UMC Disaffiliation and Youth Ministry
By Jeremy Steele, Eddie Erwin, and Chris Wilterdink
With the postponement of the 2020 General Conference to 2024 and the announcement by the Wesleyan Covenant Association that it will launch the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022, many churches and leaders are asking questions about what this means for The United Methodist Church and their local church.
We are asking, “What does it mean for youth leaders and teens in our churches?” We are also asking, “How can youth workers help kids during this time?” Often, youth understand “church” primarily as their experiences at their home church, the local church where you help to create discipleship opportunities and a caring community for them. Creating opportunities to talk about their home church remaining part of the United Methodist Church or to consider disaffiliation from the UMC is important at this unique time in the UMC’s story.
The decisions that your church makes during this discernment process will affect the future of your local church as well as the larger Methodist family. Therefore, you as a leader should be able to talk with your pastors about the issues related to disaffiliation using accurate information, AND you should be a champion who helps youth to understand those same issues. That will help you make a place for youth to be heard alongside the other members of your church.
Youth who have completed confirmation are considered professing members of your church. They have the same rights to vote on decisions made at church conferences as the adult professing members of your congregation.
Five things you can do right now:
1. Brush up on your knowledge of United Methodist Church structure.
The United Methodist Church is an international denomination that is focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How The United Methodist Church engages in that work is organized and defined by the Book of Discipline. The most recent edition of the Book of Discipline is from 2016 because the 2020 General Conference never took place. For those in the United States, there are generally three levels of organizational structure in addition to the local churches:
- Jurisdiction: There are five of these in the United States: Northeast, Southeast, North Central, South Central, and Western. Jurisdictions work on high-level administration such as selecting and assigning bishops. The jurisdiction is made up of smaller geographic areas called annual conferences.
- Annual Conference: This is the core component of The United Methodist Church. An annual conference is presided over by a bishop and often includes several hundred churches. Annual conferences can be a portion of a U.S. state, an entire U.S. state, or multiple states and territories. The pastors serving within an annual conference generally are moved by the bishop of that conference only among churches within its borders. All the property of the churches in a conference is owned by the annual conference rather than the local congregation. Annual conferences are divided into smaller administrative areas, called, districts.
- Districts break all the administrative work that needs to be done in relation to all the churches in an annual conference into more local areas. They are overseen by a district superintendent who has specific, local churches that he/she is tasked to support and challenge as those local churches create disciples.
- Local churches are overseen by a pastor and can have a variety of committees or leadership groups that create the vision and faith expression of that local United Methodist church. Local churches are one of the primary areas where faith formation and discipleship take place.
2. Be careful about misinformation.
There is a ton of conjecture and outright misinformation flying around online, just as with most major news stories these days. The UMC’s Ask the UMC has created a straightforward explanation of what the Discipline actually says, how it is being interpreted by The United Methodist Church’s judicial authority, and how churches should approach the subject. It basically says that churches are guided through the process of thinking about and deciding on whether they want to remain part of The United Methodist Church or to disaffiliate by the district superintendent who oversees their district. There’s obviously more detail than that, and we encourage you to read it for yourself.
Ask questions of trusted sources; be in conversation with your pastor and possibly your district superintendent so that you can understand the process and how you can best support youth voices joining in with your church’s decision-making process. Be wise and discerning in the information you gather and avoid sharing information until you have been able to determine the truthfulness or the spin that the information is presented with.
3. Talk to your senior pastor about how he/she wants you to approach this subject when it comes up.
One of the biggest missteps youth workers make with difficult or controversial issues is not looping in the senior pastor, their supervisor, or other important stakeholders in the church. It is important that you know exactly how they want you to approach the conversations so that you can be aware of where the boundaries are that you might cross. It will also be helpful for you to pass along any questions or concerns that you are hearing from the kids in your group to the senior pastor.
Another misstep is to dodge important conversations like this altogether. Prepare yourself and realize that staying silent or not working through this issue with the youth of your church is a missed opportunity. Whether to stay part of The United Methodist Church or to disaffiliate is literally a conversation about the future of the church. The choice that the church works together to make right now will be the church that young people in your care will inherit. Consider inviting your pastor to engage with youth and help them come up with a plan if they are uncertain about how to involve youth in the process.
4. Help your youth participate.
In The United Methodist Church, all students who have been confirmed and have joined the church are considered full members of the congregation. The process of disaffiliation requires a gathering of members to vote, and all the youth in your church who have gone through confirmation have a voice and vote in that meeting.
Your job, as a caring leader, is not to tell them how to vote. Instead, your job is to empower them to use their voice and vote. Make sure they know how and when those informational and voting meetings are run. Make on-ramps to help them communicate with other members of the church and staff about their thoughts and feelings in the process. Help them understand effective ways to express their opinion and when the final votes will be taken and counted. Ensure that all the communication that is being sent to adult members of your church is also going to your youth members as well. In places or times when youth voices may not be welcome, become an advocate on their behalf. Consider collecting written statements to provide to adult groups. Consider helping to connect youth with your church’s official social media accounts and encourage or moderate conversations there.
5. Be attentive to both thoughts and feelings.
Recognize that youth process thoughts and feelings differently from the way adults do (check out the free Speaking Adolescent for practical tips on processing), so their heads and hearts may be affected in many ways as this conversation unfolds. Some may take information, the process, or even the outcome of your church’s decision personally. Some adults may end up taking things personally as well, so be prepared for surprising emotions or responses to the conversation. We would encourage you to visit Discipleship Ministries’ Courageous Conversations for resources to help this process. Provide safe spaces for youth and those connected to your youth ministry to process thoughts and feelings that arise.
Be attentive to your own thoughts, feelings, and opinions as well. The conversations can be difficult and challenging. They may impact relationships that you value or have held close. A sense of uncertainty about the future may creep up about your role or ability to serve in your church. Connect with spiritual counselors, trusted friends, and mentors to process your own thoughts and feelings as well.
Church-wise, relationships that have been within The United Methodist denomination may become ecumenical. Consider how your ministerial relationships may change based on choices that congregations make. Brainstorm ways that your youth or youth ministries that have been partners within the United Methodist Church could still partner in ministry even if the denominational affiliation changes. How can you help the youth of your church be the best expression of a disciple with the other churches in your community?
Finally, remember – the youth who have completed confirmation are professing members of your congregation. Be their champion; make sure they are included in your church’s discussions; help to amplify their voices in the church; and help to ensure they are present at any church conferences where votes about these important decisions are made.
An addendum for Central Conferences
Our staff team is working to collect stories and observations from leaders across the Central Conferences of the UMC, those who operate outside of the United States. Because the administrative structure of these bodies has differences when compared to the administrative structure of the UMC in the United States, there are additional considerations.
- Lack of information. Unless youth or young adult church members are well-connected to the church’s administrative structure, or UMC social media savvy, they may not have access to information about the pressing issues facing the church.
- Lack of youth voice in official church bodies. Not very many youth or younger adults are represented in the official church bodies such as district or annual conferences. However, many central conferences tend to have youth organizations at the Annual Conference or National levels. Those organizations tend to approach things legislatively or through official meetings of the organization. In some cases, youth could look to those organizations for conversation, as national youth organizations may put out a statement in support of one or another position.
- The possibility of being censured. In many places, the culture of leadership is to follow the episcopal lead. Young people, without much positional power, may find it difficult to make their voice heard or find opportunities within the church slow or even stop completely depending on how their stance compares with that of the leadership around them.