The Methodist Structural Method

This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, August 16, 2015.

Reading: Matthew 28:18-20

 

It has been jokingly said that we Methodists are people of two books: the Bible and the Discipline.  Last week we took a brief look at the Bible.  This week we move to our Book of Discipline: the book which guides us on how to live as a people connected across all borders to be in ministry with one another.  The Discipline is the book that tells us how we, as a globally connected communion, are to continue  Christ’s ministry of outreaching love to the world.  So this morning we’re going to look at the distinctive method we Methodists use to be in ministry with one another to all the world.

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Let’s pray.

Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.

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In December of 1784, at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, Maryland, Methodist preachers from across the American colonies gathered to form the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The “Christmas Conference,” as it has come to be known, organized a largely lay led movement into a church with ordained clergy and two bishops: Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke.

“In the years following the Christmas Conference, the Methodist Episcopal Church published its first Discipline (1785), adopted a quadrennial General Conference, the first of which was held in 1792, drafted a constitution in 1808, refined its structure, established a publishing house, and became an ardent proponent of revivalism and the camp meeting.”[1]

Methodism in America grew quickly.  According to U.S. census records, there were 57,858 Methodists in 1790.  In just 20 years, the movement more than tripled; and, by 1850, just 66 years after the creation of the Methodist Episcopal Church (which by this time had fractured a bit), Methodists (including the denominations that would eventually make us the EUB and the UMC) numbered over 1.2 million members.[2]  That number is incredible on its own, but when you add to it the fact that “historians conventionally multiply Methodist membership figures by between three and five to estimate adherents”[3] the work of God among the people called Methodist is even more miraculous.  To put that number in perspective: that would mean that in 1850 approximately 1 in 4 Americans would have been associated, however loosely, with the Methodist Church in America.

We humbly believe [note Bishops Coke and Asbury in the 1798 Discipline] God’s design in raising up the preachers called Methodists, in America, was to reform the continent, and spread scripture-based holiness over these lands.  As a proof hereof, we have seen, since that time, a great and glorious work of God, from New-York through the Jersies, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia; as also, of late, to the extremities of the western and eastern states. [4]

And, I believe, that “great and glorious work” continues.  Today, the United Methodist Church is a global community of faith that boasts some 12.8 million members in 125 different countries.  (NOTE: according to the World Methodist Council website there are 80 “Methodist, Wesleyan and related Uniting and United” denominations representing over 80.5 million people in 133 countries[5]We are a global, Christian community called through our baptism to a ministry of servanthood in the world to the glory of God and for human fulfillment.  To this end we, as the people of the United Methodist Church work together to engage in ministry with the poor, seek to improve global health, develop principled Christian leaders, and are creating new and renewed congregations.[6]  And, we do it all together.

United Methodists throughout the world are bound together in a connectional covenant in which we support and hold each other accountable for faithful discipleship and mission… We are connected by sharing a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules; by sharing together a constitutional polity, including a leadership of general superintendency; by sharing a common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship; by sharing a common ethos that characterizes our distinctive way of doing things.[7]

After all, we aren’t called Methodists for nothing.  There is a distinctive “method” to the way we live Church together; and, that method is defined and described in the Book of Discipline which “is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together.”[8]

I hope over the last few weeks that I have made it abundantly clear that the uniqueness of Methodism is not its beliefs: Methodists uphold the most basic of Christian teachings.  What makes Methodists unique is not our doctrine, rather it’s our structure.  Our structure—the way in which we organize ourselves for mission and ministry—is uniquely defined by a called and sent clergy and system of complete supervision and oversight.  Let me explain…

A called and sent clergy.

It is a story every United Methodist clergy person has: it’s a story about how God has directed them—sometimes gently, other times with a forceful push—to become stewards of the Church.  God called when I was a junior in High School through the voice of two women who had sat behind me all my life in church.  They asked me if I’d ever considered a call to ministry.  Their question spawned several weeks of prayerful discernment when finally my prayers were answered in the form of a letter by Idella Davis.  It was a simple letter that transformed my life as God began to lead me into ordained ministry within The United Methodist Church.

Ordained ministers are called by God to a lifetime of servant leadership in specialized ministries among the people of God.  Ordained ministers are called to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world and the promise of God for creation.[9]

There are three types of clergy within the United Methodist Church: deacons, local pastors, and elders.

Deacons are called by God, ordained by the Church, and sent to serve in specific ministry settings.  “The work of deacons is a work of justice, serving with compassion as they seek to serve those on the margins of society.  In the congregation, the ministry of the deacon is to teach and to form disciples, and to lead worship together with other ordained and laypersons.”[10]  They use their gifts in specific ministries within the church, higher education, non-profits, and other organizations which provide a positive witness in the world.

Local pastors are called by God and licensed (note: not, at this time, ordained) to serve within a local context.  They are called to proclaim “the Word” and lead a local community in worship, order the life of the congregation, and serve the sacraments in that community’s context.  Local pastors can be full- or part-time and often hold more than one profession.  Like Paul, who made tents to support himself, local pastors often work outside the church to support themselves while living out their call to ministry within a local community of faith.  Local pastors have been the backbone of the Methodist movement since the very beginning, in fact, the first organized Methodist societies in the American colonies were started not by ordained clergy (they would come later) but by active and passionate lay persons.  I served as a full-time local pastor for two years before being commissioned as an elder in 2010.  I was ordained an elder on June 8th, 2013 (my fifth wedding anniversary).

Elders are called by God and ordained by the Church to preach the Word, order the life of the Church (locally and globally), and administer the sacraments.  Elders serve in local contexts as pastors of churches, they can serve regionally as a District Superintendent, and jurisdictionally (a bigger region) as a general superintendent (most commonly referred to as bishop).  The unique function of elders is that they are called to live their ordination vows in the context of the global Church.  That calling is lived out through an itinerant ministry where elders are appointed, sent to serve in specific settings based upon their spiritual gifts and the needs of the church and local context.  This traveling ministry has been the hallmark symbol of Methodism for centuries.  This system of sending elders where the Church needs them is, I think, one of the things that makes us strong as a Church.  It insures that gifts and leadership are not hoarded, but shared among a connectional body so that the whole is made strong and effective.

The clergy of the United Methodist Church are sent in such a way that there is universal supervision.

Universal supervision.

The easiest way to understand this is to think of the church in concentric circles—a growing number of circles that each covers a larger area.  The point at which the entire church is centered is the local church which is “the most significant area through which disciple-making occurs.”  The local church or grouping of churches is called a charge.  Each charge is overseen by either an elder or a local pastor and gathers for an annual charge conference which sets clergy compensation and the ministry objectives for the coming year.  Every charge is part of a district, the next largest circle.  The district is directed by an elder known as the District Superintendent.  The DS is the regional missional specialist for a given area.  Our district covers Eastern Connecticut and Western Massachusetts and is comprised of 67 churches and our DS is Rev. David Calhoun.  Districts are part of Annual Conferences—a larger regional body directed by a general superintendent.  Our Annual Conference, the New England Annual Conference, is comprised of nine districts, 629 churches in six states (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the eastern half of Connecticut).  Our general superintendent, or bishop, is Rev. Sudarshana Devadhar.  The Annual Conference meets annual to review and deploy the church the region.  Our Annual Conference is part of the North Eastern Jurisdiction which meets quadrennially, every four years.  And, the final, largest circle is the General Conference which is a gathering of United Methodists from around the world.  The General Conference meets every four years and to review the mission and ministry of the entire church.  It is the body which writes our Discipline and is the only entity within the Church which can speak on behalf of the entire Church.

 

This system of complete supervision insures (at least in theory) that everyone and everything is carefully accounted for.

All officers of the Church must give account to someone over them.  Every pastor and district superintendent reports to the Annual Conference, and the bishops and other general officers, to the General Conference.

Careful supervision promotes efficiency.  The weakest member is carefully protected in his or her rights, and the needs of all receive consideration.  Every dollar is accounted for, and any success or failure is soon noticed.  This system has helped make Methodism a great success.

The called and sent clergy and our system of complete supervision at all levels of the Church are, I believe, our distinctive methods of being in ministry.  This means of organizing for ministry and mission has been a catalyst for vast social change and continues to empower the people called Methodists to live into Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations,” baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded.  It has inspired people of all nations, races, and stations to give their lives in service to God and neighbor: to boldly proclaim “Here I Am, Lord” send me; and, the world is better for it.

 


 

[1] The United Methodist Book of Discipline—2012 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), p13

[2] “United Methodist Lay Membership and United States Population (from U.S. Census), 1790-1990” in Methodism: Empire of the Spirit by David Hempton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p212.

[3] Hempton, Empire of the Spirit, p1-2.

[4] From The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in America. With Explanatory Notes, by Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, Tenth Edition (Philadephila: Henry Tuckniss, 1798), p.iii-iv.

[5] “Member Churches: Our Wrodl Wide Church Family,” WorldMethodistCouncil.org < http://worldmethodistcouncil.org/about/member-churches/> Accessed August 15, 2015.

[6] see “What are the Four Areas of Ministry Focus?” at http://www.umc.org/how-we-serve/four-areas-of-focus-overview for more detailed information.

[7] Book of Discipline—2012, p 93 (125) and p96 (132).

[8] Book of Discipline—2012, p v.

[9] Book of Discipline—2012, para. 139 (p98)

[10] Book of Discipline—2012, para 329 (p247).