A United Methodist ... is connected
It was John Wesley himself, the founder of the Methodist movement, who first organized his followers into a connexion.
From its earliest days, when Societies became too large and Classes were formed (small groups that met weekly for Bible study), Wesley organized Circuits (clusters of Societies) and created superintendents to supervise them. According to a profile piece in Christianity Today, thanks to Wesley's organizational genius, we know exactly how many Methodists were around in 1791 when he died: 294 preachers, 71,668 British members, 19 missionaries (5 in mission stations) and 43,265 American members with 198 preachers.
Ever since, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have proudly called themselves a connectional church.
From how we practice stewardship to how we "do" communion, the connection has many manifestations and is at the core of what it means to be The United Methodist Church.
The connection is what holds us together.
In 2014, United Methodist Communications conducted a survey about core values of United Methodists in the United States. When the 500 pastors were asked, "Which two or three values are most important?" the most common answers were having Wesleyan roots, being a connectional church and embracing an emphasis on God's grace.
The answers of local church leaders (350, all laity) to the same question were different. Their top answers were having fellowship with my church. bringing people to Christ and emphasizing local mission and outreach.
In addition, 400 church members surveyed ranked values of openness, acceptance, fellowship and helping others most highly.
What the three groups agreed on was the emphasis on God's grace and having an open communion table. Researchers found that 98 percent of pastors, 91 percent of church leaders and 62 percent of church members said that an emphasis on God's grace was "very important" to them. When it came to having an open table at communion, 92 percent of pastors, 87 percent of church leaders and 60 percent of church members called this "very important."
In other words, United Methodists are also held in connection by our theology and practice of ministry.
Together – we do more
But what else does "connectional" mean? What does that look like? How does it impact you?
On a recent Saturday in March, the Rev. Jane Wood, pastor at Locust United Methodist Church in Columbia, Maryland, faced a crisis. A funeral was planned for that day at the church, but a family member was in the hospital. Wood, obviously, couldn't be in two places at one time.
Wood texted the Rev. Tony Love, the church's previous pastor who now serves as the director of vibrant communities for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, asking if he could help. Love stepped forward and preached the funeral. And this author preached the following morning at both Sunday services.
The connection means every church has a pastor, and every pastor has a church. It means every United Methodist church around the world is connected to every other United Methodist church. Together – connected – we do more for the Kingdom of God.
One way United Methodists do more together is through of a system of connectional giving known as apportionments.
Let's say you put $100 in the offering plate. That money will support more than just local church ministries, such as the pastor's salary, the light bill, insurance, local missions and so forth. Eighty-five dollars stay in your local church, but the rest goes beyond, to the annual conference, regional and worldwide causes and ministries of The United Methodist Church.
In A Theology of United Methodist Giving, South Carolina Bishop Jonathan Holston wrote, "Apportionments provide for us avenues for giving in order that we not only can be strong local churches and annual conferences, but that we can be connected together, seeking to be in mission together, seeking to be God's people at home and around the world." The General Council on Finance and Administration publishes the booklet.
Apportionments are called the "first mile" of mission giving. Based on formulas developed by their annual conferences, every church is apportioned to ensure that each is contributing its fair share to support mission and ministry around the world.
At the denominational level, apportionments help support mission and ministry through the World Service Fund; fund scholarships at historically Black colleges; support Africa University in Zimbabwe; support United Methodist seminaries, colleges and universities; pay for your bishop and her/his office and staff; and much more.
As some churches struggle to pay apportionments, there is good news, too. In 2016, a record 27 United States annual conferences paid 100 percent of their apportionments to the general church, with an overall payout rate of 91.8 percent.
And there are other benefits to the connection, too, according to the Rev. Laceye Warner, author of The Method of Our Mission: United Methodist Polity and Organization (Abingdon Press).
Churches, conferences, agencies interrelated
Warner said Wesley used the term connexion to refer to the three layers of relationships within the Methodist movement: members, societies and preachers.
The connection "enables the interrelationship of organizational bodies, from local churches to annual, jurisdictional and central conferences, general boards and agencies, the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table to the General Conference," wrote Warner, associate professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School. "This complicated structure sometimes lacks clear lines of accountability, but the connection ... at its best continues to facilitate the missional character of the denomination in ministry to and with the world."
A strength of the connection, she said, is the high level of trust and balance presumed among the various interrelated entities. "However," she said, "when trust is low, this becomes a weakness since there are few, if any, clear structures for accountability that almost maintain the connection."
Warner agreed that the connection is facing some stressors these days, particularly with "an unusually high number of entities testing the connection's ability to practice accountability," she said.
In the local church, Warner said it is the charge conference where the connection is first embodied.
"Through the charge conference," Warner said, "local churches participate in contributing to the United Methodist connection. The connection benefits the local church by involving it in a larger community of missional imagination and ministry practice."
The charge conference, according to the church's Book of Discipline, is the "basic unit in the connectional system" of the church. Every church is part of a charge (which may be one or more churches), and charge conference meetings happen at least annually. The charge conference has oversight of all the church's councils, boards and committees. It adopts the church's budget, approves salaries for the pastor and staff, votes on candidates for ordained and licensed ministry and conducts other business.
Even though The Book of Discipline 2016 states the annual conference is the "fundamental body" of The United Methodist Church, the local church has functioned, for the past 70 years or so, as the most significant component of the denomination, Warner said.
"This makes sense in that individuals in more recent generations tend to experience church in the context of local church worship," she said, "a distinction from earlier generations of Methodists who identified most closely with small groups such as classes, bands and, subsequently, Sunday schools."
Connecting with chairs
Perhaps no church better embodies the connection than First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana. It may be "the most United Methodist church there is," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Shawn Anglim.
Speaking to a group of United Methodist communicators recently, Anglim explained how the church was created by the merger of First and Grace United Methodist churches after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. First Church – a white congregation – and Grace – a black congregation – were only one mile apart, Anglim said. In the recovery after the storm, the question was asked: "Do you believe we can do more for our city as one body of Christ than as two a long mile apart?"
Donations poured in from other United Methodist churches, from chairs to volunteers who helped with the cleanup and restoration of the less severely damaged First Church building. Anglim illustrated his point by holding up a chair, part of a set that arrived right after the storm. It was well loved when it arrived, he said, but it was a Godsend. Another, less-worn set of chairs arrived a few years later. And now, Anglim said proudly, they are on their third set of chairs, these with comfortable cushions and seatbacks.
The Louisiana Conference paid his salary as a pastor of the "Mission Zone" where the church is located, Anglim said. Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana Area has helped pay the salary of the Rev. Juanita Ramos, a community development pastor who leads the Hispanic worship at the church.
"This story goes on and on," Anglim told the communicators. "Without the United Methodist connection, there would be no First Grace."
The Rev. Erik Aslgaard is editor of UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.