by Bob Phillips

Yes, yes, the “Way Forward” is the name of the now-defunct process created by General Conference 2016, adopted with a Traditional spin at the Special General Conference of 2019 (to the obvious chagrin of many US bishops, lobbying groups and secular/mainline religious media), and promptly disowned by many of the same and significant segments of the various US conferences. The collaborative Feinberg Protocol of January 2020, which arose from the ashes of the 2019 slugfest in St. Louis, offers the current version of a ‘way forward’ that actually seems to include reality among relevant factors for adoption.

To be sure, the Protocol is not a done deal.  Some African bishops are making serious noises about the Protocol as it now stands. Their desire is for inclusion in the process which, to the surprise of many on all ‘sides’ of the debate, apparently was not as fulsome as some U.S. players honestly assumed. The initial input by some (not all) in leadership outside the US seeks to keep the structural unity of the church, and the United Methodist name, while maintaining traditional teaching on sexuality and marriage. It is an approach that seems to affirm both the irresistible force of cultural changes in the definition of marriage and the immovable object of the historic Christian understanding of the nature of marriage. Good luck with that.

Assume for the moment that the Protocol passes more or less intact. Many liberal-progressive folks see challenges but also blessing in the outcome, as do many conservative-traditional folks.  Self-avowed, practicing moderates, faithful to the biblical caution of Ecclesiastes 7:16 (“Be not righteous overmuch”) ask St. Paul’s question, “Can’t we all just get along?” I forget the source for that reference.

What follows are seven potential potholes for the way forward for all groups. A pothole, by its very nature, is like COVID 19 and God, i.e., no respecter of persons. A pothole will bend the frame and blow the tire of a Lexus, a go-cart, a Cadillac or a Kia. These are issues that do not transcend theology, since theology by its very nature is the stuff of transcendence. They are issues that can waylay theology, strategic visions and ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men…and lobbyists of all colors, sizes and cut of cloth.  What all these issues have in common is that they fall into the category of the larger ‘wicked problem’ of the church, the convergence of multiple issues on multiple levels, involving multiple dimensions and defying any effort to fix.  A wicked problem may be tamed but can never be solved.

Pothole #1 – Demographics of Population

The total fertility rate (TFR) to sustain a society or culture is 2.1, the number of children a woman needs to produce during her childbearing years. Mainline Protestants, together with most Americans, are reproducing at significantly lower rates. At current rates the Democratic Republic of Congo (TFR of 6.0) and home to one-fourth of all United Methodists, will have four times the number of US Methodists in 30 years, while the size of the existing US church drops roughly 75-80%. Conservative Christians tend to reproduce at a rate that does replenish the stock, but in the US that rate is not nearly as high as in other non-Western nations. In the West population decline is endemic among white, college graduate types.  All factions of the church will need to face the reality of a cultural shift that increasingly de-couples the notion of marriage from reproduction, or assumptions that young adults will return to church when they become parents, and assorted other traditional notions no longer supported by data. Where fertility declines, so does involvement in church, across the board and across cultures and theology.

Pothole #2 – Demographics of Location

The overwhelming number of existing United Methodist congregations are located in areas once richly populated but now on the margins of where most people live. In 2019, for example, the Illinois Great Rivers conference counted 812 churches, of which 256 had a worship attendance of 20 or fewer and 490 churches with a worship attendance of 40 or less. Churches planted with the passion of evangelistic fervor in the 19th century or added through mergers with the Southern Methodist or EUB denominations today are typically located where growing populations are…not. A new traditionalist Methodist Church, or a post-separation UMC or a liberationist Methodist movement will face hard decisions. How much denominational coin will flow to spiritual hospice settings where care-and-comfort ministry are the norm and conversions to Christ other than the occasional confirmand never happen? Then again, how does disdaining the ministry done in such settings or severing connection with these thousands of churches honor Kingdom purposes? The faithful members of these churches will demand and deserve answers, even as they are challenged to become reproducing disciples rather than ‘status quo saints.’

Pothole #3 – Trust

The 2011 denomination-wide study that birthed Vital Congregations talked with thousands of laity and clergy across the nation. A major common concern was lack of trust at all levels, by all players, with the process, the system, appointments, accountability, and numerous other issues. Secular organizations know very well that where trust deficits loom large, an institution’s only future is decline. The left-center-right of the Methodist future each will have to face the fact that healthy trust for the institution and its leadership is living on fumes. Steps to restore trust (collaboration, transparency, decreased hierarchy and top-down assumptions of what is best, accountability, keeping promises, showing measurable progress) will challenge all future groups.

Pothole #4 – Clergy Preparation and Support

The 2010-11 denominational study on factors that make for a vital congregation included data on factors that don’t make an impact one way or another. One of those non-factors…brace yourselves…was whether or not the pastor had a seminary degree. The Hartford Seminary Foundation site for megachurch research indicates at least one-third of megachurch pastors (average attendance 2000+) lack a seminary degree. The work of local pastors is keeping numerous annual conferences afloat with faithful and honorable service, but seldom a theological degree…although Course of Study rightly is in the mix. While declining 45%+ in membership and attendance, the UMC has closed exactly 0 seminaries since 1980, the semi-exception being the merger of Garrett and Evangelical seminaries after the 1968 merger. The leadership produced from the seminaries is not entirely responsible for 52 years of sustained decline, but something big is not working. All new expressions will need to take a serious and painful look at defining the requirements to prepare those called to ministry for that ministry. Old assumptions no longer work. Support for clergy also is on the list. For example, a system that can permit a candidate to invest 3-4 years of time and treasure in seminary preparation and then decide the person is not fit for ordination is a broken system. Candidates have a right to know early in the process if they ‘pack the gear’ to offer a probable positive outcome before they begin their 7 years of labor for their beloved Rachel, i.e. ordination.

Pothole #5 – Boundaries of Belief

Wesley said, “Is your heart as is my heart? Then give me your hand.” “If we cannot all think alike, can we not all love alike?” At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” This is the heritage of a gracious Wesleyan way where people are affirmed in thinking, in dialogue and in disagreement. Typically, all those grand references are cited without context, which invites this summary: “Where there are two Methodists, there are three opinions, and a potluck.” That said, the post-Protocol churches will have variations of the same challenge. How do traditional-orthodox churches draw lines that don’t suppress a healthy spirit of question and curiosity? How do they avoid “fundamentalist” influences that adversely impact the relationship of faith with science or matters of political and social and economic justice, or seeing Jesus as a right-of-center Republican at prayer? How do progressive-liberal churches combine emphases on inclusion and denunciation of settler colonialism, transphobia, meta-racism, ‘ethical non-monogamy’ and other ‘isms’ with a Christianity that shames personal pronouns for God and transforms Jesus (when mentioned) as a left-of-center Democrat?

Pothole #6 – Lethargy, Inertia and Sloth

This unholy trinity, or call them the three stooges from Hell, waits to bite all comers, and goers, after General Conference 2021.  Conservatives have hopeful visions of vast numbers of traditional believers who move as conferences, or as individual congregations or as individuals, away from the declining and biblically compromised elderly establishment into the New Jerusalem. Liberals have hopeful visions of a re-set on theology and structure, funding by the assets of the slowly deceasing status quo church, to offer progressive innovations that will bring hundreds of thousands under the age of 35 into the US church. Centrists have hopeful visions of a church inspired by the insight of St. Augustine, Non face undas,” (‘don’t make waves’). Well, maybe it wasn’t Augustine. All can learn from the Prophet, Bette Davis, in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”  Conservatives need to be realistic about the number of conferences, churches, and individuals that agree with the teaching, the emphasis and the approach of the new movement, only thanks to the three stooges at work in church and life, they don’t move. Liberals needs to be realistic and prepared for a wide-scale model of Western Jurisdiction Methodism, that has embraced the right causes and offered principled disobedience to unjust rules and has shifted from numerical decline to free-fall among congregations with fewer and fewer worshippers under age 60. Centrists need to be prepared for the fact that enough profound change will happen among conservative and liberal expressions that will bring seismic shift to the center and leave status quo assumptions bleeding on the road. The favorite 1960’s slogan, “Not to decide is to decide” will be my generation’s revenge on a system that implements major change not based on strategic vision so much as prompted in reaction to declining members and money. The classic line from the great Italian novel, The Leopard, still speaks: If you want things to stay the same, things will have to change.

Pothole # 7 – Denial

I came across Action, the 1973 annual conference issue of the newspaper for what is now the Illinois Great Rivers conference. The paper rightly highlighted some good news, such as the fact that returning seminarians actually wanted to serve as pastors. Under a category labeled as “Not so Good,” the conference statistician expressed concern over the dramatic drop in membership from 292,000 in 1962 to 281,000 in 1973. In 2019 (pre-COVID), the membership stands at 115,959, a decline of 61%. The Black Plague killed 30-50% of Europe and people mobilized to survive. The Nazis killed 38% of all Jews on earth and people rightly consider that a horrendous crime, birthing the modern state of Israel in response. This one conference suffers a loss numerically more catastrophic than the Holocaust or the Black Plague and…yawn? Of course, the genocide of a people or massive losses to disease are profoundly different from simple statistical losses in membership, but if there is eternal significance in what a person does with Jesus, losses matter, or statistics are just a paper drill without relevance to reality. No compelling urgency, no vast modification of vision, no reallocation of resources toward fulfilling the essential mission of ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ’ has resulted. Active clergy in IGRC went from 537 in 2012 to 400 in 2020, with a loss of one pastor for every 147 members who also vanished during that same period. No comprehensive strategic vision has resulted through the years beyond specific reactive efforts to shave the budget or tweak staff due to a money crunch or personnel shortfall. This is not the ‘fault’ of any bishop or DS or any individual. It is a badly, embarrassingly broken system. We have become the Sears & Roebuck of the American religious scene, insulated by long-term denial that marginalizes unpleasant voices, heeds preferred information over factual information, and insists on driving into the future by looking through the rearview mirror of the language (‘apportionment, appointment, charge conference’) and structure of what has been rather than rebooting toward what needs to be. George Orwell defined denial as “protective stupidity,” and all groups must be alert at this very human way to rationalize unwelcomed facts and challenges that defy neat or quick resolution. As a front-row center (literally) delegate at the St. Louis General Conference, I saw the Harvard Business School classic response of denial in the physical facial and body reactions of numerous bishops to crucial votes. There ought to have been no surprise, and there could have been alternative outcomes had the pervasive sense of denial not been so absolute over inconvenient truths.  What inconvenient truth or “awkward” facts exist for the progressive, the centrist, the conservative? If you cannot name them, it is denial. If you can name them, or some of them, but have not given serious thought to how to react to them in a sustained way, it is denial. Scarlett O’Hara said it in Gone with the Wind, “I’ll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.” Denial forecloses ‘another day.’ It is a pothole that gently can swallow an entire movement.  The caution, and the hope is for all. Navigate the potholes and keep your eyes on the Prize.


Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)

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