by Bob Phillips

Jonathan Haidt, in his acclaimed book on moral reasoning, The Righteous Mind, names the demon. As a self-avowed, practicing political liberal and agnostic Jew, he impressed and shook me when with eloquent insight he offered critique and honest self-criticism of several political, moral, and social positions he previously held with unquestioned confidence, confirmation bias at work. Awareness of its impact did not force him necessarily to change his convictions, though some underwent revision. Awareness of his own bias enabled him to understand with some empathy why perfectly reasonable, informed, and compassionate people could hold views he found distasteful or simply wrong. Such plows the ground for productive talk and action.

Confirmation bias is holding uncritical and selectively informed views on an issue where serious disagreement exists among honorable folk. When it controls the person, the organization or the conversation, healthy communication and informed (i.e., wise) decisions become impossible. Where name-calling, use of labeling or stereotype in describing ‘others’ is at play or the inability to express the point of view of others in such a way that they would affirm the fairness of that description, confirmation bias is at work. And it is working overtime in the UMC.

Some fear acknowledging its presence, concerned such would be viewed as an admission of weakness. Others have become modern Manicheans in their certainties of right and wrong such that a request to express why some folks hold a different view is treated with horror, akin to asking a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz to name some wonderful qualities of Hitler, in the name of showing “balance.”

So, it is a sign of health that on several occasions among the numerous times I have spoken at local churches about the turmoil in the UMC, I (as Chair of the Wesleyan Covenant Association for my conference) have been asked to share reasons why a church should consider staying in the denomination. I strongly affirm such questions and am delighted when asked, for it shows serious thinking is occurring, heeding Walter Lippman’s classic warning, “Where all think alike, no one is thinking very much.”

Allow me to offer reasons why churches, clergy and individual laity would remain with the UMC. No cheating is allowed, such as offering reasons that normal people would find appalling. For example, when I hear some folks say that the Global Methodist Church is a fine landing place for those afraid to think, who are hateful-bigoted-exclusionists incapable of open minds, well you get the picture. So too, a good reason to consider remaining UMC is not faithless fear of change, spiritual deadness that does not want its “R.I.P.” sign disturbed, or bureaucratic career climbers concerned their rice bowl of perks will be busted by this upstart, Spirit-led GMC. So there!

Consider reasons to #stayUMC, not necessarily drawn from this professional marketing response. First, personal satisfaction with the health and direction of the local congregation. Where a church is healthy, happy, growing, and confident and current pastoral leadership is sound, it is hard on several levels to tip the canoe in a new direction. And there are such local churches in the UMC. Really.

Second, a national voice for witness to godly justice. Yes, the Board of Church and Society strikes many as the left wing of the Democratic Party at prayer, but for years local churches have been merrily ignoring or disagreeing with their whacko pronouncements when they don’t reflect local values. Also, the left wing of the Democratic party will never, ever call for considering abstinence from alcohol and the total rejection of ‘recreational’ drugs, policy convictions baked into the UM social justice discipleship cake. The GMC begins with no unified national voice to advocate for matters of economic, racial, and international justice, and that is too big an omission for many.

Third, an expanded definition of big tent. This isn’t just about sex. Laity and clergy who are comfortable with expansive use of “interpretation” in understanding core Christian teaching are OK with diverse views that push limits, even if personal disagreement with such views remain strong. Those who feel that setting reinforced boundaries on what can be taught or must be believed is a slippery slope to a rigid faith will prefer the “what is” of the UMC to the “what might be” in a GMC or elsewhere. And most UM clergy do take the resurrection of Jesus literally.

Fourth, an inclusive approach to human sexuality. Churches and clergy that personally are uncomfortable with openly gay-trans-drag-bisexual clergy or behaviors accept the assurance of denominational leaders that their views will be protected and respected. Active embrace of such sexually diverse folks as pastors in their congregation or in conducting certain rituals on their property will not happen unless or until laity reach a point where they are OK with it. In short, differences over the nature of sexuality, marriage and ‘holy living’ are big but not a deal-breaker.

Fifth, for many smaller churches, a way to finish the course with dignity. One-third of the churches in IGRC have 20 or fewer in worship (2019 pre-covid figure). The infrastructure to provide lay speaker, local pastor and clergy support exists to help the small-to-tiny UM churches that dot the landscape. The new GMC means well but almost certainly there will be initial struggle to fill those smaller pulpits (unless the existing pastoral leadership also goes GMC). For many smaller congregations, the safer course is to stay the course with a system already in place, with merger or honorable conclusion to decades of ministry possibly in their near future.

Sixth, desire not to see good UM denominational ministries bleed or fold. As with any such large organization one finds waste, inefficiency, and barnacles on the hull. But one also finds UMCOR, missionaries in place globally who really are making a Kingdom difference, seminaries who include faculty winners as well as losers (which you find anywhere). Remaining UMC allows the local church to remain supportive of what is working, while perhaps finding more of a voice and leverage to deal with what isn’t working, especially in an era of diminished resources.

Seventh, avoiding the perils of unintended consequences. Most folks know what is working in the UMC. Most folks also know, even if not publicly expressed, what isn’t working and the wealth of challenges facing the church. This is the devil we know. Commitment to continuously improve the system can be a more stable and predictable future than hopping one train for another. In theory a congregation always has an option to leave the denomination, while individual members historically vote for or against a church’s quality and direction with their feet. Too many ‘what ifs” dot the landscape for many churches considering disaffiliation. Start the reformation in house and if that does prove too hard to achieve, make a move then, not now.

OK, many traditional colleagues can offer immediate reply to each of these reasons. Heck, I can do that also. And many progressive/center-left colleagues can complain about all the good reasons I did not give for staying UM. Remember, this is a snapshot example of one tool to identify and combat confirmation bias that shuts the mind to unwelcomed facts and truths that muss the hair of pleasant and uncritiqued certainties. The irony is that as a person engages in such self-critique, healthy core convictions are reinforced, but with a grace and empathy sorely lacking and much needed in public political and pious discourse. When bias is not named and faced, it births an ugly cousin called “denial,” on the part of institutional leadership (see the Council of Bishops “A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church” of November 2021 for a poster child example of denial at work).

I invite those honorably committed in conscience to a particular lobby or group to give it a try. Bishops and lobbyist leaders for the progressive or institutional UMC, can you state good and understandable reasons why so many churches/clergy are poised to leave the status quo church? Dissing them with stereotype and name-calling are not allowed. Traditional colleagues, the same! Strangle confirmation bias in its crib and embrace with grace God’s future expression(s) of Wesleyan Christianity as a win-win Methodist mitosis, rather than a public and tawdry cage match that the unredeemed world will view with mirth. Choose the ‘more excellent way,’ and give confirmation bias the boot.

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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