by Chris Ritter
What am I most watching in United Methodist world these days? Bishops. There is justifiably great interest in GC2020 and the legislation that may be passed there. And our episcopacy has precisely zero votes in that legislative process. But the bishops are and will continue to be the defacto managers of the division of the UMC. As I suggested in my last post, we are now seeing clues about the posture various episcopal leaders will assume in the inevitable sorting process to follow. All politics being local, your experience of United Methodist Schism of 2020 will depend largely upon your annual conference and, more specifically, upon your bishop.
For the first time (at least that I can recall) the UM Council of Bishops failed to issue any sort of unified pastoral letter following their semiannual meeting. Instead, Bishop Ken Carter released an individual statement as President. The COB pastoral letters to the denomination have become more and more vacuous over the years. Families that don’t want to talk about what is really happening tend to indulge in small talk. Episcopal statements, I have found, indulge in large talk… sticking to grand themes that can be interpreted in various ways… talking without saying much. But sometimes frank admissions are made. The last unified statement from the Council of Bishops came in May 2019 and read like the last dispatch from a besieged embassy:
…There is a sense among the Council that we are in untenable times. To this end the Council is exploring models and plans of new forms of unity, including… creative experiments in annual conferences and a connection of new expressions of United Methodism… We grieve the brokenness in our relationships, and confess that we are complicit in this.
That’s all she wrote.
There was once a day when all episcopal statements were expected to be unanimous. Even the episcopal addresses at General Conference were signed by all the bishops. (Even as late as last year the pressure to make the COB Way Forward recommendation unanimous caused the eleventh-hour inclusion of the Traditional Plan.) Perhaps the first public fracture in a unified General Superintendency came when the “Denver 15,” a group of 11 active and 4 retired bishops, issued a statement at GC1996 expressing pain at the proscriptions against homosexuality, even as they acknowledged their responsibility for upholding church law. This break-away declaration (mild by today’s standards) sparked an emergency session of the Council. It is quite a sweeping change that bishops at the November 2019 Lake Junaluska meeting were encouraged to draft their own epistles in light of the impossibility of even the most nebulous unified statement.
Let me say that I have no insider source in the Council of Bishops. Everything I write is based solely on my own observations, and I see through a glass darkly. But we know there are discernible camps. What follows is my attempt at rough taxonomy within the U.S. context.
The Wild West
[Bishops who defy the current language of the BOD and are actively planning an alternative structure in case the BOD does not significantly change.]
There is a marked esprit de corps among Western Jurisdiction bishops that comes from two sources. First, the WJ bishops share a similar view on the world. The Western Jurisdiction leadership has been monolithic in their progressivism for decades and they only elect leaders with liberal bona fides. The WJ college is the only one without a single Traditionalist voice, alleviating them of the burden of paying lip service to the Traditionalist view. In the early days following GC2019 there was daylight discernible amidst the ways WJ bishops postured themselves in relation to the UMC institution. But those differences seem to have been subsumed by jurisdiction-level planning for a new Methodism (either within or outside the UMC.) A second source of cohesion is the antipathy that other bishops have for the WJ approach… and this seems to be true even among progressive bishops. (How many millions of dollars has the election of Karen Oliveto cost the UM institution?) The WJ thumbing-of-the-nose style has made the more nuanced and institutionally-minded postures assumed by other bishops more difficult.
[Bishops outside the Western Jurisdiction who nonetheless assume a defiant posture toward the current language of the Book of Discipline. They serve annual conferences with majority progressive leadership. Unlike the Western Jurisdiction, they are more nuanced in their planning for leadership independent of the UMC.]
Although no other bishop has (to date) signed onto the Safe Harbor Declaration penned by Western Jurisdiction bishops (in spite of their encouragement to do so), several UM bishops outside the West have indicated their intention to entertain no complaints against practicing LGBTQ clergy or clergy performing same-sex weddings. These are progressive bishops in conferences with a majority of like-minded clergy. Their policy toward traditionalists is containment and/or conversion. The response to GC2019 is activist and situationally dependent upon the factors on the ground. Bishop Sally Dyck is retiring from the Northern Illinois Conference next year but has led the unhappy task of downsizing and has formed an Exploration Team to consider a new Methodist expression. Bishop John Schol has led his Greater New Jersey conference to officially implement something akin to a conference-level One Church Plan.
The Deeper Conversationalists
[Bishops who support the theology behind the current language in the BOD (if not the actual language) and realize that the church cannot stay together. They will uphold the Book of Discipline even as they realize the church must divide for any stability to be achieved.]
Traditionalist U.S. bishops (along with one Eurasian bishop) recently issued a manifesto of sorts that calls for structural division of the denomination. Those signing the letter are joined by two or three others who expressed similar thoughts in their own pastoral letters to their conferences. These bishops are not having a fun time of it. Those leading traditional-leaning conferences are dealing with the largest number of attempted denominational defectors. Those Deeper Conversationalists leading more progressive conferences are faced with the unenviable task of holding unwilling clergy accountable in an impossible environment. Note that retired United Methodist bishops are offering to come in and perform same-sex weddings to protect clergy from accountability to their bishops. These actions would dumbfound bishops of previous generations.
The “Let Me Know How All This Works Out” Bishops
[These bishops have sympathy for the current language of the BOD (and also alternative views), but would state it much differently so as to avoid conflict. They serve in divided annual conferences who will not do well with a binary choice. They will not break the Book of Discipline but seek to mitigate its divisiveness as much as possible.]
United Methodist Bishops were each selected through a political process carried out in a divided church. Candidates sometimes distinguish themselves by being a least offensive option. Like selections from your Smooth Jazz play list, they are there to offer a style of leadership that may not be your favorite but with which you can live. These are bishops who love the church and try not to emphasize those things that divide us. Their statements following the November COB meeting read something like this: “Trials sure are a distraction, so I always do my best to avoid them and work toward just resolutions. But I don’t make the rules, just follow them. I know we live in divisive times in the church. I sure hope everything comes out alright.”
If bishops were placed on a scale, these would be just right of the median with marked institutionalist leanings. They survive by doggedly maintaining the line between their job description and those forces outside their immediate control. They may be very passionate leaders, but their passions do not align neatly with any side in the current denominational fight (examples: congregational vitality, racial reconciliation, raising up young leaders). I am aware of a few African American bishops who hold a Traditional view on human sexuality but align with progressives on various other issues. In this in-between time they simply go on being bishop as best they can and respond to circumstances as they arise. Most bishops are in a position to retire if bad comes to worse.
[Bishops who believe that the BOD should change on human sexuality but would like to create an environment where most traditionalists can/must stay in something approximating the current institution.]
If you wonder who controls the power structures of the denomination, look no further than this group positioned among the bishops in the broad center left. These are the architects of the One Church Plan. The recent elections of COB officers and agency assignments indicate their key players. Establishment Bishops are looking very circumspectly at the future viability of the annual conferences they lead.
This group is frustrated. Their preferred plan for the future of the denomination failed. Membership and finances are drying up. Their relationships are sometimes tense with the significant number of traditionalist clergy in their charge, some of whom serve the larger and more vital congregations in the conference. They believe that U.S. culture is moving permanently toward full acceptance of alternative sexualities and believe the scriptural prohibitions against should be assigned to the culture in which they arose. They see the train wreck coming and hope to have a denomination to preside over at the end of next year. There is great temptation to use episcopal power to engineer outcomes.
When Pastor Sean Hachem, a part-time local pastor, was unceremoniously dismissed from his church in the North Georgia Conference last week, some traditionalists there saw this as bare-knuckle intimidation on the part of the bishop. With Pastor Sean, it is said, we have a beloved leader who has grown his small church from four to nineteen in average worship attendance. Was he targeted because he dared to host a simulcast of the WCA Global Gathering at Nellie Peters UMC? The congregation has a church conference scheduled on December 10 to consider disaffiliation.
One charge is that certain bishops would rather close a church and seize its assets rather than lose it to disaffiliation. Rev. Warren Lathem, a retired D.S. from North Georgia, shared a list of concerns in light of the Hachem situation (see Appendix below, shared with permission). Are there heavy-handed bishops who are liquidating churches to help cover the loss of income… like a dairy farmer might eat a cow that is no longer producing milk? Are there bishops aligning conference leadership so as to stack the deck in a future affiliation vote?
The other perspective on the Hachem situation is that it is not the place of an appointed pastor to lead a congregation out of their annual conference or denomination. Clergy are branch managers, not franchisees. Pastor Sean signed his name to the request for a disaffiliation vote. Licensed local pastors may be the canaries in our UMC Schism Coal-mine. Unlike ordained clergy they have no security of appointment and serve solely at the pleasure of the bishop. Local pastors of both conservative and progressive stripes have been dismissed this year when they threatened to lead people out of the denomination.
The Next Generation UMC Plan serves well the interests of Establishment bishops. Church teachings on human sexuality are changed across the board. There is an IOU for an unspecified redesign of the denomination… providing a basis for bishops to appeal for traditionalists staying put just a little while longer. No annual conferences get to leave. The only exits allowed are for individual congregations willing to navigate the unwieldy and expensive processes provided through their annual conference (see here, p. 15). Exits are actually made more restrictive than they are now under Par. 2553. Bishops have any number of ways (including the power of pastoral appointment) to steer things in an advantageous direction.
All this is not to say that Establishment Bishops are motivated from anything less than love for Jesus and the Church. They, too, are receiving tremendous pressure from all sides. Traditionalists see the issues at hand as a clear matter of biblical fidelity. Progressives see things through the lens of social justice. [Some forget that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a response to “A Call for Unity,” a letter written in 1963 by eight clergy, including the bishops of the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida Annual Conferences.] The Centrist approach is either bad scriptural fidelity or bad justice advocacy. They are stuck between two causes that are easily more compelling than the institutional maintenance of a declining denomination.
Welcome to a complex future. The amicable part of amicable separation is something General Conference can encourage, but not something it can deliver. This depends on the actions of bishops who are not marching to the beat of a single drummer. It also depends on the honesty, generosity, and good will of all United Methodists. General Conference should work to insure that free and fair access is granted to all congregations needing a new expression. Congregational unity should be encouraged. The expectations upon bishops for fair dealing during the sorting process should be clearly delineated. Our supervisory leaders should not be heavy handed in dealing with those under their care with whom they disagree.
Above all else, pray for our bishops. Like all of us, they are sinners under stress. Pastors should practice the Golden Rule with their bishops while thinking about transparent, lay-led processes in which congregations can discern their futures. I plan to post some further suggestions for this soon.
Email to Pastor Sean Hachem, dated 11-12-2019:
I wish to inform you that as of Tuesday, November 12, 2019, you are no longer appointed pastor of Nellie Peters United Methodist Church.
You serve at the discretion of the District Superintendent.
From Warren Lathem via the “Conservative Evangelical United Methodists” Facebook Group:
What would I do…
If I was in charge of 900 churches, 1,000 clergy and an entrenched institution facing division and I wanted to lead a win/lose takeover of the institution for purposes both expressed publicly and privately? If this institution had assets worth millions of dollars and I was in danger of losing a huge portion of those assets? If we annually received approximately $20 million from all the churches and faced seeing that cut in half or worse? If the quadrennial general conference were to provide a fair and equitable division whereby many of my congregations could leave along with all their assets and pastors? If my primary theological position was opposed to the historic orthodox position of my denomination and certainly most of the laity in my area? If I believed I was right and my traditional opponents were not only wrong, but evil? What would I do?
1. Secure all power positions in my organization putting them in the hands of people who both agreed with me and would do my bidding with the passion of those seeking victory over their enemies.
2. Access all the value of all the assets under my charge and determine those which can be raided before they have a chance to exit. This will accumulate millions of dollars to sustain what will probably be a much smaller, weaker, poorer institution.
3. Get my conference to approve a purely arbitrary minimum salary a part-time small church must pay their pastor or be closed, property sold and assets raided.
4. Announce a goal of closing 200 of the 900 churches, over 20%, further eliminating 20% of the clergy and lay votes (most voting contrary to my position) at the annual conference and raiding their assets, worth millions.
5. Use the power of my office to intimidate those under my authority using my appointive power to reward my supporters and punish my opponents.
6. Engage in a national effort to make the possibility of an amicable and fair separation very unlikely and any effort to disaffiliate impossibly expensive for local churches.
7. Distinguish clearly between those under my authority who have a guaranteed appointment versus those who do not have that protection. I would summarily dismiss some without these guarantees to send a clear message to the others to be passive and silent and do as they are told.
8. Demonize my opponents as evil, hateful, bigoted, unloving, duplicitous, etc.
9. Assign spies to attend any event organized by my opponents to take names of those in attendance and use that information for reward and punishment. I would also have folks scanning social media, even closed group drones to report on anyone taking positions to which I was opposed. This information would lead to direct and immediate action, intimidation and reprisal.
10. Go to churches where I have supportive pastors and speak in the most attractive and misleading ways to appease those in their congregations who, if properly informed, would be vehemently opposed to my agenda.
11. Marginalize the retired clergy by eliminating the retirees luncheon from the annual conference agenda, eliminating their retirement speeches from live presentation at annual conference, fail to invite them to conference meetings such as Order of Elders meetings. I would even manipulate voting at annual conference to minimize retirees participation, all because the retirees are generally opposed to my agenda.
12. Never include any opposition leaders, speakers, teachers, consultants, etc in any conference functions. My agenda would drive every event, idea, action and reaction.
13. Completely disregard the well being of the lay folks in the smaller churches who do not support my agenda, arbitrarily taking their property, closing their church and refusing to negotiate a fair disaffiliation process for them even though the General Conference passed such a provision and it was upheld by the Judicial Council.
14. Ignore and oppose the clear decisions of the General Conference with which I disagreed in spite of the fact I vowed at my ordination to uphold the Discipline of the church I asked to ordain me.
15. Work tirelessly to change the theology and doctrine of the church I chose to serve.
16. Stealthy set up at 2019 AC to have all monies from sold churches and properties to be moved from the district into the AC, and to be controlled by the AC staff and personnel appointed by the bishop.
17. Claim to engage in all the spiritual disciplines and to be led by the Holy Spirit.
This is what I would do, if… Apparently others will do so.