With General Conference now delayed to 2022, the Connectional Table hopes to bring more people into conversations that could help the denomination move forward.
The Connectional Table wants more United Methodists to have a place at the table.
On April 22, the denomination-wide leadership body unanimously approved a proposal to use the next year to host conversations around the globe about the future United Methodist Church.
“Is this an opportunity to see what is emerging, to see what new thing God might be doing?” asked the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai in introducing the proposal at the Connectional Table’s virtual meeting. She is the group’s chief connectional ministries officer.
The Connectional Table acts as a sort of international church council, coordinating mission and ministry across agencies and other church entities. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, also instructs the group to do its work by “listening to the expression of needs” and “addressing emerging issues.”
Bigham-Tsai acknowledged that The United Methodist Church is now facing a number of emerging issues that don’t lend themselves to the usual fixes.
“Is this an opportunity to see what is emerging, to see what new thing God might be doing?” ~ Kennetha Bigham-Tsai
After decades of conflict over the status of LGBTQ people, The United Methodist Church now faces multiple proposals to break up along theological lines, and plans already are underway for breakaway denominations.
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, has final say about whether any separation plan is adopted. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the global gathering to be postponed twice, with it now is scheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022 in Minneapolis.
During the delay, the Connectional Table plans to set up conversations where United Methodists from varied walks of life can meet to discuss the denomination’s identity, vision, connectionalism, and mission. The hope is to include people not usually heard at General Conference or big denominational gatherings.
The Connectional Table plans for these conversations to take place regionally across the four continents where the denomination is present with United Methodists who live in those regions. For example, participants in the Philippines would have conversations pertinent to the Philippines context.
The challenges the denomination faces require learning, not the leveraging of authority, Bigham-Tsai said.
“In other words, if we knew the answers, we would have deployed them by now,” she added.
“We have a window now until the postponed General Conference, and I think it is a very good way to make constructive use of that time.” ~ Bishop Christian Alsted
Judi Kenaston, a Connectional Table member from West Virginia, told fellow members that the goal is for the conversations to enfranchise both General Conference delegates and other church members.
“What we are not planning to do at all is to try to write a vision plan on our own or try to write a strategic plan for the denomination,” Kenaston said. “We don’t want to focus this on developing new legislation, and we don’t want this to be a U.S.-centric conversation.”
The proposal expands on the visioning work already done by Out of Chaos… Creation, an informal group of General Conference delegates from the U.S., Europe, the Philippines, and Africa. Bigham-Tsai, who is also a General Conference delegate from Michigan, is part of the Out of Chaos group.
In February, the group released a vision map titled “Out of Chaos, Creation: Imagining a Better Way of Being United Methodists.” The document, written with international feedback, calls on the denomination to be anti-racist and more global by decolonizing the denomination’s missional relationships and rejecting U.S.-centrism.
But now Bigham-Tsai sees more time for other United Methodists to join in the conversation about vision. Out of Chaos participants joined the Connectional Table members at the April 22 meeting to discuss the proposal. The Out of Chaos group has suggested “Table Manners” that the Connectional Table’s executive committee suggested might be helpful in conversations.
Among these guidelines is the statement that: “At the Lord’s table we meet eye-to-eye. Gathering at the table, we focus on what unites us across all borders: God’s infinite love and grace, revealed in Jesus Christ.”
The Connectional Table and the Out of Chaos group both support legislation to create more regionalized governance in the church — such as the Christmas Covenant and the Connectional Table’s own proposal to make the U.S. a regional conference. One question the Connectional Table hopes the conversations will take up is how to remain connected in mission while more local in church governance.
“We don’t want to focus this on developing new legislation, and we don’t want this to be a U.S.-centric conversation.” ~ Judi Kenaston
However, the aim is to be more expansive than any slate of legislation.
Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted, Connectional Table chair, said at the meeting’s conclusion that he thinks the conversations the Connectional Table is planning will help the denomination move forward.
“I think this is an important conversation that we will start around the church that I think will help us as we move forward. We have a window now until the postponed General Conference, and I think it is a very good way to make constructive use of that time.”
Bigham-Tsai said in a statement that she is praying that United Methodists around the connection “will join us around this table.”
“It is vitally important that we begin to clarify who we are and envision the future of our church together,” she said.