Chapter 1: What the heck do we mean when we say “Connectionalism”?
Connection: The principle, basic to The United Methodist Church, that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns. (found in glossary of terms on umc.org)
As everyone across the United Methodist connection wraps up another season of Annual Conference gatherings, I thought it only appropriate to write a couple of pieces about the meaning of connectionalism as we face the challenges of trying to be a 21st Century denomination. These posts will address some of the challenges of connectionalism as well as critique some of the current ways the term is defined through our shared ministry.
I contend that if we are to truly live into what it means to be a vital church, connected to each other and to the world in the 21st Century, then we need to expand our definitions of what it means to be connectional beyond dollars and structure. It’s high time that “connectional” become a verb that describes the way(s) we engage in ministry at all levels.
Chapter 2: Stop Hunger Now Project, South GA Annual Conference
This year our annual conference gathering focused on the theme of justice. In between the annual reports, budget proposals, and debate over whether or not to cut districts from our annual conference, we were invited to participate in a mission project sponsored by the organization, Stop Hunger Now. Below is an excerpt from their “About Us” page on their website describing the nature of the event we participated in during annual conference.
Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief agency that has been fulfilling its commitment to end hunger for more than 15 years. Since 1998, the organization has coordinated the distribution of food and other lifesaving aid to children and families in countries all over the world.
Stop Hunger Now created its meal packaging program, in 2005. The program perfected the assembly process that combines rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and a flavoring mix including 21 essential vitamins and minerals into small meal packets. Each meal costs only 25 cents. The food stores easily, has a shelf-life of two years and transports quickly. Stop Hunger Now works with international partners that ship and distribute the meals in-country.
The packaging operation is mobile enough to go wherever volunteers are located, and can be adapted to accommodate as few as 25 and as many as 500 volunteers at a time. One SHN packaging event can result in the packaging of more than 1,000,000 meals. The use of volunteers for product packaging has resulted in an extremely cost-effective operation while, at the same time, increasing awareness of global hunger and food insecurity issues across the world.
So how does this foster connectionalism, you ask?
I had the duty of weighing meal packets that contained rice, grains, and the essential vitamins and minerals for the meals we were sending off. The packets had to be in a certain weight range and once they were packed by volunteers, they had to be weighed and adjusted if need be in order to move to the sealing and packaging stage of the process. During this process I had the opportunity to work next to Ken and Gloria.
Ken is a fellow clergy person. In fact, he’s moving to the district where I serve this year. I had not met Ken before this service project even though we both serve as clergy in South Georgia. But serving next to him on this assembly line gave me the chance to have a great conversation with him as our hands were busy doing work neither of us were used to doing.
On my left was Gloria. She is a lay person from a small, two-point charge in an area of South Georgia I doubt I could find even if I had a map. Gloria was a delightful woman with a contagious laugh which I got to enjoy as we fumbled bags of rice together. I realized how annual conference tends to be a setting where the clergy/laity divide is accented. Clergy see friends they haven’t seen in a year and often don’t get the chance to engage laity in-between sessions. But this wasn’t the case with Gloria. Through the power of mission, she and I shared a space together we otherwise would not have shared. And it was delightful!
Chapter 3: When connectionalism should mean more
I worry sometimes that we have defined connectionalism too narrowly. Surely it should mean more than dollars and internal structure. A couple of examples to illustrate my point.
We voted this year to reduce the number of districts in South Georgia beginning in June 2014. One of the arguments against this change was that churches would feel less connected when a district superintendent with a larger territory to cover visited less often. And so I wonder: Do we really depend on district superintendents to fulfill what it means to be connected?
Another example we hear is that we need to be more connectional through giving apportionments at the district and annual conference level. This call for giving is only heightened in a day and age where financial resources are harder to come by. And let me say this is a very important expression of what it means to be connectional. But should it be the primary expression of connectionalism? I know we’re Americans and we can’t help but buy into the rationale that all of our problems can be solved with our pocketbooks. So while connectional giving is vitally important, we also have to be honest about the fact that the vast majority of apportionment giving goes to support our own structure, while a much smaller portion goes toward outside mission. Do we really want to argue that connectionalism means first supporting ourselves?
I am a supporter of apportionment-giving. I believe in the importance of a district superintendent. But I also believe “connectionalism” should be more than structure and dollars. It should also mean relationship and working together at even the local level instead of seeing each other as competition. If we have any hopes of being a connectional denomination in the 21st Century, then we have to learn how to work together — clergy and laity, local churches with other local churches — and not depend so much on a top-heavy structure. We need to foster more collaboration amongst ourselves and not simply expect a structure to do the work of connection for us. [Spoiler Alert: More on this in an upcoming post…]
]That’s what I took away from annual conference. And to think, all it took was an hour or so of joining with others to worry about something other than ourselves.