Plans, Plans, Everywhere
It seems like everyone has a plan for the future of The United Methodist Church these days:
- The Bard/Jones Plan is a creative re-working on our current institution where shared space is established and distance between warring sides is created. The critique some have is how the plan doesn’t give enough space and is still too grounded in our current dysfunctional institution.
- The UMCNext Proposal is an affirming of a collective stance against the Traditional Plan passed at GC2019. The critique some have is multi-faceted. The plan doesn’t feel like a “plan” as much as a series of statements against current rules. That’s fine for a conference held in May, just 60 days after the vote for the Traditional Plan passed. Now that 5 months have passed, it’s a little disappointing for early UMCNext supporters (like me) to find out that not much progress has been made toward actual legislation that would realign the denomination. UMCNext is also critiqued for its emphasis on protecting the agencies of the church even when it feels like that protection comes at the expense of local churches and church members who are hurt by our current rules. Pragmatists suspect that repackaging the One Church Plan is doomed for failure just a year after it was voted down.
- Regional Plans are emerging that seek to create Jurisdictional methods to realign the denomination. The Connectional Table is seeking to pass legislation to create a US Central Conference where we could write a Book of Discipline for the United States (much like Central Conferences around the world currently do).
Why I Support the Indy Plan (or some variation of it)
Another plan has emerged that intrigues me a great deal. The Indianapolis Plan strikes a balance between a couple of competing notions. It reimagines the denomination, but creates more workable space than the Bard/Jones Plan. It gives the basic legal entity of the UMC to the centrist/progressives without doing with a scorched earth strategy like UMCNext. Most importantly, it ensures that ALL of us put skin in the game. Winners and losers are not the way to administer the Body of Christ. And I feel like the basic construct of the Indy Plan ensures that everybody wins a little and loses a little in the process.
The Indy Plan is not perfect. It needs some cosmetic improvements. But it’s very workable as a plan we could use to create what I want to call “The Great Compromise of 2020.” Here are a few working thoughts on what I see as major points we could compromise on…
Centrist/Progressives need to decide a priority order for change
The idea that we can overhaul an entire denomination’s structural stance on an issue is foolish. Change doesn’t happen that way, especially in The United Methodist Church. Therefore, I would offer the following priority list for change: 1) Remove the incompatibility language from the Book of Discipline; 2) Allow local churches to set local rules for weddings; and 3) Allow annual conference boards of ordained ministry to tackle the work of ordination standards.
2/3 Majority Threshold to Leave
We need to ensure a 2/3 majority for Traditionalist churches and annual conferences to leave. I know that sounds mean or punitive, but it’s in the best interest of the pension plans we all want to continue sharing for the bar to be set high. The churches and conferences that want to leave will do so with more than a 2/3 majority. And anyone who leads in a local church knows you can’t lead well with 52-48 vote margins.
Postpone Episcopal elections
We need to postpone episcopal elections until after the transition period is complete. My hope is that we will set a shorter period for transition. There’s no need to drag this out for 4-8 years. So if 2022 is the date when new branches are up and running, episcopal elections can wait until then. The same Centrist/Progressives that would be elected in 2020 will be elected 2 years later. And the least we can do for our brothers and sisters who might leave for a new Traditionalist branch is to let them do so with the episcopal leadership that is already in place. An important side note: Let’s use this as our chance to change the mandatory retirement age. Suspend that and let bishops serve two more years. Then you adapt the way clergy can serve in an era where people live much longer than 72.
Budget a Generous Financial Buy Out (and don’t let agencies dictate it)
General Conferences needs to budget for a financial payout to an emerging Traditional branch and it needs to be fair. Bless people as they leave. Don’t punish them. And while General Conference should not vote to take reserves from our agencies, our agencies need to be put on notice: everybody is putting skin in the game and that means you too. Our bloated bureaucracy is an anchor tied to the foot of a church seeking to do ministry effectively in the 21st Century. It’s time to start thinking creatively about how to trim budgets for this transition.
One of the reasons I like the Indy Plan most is that it was the brainchild of non-institutionalist leaders who want to seek impactful and lasting change. Rather than gathering the same cast of characters who have kicked the proverbial can down the road for 20 years now, this group gathered with the goal of how to create real change. You can’t think of how to dramatically reorganize our institution when you’re a direct beneficiary of it. So knowing that Indy Plan architects were a diverse group of leaders who mostly have little standing in the institutional ranks means a lot to me. I’m over the recasting of a 1950s denomination where all that changes is the language we use to package it.
It’s time to decentralize to do ministry more effectively. It’s time to create a real spirit connectionalism beyond just apportionment dollars. Most of all, we need to creatively redesign our institution to serve its first and main focus: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Anything less is sinful on our part.
The Rev. Ben Gosden serves as lead pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah, Ga. This post is republished with permission from his blog, Covered in the Master’s Dust.