International group pursues regionalization

March 16, 2023 | by Klaus Ulrich Ruof

International group pursues regionalization

Members of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters discuss the values they are seeking in proposed denominational regionalization. During a meeting in Braunfels, Germany, the General Conference permanent committee gave a boost to proposals to restructure the denomination so different geographic areas are on equal footing. Photo by Klaus Ulrich Ruof, Germany Central Conference.

An international United Methodist body is giving fresh energy to efforts to restructure the global denomination so that its different geographic regions would each have greater autonomy and stand on equal footing.

The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters devoted most of its first in-person meeting since 2019 to discussing such regionalization efforts. The committee met Feb. 22-26 at a United Methodist retreat center in the town of Braunfels, Germany, which dates to the Middle Ages.

The 43-member committee is a coordinating body that studies the structure and supervision of The United Methodist Church’s central conferences — church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe. The group is a permanent committee of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, with authority to meet between the legislative gatherings to do its work.

Over the past few years, the standing committee has worked with the Connectional Table — another denominational leadership body — on what it means to be a globally connected denomination. The standing committee, for several years, has analyzed the inequity around the ways the denomination is structured.

The two bodies have looked at addressing what many United Methodists deem an inherent weakness in the denomination’s current organization — namely that no structure exists to deal with matters solely related to the United States. The result is that General Conference ends up being largely dominated by U.S. issues and debates.

Also unlike in the U.S., central conferences have authority under the denomination’s constitution to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.

For example, central conferences already adapt parts of the Discipline to accommodate the requirements of different property laws. Some central conferences, such as the Philippines, have different ways of credentialing clergy.

Talking about being a globally connected church, standing committee members expressed that it is no longer acceptable to have two separate ways of functioning — one for the United States and a second one for the rest of the world.

At present, there are two major regionalization proposals submitted to the coming General Conference that aim to change that.

  • The Connectional Table legislation focuses on creating a structure and process for the United States to become a region like the central conferences outside the U.S. already are.
  • The Christmas Covenant, legislation from United Methodists in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, includes the work of the Connectional Table and also aims to create greater equity across all regions of the denomination. The proposal also changes the name of central conferences to regional conferences to get away from negative associations with the Methodist Church’s Central Jurisdiction, which from 1939 to 1968 segregated Black churches and clergy in the United States.

Both proposals would require multiple amendments to the denomination’s constitution — a high hurdle. For ratification, amendments must receive at least a two-thirds vote at General Conference and at least two-thirds of the total votes from church regional bodies called annual conferences.

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Ruof is a communicator of The United Methodist church in Germany.