by Bob Phillips
Rev. Jack Harnish recently offered an insightful article framed around questions addressed to those considering alignment with a new, theologically traditional Wesleyan movement. Under the proposed Protocol of January 2020, two Methodist churches (perhaps three) would be birthed. One would be the new expression. Another might be a clearly progressive/liberal expression. The third would be what is called (as a placeholder name) the Post-Separation UMC, though it also would undergo change so profound as to be another new creation. Inspired by Jack’s blog posting on legitimate questions for those who consider aligning with the new traditional group (questions I affirm both in content and in the spirit of the asking), I offer similar questions for those who envision aligning with the PSUMC… And as a traditionalist, I encourage “my kind” to read and ponder Jack’s questions and not to dismiss them simply because he is not an active friend of the WCA.
1. How many churches will actually stay with the status quo?
The answer is “No one knows.” Recent Presbyterian and Episcopal/Anglican models had roughly 75-80% remain, with the balance moving toward new expressions or existing traditional alternatives or going independent. The WCA believes that many churches and clergy with clear sympathy toward a new expression of Methodism are not official members of the WCA. Churches dependent on the status quo system for survival are unlikely to leave that system. Several of the larger churches in many conferences may depart prior to passing the Protocol; the largest UM churches in Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois and California have left or are leaving to go independent, 3 aligned with traditional theology and one (Glide in San Francisco) progressive. Glide, for example, took 17% of the official conference membership with it. All clergy and churches need to expect a seismic shift. The PSUMC may be 80% of its pre-separation membership size, but no one knows for sure.
2. So the question for clergy is, “What are my opportunities for ministry?”
Since the PSUMC plans to keep guaranteed appointment, seminary clergy should have a place to serve. The increasing number of LGBTQIA+ students in most UM seminaries find this good news (30% of the student body at Iliff are in this category, according to its president). Conservatives may have more difficulty in placement, judging by the example of the Western Jurisdiction that has few traditional clergy remaining aside from ethnic minority pastors. PSUMC traditional/centrist churches will be available but there will be challenges in making the right fit, given the decline of traditional pastors to serve such churches and the possible number of progressive-oriented clergy.
3. And for local churches, “Will there be clergy to serve our congregation?”
There will be clergy, but flexibility will be required. The faculty of one UM seminary recently issued a statement calling for seminary education to prepare graduates to address settler colonialism, transphobia, sexism, patriarchy, nationalism and militarism, which many local churches do not view as defining priorities. In the PSUMC gay marriage will be blessed and LGBTQIA+ clergy ordained and appointed. Traditional churches increasingly may feel pressure to justify their opposition to such policies. Centrist churches (who reject gay marriage/ordination but are willing to be part of a denomination that practices both) likewise will face increasing stress in seeking pastors who share those dual convictions. As the PSUMC theologically shifts more toward the left, policies will be needed to protect the integrity and options of clergy and churches of all persuasions.
4. Which leads to a larger question, “What will an Annual Conference look like?“
Envision a conference with 20% fewer churches of all sizes. The PSUMC conferences will remain geographic, many realigned or merged due to membership losses not simply due to the new expression. The PSUMC conferences will have greatly reduced administrative staff, and increased zoom/virtual meetings. Whether the inevitable changes that happen in such conferences are constructive will depend on the prior comprehensive strategic vision the conference has adopted for reformation and revitalization. Changes prompted primarily by budget cuts tend to be reactive and ineffective.
5. The UMC in the US has been in a 52-year numerical, accelerating decline. How will it address the future challenge of turnaround and growth?
“Every organization is perfectly aligned to the results it gets.” The PSUMC will require major change and outside-the-box strategic decisions to have any hope of avoiding going the way of Sears or TWA. The gradual embrace of a hospice mentality regarding thousands of smaller congregations is not an answer. Strong leadership with prior proven track-records of effectiveness can help point the way. Top-down, heavily subsidized approaches to new church starts is not an answer.
6. And then of course, “Who will pay for it?”
Among Americans who give 10% of their income to charity, 80% are evangelical Christians. A significant number of whom, not all, will have aligned with the new expression. Large churches that align with the PSUMC will shoulder significant financial challenges if the current conference infrastructures remain intact, albeit somewhat reduced. Funding activities not primarily connected to mission-essential work of ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ” will be reduced. Presenting a rigorous Wesleyan way of discipleship will birth and nurture the tithers who can fund the church. Growing more ‘chump-change Christians” is not the path to financial stability.
7. The even larger question is, “What about Africa and the rest of the world?“
The PSUMC will need to tease out its relationship as a numerical minority among the global church. Will the US church continue to fund Africa and elsewhere to the same percentage level as the past? If regionalization is adopted, what happens if some regions no longer affirm the ordination of women, or begin emphasizing adult baptism or polygamy, i.e., how to navigate between regional freedom and ‘truth by zip code?” Given current growth trends, Congo will have 3 times the number of US members by 2050, with a per capita income 1/50th of US members. 85-90% of all young adult church members will be living in Africa and other non-Western settings. What will the implications be for the US church?
8. And at a personal level, how will it feel to be part of a “think and let think” denomination?
PSUMC clergy and churches will need to decide where boundaries of belief are set. For example, since the Bishop Sprague decision of 2003 the denomination is clear that clergy need not believe the virgin birth or miracles or resurrection of Jesus literally happened, though most probably still do. Aside from right wing hate speech, what will be “contrary to sound teaching” in the new PSUMC church? Until now issues have been framed primarily, and wrongly, around sexuality. The PSUMC faces staggering challenges, as does the new traditional expression of the Wesleyan movement. Top-to-bottom reformation is required for renewal and vitality moving into the balance of the 21st century. If hope is not a strategy, neither is denial an option. The core Wesleyan DNA pulses with gospel power and Spirit-filled energy. What is the leadership of the future PSUMC doing, and what can they do under God? Perhaps the UMC/Next or the Liberation Methodist Connexion or the WCA can offer wisdom…
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)