by Chris Ritter
2016 was tough on many, especially prophets and prognosticators. The Yogiism proved true: “It is hard to predict, especially the future.” As a United Methodist, I feel fortunate not to have been heavily invested in the prediction business this time last year. I would have fared no better predicting denominational outcomes than the exit pollsters who laid odds on the presidency. For reasons unclear, I am venturing a few guesses for 2017. Take them for what they are worth. Maybe they will give us something to laugh about fifty-two weeks hence.
- The Judicial Council will not remove Bishop Oliveto. Some people are waiting with bated breath for our highest court to take up matters related to the 2016 election of Bishop Oliveto, a lesbian married to another woman. She is obviously a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” and, as such, is not to be a clergy in the UMC, much less a bishop. Something so obviously contrary our Discipline should make for an direct and dramatic ruling. Right? I think not. Karen Oliveto was and is a clergy in good standing. There are mountains of case law in our church protecting a clergy’s right to due process. What she obviously is and what she has been ruled to be are two separate matters. I will be happy to be wrong on this one. I just think this is how it will go.
- Look for a new round of clergy complaints. If there has been a lull in complaints filed against clergy, it may be because some wanted to file those complaints under the new Book of Discipline. New accountability measures were put into place that make the complaint process more accountable in some cases. Some have likely been holding their complaints until the opening of the new year so that they would fall under the 2016 BOD. It takes a while for these to surface because the initial steps of the complaint process happen behind closed doors. We may be witnessing the lull before a set of nasty storms that will hit in late spring and early summer.
- The macro conversation will shift from clergy behavior to conference behavior. Clergy trials will continue to happen on issues related to homosexuality in the UMC. There will be a shift, however, in the thinking related to the roots of denominational disobedience. The basic unit of the UMC is the annual conference. Clergy can only skirt our standards with the complicity of their conference and their bishop. Most of the accountability legislation coming to General Conference 2016 was aimed at individual clergy. Look for the conversation to shift to the conditions under which annual conferences who chafe under United Methodist rules may be given their freedom.
- The Wesleyan Covenant Association will go local. WCA launched last October with a national event. In 2017, look for conference-level chapters to begin springing up. One chapter is even meeting this month, well ahead of any roll-out by the elected council. Some conferences will have WCA events in conjunction with their annual conference sessions. Others will form later, waiting for guidelines to be provided by the WCA Council.
- The Wesleyan Covenant Association will go global. WCA was first conceived as a national organization with strong ties to the global church. A big surprise in Chicago was the groundswell of United Methodists (and others) from around the world who want to join. Look for WCA to become an international movement in 2017.
- The glacial pace of UMC reform will become painfully obvious. This prediction is tied to #1 above. There are many in the church laboring under the delusion that there will be some sort of action taken to remove Bishop Oliveto, restore order, or otherwise change the game that is being played. I don’t look for any substantive organizational reform until the specially-called General Conference talked about for Spring 2019… if then. Once realized, this protracted timetable will cause some who are impatient to want to bolt.
- The Holy Spirit will surprise us. When times are toughest, God has a way of demonstrating to us just how little depends upon our strategy and planning. I expect Holy Spirit eruptions to happen in unlikely places. Come, Holy Spirit.
That’s my list. Whatever else happens in 2017, I pray the Gospel goes forth from broken people like you and me to transform lives. People need Jesus. Have a blessed 2017.