(I have tried to explore and present these issues accurately and fairly. There are places, however, where I have bias: about the value of the trust clause, about the need for diversity and good debate inside a church, about sound scholarship when reading scripture, and about my fondness for the United Methodist Church. I was among the very first to be confirmed in the new United Methodist Church in 1968, as an eighth grader, just days after the formation of the denomination. It has been my home for all these years, and even though I’ve often felt angry and frustrated, it has nurtured my faith well and supported my ministry beyond what I deserved. In the spirit of Christian fellowship and charity, I welcome the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of others, especially those who think differently.
(written by J. Michael Smith, pastor, Geneseo Grace UMC, April 2022)
Part 1: THE BACKGROUND
We Methodists have always had a problem with unity, despite our aspirational first name: United Methodist. Although sparked by an Englishman, the denomination itself is indigenous to the United States: a land of nasty politics, fierce individualism, religious competition, and multiple cultures. Ever since its birth in 1784, Methodism has been shaped and stressed by these American forces. We read the Bible our own way and run the church as we think best. Preachers come and go, and so do the wrong sort of people in our congregations. And if the wrong sort don’t leave us alone, we might just jump overboard and launch the right sort of church without them.
American Methodism is a story of unilateral exits and mutual splits. Walk-outs included The African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (1821), and the Colored Methodist Church (1870). The Wesleyan Methodist Church left in 1843 and then found themselves splitting on four other occasions. The Congregational Methodist Church walked away in 1852 and fractured four additional times. The Free Methodist Church split away in 1860 and splintered thrice thereafter. The United Brethren in Christ of the Old Constitution split away in 1889, and the Evangelical Congregational Church in 1923. The Evangelical Methodist Church split in 1946 and went on to divide themselves into four more denominations. Other Methodist breakaway groups included The Church of the Nazarene (1908) and The Salvation Army (1865). Numerous Pentecostal denominations split from the Methodists starting in the early 1900s. Mutual splits involved the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church (1828), and the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Episcopal Church North (1844). On the EUB side, the United Evangelical Church parted ways from the Evangelical Association in 1891. Notorious language exclusions occurred in the late 1700s when both the United Brethren Churches and the Evangelical Association churches, made up of German speaking congregations, were denied integration with the Methodists on the grounds of language.
While the United Methodist Church celebrated several prominent mergers in its history (1923, 1939, 1946, 1968), each of those mergers added new layers of complexity and stress to an expanding denomination. Like every other mainline church, Methodists tried to span many cultures: ethnic, political, geographical, economic, and generational. But mainline churches have all discovered that the “American melting pot” is a phantasy. There is instead a simmering, hardening, sometime explosive alienation among America’s cultures feeling stuck in the pot with each other. We have no single American ethos when it comes to food, sex, music, or entertainment. Mainline denominations trying to echo Paul’s letter to the Ephesians have a hard row to hoe, when he writes about a Christ who “creates in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace…thus putting to death that hostility…” When it comes to going to church, “submit to one another” gives way to the less biblical, “birds of a feather flock together.”
At the time of our denominational formation (1968) mainline denominations were just past their peak membership. The “big tent” denomination, so popular in the heady days after World War II, started going out of fashion in the 1960s. As we moved through the seventies and eighties, more and more folks only wanted to go to a church with people whose lifestyle and politics matched their own. The fastest growing churches were those with cultural and political homogeneity. Religious people generally seek comfort, and as the nation became more politically polarized, people just felt more comfortable going to church with “those who think and vote like me.”
Furthermore, 1968 was a year of bitter and violent change in the United States. Cities were burning. Political assassinations dominated the news. Colleges and universities were in turmoil. Families were divided over the Viet Nam War. Political parties were splintering. Advocates for gender and racial equality were at odds over strategy. Some of us were wondering how followers of Christ could be silent in the face of so much injustice. Others of us were agitated with all the fuss. Everyone seemed angry at something: if not war, racism, sexism, bigotry, and poverty… then riots, disrespect for authority, sexual permissiveness, and rebellion in general. Gradually goaded and gamed to choose sides by worldly political forces, people in the church began to see their fellow Christians as “them.” The enemy was inside the house! Such was the fracturing culture of the late 20th century, infecting even churches… especially churches.
The newly formed United Methodist Church immediately adopted rules and structures that slammed the door shut on a “way of life” for many of our members: lurching forward into ordaining female pastors, eliminating racial segregation, and favoring more formal education for clergy. Millions in the denomination felt steamrolled by it all and simply left or joined more culturally nostalgic, homogenous congregations. On the other hand, baby-boomers left en masse, accusing the church of being outdated, hypocritical, and greedy. The generations that followed increasingly saw all churches as judgmental and irrelevant. Thousands of congregations went belly-up. We went from a denomination of 11 million people in the U.S. in 1968 to less than 7 million last year, and our numbers in the U.S. continue to fall rapidly.
Many United Methodist Church members, feeling the church wasn’t strict enough, struggled to find somewhere to “draw the line.” They didn’t want to be racist or sexist. But another issue was emerging in the late 60s and early 70s: homosexuality. There was little political support for gays and lesbians in those days, the Bible seemed to offer no defense for same sex partnerships, and the anxiety produced by the mere mention of the topic generated enormous fuel for those who wanted to advance their own careers or gain political power in or out of the church. When the spotlight finally found “the homosexuals,” one side attacked and the other counter-attacked. The new United Methodist Church quickly found itself embroiled in virulent disagreement over what Jesus would do about gay pastors and same sex marriages. And when delegates to the UMC General Conference in 1972 passed a resolution stating that “homosexuality” was incompatible with the teachings of the Bible, the culture wars took off inside the fledgling denomination. It’s been surreal ever since.
Meanwhile, outside the church and throughout American culture, LGTBQ+ issues became more openly discussed as millions of people came to know of family members who were not cisgender or heterosexual. Politicians debated the applications of civil rights, civil unions, and same-sex marriages. As society became more egalitarian, however, successive United Methodist General Conferences passed more and more restrictive legislation. Nearly all other discussions of sexual morality faded into the background, and the UMC became consumed with how the church should accept or restrict “homosexuals,” and how pastors and churches should be restricted when it came to various forms of ministry with same-sex couples.
With all the fireworks surrounding the fight over homosexuality, our attention toward other issues lost focus and energy. Racism and sexism went underground and grew unchecked. We barely flinched when churches in dying rural areas died along with them. We eagerly sold off church property in the inner city and reinvested it in fast growing suburban communities, paying little mind to the injustices of urban sprawl. Weary from “the homosexual debates,” we had no stomach for constructing credible and influential moral codes to help people cope with a wider range of sexual issues. When the demographics of our neighborhoods began to change, we started locking all our doors. People no longer felt a need for the programs we were promoting. Pastors were getting clinically depressed and quitting at an alarming rate. Congregations increasingly felt that the pastor wasn’t worth the money they were paying. There was a growing disconnect between congregations and denominational leaders. As congregations lost members, collective depression set in, and no one seemed to know the cure for either the empty pews or the depression. Experts kept telling us that our churches would be okay if we would just act more like our big brothers (big churches that were growing.) But we lost focus on all these problems. Instead, they collectively became a parade of invisible software running in the background, distorting the one issue on the screen we couldn’t take our eyes off of: homosexuality. A showdown became inevitable.
Part 2: THE SHOWDOWN
The debate over “homosexuality” grew and became even more venomous during the 2010s. For many pastors and churches, however, it remained hypothetical. After all, more than 99% of United Methodist clergy were NOT “self-avowed, practicing, homosexuals” and the prohibitions against conducting same-sex marriages weren’t really relevant, since most states didn’t allow it anyway.
And then in 2015, in Obergefell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriages were legal in all 50 states. The issue for pastors was suddenly no longer merely theoretical. A couple dozen United Methodist pastors performed same-sex weddings for their own children. A few dozen other pastors (out of more than 83,000) performed same-sex marriages for their parishioners. Complaints were filed against these pastors and charges drawn up. In some parts of the country, offending pastors lost their credentials. In other regions there wasn’t even a slap on the wrist. The Western Jurisdiction elected an openly lesbian bishop in 2016. Some pastors felt caught between their pastoral responsibilities and the denomination’s same-sex restrictions. Others in the church were livid that some leaders were openly defying the restrictive clauses of the Book of Discipline. The General Conference of 2016 promised to be a powder-keg. The showdown unfolded in six parts:
1) At the 2016 General Conference, in Portland, Oregon, a number of resolutions regarding homosexuality were brought to the delegates. Some resolutions called for total affirmation of same sex marriages and LGBTQ+ pastors. Other resolutions called for complete rejection of same sex marriages and LGBTQ+ pastors, along with requirements to expel both offending pastors… and bishops who did not enforce the requirements for expulsion. The votes were clearly there for the more restrictive legislation to pass, but at the last minute, all “sexual ethics” legislation was tabled until the bishops could find a “path forward.” Had the restrictive legislation been passed, it was widely expected that “progressives” would walk out and form their own denomination. The tabling of all motions related to sexual ethics put a sudden stop to a major exodus from the United Methodist Church at that time. All matters were referred to a special General Conference called for 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri.
2) The restrictionist wing of the denomination won the battle of 2019, decisively. That General Conference reaffirmed prohibitions against ordaining “self-avowed, practicing, homosexuals” and forbid bishops from ordaining any such persons, or from consecrating any such persons as a fellow bishops. It also forbid pastors from performing same-sex marriages and churches from hosting them. For the first time, it prescribed punishments for those guilty of breaking the “homosexual” rules. Offending pastors and bishops were to be immediately suspended for one year without pay. At a second offense transgressors would have their credentials revoked and be immediately and permanently removed from their positions in the church. The General Conference passed legislation circumventing “due process” by requiring sanctions for bishops who did not comply with all that the General Conference had ordered.
3) Hundreds of thousands of “liberal” members trickled out of United Methodist congregations in the wake of the 2019 General Conference, departing for reasons of conscience. An attempt to form a progressive Methodist denomination, The Liberation Methodist Connection (LMX) at the end of 2020 has mostly fizzled.
4) Even though successful at getting legislation passed at the 2019 General Conference, the “restrictionists” were frustrated that many who leaned toward “adaptationist” thinking remained in the ranks of both clergy and laity. They were also frustrated that the Judicial Council (the Supreme Court of the United Methodist Church) invalidated a couple 2019 rules for violating our denomination’s constitution. Convinced they could never fully rid the church of moderate pastors and bishops, groups like the Wesleyan Covenant Association began formulating plans to launch a new Methodist denomination, more restrictive, less adaptive to the changing culture. This new denomination would be called The Global Methodist Church (GMC).
5) Behind the scenes, plans were being developed for a mutual separation, the most prominent and publicized was known as “The Protocol,” in which the General Conference might formally “divide itself,” letting conferences, congregations, and individuals self-sort into which denomination seemed most compatible to them, without penalty. Due to Covid, however, the 2020 General Conference was unable to meet, the “Protocol” went into limbo, and the plans for a somewhat “amicable” separation were put on hold. An attempt to hold the postponed conference in 2022 failed, due to the logistical problems of getting almost 300 non-American delegates their visas to get to Minneapolis. The next General Conference will not meet until 2024. Accusations turned rancorous against the committee that postponed the 2022 conference, alleging that politics was the true motive behind the delay.
6) Triggered by the postponement of the 2022 General Conference, and in the absence of an agreement for an amicable separation, the transitional leadership team of the new Global Methodist Church announced the launch of its new denomination effective May 1, 2022. Without approval of the General Conference, this makes the Global Methodist Church a “splinter” denomination rather than a “successor” denomination. Practically speaking, any UMC church that wants to join the GMC now needs to go through a set of complex steps of “disaffiliation” to get there. There are several “nuts and bolts” involved in disaffiliation.
Part 3: THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF DISAFFILIATION
Any United Methodist Church that wishes to join the Global Methodist Church needs to keep four things in mind: 1) the trust clause of the Book of Discipline, 2) the difference between a separation and a defection, 3) the process for churches disaffiliating, and 4) the executive statements of our bishop, Frank Beard.
The Trust Clause
Each United Methodist Church owns its buildings, parsonages, real estate properties, and personal property. It can do anything it wants with those, provided it obeys the laws of the state and does not use them for causes contrary to the principles of the United Methodist Church (such as using a United Methodist Church as a meeting place for KKK meetings.)
The only specific restriction the United Methodist Church places on local ownership is found in the trust clause of the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 2501). A congregation may not sell, transfer, or dissolve its assets AND do whatever it wants with the proceeds without getting permission from the Annual Conference (a covenant group consisting of all United Methodist churches and pastors in a defined region). In other words, a church cannot just sell everything and divvy up the profits among its members. Neither can it transfer its assets to the Buddhists, the Baptists, or the local belly-dancer troupe… without approval of other United Methodists in the region. Any congregation is free to leave the United Methodist denomination; but the assets, by both covenant and law, remain with the conference.
Obviously, the trust clause has been controversial. Those who dislike it point out such things as, “We paid for this land and building out of our own pockets; the conference didn’t give us a penny; so why should they be able to keep our property if they are the ones who offend us?” On the other hand, there are folks who say, “The Annual Conference has invested a great deal in each of its local churches: untold hours of consultations and prayer; indirect financial aid in the form of pastoral recruiting, training, supervising, and deploying; net advantages that come from the denominational label as members move to new areas, looking for another United Methodist Church to join; availability of a vast network on call to help a congregation through troubles of every kind; and existing structures that enable congregations to join with others in mission.
When a congregation disaffiliates, the mission of the denomination is harmed: literally millions of people depend on our UMC missional partnerships, sometimes for their very lives. The trust clause provides funds to keep those missions stable until new income sources can be found. When churches close or disaffiliate, sometimes whole towns and counties are left without a United Methodist presence. The trust clause provides seed money to begin new United Methodist ministries in those areas.
In the past, when a church disaffiliated, the entire assets of that congregation reverted to the Annual Conference in order to protect the future ministries of the United Methodist Church. In the current crisis, however, the entire assets are NOT being appropriated. This is because two needs are now being balanced: the future of the United Methodist Church and the future viability of disaffiliating congregations. Favorable compromise settlements are being sought instead.
Difference between a separation and a defection
A denominational separation is akin to a legal divorce: each side goes their separate ways after negotiation, due process, and a formal division of joint assets and liabilities. A defection, on the other hand, is more like a guy who just walks out. Various parties in United Methodist Church were exploring a mutual separation, up until March 2022. At that point the transitional leaders of the Global Methodist Church suddenly announced that they would launch themselves into a new denomination on May 2, 2022. The leaders of the new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, formally chose the path of defection rather than the paths of reconciliation or amicable separation. There was no completed negotiation, no agreement, no due process, no fair distribution of assets and liabilities. There was simply a call to walk away from the United Methodist Church.
Had there been a mutual agreement for separation, the options for churches would have looked much different than they do today. But due to the decisions of the new Global Methodist Church, the only legal avenue for separation is “disaffiliation.”
The process for disaffiliating congregations
The ending of a covenant is always painful, whether it occurs in a marriage or a church. People are always hurt. And when that ending occurs without due process or agreement, the left behind party quite rightly might avail themselves of the protections offered. As the Global Methodist Church launches itself away from United Methodism, those who remain in the UMC turn to the Book of Discipline to protect their covenant and their ministries. Paragraphs 2548, 2549, and 2553 (2016 Book of Discipline) provide an orderly process for congregations disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church. The paragraph that anticipated this mass exodus is 2553, adopted at the 2019 General Conference. It seeks to protect both the interests of the United Methodist Church and its people as well as the future health and well-being of churches that disaffiliate.
Paragraph 2553 provides a path for disaffiliation based on reasons of conscience: the people of the congregation disagree with a position the general church or annual conference has taken (or not taken) around issues of human sexuality. Other paths to disaffiliation are provided in paragraphs 2548 and 2549 in the Book of Discipline. In every case, the following steps are followed in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference:
- Any church can initiate a disaffiliation inquiry or request. It is sent to its District Superintendent, who will set up a dialogue session for listening, exchanging information, and listing the requirements needed to disaffiliate.
- After that informational meeting, the Church Council, by majority vote, may initiate the disaffiliation process.
- The local church will then be responsible for the following: reading information about the trust clause and doing an assessment of ‘local church potential’ according to paragraph 213 of the Book of Discipline.
- A second meeting will then be held for the District Superintendent to listen, ask and answer questions, and discover whether the church still wishes to move forward with disaffiliation.
- Churches wishing to move forward will then assemble the following data and documentation: three years of financial statements (income/expense reports, balance sheets, budgets, account balances), three years of audit and trustee reports starting with the most recent year, all real estate deeds and physical property addresses, and the market value of all physical assets and contents.
- A formal negotiation process will begin, consisting of half a dozen or so leaders each from the conference and the local church. They will negotiate a date of disaffiliation and the financial responsibilities of the departing church to the Annual Conference. Those responsibilities will include pension liabilities, two years of conference apportionments, and a settlement of what the Annual Conference is owed from the trust clause.
- The negotiated proposal must be approved by the majority of the cabinet, a majority of the conference board of trustees, two-thirds majority of the church members present and voting at a church conference, and a majority of the Annual Conference.
- After all funds are transferred, according to the negotiated agreement, the church will be considered “disaffiliated” on the date set by the agreement and may retain all their property.
The executive statements of Bishop Beard (Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference)
Bishop Beard has stated that he wishes all congregations in our conference to remain in the United Methodist denomination. He has called for love and goodwill toward churches who wish to engage in the disaffiliation process. If there is to be a parting of the ways, he wishes it to be in the spirit of Christian charity. He has also stated that he will see that the trust clause is upheld in order to protect the interests, integrity, and future of the United Methodist denomination. He does not want to impose that clause in such a way as to harm congregations who choose to exit and has indicated that negotiations will start at 50% of the church’s assessed valuation. He also indicated that this is the beginning point of the negotiation and that our conference’s history is to settle for less than that, so as to allow parting churches to keep their property.
Part 4: FAQ’s (frequently asked questions)
1) What if we can’t decide right now, or don’t want to decide right now?
No problem. There will always be a process for disaffiliation whenever a church feels the need. Had there been a formal separation agreement (such as “the Protocol”) then Annual Conferences, congregations, and individuals would have been plunged immediately into a need to pick sides. But because the Global Methodist Church is an unauthorized break-away movement, nothing changes for anybody, unless a church feels a strong need to leave the denomination.
2) What if a future General Conference takes away the sanctions against allowing homosexual pastors and same sex weddings in United Methodist Churches?
It is possible that a future General Conference will revert to the old Methodist and EUB Book of Disciplines, where statements about sexual morality involved less detail and more local interpretation. If that is intolerable, individuals can change churches or urge the leaders of their congregation to disaffiliate at that time. It is also possible that a future General Conference will not change anything in the current Book of Discipline regarding this matter.
3) What if my church disaffiliates and I find that unacceptable… or what if it doesn’t disaffiliate and I can’t accept that?
This is a difficult time for many individuals, especially for those who feel like a minority in their own congregation. There are many issues to consider before leaving a congregation and finding another more compatible. But any member of a United Methodist congregation is always free to withdraw and join another church.
4) What if a pastor joins the Global Methodist Church and their congregation doesn’t? Or what if a congregation disaffiliates and the pastor chooses to remain with the UMC?
If a pastor leaves the denomination for any reason… and the church stays, then the bishop will provide the church with a new UMC pastor. If the church disaffiliates but not the pastor, that pastor will be given another assignment within the UMC system.
5) Will the new GMC have apportionments and will they be less than churches pay now?
Yes and maybe. There will be apportionments, and while GMC leaders anticipate those apportionments may be less (6.5% of a church’s operating budget), there is a chance that they may be equal or higher because the new denomination will need to develop its infrastructure from scratch.
6) Will churches be forced to pay apportionments in the new GMC?
Yes. The GMC Provisional Book of Doctrine and Discipline clearly states that any church that does not pay its apportionments in a timely manner will be subject to “involuntary disaffiliation.” This is not the case in the UMC.
7) Will the GMC have bishops and will those bishops have final say over who the pastor of a local church is?
Yes and yes. The GMC will have bishops, and the GMC Provisional Book of Discipline gives GMC bishops the power of pastoral appointments, the same as the UMC. But because GMC bishops are explicitly required to maintain doctrinal and administrative conformity throughout the new denomination, they will have more power in those areas than bishops in the UMC.
8) Will it be easier to get rid of a pastor in the GMC?
Yes. If a church member is dissatisfied with the performance of a pastor (preaching, visitation, administration, personality) that member can write a letter of complaint and the conference will be required to investigate, with possibilities of removing that pastor from both the church and the denomination. The GMC has removed the so-called “guaranteed appointment” for pastors, making it much easier to remove them without much red-tape. In actually, the UMC does not have “guaranteed appointments” for its pastors, but rather more layers of due process.
9) Will the GMC have a trust clause?
No. But this means that the leadership of each congregation will have to practice iron-clad control over its members: who they let lead and who they let join; otherwise, the wrong group in local power will be able to do whatever they want with the building and with denominational affiliation, and there will be no trust clause to offer protection from them.
10) Will the GMC hierarchy have the authority to involuntarily disaffiliate congregations or church members? Is so, on what grounds?
Yes. The Provisional Book of Doctrine and Discipline allows authorities to remove a member, a pastor, or an entire congregation for several causes: disobedience to the rules or to authorities, non-payment of apportionments, failure to get serious about numerical growth, or open disagreement with the GMC stances on theology and morality.
11) Is the GMC prepared to work with small and rural churches?
Neither the GMC nor the UMC has any specific plans to help turn around the decline in rural or small town churches, particularly ones in areas that are experiencing population decline. The GMC has a much stronger emphasis on membership growth than the UMC. Such emphasis on numerical growth may leave small and rural churches feeling even more disenfranchised in the GMC. Furthermore, the formal requirements for becoming a pastor in the GMC will be lower than in the UMC. This will lead to admission of more pastors, but also more frequent dismissals due to incompetence or doctrinal disagreement. Rural and small town churches will be disproportionately disadvantaged by this strategy.
12) What will happen to “homosexuals” in the new GMC?
While the GMC will welcome everyone into its churches, it has made promises to its potential members and churches to condemn homosexual behavior, exclude “homosexuals” from being leaders, and forbid same-sex marriages in its churches or by its pastors. In short, while “homosexuals” will be welcome to attend services, they are to understand that they are living in sin and the GMC wishes them to repent. There is to be no other “interpretation” of scripture on this matter, or debate. Those who disagree with this stance or who may change their minds about it will need to remain silent, leave the denomination on their own, or be involuntarily disaffiliated.
13) How expensive will it be to disaffiliate?
We can only give ballpark figures at this point. Each disaffiliating church will be responsible for four costs: 1) paying their share of the conference pension liability, 2) paying two years of apportionment in full, 3) paying a percentage of the church’s assets to fulfill the intent of the trust clause, and 4) attorney fees. The Illinois Great Rivers currently has pension obligations to current and retired pastors amounting to around $68 million. If Geneseo Grace were to disaffiliate, it would need to pay approximately $260,000 for its share of those liabilities. To pay two years of apportionments would add approximately $90,000 more to the settlement. If a fair settlement of Grace’s assets were to be negotiated down to 10% (no guarantee) then the church would need to come up with an additional $300,000. Add attorney fees, and the upfront disaffiliation cost to Grace Church would be approximately $700,000, depending on “trust clause” negotiations. If First UMC Geneseo were to disaffiliate, upfront costs would run in the $1.3 million range… in addition to continuing payments on the $2.6 million they still owe on their building debts. (Grace Church has no debt.)
Part 5: PASTORAL CONCERNS
COMFORT: We are facing a consuming wave of grief because long time friends and ministry partners are exiting our conferences and churches. And while deeper issues lie underneath what is happening, the grief must be addressed first. We need to be calmed and graced in order to get at the real issues.
Our comfort comes from God. God reigns. It is God’s church, not yours or mine. God’s church is not confined by our denominational labels. The God of all love and joy and justice will overcome, someday. The dispirited will see the light of that new day. The fearful will be assured. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. Those who mourn will be comforted. Every tear will be dried away, the dead will be raised, the lepers restored to community, and all our demons dispelled. We who are divided in two, by the will of God, will find ourselves one in Christ, by the power of Christ. Heralds of good news proclaim, “Do not lose heart; with God, all things are possible.”
We break out the balm of Gilead for our worry, grief, and grievance. We pray the Psalms aloud so as to turn our inner turmoil over to God. We focus on the log in our own eye rather than the speck that so offends us in our neighbor’s. We trust Jesus’ command to not be anxious, to let tomorrow take care of itself. We blow off steam in a safe place and then get back to work, loving God and loving our neighbor.
WARNING: A pastor ought to warn, “measure twice, cut once.” Disaffiliation is a painful and costly process. Get a second opinion. Don’t let feelings obscure facts. Discern what might possibly happen from what will probably happen. Think.
Granted, the United Methodist Church has its problems. Jesus said, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” The UMC has always been a sanctuary for anyone in need of God’s help. By its very nature a church is a strange kind of hospital: where the sick (sinners) often have to help doctor each other. We will do our best until Christ returns in glory. We have no pure pastors, bishops, or laity. We have outdated bureaucracy. We have hypocrites. We have some lousy churches and some awful clergy. The open doors of the UMC have made us a world-wide church of over 12 million members, over 80 thousand pastors, and over 32,000 churches. If you’re looking for a problem or something that offends, you WILL find it somewhere in the UMC! We are a denomination only a mother could love… or a heavenly father… or a grace-filled sister or brother.
We are constantly struggling to find the paradox that contains both obedience and grace. Keep in mind that any denomination is a merely a “system,” only an earthen vessel containing a treasure. Systems are a mixed bag. They perpetuate problems, resist common sense, and prop up their leaders. But they also provide necessary organization, grit, and resources for doing good. Beware of leaving one system for another. The new church will still be a system, and it will most certainly come with its own agonies and disappointments.
THE BIBLE: Church conversations about LGBTQ+ issues always bend back to scripture, as they should. The Bible is our most important book. It deserves our humility, curiosity, attention. It calls for a response beyond mere obedience. God speaks through its words, the living Christ is known in its stories, the Holy Spirit breathes through its open pages. It is our spiritual grounding, our living water, our bread of life. But the Bible is hard to read, often confusing, almost always throwing paradoxes at us. It makes us wrestle and stretch for its blessings; forces us to sweat for its fruits, to suffer for the new birth it accords ourselves and our churches. It is a complex and surprising book, often forcing us to wrestle with all sides of an issue, refusing to give us easy, black and white answers. Those who pull out verses and phrases from the Bible in order to cut off other people’s thoughts and insights are turning it into a game or weapon, playing “Bible Says” in lieu of “Simon Says.”
We read scripture always mindful that the cultures that gave rise to the biblical writings were radically different than those of our own day. We speak a language that articulates a very different world from matters addressed in biblical Hebrew and Greek. We often do not understand the metaphors, allusions, and idioms scattered abundantly throughout the biblical text. There are issues and situations in our lives that have no direct cultural equivalence to anything in the Bible. There are moral codes found in the Bible, that if enforced literally in our world, would violate the ethical principles that are foundational to the life, teachings, and example of Jesus.
As we explore what the Bible has to say about current issues, we seek the light of Christ: the light that comes from mutual and challenging Bible study, that approaches the text with curiosity and humility, that pushes the text into the light of its own linguistic, cultural, scriptural, and literary contexts.
FOCUS: An old saying points out that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. In other words, dramas playing out nearby keep us from seeing the big picture. But sometimes the reverse is true. With 24-hour news networks, mass mailings, mass emailing, social media, and demagogues galore… we are hearing lots of noise from the forest these days, way more than any of us can handle. The news from the forest has left us in an amped-up state of angst and anxiety. Our attention is lured away from our neck of the woods: the people who know our names; sit with us in our pews; live on our block; sing and play music in church on Sunday morning. The ruckus in the forest can distract us from the children who show up along with their harried parents; the hands putting joys and concerns in the basket and cupping the bread and wine; the old couples helping each other fight arthritis and cancer; the silent ones in a nearby pew struggling with depression, abuse, or guilt… A primary calling for any Christian is to tend to our neighbors. There will always be wars and rumors of wars out there. When we hear of such things, Christ bids us to stay steady, watch, pray, and continue to serve the person who appears in our path.
What to do then with the troubling news out there in the forest? There are indeed big issues being shaped and decided far beyond our own local churches. When looking at the whole forest, we need to separate the “hot and juicy” news from the “big” issues. “Homosexuality” is a hot and juicy topic in some of our churches. But a big issue is the increasingly clinical approach to sexuality that is unmoored from any principled conversation about sexual power, dehumanization, promiscuity, imprudence, and injustice. A poor pastor or a dysfunctional church makes for a hot and juicy obsession. But the big issues are defective pastoral recruitment, training, accountability, nurture, support, and deployment. A church fearful that it might have to close its doors is a hot and juicy anxiety in people’s minds. But the big issue is our cluelessness when it comes to being the church in small and rural communities. The words and actions of a bigot make for a hot and juicy conversation. But the big issue is the systemic racism and sexism infecting the whole denomination. Changes in music and programming make for hot and juicy quarrels. How to be “in” the world without being “of” it is the big issue. The failure of congregations trying to survive in the city is a hot and juicy invitation to assign blame. But the disconnect we have with the poor and left-behind is the big issue. Our challenge is to keep our focus on the big issues and not fall for the demagogues’ delight in the hot and juicy.
CURSES ON OUR LABELS: It grieves me that both liberals and conservatives are feeling unwelcome in the United Methodist Church.
Our current crisis is not about traditional liberalism or conservatism. Nor is it about their euphemisms:“traditional” or “progressive.” Those terms are used to play political power games these days. But when we shoo off the political misuses of “conservative” and “liberal,” we discover something almost no one else knows: Conservative and Liberal are not mutually exclusive. They pair together quite nicely. It is possible for an individual to have qualities of each.
Conservatives bring reflection, caution, responsibility, and love of tradition to the table. They trust organic solutions and evolution more than social engineering. They value conservation and preservation. Liberals, on the other hand, bring generosity, risk-taking, experimentation, and imagination to the community. They have the courage to take a leap of faith when God gives the command. Both liberals and conservatives are driven by the central commands of love, above all things: love of God and love of neighbor.
Jesus is the model for both liberals and conservatives. A church that identifies itself exclusively with one label or the other is bearing false witness against our Lord. My own life has been nurtured by numerous conservative heroes I have met along the way. And my ministry has been stretched by those who are my liberal heroes. I could not be a faithful Christian without both of those traditions. True liberalism and true conservatism are not incompatible. Political power players in the church, however, seek to misrepresent conservative/liberal ideals and pit us against each other: divide and conquer. But in the Lord, we are not afraid, especially of each other, nor of any label the great deceiver might put on someone else.
LOVE: During the very first Holy Week, Jesus had to work his way through conflict and trouble, even more difficult and deadly than the issues facing our churches today. He had to decide whether to ride a war horse or a donkey. He faced a decision over whether to use people or respond to their pleas of “Hosanna” (help us.) Would he turn his disciples loose with the cleaving sword or tell them to sheathe the weapons. Would he end the cycle of violence at his own cross or call for angelic reinforcements to escalate the hostilities. Would he forgive his executioners or spit condemnations.
Each of his decisions veered in the direction of love, a soft power that changes hearts as well as events. However we feel about “homosexuality,” denominational affiliation, or the other side, the only command Christ gave us during Holy Week is love: the gracious response, the surer path, the method that changes hearts as well as rules.