Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Defining Connectionalism

By: Rev. Meredith E. Hoxie Schol, Ph.D.
Director of Communication & Research
Last week, Cynthia & I were discussing the two part blog series written by Dr. David Scott for UM & Global (Part 1 & Part 2).  While we appreciated the historical content and the concise summary of diverse potential scenarios, the title, "Whither the Central Conference in a 'loosened connection'" gave us pause.  The blog focused on what scenarios might emerge as the Commission on A Way Forward’s works to articulate possible structural options that, as they say, will likely provide a “loosening” of our connection.  What seems to be implied in this use of “connection” is the changing of structural identity – the loosening of a denominational framework that has become, for some, limited and no longer adequate or effective.  

We began to reflect on a broader definition of "connection."  Our Book of Discipline currently explains connectionism as follows: 132 - The Journey of a Connectional People - Connectionism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust.  Our connectionism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another.  It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.

In other words, our connectionalism is not defined by our structure. Our connectionalism is defined by our relationship to one another. We are a connectional people on a journey, sharing a tradition of faith, a constitutional polity, a common mission, and a distinctive ethos (132).

It is critical, then, that we as a Connectional Table are clear about what we mean by “connectional.”  If our connectional identity is defined first by our structures, we begin the visioning process bound by these parameters.  If our connectionalism is more relational in nature, we see our vital web connecting us to new opportunities for ministry in light of God’s vision for the church in the world. 

The Connectional Table has an opportunity to raise awareness and engage conversations related to this broader definition of “connectionalism.”  While we have some clear technical tasks before us as a board, our adaptive work focuses on discerning a vision for the future in light of current missional trends and our ever-shifting demographic realities.  The Table’s work – together with the Council of Bishops – is to discern and articulate the vision of the church (904) emerging from simultaneous rapid growth and decline, which has led to the liminal space in which we now find ourselves.  

As we work together this quad, particularly in the work engaged by the Worldwide Nature working group, the Connectional Table has an opportunity to keep this relational understanding of connectionalism before the denomination in some very important ways.  While we too will be engaging conversations of structure this quad, in particular the need for a U.S. decision-making body and the make-up of our own board as a leadership body for a global church, we first center ourselves in our purpose and identity as a connectional people. 

We are grateful for the leadership of The Commission on A Way Forward.  We look forward to the fruit of their faithful work in the coming months. We will continue to pray for these leaders as they discern what shape this “loosening” might take.  At the same time, we commit ourselves to the adaptive work before us – to continually shifting our understanding of The United Methodist Church to better reflect our worldwide nature.  

Understanding our connectionalism to be rooted in relationships, rather than structure, might very well unleash us for more innovative mission and ministry as we continue to pursue this long-term paradigm shift.