by Bob Phillips
Recently my former Asbury Seminary classmate, Steve Harper, wrote a thoughtful article widely circulated, “Parting Words and Words of Witness,” published in The Current and elsewhere. What follows is a response but not a rebuttal, since much of what Steve said reflects a different understanding of the issues facing The United Methodist Church and the dynamics involved in the birth of the Global Methodist Church. I offer a response in seven statements.
- Separation can be bad or it can be good. A bad separation is a schism. Like a nasty divorce or civil war, the air is filled with name-calling, innuendoes on the motives or intelligence of others, anger, attorney-driven actions, seizure of assets and win-lose tactics. A good separation is a Methodist mitosis, the division of one Wesleyan cell within the body of Christ into two (or more) cells. After pangs of birth, mitosis produced Methodism from the Church of England. The Salvation Army-Wesleyan-Free Methodist-AME-AMEZ, CME, Church of the Nazarene/holiness bodies and from the latter the 644 million Pentecostals, currently the largest expression of Protestant Christianity on earth all came via separation. I have noticed some writers consistently use the language of schism and divorce to describe the birth of the GMC. Other writers consistently use “fleeing Pharaoh’s slavery or the forces of darkness” to describe the UMC from which they depart. A gracious, win-win vision also is possible, and vital.
- It isn’t about sex. Steve’s article repeatedly references LGBTQIA+ issues as the real issue. It is an issue but not the main one, despite what secular and social media says and lobby groups of left or right may insist. The only IGRC conference story picked up by national media over the previous 3 years has been the acceptance of the first ministry candidate with a drag queen persona as a candidate for ordination. Our conference communications team can point to numerous other events but…those are not about sex. Consider. The Presbyterian Church USA had 2.5M members in 2000 and 1.1M today, a nearly 60% decline. The United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church are on tracks to functional numerical extinction in 50 years, and all have modified teaching on sexuality. Lest traditional folks (like yours truly) smirk, UM congregations with traditional views on sexuality likewise are in sustained decline, even in Bible-belt areas, a wee bit slower on the way to extinction in the US but clearly on the same path. The challenge is not about the sex.
- “Every organization is perfectly aligned to the results it gets.” A multi-headed wicked problem is the demon gnawing at the vitals of the UMC. Profound trust deficits, ageing members and outdated building-locations are issues. Ineffective and dysfunctional systems to translate apportionment dollars into “maximizing conversions” (which historian Ashley Boggan Dreff has stated is the purpose of the entire organizational system, along with personal and social accountability, really!). Think bipolar theology in which contradictory definitions of Christ, and salvation are rationalized in the name of ‘think and let think,’ and denial by leadership of the above as the US church slowly capsizes in America…these are some of the real and deeper issues. Like SEARS (that closed its last store in Illinois in November 2021), we have clung to an organizational approach as church that faithfully delivers what it is designed to achieve, failure to a level that now threatens any meaningful future.
- Good stuff is happening. The Holy Spirit has not yet begun to hum “American Pie” nor ‘caught the last train to the coast.’ Churches have sources of life. Renewal movements such as the GMC honor neither God nor truth if they suggest everything is wrong. Institutionalists honor neither God nor truth by whistling past the graveyard (since my ordination as deacon in 1972, IGRC has 1/3 its former membership). That said, what the Spirit is doing in positive ways provides a basis for a reformation within and beyond the status quo church. Identifying the ways in which the Spirit is moving can enable all expressions to affirm and continue such ministry amid profound change.
- Discerning God’s will is Job One. When I have made presentations on the UMC and the GMC, I emphasize I have not come to talk anyone into or out of the UMC. I know friends and family who will remain in the Continuing UMC and will serve and witness with integrity. I know friends and family who will align with the GMC and will serve and witness with integrity. Taking potshots at the intelligence, loving spirit or gracious faith of folks who move to the GMC is wrong. Verbally dinging folks who will remain in the existing denomination as unspiritual, compromised or spawn of Satan is wrong. On the eve of combat, chaplains tell their Marines or Soldiers that the safest place to be is the center of God’s will. His will undoubtedly will lead some to go, some to stay, some to leave sooner and others later and others not at all…and all honoring God.
- Actively create win-win. The Protocol was a masterful effort to have everyone drop their weapons and collaborate toward a win-win outcome. Now that GC2020 has been essentially canceled (we already were going to have GC2024), some congregations are leading a separation process with attorneys as a first step. Some conferences and bishops are seeking to bleed congregations in time and assets that are following conscience into separation that at the least will leave them weakened…none of which the Protocol required. Everyone can rationalize reasons and excuses for this or that policy or action. ALL parties need to realize that there is no win-lose scenario. Both sides win, or both sides lose. Choose win.
- “If you dislike change, you will dislike irrelevance a lot more.” Former Army Chief of Staff Shinseki made this point of leadership and it applies to both new expressions. Profound change will be required for a vigorous Wesleyan Methodist Christianity in the US in the 21st century. The division will force change that 53 years of inertia constantly derailed. It will demand the GMC begin Day One with major innovation, for any church whose main reason to affiliate is related to sexuality issues will have a short shelf life. Business as usual within the Continuing UMC will be impossible…thank you Jesus! Nothing short of a seismic shift of a Methodist mitosis can induce needed change. Steve Harper, in his last footnote, offers a partial sentence acknowledgment of ‘challenges’ that will need facing. That needed to be 95% of his article. For those rooted in God’s will for their church and ministry, let the response be, “Change? Bring it on, Bubba, to the glory of God.”
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)
See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.