Last week I was heartened to read a blog post from Stephen Rankin, the Campus Minister at Southern Methodist University, lamenting contemporary threats to the tradition of United Methodist connexionalism. Drawing upon his decades in Campus Ministry, Rankin notes that “Unfortunately, it is the exceedingly rare local congregation who has a good sense about its calling to reach college students.” Ministries based on College campuses are better suited to this mission, but they are not self sustaining, nor are they properly assessed according to the same measures as local congregations. “In short, college ministry is long on effort and short on short-term returns.” This is exactly the kind of mission work for which the connexion was built. As Rankin notes, this is why the Annual Conference is still the basic unit of United Methodism (see, The Book of Discipline).
Some work needs to be done here in explaining exactly what connexionalism is and what it is not. Connexionalism is not just a relationship between local congregations. Nor is it like the connection established by a secular “social contract,” where individuals (in this case local congregations) come together to establish a government (the Annual Conference) in order to strengthen their own separate ministries.
Connexionalism started with John Wesley as an alternative to such modes of congregationalism. Methodist connexionalism enables ministries that are better carried out from bases outside the local congregation. As Richard Heitzenrater notes, this element of the connexion started with the collection of funds that eventually were transformed into apportionments: “the people called Methodist, poor as they were, enabled a number of significant ministries throughout the British Isles. … the Methodists were able to develop a mission that reached the needy and disenfranchised throughout the three kingdoms in ways that they could not otherwise have done.” (p. 31)
Key is that the connexion did not just focus on enabling local congregations. Connexionalism allowed Methodists to undertake unique mission projects with bases outside the local congregation, eventually opening mission societies, founding Methodist colleges, establishing UMCOR, etc. Through the connexion, again to quote Heitzenrater, “the Methodists could promote mission interests that might transcend the interests and prejudices of the local population or congregation.” (p. 36)
Connexionalism, then, is a polity that recognizes the Church as something greater than the churches that make it up. The Annual Conference is an institution that is to serve as a conduit for the mission of United Methodism, especially when this transcends the functions of local congregations (e.g. in campus ministries, etc.) To abandon this polity is to abandon a central piece of what it means to be United Methodist.
In a previous blog post, I have noted that the camping decision appears to me to have been driven by a congregationalism that runs contrary to Methodist tradition. However, before reviewing the recent communications from the Camping Board, even I did not know how thoroughly their thinking was reflective of congregationalism.
Congregationalism has been sewn into the conversation from the Bishop’s opening question, which, as noted in my previous post, presumes that disciples are only made within the context of local congregational ministries. But it is shocking the extent to which the polity envisioned by the Camping Board marginalizes all institutions of our connexion, especially the Annual Conference itself. Instead of looking at the Annual Conference as a mechanism that enables common ministry beyond the borders of local church ministries, the Annual Conference is treated as if its only function is to serve local congregations. In fact, the Chair of the Board claims exactly that: “The churches don’t exist to serve the Conference. The Conference exists to serve the local church.” (14:29)
This is not conexionalism. It is a congregationalist ecclesiology that reflects an almost libertarian view of the Church. That Conference governs best which governs least. As the Chairman of the Board goes on to suggest: “A win would be that congregations own the process. That they don’t look to the Annual Conference to do it for them …” (16:45) Instead of seeing the activity of the Annual Conference as allowing United Methodism to go beyond the activities of local congregations, the activity of the Annual Conference is envisioned here as inhibiting the functioning of the local church. Instead of celebrating what we can do together through the Annual Conference, ministry by the Annual Conference is imagined as a threat to the local church; a crutch that stops the local church from pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.
Now, whatever the virtues of libertarianism as a secular political theory, it is the antithesis of United Methodist ecclesiology. This is a theology foreign to our denomination.
In fact, the implications of this ecclesiology go even further. If one starts from the presupposition that local congregational ministry is the sole seat for disciple making, and that the Annual Conference exists only to serve local congregations, extension ministries as a whole cease to make sense. Not only will extension camping ministries seem superfluous, but other ministries like Campus Ministries, and chaplaincy will cease to appear important to the Church. In the longer term, even the Camping Board’s proposals for developing new initiatives in the area of camping (day camps, mobile camps) seem likely eventually to fall to this logic, as it is unlikely that such a thorough-going congregationalist polity would be able to sustain adequate centralized support for such initiatives.
The great irony here is that Methodism started exactly as an extension ministry! Wesley did not set out to start a new Church, he set out to light hearts on fire by reaching beyond the established boundaries of the Anglican Church. Have we now traveled so far from our tradition?
Part V is now posted. Please go there for some reflections on the economic situation and alternatives to the Camping Board’s decision!