by Dr. Bob Phillips
OK, here is the confession. I gave this article that title in hopes a few more people might read the first paragraph, or more. To be clear: schism in the United Methodist Church is bad. It is bad if it leads to the crash of UMCOR for disaster relief or the loss of effective support for our third world churches through a diminished GBGM. It is bad if it primarily becomes a head-butting contest with the bulls of the Reconciling Movement on the left, the Uniting Methodists movement on the lite left, the WCA and Good News on the right, and sundry other players until the larger church is left dazed, unable to focus on the mission that matters most. Schism is bad.
That said, beware of another argument I have heard advanced under the name of the bad things schism would do. Schism, any serious official division within the church, would create…uncertainty, confusion, and the stability that many find the main pay-off from affiliation with a formal denomination. Schism would be scary and unpredictable. Schism would upend lots of stuff that seems to be doing just fine within the UMC. To paraphrase the Frankenstein monster in the classic The Bride of Frankenstein, “Schism…bad; unity…good.”
There is tremendous appeal to this approach, whether used by official Uniting Methodists advocates, Bishops, or the probable majority of official church members who just wish the kerfuffle over this or that issue would end. As St. Paul said, “Can’t we all just get along?” Can’t we just be nice to each other, or as St. John (Lennon) wrote, “All you need is love.” Right?
Yes…and no. The church cannot be led into a Christ-centered future by leaders whose attitude could start a fight in an empty room. Words that St. Paul really did write remind us to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Round up the usual suspects” is a classic line from the movie, Casablanca, but is a lousy call to worship or to service by a divided and growling denomination.
The danger is this. We are so fixated on the issue of human sexuality that we are losing sight of what that matters most. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ; transformation of the world flows as true disciples are formed. In the United States we are failing that mission. We are not failing because of the head-knocking over sexuality, for churches that affirm and oppose the existing teaching of the church largely share the status of flat-line or clear decline.
The irony is that a future in which we are cut loose from the moorings of predictability, stability and status quo is the best hope for the church. This is not change for the sake of change. This is no Thelma and Louise effort to drive the church off the cliff with a whoop. All living creatures grow or die; we are dying in the USA. Our systems and organization, many of which worked admirably in 1900, are killing us. Arthur Jones wisely observed that “Every institutions are perfectly aligned to get the results it gets.” We are producing an institution that has nurtured nearly 50 years of sustained decline but not reproducing sufficient disciples of Jesus. We have taken the vision of the Reformation, semper reformanda (always reforming) and downshifted it into festina lente (make haste slowly). Get real.
When an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blows up, ‘traumatic amputation’ is the code terms for what happens to those near the IED. A separation or division within the church that resembles a blow-up is schism at its worst. I have met lots of folks on all sides of issues in our denomination but never have met anyone consciously eager to destroy the village in order to save it. A healthy cell, on the other hand, divides in a process called mitosis. It creates and extends life. In church settings it is the satellite congregation formed from the home church. This in turn spawns its own satellites, thus expressing the truth of 2 Timothy 2:2, spiritual reproduction that kindles the generational pass-down of life in Christ. IED is schism. Mitosis is not schism.
If we focus primarily on fixing the sex issues, in the process of dealing with what matters now we will forfeit the answers to what matters most. A healthy shake-up, flowing from systemic change, infused with prayer and scriptural discernment, is not our best hope. It is our only hope as a United Methodist witness in the USA for the coming years.
From 33 years in the Navy I learned about barnacles on the hull of a ship. These tiny, mighty creatures attach themselves to a hull. They stick with an industrial-strength grip that even many of our industries cannot match. They grow, multiply. They disrupt the dynamic flow of the hull through the water and can cut the speed of a ship by 40%. Left to themselves they eventually can eat through the hull in 10,000 pinpricks of compromised hull integrity and sink the ship.
The ship of Zion called the United Methodists Church is riddled with institutional barnacles. Examples of the need for profound change abound. Not long ago I heard about two churches, in different states, where aged and floundering congregations that have not birthed a single clear conversion to Christ in a decade, made the courageous decisions…to do nothing. Each church owns and rents out property that brings enough income to pay enough of the bills to enable them to remain open. The facilities, with increased need for repairs, are neglected. Rather than calling a halt to the drain of resources and redeploying its remaining people and finances to areas where a difference can be made, slow and self-centered death is the choice. In both cases the D.S. leadership, while perhaps disagreeing personally, officially applauds their courage, reinforced by paying their miniscule apportionments. Lots of churches that pay apportionments in full are spiritually running on empty. Change or die.
Millions of dollars flow to official education for clergy. We had 13 seminaries when the UMC formed in 1968, with roughly 11 million members. In 2017, with roughly 6.8 million US members (nearly 40% decline) we still have 13 seminaries. We have a choice. The Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ approach is the default setting. Inevitably the financial and personnel capability to field 13 separate teams for theological education literally will not be possible, and the weakest will be gobbled by depleted funds and shrinking enrollment into oblivion. That is the slow-motion train wreck option. The alternative, resisted firmly by the institution for 25 years, is to be proactive in consolidating resources, talent and facilities to effectively fulfill the mission. Change or die.
We have a General Conference structure that meets for 10 days every 4 years and alone has the authority to implement significant systemic change. No healthy institution on earth, sacred or secular, limits its window for decisive action in such ways. Annual conferences typically schedule their meeting at times that require those still in the work force to take vacation days, and then people wonder why conference delegates are a sea of gray-white-blue hair who bemoan the absence of many under the age of 60. Continuing education is expected of clergy but is aligned to no coherent career ministry progression for growth in knowledge, skills or abilities. These simple examples underscore a system that is perfectly aligned to produce the results we are getting, decline and irrelevance, with great energy expended for little or no measurable gain. Change or die.
Life tenure, guaranteed appointment, or professional permanence are part of the UM clergy system. In other settings tenure is a personnel management tool used selectively and judiciously to affirm and retain proven and effective leaders. Arising from the trust deficits that afflict the church, the guaranteed appointment process is defended as a way to keep evil bishops and other organizational leadership or anti-prophetic churches from dumping faithful but unpopular pastors. If that is the main reason for guaranteed appointments, we are into the goo deeper than we know. Ineffective pastors and clergy-eating congregations that burp complaints as they gobble faithful servants with their longstanding dysfunctions suck morale from many of the finest laity or pastors respectively. Leadership is aware of these kinds of issues and make good faith efforts to address them but with a fundamentally flawed system, no amount of good intentions can do the job. Change or die.
These are only a few of the areas longing for spiritual rebirth and renewal. Gently contrary to one of the WCA terms, evangelical Wesleyans are not like-minded on how to address these challenges, but bring rich insights and experience into the conversation. If, however, it is conversation only, those truly motivated toward healthy change are more likely to jump ship before the institutional barnacles submerge the denomination into irretrievable irrelevancy.
Lest you conclude that all is lost, it is…if profound and systemic change is resisted or pursued slowly. The good news is that Philippians 4:8 is still in the Book and offers a base line perspective on how to commence needed change. Consider:
Finally, brothers (and sisters), whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Begin with a list of what is right, healthy and good. Begin with a list from your ministry, your church, your district, conference and denomination on where the sources of light and life in Christ are thriving and pulsing with joy. We are called to view our challenges through the lens of God’s faithfulness, not as a Pollyanna reality but to see things from the Kingdom point of view.
I think of the great work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief in response to Katrina, Haiti, and more recent natural disasters. I think of GBGM in its support and collaboration for the dynamic and growing United Methodist presence in Africa and other locations outside the USA. I think of a denomination rooted in holding personal and social holiness in both hands, pioneers in the struggle for rights and justice.
I am grateful for a church that seeks to live Wesley’s dictum of “Knowledge and vital piety.” Methodists have been the recipients of Nobel prizes in Physics and Peace. Some of the nation’s great universities were birthed through the Wesleyan vision that honors education, knowing (with Calvin) that ‘all learning is an act of worship to God.’ I am grateful for a church where a George Bush and a Hillary Clinton both can be affirmed as loyal members, or in a former generation a George McGovern and a George Wallace. I am grateful for a church where, if there are two Methodists there are three opinions and a potluck. I am grateful for the institutional faithfulness the denomination showed in support of my presence and ministry as a Navy chaplain; when deployed to Okinawa and Guam and other locations, the United Methodist Endorsing Agency (UMEA) was there for me and for the other United Methodist laity and chaplains serving their country while seeking always to keep service to Christ foremost.
As an evangelical Wesleyan I am very annoyed by the predicable left-of-center political advocacy of the GBCS on a variety of issues, the muted presence of diverse (evangelical) voices in an agency that seems to thrive on selective diversity. As a “Bible-believing evangelical” I am delighted and grateful for a denomination that has a GBCS and refuses to punt to cultural norms grave matters of collective Christian conscience and witness in a broken world. I am grateful for being part of a “Great Commandment church,” however imperfectly lived, that holds love of God and neighbor as decisive metrics as to whether or not a person really has embraced Jesus, repented and been saved. “We love because he first loved us,” is the core. The Great Commandment is the measure by which we know if we truly have cast our allegiance with Jesus as the core of the gospel.
The most truly diverse and inclusive United Methodist congregations don’t need and seldom use the code words of inclusion or welcoming. Here’s why. Consider a restaurant that makes its main advertising appeal that it is open to everyone and will serve meals to any who enter. Three months later it goes out of business, because it served lousy food with lousy service at a high price. Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up, with draw all people to me” (John 12:32). Serve folks heaping portions of Jesus with quality, welcome and love, and good things tend to follow. Teach them how to spiritually reproduce in faith and quality of life, to love God and neighbor, arising from the redeeming grace of One who first loved us. This is the essence of discipleship. If you build Him, they will come!
The church is in desperate need of a “Methodist Mitosis.” Mitosis is the natural cell division crucial to health and extended life for a cell. It is division, but unlike the traumatic explosion or a spiritual IED blast called schism, mitosis protects and extends life. Ample precedent exists. Who would argue the mitosis that produced the Salvation Army was contrary to God’s will? William and Catherine Booth, co-founders of the movement and Methodists to their theological core, would argue otherwise, and history has vindicated their courageous choice. The Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methodist Church, and the Wesleyan Church exist in 2018, and all are growing, as they arose from previous examples of Methodist mitosis. All claim their roots in Wesley and historic Methodism, in theology and for two of the three literally in their names. Who would argue that the world-wide Pentecostal movement, birthed with the profound influence of a Wesleyan vision of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, is a bad thing? You get the picture.
If the 2019 Special General Conference is bought and sold to the denomination as the meeting that substantially will fix the church regarding arguments over sex, it will fail in large, public and multiple ugly ways. The ‘wicked problem’ confronting the church is vastly more than this one issue. This attitude actually could set the stage for the very schism all claim to oppose. As the priest says in his annual birth control sermon at the Lake Woebegone Catholic church, “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?” A single issue special conference can only lead to a schismatic train wreck.
If the Special General Conference is recast as a reboot for the United Methodist movement, which is consistent with the mandate given the Council of Bishops by the 2016 General Conference, the sexuality issues can find healthy perspective among the totality of the church’s wicked problem. For clarity on what constitutes a wicked problem, consider Watkins and Wilbur’s description of six characteristics of a wicked problem:
- It is multi-dimensional
- It has multiple stakeholders
- It has multiple causes.
- It has multiple symptoms.
- It has multiple solutions.
- It is constantly evolving.
If the 2019 Special Conference sets the stage for expectations of the profound and systemic change needed to address denominational issues, the sexuality issue can find a healthy place in the process. If any one issue, such as sexuality, becomes the defining prism through which to view the denomination, the fracturing of the institution will follow with no game plan beyond regional or selective grievance. If a wider approach is used, some form of division probably would occur but one birthed in a healthy, realistic, biblical and coherent vision of the spiritual mitosis that any movement of God needs to sustain for future witness.
Begin with the good things. I am grateful to God for the faithful people, the loving service, and the shekinah glory that flowed and flows through so many congregations. What is your experience and story? Multiply that many times over and you see how God continues to work his will and transform lives through the United Methodist Church. This is no excuse for inaction, foot-dragging or rationalizing away the need for profound change. It is a reminder that revival within the church, the institution and the people who run stuff really can happen. As Covey said, ‘Begin with the end in mind.’ An endgame motivated by the notion of non face undas (don’t make waves) guarantees the US church will founder. When the voices whisper not to rock the boat, in the name of a well-intentioned but misplaced appeal to institutional unity, well, get out of the boat like Peter. Just be sure you are walking with Wesley toward Jesus and the innovative changes the King would bring to the church that is His, not ours.
 Alan Watkins and Ken Wilbur, Wicked and Wise: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Kent, UK, Urbane Publishers, 2015), p. 16.
Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005. An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement.