Great News for GC2020, IF…

Encouragement and Caution for General Conference 2020

by Bob Phillips

James McCord, late president of the Princeton Theological Seminary, occasionally made mention of the temptation to confuse the obvious and the dubious. That which strikes some as obviously of greatest importance or first priority in fact would be of dubious significance when placed on the short list of what matters most.

As the United Methodist Church bobs and weaves toward the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, intriguing and encouraging trends have begun to emerge among the theological contestants.  Prior to the St. Louis conference, and during that conference, leadership of the center-left wing of the church specifically rejected and actively fought any plan that could make it easier for churches or conferences to depart the denomination over matters of conscience arising from the conflict over human sexuality. Legislative bricks, logs, tractors and trash cans were flung in the path of any effort to produce a constitutionally sound policy that might enable such legislation to pass. The leader of the Mainstream Methodists movement took the floor when it was clear the Traditional Plan had passed and defiantly waived a ream of amendments with the declared purpose of stopping further meaningful deliberation dead in its tracks.  He largely succeeded. That was then.

Traditionalists and leaders of the center-right coalition sought to retain existing church teaching on the nature of marriage and moral qualifications for ordination that exclude same gender sexual behaviors. They succeeded in winning the vote, as has been the case in every General Conference since 1972. They failed, as many suspected they would, to carry the day by any substantial margin of victory, clearly short of a supermajority and almost certainly with a real majority of US delegates against that plan.

The ‘Gracious Exit” proposals had been intended to enable any congregation no longer able to obey in conscience church teaching to depart the denomination without the financial and emotional bloodshed that roiled the Episcopal church and, to lesser but significant extent, the Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations. The intent also was to enable traditional congregations tired of the ongoing barroom brawl to depart, with an eye especially to solitary conservative congregations left adrift in deep blue progressive conferences. Basic legislation passed but without the necessary amendments needed to withstand constitutional scrutiny from the Judicial Council, thanks again to intentional stalling tactics by some.  This virtually guarantees no gracious exit available for disaffected congregations and regions prior to 2020. That was then.

Both liberal and conservative playmakers are having their own version of a Great Awakening insofar as a re-booted future for the denomination is concerned. Without getting dramatic about particulars, suffice to say that liberals realize ballot victory is unlikely in 2020, and pyrrhic if achieved, with major schism happening almost immediately. Conservatives probably can grind out another ground game victory on the General Conference gridiron in Minneapolis, but would face insouciant and vigorously disobedient bishops, to say nothing of thousands of clergy and others who will not obey the BOD at the price of discarding conscience.

This is setting the stage for great news. The denomination finally is moving toward the cusp of new birth, reboot, re-set, and a spiritual mitosis that can renew and refresh the church for the balance of the 21stcentury. Where all “sides” come to see great mutual gain for collaboration rather than mortal combat, the Holy Spirit can move in fresh ways to revive the emotionally battered church for a vigorous future. To those nervous that real transformation is not possible because ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ the reply is simple. People aren’t dogs. As contesting stakeholders increasing realize the futility of further knife fights and the path to exasperation such bickering produces, ground is ploughed to shift course.

The new direction is not pulling another version of the One Church Plan off the display shelf of the local theological taxidermist. Hissing, “Can’t we all just get along,” while holding the intransigent ‘other guy’ in a headlock is a plan with no legs, and no resurrection of that plan is pending in Minneapolis or promised in scripture.

Here is where the obvious and dubious come home to roost. The big temptation will be to focus on the presenting problem of differences on sexuality, an approach that may bring some instant temporary relief but guarantees a long-term and inevitably fatal collision with deeper realities. The commitment, amid a mitosis into two expressions of United Methodism, must be to reinvent the whole smash, given the only alternative is simply for the organization to smash. Recall that just about every US church that approves of or rejects same-sex weddings and sexually active gay and lesbian clergy share two realities, the name of ‘United Methodist’ and consistent decline in numbers and resources.

The United Methodist Church struggles and flounders with an unacknowledged ‘wicked problem.’  What are sample characteristics? First, there is no ‘the’ problem. Demographics, major theological fissures, outdated and ineffective structures abound. What healthy organization with 12 million members limits its serious policy decisions to a committee of 860 who gather for 10 days every 4 years? Overweight, lopsided and skewed expectations and requirements for theological education add further woe to the list. Second, none agree on what problem matters most. Third, trust deficits and miscommunication reach their paralyzing influence far beyond sexuality issues. Fourth, there is no ‘stopping point,’ i.e., most of these issues will continue beyond whatever fix is applied. These are examples drawn from a much larger menu of woes.

Thus, the GC2020 will be tempted to focus and fixate on establishing two expressions of United Methodism that create space for moving in different directions on understandings of marriage. If that is the main accomplishment, it will succeed enough to fail. A robust and shared commitment to rebooting the entire system is the only way to gain a constructive future. “Every organization is perfectly aligned to the results it gets,’ and our US results have been 51 years of numerical decline. The only aspect of the church to increase has been the median age of the membership, to where an average aged member now qualifies for grandparent status.

If GC2020 acknowledges this from all contestants, and enters Minneapolis with legislation in place to begin serious renovation-restoration-demolition of dysfunction structures, policies and expectations, the harvest will be rich. In some ways it will offer the emotional challenge and exhilaration of being part of a new church start or a freshly planted satellite congregation. People will understand all cannot happen at once but if members and clergy see real commitment to make it happen, the impact on morale and vision will be sweet. Rather than a replay of the Episcopal and other denominational slugfests, schisms and splits, the Wesleyan DNA of the one cell called the United Methodist Church will mitosis into two cells, or perhaps three.

But if not? In one scenario, traditional folks leave, confident they can make a future with or without the bureaucracy. As a Methodist leader complained to a Nazarene leader after the split that created the Church of the Nazarene, “You took the fire and left us the stove.” Lots of traditional Wesleyans really do feel that way, even though reality would not be nearly so simply or neat. While progressives do not have a track record of departure in conscience in modern US Protestant patterns, the willingness to defy existing authority and policy where conscience is at stake does have long and recent pedigree, with the Western Jurisdiction as Exhibit A. Ignoring existing teaching on sexuality has not resulted in growth in that jurisdiction, precisely because the tentacles of the wicked problem foreclose the health necessary to unleash the best of progressive theological vigor. ‘Burning down the village in order to save it’ did not work for our nation in another era and will not work for our church today.

GC2020 can bring great news and great hope to the tempest-tossed United Methodist Church…if we lift up our eyes to the greater issue(s) challenging the church, refuse to be sidetracked into continued brawling over sexuality, and ask God’s Spirit to bring about a new birth of the church, one Wesleyan DNA, one Lord, two expressions, and the Spirit’s gift of a future and a hope.  From that vision ‘cometh our strength,’ if we find the courage to pursue it.


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.  He was a clergy delegate to the 2016 & 2019 General Conferences of The United Methodist Church.

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