“Whenever a reporter is assigned to cover a Methodist conference, he comes home an atheist.”
The quadrennial two-week General Conference of the Methodist Church is currently running. Well, then. We’ve got lots to talk about.
I don’t think there’s a more quintessentially American institution of civil society than the Methodist Church. An 18th century offshoot of Anglican Protestantism, American Methodism is infused with the cultural, institutional, and political character of the United States. And nowhere is this more clear than in the governance structure of the church. First and foremost, the congregants are sovereign. Everything — and I mean everything — can ultimately be put to a popular vote. Second, there’s a Constitution, which not only requires a supermajority of the legislature (oh yes, more on this in a sec) to change, but also must be ratified by the provincial bodies. At the national level, there are three branches — a legislature (the General Conference) that can write/amend a body of laws, an Executive (the Council of Bishops; there’s no singular pope-like figure), and a Judiciary (the Judicial Council). And while the Council of Bishops is obviously restricted to clergy members, it is ultimately popular elections (either direct or indirect) that populate all of the positions.
More fascinating is the federalism of the system, which looks something like a cross between American federalism and the structure of the 19th century American political parties. Churches are grouped into conferences, with each conference headed by an elected bishop. The conferences serve as provincial governments. Each conference has an annual meeting (confusingly called the annual conference), which is attended by all pastors and an equal number of delegates elected by the individual churches and which serves as the legislative session for the year — ordaining clergy, setting budgets, goals, and policies. And, of course, every four years, the annual conference selects delegates to the national general conference. The general conference — the meeting of the national legislature — is the only entity that can make general policy (theological, governance, or otherwise) for the church.
Of course, all of this sits upon a radically decentralized reality. Whatever the governance structure, the true character of the system is self-reliance. Individual churches set their own budgets, raise their own money, own their own physical churches, and pay their own pastor’s salary. From the point of view of the typical congregant, both the annual conference and the general conference are vague, distant, and unimportant bodies. The church has a national Constitution? Even the name of the conference bishop is something that escapes most of the congregation. It’s reminiscent of the relationship between college fraternity chapters and their national organizations; you know you are part of something, you know they make the rules, you know that you send a bunch of money off to them each year, but you aren’t really sure what you get for it or why you do it.
And so if you compare the Methodist Church on this dimension to, say, the Catholic Church, well, it’s not really comparable. It’s a decentralized democracy vs. a hierarchical oligarchy. And, by God, you can feel it when you are there! I grew up in the Methodist Church — my grandfather was the pastor when I was a boy, and my uncle was the pastor when I was older — but I now attend a suburban Catholic Church because my wife is Catholic and our kids are too (don’t get me started).
At a Catholic Church, when you walk around the building, you definitely feel like you are part of something. Something big. But it doesn’t feel like it’s your big thing. You don’t feel like you collectively own the place, like you can drop into the youth lounge and put your feet up. Or borrow some folding chairs for a party at your house. Or bring your kids over on a Tuesday afternoon to play in the nursery school. And if you don’t like something that is going on at the Catholic Church, you either keep your mouth shut and complain later at the dinner table, or you ask the priest if there’s anything he can do. If you don’t like something that is going on at the Methodist Church, you start quietly gathering political support so you can call a meeting and change it. At any rate, you don’t start the complaining until after you’ve lost the vote.
Which brings us to General Conference. If you grew up in a Methodist Church like I did, your first reaction to the thought of 1000 Methodists in political convention is probably to laugh. And your second is to shudder. And if you aren’t familiar with the Methodist Church and the people who populate it, you ain’t never seen nothing like this. I highly recommend checking out the website for the conference, or leafing through the 1100 pieces of proposed legislation, using the legislation tracker (yes, that’s right). Or see what the committees are marking up today — starting at 7am — on the schedule. And like every good political convention, it all starts with a potential floor fight over the rules. Which begins in a Committee on Credentials. Subject to the rulings of a Parliamentarian. But just follow the live blog. Or watch the live stream. Or follow on Twitter at #GC2012. Awesome.
Mencken was more right than he knew.
On major issues of heated debate within the church (such as theological stance on homosexuality, which pits the liberal northeast and west against the conservatives in the South and Midwest), there’s barely even a pretense to anything but bare-knuckle politics at General Conference. My mom’s more or less what is known as a “church boss” in the Methodist Church — she’s somehow always in a power role at the local church, or wielding influence over something — but even she’s too timid to try to be a delegate to General conference. She was a delegate at annual conference last year, and when I asked her why she didn’t stand for election to General conference, she said, “I can’t politic like that. What connections do I have?” Ahem. You lived in a parsonage your entire childhood, you know every freakin’ minister in the district, and you are a church boss. That’s not good enough? Evidently not.
Anyway, the real reason I needed to set you up with all that background is that one of the hottest issues at General Conference is what is known as “Guaranteed Appointment.” Put in place in the mid-20th century in part to protect newly-allowed female pastors, the system requires Bishops to appoint all ministers in good standing to a church. In effect, tenure. The problem is that there are about 900 too many ministers in the Methodist Church right now; as with many mainline Protestant denominations, Methodist congregations are shrinking in size and many churches that can no longer support a pastor on their own are consolidating.
So the finances of it alone has produced a strong political movement to stop the guarantees. But there are other reasons, too. The Commission to Study the Ministry believes that Guaranteed Appointments are “a major contributor to mediocrity and ineffectiveness” that “restricts the flexibility of bishops to appoint the most effective person for each congregation.” As my grandma — the wife of a Methodist minister — always said, “Guaranteed Appointment just protects the lazy, the crazy, and the incompetent.” And so the movement is afoot to weaken the tenure system, and to make it easier to remove allegedly mediocre, but still-in-good-standing, ministers.
I have very serious reservations about this, mostly for institutional reasons. But let’s start with the non-institutional problems. Just like academic tenure, there are potential speech chilling effects in the pulpit. Would you be as willing to take any sort of political stand as a minister — be it against segregation or against anti-gay discrimination — if you knew the bishop could easily remove you if the water got too hot? I’m sure more than one minister would have thought twice in such situations. But that raises an even wider issue; is it even possible to abolish a tenure system and not have politics start to creep into removal decisions? Another concern is competition. Do we really want ministers set against each other for a limited number of jobs?
Still, those concerns pale in comparison to the institutional issues. The main problem I see is the spillover power of the bishops. If they are suddenly empowered to not retain ministers in their conference, their political clout skyrockets. In a conference overpopulated with ministers, who will want to challenge the bishop about anything. I just don’t see any way around this; ending guaranteed appointments will centralize power in the bishops. My hunch is that’s bad, but of course, just like any institutional change, it’s not inherently bad; I may be overlooking very good reasons to centralize power.
I also worry about the federal nature of the implementation. If the bishops can deny appointments within their conference, that might well solve some of the alleged problems within a conference. But some of the demographic problems are inter-conference issues; some conferences are overpopulated with clergy in the aggregate, while others have a shortage. Ending guaranteed appointments by empowering bishops can’t speak to that, since they can’t unilaterally make inter-conference appointments of ministers.
My family is in town for my daughters’ birthday parties this weekend, and we hashed this out over dinner last night. On the one hand it was unremarkable: a family with many Methodist ministers in it (although none present) came to the unanimous conclusion that the guaranteed appointment system for ministers should continue, and that we should sign the petition going around right now to oppose the legislation at General Conference. Big surprise, right?
But on the other hand, our dinner conversation was utterly exemplary of the incredibly role that the protestant churches play in fostering American democratic civil society. Whatever you make of the political influence the churches have on American politics — and I have grave reservations about the contemporary relationship of the two — I don’t think it is debatable that the very existence of the churches as democratic organizations themselves is a boon for the American republic. We were self-governing last night, in the broadest sense.
I don’t want to get all Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism on you, but I think it’s important to note that, in my experience, you don’t get that dinner conversation about the Catholic church. Sure, you can (and we do) have endless discussions about women priests or allowing priests to marry, but there’s no self-empowerment to it. It’s mostly just bitching about (or defending) Rome.You can almost sense your serfdom as you do it.
And I think that has consequences for how people understanding their place and role within their church, as well as the role that the church can play in complimenting and reinforcing the basic democratic structure of American society. And so while Mencken was quite right in one sense — just show up in a Methodist church basement sometime for a controversial budget meeting, it will definitely be enough to make you question God’s existence — in some ways I think he missed the point. Democracy is a wonderful, but ugly, system. That the ugliness is reflected in a republic’s strongest civil institutions should not be seen as a defect of those institutions, but as a reassuring feature.