- Shifting away from conference Wesley Foundations, and moving college-age ministries to local churches.
- Closing camp properties and developing camping and retreat ministry that more directly connects to local churches and their communities.
- An emphasis on church planting and consultations to catalyze existing churches into new vitality.
These shifts are made because the thinking is the local church is where disciples are primarily made (as opposed to the AC). There has been a constant refrain of the importance of strengthening local congregations while we seemingly cut back on AC operated properties and ministries. This has caused some of my friends, mostly clergy types, to suggest that we are becoming congregationalist. I strongly disagree. Here's some questions I have:
Historically, where were disciples made/formed in the Methodist Movement?
Often, I hear people say "according to ___________ (typically the Book of Discipline or some other authoritative document), the basic unit of the UMC is the Annual Conference." Does "basic unit" equate to "the primary locale where disciples are made"? Probably not. If we look at the history of the Methodist Movement, I don't even think it was the local church that was the primary place that disciples were made/formed. I would have to say it was an even smaller group of people: the small group, or the class meeting. It's in those smaller groups within a local congregation of 5, or 8 - 12 people where disciples were formed. And I'm not talking about our modern day Sunday School class that is so focused on curriculum or a book that they forget the Bible and Covenant Accountability for Following Jesus. I think if we're really honest, that's where disciples were and continue to be made because that's where the deeper relationships happen. We need our churches to have vital small groups (class meetings).
How much of The Connectional system has been inherited from prior to the Methodist Movement, and how much developed with the Methodist Movement?
Take a look at the beginning of our UM Book of Discipline. There's a historical documents section. I'm pretty sure that even a vote of General Conference cannot change it. We inherited it from the Anglican Tradition, who inherited it from previous Christian Tradition. Point being, there is a connectional system that existed prior to the UM Book of Discipline. In addition, the UM BoD has greatly expanded over the years as we have "fine tuned" our connectional system. We have developed a lot of baggage in addition to the stuff we inherited. We are currently in a time when we find The Connexion, as is, is unsustainable, but we seem unable to change it, as evidenced by the last GC and subsequent Judicial Council decisions. We have created an institution that protects itself to survive to a fault. I say all of this to ask: What is really important that we need to preserve? What are the essentials? What essentials take priority over others for a season? Maybe some of this connectional system needs to be trimmed down and drastically changed so that we can emphasize the original vision of The Methodist Movement. Maybe some of this connectional system needs a season of rest and we can come back to those things at another time if we really need them. If you want to defend The Connection, defend the essential portion of it: local churches. (keep reading)
Does a focus on having healthy local churches make us congregational?
Having healthy local churches is not antithetical to Connectionalism. In fact, it improves The Connection. Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion. Read that sentence again: Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion. There would be no need for an Annual Conference or any of its properties or ministries if there were no local churches. Healthy Vital Local Congregations are what enable us to have a strong AC, and in turn a stronger global church. By putting the focus there (on local churches), we are not weakening the connection, but strengthening it! One more time: Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion.
So What to Do?
To my friends worried about us becoming Congregational, how about you focus more on connecting with other churches. Most of us are so focused inward on our own congregations that we miss opportunities to be truly collaborative and do great things. I hear you worried about us becoming congregational, but that's not a polity concern for me. It's more of a state of mind concern. I think most of us are stuck inward on our own congregations. Many choose to not connect in deep meaningful collaborative impactful ways. I'm in a city with 9 UMCs. If we worked together, I think we could really make a huge impact in our community with our combined resources. But for the most part, we are all too busy, each with our own struggles for increased worship attendance (because that's what really counts, or at least, that's what gets counted). What if we conferenced more? Picked up the phone and checked on each other more? Met regularly for more than sharing stories, but for strategic planning too? Our communities need us to lead as a team and to combine our resources. This is the connection we really need. In my mind, too often we have a Connectional System in name and polity only, but we operate as congregationalist already. If we change our mindset to be truly lived-Connexion, then there's no worry about becoming Congregationalist. Because I guarantee, our polity isn't changing (at least not any time soon). Bottom line: Be Connectional. Healthy Congregations connecting together for the good of God's Kingdom in our communities, that's transformational.