Strengths of the UMC
As I reflect upon the Discipline of the UMC and my experience in the denomination, I would say that the major strength of the UMC lies in its connectional system. Rev. George Cookman in 1839 in a speech in celebrating achievements at Centennial says, when pressed “with the question, ‘What is the grand characteristic, the distinctive peculiarity of Methodism?’ I would answer, It is to be found in one single word, ITINERANCY. Yes, sir, this, under God, is the mighty spring of our motive power, the true secret of our unparalleled success. Stop the itinerancy, let congregationalism prevail for only twelve months, -- Samson is shorn of his locks, and we become as other men” (Richey, 246).
It is the heart and soul, the distinctive mark of the Methodist system. Thomas Frank says, “Like breathing in and breathing out, the local churches of United Methodism and the connection through which they are linked together are both vital expressions of the church. Each local church is gifted in its own way for worship, fellowship, education, and care – breathing in deeply the life of Christian community. Each is drawn into mission in company with churches of a broader connection, breathing out the witness and service of the church in the world” (Frank, 38). The connectional system is a beautiful reminder of the unity in and of the body of Christ. Each member is just a small part; the sum is larger than any of us could imagine. With our connectional system we are able to do things that smaller denominations and independent churches cannot. We are able to pool resources in times of trouble through organizations like UMCOR. We are able to operate a publishing house so that we are not dependent on a secular house deciding on doctrinal issues. We are able to create powerful resources like the General Board of Discipleship. We are able to better support congregations by insuring that they will always have a minister. This connectional system also allows for series of checks and balances in order that power not be mismanaged and abused. The connectional system is the crowning achievement of Methodism in America.
Weaknesses of the UMC
The largest weakness of the UMC is the connectional system. “The United Methodist Church must seem an immensely complicated mechanism” (Tuell, 162). It is a large cumbersome machine, at that. Like any other large organization, there is a lot of bureaucracy and wasted effort. Like any other large organization, there can be a lot of strife and infighting among small groups. There is emotional distance between the laity and the clergy of the church. The itinerant system is seen to be outdated. The church’s position on some modern issues is outdated. The denomination is shrinking in membership as the numbers of people attending independent churches is growing. Our own congregations do not understand the value of the itinerate system.
But all these types of problems have been seen in the past. In the 1820’s to the 1840’s, the MEC was swept into arguments about their young, mostly single men preachers moving from the circuit to a “station” or being “located” in one place. In an article from the Christian Advocate on October 27, 1841, editor Thomas Bond writes cogently about the dangers of locating. He claims that it is onerous to the churches because of the large debt that they could incur. He talks about the “unfriendly influence” on the spiritual state of the churches and how if a minister were located, he would not be able to proclaim a message of deliverance and repentance. He is concerned about the country people and the small village churches (Richey, 248-250.) However, locating did not cause the death of itinerancy. More than 150 years later, when there is tremendous debate about the future of the itinerancy, the current arguments against the reformation of the system reverb with this same rhetoric.
To continue Thomas Frank’s analogy, we must allow the church to breathe in the wind of the Holy Spirit and breathe out the witness of Christ upon our communities. Any living breathing organism has need to grow and evolve. Our opportunity is before us -- to change and to reform our connection in order to better suit the needs of our people, society and congregations, as has been done throughout the history of Methodism in America. Our threat is our own lethargy and entropy.
Change can be threatening. Our task is to carefully evaluate our needs and our strengths and deliberately, one step at a time reform our system to meet those needs. “The United Methodist connection has always been a challenge to maintain. To meet and make decisions in conference requires deep commitment, energy and attention. To assign pastors where they are most needed and best able to serve is exceedingly complex. To worship and serve as a congregation means continually swimming against the tide of American privatism and consumerism. And no ecclesial role is more daunting than trying to be a bishop of integrity” (Frank, 319). We have the means for reform in our hands – our Book of Discipline. It has teeth. It has methods developed over generations to help us along in this modern world. We need leaders willing to use it – from the laity to the episcopacy. We need leaders that will boldly take Methodism into this next century, reforming the itinerancy system, as it has been reformed and reshaped in the past. We need leaders that will identify waste and bureaucracy. We need leaders that ask themselves have I “been oiling the machinery of what exists while failing to employ a tough mind and tender heart, pastoral soul and a prophet’s conscience for the kind of radical transformation that is conducive to the gospel and creates a Church that is a harbinger of God’s kingdom/reign” (Sprague, 112). How can we become leaders that can affect this kind of radical transformation.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2000, (The United Methodist Publishing House: Nashville, TN), 2000.
Thomas Edward Frank, Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church, Updated Edition, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN), 2002.
Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A Sourcebook, Vol. II, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN), 2000.
C. Joseph Sprague, Affirmations of a Dissenter, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN), 2002.
Jack M. Tuell, The Organization of The United Methodist Church, 2002 edition, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN), 2002.