Understanding The United Methodist Church
The mission of The United Methodist Church is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ" (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church—2008, ¶102) The mission had its beginnings through the ministry of John Wesley in the eighteenth century. Through the tireless efforts of John, his brother Charles, and others, this movement culminated (organizationally) in 1968 to become The United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church in 2008 has nearly 8 million members in the United States and an additional 4 million + members across the globe.
Early British History
The Growth of Societies
Methodism in Early America
Partners in Other Faith Traditions
The Ministry of All Christians
Mission of The United Methodist Church
Methodism as a Connectional Church
Take a brief inventory before exploring Teachers Understand The United Methodist Church.
Read each statement; then circle the number that best describes your situation.
1 = Not at all; 2 = Somewhat; 3 = Mostly; 4 = Definitely
1 2 3 4 I know the history of The United Methodist Church and can teach this rich legacy to others.
1 2 3 4 I know and live out the mission of the church.
1 2 3 4 I understand the meaning and impact of our connectional system.
1 2 3 4 I understand and can explain to others the organizational structure of The United Methodist Church.
1 2 3 4 I appreciate the uniqueness of The United Methodist Church and its role in making a difference in the world in the past, for today, and into the future.
EARLY BRITISH HISTORY
John Wesley was born in 1703 in Epworth, England. He was one of many children of Samuel Wesley, an Anglican priest, and Susanna Wesley, a strong, caring Christian woman. John Wesley studied at Christ Church College, in Oxford, England. In 1728, at the age of 25, John Wesley was ordained as a priest in the Church of England.
O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling I Want a Principle Within
O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done A Charge to Keep I Have
Jesus, Lover of My Soul And Are We Yet Alive
While John and his brother Charles Wesley studied at Oxford, they organized and led a group of Oxford students who became known as the Holy Club. The members of the Holy Club met regularly for Bible study, prayer, social work, fasting, and Holy Communion. They practiced their faith by visiting those in prison, by taking care of those who were poor, and by showing concern for the social issues of their day.
Other students made fun of this group by calling them such names as "Bible Bigots," "The Bible Moths," and "The Enthusiasts." As The Holy Club continued to follow John and Charles Wesley’s lead to use their time wisely and to live methodically, studying, praying, and serving others according to carefully laid plans, the name "Methodists" was added to the taunts of those who ridiculed them. The name Methodist stuck, and that name has remained a part of the church’s name from the days of the earliest Methodist societies in England until the days of The United Methodist Church all over the world today.
In 1735 John and Charles left for America with dreams of becoming missionaries. But their efforts failed. They returned to England after less than two years. Both of them returned searching for something more in their own faith.
May 24, 1738, marked a turning point in John’s faith. After attending a religious service on Aldersgate Street in London, John Wesley wrote in his journal:
I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
John Wesley’s heart-warming experience came only three days after his brother Charles had found God’s peace in a similar experience. Soon John; Charles; and George Whitefield, their friend from the Holy Club, began preaching to the poor in England. Since their preaching was not encouraged inside the Church of England, they preached in the streets, meeting in abandoned buildings, homes, mines, and in open fields.
The World Is My Parish
These words are a popular paraphrase of John Wesley’s words. John Wesley did not set out to start a new church. In fact, when he first started preaching in the streets and fields, he questioned whether it was the right thing to do. He wrote that at one time "I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church."
But when John was no longer allowed to preach in the church, he decided that "seeing I have now no parish of my own, nor probably ever shall…I look upon all the world as my parish; …This is the work which I know God has called me to." Today United Methodists join John Wesley in declaring that the whole world is our parish.
Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises
1. The text of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church begins (after the listing of the bishops) with an "Historical Statement." Review our Wesleyan heritage. What information surprised you? What was new to you? Was anything disappointing or discouraging? Why? Of what are you most proud?
For Further Study and Reflection
1. Form a book study group to read and discuss Wesley and the People Called Methodist, by Richard Heitzenrater. This provides a thorough and readable history of the Wesleys and Methodism, mainly in England.
2. Engage a group to study together A Perfect Love, by Steven Manskar. This is a modern language version of John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, which includes annotations to persons and other references in the original text and a study guide for individuals and groups.
THE GROWTH OF SOCIETIES
Wesley organized the converts into societies. These groups were based on Wesley’s experience with the Holy Club at Oxford, on his observations of the Moravians who had influenced his faith, and on other Anglican religious societies. The societies met weekly for preaching, prayer, hymn-singing, Bible study, Christian conversation, and mutual accountability for their spiritual growth.
Anyone who wanted to "flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins" was welcome to join a Methodist society and lead a disciplined Christian life. Each person was required to follow three General Rules, which are still expected of United Methodists today: Do no harm; Do good; Attend to the ordinances of God.
The ordinances of God are those things that help us to experience God’s presence. They include worship, prayer, Scripture study, Holy Communion, and fasting, among others. In addition to these "acts of piety" or "means of grace," Wesley enjoined his Methodists to include acts of mercy; that is, those specific actions that worked for justice, advocacy, or other service that alleviated the situation of others (see Matthew 25:31-46, for example).
Later, the societies were broken up into even smaller groups called classes and bands. In these smaller groups, members talked about their lives, confessed their sins, prayed for one another, encouraged one another to be more faithful Christians, and collected what money they could for the relief of the poor.
John Wesley never intended for the societies to become a new church. He himself remained a priest in the Church of England until his death. The members of the societies, classes, and bands were encouraged to attend the services of the local Church of England and to receive Holy Communion there. However, as the Methodist societies grew, they took on more and more of the feel of a separate church. Although Wesley had originally intended that the Methodists should remain members of the Church of England, a new church seemed inevitable.
Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises
1. Read the excerpt from the General Rules in the Book of Discipline (a subhead within Part II: "Doctrine and Discipline in the Christian Life"). How well are you "doing no harm"? How well are you doing all the good that you can?
2. The discipline of the Methodist communities included accountability, confession, fellowship, and works of mercy. What if you were to use those disciplines as the foundation of any and every group within the church in which you participate?
For Further Study and Reflection
1. If you are not already in an accountable discipleship group (Emmaus 4th Day, Covenant Discipleship group, Companions in Christ group, for example) seek out five or six others with whom you might form such a group. Check The Upper Room website for resources.
METHODISM IN EARLY AMERICA
Methodist societies developed in America as a lay movement. Robert Strawbridge started what Francis Asbury described as "the first society inMaryland—and America." Barbara Heck and Philip Embury began a society in New York at about the same time. Thomas Webb introduced Methodism on Long Island, in Philadelphia, and in other places.
John Wesley sent missionaries to America in 1769. During the Revolutionary War, however, John Wesley supported England. As a result, all of the British Methodist preachers—except Francis Asbury—returned to England. Asbury continued to preach in America, riding thousands of miles each year to organize new churches. By1784 the Methodist movement in America had grown to 15,000 members.
In 1784 Wesley began to ordain lay preachers to spread the work of the Methodist movement in the United States. It was not an easy decision for John Wesley to make. He knew that by ordaining ministers for the United States church he would be sanctioning a new church, no longer a part of the Church of England.
In that same year a conference of Methodist preachers was held at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, Maryland, on Christmas Eve. At this conference the name Methodist Episcopal Church in America was adopted; Francis Asbury was elected as superintendent and joined Thomas Coke, the superintendent sent from England by John Wesley (superintendents were later called bishops); and the first Book of Discipline was adopted.
The new Discipline stated that the new church would bring John Wesley’s goals for England to America— "to reform the continent and to spread scriptural holiness through these lands."
In the years that followed, the Methodist preachers were circuit riders, traveling miles upon miles to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ into every part of the United States. These circuits were modeled after the circuit system that John Wesley had devised; he traveled about five thousand miles a year on horseback, spreading his message of "scriptural holiness" throughout England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Francis Asbury brought the circuit system to the United States where it was especially well-suited to the American frontier. The Methodist preachers rode regularly on horseback to establish churches, to organize new congregations, and to preach at each place along the circuits. There is no doubt that the Methodist plan for circuit riders helped to establish the new Methodist Episcopal Church firmly in American soil. (Today the pioneer circuit rider in a circle that represents the world is a registered trademark associated with The United Methodist Publishing House.)
Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises
1. If you have a printed church history (or an oral one) and/or a church historian, spend some time learning what you can about the history and heritage of your own church. If you have come to The United Methodist Church by way of a different denomination or faith tradition, note what is distinctive about our Wesleyan heritage.
2. The General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church is in Madison, NJ on the campus of Drew University. The website has a font of information. Click around the site for more stories about our heritage. Look also at the many links to more specialized histories.
For Further Study and Reflection
1. The General Commission on Archives and History includes a link to historical sites and landmarks. (Search the site map if the link doesn’t work.) If there is a place related to historic Methodism (or one of the predecessor branches) near you, make arrangements for a trip, such as to the Lovely Lane Museum, Strawbridge Home or Old Otterbein Church, all in or around Baltimore, MD.
PARTNERS IN OTHER FAITH TRADITIONS
United Brethren in Christ Church
Before John Wesley had sent missionaries to America, the United Brethren in Christ Church had its beginnings in America. In 1752, Philip William Otterbein, who had been born in 1726 in the German town of Dillenberg, set sail for America with five other young German Reformed ministers. Otterbein had spent three years in Ockersdorf, where he had gained a reputation for vigorous, direct preaching, especially stressing regeneration (experiencing a new life in Christ).
Several years later, in 1758, Martin Boehm was chosen by lot to be a minister in his American Mennonite congregation. In 1761, he was advanced to the office of bishop. The Boehm revival began as a result of Boehm’s great preaching and testimony.
The meeting of Otterbein and Boehm in 1767 proved to be a decisive factor in the formation of the United Brethren in Christ Church. Otterbein attended a meeting at the farm of Isaac Long in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Martin Boehm’s preaching reminded Otterbein of his own spiritual experiences and struggles. After Boehm’s sermon, Otterbein went forward, embraced Boehm, and exclaimed, "Wir sind Brüder!" (We are brethren!).
Otterbein and Boehm became the first bishops of the United Brethren in Christ Church, which was formed in 1800 and was the first denomination originating in the United States.
Philip William Otterbein and Francis Asbury worked in close fellowship. In fact, Otterbein, at Asbury’s request, participated in the laying on of hands at Asbury’s ordination. However, there were two significant reasons that these men did not join their organizations in the early 1800s: (1) a difference in the concept of authority and (2) a difference in language. Asbury was aggressive in establishing orderly rules and regarded them as having weighty authority. Otterbein was also a man of order; however, he did not impose his authority in a weighty manner, either as pastor of his congregation or later as bishop of The United Brethren Church. And as related to language, Asbury and the Methodists spoke English, while Otterbein and the United Brethren spoke German.
The Evangelical Church
Jacob Albright, the founder of what later became The Evangelical Church, began his ministry by studying the Bible in German. When several of his children died in an epidemic of dysentery in 1790, Albright experienced a crisis in his faith. But in the summer of 1791, he received a conversion experience at a prayer meeting where he is quoted as saying, "All fear and anxiety of heart disappeared. Joy and blessed peace inbreathed my breast. God gave witness to my spirit that I had become a child of God."
Although Albright was Lutheran, he joined a Methodist class because he enjoyed the Methodist’s orderly approach to religion. However, since Albright spoke little English, he found it difficult to worship with the Methodists.
At the urging of his friends, Albright became an itinerant preacher. During his first four years, Albright gained converts in many places, cautioning people of faith to seek salvation through a genuine change of heart rather than through their church’s traditions, forms, and ceremonies.
In 1800, Albright gathered a number of converts and formed three classes after the manner of the Methodist classes. From this early beginning would later be formed the Evangelical Association. Following a division and then a reunion in 1922, the body later became The Evangelical Church.
Evangelical United Brethren
Otterbein’s and Boehm’s United Brethren in Christ Church and Albright’s Evangelical Church decided to unite as one body in 1946. The two groups joined to form The Evangelical United Brethren Church, known as the EUB Church. The EUB churches were primarily in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, and so forth).
The Methodist Episcopal Church
Meanwhile, during the years that led to the formation of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, The Methodist Episcopal Church had its own problems and divisions over such issues as church authority and slavery. The Methodist Protestant Church split off over the question of the role and authority of lay people in the church. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South split away over the issue of slavery.
The Methodist Church
The Methodist Church was formed in 1939 when The Methodist Episcopal Church, South; The Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Methodist Protestant Church became one in a historic Uniting Conference.
The Methodist Church from its beginning included African-Americans. The first Methodist societies—the one in New York established by Philip Embury and Barbara Heck and the one established by Robert Strawbridge inMaryland—had members who were African-American slaves. After 1786, when membership reports distinguished between white and black members, the numbers were often almost equal.
Although the 1800 Discipline did not record the action, ordination of African-American deacons was approved at the 1800 General Conference. The ordination of African-American elders was later approved in 1812. Perhaps the best known of the African-American preachers of the day was Harry Hosier. Hosier was once described by Thomas Coke as "one of the best preachers in the world."
Discrimination during the years of slavery and beyond led some African-American Methodists to form new Methodist churches of their own. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was founded by Richard Allen and Daniel Coker in 1816. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) started in New York and became official in 1822 when white elders who had withdrawn from the Methodist Episcopal Church ordained elders for the Zion Church. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) was established in 1870 by the General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The organizing delegates dropped the word South from the name that was originally intended for the church. Then in the mid-1950s the name was changed to The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
The United Methodist Church
On April 23, 1968, in Dallas, Texas, the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church united to create a new denomination—The United Methodist Church. On that day these two churches with similar backgrounds and theology—which had historically been separated largely by language differences—became one. Today United Methodist congregations are found not only in the United States but in many countries throughout the world.
The United Methodist Church is a church that celebrates its diversity. It is found in rural and urban areas. Our members include people from all ethnic groups. Though our congregations vary in size, location, and cultural background, they share a common heritage as United Methodists.
Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises
1. Note the different names of the leaders and founders of the Methodist movement (in bold). Search the internet for more information about each one.
2. Read through the Historical Statement at the beginning of the Book of Discipline.
For Further Study and Reflection
1. Print and copy (and enlarge, if necessary) the timeline of churches so that it is the size of a small poster. Place a sticky note over each label so that they can not be read. Use it as a puzzle with other education leaders and teacher or as a refresher for yourself.
2. Read or study together on our corporate history using one of the many Methodist studies. (Search Cokesbury.)
THE MINISTRY OF ALL CHRISTIANS
It is clear that all Christians are called by God, through their baptism, to be in ministry in the world. Therefore, the term minister is appropriately used to describe any Christian who responds to God’s call to reach out to the world and its people through loving acts of devotion and service. The ministers of the church are called to serve in a variety of ways.
As Laity—From its earliest days, Methodism has been a lay movement. The term laity comes from laos, which means "of the people." The laity are the whole people of God, who serve as ministers witnessing to the work of God in individual lives and in the world.
As Clergy—Within the body of all Christian ministry, some persons are called to fulfill a specific, "set apart" ministry through the church. Some pastoral leaders are ordained; some are lay. "Clergy in The United Methodist Church are individuals who serve as commissioned ministers, deacons, elders, and local pastors under appointment of a bishop (full- and part-time), who hold membership in an annual conference, and who are commissioned, ordained, or licensed" (Book of Discipline, 2004. ¶140).
Ordained Deacons—ministers called to focus on servanthood. A deacon models the relationship between worship in the community of faith and service to God in the world. Deacons serve in a variety of ministry settings both in the church and in the world.
Ordained Elders—ministers called to lead congregations of Christians in the celebration of the sacraments and to guide and care for the life of the community. Some elders may also serve in ministries beyond the local church.
Local Pastors—licensed ministers appointed to perform duties of a pastor in a specific charge or church.
The United Methodist Church operates under an episcopal system. Episcopal leaders, called bishops, are not a separate order of the church but are elected from among the ordained elders of the Church to provide oversight and supervision for the spiritual and temporal activities of the Church. Bishops are called to
- Provide spiritual leadership for laity and clergy
- Interpret the faith with a prophetic voice
- Teach and uphold the traditions of the Church
- Strengthen relationships with other faith communities
- Preside over the meetings of the conferences—annual, jurisdictional, central, and general
- Form the districts within an annual conference and appoint district superintendents
- Make appointments within annual conferences
- Consecrate bishops and ordain elders and deacons
- Commission probationary members of an annual conference, deaconesses, and missionaries.
The College of Bishops includes all the bishops of a specific jurisdiction or central conference. The Council of Bishops includes all the bishops, active and retired, of The United Methodist Church.
All United Methodist clergy are appointed to a place for ministry by a bishop. Elders, however, are appointed as part of a system known as itinerancy, which means that they commit to travel from parish to parish as the bishop directs.
Methodism began with a group of traveling preachers, who went from place to place preaching, baptizing, and presiding over church affairs. That heritage has continued in today’s itinerant system for the appointment of elders. Each year the bishop of an area "fixes the appointments" of the itinerant clergy in the episcopal area, as well as the appointments of the deacons and local pastors, who are non-itinerant clergy. In addition, the bishop may also appoint clergy to an "extension ministry," which is an appointment other than to a local church, such as elders and deacons who work in general agencies, as chaplains, seminary professors, conference staff, and so on.
Matching the gifts of an elder and the needs of the church or extension ministry is the most important consideration in the making of appointments. When needs change, the itinerant system provides for new appointments to be made smoothly.
Another important feature of the itinerant system is that it provides an opportunity for churches to experience a variety of leadership and ministry styles through the years, strengthening the skills of the laity whose strong leadership is essential to any ministry.
Through a commitment to open itinerancy, the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is apparent. Open itinerancy means that appointment decisions are related to gifts and needs, rather than to race, ethnic origin, gender, color, ability or disability, marital status, or age.
Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises
1. If you are baptized, you are in some sense a minister. Look again at the vows made in baptism (The United Methodist Hymnal, pages 33—39). Reflect on those vows and how you uphold them. How would you describe your ministry? yourself as a spiritual leader?
2. How does what you do link with the rest of the ministries of the church for a holistic approach to disciple making? What might you want to do that is new or different? When can you start?
For Further Study and Reflection
1. Look up the Episcopal address in the journal of the past two or three annual conferences. What is the leadership vision of your bishop and conference? How does the ministry of Christian education and formation fit in that vision?
2. Interview your lead minister and other members of the church staff. How do they work together, divide labor, and advance the ministry of your church? How do, or can, they support the ministry of Christian education and formation?
THE MISSION OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
Although making disciples was clearly defined as the mission of The United Methodist Church at the General Conference of 1996, making disciples has been the mission of the Christian faith community, and later church, since Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). Making disciples is a mission that reaches back into the beginnings of the church’s history and also continues to be the focus of the church’s ministry today. But what does it mean to make disciples of Jesus Christ and how does The United Methodist Church approach disciple making?
One Ministry; Four Movements
The Church acts as a partner to God in making disciples of Jesus Christ through four interrelated actions: receiving and welcoming people, relating them to God, nurturing them in discipleship, and sending them into ministry in the world. Then when disciples are in ministry in the world, the cycle begins again as they receive and welcome even more people.
Methodists in Mission
The United Methodist faith is deeply rooted in the Scripture and in the basic beliefs of all Christians. Out of that theology and the faith have grown some specific actions that mark United Methodists as Christians engaged in ministry to the world.
- Early Methodists took strong stands on issues such as slavery, smuggling, and humane treatment of prisoners.
- Methodists began to establish institutions for higher learning as early as the late 1700s.
- The United Brethren Church ordained women by 1889. Methodist women were granted full ordained clergy rights in 1956.
- Methodists in America started hospitals and shelters for children and the elderly as early as the 1800s; John Wesley and his British followers had set that precedent earlier.
- A Methodist minister founded Goodwill Industries in 1902.
- Methodists are actively involved in efforts for world peace.
- Methodists have a Social Creed and Social Principles to guide Christians as they relate to God’s world and God’s people.
The Social Creed
"A social creed was adopted by The Methodist Episcopal Church (North) in 1908. Within the next decade similar statements were adopted by The Methodist Episcopal Church, South and by The Methodist Protestant Church. The Evangelical United Brethren Church adopted a statement of social principles in 1946 at the time of the uniting of the United Brethren and The Evangelical Church. In 1972, four years after the uniting in 1968 of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church adopted a new statement of Social Principles, which was revised in 1976 (and by each successive General Conference)." (From Social Principles on the official website of The United Methodist Church.)
The 2008 General Conference will consider a new statement, which is an antiphonal reading with a musical response. Each approved, updated version replaces its predecessor in the Book of Discipline.
The Social Principles
In addition to "Our Social Creed," United Methodists seek to create a world of justice. The Social Principles (described in the Book of Discipline) are divided into six parts that explain how United Methodist Christians are called to live in God’s world.
- The Natural World
- The Nurturing Community
- The Social Community
- The Economic Community
- The Political Community
- The World Community
The Book of Resolutions
In addition to the standards found in Our Social Creed and in the Social Principles, the Book of Resolutions is published every four years. The book is a collection of the official policy statements adopted by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. The statements are guides for the work and ministry of the Church, including developing educational resources, relating faith to daily living, and making public the Church’s official stand on current social issues.
The statements in the Book of Resolutions are not legally binding on individual United Methodists, who may take a wide variety of stands on the issues. However, these official statements of the denomination are a resource for reference and study as church members seek to make faithful disciples related to the topics addressed by these resolutions.
Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises
1. Take another look at the actions that make up disciple making. How does your area of ministry help to accomplish that task? What do you do to ensure that your area of ministry meshes with other areas for a seamless, holistic approach to disciple making? If your ministry area is "siloed" or isolated from others, what might you do to be more integrated?
2. Read over the Social Creed and/or skim through the Social Principles. You probably won’t agree with every word. What challenges you? gladdens you? confuses you? agrees with your own sensibilities? If you have an alternate view, what is it, and what theology and experience support your view?
For Further Study and Reflection
1. Look for United Methodist studies through Cokesbury, particularly those geared to the Social Principles. Gather a group to study together.
2. Skim through the Book of Resolutions for a resolution that calls for action and that resonates with your teachers and small group leaders. Take it on together as an action/advocacy issue.
METHODISM AS A CONNECTIONAL CHURCH
The United Methodist Church is uniquely structured to carry out its mission of making disciples. All the local churches, the centers where the mission of making disciples is most likely to be fulfilled, are linked through an organization called the connectional system.
What Does Connectional Mean?
Connectional simply means that all United Methodist churches are linked to all other United Methodist churches by organization and by purpose as they go about the work of making disciples.
John Wesley listed Christian conferencing among the spiritual disciplines through which God’s grace may be made known to us. Within the structure of The United Methodist Church are groupings of people or churches called conferences: charge conferences, annual conferences, jurisdictional conferences, central conferences, and General Conference. At these conference meetings, United Methodists gather to discuss important issues for the church; that is, they join together in Christian conferencing to listen for God’s call and to discover God’s will for the Church. The Christmas Conference in 1784 was the first in the United States.
When you hear and see the word conference, remember that it refers to both the actual assembly of people and to the process of seeking God’s grace together. Note this diagram of the structure of The United Methodist Church—a structure that encourages Christian conferencing at every level.
The Local Church
Ministry begins at the local church level. Each congregation has an elected lay leader who works with other lay and clergy leaders to carry out the mission of the church. Each church or charge has an annual charge conference to elect leaders, set the pastor’s salary and the budget, and to present ministry plans. These churches and charges are part of a district.
Somewhat similar to the way cities and towns are organized into counties, groups of churches in a geographical area form a district. Often churches in a district will work together to provide training and mission opportunities. Each district has a district lay leader who supports and trains local church lay leaders. A district superintendent (DS) is a clergy person who is appointed to provide administrative and spiritual leadership for the churches in a district. The DS typically presides over charge conferences.
All of the districts in a particular geographical area make up an annual conference. The words annual conference can refer to either the geographical area that make up the conference or to the annual meeting of lay and clergy members of the annual conference.
Each local charge elects at least one lay member of the annual conference. The annual conference includes equal numbers of clergy and lay people. So, if a congregation is served by two clergy, then the congregation would also have two lay members of the annual conference.
A bishop presides over one annual conference (and sometimes two). The geographic conference(s) make up an episcopal area. The bishop in consultation with district superintendents and local churches appoints the clergy who will serve the local congregations within that annual conference.
Annual conferences support the work of the local church and help local churches to be in ministry in the larger community. Many annual conferences operate camps and sponsor other mission opportunities for churches in the conference.
Annual conferences in the United States are divided into five jurisdictions; South Central, Southeastern, North Central, Western, and Northeastern. Each jurisdiction has a jurisdictional conference every four years. There are equal numbers of lay and clergy persons who are elected by their annual conference to be delegates at the jurisdictional conference. One of the most important things done at the jurisdictional conferences is the election of bishops for that jurisdiction.
United Methodist annual conferences located outside of the United States are organized into central conferences. Central conferences are very similar to jurisdictional conferences. There are seven central conferences: Africa, Central and Southern Europe, Congo, Germany, Northern Europe, Philippines, and West Africa.
The General Conference
The General Conference is the only body that has authority to speak on behalf the entire United Methodist Church. The General Conference speaks for the Church as a body and speaks to the Church though the Book of Discipline. The General Conference meets every four years to consider the business and mission of the church. The General Conference is made up of an equal number of lay and clergy delegates, elected from the annual conferences.
The general agencies of The United Methodist Church include a variety of boards, councils, committees, and commissions that are created by and are responsible to the General Conference. These general agencies provide services and ministries beyond the local church, and they enable a common vision, mission, and ministry throughout the connectional system. These agencies are
- General Board of Global Ministries, including the Women’s Division and United Methodist Committee on Relief or UMCOR (office in New York City)
- General Board of Church and Society (Washington,DC)
- Discipleship Ministries, including The Upper Room (Nashville,TN)
- General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (Nashville,DC)
- General Board of Pension and Health Benefits (Evanston,IL)
- The United Methodist Publishing House, often referred to as Cokesbury (Nashville,TN)
- General Council on Finance and Administration (Nashville,TN)
- General Commission on Communication (United Methodist Communications, Nashville,TN)
- General Commission on Religion and Race (Washington,DC)
- General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (Washington,DC)
- General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (Chicago,IL)
- General Commission on United Methodist Men (Nashville,TN)
- General Commission on Archives and History (Madison,NJ)
The Book of Discipline
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church contains the rules that govern the operation of the denomination. The book also includes the history of the church, and perhaps most important, the Discipline outlines the doctrines and theology of the Church.
The Book of Discipline is revised every four years at the meeting of the General Conference. Petitions from individual church members; local churches; and general agencies, boards, commissions, and councils are reviewed and voted on to determine what changes will be made and what new things will be added to become part of the official Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. If there are disputes regarding a conference’s or bishop’s interpretation of church law contained in the Discipline, the dispute is sent to the Judicial Council for adjudication.
Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises
1. Do some web research by going to www.umc.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church. At the bottom of the home page, click on "site map" and navigate your way to various pages that link to the boards and agencies, history, structure, and much more.
2. Talk to your church’s member to annual conference to get a better idea of what happens there and how the annual conference provides and supports ministry in your area.
For Further Study and Reflection
1. Consider being a partner in the Christian education ministry in a Central Conference, either through direct work or Advance Special giving.
2. Invite your teachers and small group leaders to try this Matching Game, and use it as an introduction to conversation and planning around how your church is organized to provide its ministry of disciple making.