By Terry M. Smith
“Individual congregations retain full privileges of self-determination within the framework of the Conference Constitution. However, membership in the Conference implies the responsible support of resolutions and programs developed together” (The Constitution, 20). “Self-determination within the framework”—here is the dance between local autonomy and national direction.
Listening to some people talk about self-determination (autonomy), I get confused. Who decides on what it means in practice?
Churches choose their pastors. To be nationally recognized and to vote at national ministerial meetings, though, pastors are to go through the BLO’s examination process. Some churches and pastoral search committees seem unconcerned about the examination process—despite its being designed, in part, for their protection.
Other matters are footwashing, war and peace, women in ministry, baptism and membership, and fundraising. Some will be clarified through the Statement of Faith review. The General Board will guide processes where needed.
Local decisions have an impact. During a joint ministerial meeting in 1941, Prairie Rose announced that only its brethren would vote to select its ministers (Harvey Plett, Seeking to be Faithful, 149). Prairie Rose chose self-autonomy.
Dr. Plett speaks of how this “led to greater autonomy in the local church.” What isn’t mentioned is the precedent’s implication: a local church can move in a direction not yet recognized by the wider body. Other EMC congregations have since followed Prairie Rose’s example, deciding internally about various matters.
The General Board plans to look at conference structures. Perhaps this will clarify the meaning of “self-determination within the framework.”