Who Determines Denominational Policy?

Methodism in Postwar America

The Interlude of the 1950s

The Re-emergence of Radicalism

Radical Consolidation

Reaction to Radicalism

Questions for United Methodism

Endnotes and Bibliography

A question which puzzles laypersons-and not a few clergy if they bother to think about it-is, who decides their denomination's official positions on various issues? Protestant denominations are complex organizations, and the process by which such decisions are made is not self-evident, even to those who are familiar with the by-laws. This chapter will explain the decision-making process in the United Methodist Church.

Factors Affecting Decision Making

To understand the way United Methodist positions on social and economic issues are made, several factors, which form the basis of the following analysis, must be considered. First, Protestant churches are voluntary organizations which persons elect to join and in which they choose to remain. People join churches because they find membership worthwhile, something worth the time, energy and money that such participation requires.

The voluntary nature of the church is a source of its strength. People who freely give of themselves create an organization that possesses a strength not found in one where individual participation is required. The amount of time and money members give to their church is an indication of the value people receive from their participation.

Still, a voluntary organization has some disadvantages. When people join a group because they find it satisfying, they cannot be expected to favor drastic changes. If they had disliked the church the way it was, they would not have joined in the first place. A church therefore tends to be conservative, and this maintains the values of the organization and generally those of the larger society.

As a voluntary organization the church has no sanctions to impose on the laity. This is not the case with the clergy whose careers depend on their standing in the denomination. However, the church cannot force any of its lay members to do anything. The person dissatisfied with a particular congregation can find another of the same denomination or a different one better suited to his or her expectations. The church can, of course, always expel the recalcitrant member, an extreme action virtually never utilized by the mainline denominations.

Second, there exists within any denomination a group of people who might be termed "leadership elite". These are the persons for whom the broad social issues are of utmost importance. To a great degree the members of this group determine which matters shall be put on the agenda of the boards and agencies and of the General Conference. One cannot understand the decision-making process regarding social or political issues without considering this group's role. The leadership elite consists of certain religious professionals and selected lay persons who hold offices on the denominational level. In the United Methodist Church they would include the bishops, the professional staff (particularly the higher level executives) of the general boards and agencies, influential clergy and lay persons who often serve as managers of the boards and agencies. Many of the persons who serve on boards of managers are also elected as delegates to the General Conference. Some have been elected to several sessions of the General Conference.

Such persons circulate among the national level organizations of the church. They may be more concerned with what their national peers think than with the opinions of the folks back in their home congregations. They tend to become well acquainted with and influence each other. These people develop a national and possibly a global perspective; hence they tend to be most interested in broad social and economic issues. Their positions with a general agency may require them to make statements on the relationship of a church board to a company investing in South Africa or to decide whether to hold a meeting in a hotel owned by the Nestle` Corporation whose infant formula marketing was under attack. Matters related to the agencies for which these persons are responsible may become positions that they hope the General Conference will adopt and local Methodists accept.

Third, most church members are concerned primarily with matters relative to the local congregation. They tend to focus on such matters as the quality of preaching, whether their minister is providing adequate pastoral care or whether the youth program is meeting the needs of their teenage children. It is, after all, the local church in which the people participate and which influences their lives. People tend to - or not to - become Christians within the context of the local church. Global issues are of course important, but the most pressing matter in a given week may be finding a teacher for the third and fourth grade class.

The difference in perspective between church persons on the local level and those on the denominational level was noted in research done at Emory University. A nation-wide study of United Methodist clergy and lay opinions on social issues revealed that the major differences were not between ministers and lay persons or even between person from different sections of the country. The greatest variation was between persons on the local level (both pastors and lay people) and those in national positions (agency staff, board members and other officials).1

Fourth, most pastors and laypersons want to trust the denominational leaders. As local church pastors or lay members, they want to have sense of pride and faith in their church and its leaders. If the national church performs poorly, it is a reflection on everyone. Hence most people assume their leaders are acting in good faith, being responsible to the gospel and working for the well-being of the denomination. Only an event of considerable magnitude and one that claims a great deal of publicity in the secular and church media can shake their trust. This rarely occurs within Protestantism, but when it does the experience can be shattering.

A Representative System

At all levels the United Methodist Church is a representative system. Local church officers are elected by a charge conference made up of certain congregational officials. The charge conference elects its lay representative to the annual conference which in turn elects representatives to the Jurisdictional (regional) Conference and General (national) Conference. The Jurisdictional Conferences elect bishops and members of the boards and agencies. The General Conference is the legislative body which governs the entire denomination. The General Conference can do almost anything, subject to the Restrictive Rules adopted in 1808 which prohibit certain actions such as altering the Articles of Religion and doing away with the episcopacy.2

While supporting a representative system, Methodist people also have a tradition of delegating authority. There pastors are appointed by bishops, who consult with congressional committees but make the final decision. The amount of money which each congregation is expected to contribute to benevolences, general church causes and administration is by the denomination and that figure is given to the local church. The only input that a congregation may have in this process is through its delegate to the annual conference. This system is highly efficient in the assignment of clergy and the raising of funds. Unfortunately it results in a decision-making process in which the decision makers represent but are not directly responsible to a grass-roots constituency. The system is therefore representative but not democratic.

The United Methodist representative system not only determines how decisions are made but also influences the nature of decisions. The delegates to the various conferences have been given the authority to act on behalf of the entire denomination. Their authority does not come from the constituency which elected them; they were after all selected by a relatively small group. Their authority comes from their understanding of the nature and mission of the church which they have been selected to lead. Thus delegates will see their responsibility as persuading the membership to adopt certain positions rather than reflecting what the local people think or want. Methodist bodies therefore tend to speak as often to their constituencies as for them.

Because they are not directly responsible to a broad local constituency, national and regional United Methodist bodies frequently perceive their task as prophetic. They address social and economic issues in the large society. By doing so they attempt to move both the church and the larger society in a specific direction. The success denominational leaders have in persuading the constituency to change varies greatly depending on the issues, the times and the leaders themselves. An inevitable by-product is some tension between national church organization and groups within the denomination who way not want either their church or society to change in ways advocated by the leadership elite.

Subjects for Debate

Controversies within Methodism tend to be over polity and church government or social and economic issues rather than purely over theology. This does not mean that Methodists are unconcerned about theology or that the denomination does not have a distinctive theology. This concentration on non-theological issues is the result of an action taken in the early nineteenth century and made a permanent part of the church's constitution. The Restrictive Rule stating that the General Conference could not revoke or change the Articles of Religion guarantees that these twenty-five articles are still carried in The Book of Discipline in the form that John Wesley prepared them. If the Articles of Religion cannot be changed there is little point in arguing about them.

With the theological statement thus fixed and not subject to change, the energy of the denomination has been expended on - and the major schisms of Methodism have been over - matters of church governance and social issues. The Methodist Protestant Church was formed by those who wanted a more democratic form of polity. The division of the denomination into northern and southern churches preceding the Civil War was over slavery and the role of bishops. When the three branches began to move toward reunion, the major obstacle was not theology but polity and the role of the black constituency in proposed denomination.

The United Methodist Church's involvement social and economic issues has continued with an implicit theology underlying the positions official bodies take. Such theological assumptions are not usually explicit, and the most lively debates still tend to be about polity and social and issues.

Some examples:

  • Whether the bishops should have limited terms or continue to hold office for life.
  • What the categories of ordained ministers should be.
  • Whether the denomination should boycott certain corporations.
  • The desirability of Methodists lobbying for certain social and economic legislation.

Who Makes Decisions

Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the United Methodist Church.3 This body of 1,000 delegates equally divided between ministers and laypersons meets for two weeks every four years. In the twelve busy and hectic days in which it is in session, this body deals with a wide range of issues involving virtually every aspect of the life of the church. The actions of the General Conference are binding on the denomination. What this body says is the official United Methodist position on a particular issue.

The General Conference generally ratifies the consensus to which the church has come. When the conference is in session it is subjected to intense to intense lobbying efforts on the part of special interest groups that want specific legislation passed. These efforts tend to be less successful than their partisans would like to admit. Despite heated debate and excited controversy rarely does a major proposal fail to be enacted when it has been worked out before the General Conference and has the support of denominational leaders. When the meeting is in progress participants refer to the "mood of the conference" as a way of predicting what will and will not be enacted into church law. Because the General Conference is a ratifying agency, it is necessary to look at the way consensus develops within the United Methodist Church and the context in which positions are formulated.

Issues are formulated in several arenas before they reach the General Conference. The most important are the general boards and agencies, particularly those which have been assigned responsibility for and economic issues. The Board of Church and Society, for example, has responsibility for matters relating to world peace. The agencies employ professional staff to study the issues, gather data and prepare papers. Furthermore, the agencies have control of the church media. They produce the magazines, newsletters, pamphlets and study books that bring the issues to the attention of the local people. Consequently they determine which matters will be highlighted. The members of the board of managers of the general agencies are a part of the leadership elite. They and the professional staff are the source of many of the proposals upon which the General Conferences will act.

A second highly influential group is the Council of Bishops. From time to time this body prepares a message to the church which deals with subjects it feels the denomination should address. One of the bishops gives this Episcopal Address to the General Conference. It covers a range of subjects relating church and society. Although the bishops messages are not binding, they are highly influential in focusing the church's attention on specific matters.

A third area of influence is the annual conference. Each of the seventy-four units has the same boards and agencies that exist on the national level. The directors of the annual conference agencies are voluntary, but the conference employs professional staff. These clergy and lay persons study issues and bring proposals to the annual conference for consideration. This helps develop a consensus and provides a local outlet for the national agencies.

A fourth category is composed of special interest groups. While ad hoc bodies have been formed to support or oppose specific actions throughout the history of Methodism, the number of organized caucuses has increased in the past decade and a half. Some represent ethnic groups such as blacks, native Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Others represent theological and social perspectives such as Good News (evangelicals), Affirmation (homosexuals) and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (extreme liberals). The ethnic caucuses attempt to secure legislation favorable to their constituencies and to get a larger share of the denominational budget for ethnic projects. The issue-oriented groups attempt to win others to their cause and secure legislation favorable to their viewpoint. Some caucus groups represent only the persons who come together around an issue; others are sustained and encouraged by subsidies from the general boards and agencies.

The various caucus groups attempt to bring the like-minded to their causes. They also strive to elect their adherents as delegates to the General Conference and to membership on the general boards and agencies. Finally they try to persuade the denominational leaders to take actions that will further their goals. All this results in a somewhat chaotic system with various groups at different levels of the denomination working to assure that the General Conference makes their position the official stance. Furthermore, if a group fails to have its position adopted it will continue to work, hoping to gain enough influence to ultimately triumph.

The Context for Decision

The church is also influenced by society at large. It continually responds to events that take place in the world. The position a denomination takes on a particular issue depends on its understanding of the Christian faith and how this faith applies to specific events in society. Therefore no position can be understood apart from the social context. To understand the position of the Methodist Church since 1945 it is necessary to consider the influence of two events, the First World War and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the early years of the twentieth century a peace movement emerged in the churches and achieved a degree of respectability. With America's entrance into World War I the peace sentiment was quickly transformed into a holy crusade. Methodists gave wholehearted support to the war. There was little toleration for conscientious objectors. A presiding elder (district superintendent) in Los Angeles was removed from office and left the Methodist ministry because he did not want to be a part of the active war movement.

After the war a negative reaction to the conflict developed. As persons reflected on the incredible carnage that had taken place on the Western Front, the idealism of the holy crusade faded. Furthermore, the postwar world was not free of the problems the conflict was supposed to have solved. Some new ones had been created by the war itself. Investigations of the munitions industry, which revealed that some persons had enormous profits from the war, contributed to the disillusionment. Approximately a decade after the end of the First World War, Methodism, or at least the denominational leaders, was taking strong anti-war stands. The former presiding elder in Los Angeles who had been forced out was urged to return. When he did so, he was given pension credit for the years that he had been out of the ministry.

The Great Depression was one of the most devastating experiences through which the nation passed. An earlier optimism was shattered by the stock market crash of 1929. Unemployment was high, factories were shut down, banks were closed and people were in want. Something was obviously desperately wrong; the very foundation of society seemed to be crumbling. The nation lost faith in itself.

The profit motive and the capitalist system came under severe criticism from Methodist bodies, including both the various annual conferences and the General Conference. In 1932 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church called for the "replacement of our present policy of unplanned competitive individualism by a planned industrial economy."4 The industrial order was further characterized as unchristian, unethical and anti-social because it was based on a selfish profit-motive.

While the church called on the nation to create a new economic and social order, the details were not spelled out. Of course, religious leaders did not know what to do any more than the politicians and economists. What was clear to them was the fact that the old system was not functioning as the previous generation had hoped.

The First World War and the Great Depression formed two significant influences on the Methodist positions on U.S. foreign policy. The former provided the impetus for the peace movement which has always been much stronger among the clergy, and particularly the denominational clerical leaders than among the laity. This in turn influenced the position of the denomination during World War II, the Korean War and particularly the Vietnam conflict.

The latter resulted in some denominational leaders looking to socialist and communist models as viable alternatives to capitalism. As a reaction to the Great Depression, some church leaders did veer to the left. This was most evident in the Methodist Federation for Social Action which moved so far left that it lost the support of responsible church leaders. Because of communism, as represented by the Soviet Union, the church became entangled with the relationship among the United States, the Soviet Union and other communist countries. At no time was this more evident that in the period immediately following the Second World War.

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