An adaptive change in Methodist ecclesiology has led to three (and sort of four) technical changes in the Missouri Annual Conference.
The adaptive change in question is a shift in philosophy from a connectional attitude toward a congregational attitude. I have a couple of ideas about why this change was implemented, but those motivations are not the subject of this post. The shift itself is happening, as evidenced by the aforementioned technical changes.
The first technical change that was impacted was in our connectional support of community based service agencies. This connectional support (what the UMC calls “apportionments”) was given to a long list of groups working to alleviate injustice, poverty, homelessness, hunger, etc. all around the state. We supported them connectionally because of a philosophy that said, “We can do more together than we can alone.”
When that change happened, we were encouraged to think more congregationally. Now, individual congregations are in relationship with service groups that have particular local meaning: maybe hometown agencies, agencies that dealt with an issue of particular importance to the congregation, or agencies led by people in the congregation.
The second technical change that happened was in our resourcing of campus ministries at colleges and universities. Again, the philosophy behind maintaining on-campus facilities and appointing clergy to serve on campuses was that “we can do more together than we can alone,” in this case with regard to nurturing the Christian discipleship of students in college.
The Annual Conference decided to change the way we do campus ministry by encouraging local congregations to start college-age ministries of their own. And today there are many vibrant and vital college-age ministries based out of congregations all across our state.
The third change is ongoing, and relates to Annual Conference support for church camps and retreats. Rather than pool our resources connectionally to support staff and facilities designated for church camping and retreats, a different vision has been cast.
It is still unclear what this vision is exactly, but seems to revolve around 1) bringing the idea of camping to local congregations and 2) individual directors of camps seeking out their own facilities in which to hold them. In broad terms, a shift from connectional support of camping and retreats to a more local, congregational vision. Because this is an ongoing change, it is unclear what exactly the result will be.
The “sort of” fourth thing I want to mention is a wonderfully connectional idea called “Serve.” The idea of a “Serve Day” grew out of a vision of United Methodists all across the conference serving outside the walls of our church buildings. It was an amazing idea – thousands of people working on the same designated day to truly make a tangible impact for God’s sake in communities all across the state.
It did not take long, however, for this distinctly Methodist, “we can do more together” idea to fade away. Rather than a designated “Serve Day,” congregations are now encouraged to adopt the attitude of Serve throughout our ministries all year long. I can’t help but wonder if the idea of a Serve Day was simply too connectional to withstand the current trend toward congregationalism.
Finally I would like to add that I do not offer this as a negative criticism of the current climate, simply an observation. I am not offering one approach as “better” than another. I’m simply naming something that I’ve observed, a trend that I see taking place in the United Methodist Church.
Personally, I prefer a more connectional model of church over a more congregational one. That’s just my preference, though. I understand that the local church is where disciples are made most effectively, and so I can see the logic to the shift.
And I’m sure the pendulum will swing back the other way at some point, and we’ll reclaim some more of our connectional spirit again. It may look different, which I actually think will be a good thing. Our “connection” hasn’t really been “connected” for some time. We have lived in the illusion of connection for a long time now. I believe that it has become a top-heavy connection, deriving our connectional identity from conferences and agencies that exist on a far different plane from many United Methodists “in the pews.”
Perhaps a new connectionalism will emerge that connects congregations in new and innovative ways, “in the trenches,” so to speak. Maybe Methodists will connect personally with other Methodists in ministry and service in ways that nobody has thought of yet. That’s pretty exciting actually!
Right now, we’re focused pretty intently on “healthy congregations.” I get that. I appreciate that. I just hope that we don’t lose a valuable part of our identity as Methodists in the process. I'm looking forward to new and creative ways to "Hold dear the connection!"