Clear "yes" to the "regionalization" of The United Methodist Church

Methodist church regions within and outside the USA will receive the same rights. A corresponding fundamental amendment to the "Book of Discipline" was clearly adopted at the General Conference meeting in Charlotte (USA).

In a first major vote, General Conference, the highest governing body of the worldwide United Methodist Church, clearly approved "regionalization" on April 25, 2024. This is an important first step on the way to a fundamental reorganization of cooperation in the UMC. The approval of the Annual Conferences is still required for the amendment to the "Book of Discipline" to come into force.

Clear majority

The outgoing President of the Council of Bishops, Thomas J. Bickerton, spoke after the vote of a "historic day for our Church". The two-thirds majority required to amend the "Book of Discipline" was clearly achieved. 586 delegates voted in favor of the amendment, 164 voted against. The new regulation was therefore accepted with 78% of the votes.
It is unusual that the vote on this issue was submitted to the plenary session of General Conference for a decision in the first week. Until now, important proposals have generally only been dealt with in the second week of the conference.

Less US-centric

In the debate within the worldwide UMC, the keyword "regionalization" has become a shorthand for a proposal whose adoption will fundamentally reorganize the worldwide structure of the Church. The central conferences - church regions in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines - and the UMC in the USA are thus given the same authority to adapt the "Book of Discipline". In addition, the UMC in the USA will now have its own regional conference to deal with issues that only affect the USA. Until now, such decisions, for example on pensions and benefits for UMC employees in the USA, have been made by General Conference.
The adaptations that regional conferences can make to the "Book of Discipline" should make it possible to take into account the national laws of the countries and regions in which the UMC is active. However, they may not deviate from the Articles of Faith and the Confession of Faith of the UMC.

Diverse preparatory work

The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters - a standing committee of the General Conference, the majority of whose members come from the central conferences - had submitted the eight petitions on the proposal for worldwide regionalization. 
Christine Schneider (Switzerland), a lay member of the committee, represented, along with other members, the constitutional amendment at General Conference. "I stand before them this morning full of hope and also excitement," she said before the vote. Among other things, she outlined once again how the present motion had emerged from the preparation and cooperation of various groups. "This is the result of outstanding collaboration between people from all walks of life and from all parts of our connection," said Schneider.
Pastor Emmanuel Sinzohagera from Burundi said after the approval that the vote was a joyful moment that gave the church "a new kind of energy". "This is a good start. A new, fresh start. The new version is dynamic, it is a process." There are still many questions to be clarified. "Let's keep going. There is room for improvement," said Sinzohagera.

Not all elected delegates present

Judi Kenaston from the USA has accompanied the regionalization efforts since 2017. At a press conference after the vote, she referred to voices of concern about the large number of African delegates who were unable to obtain visas to attend General Conference. By the opening day of this gathering on April 23, only 751 of 862 elected delegates had arrived - the majority of those absent were from the African continent.
"One of the fears was that the absence of these delegates would affect General Conference," Kenaston said at the press conference. "But the total number of votes we had was greater than the number we would have needed had they all been present. The affirmative votes would have been valid even if the absentees had all voted against."

Questions remain

Critical voices complained above all that the restructuring within the USA could lead to further cementing discriminatory tendencies anchored in the church structure. An "inherently racist system" would be maintained in this way, said Odell Horne, a delegate from North Georgia.
James Labala from Liberia also voted against regionalization as presented. "If America can be a single region, why not Africa?" he asked. In his opinion, regionalization would weaken Africa's influence in the global UMC, although the church on the African continent continues to grow strongly.

Becoming capable of action

The new President of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, chaired the meeting at which the regionalization petitions were discussed. At the press conference after the vote, she said: "We are a wonderful, diverse, international global Church, and the regionalization plan reflects that." It decentralizes the church and dismantles colonialism. At the same time, it gives the individual church regions "a sense of agency, a sense of autonomy, while we still remain missionally connected, still as one body - people who call themselves Methodists."
In order to be ratified, a two-thirds majority of those eligible to vote at the Annual Conferences is now required following the approval of General Conference. These will vote on the amendment at their upcoming meetings. 
Author: Sigmar Friedrich (Sources: Heather Hahn, Eveline Chikwanah and Sam Hodges, UM News)
Picture: Christine Schneider (UMC Switzerland) speaks on the issue of regionalization. Bishop Harald Rückert from Germany can be seen in the background. (Photo: Mike DuBose, UM News)


The amendment proposes that the UMC in the USA and the central conferences each form "regional conferences". All regional conferences are to be given the following powers, some of which central conferences already had:
- They may establish and publish a regional "Book of Discipline" with laws and regulations on church structures within their boundaries, including qualifications and training requirements for clergy members.
- They can set requirements for character and other qualifications for the admission of lay members.
- They can introduce and publish a regional hymnal and church liturgies. The liturgies must be in accordance with the core teachings of the worldwide UMC and compatible with local laws.
- The Annual Conferences shall have the opportunity to create structures appropriate to their mission, while maintaining the structures established by General Conference.
- The Regional Conferences shall also recognize the Annual Conferences as the basic bodies of the Church, especially in all matters pertaining to the character and conference relations of its ordained persons.
- The adaptations to be made by the regional conferences shall be in accordance with the national laws and shall not deviate from the Articles of Faith and the Confession of Faith, which contain the essential elements of faith in the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.