by Chris Ritter
Concerned laity see the United Methodist separation snowball picking up speed and may be puzzled that their own pastors give small mention of it. For every pastor (like me) who talks about the problems and advocates solutions, there are many more who keep their heads low. There are a number of reasons why this is the case:
By definition, pastors are spiritual shepherds. Their instinct is to focus on the flock. Keep the sheep together and lead them when the way is clear. While it has been clear enough that the UMC is in crisis, it has not been as clear when and how decision points will arrive to the congregation. This uncertainty stems from delayed General Conferences, Judicial Council rulings, and other factors beyond the control of pastors. A few months ago we expected a clear decision point to arrive followings an August 2022 General Conference. It is only in the last month or two that the Separation Protocol was pronounced dead with key negotiators pulling out of the deal.
From a pastoral perspective, it is useless to keep a congregation in an open-ended state of anxiety. Talking about denominational dysfunction does not win people to Jesus or grow the local church. It is very recent that the traditionalist side of the UMC reached consensus to leave under the rubrics of disaffiliation. Depending on the size of the local church, wise pastors start conversations within a circle of key leaders. The pulpit is often not the right place to start. Due diligence is necessary to get leaders up-to-speed on the complexities of unraveling our intertwined and multi-layer denomination. Only then can the conversation be widened out to the local church membership. Building consensus takes strategy and each church has its own personality and processes. That is why you see a rolling series of disaffiliations picking up steam over time.
Pastors are paid by the local church, but they are sent by the conference to represent the interests of the conference. The annual conference is comprised 50% of laity, but it functions in some ways like a clergy union. Bishops warn pastors that it is not their place to take any congregation out of the denomination. Clergy serving congregations “in discernment” may seek to create a firewall between their own leadership and a disaffiliation decision by the local church. They want to be able to say to the bishop, with integrity, that the option to disaffiliate is being exercised without manipulation. Of course, the pastor is the CEO of the congregation and completing something as complex as disaffiliation without the advocacy of the primary leader is difficult.
A bishop has the remarkable authority to remove any pastor from an appointment. While ordained elders cannot be removed from ministry without due process, there are unofficially any number of “punitive appointments” available in an annual conference. Local pastors, the fastest-growing category of clergy, are particularly vulnerable as they can lose both their credentials and employment at the will of the bishop.
In 2 Kings 20:19, Isaiah prophesies to King Hezekiah that the Babylonians will ravage Judah following his death. His response: “The word of the Lord is good… Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?” When you are near the end, I guess you sometimes look at things differently. According to a 2018 Report by the Lewis Center, half of our United Methodist elders are over age 61. Because clergy benefits are administered through the conference, leaving the UMC means a disruption in benefits even if the congregation and pastor stay together following the exit. While each clergy is 100% vested in their own pensions, some conferences have retiree benefits (such a Medicare supplements) that hinge on a retirement approved by the annual conference. There is a lot at stake for your pastor. Some clergy may feel too old to learn a new system and wish to finish out their last years of pastoral ministry in peace.
A long-documented fact is that UM clergy trend liberal as compared to the people in the pews. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is liberal seminary education. Savvy progressive pastors learn to communicate in such a way so as to not alienate themselves from the congregations they serve. In short, your pastor may not believe what you assume he/she believes. Many clergy view the Western shift on human sexuality as something to which the church will inevitably need to adjust. Some may even see it as the great social justice issue of our age. Progressive-leaning pastors may not tell their traditional-leaning congregations they are wrong. They are more likely to say these matters are incredibly complex, there are lots of interpretations out there, and the best tactic is to just be quiet. The net result is going with the flow.
There are conservative pastors that serve moderate or mixed congregations. The threshold for a disaffiliation vote is 66.7%, a supermajority. It takes several years for a pastor to affect the DNA of their congregation. A newer pastor may simply not have the influence to lead the congregation out, even if she wanted to. Some churches have entrenched progressive leaders, staff, or major donors. Currently, the Global Methodist Church is a BYOC organization (Bring Your Own Church). There are clergy who are GMC at heart but find themselves in a congregation not ready for such a move. They will soldier on and watch for openings in the new denomination.
On paper, the UMC is basically orthodox. In spite of their lived experience in the UMC, official denominational positions matter to some clergy. Doctrine in the UMC is hard to change but easy to ignore. It is a personal decision how much unfaithfulness to tolerate before a move is warranted. It has been a long and winding denominational road over the past five years. Who knows what 2024 will actually bring? Maybe Africa will save us. Maybe some sort of new negotiation will take place. Disinclined toward change, one can always find justifications for hanging on. Again, pastors are mostly shepherds, not prophets. Some have reached mastery levels at whistling past the graveyard of denominational dysfunction. Evangelicals, particularly, have become adept at focusing on the local church and putting the upper hierarchy on mute.
The recent consensus on exit among traditionalists groups acknowledges, think, that the rising African tide cannot reform the American church. Winning votes at General Conference, even if possible, will not fix the UMC and hold it to its doctrine and Discipline. Why wait around, it has been concluded, for a meeting that will not change anything? General Conference 2019 was the meeting that was supposed to save the denomination. It didn’t. The limited disaffiliation exit path that was approved is all that seems workable at this juncture. And it closes next year. Because of needed annual conference approvals, congregations that want out of the UMC need to have their ducks in the row this year.
Your pastor may just now be deciding how they feel about all this. There was no seminary class on how to lead a congregation through a denominational divorce. Pray for them. And don’t expect your pastor to do all the work. Congregations are strongest when laity take responsibility for creating a fruitful future.