The Annual Conference is Still the Basic Unit and Why It Really Matters

To date, I have taken a pass on signing on to any of the various proposals offered to resolve some of the woes of our United Methodist Church.  One of the main reasons I have not – which I’ve publicly expressed – is that I don’t know how any future organization of the denomination will involve extension ministries.  More to the point, what happens to ministry to college students?  I realize that, already, many campus ministries have to spend a significant amount of time raising funds for support, since our general church funding apparatus does not meet all requirements.  Still, I want to note the significant implications for a shift in polity, if the feared future unfolds.

Since I make a living in a church related university (and before here in a church related college), I want to make clear that this post has nothing to do with job security.  I’m under the bishop’s appointment and I will serve wherever the bishop sends me.

So, where lies my reserve with current proposals?  It lies with our polity.  The basic unit of The United Methodist Church is still the annual conference.  This point has been softened, however, by other BoD language something on the order of, “The primary location (or point of contact) for our mission is the local church.”  I don’t have my Book of Discipline available at this moment, so someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is the gist of it. If we separate amicably, what happens to extension ministries, especially church related colleges and universities?  If we go with what some people call the local option, then what implications does that option have for extensions ministry?

My main concern here is with college students.  The National Center for Education Statistics (here) puts this fall semester’s number at 21 million, 18 million of whom are undergraduates.  However, keep in mind that this number does not include all the people “in the process” of going to college.  Some people otherwise enrolled may not be enrolled this semester.  They “stop out” temporarily for a number of reasons, so the actual number of people in the process of going to college is several million higher.  Furthermore, not all those 18 million are of the traditional age range (18-24).  About 8 million are over the age of 25.  And a bunch of them go to two-year schools, where, for the most part, we don’t even try to reach them.  Anybody hanging around a “junior college,” to use old and somewhat pejorative language, knows how difficult developing a community of disciples in that environment can be.  But it’s true of college in general.  Campus ministries compete for the attention of bright, ambitious young people with about a million other opportunities.

When you think about the roughly 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country, one wonders how many United Methodist ministries we find.  Not nearly enough.  Of the United Methodist related schools, about 400,000 students attend them.  That’s a significant number itself, but add in the Wesley Foundations and other campus ministries at non-United Methodist schools and you see a network of mission stations aimed at directly effecting the future!

What would happen to this network in the proposed structural changes?

Unfortunately, it is the exceedingly rare local congregation who has a good sense about its calling to reach college students.  Once the kids “graduate” from our youth programs, it’s hit and miss when they get to college.  Therefore, unless and until our local churches – particularly those geographically near college campuses, but definitely not limited to them – decide to get serious about campus ministry, I will continue to insist that the annual conference is still the basic unit of the church.  And we’d better by golly pay it some attention in all our talking about splitting.

While I’m on the topic, let me admit some obvious and hard realities.  College students don’t “pay for themselves.”  College ministries cost money and there’s no quick or obvious return on investment.  Second, college students are notoriously fickle.  If they get involved in a church at all while they’re in college, they shop around and church hop, depending on where their friends are going.  That’s if they’re traditional, residential college students.  It could also be that they’re having to work like dogs while they’re in school and they’re working on Sunday mornings.  Either way, as a segment of the population, they’re generally not very reliable for helping to maintain the local church’s institutional machinery.  Third, even if they do get involved in a church while they’re in college, they likely won’t stay in the area upon graduation (unless they’re in a big metropolitan setting), so some other congregation will get the benefit of the investment, not the college years congregation.

In short, college ministry is long on effort and short on short-term returns.  But that’s the point.  The cost-benefit metric is not the right measure.  We need a long term vision of college ministry.  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we don’t really know how effective we’ve been in ministry until we look fifteen or twenty years down the road from the time we had direct involvement.  This is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true.

So, until someone shows me a plan for how whatever the denomination(s) will look like in the future addresses extension ministries, especially college ministries, I’m going to withhold judgment on proposals for structural change.  Not because the proposals are not attractive.  In certain cases, I think they are.  I just don’t see sufficient awareness of the need for ministry to/with college students.  And I think that’s a really, really big deal.


About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. “Devolution” was the word that kept Scotland in the UK. The biggest complaints these days seem to be about Annual Conferences who won’t “enforce the Discipline” or about Conferences and Bishops being asked to “enforce the Discipline” in areas where they don’t agree with it. Could the power over ordination, appointment and clergy discipline be “devolved” to the Annual Conference?

  2. You raise some excellent points, Steve. A commitment to campus ministry tends to be found more in “evangelical” annual conferences than in “progressive” ones. (I’m unfairly generalizing here.) Under some of the proposals (separation, jurisdictional solution, local option), the first decision is made by an annual conference (which new denomination to belong to, which new jurisdiction to belong to, whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals). These annual conferences would remain more or less intact, depending upon how many of their congregations disagree and withdraw from the annual conference. There would undoubtedly be a weakening of available financial resources in annual conferences as a result of whatever proposal is adopted. But there is also a current weakening of financial resources even when we take no action to resolve the crisis.

    The premise of separation or the jurisdictional solution is that an annual conference that is not fighting among itself over theology and moral standards can focus more single-mindedly on the mission of the church, and that includes campus ministry. Some of the proposals could set the stage for some significant restructuring at the general church level, which would ostensibly free up more resources for mission, including campus ministry.

    I think the issue is not so much which plan will include an option for campus ministry, as which groups within the church are the most committed to supporting campus ministry.

    • Evangelical churches and faith groups are the next to argue about LGBT inclusion. Those arguments are already starting. Campus ministries that actively resist LGBT inclusion will alienate about 3/4 of their target demographic. It’seems a false assumption that separation will end the argument.

      • If the church’s current position on sexual morality is written into the doctrinal standards of the new body, the debate would be over for them. I believe other evangelical denominations may need to sort through these issues for themselves, although I think they will be more resistant to the hermeneutical gymnastics being proposed by the LGBT affirmation folks. But an evangelical Methodism that has already worked through the issues is in a sense “immune” to the debate. Surveys are showing that plenty of Millenials are open to the church’s teaching on sexuality. They just have never been exposed to anything other than a highly truncated version that centers on don’ts.

      • Jon, I think your point a good one that a church split will not end the argument or the tensions on college campuses. But on the other hand, we’re not having the argument now because, in general campuses have lost the will or the ability to be places of frank discussions about contentious matters. I said that to say that I’m not sure about your 3/4 ratio. I encounter a lot of fear and hesitation about getting into these difficult conversations and typically the students who feel afraid to speak out are the ones with a more traditional view of sexuality.

        • Have you read Morgan Guyton’so piece on “rape culture”?

        • I have an 18 year old daughter who is a freshman at a United Methodist college. So far (after a month) she has not joined in with either the “hook up” or “binge drinking” culture. Neither of those are “new,” by the way.Both existed when her mother and I were undergraduates there 35 plus years ago. I’m happy for her to be making those healthy for her choices. I would likewise be disappointed if she thought “God” wanted her to reject her LGBT friends.

          • Jon, the question really is not that the binge-drinking/hook-up culture is new. The matter is one of degree. More importantly, whether it’s new or not, I witness on almost a daily basis the heartache, confusion, remorse and anger in students from the fallout over bad things that happen in that environment. On your second point, I’m sure that people who reject L/G/B/T people do exist, but honestly, I hardly ever bump in to them. Fred Phelps is dead and his church was always tiny. They get vastly more publicity than they deserve. I think the more serious matter is one of being able to discuss the reasons for our disagreements. We’re not doing that very well on college campuses.

          • Telling people they are “incompatible with Christian teaching”sounds pretty rejecting to me.

          • Ah, herein lies the challenge. Your comment assumes something that I don’t. In the discussion of homosexuality, we all need to get our assumptions out on the table for scrutiny and debate. Everybody’s. You also need to state the matter accurately. You know that the Book of Discipline is not worded the way your comment implies, so the way you put it is prejudiced. You may think that the BoD statement can be reduced to the way you say it, but that, too, would be a point of debate worth having.

    • The premise, Tom, is certainly a reasonable one. It would help me (and maybe some others) if any of the groups could sketch out, in a way analogous to the thought given to pastors’ pensions, etc. (important topics, to be sure), how campus ministries and campus ministers would be folded into the envisioned plans. I know this is complex, but I do hope someone is thinking about how it would look. If you think historically about renewal movements, most of them started schools and colleges. The college years are very significant for people hearing a call to ministry/mission and I’m very worried about how fragile are the connections between the UM Church and its schools.

      • What our BoD says is that there are NO circumstances under which someone whose attraction and love for a member of his/her own gender can express that attraction and lover in the way I do for my wife. That’s a distinction between identity and behavior with no meaningful difference. Moreover, what I frequently hear directed toward LGBT persons and their allies is hatred, not just from Westboro, but from United Methodists, clergy and laity, along with a frequently expressed desire that we go away.

        • So far as I know, Jon, you and I have never met. I don’t know the sound of your voice, or the inflections you give to words. I admit, therefore, that I could be, to some degree, misreading your most recent comment. I still have to try to respond and if I’ve missed your intent, you can correct me.

          I neither fit in the group associated with Westboro Baptist and the “haters” to whom you refer in United Methodism, nor do I fit with your perspective. A significant number of us fit neither location. You give the impression that we face a dichotomy – either hate or approval, acceptance and blessing. Quite a few of us find neither of those options morally supportable. So, it looks to me like you have offered a false dichotomy.

          In my earlier reply, I mentioned that we don’t share assumptions. Precisely in what you mean by “identity,” is where the difference of assumptions is illustrated. I don’t assume what you seem to assume in the word “identity.” I think that word involves a number of complex and very difficult relations. I’m not trying to overly complicate in order to stall a decision. I genuinely find 99% of the “debates” about this matter totally fruitless because we do not sufficiently deal with our differences in assumptions about what legitimately constitutes “identity.” Your assumption shapes your reading of the BoD, which you find fatally morally flawed. I don’t read the statements in the BoD as you do.

          • I haven;t met you either, Stephen, but I have met MANY of my colleagues in the Mississippi Conference. I can’t discern anything that looks like “love” for LGBT persons in those who seek to keep the BoD language as it is. And I HAVE, frequently, heard “Just get out if you can’t agree” from those same persons.

  3. Jon, I think I can understand your frustration about a church that won’t change its position, even when confronted with what you believe to be unassailable reasons for change. Can you also understand the frustration of those who maintain the church’s current position? Through 40 years and ten General Conferences, we believe the church has spoken and made a decision. It is frustrating to some of us that persons who disagree with the church’s position continue to stridently push for change, now to the point of simply disobeying the Discipline. I think it is that frustration that leads some to say, if you disagree with and cannot live with the church’s position, perhaps you need to find a different venue for ministry. I don’t hear this as wanting all GLBT people out of the church. Rather, it is a desire to uphold the longstanding decision of the church on what it believes and how we are to live. Many evangelical United Methodist churches have GLBT persons who attend, and the churches desire to offer ministry to those persons within the parameters of the church’s position. That is not a hateful attitude.

    • I hear the CLAIM that “traditional” churches minister to LGBT persons with “love.” I frankly have never seen evidence of such ministry.

      • Jon, I attend such a church. It is very open and welcoming without endorsing a position other than the one the denomination holds. There has been some controversy, of course. It’s hard at times, in such a congregation, to know where the “boundaries” are with regard to kind and intensity of conversations about the topic, but the senior pastor and leaders are committed to that vision.


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