One of the greatest stumbling blocks to the health of current U.S. United Methodism is the existence of the Jurisdictions. Created as a part of a moral compromise that institutionalized racism into the very structure of the new Methodist Church, the jurisdictions have done far more to reinforce our divisions than to serve the Church with any kind of middle-management of oversight.
Two of the most critical effects of the establishment of the jurisdictions were:
- To reinforce and institutionalize the cultural divisions of the U.S. within the united Church;
- Place significant limits on the abilities of the bishops to serve as general superintendents of the whole Church.
We are suffering mightily from these two consequences.
Allow me, a bit of history…
The jurisdictions were created in 1939 as a part of the reunification of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. The new so-called denomination (see previous post!) was called The Methodist Church. It existed until 1968. Jurisdictions simply allowed the new Church to perpetuate the North-South cultural and geographical divide that had developed during the early days of Methodism prior to the schism of 1844 – that had, in fact, existed to some degree even prior to the Revolutionary War.
Prior to the reunification of 1939, the three denominations overlapped each other geographically, primarily in the South and West. The MEC had viewed the southern regions of the country as fair missionary territory and established both black and white congregations in the MECS regions. The MECS overlapped the MEC in missional outreach in the west. The MPC, a much smaller denomination, was sprinkled throughout the country allowing local conferences and congregations far more autonomy regarding issues of social justice. (Indeed, one of the rationales for the reunification was to stop this “ungodly competition for souls” between the three denominations!)
So, first, the establishment of the geographical jurisdictions (Southeastern, South Central, Northeastern, North Central, and Western) mimicked the institutional divisions of the MEC and MECS, along the same basic lines of the pre-Civil War North, South, and western frontier, reinforcing the historical divisions rather than doing the very difficult work of addressing how the new Church might become a force for breaking them down. This basically meant that unless one was engaged in the work of the general church – general agencies and general conferences – North and South still did not have much to do with each other, aside from having to figure out how to compete for membership or merge as churches of the former denominations now located just blocks from each other (especially in the South.) In my home conference, those difficult mergers were still taking place in the 1970’s and 80’s; some that should have taken place, never did resulting in struggling, dying churches.)
Secondly, the establishment of a segregated Central Jurisdiction consisting only of churches of persons of African descent, is a sinful stain on our history. Some will argue that this was the only way the reunification could happen. But, this argument then begs the question, was the drive for “unity” worth such a compromise? When researching the various motives for the reunification, I dare say, NO! (I will speak to those motives in a forthcoming blog on what stands behind our various mission statements throughout our history.)
One of the perceptions that our official histories tend to de-emphasize is that during this era, we remained engaged in missional outreach and the establishment of churches of other ethnicities and races, especially Asian in the west, Hispanic in the west and southwest, Northern European language groups in the north, and Native American in the mid-west and west. Much of this cross-racial and ethnic ministry had begun in the mid to late 1800’s!
These groups were, however, much smaller in population, lighter in skin tone, and had technically speaking, not been legally enslaved, so they were less threatening to the white mega-majority. While they were often victims of economic and cultural enslavement and genocide, sometimes at the hands of Methodists (check out the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado), they could be segregated into “missionary conferences” and racially or ethnically based districts within conferences.
The Central Jurisdiction corralled only persons of African descent within a single, national jurisdiction that overlaid the five geographical jurisdictions, mimicking the cultural and legal racial segregation of the Jim Crow era. Did our ancestors of this era have a choice, given the realities of the day? Of course, they did. And many spoke out against it, including the historic women’s organizations (forerunners of our United Methodist Women) in the MEC and MECS.
Several MEC annual conferences (e.g. the current New York Conference) refused to segregate their African-American churches into the Central Jurisdiction. Others began working toward integration during the existence of the Central Jurisdiction. But, for the most part, the Central Jurisdiction was not dismantled until the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. And the EUB made the dismantling a condition of the merger.
And another related faulty decision…
Another decision of the 1939 reunification was to relocate the election of bishops to the Jurisdictional Conferences. Originally elected, since Asbury’s election in 1784, at the General Conference, bishops were elected as general superintendents on behalf of the whole Church. Since 1939 we have elected bishops from the jurisdiction to serve within the jurisdiction in a region called the “episcopal area” that may or may not include more than one annual conference.
This shifted our form of episcopacy from a general superintendency of the whole Church to something closer to a diocesan form of superintendency. The only locations in the system where bishops serve as a general superintendents is within the Council of Bishops, when they serve as presidents of the general agencies or on boards of trustees of national organizations, or when they serve a special function on behalf of the Council as a representative to a national or global body.
This action limited the voice, scope of leadership, and the authority of our episcopacy in ways unimagined at the time. Throughout the years, I have heard arguments for both greater limitations on the powers and terms of bishops (when folks don’t like how the Council has led) and criticisms that the bishops don’t lead enough! From my analysis, the degree of leadership many have wanted from the whole Council is what bishops are able to offer within their own episcopal areas (assuming the conferences will accept their leadership,) but without a request or direction from the General Conference, as happened at this past 2016 General Conference, the hands of the Council of Bishops are tied. The Council can offer pastoral letters and issue statements all day long, they can voice suggestions and offer plans for change, but they cannot offer assertive leadership as a Council.
So, how have we been so harmed?
As the U.S. has moved into a post-modern, 21st century reality, the jurisdictions have prevented the important cross-fertilization of ideas and building of relationships across self-inflicted and increasingly abstract boundaries. Those cultural boundaries of a century ago are breaking down far more quickly than we can keep up with. For example, we in the Southeastern Jurisdiction are far from monolithically conservative; and clearly, the Western Jurisdiction contains some conservative churches of its own. We badly hurt each other and the Church – United Methodist and Universal – when we buy into jurisdictional stereotypes based on extremely limited information about and contact with each other that takes place only at General Conference!
At a time when we could use strong leadership from the Council of Bishops, a group of elected and consecrated leaders who keep before them a picture of the whole Church in all of the places in the world we are called to serve, their expertise is ignored, their hands are tied, and their voices are silenced. One question today is, given that bishops no longer serve across the U.S., could they even speak in a united way about some issues because they think of themselves less often as general superintendents than they do as representatives from their episcopal areas and jurisdictions!
So, it is time to eliminate the jurisdictions and reclaim some historic practices in a new structure – perhaps, but maybe something better than a U.S. central conference – that would allow for the cross-fertilization of relationships and ideas as we deconstruct old and increasingly meaningless boundaries, and provide for the re-establishment of the general superintendency of our bishops.