by Bob Phillips
The recent May global gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association brought a public shift in the wording of its mission. In the aftermath, numerous folks of left, center and right theological convictions ask how one can remain in both the UMC and the WCA without either developing spiritual schizophrenia or becoming a saboteur, sneaking under the barbed wire fence protecting Holy Mother United Methodism to blow up the system with insider access. Some in leadership are insisting one must declare personal and unquestioned loyalty to the UMC right now or else head for the door. Anything else or less is dishonest at best and sinister at worst.
Are we having fun yet? Beneath the huffing and puffing are serious and legitimate questions of integrity, accountability and purpose. In the spirit of one seeking to plow the road amid our mutual winter of discontent, consider the following reflections. Though I am a leader in my conference WCA, what follows is my stuff and not official word.
The Mission, New and Old
First, the WCA needs to clearly take ownership for public modifications in mission and leadership in response to reasonable and legitimate questions. Part of the revised mission statement is:
“The Wesleyan Covenant Association is a global connection of local churches,
laity, clergy, and regional chapters that seeks to partner
with like-minded orthodox Christians to build a new global Methodist church.”
That sounds like a clear statement of intent to apply its energy to building a new expression by carving slices out of the existing UMC. One can understand how advocates for the Continuing United Methodist Church (CUMC) would be wary of a WCA presence and suspicious of emerging WCA motives. In addition, the new leader of the WCA is Rev. Jay Therrell, formerly of the Florida conference, and now one of the first clergy in the GMC.
Some clarity arises from the first part of the current WCA mission:
“The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) connects Spirit-ﬁlled, orthodox churches, clergy, and laity who hold to Wesleyan theology. It is an association of individuals and congregations who share a common understanding of our Wesleyan doctrine and a desire to become a vibrant, faithful, growing 21st century church.”
This statement reflects a focus on assisting “self-avowed practicing” Wesleyan evangelicals to articulate the theology and practice of faithful and effective ministry within the church universal, be it the CUMC or the UMC or other expressions of Wesleyan Christianity. Many conferences have chapters of the Reconciling Movement, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, adherents of the Liberation movement, and other lobby groups such as the Mainstream and Uniting Methodists. All of these do not by their essence appeal to many Wesleyan traditionalist clergy and churches. Some annual conferences have no organized evangelical voice. The WCA can and will have an intermediate range ministry to help folks from that camp articulate their perspective within the legacy church. That is legitimate. Personal attacks by the WCA…or any group or launching strikes on unsuspecting churches to argue them into leaving the denomination or bullying them into remaining would be wrong. Seeking to obstruct the legislation of an annual conference (stalling ‘till the monster trucks roll in’) or being consistently nasty in complaints and critiques of the status quo would be unethical, whether attempted by the WCA or anyone else. Throwing a wrench into the conference works would be as wrong as intentionally stalling the discernment or disaffiliation process toward churches inclined to leave.
Insofar as Rev. Jay Therrell’s status as head of the WCA and now ordained in the GMC, the sad back story of the Florida Conference situation is available for any to read. Limits and threats of penalty were placed on him that neither conscience nor common sense could abide, requiring him ethically to surrender his conference membership. When the UM system adopted a policy his conscience could not accept, he stepped down rather than simply disobey and then dare the system to do anything about it. That example can be seen in neon lights elsewhere, including among some who sit, despite Judicial Council decision, in the Council of Bishops.
Jay moved ‘at the speed of honor’ into a new field of ministry. That said, if his actions as the head of the WCA begin to resemble a theological saboteur, public opinion will speak rebuke. If, however, he is criticized whenever the WCA points out unpleasant issues and practices with the CUMC, such would be evidence more of the systemic denial that is part of the larger ‘wicked problem’ afflicting the institution. Speaking inconvenient truths to a shrinking denomination is not disobedience. It is renouncing paralyzing denial for the sake of integrity and future witness.
A Holistic Approach
Second, the WCA needs clarity that the issues afflicting the church are far greater than the sexuality debate. Secular media has spun the UM situation into an inclusion-or-bigotry issue, with the choice of following a church that hates or a church that loves. Denominational leadership largely is silent in response, thus offering tacit agreement of the “love or hate” spin. The Council of Bishops remains silent over the disobedience showered on the Judicial Council ruling that Karen Oliveto was not a legitimate candidate for election to bishop, and by their silence has endorsed the precedent of selective enforcement of the Discipline of the church. This is one simple example of the major issue of trust deficits that exist by parties at all levels of church life.
A strategic vision for thousands of tiny congregations is nowhere evident, defaulting into a continued and accelerating death for the majority of all US congregations within the next 30 years. Theological contradictions bordering on schizophrenia affects the inability of the church to articulate clearly a unified doctrine of God, Christ, Spirit, Scripture, Church or evangelism. Outmoded methods of personnel preparation, training, evaluation, empowerment and deployment riddle a system adamant in its insistence that nothing is that wrong. The cold hand of the denial of real issues has grabbed the church by its institutional throat and is throttling the fresh breath needed to replace the old wineskins of dysfunction.
Recently the United Methodist Association of Retired clergy (UMARC) hosted two webinars on issues surrounding the division. UMARC is a collection of progressive clergy retirees, nearly all from the Western Jurisdiction. Both webinars were poster-children for confirmation bias run amok, with a startling absence of self-awareness or self-criticism as to the broad range of real issues that have shoved the denomination into separation. The irony of a rapidly declining United Methodism in a rapidly growing region (the Western Jurisdiction) was entirely overlooked as to its reality and its causes. The WCA can speak, with clear evidence, to issues current leadership adamantly refuses to face.
That said, not one of these issues automatically will find resolution by aligning with the GMC. The WCA also has a ministry to invite, encourage, prod and (when necessary) apply a loving kick from a trusted source at the GMC if deeper issues problems are proving contagious from the legacy UMC to the GMC. One does not identify a strong, biblical basis church primarily in terms of negatives, i.e., “we are the church that doesn’t do the following twenty things that have annoyed you about the UMC.” The policies and practices of positive and productive vision are crucial in the formation and ongoing vitality of the GMC, and in the renewal of the UMC. All diagnosis and no cure make for bad medicine, both spiritual and physical. Identifying the specific good news available in the future of both Wesleyan expressions is key. And land mines such as confirmation bias can blow apart the credibility of the WCA among honest centrists and colleagues of evangelical convictions who do not wear a WCA ball cap.
Third, the WCA needs to affirm a mitosis rather than a schism. Yes, many who were in the room to create and publicly support the grace-filled spirit of the Protocol have changed their actions into grace-less demands. An approach that assumes the CUMC only can succeed if the GMC fails guarantees a series of grudge matches played out in communities and courts. GMC-oriented churches not content with simply leaving the denomination but insisting on terms that leave the CUMC with more wounds than it already has likewise do the Kingdom no favors.
A vision of mitosis affirms that division within the Body of Christ can birth a renewed witness and ‘new wineskins’ to hold and nurture the gospel for a new era. It also can enable the legacy expression of the church to engage in a needed level of change that lethargy and inertia derailed. The Methodist Episcopal Church expelled B.T. Roberts as an elder for his annoying advocacy to abolish pew rentals as a primary means to finance local churches and the MEC limp renunciation of slavery. The establishment framed his expulsion in terms of his disobedience to higher authority. Out of this expulsion came a Methodist mitosis moment in the birth of the Free Methodist Church. Roberts’ credentials were restored to his son 15 years after his death, with an apology. The MEC by that time had eliminated pew rentals and its relative silence over matters of slavery. In 2022 the Free Methodist Church numbers well over 1 million members, 90% of whom live outside the US. Schism would have produced a bleeding, declining church with the probable extinction of the renegade group. Mitosis is another matter in bringing life.
A mitosis attitude involves a constructive focus on the future of witness and discipleship rather than demonizing the “hopeless” legacy denomination or cursing the ‘rebellious’ new expression. Mitosis is at work when leaders in the CUMC and in the GMC alike can affirm God’s calling of numerous saints not only to their own expression but to the other Wesleyan expression as well, and to do so publicly and without inducing a gag reflex in the process. Institutionalists understandably do not wish to ‘sell the farm’ to the GMC, leaving a declining UMC further weakened in unnecessary ways. That is a legitimate concern that critics need to affirm. Churches seeking realignment within the Wesleyan family toward the GMC understandably do not wish to have local church strength financially decimated by demands that would gut a congregation’s ability to continue healthy ministry. That also is a legitimate concern that critics need to affirm.
The WCA in a conference can articulate a perspective on need and alternatives the status quo institution simply cannot do. The sustained inability of annual conferences leadership to engage in rigorous self-criticism and transformative visionary change is human nature at work. The WCA can express such alternatives with credibility, provided it also can articulate the realistic challenges that would flow from aligning a local church with a GMC conference. If the attraction toward the GMC rests mostly in having a church where one is certain no gay weddings/clergy will appear, where apportionments drop 50%, where church laity can play a decisive role in selecting pastors and where doctrinal purity/agreement in all matters is assured, it is for GMC leadership to correct the unrealistic assumptions of neatness and unsullied order behind such thoughts. The new church will not become a Christianized version of the Shire, peopled by sanctified and blissfully clueless holiness Hobbits. The Global Methodist Church is poised to express an ongoing family of Jesus, steeped in the Wesleyan tradition, living and bearing witness in a real, defiant and needy world.
As the Protocol has now been renounced by its more progressive signers and as the pro bono work of world class negotiator Kenneth Feinberg has given way to renewed conflict akin to cage-match wrestling, an ongoing WCA witness in UM conferences is more important than ever. Part of that witness must be to resist the passions of the moment for the passion of the Kingdom, conversion of the world to Christ and his kingdom. If the WCA ministry can be conducted by those ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves,’ great good can come for kingdom purposes. If the WCA is committed to a gracious attitude, even when pointing out vindictive actions and ungracious policies by the legacy church, integrity can be maintained. If the WCA remains willing to affirm and praise leaders and practices of the status quo church when they do reflect fairness and grace, a God-centered win-win remains on the table. The only thing worse than having the WCA remaining an active voice in annual conferences is having no clear voice to speak for those for whom an evangelical Wesleyan faith is the touchstone of their way to Christ.
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.