimed nor sought.

  4. I know my current congregation and my former appointment are both considering becoming independent. They have never seen themselves at “Methodists”. I grew up in a Baptist church and started attending a UMC in college. During all of my time in the UMC as a laity or clergy, I believe there is a complete lack of teaching about Wesley and Wesleyan theology. Most Methodists I know, don’t even know what it means to be a Methodist.

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