by Bob Phillips
The creation of the Global Methodist Church is one of the best things that will have happened to The United Methodist Church since its formation in 1968. Realizing this statement will be regarded as dubious, laughable or infuriating by some, permit me to unpack the reasons leading to this statement of truth, and eventual fact.
The Path of Death
First, the UMC continues an accelerated decline in the US. Membership in 1970 was 5.3% of the population of the US, whereas in 2020 it declined to 1.9%. If this trend continues, the denomination will have fewer than 200,000 members in less than 50 years, given that the median age of today’s United Methodist (roughly 56 and climbing) will be long dead by 2050. Spiritual reproduction, a baseline aspect of making disciples, is not happening anywhere near the degree needed to maintain stability. That places the UMC in a better position than the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA and The Episcopal Church, all of which are facing functional numerical extinction in 50 years. To die slower is still to die.
The reason(s) behind the decline are a problem in themselves and an expression of the larger ‘Wicked Problem’ challenge. An aging membership, aging clergy, misplacement of most worship facilities in locations where most people no longer live, theological dysphoria in the content of beliefs and practice, major trust deficits (amply documented in the 2010 denomination-wide study “Call to Action,”) and outdated or ineffective personnel and organizational processes and structures have combined to create a perfect storm of woe.
The highly publicized conflicts surrounding sexuality is relatively minor in itself, given that most UM churches are in consistent plateau or decline regardless of their stance on issues such as gay marriage or the affirmation of clergy with a drag queen persona. The issue has been freighted with outsized significance by sincere progressive and traditionalist advocates, and is legitimately connected to related issues of theology, the nature of personal holiness and the meaning of human beings created in “the image of God.”
An End to Denial
Second, The United Methodist Church has consistently failed to address its Wicked Problem in any serious, sustained or effective manner. Continued embrace of this attitude of denial guarantees an historic slow-motion train wreck. The Council of Bishops issued “A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church” in November 2021, that gave no evidence of the reasons behind the travail of the denomination or any acknowledgment that, “Houston, we have a problem.” The discipline of Appreciative Inquiry, that tackles profound institutional problems, begins with identifying the ‘sources of life’ and positive points within the organization, but offers neither denial nor alibi for real issues. “Crying ‘Peace, peace,’ where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14), the bishop’s statement eloquently and wishfully expresses an unrealized and unrealistic ideal. The elephant (theology), rhino (trust), hyena (demographics), cobra (ineffective organization) and other wicked problem animals clustered in the living room are ignored. Hope is not a strategy.
Third, the creation of the Global Methodist Church opens the path to multiple thriving futures. This is the essence of the perspective of Methodist Mitosis, a healthy division rooted in spiritual revival that flows into systemic reformation to advance the work of Christ through Wesleyan Christian witness. There is an old saying, “It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail.” An outcome in which the GMC ‘succeeds’ while the Continuing UMC founders is not consistent with a constructive spiritual mitosis within the Methodist body of Christ. A scenario in which the GMC falters while the Continuing UMC thrives, or both expressions wind up depleted, also miss the point. A theological center/left and center/right expression each have a large niche in both the US and the global culture to offer a vigorous witness for Christ.
The creation of a Global Methodist Church will draw enough resources from the institutional status quo to require the continuing UMC into crucial, long-delayed change. To be sure, the GMC will face its own major challenges in standing-up the new Wesleyan expression, but that is grist for another mill and another article. The departure of the GMC-affiliated churches and clergy will require the pressing of a major reset button and the rebooting of the UMC system at all levels. If the declared mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ” remains central, all organizational pieces and assumptions involving people, property and processes can be revised in light of fulfilling that mission. The luxury of glacial incremental change, the candy that institutional inertia throws to the motivated and passionate to distract them, will end. The current placeholder title of “The Continuing United Methodist Church” will be forced to deal with the reality that a lot of stuff cannot continue and that business-as-usual preferences no longer call the shots. The huge distraction and drain of emotional resources over sexuality can abate.
A revived and reforming continuous UMC will be freed from the preoccupation with sexuality debates. The Scottish Episcopal Church offers an example of transition, in which the conscience of all clergy and churches has been actively respected in the process of permitting same sex marriage and active LGBT clergy. The conservatives who remain have dialed back public comments about the sinfulness of such behaviors and the liberals who remain have dialed back labeling those who personally do not agree with such practices as bigots, haters or ignorant. Thus the revised UMC can tone down the language and venom that tragically has tainted the church’s offering of the Water of Life with a bitter taste.
Embracing the Uncomfortable
A reforming Continuous UMC can retool its approach to the ministry of general boards and agencies, the role and nature of the seminaries of the church, the meaning of itineracy of clergy for the 21st century US culture, and identify ways where a vibrant connectional ministry can enhance the ability of individual churches to make disciples. It can position itself to reach those the GMC likely cannot reach, while respecting the GMC in reaching others with whom the Continuing UMC are unable to connect. Out of division comes multiplied outreach.
The book, Canoeing the Mountains, includes the observation that ‘when confronted by the choice between change and death, 90% of organizations choose death.’ The new Global Methodist Church can choose to bring the wrong stuff with them into their new expression and wind up with the basic old dysfunctions dressed in a new suit with fresh after-shave. The Continuing UMC leadership likewise can choose the comfort of snuggling with familiar and dysfunctional attitudes and structures. That choice will lead to a more rapid death, given the decline in numbers that will result from migration to the GMC.
Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I call Heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” If contempt, and mutual critique define the process, schism will result, leaving all parties bleeding. If a collaborative commitment to a larger renewed future is the vision, the resulting Methodist Mitosis will bless all involved as Wesleyan Christianity lives into the future God has called the church to pursue.
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)