by Chris Ritter
It was not what any of us expected, but 2020 was a clarifying year for the United Methodist Church. The losses were breath-taking. Long-standing trends were solidified. Division was both accelerated and delayed. Here is my list of the ten most significant developments in the UMC in 2020:
10. Unsustainability Becomes Obvious
Many of us entered the year knowing that our general agencies were poorly proportioned for the needs of our denomination. 2020 accelerated these trends. The General Board of Global Ministries underwent massive down-sizing of staff. Our Publishing House is selling its building and undergoing major reconfiguration. The General Council on Finance and Administration upped their recommendations for the levels of budgetary cuts that will be necessary when General Conference meets and approves a budget for our denomination.
9. Significant Large Congregations Negotiating Out
Large congregations occupying various points on our ideological spectrum are actively working to negotiate themselves out of the denomination. Glide Memorial in San Francisco (from which Karen Oliveto was elected bishop) found the UMC too constraining and bought itself out of the Cal-Pac Conference. Granger Community Church in Indiana negotiated out to take control of their pastoral succession. Grace Fellowship in Katy, TX left for the Free Methodist Church… in part (I suppose) to avoid the high price tag of disaffiliation. Christ Church in Fairview Heights, the largest congregation in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, has announced they are seeking an exit. These churches join Windsor Village, United Methodism’s largest majority African-American congregation, in seeking to put the UMC in the rearview mirror.
8. The Cross and Flame Is Swept up into U.S. Racial Tensions
2020 was a disastrous year in the U.S. for race relations as violence erupted in U.S. cities over the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. Amidst the riots and peaceful demonstrations came calls to retire the United Methodist insignia due to similarities between the Cross & Flame and the burning crosses used as tools of terror by the KKK. The Protocol gives custody of the insignia to the post-separation UMC, but it is not clear what our symbol of unity will represent following separation. African United Methodists have noted that the insignia is much beloved on their continent and should be continued there.
7. African Bishops Dissatisfied with Options
The most recent statement by African bishops expressed dissatisfaction with the options presented by the Separation Protocol and suggested that it be renegotiated. The statement called for African self-determination amidst the choices presented by the Protocol and notes the agreement was framed with only one African at the table. Bishops have no vote at General Conference, however, and the Protocol as written seems to be holding up. African autonomy is an option under the Separation Protocol.
6. Bishop Yambasu Dies
Bishop Yambasu, arguably the most influential African bishop, died in a tragic traffic accident on August 16. The convener of the Protocol was eulogized from all segments of the church. We wonder if his passing will work to preserve The Protocol as part of his legacy or further highlight the fact that millions of Africans have no continuing voice on the mediation team.
5. Even Liberationists Leaving are Staying
The Liberationist Wing of the UMC broke into two factions relative to the denomination this year. Those seeking to stay in the UMC have formed The Liberation Project to advance their aims. Others have formed the Liberation Methodist Connexion as a new denomination. But membership in this new connection (for their part) does not require leaving the UMC. The LMX is not announcing their numbers or whether they are seeking the $2 million set aside in the Protocol for the formation of new denominations beyond the main split.
4. A Transitional Leadership Council Shapes the Future for Traditional United Methodists
Last December the Wesleyan Covenant Association shared the future of traditional United Methodism with a Transitional Leadership Council that includes bishops and those previously unaligned with WCA. Chaired by Keith Boyette, the TLC is now the main force in shaping a new traditional denomination enabled by the Protocol legislation. This group is completing a transitional Book of Discipline that will guide the new denomination until a convening conference can be held in late 2022 or early 2023. This transitional Discipline is a simplified version of the UMC BOD and will ultimately be replaced by a new Discipline approved by the convening conference. Whole annual conferences and individual congregations will be able to join the new denomination once the Separation Protocol is approved.
3. General Conference Postponed
The planned May 2020 quadrennial General Conference in Minneapolis was cancelled due to the pandemic. The new dates in August/September 2021 are now seriously in question due to continued COVID and travel visa concerns. We await word on whether a virtual and/or limited General Conference might be possible. COVID also delayed the convening of Jurisdictional and Central Conferences where bishops are elected. There is now a proposal by the Council of Bishops to place a moratorium on new elections. The postponement of General Conference interrupts up the normal quadrennial flow of the denomination. There is no approved budget for 2021 and elections to key offices (like Judicial Council) were not made.
2. The Protocol Largely Accepted
Through all the changes in 2020, the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation remains the leading option for the future of the UMC. If approved at the next General Conference, the Protocol will create a new denomination for traditional United Methodists. The post-separation UMC will bill itself as the main branch of American Methodism but will undergo significant changes with a left-ward shift of undetermined proportions.
1. Pandemic Provides Perspective
COVID-19 brought into focus the fact that our intramural contests are happening against the backdrop of existential threats. Nearly all United Methodist congregations closed their buildings for some or most of 2020. Some will never re-open. The pandemic accelerated trends of financial and demographic decline that have been happening for years. Some churches are adapting their ministries admirably. Some have financial reserves that will keep the open for business. But the pandemic will change the UMC forever.
I have watched too many people die. First in Vietnam, and then as a UMC pastor for 25 years.
The core questions, in every case, are Why? and How? do people die. The war causes are generally similar – lethal weapons. The common others are diseases and accidents. And then, of course, there is old age.
As the time nears for those given time to prepare, many evidence a nobility and resignation that leaves others witnessing a peaceful closure. While some at the end deny the inevitable and grasp for rescue like a person hanging by their fingernails on the edge of a bottomless cliff.
These represent conflicting images of dignity and fear.
The clergy and bureaucracy of the UMC face death with the latter. Which tells us something, in general, of how they lived..