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United Methodist Church
United Methodist Church logo Cross and flame
Classification Protestant
Orientation Mainline[1][2][3]
Polity Episcopal (Connectionalism)
Associations Churches Uniting in Christ, Christian Churches Together, National Council of Churches, World Council of Churches, World Methodist Council
Geographical area Worldwide: divided into

122 Annual/Central Conferences,[4] and 69 Episcopal Areas[4]

Origin 1968
Dallas, Texas
Merge of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church
Congregations 41,826[4]
Members worldwide: 12 million (8.0 million in the United States;[4] 3.5 million in Africa, Asia, and Europe)[4]
Official Website

The United Methodist Church is a Protestant Christian denomination. Its theological traditions are richly steeped in Wesleyanism[5] and Anglicanism. The founder, John Wesley, and several others who joined him in forming Methodism were Anglican clergymen.

The UMC is a global church with a presence in nearly 130 countries.[6] As of 2007, worldwide membership was about 12 million members: 8.0 million in the United States,[7] 3.5 million in Africa, Asia, and Europe.[8] In the United States, it ranks as the largest mainline church, second largest Protestant church (after the Southern Baptist Convention), and third largest Christian Church overall. The United Methodist Church is the largest Methodist denomination in the world. It has both mainline and evangelical elements.[2][9] It is a member church of the World Council of Churches, the World Methodist Council, and other religious associations.

Origins and history

The Methodist Church began in the mid-1700's as a movement within the Church of England. A small group of students formed a group on the Oxford University campus. The group included John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield and focused on Bible study, methodical study of scripture and living a holy life. Other students mocked the group by calling it the "Holy Club." They also mocked them by calling them "the Methodists" for being overly legalistic and exceptionally detailed with their Bible study, opinions, and lifestyle. Eventually the Methodists started individual societies or classes for members of the Church of England that wanted to live a more sacred life.

In 1735, the Wesley brothers went to the US to preach the gospel to the Indians in Georgia. Within two years the "Holy Club" had disbanded. Wesley returned to England and met with a core group of preachers whom he held in high regard. He wrote that "they appeared to be of one heart, as well as of one judgment, resolved to be Bible-Christians at all events; and, wherever they were, to preach with all their might plain, old, Bible Christianity." These ministers continued their affiliation with the Church of England. Meantime, they began to be convinced of biblical truths that were not then popular among Anglicans. Some of their convictions became that "by grace we are saved through faith, and that justification by faith was the doctrine of the Church as well as of the Bible. As soon as they came to these conclusions, they preached them. Salvation by faith became their standing topic and implied to them three things which they saw as foundational to Christian faith:

  1. That men are all, by nature, "dead in sin," and, consequently, "children of wrath."
  2. That they are "justified by faith alone."
  3. That faith produces inward and outward holiness: And these points they insisted on day and night. In a short time they became popular Preachers. The congregations were large wherever they preached. The former name was then revived; and all these gentlemen, with their followers, were entitled Methodists.[10]

The first official organization in the United States occurred in Baltimore, Maryland in 1784 with the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the Christmas Conference, with Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as the leaders.[11][12]

Though John Wesley originally wanted the Methodists to stay within the Church of England, the American Revolution decisively separated the Methodists in the Colonies from the life and sacraments of the English state Church. After unsuccessful attempts to have a bishop sent by the Church of England to start a new church in the colonies, Wesley took the extraordinary step of setting aside fellow priest Thomas Coke as a superintendent (bishop) to organize a separate Methodist Church in 1784. Along with Coke, Wesley sent a revision of the Anglican Prayerbook and Articles of Religion, all of which were received by the Baltimore Christmas Conference of 1784, which established the new church.

The Lovely Lane Methodist Church is considered the Mother Church of American Methodism.[13] 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. The Methodist Episcopal Church rapidly became the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with 4000 circuit riders by 1844.

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. This uniting conference took place at First Methodist Church of Marion, Indiana. The church building is currently the home of First United Methodist Church of Marion, Indiana.

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.

Combining the personal holiness emphasis of the evangelical influence in the church with the outreach emphasis from the social gospel proponents has created a combination of practices within The United Methodist Church.


The United Methodist Church 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. 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.

While many United Methodist congregations operate in the evangelical tradition, others are similar to many mainline Protestant denominations. Although United Methodist beliefs have evolved over time, these beliefs can be traced to the writings of the church's founders, John Wesley and Charles Wesley (Anglican Priests), Philip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm (United Brethren), and Jacob Albright (Evangelical). With the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, theologian Albert C. Outler led the team which systematized denominational doctrine. Outler's work proved pivotal in the work of union, and he is largely considered the first United Methodist theologian.

The officially established Doctrinal Standards of United Methodism are:

  • The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church;[14]
  • The Confession of Faith (United Methodist) of the Evangelical United Brethren Church;[14]
  • The General Rules of the Methodist Societies;[15]
  • The Standard Sermons of John Wesley;[14]
  • And John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.[14]

These Doctrinal Standards are constitutionally protected and nearly impossible to change or remove.[14] Other doctrines of the United Methodist Church are found in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

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).[16]
  • Scripture. The writings in the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired word of God.
  • Sin. While human beings were intended to bear the image of God, all humans are sinners for whom that image is distorted. Sin estranges us from God and corrupts human nature such that we cannot heal or save ourselves.[17]
  • 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.[18]
  • Sacraments. The UMC recognizes only two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Other rites such as Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Funerals, and Anointing of the Sick are performed but are not considered sacraments. In Holy Baptism, 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.[19] It believes that Baptism is a sacrament in which God initiates a covenant with individuals,[20] people become a part of the Church,[20] is not to be repeated,[20] and is a means of grace.[21] The United Methodist Church generally practices Baptism by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion[22] and recognizes Trinitarian formula[23] baptisms from other Christian denominations in good standing.[24] The United Methodist Church affirms the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion,[25] (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),[26] believes that the celebration is an anamnesis of Jesus’ death,[27] believes the sacrament to be a means of grace,[28] and practices open communion.[29]
  • 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,[30] the Apostle's Creed[31] and the Nicene Creed;[32] they are used frequently in services of worship.[33] The Book of Discipline also recognizes the importance of the Chalcedonian Creed of the Council of Chalcedon.[34]

Distinctive Wesleyan emphases

File:Church in 1999.jpg

Photograph of First United Methodist Church in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (1999)

The key emphasis of Wesley's theology relates to how Divine grace operates within the individual. Wesley defined the Way of Salvation as the operation of grace in at least three parts: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace.

Prevenient grace, or the grace that "goes before" us, is given to all people. It is that power which enables us to love and motivates us to seek a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.[35] This grace is the present work of God to turn us from our sin-corrupted human will to the loving will of the Father. In this work, God desires that we might sense both our sinfulness before God and God’s offer of salvation. Prevenient grace allows those tainted by sin to nevertheless make a truly free choice to accept or reject God's salvation in Christ.[35]

Justifying Grace or Accepting Grace[35] is that grace, offered by God to all people, that we receive by faith and trust in Christ, through which God pardons the believer of sin. It is in justifying grace we are received by God, in spite of our sin. In this reception, we are forgiven through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. The justifying grace cancels our guilt and empowers us to resist the power of sin and to fully love God and neighbor. Today, justifying grace is also known as conversion, "accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior," or being "born again."[35][36] John Wesley originally called this experience the New Birth.[37] This experience can occur in different ways; it can be one transforming moment, such as an altar call experience,[38] or it may involve a series of decisions across a period of time.[39]

Sanctifying Grace is that grace of God which sustains the believers in the journey toward Christian Perfection: a genuine love of God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and a genuine love of our neighbors as ourselves. Sanctifying grace enables us to respond to God by leading a Spirit-filled and Christ-like life aimed toward love.

Wesleyan theology maintains that salvation is the act of God's grace entirely, from invitation, to pardon, to growth in holiness. Furthermore, God's prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace interact dynamically in the lives of Christians from birth to death.

For Wesley, good works were the fruit of one's salvation, not the way in which that salvation was earned. Faith and good works go hand in hand in Methodist theology: a living tree naturally and inevitably bears fruit. Wesleyan theology rejects the doctrine of eternal security, believing that salvation can be rejected.[40] Wesley emphasized that believers must continue to grow in their relationship with Christ, through the process of Sanctification.

A key outgrowth of this theology is the United Methodist dedication not only to the Evangelical Gospel of repentance and a personal relationship with God, but also to the Social Gospel and a commitment to social justice issues that have included abolition, women's suffrage, labor rights, civil rights, and ministry to the poor. Thus, Wesleyan theology is sometimes characterized as "progressive evangelical."

Characterization of Wesleyan theology

Wesleyan theology stands at a unique cross-roads between evangelical and sacramental, between liturgical and charismatic, and between Anglo-Catholic and Reformed theology and practice. It has been characterized by Arminian theology with an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit to bring holiness into the life of the participating believer. The United Methodist Church believes in prima scriptura, seeing the Holy Bible as the primary authority in the Church and using tradition, reason, and experience to interpret it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit (see Wesleyan Quadrilateral).[41] Today, the UMC is generally considered one of the more moderate and tolerant denominations with respect to race, gender, and ideology though the denomination itself actually includes a very wide spectrum of attitudes.

Saints in the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church believes that "saints" are those who have lived a life of Christian faith and example and have gone on to become a part of the church triumphant or "Cloud of Witnesses."

The Church of England, an historical predecessor to the United Methodist Church, believes that a "Saint" can be a martyr, confessor, evangelist, or an important biblical figure whose life is to be imitated (see 1 Cor. 11:1). Methodists do not have a process for canonizing Saints and do not practice the veneration or patronage of Saints. Article XIV of The United Methodist Articles of Religion yields further insight on the denominational stance of Saints,

"--Of Purgatory-- The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardon, worshiping, and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant to the Word of God.[42]"

Diversity within Methodist beliefs

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. For example, Republican former President George W. Bush is United Methodist and Republican former Vice President Dick Cheney attends a United Methodist Church. In addition, Democratic Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Senator Max Cleland are also United Methodists. Many practicing United Methodists believe this flexibility is one of the UMC's strongest qualities.

Social issues

Part of a series on
John Wesley clipped.png George Whitefield preaching.jpg
John Wesley George Whitefield


Doctrinal distinctives
Articles of Religion
Prevenient Grace
Governmental Atonement
Imparted righteousness
Christian perfection

Richard Allen
Francis Asbury
Thomas Coke
Albert C. Outler
James Varick
Charles Wesley

Largest groups
World Methodist Council
United Methodist Church
AME Church
AME Zion Church
Church of the Nazarene
British Methodist Church
CME Church
Uniting Church in Australia

Related movements
Holiness movement
Salvation Army


The United Methodist Church upholds the sanctity of unborn human life and is reluctant to affirm abortion as an acceptable practice, except when the life of the mother is threatened. Further, the UMC condemns the use of late-term or partial birth abortion, except if the life of the mother is in jeopardy.[43] In addition, it is committed to "assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion;"[44] however, the Church recognizes the right of the mother to choose after proper consideration of all options with medical, pastoral and other counsel.[43]


Historically, the Methodist Church has supported the temperance movement.[45] John Wesley warned against the dangers of drinking in his famous sermon "The Use of Money"[46] and in his letter to an alcoholic.[47] At one time, Methodist ministers had to take a pledge not to drink and encouraged their congregations to do the same.[48] Today, the United Methodist Church states that it "affirms our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God's liberating and redeeming love for persons."[49] In fact, the United Methodist Church uses unfermented grape juice in the sacrament of Holy Communion, thus "expressing pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics, enabling the participation of children and youth, and supporting the church's witness of abstinence."[50]

Capital punishment

The United Methodist Church, along with other Methodist churches, also condemns capital punishment, saying that it cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life.[51] The Church also holds that the death penalty falls unfairly and unequally upon marginalized persons including the poor, the uneducated, ethnic and religious minorities, and persons with mental and emotional illnesses.[52] The United Methodist Church also believes that Jesus explicitly repudiated the lex talionis in Matthew 5:38-39 and abolished the death penalty in John 8:7.[51] The General Conference of the United Methodist Church calls for its bishops to uphold opposition to capital punishment and for governments to enact an immediate moratorium on carrying out the death penalty sentence.


The United Methodist Church opposes gambling, believing that it is a sin which feeds on human greed and invites people to place their trust in possessions, rather than in God, who Christians should "love ... with all your heart" (Mark 12:29-30).[53] It quotes the Apostle Paul who states that:

9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:9-10a NRSV)[54]

The United Methodist Church therefore holds that:

  • Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.[53]
  • Where gambling has become addictive, the Church will encourage such individuals to receive therapeutic assistance so that the individual's energies may be redirected into positive and constructive ends.[53]
  • The Church should promote standards and personal lifestyles that would make unnecessary and undesirable the resort to commercial gambling—including public lotteries—as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government.[53]


The United Methodist Church maintains that "all persons are individuals of sacred worth...," and encourages United Methodists to be in ministry with and for all people.[55]

In accordance with its view of Scripture,[56] the Church officially considers, "the practice of homosexuality (to be) incompatible with Christian teaching." It states that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" cannot be ordained as ministers, and supports "…laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman."[55][57]

In addition, the United Methodist Church prohibits the celebration of same-sex unions[55]. Rev. Jimmy Creech was defrocked after a highly publicized church trial in 1999 in response to his participation in same-sex union ceremonies.[58]. It forbids any United Methodist board, agency, committee, commission, or council to give United Methodist funds to any gay organization or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.[55]

In 1987, a United Methodist church court in New Hampshire defrocked Methodist minister Rose Mary Denman for being openly gay.[59] In 2005, clergy credentials were removed from Irene Elizabeth Stroud after she was convicted in a church trial of violating Church law by engaging in a lesbian relationship; this conviction was later upheld by the Church Judicial Council, the highest court in the denomination.[60] The Judicial Council also affirmed that a Virginia pastor had the right to deny local church membership to an openly gay man. This affirmation, however, was based upon a senior pastor's right to judge the readiness of a congregant to join as a full member of the church. [61]

Military service

According to The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church,

"The United Methodist Church calls upon all who choose to take up arms or who order others to do so to evaluate their actions in accordance with historic church teaching limiting resort to war, including questions of proportionality, legal authority, discrimination between combatants and noncombatants, just cause, and probability of success....[62]

The United Methodist Church opposes conscription as incompatible with the Gospel message.[63] Therefore, the Church supports and extends its ministry to those persons who conscientiously oppose all war, or any particular war, and who therefore refuse to serve in the armed forces or to cooperate with systems of military conscription. However, the United Methodist Church also supports and extends its ministry to those persons who conscientiously choose to serve in the armed forces or to accept alternative service. The church also states that "as Christians they are aware that neither the way of military action, nor the way of inaction is always righteous before God."[63]


The United Methodist Church believes war is incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Therefore, the Church rejects war as an instrument of national foreign policy, to be employed only as a last resort in the prevention of such evils as genocide, brutal suppression of human rights, and unprovoked international aggression.[64] It insists that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, The United Methodist Church endorses general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.[64]

Worship and liturgy

The United Methodist Church includes a variety of approaches to public worship. John Wesley wrote that

"there is no Liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety, than the Common Prayer of the Church of England."[65]

When the Methodists in America were separated from the Church of England, John Wesley himself provided a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer called the Sunday Service of the Methodists in the United States of America. Wesley's Sunday Service has shaped the official liturgies of the Methodists ever since.

Today, The United Methodist Church has official liturgies for services of Holy Communion, baptism, weddings, funerals, ordination, anointing of the sick, and daily office prayer services, as well as special services for holy days such as All Saints Day, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. These services (traditionally called "the ritual") are contained in The United Methodist Hymnal and The United Methodist Book of Worship.[66] In most cases these liturgies are derived from the Anglican tradition's Book of Common Prayer. Many congregations are highly liturgical and follow these official services quite closely. However the United Methodist Church does allow flexibility in the use of the official services and many Churches use only parts of them in their regular worship activities and some congregations rarely use them at all. In most cases, congregations also use other elements commonly associated with liturgical worship such as candles, a pulpit robe or other vestments on the minister, paraments on the altar-table, banners, liturgical art, the Apostles' Creed, and following the Christian Calendar. Like the Anglicans, the United Methodist Church also believes in rememebering the saints.

Since the days of Charles Wesley, the great hymn-writer and early Methodist leader, lively singing has been, and remains, an important aspect of United Methodist worship.

Many United Methodist Congregations have adopted more contemporary styles of music and audio-visual technology into their worship services as well, though most of these churches also offer more traditional styles, or experiment with ways of incorporating both ancient and contemporary elements into their worship. Some churches, for example, use contemporary musical styles in what is otherwise a very traditional liturgy.

Listening to the reading of Scripture and a sermon based upon the Biblical text is virtually always included in United Methodist worship. Many United Methodist churches follow the Revised Common Lectionary for their Sunday Bible readings.

Many churches include a time or response or a prayer time in which people may share concerns or pray with ministers. This time of response may include celebrations of baptism or confirmation or profession of faith.[67]

Many congregations also celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion on a weekly basis, as John Wesley himself encouraged his followers to do,[68] though a number of congregations celebrate the sacrament only monthly. In adopting the statement on Holy Communion entitled This Holy Mystery in 2004, the General Conference of the Church urged congregations to move toward weekly celebration of communion and to use the official liturgies of the church when doing so.[69]


Part of a series on
United Methodism
John Wesley

Christianity · Protestantism
Anglicanism · Wesleyanism · Methodism
Evangelicalism · Pietism · Arminianism
Reformed · Brethren · Mennonite

Doctrinal distinctives
Articles of Religion
Prevenient grace
Governmental Atonement
Imparted righteousness
Christian perfection
Conditional preservation of the saints

John Wesley · Charles Wesley
Francis Asbury · Thomas Coke
Jacob Albright · Philip Otterbein
Martin Boehm · Albert Outler
Bishops · Theologians

Predecessor groups
The Methodist Church
Evangelical United Brethren Church
Methodist Episcopal Church
Methodist Episcopal Church, South
Methodist Protestant Church
Evangelical Association
Church of the United Brethren in Christ

local pastors · deacons · elders
district superintendents · bishops

General conference
Legislative Committees

Related movements
Holiness movement
Salvation Army


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 as to doctrine and polity.
  • 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."[70] 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.[71]
  • 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.[72]

General Conference

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. Non-legislative resolutions are recorded in the Book of Resolutions, which is published after each General Conference, and expire after eight years unless passed again by a subsequent session of General Conference. The last General Conference was held in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2008. The next General Conference will be April 25-May 4, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.[73] The event is currently rotated between the U.S. jurisdictions of the church. If the system is not changed beforehand, the 2016 General Conference would be in the West, which has not hosted since Denver, Colorado in 1996. 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.

The plenary session is presided over by an active bishop who has been selected by committee of delegates to the Conference. It is not uncommon for different bishops to preside on different days. The presiding officer usually is accompanied by parliamentarians. [74]

Jurisdictional and Central Conferences

Subordinate to the General Conference are Jurisdictional and Central Conferences which also meet every four years. The United States is divided into five jurisdictions: Northeastern, Southeastern, North Central, South Central and Western. Outside the United States the church is divided into seven central conferences: Africa, Congo, West Africa, Central & Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and Philippines. 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.

Decisions in between the four-year meetings are made by the Mission Council (usually consisting of church bishops). One of the most high profile decisions in recent years by one of the Councils was a decision by the Mission Council of the South Central Jurisdiction which in March 2007 approved a 99-year lease of 36 acres (150,000 m2) at Southern Methodist University for the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The decision generated controversy in light of the Bush's support of the Iraq War which the church bishops have criticized.[75] A debate over whether the decision should or could be submitted for approval by the Southern Jurisdictional Conference at its July 2008 meeting in Dallas, Texas remains unresolved.[76]

Judicial Council

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 ratio of laity to clergy alternates every four years.[77] 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[78] 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.

Annual Conference

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 in a connectional organization of the Annual Conferences, and actions taken 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.

Administrative offices

Interchurch Center in New York City, headquarters of the GBGM, GCCUIC and UMCOR

There is no official headquarters of 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 13 agencies, boards and commissions of the general church. These organizations address specific topic areas of denomination-wide concern with administrative offices throughout the United States.[79]

  • General Council on Finance and Administration (Nashville) (GCFA)
  • General Boards of Pension and Health Benefits (Evanston, Illinois) (GBOPHB)
  • General Board of Church and Society (Washington, DC) (GBCS)
  • General Board of Discipleship (Nashville) (GBOD)
  • General Board of Global Ministries (New York City) (GBGM)
  • General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (Nashville) (GBHEM)
  • General Commission on Archives and History (Madison, New Jersey) (GCAH)
  • General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (New York City) (GCCUIC)
  • General Commission on Religion and Race (Washington, DC) (GCORR)
  • General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (Chicago) (GCSRW)
  • General Commission on United Methodist Men (Nashville) (GCUMM)
  • United Methodist Communications (Nashville) (UMCom)
  • United Methodist Publishing House (Nashville) (UMPH)


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 required to obtain master's degrees (generally an M.Div.), or other equivalent degrees, 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. [80]

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,[81] based on Galatians 3:28 NRSV:[82] "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."[54]. 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.[83]

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. This was a change in its theology of ministry for the United Methodist Church in the ordering of its ministry. For the first time in its history non-ordained pastors became a normal expectation, rather than an extraordinary provision for ministry.

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.

Christ United Methodist Church in Rochester, Minnesota

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.[84][85] There are two categories of lay speakers: local church lay speakers,[86] 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.[86] 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.[86] 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.[86]

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. [87]


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.[88]

Baptism is a sacrament in the UMC, (while confirmation and profession of faith are not). The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church directs the local church to offer membership preparation or confirmation classes to all people, including adults.[89] The term confirmation is generally reserved for youth, while some variation on membership class is generally used for adults wishing to join the church. The Book of Discipline normally allows any youth at least completing sixth grade to participate, although the pastor has discretionary authority to allow a younger person to participate. In confirmation and membership preparation classes, students learn about Church and the Methodist-Christian theological tradition in order to profess their ultimate faith in Christ.

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.[90]

Ecumenical relations

According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church is just one branch of the Holy Catholic Church. Therefore, The United Methodist Church is active in ecumenical relations with other denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church. It is a member of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ, and Christian Churches Together.

In April 2005, the United Methodist Council of Bishops approved "A Proposal for Interim Eucharistic Sharing." This document is the first step toward full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which the UMC bishops hope will happen by 2008. The ELCA approved this same document in August 2005.[91] At the 2008 General Conference, the United Methodist Church approved full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.[92] The ELCA will vote on the issue in August 2009.[93]

The Church is also in dialogue with the Episcopal Church for full communion by 2012.[94] The two denominations are working on a document called "Confessing Our Faith Together."

The United Methodist Church has since 1985 been exploring a possible merger with three historically African-American Methodist denominations: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.[4] A Commission on Pan Methodist Cooperation and Union formed in 2000 to carry out work on such a merger.[95]

There are also a number of churches such as the Methodist Church in India (MCI), that are "autonomous affiliated" churches in relation to the United Methodist Church.[96][97]

The United Methodist Church (UMC) is also active in the World Methodist Council, an interdenominational group composed of various churches in the tradition of John Wesley to promote the Gospel throughout the world. On July 18, 2006, delegates to the World Methodist Council voted unanimously to adopt the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," which was approved in 1999 by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.[98][99]


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See also

  • Conferences of the United Methodist Church
  • Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church
  • Connectionalism
  • Cross and Flame
  • General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns
  • International council of the United Methodist Church in Germany
  • Lay speaker
  • List of Bishops of the United Methodist Church
  • List of Methodist theologians
  • Methodist Federation for Social Action
  • Order of St. Luke
  • Reconciling Ministries Network
  • Social Creed
  • The Book of Hymns
  • The Book of Worship for Church and Home
  • The Upper Room
  • United Methodist Committee on Relief
  • United and uniting churches
  • Universities and colleges affiliated with the United Methodist Church
  • Wesley Foundation

External links