United Methodism 101: A Primer
Who are We?
Methodism can trace its roots back to the 1730s to Oxford University in England where Charles Wesley and his Holiness Club were taunted for their “methodical” approach to faith. But there was a madness to their method, which launched a movement that grew into today’s worldwide 11.2 million-member United Methodist Church.
The denomination began in 1785, just after Christmas, in Baltimore, when Bishops Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke “called all the preachers together” and 60 pastors met at Lovely Lane meeting house to organize a church that would shape the identity of a new nation.
Like any living organism, over the years the church has grown and divided. The various flavors of the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Protestant, African American Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal Church South, Evangelical United Brethren and other traditions united a group of people who in 1968 became The United Methodist Church.
In 1966, preparing for the uniting merger that would come two years later, the church met again in Baltimore, under the theme “Forever Beginning.” Today that theme still applies as the church begins afresh each Sunday, ground in an ancient history of gospel truths.
While United Methodists share a common Christian faith they are unique. United Methodists are a conciliar people – they council together always, in community, discerning God’s will as they act as Christ’s hands and voice in the world. They are covenantal, joined by a covenant with God, believing in, and living out, Scripture. And, they are a connectional church – united with one another in a method and structure to effectively and faithfully live out the Gospel in social justice and vital piety.
We Council – Led in Community
The United Methodist Church does not have a pope or a headquarters to guide its actions. Rather, at all its levels, from the local to the global, church members gather to council together. The only body that makes policy and speaks for the denomination is the General Conference. This group of 1,000 elected delegates (half clergy and half lay people) meet every four years.
At the two week General Conference sessions (which will be held next on April 24-May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.) delegates from around the world discuss and vote on petitions and resolutions proposed by individuals, agencies and other groups within the denomination.
In between sessions, 41,589 local churches in 135 worldwide annual conferences enable the denomination to live out its mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world.
Locally, 185,086 members in 665 United Methodist churches in Maryland, Washington, D.C., the panhandle of West Virginia and Bermuda make up the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
Each spring, churches send an equal number of lay and clergy people to a three-day annual conference session, where new pastors are ordained, a budget is adopted and mission and ministry priorities are debated and set.
The annual conference is led by Bishop John Schol. He is one of the church’s 70 active bishops. The bishop is assisted by a conference staff, which includes eight district superintendents, that has its headquarters at the Mission Center in Fulton, Md.
We Covenant – Joined in Belief
United Methodists are joined together by a set of laws, plans, policies and process outlined in The Book of Discipline. This 857-page book, also sets forth the theological grounding of the denomination, reflecting upon God’s gracious action in our lives and how that might be lived out in the world. It is revised every four years.
Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, believed that “the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience and confirmed by reason.”
Asserting the primacy of Scripture, United Methodists still embrace Wesley’s quadrilateral of the Scripture, tradition, personal experience and reason when involved in decision making. United Methodists recognize that the quadrilateral allows people to come to different decisions on some issues and often celebrate a diversity of thought. But they also covenant together around a sacred and shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God.
United as the whole people of God, United Methodists join together in their common belief that faith works through love. One expression of this is the denomination’s Social Principles, a document that summarizes the church's convictions that seek to apply a Christian vision of holiness to social, economic, and political issues in the world.
We Connect – United in Action
Through their churches, districts, annual, jurisdictional and general conferences United Methodists join in a connectional system that enables the whole of the church to be much more faithful and effective than the sum of its parts. Connectionalism creates a vital web of interactive relationships throughout the world.
Apportionments, in which every church gives a portion of the money they bring in to the larger church for mission and ministry, is one of the cornerstones of the connectional system. Through this connectional giving, United Methodists fund a university in Africa, ensure retired pastors receive health care, care for a school full of children with HIV/AIDS, and provide cold-weather shelter and hope to the homeless in many cities. Apportionments enable the church to be the hands of Christ together in a way that would be unimaginable alone.
The connectional system also enables trained pastors to be appointed to United Methodist churches. In the denomination, clergy “itinerate” – they are appointed by the bishop and his or her Cabinet and move from church to church every seven or so years. The pastors are “called to be sent” and the needs of the churches and the gifts of the clergy are matched in ways to serve God in a specific community.
Within the Baltimore-Washington Conference there are 1,080 clergy; 453 of whom are retired.
Connected in spirit, polity and grace
When asked by United Methodist Communications researchers if their local church understands the concept of connectionalism, only 18 percent of pastors and 12 percent of laity strongly agree that they understand it. When clergy and laypersons are asked individually if they understand the church’s structure, 38 percent of clergy and 17 percent of laity strongly affirm that they understand it, reported the Rev. Larry Hollon, director of the denominations Commission on Communications.
“At a time when global realities call for deeper understanding of our interrelatedness and interdependencies, the fraying of the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is a cause for concern,” wrote Hollon in his blog. “The lack of awareness about how we are connected from the local church to the annual conference and from the annual conference to the general church is important, not only to us as a faith community but also to the world.”
In the pews
Each Sunday, approximately 68,450 United Methodists gather in this annual conference to praise God in worship. In 2009, approximately 49,600 participated in ministries in those churches.
Eighty-six percent of United Methodists are white; 6 percent are black; 1.5 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are Asian. In the Baltimore-Washington Conference, 21 percent of United Methodists are black; 1.3 percent are Asian; .5 percent are Hispanic.
Sixty-one percent of BWC members are female.
According to denominational statistics, of every $1,000 given by United Methodists, $845 stays in the local church, $124 goes to jurisdictions, $22 goes to general apportionments and $9 goes to other general funds including United Methodist Women.
In 2007, United Methodists gave $5.1 billion for local church expenditures, including program and operation expenses, pastor salaries and expenses, debt payment and benevolences paid directly to the local church.
The United Methodist Church has several General agencies, which equip local churches throughout the denomination. The General Board of Church and Society, which advocates for the United Methodist stance on social issues at the U.S. Capitol, and the General Commission on Religion and Race are headquartered in the Methodist Building at 100 Maryland Ave, NW, in Washington, D.C., where the bishop also has an office. To learn more about these agencies and others, visit www.umc.org.
Sixty-nine percent of United Methodist churches have fewer than 200 members; 26 percent have between 200 and 749 members; 4 percent have between 750 and 1,999 members; 1 percent have more than 2,000 members.
Although there is no exclusive United Methodist doctrine, United Methodists generally proclaim:
+ the availability of God’s grace for all;
+ the essential unity of faith and works; and
+ the importance of seeking holiness of heart and life for both individuals and society.