by Chris Ritter
“By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin… By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. (Hebrews 11:25, 25, 27)
With the announcement that General Conference is delayed a third time until 2024, the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church has announced the May 1 launch of a new denomination. This means UMC separation is entering a new phase, from individual disaffiliations to a more coordinated exit. Like many of you, I have friends who will be staying and friends who will be leaving. This is not where any of us hoped we would be three years ago when a special General Conference convened to settle our divisions. Institutional types, including most bishops, thought the One Church Plan would pass and gradually transition an intact denomination to a new understanding of sexual ethics. Supporters of the Traditional Plan hoped that upholding/enforcing church teaching and providing a gracious exit for those who disagreed would allow the UMC to reform itself. (That gracious exit provision died in committee while the rest of the plan was approved.) I was among the very few that hoped the UMC would reorganize into several mostly-autonomous groups through the Connectional Conference Plan. No one got what they wanted.
In the Protocol negotiations, traditionalists leaders agreed to form a new denomination with a process blessed by the UMC. There is little doubt it would have been approved if General Conference met in May 2020 as scheduled. But, again, hopes were dashed. The only voice authorized to speak for the UMC is once again on mute. But long-standing trends have only accelerated. Africa continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Progressives continue to advance toward dominance in a U.S. church that has deepened its demographic nose dive. A version of Neuhaus’ Law has already proved true in several conferences: “Where orthodoxy [and I would add orthopraxy] is optional, it will one day be proscribed.”
The launch of the GMC opens a new possibility of denominational transfers under the provisions of Par. 2548.2. The window for the onerous disaffiliation process (Par. 2553) will soon close. A sunset clause means that disaffiliations must be complete by December 31, 2023 and this includes votes at annual conference. But most Methodists don’t want to become non-denominational, which is what disaffiliation accomplishes. Paragraph 2548.2*** transferring a congregation to another denomination is the new ballgame and it can be accomplished on more favorable terms than disaffiliation. Time will tell if annual conferences will provide the cooperation necessary for these transfers and how many will seek it. We will also watch to see what annual conferences attempt to leave the UMC at this juncture and how the Judicial Council will rule on these attempts.
A smaller GMC means a more stuck UMC, but U.S. traditionalists are no longer the barrier to the UMC denomination that progressives hope to lead. We are now holsteins that will provide the institution either milk or beef…. our choice. The real challenge is the global sales effort to convince Africa to let go their keys to the house. The Judicial Council will likely slap the Commission on General Conference’s hand (for a third time*) and say that styling General Conference 2024 as a postponed GC2020 is wrong. The legislation drafted in 2019 for 2020 will at the very least require major reworking. Delegates are to be elected no more than two annual conference sessions before the calendar years of the session of General Conference. (Par. 502.3**). But not only is the attempt to retain the same delegations contrary to our polity, it is also patently unjust. U.S. annual conferences have been declining and losing their largest congregations. The losses in U.S. conferences must equate to a loss of representation at General Conference. The growing African Central Conferences have earned their bigger voice. We rightly rail against efforts to keep poorer folks from the ballot here in the U.S. We should be just as demanding that full and fair representation be granted in the church. New elections and a new allocation of delegates should be conducted for GC2024 even though this is a barrier to the “continuing UMC” envisioned by the the Council of Bishops.
Leaving in Faith
Anyone still a United Methodist traditionalist in March 2022 is probably a moderate, patient person. Ample evidence has accumulated that the institution is not designed to reform itself, but perpetuate as much of the status quo as the money flowing in allows. For all our Methodist DNA of watching over one another in love, accountability has collapsed from the top. We see bishops green-lighting disobedience to our discipline and practicing disobedience themselves. And it no longer down to nuances of interpretation. Rulings by our high court to take action are summarily ignored. But these dysfunctions are not limited to the denominational machinery. They come home to the local church. The UMC brand/DNA has long ceased to boost our mission of making disciples. It is a drag… sometimes literally. The clergy union dominates, shielding the church from free market forces that would naturally filter pastors who grow congregations from those who grandly preside over decline.
To be sure, there are hotheads who have had a bad experience in United Methodism and delight to watch the house burn down. That is not me or the folks I have come to know in WCA leadership. If we are guilty of anything, it is making the security and familiarity of the UMC into an idol. We hear voices from the other side of the fence telling us that there is life over there. I have friends whose churches are in revival following their exit. They can breath again. Ministry is life-giving and exciting for them. Although the UM church I serve baptized more people last year than any time in its 170-year history, most of our people have no idea how out of step we are with the declining UMC mainstream. I meet people in our community that I know would love our church, but they will not visit due to our UMC brand. We have folks, otherwise with us, who designate their offerings so that nothing goes to the denomination. At least in the short run, I have little doubt that we could make more disciples of Jesus Christ without the UMC. And isn’t making disciples what Jesus told us to be doing?
Staying in Faith
If marriages ended when they ceased to be fun, there would be no marriage. How much unfaithfulness is grounds for divorce, Hosea? The official teachings of our church are in line with the orthodox understanding taken from the New Testament. Some of us serve under bishops who are upholding the Discipline. Vows were made before God… and vows don’t contain the word, “if.” The global, big-picture future of United Methodism, absent a constitutional reorganization by region, is orthodox. Denominational hoopla of any flavor is mere background noise for the real ministry happening in the local congregation. Many of us traditionalists have had very positive experiences in the UMC, me most of all. I was saved at a UMC camp, educated at UMC seminaries, and given great opportunities to serve. The temptation is to rebrand, hide our denominational affiliation eight clicks in to our church website, and watch how the inevitable post-denominational reorganization of United Methodism unfolds.
There are cynical, self-serving reasons for staying. I am old by most standards (middle aged, if I live to 104) but am still on the young side of the UMC clergy pool. Most of our pastors can see retirement from where they sit. All have invested vast amounts of time and treasure in their UMC ordination. Even though Wespath is the pension provider for the GMC and the new plan (I am told) is very favorable, inertia will keep many people from making big decisions. We have been more or less free to take an a la carte approach to politics, social issues, theology, and (to some extent) even polity. Some frogs worry about being boiled alive and others enjoy the hot tub. Aloof centrism has been cultivated as a virtue in the training of many clergy. Add to this that most pastors are shepherds and not prophets. I dare say a majority have not meaningfully engaged their people with what is happening. Why upset the sheep when it is not clear what to do? Many clergy and congregations will not consider a denominational change until the time of the next pastoral move. The exits we will see in 2022 will be in those places where the pastor and congregation are substantially aligned on the action. Other clergy preferring the GMC will stay in the UMC until they have a job lined up.
A True Lent
It is good, I think, that all this unfolds at the beginning of Lent. It is time to check our guts, rend our hearts, and get on our knees. Staying should be a sacrificial, intentional, and faithful staying. Those exiting should run toward something in a spirit of faith and not from something in a spirit of fear. Those holding institutional power should honor conversation instead of control. I don’t often heed fortune cookies, but one got my attention today: “There is a price to waiting.” There is also certainly a price for moving. Maybe the best advise to us all is to take Jesus’ words to heart in Luke 14: Count the cost… and then follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in good faith and courage.
*Two of the Judicial Council’s recent rulings contradicted decisions made by The Commission on General Conference. GOGC ruled the GC2019 disaffiliation legislation null and void because of voting irregularities. The Judicial Council did not recognize their power to do this and stated the legislation is still in effect. More recently the Judicial Council ruled that COGC’s decision not to move the legislative deadline for the planned GC2021/GC2022 was in conflict with the Book of Discipline.
** “Delegates to the General Conference shall be elected at the session of the annual conference not more than two annual conference sessions before the calendar year preceding the session of General Conference.” (Par. 502.3, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church)
*** Par. 2548.2: “With the consent of the presiding bishop and of a majority of the district superintendents and of the district board of church location and building and at the request of the charge conference or a meeting of the membership of the local church, where required by local law, and in accordance with said law, the annual conference may instruct and direct the board of trustees of a local church to deed the church property to one of the other denominations represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission, or to another evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement, provided that such agreement shall have been committed in writing and signed and approved by the duly qualified and authorized representatives of both parties concerned.”