By Chappell Temple
“Part Eight – Connectional Organization” is not exactly the most scintillating, cannot-put-it-down, section of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline.” For when folks get excited about their church it is not usually because of the compellingly great connectional organization that it has. On the other hand, Methodists have long excelled at “organizing to beat the devil,” as Charles Ferguson once so handily called our efforts, and it is part and parcel of the Methodist DNA to think about how to do ministry better by doing it not just methodically but together.
The formation of class-bands, for instance, was what distinguished John Wesley’s work from that of a man who was arguably his better when it came to preaching, George Whitefield. For at the end of a ministry which touched hundreds of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic, Whitefield is reported to have said, “My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.”
Similarly, the formation of the conference system (see Tom Lambrecht’s excellent article) pulled individual traveling preachers together into a cohesive cadre that could carry out the original mission of Methodism, to spread scriptural holiness across the land. And in a similar way, the WCA’s proposed connectional structure for a new Methodist movement is being designed to serve as an efficient and effective instrument of laity, clergy, and congregations who see the value in changing the world for Christ collectively.
The structures are envisioned as new wineskins to hold the fresh wine that our life together would hopefully produce, without becoming extraneous baggage that is a burden and not a blessing to local churches. Amenable to the General Conference, the structures would serve the church by resourcing its members and various constituencies, and by putting into action the values and goals of the greater community in Christ to make a stronger impact for our mission to all.
In this respect, even Part Eight’s use of the term “commission” (from the Latin commissionem) in contrast to speaking of “boards” or “agencies,” is a deliberate choice and reminder that such groups come together (com) only in order to better “send abroad” (mittere) the gospel to others. Similarly, the term is meant to be a reminder of the Great Commission verses in the gospel, specifically John 20.21-23, Matthew 28.18-20, and Acts 1.8, suggesting that even how we are collectively organized ought to bear witness to our faith as well.
In a new Methodist expression, five such program commissions are envisioned to carry out and empower the work of the church at all of its levels, along with a Connectional Council which would be charged with providing governance in accordance with the Book of Doctrines and Discipline in between sessions of the General Conference. That council would also select and give oversight to a new position within the denomination, a Connectional Operating Officer (COO). As the chief administrative officer of the general church, the creation of that role would allow bishops to give their primary attention to the spiritual leadership of their annual conferences. The COO may either be a clergy or lay person and would coordinate and assign the work of a small general church staff that would serve to resource all of the program commissions as needed without being siloed into a singular commission or focus.
The oversight of each program commission would be provided by a lean board of fifteen to thirty-five lay and clergy members elected by the General Conference, along with one bishop selected by the Council of Bishops. Unlike in our current arrangement, however, bishops would not serve as leaders of any commission, deferring to the chair elected by the General Conference from names nominated by annual conferences. The program commissions are not envisioned as separate entities with staff and bureaucracy to institutionalize their work. Rather, the program commissions will be supported by staff retained by the Connectional Council and deployed in the most efficient manner to support the work of the general church.
So what would be the focus of the five new commissions? The Commission on Evangelism, Mission, and Church Planting would work to train and equip both individuals and congregations in how to lead others to know Christ. In the area of missions, the group would foster cross-cultural and international partnerships between local churches, districts, and annual conferences with counterparts across the church, including the sending and support of missionaries working globally to spread the gospel through both proclamation and acts of compassion and healing. And significantly, the formation of new faith communities would be a priority in the coming denomination, requiring this commission to provide resources and training for those who can plant churches in a variety of settings.
The Commission on Discipleship, Doctrine, and Just Ministry would focus on fostering spiritual growth and accountability for both lay and clergy through small groups and other resources. The Commission would be tasked as well with promoting and explaining the importance of doctrine in the life of the church, contending “for the faith once delivered that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1.3). That would include giving expression to our social witness to the world, in particular our commitment to “do justice” in matters such as racial and gender equality, as well as ending any and all non-biblical discriminatory practices within our church.
Establishing criteria for ministry credentials and helping to unite “knowledge and vital piety” (in Wesley’s words) in our colleges, universities, and seminaries would be the responsibility of The Commission on Higher Education and Ministry. New educational standards and a streamlined process for those entering ministry would mark the new denomination and this commission would be key to helping implement what those changes entail.
To help interpret all of this The Commission on Communications would develop strategies for the global church as well as create both print and digital resources as needed. And finally, The Commission on Finance, Administration, Pension and Benefits would function as the fiduciary and administrative arm of the new denomination, administering the programs that would serve those who manage the financial resources of the greater church.
It is the WCA’s hope and dream that in the new expression of Methodism these commissions would never become an end unto themselves but would be faithful facilitators and stewards of the greater mission and vision of the church. Or, in short, the WCA envisions a new church that would not just re-constitute the same old boards and agencies, but be new wineskins for the fresh wine of forgiveness and grace that the world needs.
The Rev. Dr. Chappell Temple is the lead pastor at Christ United Methodist in Sugar Land, Texas. He has also served as an adjunct faculty member for Perkins School of Theology. To read other essays by Temple visit his website chappelltemple.