by Chris Ritter
The planned Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation presents options for clergy, congregations, and conferences alike. With a 57% majority vote, an annual conference can opt out of UMC and into a new Methodism. Several U.S. conferences are in the planning stages to do just that. I believe the Illinois Great Rivers Conference would be well served to join the Global Methodist Church whose intended formation was announced on March 1.
For all the countless millions of dollars, meetings, and work hours poured out with the very best of intentions, the United Methodist institution has been disastrous for Illinois Methodism. The first Methodist arrived in Illinois when George Washington was president. Through the sacrificial ministries of lay leaders and circuit riders, Methodism could be “credited with the largest number of adherents of any faith in Illinois” within a few decades after its first pioneer campmeetings.1 We were birthed by The Methodist Episcopal Church, erected our steeples alongside and with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and developed our institutional life under The Methodist Church. Upon its arrival to Illinois in 1968, United Methodism brought with it a declining trend line that has all but consumed the bountiful resources it inherited.
If enemies had done to us what we have done to ourselves over the past fifty years we would be forced to take them to court. Since the formation of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference in 1996, we have lost more than the membership of the former Southern Conference through decline. Our “pink sheet” statistical report starts with 1992 and tells the story all too well:
|Professions of Faith||4,725||1,508|
|Number of Churches||1035||799|
What United Methodism Got Wrong
Theological Pluralism was built into the DNA of the UMC. We decided at the time of union to be a big tent instead of a distinctly Methodist/EUB tent. The only part of Methodism doggedly retained was connectionalism, and this was redefined as institutional support and loyalty. The inherent grassroots nature of Methodism was inverted to a system in which local congregations exist to serve a broadminded but controlling institution. Comprised half of clergy, our conference structures evolved into a union of clerics with guaranteed employment and little practical accountability in theology or effectiveness. If the executives of any competent secular corporation had returned the results we have seen, they would have been summarily fired within in a year. Our decline has persisted for fifty plus years with barely a yawn. Our institution seems designed only to perpetuate itself.
We see the symptoms of institutional rigor mortis throughout our beloved conference. The largest section of our primary monthly publication spills incredible volumes of ink lining out how each congregation is paying their apportionments. A fourth of our $12 million conference budget supports the most expensive clergy deployment system ever devised. Church starts are regularly funded but seldom brought to birth. More of our existing churches are closed each year. Our once vibrant system of church camps has collapsed under centralized control. (Notice that our healthiest church campground, Beulah, is the only one to retain it doctrinal integrity and the only one to successfully avoid takeover at the time of the conference merger.) We recently sold campgrounds we own to renovate campgrounds we lease in a failed church camp reboot.
Institutions that are protective instead of mission-focused make odd choices. I am told that IGRC spent over $125,0002 to sue the people of Ohio Chapel in the years following their planned departure from the UMC. We were victorious in secular court and won possession of the $30,000 building, which we sold back to Ohio Chapel for a fraction of that amount. How was the Kingdom of God served in that exercise? The math only makes sense if institutional protection is the highest value.
With continued decline now assumed, IGRC has no discernible turnaround plan. There are small efforts like “Reach 1000” from congregational development, but these very modest proposals enjoy no ownership by the larger body. We are rudderless in our mission, not agreeing on a basic definition of Christian discipleship or the transformation we hope to bring to the world. In absence of a realistic hope for growth, our conference’s energies seem spent on large-scale financial campaigns to establish charitable endowments that can live on after our congregations have died.
The Global Methodist Church
Churches of all denominations are struggling in various ways. Simply joining a new denomination will not magically change realities on the ground. But helping comprise a new Methodism would represent a determined step away from oblivion. We desperately need to kick our institutional habits and return to the Peter Cartwright spirit that sparked Illinois Methodism’s first flowering. The Global Methodist Church is to be focused on Wesleyan accountable discipleship, church planting, and mission. Apportionments will be roughly half of what is paid under the UMC with a 5% cap on annual conference apportionments as a percent of the local church budget (this number will be phased in for existing UM conferences.) There will be no guaranteed appointments for clergy. Like the rest of the world, the leader’s gifts and graces will open the doors of opportunity. Local churches will own their own property. The new denomination intends to be a community of the committed… not the constrained. The trust clause binding local church property to the denomination will be eliminated.
Two documents guide the future of the Global Methodist Church. A transitional Book of Discipline will govern the time leading up to a convening General Conference in or around 2023. That body will consider the work that has been done on a new Book of Doctrines and Discipline that includes more thorough reforms. The new denomination will have bishops, and these leaders will be accountable and term limited. An annual conference may call a bishop from a slate of exceptional clergy elected at General Conference for the task. Presiding Elders (the classic name for district superintendents) will be selected by the bishop from a slate of candidates elected at a district conference. Districts will be smaller and presiding elders will normally serve a local church in addition to their district leadership. Appointment of clergy will be approved by the bishop and will be open-ended. In consultation with the congregation and clergy, the bishop may declare a pulpit “open” so that a collaborative process may begin to identify the next pastor. Measures are developed to insure that women and minority clergy receive fair opportunities.
Wespath has agreed to serve the new denomination with pensions and other clergy benefits. Global missions will rely heavily on church-to-church relationships instead of centralized bureaucracy. General church structures will be lean and represent 1.25% of the local church budget. This is less than half of the current general church apportionment so as to free up local dollars for local ministry.
Realigning Illinois Methodism
The post-separation United Methodist Church plans to add a U.S. Regional Conference to an already top-heavy structure. Regionalization is designed to neutralize traditionalist voices overseas who have successfully tapped the brakes on the UMC’s lunge toward moral and theologically revisionism. The post-separation UMC intends to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex unions. It will eliminate celibacy requirements for gay bishops and clergy. Here in Illinois we have neighbors to the north that provide a preview of coming attractions. The Northern Illinois Conference, in spite of their larger population base, has outpaced IGRC in decline and is now in demographic free fall. Theological pluralism is ensconced in the NIC and was once typified by the ministry of Bishop Joseph Sprague who publicly denied the historicity of both the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Jesus. Our neighbors have since pivoted away from direct confrontation with Christian orthodoxy and have refocused energies against traditional understandings of Christian morality in the name of inclusion and justice.
When the Separation Protocol is approved, IGRC will lose some of our current churches and clergy. There is no avoiding this. If we join the Global Methodist Church, our progressive churches and clergy would find a ready home in the Northern Illinois Conference. The North Central Jurisdiction, I am sure, would be happy to extend the borders of the NIC to serve the entire state under the banner of the psUMC. But a Global Methodist IGRC would be in a position to also pick up congregations from Northern Illinois who want to align with the Global Methodist Church (I know several examples). We might also stretch our borders across our great rivers to receive vital congregations and leaders from neighboring states. The choice is lose some/win some with the Global Methodist Church… or simply just lose some with the post-separation United Methodist Church.
When the Wesleyan Covenant Association held its inaugural meeting in Chicago in 2016, I was privileged to read the Chicago Statement before the body calling for a Way Forward with integrity. Many IGRC pastors were in attendance, including those leading a majority of our large churches. While we have impressive leaders of all ideological stripes, it is difficult to imagine a vital future for IGRC without these traditional clergy with a passion for growing the local church. The post-separation UMC will bill itself as a big tent for progressives, centrists and traditionalists alike. But isn’t that really a promise of “more of the same?” The same is not working. The delegates of the North Central Jurisdiction vowed in November 2019 to not elect any bishops (like ours) who are willing to uphold current church teachings on marriage. Traditionalists will be tolerated only to extent they are willing to be targeted for reeducation. In the meantime, the current trend lines promise that there will soon not be an Illinois Methodism to fuss over.
A Choice to Make
Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. The Illinois Great Rivers Conference needs desperately to interrupt the path we have been travelling. A new denominational alignment with the Global Methodist Church is the best opportunity on the horizon to rediscover our Methodist roots and restore missional vitality. One day I believe we will look upon the half century of United Methodism as a costly detour away from our roots and into a muddled mainline malaise. Our heritage, theology, and mission call us to the hard work of renewal and recovery. Remember John Wesley’s greatest fear:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
1“The Rise of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Illinois from the Beginning to 1832” by John Barnhardt, Jr. in the Journal of the State of Illinois Historical Society). We founded the first Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois.
2 The original version of this post cited a cost of $300,000 for litigation costs associated with Ohio Chapel. This number was based on a conversation with a conference official. After this initial publication, another conference official told me that this number was too high. I inquired to treasurer Mike Potts for an accurate figure. On April 5, 2021:
The Ohio Chapel litigation began before I began my current role. When I first came on in 2018, I pieced together the years of litigation cost and have a total of $125,000 for all of the litigation. The IGRC received two grants from GCFA to help with the litigation. The first grant was in 2015 for $10,000 and the second grant was in 2016 for $5,000 for a total of $15,000. The total litigation cost for Ohio Chapel to the IGRC Annual Conference was $110,000. Thank You, Mike Potts