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Jurisdictional History

July 11, 2012

The jurisdictional conference system for Methodist, and subsequently United Methodist, churches in the U.S.A., dates back to the 1939 formation of the Methodist Church when the Methodist Episcopal Church (predominantly northern and western based), the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Protestant Church united. Up to that time, the General Conferences of the M.E. Church and the M.E. Church, South elected and assigned their respective bishops, and the M.P. Church functioned without episcopal leadership.  Since the northern church had the overwhelming number of members at the time of denominational merger, there was a fear among southern Methodists that election of bishops by the General Conference would result in all those elected coming from northern conferences, effectively disenfranchising them from electing a bishop with rootage in the M.E. Church, South.

The compromise that was worked out was the creation of the jurisdictional conference system which were granted the authority to elect and assign bishops within their respective regions.  Those elected would continue to be understood to be general superintendents of the entire church.  The salaries of all U.S. bishops were to be the same, with the funds to pay their compensation and other expenses raised through a general church apportioned fund.

By late in the 20th Century membership patterns had shifted. In 1939, the NCJ and NEJ had almost twice as many members as the SCJ and SEJ.  Now, the reverse is the case.  If the General Conference were to elect and assign bishops across all the U.S. annual conferences, southern conferences would have the greatest proportion of clergy and laity participating in the process.

That is without accounting for the 40 percent of UM members in the Central Conferences in Africa, the Philippines and Europe who elect and assign their bishops through a similar process as the jurisdictional conferences within each of the central conferences.  Those bishops are also general superintendents of the entire denomination, and are compensated by funds raised through the General Episcopal Fund.

-Steve Zekoff

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