by Bob Phillips
In 2017 African American actor/writer Jordan Peele created the horror-suspense movie, “Get Out,” for public consumption. The movie was a hit, actually more like a slug in the face of audiences with its suspenseful plot and numerous squirm-and-scream moments. Peele was awarded an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and saw the movie earn nearly a quarter billion dollars on a 4.5 million dollar budget.
I won’t drop spoilers into this article except for the obvious. “Getting out“ of a situation riddled with threats increasingly defined the plot and adventures of the main character and numerous side-dish players in the movie. Many viewers could not wait to get out of the theater as the final credits rolled (in a good sense), in keeping with the spirit of the picture itself.
On May 1, the Global Methodist Church became a legal entity. Unlike the goddess Athena, who sprang full-grown and armored from the head of daddy Zeus, the GMC has had a 3-year gestation. Originally projected for birth by the end of 2020, COVID other curve balls and the United Methodist world class case of trust deficits and denial delayed both General Conference and the official start of the new Wesleyan expression. This served both to allow more time for preparation to launch and increased the anxiety and impatience of some eager GMC friends to leave and others very eager to have GMC fellow travelers gone.
The United Methodist News Service has been clear that relatively few of the 31,000+ local churches have left the denomination to date. However as wise heads have observed, “there are lies, d—d lies, and statistics.” When the largest single congregation in the Indiana conference departed, Granger Community, the worship attendance that departed was the equal of their 350 smallest congregations combined, over 30% of the conference existing congregations. When Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois, departed the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, its attendance equaled the combined attendance of the 201 smallest individual congregations in that conference, 1/4th of the total. When Frazer Memorial depart Alabama West Florida, it was the equal of the smallest 200 of the 556 churches in that conference. Put another way, those three congregations departed with worship attendance comparable to the departure of 751 small congregations, nearly 30% of their combined congregations, a larger raw data number of congregations than numerous national denominations claim. And none of those three are part of the GMC. Three churches departed, the equal of 751 churches by count.
Social media has been buzzing with left hooks and right uppercuts swung at other parts of the Wesleyan Body of Christ. From the left and some committed institutionalists the mantra to those affiliated with the Wesleyan Covenant Association is, “Get out. Pay your pension claims (rightly), pay your apportionments through the following year (rightly), and fork over up to half your entire assessed net worth of property and cash holdings (huh?) and just leave.” Facebook commandos are adamant. It is dishonest, immoral and unnecessary for GMC sympathizers to remain in the UMC a minute longer. Why should any organization continue to welcome or employ those publicly committed to criticism and to support of another church?
The contradiction is that some bishops and conferences with clear negative feelings about the WCA/GMC orbit both want them gone but have established punitive requirements to depart far beyond the template set by the negotiated Protocol of late 2019. Some insist on up to 50% of the financial worth of all church assets. Greater New Jersey demands legitimate pension and apportionment payments…plus a $3500 administrative fee plus paying all conference legal expenses, plus forking over the percentage of all church monetary and property assets equal to the percentage of members who voted to remain in the conference. These requirements remind one of Rome’s conquest of Carthage in the third Punic war, in which merely burning the city to the ground was not enough; the ground and fields were sowed with salt to guarantee no future crops. Requirements that financially eviscerate congregations seeking in conscience to depart push such churches and clergy to recover Jesus’ teaching, “Whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33).”
From the right, some in social media and elsewhere have joined the chorus to “Get out.” Singing from the crib notes of the angels who stopped for slurpies at the Sodom 7-11, the call is “flee to the hills (of the GMC) lest you be consumed.” The system is broken past recovery. Leadership is ethically compromised. Every day that the former pastor of a former United Methodist Church in San Francisco sits at the bishops’ table in open defiance of the Judicial Council decision and the Book of Discipline, and the Council of Bishops does and says nothing, another level of trust for the integrity of the connectional leadership simply ceases to be. The (in)action mocks all talk of obedience to the Discipline and respect for the covenant. Fifty-four years of sustained and accelerating decline is enough. The denials and excuses no longer appeal. “Co me out from among them…and touch nothing unclean (2 Cor. 6:17). Get out now. In such cases discussion has surrendered to demonization…and only the demons rejoice.
It is time to downshift the rhetoric and passions of the moment into a coherent and Christ-like alternative. We do not have to demonize the continuing UMC from the right or seek to eviscerate the emerging GMC from the institutional/left. Here is a musing on Methodism’s future, at least in the US. It deals with the decision and the timing of the commitment to go or to stay. This treats the categories of active clergy, retired clergy and local congregations.
For clergy who wish to remain in the Continuing United Methodist Church (CUMC), there is no issue. One’s ministry career will ‘continue’ with the continuing church. Clergy whose conscience and sense of God’s will may be leading in other directions can profit from insights shared from a variety of sources.
First, take the necessary time. Discernment that confirms a shift in membership is crucial and takes time. With rare (and real) exceptions, most clergy are not holding a short fuse that will explode their ministry unless an immediate decision is made. GMC leadership is not assuming that most who ultimately will affiliate with the GMC will do so in the first year of the existence of the new expression. Integrity is not an automatic casualty for those who take months to a year or more for wise and informed reflection in search of the center of God’s will.
Second, do the homework. Become acquainted and comfortable with the Transitional Book of Discipline for the GMC. Is this a piece of music you wish to sing? Do you understand and affirm the major shifts in practice and perspective from the legacy church and are you willing to embrace such change? The GMC does not have guaranteed appointments but assumes that clergy of passion and solid conviction will find no lack of employment; some will find the loss of tenure scary. Ask questions with an open mind and heed accurate, factual replies.
Third, know where you want to go, not just what you want to leave. Pastors and military chaplains routinely deal with couples seeking marriages (or at least a wedding ceremony) to escape a bad family situation or other negatives. They flee from the pain rather than toward the reality of what a healthy marriage is. If one mostly seeks to align with the GMC to get away from liberals, abortion and gay marriage, in the words of Wesley (not John but from Princess Bride), ‘get used to disappointment.” If one is looking forward to a continuing UMC blissfully devoid of bigots, rednecks and fundamentalists (defined as too little ‘fun,’ too much ‘damn’ and too little ‘mental’), get used to disappointment. The misplaced spirit of the self-righteous Pharisee can be found in all camps. And…how is your ministry currently demonstrating what you are for?
Fourth, in the words of Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer, “Enough talk.” By talk I refer to the slings and arrows of outrageous labels, absolutist language, and demonizing descriptions hurled at the ‘other.’ God undoubtedly is leading some to remain in the legacy church and others to depart, whether for the GMC or to a theologically Wesleyan cousin. A healthy Methodist mitosis, division that expands the Body of Christ and brings new life to previously unreached realms, thrives on the vision of Philippians 4:8, thinking about ‘these things” that are noble, just, uplifting and true. If one slings mud at you in a social media venue, click “like” and befuddle the transgressor with kindness. Watch out lest you join the multitude eager to grow their Facebook vocabulary and following even as the churches they lead continue to shrink, and yes, both left and right have this issue.
For these rapscallions the news is conveniently good and inconveniently bad. The good news is that pensions are vested. If one departs for the GMC, some pension categories may move around but the impact on retirement income will be minor. If one remains in the legacy UMC, the pension is untouched. Those healthy and motivated in retirement can serve churches in either expression. The continuing UMC already is suffering a clergy shortage which will increase dramatically, GMC or not. Theologically compatible retired clergy can be used to assist in the GMC also, without shedding denominational membership. Retired UM clergy routinely continue ministry in various types of non-UM churches, as well as totally secular settings. The not-so-good news is that both groups likely will have more of a need for clergy from the retired ranks than are available. GMC-oriented retirees who remain (at least for now) in the UMC will need to exercise ethical care not to drop wrenches into the ministry of the legacy church or to obstruct in unfair or destructive ways, while continuing an evangelical witness to a denomination that increasingly will make a cultural, political and theological shift further left.
If you hear no problem and see no problem, for you there will be no immediate problem. All proposed plans discuss ways for churches/clergy concerned about issues within the church to move in another direction, but the default setting remains…to remain. That said, for churches and laity that stay or leave, a bow wave of changes will come, arising to tsunami strength over the next 2-4 years, and none will be exempt. It is vital for congregations considering a new direction to follow the path of active clergy in a rigorous and God-centered discernment process. If one becomes convinced God is calling for a move, and the system throws property and money high barriers in the way, be willing to “take the fire and leave the stove.” If conference policy binds numerous churches to the legacy church by financial demands that would ruin the congregation if they seek to depart, good luck with the resentment it breeds and the apportionments it ceases to breed. One sincerely hopes that grace will triumph in the disaffiliation process. There are settings where the vision of the Protocol is a practical expression of grace will lead to long-term reconciliation for the greater vision of the Kingdom. In other settings a Protocol spirit will lose out to grenade-tossing that has drained the Episcopal Church experience with lose-lose property and legal combat, exceeding 50M to date and lasting a decade. In some conferences, villages will be destroyed in the name of their salvation. And actions or attitudes from those seeking to depart that would decimate remaining ministries in their conference also is a non-starter in a healthy Kingdom vision. May stronger hearts from all ‘sides’ say no to this.
The movie, Get Out, ends with a get-out and lots and lots of gore and goo sloshed about the screen. Any healthy mitosis, whether in cell division or Methodist Body of Christ division, will bring some pain. Pursued with conviction and grace, the outcome will not be gory but rather two revived, revised, reformed and renewed expressions of the Wesleyan way. The unique and dynamic contributions of the Wesleyan vision of Christianity will have its own new birth. The paralyzing head-knocking, theological dysphoria and broken ineffective systems will yield to new wineskins. How God is calling individual pastors, laity and congregations to respond will vary. For those who engage in rigorous and holy discernment, God’s will can be know. “And you shall seek me and find me if you search for me with all your heart, and I will be found of you,” says the Lord (Jer. 29:13). That is all Christ asks of his church and his disciples. It is enough.
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.