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From its origins, Methodism has been marked by its connexional polity. We are not a federation of individual churches, each fending for themselves in ministry. Our tradition stands against the individualism of a spirituality lacking in religion. Nor is our polity episcopal in the sense of resting primary authority with our Bishops. We started out as circuits of groups gathered for prayer, worship, study. We evolved into Annual and General Conferences and boards which share the burden of our common ministry even, or perhaps especially, when this takes us beyond the walls of our local churches. We were connected as a community before we were a Church; a community, bound by “a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns.” [1] Our connexion is one of our greatest strengths. It allows us the opportunity to reach out in times of global crisis and suffering to offer the love of Christ in a way that no nondenominational church could. It also reminds us that we are bound together in the mind and body of Christ. The Church is something greater than its members, and greater than the local congregation. In a culture that too frequently falls into bitter contests for various interests and forgets about the common goods that bind us together, connexionalism stands as part of our prophetic witness.

This is why some of the recent developments in the Missouri Annual Conference are so troubling to me. As most United Methodists know, across the Church connexionalism has been under attack for some time. The institution of itinerancy, based on the tradition of the early circuit riders has been on the decline in recent years. New church starts, in efforts to appear more “hip” have claimed only to be “a United Methodist Church” instead of locating themselves a part of “The United Methodist Church.” Others have shifted United Methodist to part of their subtitle, or eliminated it altogether.

But, in recent years Missouri United Methodism has gone further. Under a scheme focused upon local church growth, connexionalism has been occasionally marginalized in Missouri. For present purposes, I will only highlight two examples, but I believe that they reflect a logic that focuses on present problems in a way that undercuts our potential for future ministry, that favors mega-churches and undercuts traditional rural and small church ministry, and that ultimately is to the detriment of the Church.

Before going into the details, however, I should be clear that I do not think that this logic is produced by a direct disdain for connexionalism or any other malevolent motive. Nor do I think that there is a coordinated effort afoot to undercut connexionalism in Missouri. Rather, I suspect that this logic is the outcome of systematic attempts to react to the very real problem of declining membership in the Church using the best of management theory that the World has to offer. My critique is that it is possible that our connexionalism is part of our witness to the World, and we should be more careful to baptize what we bring in to the Church before we deploy it.

So, on to two examples, the first of which is a story of the failure of congregationalism with a light at the end of the tunnel, the second of which we are yet at the beginning of …

Several years ago, just after a new Bishop was appointed to the Missouri Annual Conference, the decision was made to defund all Wesley Centers across the state. Wesley Centers were located on college campuses and generally supported an ordained Campus Minister and a staff that helped with college ministry programming. The model of Wesley Centers on campus was replaced with an emphasis upon local churches reaching out to college students. Effectively, the move undercut our connexional ministry in a way that was designed to empower local congregations.

I arrived at Central Methodist University, the only United Methodist affiliated school in Missouri, as a faculty member several years after this change had been implemented. While I am sure that the intentions behind the plan were laudable, I can report first hand that the impact of undercutting our connexional ministry was dismal. The only United Methodist affiliated University in Missouri was left for years without a campus minister. Part time, overworked, and underpaid heads of “religious life” struggled valiantly to maintain the activity of student’s faith lives on campus with little to show in the way of results. When I arrived, chapel services at the school had dwindled to 10-20 students.

The good news on this front is that we seem to have turned a corner of sorts on this front, at least at Central Methodist University. Central Methodist and the Missouri Annual Conference have found ways to strengthen our connexion in recent years. A few years ago, the Annual Conference decided to fund grants to local churches to help with college ministry, and Central Methodist University was allowed to apply. With Rev. Lucas Endicott at the helm, our chapel services now regularly bring in between one hundred fifty and two hundred students. We have started a new major in Religion and Church Leadership. We have brought in multiple United Methodist missionaries to aid with programming, and we just started the Center for Faith and Service. Building the connexion has not been easy, but it is producing significant fruits for the future of the Church.

Unfortunately, a recent decision about United Methodist Camps in Missouri has produced echoes of the congregationalism that was reflected in the original decision about Wesley Centers. Two weeks ago, The Camping Board for the Conference announced a shift in “how we facilitate the vital ministry of camping in the Missouri Annual Conference.” The heads of the Missouri Annual Conference’s four camping facilities had been let go. No plan was laid out for what would be done with the camping facilities. There was no communication about why alternative plans had been rejected (e.g. finding a way to keep some of the camps). The new plan was (1) to partner with Central Methodist University for camping programming and (2) to “make it possible to bring a camp experience right to your local church to strengthen your outreach to the next generation in your own community.” [2]

As I read the announcement two thoughts immediately struck me. First, the emphasis on local congregations at the expense of the connexion was striking. The plan clearly favors large churches that are able to produce their own camping experience and leaves behind smaller Churches across the conference who might rely on connexional camping minitries to provide sufficient community to maintain a true camping experience. It also favors reduction in “services” in order to maintain low apportionments across the Conference (good management theory!). Second, I prayed that the announcement would not be read in a way that led legitimate criticisms of the decision to erode the connexion that we have been working to build between the Church and Central Methodist University. While I am in favor of building this connexion further through the use of Central Methodist as a retreat center, etc. I fully recognize that CMU is not a camp, and there is a danger that Central Methodist’s name might become associated with what I view as a troubling decision on the part of the Conference.

At this point, a number of qualifications are necessary. The Camping Board is clearly right that our current camping situation in the Missouri Conference is economically and missionally unsustainable. Our camps need consolidation and improved management. But, I worry that instead of attempting to align our camping situation with our mission, the decision produced by the Camping Board dangerously undercuts our connexionalism. As reported by the facebook page SaveMOUMCamps, recent statements from the Camping Board have only supported this conclusion. To quote from a report from a recent meeting with the Camping Board: “they were looking at how they could help local churches make disciples. To do this, they feel that being able to bring camps to the local church, there will be opportunities to reach a larger audience.” [3] In other words, the driving philosophy behind this move is one of congregationalism, not connexionalism.

Can we really build the Church by turning inward toward our congregations and away from our common ministry in things like camps?

I have no desire to maintain stale tradition which might impede our mission as a Church. But I also wonder how many times we need to recreate the wheel of connexionalism that Wesley originally set in motion. I pray for our connexion, and that we may yet again find ways to allow the Holy Spirit to work through our relations in order to sow seeds for the future instead of reacting to the present.