(Sources: UMC.org and Wikipedia.org)
The United Methodist Church is a Protestant denomination that seeks to create disciples for Christ through outreach, evangelism, and through seeking holiness through the process of sanctification. With a focus on triune worship, United Methodists seek to bring honor to God by following the model of Jesus Christ, which is made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In making an appeal to a toleration of diversity of theological opinion, John Wesley said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not all love alike?” The phrase “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” has also become a maxim among Methodists, who have always maintained a great diversity of opinion on many matters within the Church. The United Methodist Church allows for a wide range of theological and political beliefs. Many practicing United Methodists believe this flexibility is one of the UMC’s strongest qualities.
The basic beliefs of The United Methodist Church include:
Triune God. God is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost).
Scripture. The writings in the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired word of God.
Salvation through Jesus Christ. God’s redeeming love is active to save sinners through Jesus’ incarnate life and teachings, through his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence through history, and his promised return.
Sacraments. The UMC recognizes two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Church believes that “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. It believes that Baptism is a sacrament in which God initiates a covenant with individuals, people become a part of the Church, is not to be repeated, and is a means of grace. The United Methodist Church generally practices Baptism by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion and recognizes Trinitarian formula baptisms from other Christian denominations in good standing. The United Methodist Church affirms the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion, (the bread is an effectual sign of His body crucified on the cross and the cup is an effectual sign of His blood shed for humanity), believes that the celebration is an anamnesis (memorial or remembrance) of Jesus’ death, believes the sacrament to be a means of grace, and practices open communion.
Inclusivity. The UMC includes and welcomes people of all races, cultures, and ages.
Free will. The UMC believes that people, while corrupted by sin, are free to make their own choices because of God’s divine grace.
Grace. The UMC believes that God gives unmerited favor freely to all people, though it may be resisted.
The United Methodist Church recognizes the historic ecumenical creeds, the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed; they are used frequently in services of worship. The Book of Discipline also recognizes the importance of the Chalcedonian Creed of the Council of Chalcedon.
Origins and history
The United Methodist Church traces its main root to the Methodist Movement of John Wesley in England in the 1700s. The church traces its roots to “The Holy Club” at Oxford University formed by Anglican minister John Wesley and Charles Wesley in 1729. Members of the Society were said to have lived by “method.”
The first official organization in the United States occurred in Baltimore in 1784 with the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the Christmas Conference, with Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as the leaders. The church in its present form traces its roots to the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland in 1784. It grew rapidly in the young country as it employed circuit riders, many of whom were laymen, to travel the mostly rural nation by horseback to preach the Gospel and to establish churches until there was scarcely any village in the United States without a Methodist presence.
In the more than 220 years since 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church, like many other Protestant denominations, has seen a number of divisions and mergers. In 1830, the Methodist Protestant Church split from the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of laity having a voice and vote in the administration of the church, insisting that clergy should not be the only ones to have any determination in how the church was to be operated. In 1844, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church split into two conferences because of tensions over slavery and the power of bishops in the denomination. The two General Conferences, Methodist Episcopal Church (or northern section) and Methodist Episcopal Church, South remained separate until the 1939 merger of these two denominations plus a third, the Methodist Protestant Church, the resulting church being known as The Methodist Church.
As The Methodist Episcopal Church was in its infancy, two other churches were being formed. In their earliest years they were composed almost entirely of German-speaking people. The first was founded by Philip William Otterbein (1726–1813) and Martin Boehm (1725–1812). Otterbein, a German Reformed pastor, and Boehm, a Mennonite, preached an evangelical message and experience similar to the Methodists. In 1800 their followers formally organized the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. A second church, The Evangelical Association, was begun by Jacob Albright (1759–1808), a Lutheran farmer and tile-maker in eastern Pennsylvania who had been converted and nurtured under Methodist teaching. The Evangelical Association was officially organized in 1803. These two churches were to unite with each other in 1946 and with The Methodist Church in 1968 to form The United Methodist Church.
On April 23, 1968, The United Methodist Church was created when The Evangelical United Brethren Church (represented by Bishop Reuben H. Mueller) and The Methodist Church (represented by Bishop Lloyd Christ Wicke) joined hands at the constituting General Conference in Dallas, Texas. With the words,
“Lord of the Church, we are united in Thee, in Thy Church and now in The United Methodist Church,”
The new denomination was given birth by the two churches that had distinguished histories and influential ministries in various parts of the world. The flame in the church logo represents the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, which is seen in believers through spiritual gifts. The two parts of the flame represent the predecessor denominations, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, and are united at the base symbolizing the 1968 merger.
The United Methodist Church is the largest Methodist denomination, and the second largest Protestant denomination, and third largest Christian Church overall in the United States. As of 2007, worldwide membership was about 12 million members: 8.0 million in the United States, 3.5 million in Africa, Asia and Europe. It is a member church of the World Council of Churches, the World Methodist Council, and other religious associations. It remains the only Christian denomination or body to have congregations in every county or parish in the United States.
The church is decentralized with the General Conference being the official governing body. However, administratively the church has a governing structure that is similar to that of the United States government.
General Conference – The legislative branch that makes all decisions.
Council of Bishops – The executive branch consisting of all active and retired bishops that meets twice a year. According to the Book of Discipline 2000, “The Church expects the Council of Bishops to speak to the Church and from the Church to the world, and to give leadership in the quest for Christian unity and interreligious relationships.” The council is presided over by a President who serves a two-year term. The President has no official authority beyond presiding. Administrative work is handled by the secretary of the council.
Judicial Council – The judicial branch consisting of nine persons elected by the General Conference to rule on questions of constitutionality in church law and practice.
The United Methodist Church is organized into conferences. The highest level is called the General Conference and is the only organization which may speak officially for the church. The General Conference meets every four years (quadrennium). Legislative changes are recorded in The Book of Discipline, which is revised after each General Conference. Bishops, Councils, Committees, Boards, Elders, etc., are not permitted to speak on behalf of The United Methodist Church as this authority is reserved solely for the General Conference in accordance with the Book of Discipline.
Jurisdictional and Central Conferences
Subordinate to the General Conference are Jurisdictional and Central Conferences, which also meet every four years. The main purpose of the jurisdictions and central conferences is to elect and appoint bishops, the chief administrators of the church. Bishops thus elected serve Episcopal Areas, which consist of one or more Annual Conferences.
The Judicial Council is the highest court in the denomination. It consists of nine members, both laity and clergy, elected by the General Conference for an eight-year term. The Judicial Council interprets the Book of Discipline between sessions of General Conference, and during General Conference, the Judicial Council rules on the constitutionality of laws passed by General Conference. The Council also determines whether actions of local churches, annual conferences, church agencies, and bishops are in accordance with church law. The Council reviews all decisions of law made by bishops. The Judicial Council cannot create any legislation; it can only interpret existing legislation. The Council meets twice a year at various locations throughout the world. The Judicial Council also hears appeals from those who have been accused of chargeable offenses that can result in defrocking or revocation of membership.
The Annual Conference, roughly the equivalent of a diocese in the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church or a synod in some Lutheran denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is the basic unit of organization within the UMC. The term Annual Conference is often used to refer to the geographical area it covers as well as the frequency of meeting. Clergy are members of their Annual Conference rather than of any local congregation, and are appointed to a local church or other charge annually by the conference’s Resident Bishop at the meeting of the Annual Conference. In many ways, the United Methodist Church operates as a confederation of the Annual Conferences, and interpretations of the Book of Discipline by one conference are not binding upon another.
Annual conferences are further divided into Districts, each served by a District Superintendent. The district superintendents are also appointed annually from the ordained elders of the Annual Conference by the bishop. District superintendents, upon completion of their service as superintendent, routinely return to serving local congregations. The Annual Conference cabinet is composed of the resident bishop and the district superintendents.
There is no official headquarters of the church although many of its biggest administrative offices are in Nashville, Tennessee and are physically located near Vanderbilt University (which has historic Methodist ties but is no longer associated with the church). While the General Conference is the only organization that can officially speak for The United Methodist Church as a whole, there are several councils, boards, commissions, and agencies that the church operates on the denominational level. These organizations address specific topic areas of denomination-wide concern with administrative offices throughout the United States.
The first Methodist clergy were ordained by John Wesley, a minister in the Church of England, because of the crisis caused by the American Revolution which isolated the Methodists in the States from the Church of England and its sacraments. Today, the clergy includes men and women who are ordained by Bishops as Elders and Deacons and are appointed to various ministries. Elders in the United Methodist Church (UMC) are part of what is called the itinerating ministry and are subject to the authority and appointment of their bishops. They generally serve as pastors at local congregations. Deacons make up a serving ministry and may serve as musicians, liturgists, educators, business administrators, and a number of other ministries. Elders and deacons are generally required to obtain master’s degrees (M Div. or Th M.), or other appropriate degrees that are at a minimum at the baccalaureate level, before commissioning and then ultimately ordination. Elders in full connection are each a member of their Annual Conference Order of Elders. Likewise each Deacon in full connection is a member of their Annual Conference Order of Deacons (abbr. OD, for Ordinarium Diaconates, lat.).
The main difference between elders and deacons is that elders, in a priestly function, connect the people to God, while deacons, in a servant leadership function, connect the people of God to service in the world. In the priestly function, the elder has the authority to preside over the two sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, while deacons are to assist in the leadership of these sacraments. Elders are itinerant; they are appointed to a place of leadership at the decision of their bishop. Deacons are also appointed to a place of service by the bishop, but they are not itinerant. Deacons choose a place of service and request appointment from the bishop. Deacons whose primary appointment is beyond the local church also have a secondary appointment to a worshiping congregation. (The United Methodist Book of Discipline spells out these distinctions.)
The Methodist Church has allowed ordination of women with full rights of clergy since 1956, based on Galatians 3:28 NRSV: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”. The United Methodist Church, along with other Protestant Churches, holds that when the historical contexts involved are understood a coherent Biblical argument can be made in favor of women’s ordination.
At the 1996 General Conference the ordination order of transitional deacon was abolished. This created a new order known as the “commissioned elder.” The commissioned elder is a recent seminary graduate who serves three years in a full-time appointment. During this three-year probationary period, the commissioned elder is granted sacramental ministry in their local appointment.
There is also another clerical classification called the Fellowship of Local Pastors. Elders may minister and celebrate the sacraments in any church or any other setting (where invited), while local pastors may only serve in ministry and administer the sacraments in the specific church to which they are appointed by their bishop; as such, their ministry is often understood as a direct extension of the ministry of the bishop, for its authority is directly and inseparably linked to it. Local pastors are not required to have advanced degrees but are required to pass licensing courses and examinations before the District Committee on Ministry, and are further required to take yearly classes, which if completed before retirement may also lead to ordination as an Elder. Local Pastors are not ordained. Local Pastors preside over the sacraments in their local appointments.
All clergy appointments are made and fixed annually by the Resident Bishop on the advice of the Annual Conference Cabinet, which is composed of the Area Provost/Dean (if one is appointed) and the several District Superintendents of the Districts of the Annual Conference. Until the Bishop has read the appointments at the session of the Annual Conference, no appointments are officially fixed. Many Annual Conferences try to avoid making appointment changes between sessions of Annual Conference. While an appointment is made one year at a time, it is most common for an appointment to be continued for multiple years. One recent survey concluded that small church appointments currently average three to four years, while large church appointments average seven to nine years. Appointment tenures in extension ministries, such as Campus Ministry, Missions, Higher Education and other ministries beyond the local church are often even longer. Across the denomination, longer tenures are becoming more common.
Another position in the United Methodist Church is that of the lay speaker. Although not considered clergy, lay speakers often preach during services of worship when an ordained elder or deacon is unavailable. There are two categories of lay speakers: local church lay speakers, who serve in and through their local churches, and certified lay speakers, who serve in their own churches, in other churches, and through district or conference projects and programs. To be recognized as local church lay speakers, they must be recommended by their pastor and Church Council or Charge Conference, and complete the basic course for lay speaking. Each year they must reapply, reporting how they have served and continued to learn during that year. To be recognized as certified lay speakers, they must be recommended by their pastor and Church Council or Charge Conference, complete the basic course and one advanced lay speaking course, and be interviewed by the District or Conference Committee on Lay Speaking. They must report and reapply annually; and they must complete at least one advanced course every three years.
The 2004 General Conference created another class of ministry, the Certified Lay Minister (CLM). CLMs are not considered clergy but instead remain lay members of the United Methodist Church. They must complete coursework beyond that of Certified Lay Speaker and then can be assigned to provide pastoral leadership to a church by the District Superintendent. They do not have sacramental authority; Certified Lay Ministers serve under the supervision of an ordained clergy person who is expected to provide the sacraments to those churches.
There are two classes of lay membership in the UMC: Baptized Members and Professing Members.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) practices infant and adult baptism. Baptized Members are those who have been baptized as an infant or child, but who have not subsequently professed their own faith. These Baptized Members become Professing Members through confirmation and sometimes the profession of faith. Individuals who were not previously baptized are baptized as part of their profession of faith and thus become Professing Members in this manner. Individuals may also become a Professing Member through transfer from another Christian denomination.
Baptism is a sacrament in the UMC, (while confirmation and profession of faith are not).
The lay members of the church are extremely important in the UMC. The Professing Members are part of all major decisions in the church. General, Jurisdictional, Central, and Annual Conferences are all required to have an equal number of laity and clergy
In a local church, many decisions are made by an administrative board or council. This council is made up of laity representing various other organizations within the local church. The elder or local pastor sits on the council as a voting member.
According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church is just one branch of the universal Christian church. Therefore, The United Methodist Church is active in ecumenical relations with other denominations, It is a member of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ, and Christian Churches Together.