It has been said vigorously and often that United Methodist polity is NOT congregationalist. We have congregations, but our polity is connectional. Congregationalism is the claim that churches are independent, self-defined, self-determined, and self-led before they are connected to other churches. A few congregationalist churches take this to the extreme, eschewing any substantive connection with other churches, even churches of their own denomination. Connectionalism is the claim that churches are connected to each other in multiple ways before they are independent.
It is harder than ever to maintain our connectionalism. Since the beginning of Methodism in America, we’ve had the pressures of modernity (which are highly individualistic and atomistic) and American culture (which as a modern culture emphasizes individualism and independence) predispose us to congregationalism. Connectionalism implies submission to authority – the authority of a Bishop and conference that determines pastoral leadership and the doctrine and practices of the church. We don’t want other people telling us what to believe or what to do. We don’t believe in submission. We want to keep our money and resources to ourselves for the projects and purposes we deem worthy, rather than sending them off to a distant conference office.
In the past generation another force has arisen that pushes us in the direction of congregationalism. For most of Methodist history itineracy – and frequent itineracy – has been a key part of our understanding of connectionalism. Pastors have their membership not in the congregation but in the annual conference. Our major ties and relationships are in the annual conference. We moved frequently, so though we would have significant relationships with members of our congregations or circuits, the relationships we most naturally sustained over time were those with fellow conference members.
In the past generation we’ve noticed that when it comes to building and sustaining healthy congregations, longer pastorates seem to work better than shorter ones. Probably because of the cultural forces mentioned above, it takes longer for pastors to gain the trust of the people of whatever congregation they have been appointed to serve. If pastors continue to move every two to three years, as in the earlier days, the stability and growth we look for would be seriously impaired. Inasmuch as pastors are the leading agents of theological formation in the congregation, having a pastor stay for an extended appointment makes it more likely that the values and theology of Methodism will be passed on through the connectional apparatus than that church people will be formed by their surrounding culture (whether that be the regional culture or the longer-lasting more determinate theological culture of congregationalist churches in their vicinity).
An additional factor in this has been the adoption of various forms of pluralism within Methodism. If we have a denomination that is more flexible in its doctrine and its understanding of its doctrine than it is in its structure and polity, a congregation receiving a new pastor will take some time to figure out where that pastor is coming from. Is the new pastor on their same page? Does the pastor share their understanding of the nature of the Methodist interpretation and expression of the Christian faith? Or did the conference send this pastor to “fix” the congregation in some way? It takes time for pastors to learn the congregation’s culture and the culture that surrounds the congregation. It takes time for the congregation and the pastor to learn to trust each other and to discern how best to advance the church’s mission.
As pastors spend more time, in some cases not just more years, but even decades, leading the same congregation, there is a pressure for the pastor to identify more with the congregation than with the conference and other institutions that constitute the Connection. As we approach denominational division this shift in identification takes the form of differentiating “our church” from the denomination. Whether driven primarily by conviction or by the responsibility of holding their congregations together, pastors will say things like, “Well, the denomination may be falling apart, but our church is not.” “The denomination may be wrong about how to respond to shifts in the cultural sexual ethos, our congregation is not confused and will continue to do the right thing.” “The denomination or conference may change, but we will not.” I have heard many claims like this from church people on each side of our current debates. These are fundamentally expressions of a growing congregationalism.
Is there anything we can do? With our United Methodist Church falling apart around us, is it too late to act? I have a few suggestions.
First, both congregationalism and connectionalism are useful operating principles for churches in our Methodist tradition. The strength of the congregationalist ethos is that it builds commitment to the church in particular places and mission fields. The conference (or the district) is not going to do the work of ministry for us; we have to step up on our own and pursue the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We can neither pass the buck to someone else and expect them to do the work or have them pass the bucks to us so we don’t have to fund it ourselves.
At the same time, a connectionalism that says that we are in this together is essential. I’d say it’s not only essential to our Methodist tradition but something we share with the wider Christian tradition. Whether it’s been produced by modernity, Americanism, or just plain old sin, the emphasis on individualism and total autonomy and self-determination usually leads us astray.
Second, because both congregationalism and connectionalism are valid and Christian, our church that builds itself on being a connectional church, needs to simultaneously stop demonizing any expressions of congregationalism and imagine some new forms of connectionalism.
What we know today as a “denomination” is, in the totality of Christian history, a fairly new invention. When we look at the Book of Discipline it is easy to read it as a highly detailed manual for a mid 20th century corporation. Since 1968 our way of being a denomination has been to seek unity in terms of structure and activity rather than in terms of doctrine. Our fifty year experiment has conclusively shown that that approach doesn’t work. The push now is toward separate ecclesial structures that are unified with regard to doctrine and ethics.
I’m not convinced that we have to give up on unity – though I am (mostly) convinced that we have to give up on the kind of institutional unity we’ve tried to have up to this point. I look to the looser kind of unity expressed in the World Methodist Council than what I see now in the “United” Methodist Church. Though the “United” in our denomination is the legacy of the combination of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical UNITED Brethren, we’ve tried to make the “United” bring actual unity. The word alone hasn’t worked. But just because we’re no longer a denomination on the modern institutional model doesn’t mean we cannot experience other forms of unity.