The Commission on a Way Forward: What did they accomplish — and how?

By February 15, 2019

The Commission on a Way Forward was proposed by the Council of Bishops and approved by the 2016 General Conference to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. The Council of Bishops includes all active and retired Bishops of the United Methodist Church. They are collectively is charged with the general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church. Bishops are specifically assigned to preside over the work of a regional area.

The 32-member Commission on A Way Forward is a diverse body that represents the global church with members coming from nine countries with a variety of theological perspectives. The Commission is one third laity, one third clergy, and one third bishops and includes younger persons, LGBTQ persons, professors, administrators, pastors, youth ministers, campus ministers, lay leaders, large church pastors, and persons identified with renewal and advocacy groups.

What was their process? What really happened in those private meetings behind closed doors? How did they reach consensus and their final report?

Here’s a little more on how this thoughtful and committed yet diverse group worked through incredibly complex and difficult issues to arrive at a report and recommendations. While you can certainly find lots of more detailed information elsewhere, here’s what you need to know, understand, and appreciate about what went into this process — and their progression from original charge to final recommendation to the Council of Bishops.

Between October 2016  and May of 2018, the Commission met every six weeks to two months, nine times in just over 17 months.

It began with a conference call in December 2016, where everyone introduced themselves and offered a prayer for the commission and its process. From this call came a WordCloud portraying the words used by members of the Commission on a Way Forward as they joined in a global prayer for their work together in the months ahead on behalf of the church. The larger the font, the more the word was used by participants in the prayer.

The first official meeting took place in January 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The group worked in private, away from the presence of media. In this meeting the group identified its assets and its challenges. The moderator’s report prepared by Bishops David Yemba, Sandra Steiner Ball and Ken Carter following this meeting states, “The assets that are present in the commission are truly gifts from God and we believe them to be sufficient to respond to the challenges, and indeed to transform our challenges into gifts. This is and will not be a human achievement but is the unfolding work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.”

Following its second meeting the moderators reported that the Commission sought to “design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.” At this time they reflected on what it meant for them as a group to see:

  • “mission” at the heart of the way forward for our denomination;
  • the possibility of discovering unity as we are in mission together;
  • that mission could provide their primary framework;
  • how we are called to be in mission more fully with people in the LGBTQ community.

At the end of this deep reflection they were each asked to offer three words to express their prayer for the church.

In its third meeting the Commission studied scriptures, shared meals, reflected honestly about their convictions and listened intently to each other’s hopes. “We also began to think strategically and structurally about the future of our church, as we have been asked by the denomination to do,” the moderators report. “We urged the entire church to stay focused on the Commission’s work as our best opportunity to determine God’s leading for the church.” Next steps included exploring different and contextual understandings of LGBTQ identity with a desire for as much unity and connection as possible, working toward developing models of listening and teaching in collaboration with the Council of Bishops and across annual conferences.

“The key part of the early work was to build trust and intentional community among a group of people who had good reasons not to trust each other,” said Bishop David Yemba, one of the moderators of the Commission.

At the heart of this work on relationship building was the book, The Anatomy of Peace  (Arbinger Institute) which focuses on helping people build the capacity for living through conflict with a heart of peace instead of a heart at war: A heart of peace helps us to see and treat others as people while a heart at war tends to see and treat others as objects, obstacles, or problems. “A heart at war exaggerates our differences. A heart at peace sees what we have in common,” added Bishop Yemba.

Using a covenant, they wrote together as their guide, the Commission trained their focus on finding a way forward rather than on representing groups or constituencies. “This led us to discover the interests behind the various positions and opened up multiple possibilities for how the church can continue to fulfill the ministry of Christ in both unity and with diversity,” explained Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, one of the moderators.

As they began work on possible models for A Way Forward, the Commission spent significant time during these meetings “listening to the church” through an open framework for receiving documents, ideas, and testimonies. The Commission also received and processed feedback from boards and agencies, local churches, annual conferences, individual lay and clergy persons, candidates for ministry, and seminary students. Conversations took place with individuals and interest groups across the globe.

In November 2017, the Commission presented an extended interim report to the Council of Bishops that included three sketches:

  • one that focused on accountability within the context of the current Book of Discipline language;
  • one that focused on removing restrictive language and placing a high value on contextuality and protections of various perspective;
  • and one that reimagined the church as a unified core with multiple branches.

In February 2018, the bishops held a special meeting to hear more details on the proposed plans from the Commission and to offer feedback. With continued input from bishops and constituencies around the church, the Commission refined and adapted the three models and presented its final report to the Council of Bishops in May 2018.

From there the Council of Bishops worked together to arrive at their recommendation based on the work of the Commission and the plan it is sending to the called session of the General Conference 2019.

Next week: What is the Council of Bishops’ role? What exactly are the “three plans” and what do they entail?

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Organization: The Church as Connection (from

Terms: General Conference, Jurisdictional Conferences, Central Conferences, Annual Conferences, Districts, Charge Conferences and Local Churches

United Methodist leaders often speak of the denomination as “the connection.” This concept has been central to Methodism from its beginning.

The United Methodist structure and organization began as a means of accomplishing the mission of spreading scriptural holiness. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, recognized the need for an organized system of communication and accountability and developed what he called the “connexion,” a network of classes, societies, and annual conferences.

Today, our denomination continues to be organized in a “connectional” system, which “enables us to carry out our mission in unity and strength” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 701). Every local church is linked to an interconnected network of organizations that join together in mission and ministry, allowing us to accomplish far more than any one local church or person could alone.

Within the connectional structure of The United Methodist Church, conferences provide the primary groupings of people and churches for discernment and decision-making. Wesley described Christian conferencing as a spiritual discipline through which God’s grace may be revealed. At every level of the connection, church leaders and members come together in conversation, or conferencing, to discuss important issues and discover God’s will for the church. The word, conference, thus refers to both the assembly and organization of people as well as the process of discerning God’s call together.

General Conference

As the primary legislative body, General Conference is the only entity with the authority to speak on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church. The General Conference meets every four years to consider the business and mission of the church. An equal number of lay and clergy delegates are elected from United Methodist conferences around the world to decide matters of policy and procedure for the denomination. Learn more.

Jurisdictional Conferences

There are five geographic jurisdictions, or regions, in the United States, which are comprised of eight to 15 annual conferences each. Learn more.

Central Conferences

In Africa, Europe and the Philippines, there are seven geographical regions, called central conferences, each of which is comprised of annual conferences and divided into several episcopal areas. Learn more.

Annual Conferences

The annual conference is a geographical entity, an organizational body (made up of elected lay and clergy members), and a yearly meeting. It is the fundamental body of the church (Book of Discipline, ¶ 11). Learn more.


Each local church is part of a district, which is an administrative grouping of churches in a geographic area. Learn more.

Charge Conferences and Local Churches

As the visible presence of the body of Christ, the local church is the place where members grow in faith and discipleship, putting their faith into action through ministry in the world. Learn more.

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Constitutional Structure (from

Terms: General Conference, Council of Bishops, Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church does not have a central headquarters or a single executive leader. Duties are divided among bodies that include the General Conference, the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council. Each of these entities is required by our Constitution, a foundational document, to be part of our structure, and plays a significant role in the life of the church.

General Conference

The General Conference, the primary legislative body of The United Methodist Church, is the only body that speaks officially for the church. Meeting once every four years to determine legislation affecting connectional matters, it is composed of no fewer than 600 and no more than 1,000 delegates.

Working within the boundaries of the Church Constitution and General Rules, the General Conference defines and fixes the conditions, privileges and duties of church membership; the powers and duties of elders, deacons, diaconal ministers and local pastors; and the powers and duties of annual conferences, missionary conferences, charge conferences and congregational meetings. It authorizes the organization, promotion and administrative work of the church. The General Conference also defines the powers and duties of the episcopacy, authorizes the official hymnal and book of worship, provides a judicial system and procedures, initiates and directs all connectional enterprises of the church and enacts other legislation for the operation of the church. Learn more.

Council of Bishops

The Council of Bishops gives general oversight of the ministry and mission of the church and spiritual leadership to the entire church connection. Composed of all active and retired bishops, the council meets as a group at least once a year.

Bishops are elected by Jurisdictional Conferences and assigned to a particular area, made up of one or more annual conferences. Each bishop provides oversight of the ministry and mission of annual conferences in his or her area and appoints all clergy to their places of service.

Through its Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, the council builds and maintains ties with other Christian denominations as well as other faith groups. Learn more.

Judicial Council

As the denomination’s highest judicial body or “court,” the Judicial Council’s nine members, made up of laity and clergy, are elected by the General Conference and normally meet twice a year to consider whether actions of the various church bodies adhere to the constitution and follow the rules outlined in the Book of Discipline.

Their cases are generally referred to them by action of the Council of Bishops, the annual conferences or the General Conference. According to the Constitution, decisions of the Judicial Council are final (Paragraph 57, Article III). Learn more.

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