by Beth Ann Cook
David Livingston, a clergy person from Great Plains Annual Conference, recently published a piece calling Traditionalists hypocrites because we are bemoaning the less than gracious exit options available to traditionalist churches. You can read his piece, “Mixed Up Memories of GC2019,” here.
He was responding to a Chris Ritter piece, The Deficiencies of Disaffiliation, which can be found here:
Since my name features heavily in his piece I feel compelled to respond. It is important to know that he reflecting on the closing events of General Conference in St. Louis which Livingston linked in his piece.
First I stand by every single word I said on the platform in St. Louis. I meant it then and I mean it now. I leaned heavily into Jesus teaching in Luke 6:31 which is known as the “Golden Rule”-that we should treat others the way we would want to be treated. I also leaned into Jesus’ commandment for us to love one another in John 14:15. These passages of Scripture are important to me. Virtually every member of every congregation I have served will testify to that fact. If I’m to be called a hypocrite it will be because of something else not because of what I said that day in St. Louis.
Allow Me to Share Some Background:
- The proposal to offer a gracious exit was not intended for liberals as David maintains in his blog—it was genuinely intended as a fail-safe for whoever could not remain in the UMC. We all went into that special session knowing that some people would feel, as a matter of conscience, that they could not remain UMC after that vote.
- Months before GC 2019, I argued in favor of voting on a gracious exit proposal BEFORE the main motion. I contacted numerous GC delegates seeking consensus across the theological spectrum. I still believe that this timing for a gracious exit vote would have benefited everyone. Mike Slaughter, a prominent centrist who I consider a friend, should be able to verify this fact for you. This alone is proof that my proposal not was part of some grand scheme by Traditionalists to take over The United Methodist Church.
- I selected the “Taylor” plan as the minority report, even though I did not like some aspects of it, because I felt it had the best chance of passing. Taylor was NOT authored by a Traditionalist; I felt that anything authored by a traditionalists would have no chance of getting the necessary traction.
In his article David Livingston implies that I no longer stand by Paragraph 2553. I do, in fact, stand by 2553, if applied fairly. My single biggest problem with exits under Paragraph 2553 is not that it is too costly (although they are extremely costly). My problem is that they are not being applied fairly and consistently across the denomination.
Many people know that I was in Human Resource Management prior to entering ministry. In HR we followed the “hot stove rule”. To be considered fair a rule or procedure must “burn equally” whether you are the favorite employee of the boss or someone who might need to be protected from discrimination. What is happening with 2553 horrifies me. Procedures should be the same procedures for everyone.
Two Judicial Council Decisions opened the door for this:
- 1424, in which the Arkansas annual conference voted to require repayment of grants made to disaffiliating churches over the previous ten years
- 1425, in which the New England annual conference voted to require an eight-month discernment process for disaffiliating local churches, including a community impact study and other procedural steps involving people outside the congregation influencing whether that congregation could disaffiliate
After these Judicial Council decisions various Bishops and annual conferences began adding disincentives for congregations to exit. Other annual conferences have simply failed to acknowledge the paragraph or develop procedures.
As a female pastor I’ve helped a number of domestic violence victims leave difficult situations. Honestly this feels like the kind of stuff that happens to them when they say they are leaving—every kind of barrier is put in place to make it difficult to go.
Here are examples:
- I know of no church in the Western Jurisdiction that has been allowed to disaffiliate under 2553, although I do know of churches who have requested disaffiliation under this paragraph. Keep in mind that many interested churches are non-Caucasian congregations that contribute a significant share of the conference budget.
- Licensed local pastors in multiple annual conferences have been moved or removed from ministry for requesting disaffiliation numbers from their annual conferences—even when the church members were the ones who instructed them to do so.
- The Bishop of Baltimore Washington and Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conferences is attempting to impose a 50% of the assessed value of real property above 2553.
- The Bishop of Illinois Great Rivers recently announced that churches wishing to disaffiliate under 2553 will begin negotiations at 50% of all assets on top of the requirements of 2553.
- In North Georgia, Mt Bethel UMC is currently in litigation with the Annual Conference which is refusing to allow them to disaffiliate under Paragraph 2553. Some other churches have had difficulty obtaining deadlines and information on disaffiliation in order to try to meet the requirements for this year.
- In Greater New Jersey Annual Conference no church has been allowed to enter the process despite multiple requests. Again these are mostly non-Caucasian churches whose giving comprises a large percent of AC budget.
- In Louisiana churches have been told there will be no disaffiliations prior to 2023. Their Bishop is promoting a required payment above 2553 that is a percentage of assessed church value.
- One Wisconsin church submitted a request to disaffiliate that was in order only to be declined. No other churches have been allowed to enter the process in 2022.
- In Susquehanna AC, leaders have yet to announce a standard process. Previous departures have been on a case by case and included negotiation for church property above 2553.
- In Florida, where all churches buy insurance together, the annual conference is requiring 3 years of “tail insurance” fully indemnifying Florida UMC for the past professional and sexual misconduct liability of church staff members. This insurance is so difficult to find, in the wake of the Roman Catholic Church and Boy Scout lawsuits, that churches wishing to exit are approaching Lloyds of London seeking an underwriter.
- Multiple annual conferences seem to be using the lengthy “discernment process” they have established to make it difficult to complete the steps of disaffiliation within the timeline so that churches can actually exit prior to the sundown of 2553 at the end of 2023.
- In annual conferences like mine where Paragraph 2553 is being fairly applied many congregations and pastors are nervous. Will this fair process change at some point in the future? Will Jurisdictional Conferences result in a new Bishop who will handle it differently?
All of this is the exact opposite of what I believed was the one good moment in St. Louis! In the midst of our brokenness, pain and anger we voted to treat one another like Christians even though we disagreed. I was comforted by that moment. I stood on that platform and gave UM New Service a photo op with friends who disagreed with me.
Is Identifying A Barrier To Where We All Want To Go Hypocritical?
I will agree with David Livingston that Chris Ritter’s recollection of the exact order of events on that day at GC 2019 may not be 100% accurate. I think Chris is conflating two different votes together. [Honestly you can’t pay me to watch that video again—so I’m going by memory. I literally have some PTSD.]
However, I think David needs to own that Chris is correct that the progressive coalition helped get us in this mess with their obstructionism. Another delegate from his annual conference gave his famous “till the monster trucks roll in” speech that bluntly and publicly stated their intent to halt and stall all General Conference action. That tactic succeeded.
I’m not as interested in assigning blame for the problem as I am fixing it.
While I still support 2553, I do not think 2553 is the ultimate solution to our denominational impasse. Why? The financial barrier is so high it won’t help everyone get where they need to be. I don’t think acknowledging this is hypocritical. It is just being honest.
Few, if any, delegates knew how high of a cost there would be with 2553 when we voted it in.
- At the current needs assessment value we were using (what gets reported to your annual conference) all but 2 annual conferences in 2019 were fully funded. I knew Indiana Annual Conference certainly was as we had worked hard to make that happen.
- Earlier in General Conference 2019 at the advice of Wespath we voted to move to the more conservative “market valuation” standard for the purpose of exiting congregations. We understood this was a “worst case scenario” for the market valuation. Because we are all committed to supporting the viability of the pension fund, that vote was the easiest and first vote at GC2019. We care about widows and orphans and retirees. WesPath recommended and we said yes.
- I don’t think anyone (at least outside of WesPath) had any idea that the new market valuation would be $2 Billion in unfunded liability. Let that sink in—from fully funded in almost all cases to $2 billion unfunded.
- I certainly did not know how high of a hurdle that would create for the average church exiting under 2553. I’m hearing from churches in my annual conference who have requested the number from their District Superintendent. Tiny churches get an exit number in the $50,000 range. Typical churches might be $200,000. A church with several hundred members might be around $500,000. Large membership churches get a price tag in millions.
We have already seen wealthy congregations easily raise the money to go. But do we really want less wealthy churches with Traditionalist beliefs to be “stuck” in a post separation UMC? How does that help anyone? How does that sit with of our sense of social justice when many of these congregations are immigrant congregations? Isn’t this a time to think about checking our privilege?
On the other side of the justice equation we have those who believe LGBTQIA+ individuals have waited long enough—they don’t want to wait longer. Having traditionalist churches stuck in their midst means their dream of changing the church to match their vision is delayed. It may even mean that the window of opportunity is lost if Central Conferences choose to #BeUMC and reject regionalization plans.
Finding a way to care for our pension obligations faithfully while also allowing churches to self-sort into their vision for the future is best for everyone.
As far as hypocrisy goes—it is far easier to see hypocrisy in others than ourselves. Jesus said that we all need to look for the log in our own eye first. Maybe instead of looking for hypocrisy in others, we need to look for viable solutions that will help us get unstuck.
I still believe that finding ways that will let each other go graciously is the best witness we can have to the world of our faith. If 2553 is too expensive and support for the Feinberg negotiated Protocol has weakened we need to look for another way.
In 2019 I served a church with a large preschool that taught children the Golden Rule. I’m now in a new appointment. Guess what? We have an after school program where I am teaching children. Let’s seek to live out child-like faith.
Blessings and peace,
Beth Ann Cook
For the record, I believe Beth Ann was honest in her 2019 presentation and I believe she is honest now. I did not intend to imply that she specifically no longer supports 2553, but that traditionalist leadership (of which she is a part) generally does not. That fact is evident in multiple public statements, including this web page.
I also am in nearly complete agreement with Beth Ann that there should be no requirements in any conference other than those explicitly stated in 2553. The one place I disagree is that a reasonable discernment period to understand the implications of leaving a denomination seems important to me. The implications are very significant beyond the question of LGBT+ inclusion. Months may be appropriate; years is not.
If David Livingston is sincere and not simply a reed bending in the wind, let him come together with Beth Ann Cook to hash out what’s fair. The Golden Rule of fairness needs to be applied now. That requires David Livingston to do more than spar with Traditionalists. He should take the offer that Beth Ann Cook sets forth in her document and agree to a parley. Let’s end the dodgy deflections of fact.
Gary, I have shared with Beth Ann that I’m willing to use my limited influence to do what I said in my comment above and I am sincere. That does not change my criticism of the overall leadership of the traditionalist wing of the church. I’ll have another blog post this afternoon showing why I have no trust in them.
I admire your chutzpah. You are willing to “name names” in your blog, take it to the enemy in their lairs, give them no rest. You say: “I’ll have another blog post this afternoon showing why I have no trust in them.”
You proclaim yourself a peacemaker while announcing another round of hostile fire. If you really are what you say, seek a parley with every one of those named in your post.
Gary, just an FYI that I’m waiting until Monday instead of today.
I believe in peace. I also believe that the truth matters. Feel free to look through the historical record of Good News, IRD, Confessing Movement, WCA, etc. Compare the “hostile fire” you read there with the amount that has come the other direction. The IRD and Good News in particular fund raise off of fear. That’s simply true. For all the attention that the post I wrote which Beth Ann has replied to has received, there has been precisely one instance where my facts were called into question.
One thing I learned early on as I cruised the internet listening to all the perspectives that populate the UMC, it is hard to trust leadership that has a completely different perspective than your own. The issue now goes beyond trusting individuals and trusting that it is time for the UMC to stop its internal warring by letting those go who need to go.
I understand that from your perspective traditionalists are the “problem”. As a traditionalist, I have a much larger perspective: The UMC has been nothing more than an ill-conceived experiment in theological plurality that was inadvertently designed to fail; it is now living out its destiny in a most spectacular fashion. After engaging John Wesley and reading the 1894 Discipline from the Methodist Episcopal Church, I can absolutely say that Methodism in America has not had a coherent understanding of itself for generations! We are all a product of a faith tradition that has been drifting from its theological moorings for a long time!
The “Pennsylvania Delaware” Annual Conference should read “Peninsula-Delaware,” which consists of the part of Maryland east of the Chesapeake Bay and all of Delaware. Pennsylvania is not included in this conference.
Beth Ann caught that. I will update the post.
It would also be important to point out that both Pen-Del and Eastern Pennsylvania conferences now share the same Bishop.
Bishop John Schol is the bishop of Eastern PA and Greater NJ.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, who was part of the Protocol discussions, is the bishop of BWC and Pen-Del.
In three years time, the unfunded pension liability grew to $2 billion! What documentation do we have of this tremendous hole?
John Grimm it wasn’t 3 years it was instant. It was a shift in how we calculate it. Under one calculation formula we were considered fully funded and under the new more conservative “market valuation” $2 Billion unfunded. Keep in mind the pension plan remained solid the whole time. All of this was about worst case scenario.
Ma’am, the pension plan was fully funded, but to cover an extreme drop in the stock market, the valuation was changed? If however, the market valuation formula had been kept at 6%, then there would be no unfunded pension liability? Or at least a smaller unfunded pension liability?
Rev. Livingston, I am thankful you are engaging here, to me that shows a good faith effort to listen to others.
One problem I find in your blog is that you conflate Rev. Cook with all “traditional” leadership. I understand that , in these times (of hurt, confusion and chaos), it is very easy to combine a person and group based on said person’s theological beliefs. However, you wouldn’t appreciate it if your positions or actions were conflated to be that of Adam Hamilton’s just because you were both from Kansas. Or, that you are always in lock-step with The Methodist Federation for Social Action stances. We as Christians, and especially clergy, should be held to a higher standard. We should listen better and articulate more clearly in a case as nuanced as this. I believe your writing fell short in this regard.
Also, I have been a General Conference delegate as young person. Thus, I was watching live, had extensive notes, and have since watched that final session again (because I am a Metho-nerd 🙂 ). It is true, Rev. Ritter has conflated some events. However, Rev. Cook gave the best account of the proceedings. Also, she is correct on this important point which you mistook: “the proposal to offer a gracious exit was not intended for liberals as David maintains in his blog—it was genuinely intended as a fail-safe for whoever could not remain in the UMC.” I know this from firsthand experience. I spoke with Rev. Cook about this personally, numerous times, before General Conference 2019. Not only that, but it is in our numerous conversation through #DreamUMC hashtag on Twitter. If you cannot find that evidence or do not take the word of Rev. Slaughter, feel free to contact me through this profile which is linked to Twitter. As an evangelical who is not leaving for the GMC, I feel like I don’t have a “dog in the fight” in this regard. Additionally, I don’t who the supposed “traditionalist” leaders are who opposed a gracious exit. But among the evangelicals I knew and are my dear friends (along with my close progressive friends), we all thought “gracious exit” legislation was an excellent and essential. We were all shocked that it did not make it to a fuller deliberation.
Thus, all this at least merits a public apology to Rev. Beth Ann Cook. Again, I think it is easy to miss the details and bring others in without speaking to them first. I believe you when you wrote: “I have shared with Beth Ann that I’m willing to use my limited influence to do what I said in my comment above and I am sincere.” An easy way to show this would be to make sure you link her response to your blog on your blog, but also advocate for other places (like UM Insight) to link her response if they use your blog post. Also, speak with Rev. Cook personally, not only to apologize, but to advocate for 2553 to be used fairly so that “there should be no requirements in any conference other than those explicitly stated in 2553” and craft a more excellent “gracious exit” for General Conference. You don’t have limited influence, Rev. Livingston. In fact you, and all of us, have tremendous influence . . . especially in these times. One person, or just a few, can make enormous difference. I’m willing to help as well. I pray we all as United Methodists can make the most of this small and limited opportunity.
– Reading your comment made me reread my post. I stand by it. Beth Ann figures prominently in it because she presented the minority report. I do quote her. I don’t believe that I said anything unkind towards her in that post. In fact, Beth Ann made the point on Facebook that she is also a leader in the traditionalist movement, not only those I called out.
– If, as you believe, the new paragraph was intended not only for progressives but for anyone who wants to leave, so be it. If anything, that adds to my point that 2553 should be sufficient and those choosing to leave should not try now to wiggle out of its requirements.
– Beth Ann and I have communicated via social media and email, as recently as today, and I affirmed again, now with this post three times and once privately with her, that I will advocate for the minimum requirements of 2553 with the exception that some period of time for discernment before a vote to disaffiliate seems wise.
Dear Rev. Livingston, thank you for being in conversation with me and for taking to the time to reread your blog post. I appreciate your time and engagement more than you know. In rereading my comment, I did not (nor will I) claim you were unkind to Rev. Cook. And, of course, Rev. Cook is a leader in the evangelical and renewal movements. Yet, leaders in movements can have different opinions upon policies within movements (I believe Charles and John have taught us this). My problem with your writing was that it conflated “traditionalist” leadership (which you claim as being against 2553) with Rev. Cook’s view on paragraph 2553 (which I personally know she supports, as she explained in her response). You said you stand by your blog post. I stand by my critique of your blog in this instance. We may disagree, but we are still brothers in Christ who can disagree with sincerity as well as having no ill will. Such disagreement does not mean we cannot find other places of agreement. Therefore, I am thankful we both agree that 2553 should be enacted with no additional barriers erected by the General Superintendents. That is much more important.
I do believe 2553 was meant for progressives and evangelicals who could not stay within the United Methodist Church. However, I do not believe it supports your point “that 2553 should be sufficient.” 2553 was meant to enable people who found they could not stay in the UMC a reasonable avenue to leave. As someone who is staying in the UMC, I don’t think people who consider leaving the UMC are trying to “wiggle out of its requirements.” As Rev. Cook points out in her response— things have changed dramatically (2 billion of unfunded liabilities have been discovered since then). This has made it extremely burdensome for any congregation that is not large and rich (from any variety of theological positions) to leave the UMC. I do not think that is the intent of 2553. I believe 2553 was a reasonable start, but should not be the end. As Methodists, are not scared of striving for perfection by God’s grace. Thus, 2553 is not sufficient as currently written . . . it needs to be made more perfect to align with its intent. As a matter a fact, things have changed so much that 2553 may not be able to adequately live up to and deliver on its intent. I agree with Rev. Cook, we may need something bigger and more encompassing as an ultimate solution. 2553, if anything, is something we’ve discovered to be utterly insufficient.
I am glad you and Rev. Cook have communicated. I’ve always found Rev. Cook to be honest, sincere, and truthful . . . even in disagreement. I believe, before naming her (and making the implications your blog seemed to do) you could have communicated with her. This would have been very easy to do. Thus, an apology to a fellow colleague. You disagree— and I think that is fair and reasonable. If nothing else, I hope it has allowed for a conversation and hopefully a better outcome for us all as United Methodists. Again, I don’t think you have “little influence,” all of us have a very large influence.
Thanks Brian. I’d forgotten there would be documentation on #DreamUMC
David Livingston and I have had good email conversations. I appreciate his willingness to advocate for minimal 2553 exits. We may not agree on everything but I’m glad we do on that. Also Brian Felker Jones every time you call me Rev. Cook I feel old because I remember you as a teenager at annual conference. Stop calling me Rev Cook or I’m going to need to start calling you Rev. Jones. Lol.
Who? Rev. Jones is my Dad! 🙂 Absolutely! It is an old habit of using titles in public forums to show respect. I even do with my close friends who are colleagues of my wife at Wheaton College and Northern Seminary . . . and many are younger than me! LOL.
Beth Ann, Thank you for your response. You keep teaching the Golden Rule in this situation and I find that level of respect very helpful to our church as well as to me individually. I wish we could have everyone focus on that instead of seeing who has what on who.