by Chris Ritter

Do you still kick your dog? Circle one:    YES     NO 

Not all questions are fairly stated. That is why we have learned to be wary of surveys. Responses to leading/loaded questions can be distilled into “data” that appear so definite. As Mark Twain popularized, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Or, elsewhere, “Figures don’t lie… but liars figure.”

All this is so very relevant for United Methodists as congregations begin to think about their options under the Feinberg Separation Protocol. It is a poor leader who waits for a high-profile, controversial, and politically-charged vote to determine the future. If they haven’t already, congregations will want to move toward consensus on their future. How the questions are posed will almost certainly affect the outcome. Here we explore how issues surrounding separation may be framed (more or less helpfully) for the local church.

1. The Unity Lens

From: “Should we remain unified?”

To: “What denominational alignment best reflects the values of Christian unity?“

Framing the debate around unity is a powerful one-two punch for those hoping to hold the UMC substantially together through the Feinberg separation process. First, unity falls under a larger ethos of “niceness” that has become part of our United Methodist DNA. (Unity = nice, Disunity = not nice.) Second, the category of unity carries theological weight. Jesus prayed for it and the Holy Spirit, Paul says, brings it. Who could be against unity?

Of course, the reason for a Separation Protocol is that we are currently unified in only the most superficial definitions of the word. (If Jesus was talking about institutional unity above all else, there should be no UMC in the first place.) But the Separation Protocol is, after all, the divorce papers on a long and troubled denominational marriage. The nature and demands of Christian unity are naturally part of the discussion.

Under the heading of unity, Centrists have promoted a vision of a big(ger) tent wherein progressive, traditionalists, and those in-between can happily disagree. But this messaging is showing signs of wear. The desire for institutional preservation is being eclipsed by an intensifying social justice understanding of sexual identity. If we allow same-sex marriage because of social justice, is it really okay for traditionalists to remain traditional? MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written to Mainline Moderates who were calling for peace and moderation in a time calling for social change.

There is also a sense in which the Separation Protocol is birthed from a desire for deeper Christian unity. Some Methodists long to be part of a denomination where they know there is deep alignment on the definition of discipleship. They want to know that clergy are not just nice and well-educated people, but that they preach the Gospel according to a shared and accepted understanding. They want to know that there is a common sense of mission tied to denominational apportionments and that they are not funding projects that would conflict with their basic values. Is this more unity or less?

2. The LGBTQ Lens

From: “Should we be welcoming toward LGBTQ folks?”

To: “What will be our posture toward the growing number of folks in our community who live outside the vision of human sexuality expressed in the New Testament?”

A second way to frame the decisions surrounding the Protocol is around issues of LGBTQ identity and practice. This route is fraught with peril because this debate on the level of the local church is likely to turn toxic and personal. Being part of a denomination like the UMC has mostly shielded the local church from needing to stake out opinions. We just don’t have much experience in bringing theological and other tools to bear a congregation-wide debate on ethics.

On the post-separation UMC side, there are ready examples of same-sex couples who are fine, upstanding people with much to contribute to congregational life. These are our grandsons, sisters, and uncles. Most effective churches have already found a way to be welcoming in terms of the pews. The larger debate is over who will lead us and what we will bless as holy. UM progressives sometimes over-estimate the extent to which congregants want or expect their denomination to be on the edge of societal evolution. Churches tend to be in the business of timeless truth.

Traditionalists can offer ample evidence that, cut free of biblical sexual ethics, same-sex marriage is only nose of the camel. Congregations who have only encountered the “LG” are soon to be confronted with the realities of “BTQ+.” We have clergy discussing more openly the merits of polyamorous behavior. British Methodism recently endorsed co-habitation outside of marriage. The biblical gymnastics needed to endorse committed, same-sex relationships become irrelevant in light of this larger project which rejects biblical sexual ethics wholesale. Congregations need to ready themselves with a coherent posture toward the sexual revolution that is upon us.

3. The Bible Lens

From: “Are we a congregation that interprets the Bible literally?”

To: “How will our congregation live out biblical faithfulness?

The scriptures of both testaments are unanimously negative on homosexual practice. Attempts to parse out the passages dealing specifically with same-gender intercourse have been largely unsuccessful in light of the larger moral vision of the New Testament. In response, Progressives tend to cite all the things the Bible says, or seems to say, that we do not practice. Allowance for divorce and female preachers are two common examples. The argument seems to be that we have already crossed the line of not following the scriptures literally. Forbidding same-sex marriage would be selective and arbitrary literalism.

I have a female clergy colleague who sometimes finds it difficult to find camaraderie among her fellow female clergy. They often assume that their clergy status is beholden to scriptural interpretation that rejects the plain reading of the New Testament texts in light of modern understandings of inclusion. “That is not how I got there,” my friend comments. She preaches and leads based on the positive commands of scripture for her to do so. She has weighed the specific scriptures on female leadership within their context and in light of what John Wesley called “the whole tenor of scripture.” Read more here.

The question of a “literal” interpretation is decidedly unhelpful. The Bible is a library of texts of different genres, all to be read in their own way. The question is one of faithful interpretation. The interpretive rubrics classically employed by United Methodists will not yield an understanding of human sexuality that allows for the blessing of same-sex marriage and homosexual practice. That is a given. The question then becomes whether an anticipated break with these biblical rubrics warrants a corresponding break with the denomination.

4. The Effectiveness Lens

From: “Is the UMC a good denomination?”

To: “What denominational relationships will help us to become most effective in making disciples?”

For some, the Separation Protocol is a referendum on the effectiveness of United Methodism as an institution. The UMC divides on the trail of fifty years of unbroken attendance and membership declines in the U.S. COVID has only accelerated this deterioration. Accountability to our Discipline by our bishops has collapsed in many places. Is United Methodism working? Loyalists can tout many institutional accomplishments and decline, they are quick to say, is not unique to United Methodism.

But the effectiveness that means the most to congregations hits closer to home. Has the denomination intervened helpfully in its interactions with the local church? Specifically, has the UM clergy deployment system delivered effective clergy leadership to the congregation? If the answer is “no” or “not lately,” the congregation may seek a new relationship. Small churches sometimes feel on the low end of the appointive system food chain. Large churches may feel used as a reward for institutionally loyal clergy… independent of their track record of leadership effectiveness.

5. The Cost/Benefit Lens

From: “Is the UMC a good deal?

To: “What patterns of giving, receiving, and accountability are healthy long-term for our local church in terms of denominational relationship?”

Effectiveness is linked to another lens on separation:  A comparison of costs and benefits.  Is participation in the UMC a good deal for the local congregation? With the trust clause firmly in place, the UMC has not had to meaningfully justify the demands it places upon the local church. With the Protocol comes an opportunity to shop a better deal.

The GMC paints a future with no trust clause. Local churches will own their properties free and clear. Congregations will have a bigger say in the clergy appointed to serve them. Apportionments will be targeted at half those asked by the UMC. Some may view separation as a financial decision above all else.

Different sized congregations have different needs relative to denominational guidance. Small congregations tend to utilize the resourcing and leadership of the conference. Mega churches are effectively their own denominations with HR departments, branding, mission programs. The large sums they pay to the UMC is often seen as a healthy system financially underwriting an unhealthy system. In terms of congregational culture, megas may share more in common with large churches of other denominations than they do with small churches of their same tribe. They often resent not being in control of their own pastoral succession.

6. The Change Lens

From: “Do we want to change or not?”

To: “With whom will we navigate the significant changes that are to come?”

Change is real and brings with it the stress of uncertainty. Congregations entering the Global Methodist Church will be under a new Discipline and many will also be part of a new annual (regional) conference. However, some congregations headed for the Global Methodist Church are framing that decision as an effort to avoid unwanted change: “We are not looking to change our ministry style as a local church. It is working for us. We just need a denomination that is a better match.”

Institutionalists negotiated the Feinberg Protocol with the understanding that they would be able to market the post-separation UMC as denominational business-as-usual. “Although a few on the edges are regrettably leaving, the good-ol’ UMC you have always known will still be here for you.” The question is whether a message of continuity will be attractive in the wake of continued dysfunction and accelerated COVID decline.

It also should be stated that the post-separation UMC will undergo significant change and uncertainty. The plan is to change the definition of marriage and allow practicing, non-celibate gay clergy, including bishops. The progressive wing of the church, already vocal, will be handed a megaphone. A structural plan to re-organize the UMC into global regions faces an uncertain future. If successful, there will be a new U.S.-only Central Conference structure that will amend the Book of Discipline. If unsuccessful, the U.S. may be an unhappy minority global partner. The merging of annual conferences that has been happening due to decline will be accelerated in many locations. District lines will be redrawn. Agencies will continue to downsize. What the UMC will look like in ten years is an open question.

7. The Majority Lens

From: “What will everyone else be doing?

To: “Who is travelling to where we want to go?”

There is perceived strength and safety in numbers. The decisions of some congregations will affect the decision of others. Some larger congregations enjoy regional influence and have potential to sweep other congregations along with them.  Pastors are often shared among several small congregations and the decisions of one affects the others. Not all multi-point pastoral charge alignments are happy ones, but congregations may not want to feel like a lonely outpost in their denomination of choice.

There may certain locations where congregations may see advantage in differentiating themselves from neighboring United Methodist congregations. When the UMC merger happened, EUB and Methodist congregations were suddenly wearing the same brand.   EUB’s, in particular, felt as if they lost their identity. It will be interesting to see if some use the separation as an opportunity to once again differentiate themselves. Ultimately, the denominational alignment question is about a congregation’s preferred future and with whom they will be travelling to get there.

8. The Pastoral Lens

From: “Are we going to follow our pastor?

To: “How will we navigate issues of pastoral tenure as part of the denominational separation?”

For many congregations, the biggest single factor guiding their decision in the separation will be the leadership of the pastor. Our clergy are the gate-keepers for the congregation. They have the bully pulpit… literally. Many congregations are not receiving information on the Protocol simply because the pastor opts not to discuss it. The pastor will have opportunity to slow-play decision making, engineer the team that makes recommendations to the congregation, or lobby openly for one side.

When a pastor has been in office for several years, they have likely had opportunity to lead the nomination process that resulted in the election of the current church officers. In some congregations this may result in a group of officers who are aligned with the pastor but not the majority of the congregation. Concerned laity might find it difficult to get a hearing on holding a charge conference to consider leaving the conference. (Paragraph 248 of the Discipline, however, dictates that the church conference can be called at the request of ten percent of the membership.)

There may be places where the vote to separate may become a referendum on the leadership of the pastor. One way to get rid of your pastor is to leave the denomination of which they are a part! But I expect that United Methodist niceness will be the larger factor. Laity will be reluctant to take a vote that might be perceived as “firing” the pastor. It should be noted that, following separation, there will be a good number of congregations that are served by clergy on their way to a different denomination. Cross-denominational appointments, I predict, will be common and issues of pastoral leadership should be viewed as a separately-negotiated concern. Some congregations may wait to consider reaffiliation until a change of pastor occurs. The Protocol provides a four-year window for congregational discernment.

9. The Name Lens

From: “Are we going to call ourselves United Methodists or Global Methodists?”

To: “How can our congregation brand ourselves to maximize effectiveness in our mission?”

I hesitate to list this lens because it should be a relative a non-issue. But I keep hearing this repeatedly mentioned. Laity are concerned about the process of changing their church name. Many of the largest and most effective congregations do not have their denominational affiliation in their name. Those who want to know tend to know already. Most we hope to reach tend not to care. If your congregation is “First United Methodist Church,” there is no rule that you must become “First Global Methodist Church” upon separation. You could simplify to “First Methodist Church,” the name you likely went by prior to 1968.

Some congregations may take separation as an opportunity for a reboot and join other effective churches by developing their own branding. Denominational logos can be used alternatively as primary or secondary branding. Others may take the opportunity to get away from the “Methodist” name and logo altogether (think Christ Church, Frazer Church, and Granger Community Church.) The healthiest congregations do not rely upon their denomination for their identity in their own community.

10. The Avoidance Lens

From: “Is there a way to keep from voting on this?

To: “How can we achieve meaningful consensus on the future?”

Unlike our Baptist friends, Methodists are unaccustomed to holding all-member votes.  Over thirty years of ministry, I can count on one hand the number of times I have asked all my church members to assemble and make decisions together (and all these have been for building programs). Because we don’t do it that often, we are not very good at it. Wise leaders don’t like to hold votes where they don’t already know the outcome. All-church votes tend to be wild card.  People who have not darkened the doorstep in years sometimes show up to exercise their membership rights.

Any local church willing to go the direction of their annual conference need not vote under the rubrics of the Protocol. But most annual conferences will have churches that choose to separate. And the issues involved are varied and complex, as this post demonstrates. Some churches will want to assemble a study team to write a report and make recommendations. Such a group needs to be fairly constituted to include a representative cross-section of the congregation.

Ultimately, the churches that weather separation best are those where the pastor and congregation have reached consensus on the future. It will not be wise for pastors and church leaders to seek to avoid a vote by denying information to their membership. Ideally, the separation question can provide an opportunity for the congregation to talk about where it is heading and the kinds of larger relationships that will help them get to a preferred future.

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