by Bob Phillips

I recently discovered an insightful article in June 1 issue of The New Yorker on the subject of the homeless in San Francisco. Entitled, “Too Far from Home” and authored by Nathan Heller, it included intriguing and disturbing factoids regarding homelessness amid the affluence of the “City by the Bay.” There a family of four earning $117,000 or less is classified “low income.” While 6% of its population is African American, 37% of its homeless are. Half (nationwide) have a diagnosed mental illness. A majority are employed but earn less income than needed to get off the streets.  San Francisco’s problems are not as bad as found in numerous other cities!

Among agencies named in the article that are fighting the problem was “Glide.” Used without explanation a half dozen times in reference to various programs it offers, with quotes from Karen Hanrahan, “CEO of Glide,” one gathers from the article that it is a secular non-profit social services organization. That is accurate. The Glide Foundation is precisely that, with its multi-million-dollar endowment 95% committed to community services.

What about the other 5% of its annual funding? That underwrites expenses for what was known as Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. Glide church, under the leadership of the legendary Cecil Williams, became the only bona fide megachurch in United Methodism in the Far West. With an attendance of 3,600, Glide was the first word and last word in progressive, socially-engaged United Methodism. A fruition of its work was the election of its partnered lesbian pastor, Karen Oliveto, as bishop in the Western Jurisdiction in 2016.

Things have changed. In 2018 statistics, the Ca-Nevada conference continued to list Glide’s membership of 13,000+ (20% of the entire conference membership) but recorded attendance as zero. After Oliveto departed following eight years as senior pastor, retired bishop Warner Brown provided brief interim leadership until Jay Williams arrived from Boston. A gay African American, New England elder and Harvard PhD, he lasted less than one year, announcing his departure from Glide shortly after Easter, 2018. He graciously did not name the specific reasons, beyond a general reference that he was not allowed to exercise leadership as pastor. 

Bishop Minerva Carcano, in a letter to her conference in 2018, expressed concerned about the ongoing presence and control of 88 year-old Cecil Williams and his wife in church and foundation affairs. She noted the secular foundation vetoed her appointment of a successor to Jay Williams. Glide church has no Church Council, Staff-Parish Relations Committee, Trustees or Finance team. It had not conducted a charge conference for years. The multimillion-dollar Glide Foundation assets had been transferred out of United Methodist control at the end of Cecil Williams’ tenure in 2000, and until very recently paid Williams and his wife roughly $400,000 annually for consultation. Subsequent lead pastors/ bishops collaborated with these moves, ensuring the end of accountability required by the Discipline. Carcano announced no clergy would be appointed, since Glide was no longer a functioning United Methodist Church. The church had not held holy communion during Sunday celebrations for years and had revised baptisms into a ritual conducted in the name of the people, not the Christian triune God.

The actions of Carcano were difficult and courageous. Glide and Cecil Williams are revered names in the Bay area and the bishop must have realized that local public opinion would be solidly against her. Indeed, an op-ed statement by Cecil Williams shortly after these actions accused the bishop of two sins unforgivable in the Bay area, that she wanted Glide church to become conservative and traditional, two qualities not notably part of her resume. The mayor-elect of San Francisco, London Breed, joined hundreds of supporters of Cecil Williams in a public rally attacking the bishop and declaring Glide’s independence from her control. Knowing that her colleague Oliveto was complicit in these actions added to Carcano’s challenge in going public.

In February, 2019, Glide announced it had left the denomination. Legal conflicts could continue for years, although all parties are agreed that no one will take actions that undercut its ongoing service to the poor in the Bay area.  Thus, a major national secular magazine mentions “Glide,” but not as a United Methodist church or a Christian witness but as one among numerous secular agencies that seek to help those on the margins.

Several lessons beckon to those willing to learn from the Glide disaster. Both progressive and traditional United Methodists can use the warnings the Glide experience provides. Consider:

  1. Don’t waiver on clergy transition. The willingness of the bishops and system to allow Cecil Williams and his wife to continue in control of Glide after his retirement in 2000 sowed the seed of institutional calamity. Rather than risk disruption at a church that had become defined by the pastor’s outsized presence, senior leadership failed to insist that power be relinquished. This is not unique to Glide. First Baptist Church in Dallas can recall its own flailing when W.A. Criswell retired, but didn’t retire, and successor Joel Gregory had a short, painful tenure. When a well-known gifted senior pastor only retires ‘symbolically’ while retaining presence at the church, the first casualty is the immediate successor, often followed by a wounded church. 
  2. No church can be personality-driven and Christ-centered. An old saying goes, “No pastor can suggest in the same breath that he (or she) is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” This is true of churches of all sizes and theological persuasions. Philips Brooks’ comment that preaching is ‘truth through personality’ has a point, but the point is not to prefer personality at the expense of truth. Personality can deliver a sense of authenticity, which is separate from truth. Dumbing down pastoral personality is no answer, but clergy who substitute strong personality and controlling agendas for healthy team leadership rooted in spiritual gifts will leave crippled churches. Like the proverbial house that remains standing only because the termites are holding hands inside the walls, bully pastors who routinely leverage personality for control, even for noble reasons, damage Kingdom witness and create a façade of success that hides basic spiritual failure.
  3. Affirm the good while critiquing the problem. Since it had been 20 years since I had lived in the general vicinity of Glide, I recently asked a high school buddy who has lived in San Francisco for 35 years and has no particular church affiliation if he had heard of “Glide Church.” He replied instantly, “Yes, everyone has heard of Glide.” Its service to the poor and stands for social justice made it a well-known church to my non-churched friend. When offering needed critique of the severing of Glide’s social service from a clear and explicit focus on Christ, pause to remember that Glide church once was an elderly, dying, irrelevant presence in the Tenderloin, surrounded by and largely indifferent to human need. Too many churches of all theological stripes are ‘all hat and no cattle’ and talk much but do little to demonstrate love for neighbor in vital ways. The fact that all parties in the Glide conflict retain commitment to community service is a good thing.
  4. Effectiveness and faithfulness both matter in selecting bishops. Metrics of effectiveness in leadership can be under-emphasized in choosing among candidates for bishop. Recall the Western Jurisdiction unanimously selected as their one new bishop in 2016 a person heralded as the first female pastor of a United Methodist megachurch and the first lesbian elected as bishop, all true. A friend-delegate to that conference swore that Oliveto’s lesbian status played no part in her election, and shouldn’t play a role in her exclusion; she simply was the best qualified elder in 9 states for bishop. Later he acknowledged he had no idea of what actually had occurred at Glide until the Carcano letter. At least some of the delegates had to know how worship attendance had declined (from 3600 the year before her arrival at Glide to 900 in the first full year after her departure) and the variety of other issues previously mentioned that contributed to the struggles unfolding at that church. Too often the profile for candidates list the positions ‘occupied’ with no clear or validated evidence of how the position was filled. The church needs defined metrics of effectiveness to be a major part of its assessment process for the selection, appointment and promotion of clergy. In Godfather fashion, this critique is not personal. It is business, Kingdom business in seeking wise measurements for effective ministry.
  5.  “Morality (and theology) is like art. One begins with the drawing of lines.” This wisdom from Chesterton challenges left and right alike, and especially confronts the moveable center in the church’s current debates.  Inclusion and welcome can be interpreted to strip away the finality of Christ as Savior and Lord. The struggle is in the willingness to draw lines, constructive and faithful boundaries beyond which the essence of the gospel get misplaced. Glide marginalized communion and Christian baptism because those two practices were viewed as incompatible with Glide’s welcoming spirituality.  The name of “Jesus” has not appeared on the Glide website for over a decade, certainly in no link to Glide history or beliefs, although Jesus is mentioned in Sunday celebrations. “Inclusion” that excludes those who believe some things need excluding is an oxymoron, not a gospel of grace. Glide contrasts with nearby St. Anthony’s, that also annually offers 875,000 meals and nearly every program found at Glide, without suppressing its Christian-Catholic-Franciscan identity (“Franciscans are the Jedi of the real world”), and is also supported by volunteer locals of all faiths and no formal faith. Wesley famously said, “At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” When everything strikes at the root, legalism draws the lines. Legalism, with long lists of forbidden thoughts and actions as metrics of holiness, is not the answer. When virtually nothing strikes at the root, anarchy flings away the pen and lines dissolve…together with any clearly Christ-centered identity. Recall, water without boundaries is a swamp; with boundaries, a river. Solid, biblical theology forms boundaries through which the River of Life can water and redeem broken lives.             

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