by Bob Phillips

When I served four years as Protestant Chaplain at the US Coast Guard Academy, my office was awash in the summer and Fall with incoming freshmen (called ‘swabs’) wondering if they made a mistake and should leave. My job was not to talk them into staying or pushing them to leave, but to help them nail down, often for the first time, their sense of evolving identity and calling, assuring them that there were honorable and dumb reasons to stay or to leave. Factors such as parental approval or home sickness, while real, need not call the shots. One’s inner passion and sense of emerging vocation and values plowed the field for productive discernment. Once they had an idea of who they were, they were positioned to ask and wisely answer questions of location, identity and future.

A great gift has been given the UMC amid the flailing in answering the question, “To be or not to be…United Methodist?” A healthy, honest process of spiritual discernment as to the spiritual DNA, identity, mission and specific niche for ministry is crucial for all churches who are part of a denomination with aging membership, numbers shifting from decline to free-fall, trust deficits at all levels and theological schizophrenia. Thus, when I speak to a church at their request, I always make clear my agenda is to talk no one into leaving from or staying in the UMC. Any church with a realistic and clear sense of their God-given identity will find their right answer. That answer for some will be to stay and for others, to go.

I have noticed, in our conference and via contacts in at least 22 other conferences covering all US jurisdictions, some emerging tactics used by those in a hurry for a church to leave and by others resistant to any church leaving. Allow me to name and briefly comment on a few.

1. The silly walk.

This harkens to a classic Monty Python skit, where John Cleese worked for the Ministry of Silly Walks, and is seen loping and flopping down the street like the child of a union between an eel and an octopus. The silly walk version surrounding disaffiliation is the system that sets 15, 16, 25 steps for a church to complete the process if they have discerned their better future lies in alignments outside the UMC. Questions from the church regarding financial requirements, legal matters, property issues are ignored, deferred, partially answered and all in slow motion. If paragraph 2553 is the only grounds under which a bishop will permit a church to request disaffiliation, the summer of 2023 (10 months from now) is the last sure time the congregation can gain required annual conference approval, unless a special session is called. Given steps required by the various conferences, churches that delay the start of official disaffiliation until 2023 could find the clock has run out on their request if leadership does a silly-slow walk of the process past annual conference 2023. A public pledge from the bishop/cabinet that every disaffiliation request formally initiated by a certain clearly-stated date will be honored and fully processed would help. In a system riddled with trust deficits, such a statement would be fresh air. And to be clear, conservatives can do their own version of the silly walk when haste, failure to communicate transparently with the congregation, or seeking to skip healthy steps in the rush of the moment can contort the church’s movement into the future.

2. The dead parrot.

OK, I like Monty Python. This is the classic skit. A man returns to a pet store from which he purchased a parrot earlier in the day and demands another parrot, given that his current pet is dead. The shop owner insists the parrot is not dead; he’s sleeping, he’s mimicking passive behavior. At that point John Cleese (him again) removes the stiff bird from the cage, bangs it repeatedly on the counter, and offers a litany of colorful language: the parrot is an ex-parrot, expired, bereft of life, it has joined the heavenly choir, kicked the bucket, etc. A good many churches, clergy and laity alike, have been banging the parrot on the counter, speaking of a denomination and conference and local church in sustained and deepening decline, resources flowing out of the church with unsatisfactory results, issues of trust and finance and personnel placement and muddy strategic vision lending little to nothing of vigor or life to the local church. The official response often “parrots” the store owner; things aren’t so bad, a 67% in IGRC conference membership since 1972 is disappointing but no reason to get ‘that’ upset, all the real crazy types are in other conferences and not ours (well, nearly all of the real crazy types), etc. If the parrot is dead, say so. Pointing out what is good with the status quo and legacy denomination is honorable and fine; avoid modeling reactions based on the parrot shopkeeper.

3. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, you know the drill. In current church disaffiliation discussion this notion is embodied in dismissing what is happening in other conferences. “Pay no attention to what Colorado does or Boston does; how does there affect you?” Pay no attention to the person behind the curtain illicitly functioning as a bishop despite the clear teaching of the Discipline and the Judicial Council. Pay no attention to the precedent of selective obedience now established within the Council of Bishops. Since when did we start siding with a theology of the Confederacy? Are we now the church of states’ rights? Are we now in the time of the Judges where there is no king (covenant) and everyone does what they want? Now the hand really can say to the foot, “I have no need of you?” Any comment suggesting what happens in other conferences is irrelevant is a clear statement that Wesleyan connectionalism is dead, or at least on life support. African Methodism moved from the norm (in many nations) of polygamy to Methodist Christian monogamous marriage as taught and practiced here and elsewhere. Imagine responding to the call to leave polygamy by saying, “Why does the monogamy practiced in the US have to affect us?”

4. “Round up the usual suspects.”

This classic line from my favorite movie, Casablanca, and offers a warning to left, center and right. Do not allow extreme examples sway the big picture, and no, this is not a contradiction of (3) above. Don’t get your main guidance or passion from fringe left-wing or right-wing social media and Facebook warriors who predictably spew venom on “others.” Religious authorities whipped up the crowd, leading to the Christ being whipped before the crowd. Inspiration to act is one thing; “the anger of man doth not work the righteousness of God” is the reminder. Beware those who spend their time rounding up their usual suspects and villains. Sites like Good News, or the WCA and GMC sites are fine. Sites like and are fine. Sites and individual “Facebook commando” types that reflect only scream and screech, not so much.

5. “I see dead people.”

Remember The Sixth Sense? Several churches with overwhelming numbers of active evangelical/traditional Wesleyan members have come up short on reaching the 2/3 vote required to disaffiliate. The tactic has been to contact the bushels of inactive members and encourage them to show up, even though it’s not Christmas or Easter, to ‘save their church.’ One large church had a cadre of progressive members even buy full-page newspaper ads and billboards to that effect, targeting the spiritually inert to rescue the vote. Given that many UM congregations, even pre-COVID, would have 2/3 of their members not in regular worship, and given the institutional reluctance to have rolls cleaned as somehow a type of legalism, this tactic has occasionally worked. Reboot the rolls, honestly and fairly and gracefully, but cease feeding the spiritually destructive notion that membership really is enough to check the block with Jesus. Those who leverage the spiritually inert to get their way may get their way in the preservation of a spiritually inert (dead) church.

6. “We’ll always have Paris.”

By the way, watching Casablanca will enhance one’s foretaste of Heaven. The statement in the movie highlights the ideal of the romance between Bogart and Bergman. Both advocates of the legacy church and of the new expression GMC need to beware the temptation to confuse hopes and dreams with the messier business of reality. Some time ago the Council of Bishops issued their vision for the future UMC. Reading it reminded me of reading Revelation 20-21, a glorious new heaven and earth, where death shall be no more and the former things have passed away in a Kingdom where God has made all things new. Thus the Bishops’ statement was devoid of any acknowledgement of challenges, problems, issues or deepening division and decline. Everyone gets along, disciples are made, happiness and inclusion of all will be the order of the day. The document fairly screamed denial. Conservative descriptions of the infant GMC likewise (and understandably) predict some initial awkwardness but a church where all the bad stuff from the UMC has gone away and every church sits under its own fig tree (which it owns thanks to eliminating the Trust Clause) dining on milk and honey. The real world will be considerably different, with pulls toward the ‘dead orthodoxy’ Wesley warned against, the discovery that clergy and churches can be solid in beliefs and still dysfunctional. Some folks will want to align with the GMC who are not keen about women in ordained ministry or see dinosaurs as a lie of Satan or who wish Rosa Parks had just moved to the back of the Montgomery bus and avoided all the fuss. The vision of God’s best always needs statement, provided truth-in-advertising disclaimers are included for those not yet residing for eternity in the Church Triumphant.

Let discernment move forward “with all deliberate speed.” Let honest and tough questions be asked by all sides. Human nature will insist of the lure of silly walks, dead parrots and the like. Don’t go there. Graciously point out when others (be they with you or against you) are starting to play by odd rules. And remember, we are talking about Jesus’ church and there is no indication that the risen Christ has left the building. By his side, all really will turn out well.

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.

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