One for All: A General Discipline in the Making

 Rena Yocom, Great Plains Annual Conference

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When I was young and our extended family would gather for dinners, I had to sit at the “kids table.” Granted, there were distinct advantages in sitting at the “kids” table: we filled our plates first and could play as soon as we finished. Even though the multiple tables were a pragmatic solution based on numbers and room size, I still wished that everyone could sit at the same table.

Our current Book of Discipline has been shaped by many General Conferences. Yet, upon close examination, one sees how much of it is influenced by U.S. law and culture. With the realization that many of the rules were not applicable everywhere in the world, latitude was granted to Central Conferences to adapt the rules for their particular context.

However, if we understand ourselves to be one worldwide denomination, this arrangement seems inadequate. United Methodists around the world began asking questions:

  • What unites us as The United Methodist Church?
  • Have United Methodists in countries outside the U.S. joined an “‘American church”‘ as some governments want to insist?
  • What is true, or ought to be true, of United Methodists, regardless of country or context?
  • Is the description of the local church, its officers, and property holdings applicable only in the U.S.?
  • Does any conference have the right to refuse ordination to women because of a cultural bias?
  • Is it permissible for a conference to continue ordaining “deacons” as a part of a two-step ordination process, even though the General Conference officially voted the permanent order of deacons in 1996 (nearly twenty years ago)?
  • Should there be one method of electing and appointing bishops to an area?
  • Is it possible that all United Methodists could sit at the same table, that is, be guided by one Book of Discipline? If so, what would be included?

Setting the Stage

The basis for and the beginning chapters of a Global Discipline (or General Discipline) were established at the 2012 General Conference. These are found in the current Book of Discipline, ¶101:

The Book of Discipline reflects our Wesleyan way of serving Christ through doctrine and discipline Christian life. We are a worldwide denomination united by doctrine, discipline and mission. . . . The following parts and paragraphs are not subject to change or adaptation except by action of the General Conference . . .

Parts I, III–V

I. Constitution ¶¶1–61
III. Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task ¶¶102–105
IV. The Ministry of All Christians ¶¶120–143
V. Social Principles Preface, Preamble, and ¶¶160–166

The mandate for further recommendation is found in the same paragraph of the Discipline:

The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, in consultation with the Committee on Faith and Order, will bring recommendations to the 2016 General Conference as to which parts and paragraphs in Part VI of the Book of Discipline are not subject to change or adaptation. (emphasis added)

Labors of Preparation

When the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters began its work, it realized it was not possible to choose particular paragraphs to include or exclude. Rather, the need is for a Discipline that holds only the essential elements are important regardless of the cultural context. Disciplinary requirements that are based on the laws of one country should be in a separate volume.

Giving Birth to a New Era through a New Paradigm

As United Methodists, we love to hear and tell stories of our global connection. Yet too frequently in the United States, we image our worldwide nature as “the church, here” and “our mission, there.” That is an inadequate framework for the future.

Developing a General Book of Discipline (the Standing Committee’s proposed title) is a true paradigm shift that will be difficult to grasp, especially for delegates from the United States.

Current Paradigm

The Book of Discipline is described as church law for everyone. With passion, and sometimes political strategy, delegates hammer out nuances of the American-English jargon to settle disputes and prescribe rules and behaviors for church. Yet, even as they do so, many realize these actions are meant for American Methodism and may be irrelevant for United Methodists in Africa, Europe, or Philippines.

New Paradigm

The premise of a General Discipline (as found in ¶101) indicates that the Book of Discipline would be the Discipline for all parts of the worldwide church, not subject to adaptation or change except by action of the General Conference.

New Birth Brings Joy—and New Issues

If all material relating only to the United States is removed from the Book of Discipline, it would delete paragraphs that are very important to church life in America. How could they be preserved? This material could be a book of its own, or a second section in the General Discipline (UM law/policy for the U.S.). Who would have the authority to adopt it?

Outside the U.S., the Central Conference would have the authority. The U.S. has five jurisdictions but no Central Conference. If items are to be “church law” for the whole of this country, then jurisdictional approval is not sufficient. Should the U.S. become a Central or Regional Conference? If so, would it replace the jurisdictions? These are weighty questions.

In a lighthearted moment in the work of the combined meetings, Bishop David Yemba, presiding bishop in Central Congo and chair of Faith and Order, said, “Well, we currently have a Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, maybe we need a Standing Committee on U.S. Matters.”

Continuing Labors

The Faith and Order Committee was included in the conversation on the General Book of Discipline (see ¶101) because some insightful delegates in 2012 understood the importance of asking the theological questions that undergird our actions.[1] What is our United Methodist ecclesiology—our understanding of the nature and purpose of the church? How do we equip the church to be faithful in multiple settings?

The idea of a General Discipline calls us to a new understanding, which is beautifully articulated in our covenant “We enter afresh into a relationship of mutuality, creating a new sense of community and joyously living out our worldwide connection in mission for the transformation of the world” (¶125).

Delegates at the 2016 General Conference will have for consideration the recommended drafts for part 6:

  • Chapter 1. Local Church
  • Chapter 2. Ministry of the Ordained
  • Chapter 3. Superintendency
  • Chapter 4. Conferences
  • Chapter 6. Church Property

An accompanying petition will affirm the direction of this proposed legislation, and, because this is radically new, allow for consultation within annual conferences and then enactment of the legislation in 2020.

In keeping with our denominational language, there is a separate petition to refer to this volume as the “General Discipline,” the term used throughout this article. This change is to clarify and underscore that this Discipline is for the whole church.

Another petition amends ¶101, asking for completion of the work on “Part VI, Organization and Administration,” during the 2017–2020 quadrennium, including chapter 5, “Administrative Order” and chapter 7, “Judicial Administration.” These chapters will examine the role of and purpose for our general church agencies and the Judicial Council from a theological and worldwide perspective.



[1] Rena Yocom was elected a member of the Faith and Order Committee in 2008. She continues as the coordinator for the committee. Her views on the worldwide nature of The United Methodist Church were shaped as missiologist at Saint Paul School of Theology and as an executive with the general boards of Global Ministries and of Higher Education and Ministry.

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