by Chris Ritter
“They say that breaking up is hard to do. Now I know, I know that it’s true.” -Neil Sedaka
When Neil sang about it, he was talking about emotions: “Remember when… I’ll be blue… don’t say this is the end.” Feelings are real and there is no shortage of grief in United Methodist world as we go through the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression tied to the inevitable loss of something important. We are hard-wired for unity and are apt to strive for its institutional form even beyond the point of sanity. It is understandable why we all are feeling a bit down (dooby doo down down).
But emotions are a topic for another day. Breaking up, for United Methodists, is literally hard to do — i.e., it will be difficult to pull off even if we can agree it should be done. It will be reforming Social Security hard, bringing peace to the Middle East hard, or maybe even agreeing on a new carpet color for the sanctuary hard.
The United Methodist Church is a multi-layered, bureaucratic organization with multiple centers of power. Our divisions run right through our U.S. annual conferences, the breadbasket of our denomination. Separation would divide some of our jurisdictions and these may also hold significant assets. We have general agencies that are separately incorporated. Some of these siloed institutions would survive being disconnected from the umbilical cord of denominational funding and some would not. We have collective promises made to retired bishops and each annual conference has made pension promises to clergy. We operate ongoing missions all over the world through GBGM and UMCOR. There are more affiliated institutions than can be counted. (For further reading: David Scott of GBGM has surfaced a list of questions that must be answered in a plan of division.)
Our quadrennial decision-making body does an adequate job of keeping the cogs of the machine running but is near useless when the machine is broken. Consider the fact that we have tried and failed for two decades to reform our UM general agencies. What we need to do now is infinitely more complex and is poisoned with the venom of our deep divisions. Consider that GC2020 is really our one shot at passing some sort of orderly separation mechanism. Consider the deadline for petitions to GC2020 is in mid-September 2019… just over 100 days from this posting. We have a task verging on the complexity of the moon shot to coordinate among disparate groups that are not talking openly with each other.
Add to this that it is not clear who should be negotiating. There is no more Commission on a Way Forward. The bishops are sidelined. The Connectional Table lacks the credibility to lead. Two main groups have emerged out of the United Methodist battles over human sexuality: The Wesleyan Covenant Association and UMCNext. Both are somewhat internally divided on the prospects of separation and each have thus each announced a “two-pronged approach” to support those who will need to leave while otherwise stay in the fight. In the meantime, there seems to be no rush for the door (I speak here of the newly minted Disaffiliation Plan that allows congregations to leave with their property.) The vast majority wants to stay and see how this plays out next year in Minneapolis. We are so connectional that we even want to break up… together.
Things are actually moving rather quickly by glacial United Methodist standards. Before February the only acceptable response to talk of institutional division was to clutch ones pearls in disgust. Now we have majorities in WCA and UMCNext favoring separation. Bishops, seminary presidents, academics, and even agency employees are saying out loud that separation should come… and the sooner the better for mission. Insiders seem to now understand that the greatest risk is not in separation but in staying locked in a never-ending cycle of distracting and dysfunctional conflict.
I note the language of division has given way to the language of multiplication. Instead of viewing this moment as a defeat, perhaps this is a “mitosis moment” where new and fruitful expressions of United Methodism might come to birth. In the final analysis, there are only three options for a conclusive settlement:
- Some groups leave while others stay.
- All groups leave, dissolving the UMC.
- All groups stay, but in a new type of relationship.
#1: Some Groups Leave
Some groups leaving is the only formal option that can be accomplished by a simple majority and without constitutional amendments. The Judicial Council has ruled that it is legal for annual conferences to exit the denomination if the General Conference creates a process for this. There are ugly and more amicable version of this option. In the ugly version, General Conference 2020 fights tooth and nail to either confirm or overturn what was done in 2019. The losing side is granted some sort of exit (or not) and faces consequences if they continue to resist the will of the majority.
In the more amicable version, there is a suspension of debate on human sexuality and an agreement to achieve something like a win/win scenario. My best idea for this (yes, of course, I have one) is GC2020 passing an open exit path for annual conferences similar to the new Par. 2801 that was part of the Traditional Plan that did not come to a plenary vote. Exiting conferences keep their property and are only required to release those congregations that wish to stay. The general agencies of the UMC are freed to become, as much as possible, independent non-profit organizations providing services to any judicatory they wish (by cutting loose our assets, we have less over which to fight)*. The United Methodist name would be voluntarily retired in the United States — i.e., the organization that remains would continue to be the UMC, but the church would do business under a different name in the U.S. to mitigate the win/lose dynamic. This might help the church in Africa that loves the UMC name and does not want to lose it. Those bishops and annual conferences that migrate to the new connection would organize under a Discipline(s) that mirrors UMC polity as closely as they like. The group that remains would slowly reform the remaining institution to their mission.
#2: All Groups Leave
Dissolving the UMC would require constitutional amendments and creates a host of questions about the future. Legislation was presented to GC2019 that would set this process into motion. The upside of dissolution is that there are no winners and losers. The downside is that this is the most emotionally taxing option. Voting the UMC out of existence in ratification votes around the world would be tough regardless of how broken we have become. African bishops went on record as opposed to dissolution less than a year ago. So it might be difficult to achieve the necessary super-majority consensus needed. In the first option above, we could accomplish almost everything this option provides and without the burden of amendments. But formal dissolution of the denomination will undoubtedly be proposed as a way to spread the pain of divorce equally and fairly throughout the entire church. Enabling legislation could provide an orderly plan for reorganization. Funerals, done well, prepare us for a positive future.
#3: All Groups Stay… in a New Wineskin
Treating GC2020 like a constitutional convention would allow the UMC to replace itself with something totally new. Perhaps the United Methodist Church could adopt a completely new constitution to become a United Methodist Communion of Churches. A coordinating body could govern a (much more modest) version of our connectional life and oversee the general agencies for those denominations that require their services.
There would be several new general conferences, each with their own Book of Discipline. Under this option, I would foresee three versions of United Methodism in the United States (Progressive, Centrist, Traditional), along with one or more African expressions, a Western European Expression, and an Eastern European and/or Asian/Philippine expression(s). Each denomination could use the name “United Methodist” as long as it is accompanied by some geographic or other qualifier that indicates they are only part of a greater whole — e.g., “United Methodist Church of Africa,” “Progressive United Methodist Church,” or “United Methodist Church of the Philippines.” Using the UMC name would not be required, however. Each could have its own version of the Cross and Flame or use a completely different insignia.
Time is short to draft and approve and entirely new constitution for United Methodism next year. Could it be done? Should it be done? These are questions that must be addressed in the next few weeks.
Can We Still Be Friends?
There was a song in the 1980’s called “If you Leave Me (Can I Come Too?)”. What all the above options have in common is some sort of shared future. I predict that the breakup of the UMC will be most connected in U.S. denominational history. We will still share the work of some general agencies for disaster relief, pensions, and other services. We will continue to coordinate together in global mission. I am exited to think about what might be possible together following a multiplication of Methodism.
But, until then, breaking up is really, really hard to do. If we want GC2020 to be something different than GC2019, we better get started.
*Making our general agencies independent non-profit organizations should be relatively simple. They are not mandated in the constitution and are created/governed at the will of General Conference. Instead of their governing boards being populated by the jurisdictions, they would be perpetuated in a new way. Annual conferences within and outside the UMC would be welcome to use them on a contract for services basis. (Wespath has already prepared themselves for such a future). Central funding through apportionments would have a sunset date.