The Future of The United Methodist Church in Northern Illinois…Runs Through Indiana.
Fort Wayne, Indiana was a boomtown of westward expansion in the 19th Century and a hub of innovation in the early 20th Century. It is still a nice place to live and work. However, in contrast to its booming and innovative past, Fort Wayne at this point is pretty much “holding its own” in terms of population, employment, and other statistical measures of vitality. It seems, then, an appropriate place for United Methodist delegates from Northern Illinois, and the rest of the North Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church, to meet this week for the North Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church. The UMC is trying to “hold its own” in very challenging times.
The outcomes of this meeting will determine the immediate and near-term future of the Northern Illinois Conference. Local church leaders may want to pay attention.
So, what can we expect?
The North Central Jurisdictional Conference is meeting Nov. 2-5 in Fort Wayne. Delegates from ten Annual Conferences are included: East Ohio, West Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois Great Rivers, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, and, of course, Northern Illinois. During this same four-day period, Jurisdictional Conferences are meeting in four other regions of the USA: the Western, Northeastern, Southeastern, and South Central Jurisdictions.
The decisions of this Jurisdictional Conference in Fort Wayne, like the rest of the Jurisdictional Conferences, will have local, regional, and denominational impact.
Here are my initial expectations:
And on the fourth day…we will have a new bishop
This will likely be the last bishop ever assigned exclusively for Northern Illinois, and the assignment will likely be for less than two years – until September 1, 2024 — but the election of bishops in all of the jurisdictions will be a signal as to the future direction of the United Methodist Church. How big will the “big tent” of our denomination be going forward?
Three new bishops are to be elected. Six current bishops will remain for a total of nine in the North Central Jurisdiction. For the three open positions, there are currently nine candidates. Two of the candidates are from and endorsed by the Northern Illinois Conference:
Rev. Jacques Conway, currently Superintendent of the Lake South District
Rev. Luis Reyes, Lead Pastor, Sycamore UMC
We do not know if either Rev. Conway or Rev. Reyes will be elected. The election of bishops is a labyrinthine process of negotiating votes with various annual conference delegations. The end result will be that three out of the nine candidates are consecrated as bishops and assigned to their areas of episcopal responsibility on Saturday.
There is, of course, variation in the life stories, ministry experience, personal gifts, and missional focus among the nine candidates. All of the candidates, however, have expressed their firm dissent from the current UMC Book of Discipline regarding the definition of marriage, Social Principle statements on homosexuality, and candidacy requirements for ordination. And all of the candidates have uniformly endorsed the Beloved Community Covenant North Central Jurisdiction which renounces the current UMC standards as “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “evil powers of this world.”
The clear implication, of course, is that there will be no person elected as a bishop who will uphold, defend, and promote our denomination’s democratically decided standards. It seems, in general, there are two candidates throughout all five of the Jurisdictions in the USA that might be described as “traditional” or “orthodox” or “evangelical”. There are currently 46 active bishops in the USA. So, however big the “big tent” of United Methodism will be in the future, it will not have room for theologically conservative pastors or bishops. Rather, those of us who are committed to standards upheld by the global Christian community throughout its history, and by our Abrahamic forbears in the faith, are to be renounced as spiritually wicked and evil.
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me A Match
Do you remember the lyrics of the song in Fiddler on the Roof?
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch
Look through your book,
And make me a perfect match
Given the absence of eligible prospects in the little village of Anatevka, the matchmaker arranged for relationships to sustain the institution, in that case, to sustain the institution of marriage and expectation that life would go on through new generations to be born.
The parallel of United Methodist organizational decline in our region isn’t exact, of course, but suggestive. Some of our annual conferences no longer warrant a bishop assigned exclusively to them. We don’t have a Yenta (matchmaker), but we do have a Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy.
The Report of the Committee on Episcopacy being received and considered at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference this week includes the following:
The Committee on Episcopacy, recognizing that both the GCFA formula for number of bishops per jurisdiction, and the anticipated reduction in membership due to disaffiliation, indicate a further reduction in number of bishops allotted the NCJ in the near future, recommend the following:
• The Northern IL and Wisconsin conferences, and East and West Ohio conferences (especially Area Committees on Episcopacy, Extended Cabinets and Conference Directors), begin conversations about the possibility of sharing an episcopal area, if such a sharing should be approved by the NCJ, beginning as soon as 2024…
This is a predictable and prudent tactical response to ongoing institutional decline. The UMC version at the annual conference level goes like this:
- Several rounds of reductions, consolidations, and cost-savings initiatives. In the NIC we’ve reduced districts, farmed out our media center to be shared with the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, and just this week relocated from our legacy location at the Chicago Temple to a smaller office space for fewer staff at 303 E. Wacker Drive, Suite 2020.
- Next, comes the sharing of a bishop with another annual conference, recommended to commence in less than two years. Since the meeting in Fort Wayne this week is taking place in a “shortened quadrennium”, the next re-shuffling of bishops will take place on September 1, 2024. Our conference leaders, as recommended by the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, are to begin conversations with the Wisconsin Annual Conference about “sharing a bishop” at that time.
- The following change will be merging of the Northern Illinois Conference with the Wisconsin Annual Conference. The Episcopacy Committee made it clear that for the moment we are talking about a shared bishop and NOT the merger of two conferences…which most of us know already is the part we aren’t supposed to talk about out loud, but which is a near-certainty. (If you want to read the report in its entirety, here you go: Report of Committee on Episcopacy NCJ 2022. The report starts on page 10).
Just a snapshot of the transition from having a bishop assigned exclusively to Northern Illinois to sharing a bishop with Wisconsin, however, is no small change in responsibility. Leading both conferences, rather than Northern Illinois alone, means expanding oversight from 361 congregations to a total of 806 churches and from five districts and their superintendents to ten districts and ten superintendents. The leadership challenge is magnified by the ongoing decline in resources for both annual conferences. Statistics from UMData.org indicate that over the past ten years, Northern Illinois Conference membership has declined by 22.5% and worship attendance has declined by 53.3%. Wisconsin membership over the same period has declined by 32.1% and worship attendance has declined by 52.1%.
Summary: a larger management responsibility with fewer resources.
On the Denominational Horizon
Finally, as the Jurisdictional Conferences meet across the USA this week, there is a larger denominational context. In fact, there is a larger cultural context as well, but that is way beyond the scope of this post.
One of the immediate indicators of our denominational context will be the upcoming decision of the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) as to a denominational budget to be recommended to the anticipated 2024 General Conference meeting. That budget will fund the denominational quadrennium 2025-2028. The decision will be made at their meeting November 17-18. The GCFA gave a preliminary report to denominational leaders this past weekend. The shrinkage of financial resources is underway and will continue due, as the report says, to ongoing congregational disaffiliations and closures. The UMC is still operating under the budget passed in 2016, since the General Conference of 2020 was postponed/cancelled due to the pandemic. The budget proposals call for an overall cut from current approved levels by either 32% or 38%. An additional compounding factor is that the Episcopal Fund (which supports our bishops) is required to be funded at a 100% level. The impact, of course, is that whichever overall reduction is approved, it cannot be apportioned to all budget categories evenly. The 100% level to support our bishops and their supervisory responsibilities will, as one meeting participant concluded, put some of our agencies out of business by 2029 (UM News Article on How Low the Budget Might Go).
After Fort Wayne?
As the delegates return home from Fort Wayne this weekend, the upshot for local churches in the UM denomination seems to be:
- Our bishops will be committed to disobeying for now and overturning as soon as 2024 the current Book of Discipline standards related to marriage, sexual practice, and ordination qualifications.
- Individual local congregations will become one among a much larger collection of congregations…in our case including not only Northern Illinois but also the entire state of Wisconsin. A likely result will be more administrative and bureaucratic processes but less support for local churches.
- Denominational resources, programs, and agencies will wither. Local churches will (and should) look elsewhere for help in being and becoming vibrant, healthy, and missionally fruitful in their communities and beyond.
Fort Wayne might be a good place for attempting to “hold our own,” but many of us aren’t content with the ongoing denominational fadeaway. It is seriously a time to pray for our denominational and annual conference leaders as well as a time to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the course each of us and our local churches chart for the future.