New UMC: Movement Networking

In the previous post in this series I wrote that a movement mindset in the new UMC will produce a renewed commitment to locality. In the Wesleyan tradition this intention is not toward independence, but remains in the context of a network called connectionalism. From the outset, the Wesleys used language that kept the movement communal…

“The United Societies”
“The General Rules”
“The people called Methodist”
“The Methodist Connection”

There are at least two ways that the Wesleys understood connectionalism. The founding documents of Methodism reveal this. [1]

The first expression of networking was structural. The Annual Conference (the first one was in 1743) became the means for facilitating cooperation and coordination for the movement. [2] Each year, delegates gathered to practice the means of grace called holy conferencing, exploring three primary matters: what to teach, how to teach, and what to do. Responses were compiled into Minutes which guided the movement as-a-whole for the next twelve months. In many ways, the Minutes described the vocation of Methodism and were the essence of “the Connection.” [3] The Minutes kept Methodism updated and responsive, as well as grounded.

Structural connectionalism gave the Methodist movement its soul, its essence, its values. Beginning with foundational documents (reminiscent of Third Orders)–“The Character of a Methodist” and “The General Rules”–and annual holy conferencing, structural connectionalism provided the core values of Methodism and kept it current and responsive. Structural connectionalism helped prevent independence, subjectivism, and rogue leadership. The future UMC will continue to need this, but the makeup of it must be simpler, and more will likely be via technology than bricks-and-mortor.

The second expression of networking was missional. Methodism’s commitment to locality (noted in the last post) connected it to people in specific places and situations. This factor alone distinguished Methodism from other conventional religion of the day. Absentee clergy and a “come to” mentality distanced much of the Church from the people they were called to serve. By contrast, early Methodism connected with the people, offering them Christ in pluriform ways. In our time Chuck Collins sees connectionalism as “being in authentic relationships where you show up with your vulnerability.” [4] I think the Wesleys saw missional connection that way. The early Methodists showed up. We must too. [5]

Just as structural connectionalism in the future UMC will be more technological, so too will missional connectionalism. The cyber, digital world is redefining both stucture and locality. The pandemic has accelerated a new paradigm, and the new UMC must not go back to “business as usual.” Connectionalism and having the world as our parish calls for new visions, intentions, and means. [6] Recovering a third-order movement mindset gives us the language to do this.

This commitment to connectionalism further reflects the Third Order nature of Methodism. The Wesleys third-order leadership had the same instinct (structurally and missionally), and produced a formative bond for all the local manifestations of Methodism. The new UMC must remain connectional in this dynamic way—the way that integrates locality and linkage. This too is in our DNA, not only in our Methodist heritage but in Christianity as well.

But make no mistake, this is a counter-cultural decision that flies in the face of congregationalism. We live in a time when the cultural spirit of autonomy and independence has infected the Church. The disease has spread to concerning proportions which create formidable challenges, “the decline of denominational loyalty and the rise of ‘pastor warlords’ who run their churches with little or no accountability.” [7] The new UMC must eschew policies and practices which reflect this.

Instead, we must work for a future UMC that exists by way of life together. If the Wesleys could conjoin locality and structure (the local church and the world parish) in their connectionalism, so can we. So must we.

[1] As a third-order movement, early Methodism had a Constitution and Rule. “The Character of a Methodist” established the principles of Methodists. “The General Rules” enjoined the practices. Methodist community was marked and directed with connectionalism in view.

[2] Henry D. Rack, ed., “The Methodist Societies, The Minutes of Conference,” The Works of John Wesley(Bi-Centennial Edition), Volume 10 (Abingdon Press, 2011).

[3] Paul Chilcote’s book, ‘Wesley Speaks on ChrIstian Vocation’ takes the three questions and shows how they can advance the sense of vocation in our day.

[4] Chuck Collins is co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good. This quote came in The Daily Good eletter, 4/26/22.

[5] Here is a good place to remind ourselves that we have existing structural components where we “show up.” UMCOR is an example. As the institutional nature of the new UMC is discerned, these must be sustained and other structures will need an increase of go-to mentality. Structure for mission will increasingly characterize the new UMC

[6] The Fresh Expressions ministry offers wisdom and guidance for this. Path 1 at the GBOD has a Wesleyan component overseen by Michael Beck. The new UMC will take shape from this.

[7] Russell Smietana, “The Vineyard was built on friendship and shared values. Then a leading pastor split” Religion News Service, April 21, 2022. His article exposes the dangers of excessive individualism and independence in North American Christianity. We have gone too far in these things in some United Methodist congregations.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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