by Bob Phillips

In a recent piece in Firebrand Magazine, Kevin Watson made this painful, accurate observation: “The United Methodist Church chose the route of ugly and bitter divorce.”

The Bad News

So it seems. In an article published in Methodist Review in January, 2021 I spoke of the possibility of a Methodist Mitosis as a way of taming the wicked problem of The United Methodist Church. A wicked problem, like the hydra monster of Greek legend, is a multi-headed creature; chop off one head and two grow to replace it. Our wicked problem is that. The screen is filled with issues of demographics of an aging, shrinking US denomination with church buildings mostly located where most people no longer live. The ‘interpretation’ of scripture has become a word from Humpty Dumpty, where Bible and theology can be spun left, center or right in ways that would have bewildered the original writers…or the Holy Spirit who inspired the text. Since “every organization is perfectly aligned to the results it gets,’ and the US church dysfunctional organization has delivered a 65% decline in the market share of members for US society since 1970, tweaks around the edges no longer suffice, lest we live into a growing perception of the church as the religious version of SEARS, or BLOCKBUSTER.

In a major 2010 “Call to Action” study the UMC itself named trust deficits at all levels of the church as a huge problem. No institution, sacred or secular, can thrive with that burden. Add to that a pervasive and systemic denial at all levels of leadership of the depth and breadth of challenges faced by the church. The recent, “Narrative for the Continuing UMC” statement by the Council of Bishops on the state of the church reads like Revelation 23, improving on the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, authored by the ghost of Scarlett O’Hara, addressing a bleeding denomination with a “fiddle dee dee, I’ll think about that tomorrow; after all, tomorrow is another day.” These are some, not all, aspects of our wicked problem.

The collision at GC2019 over sexuality lit the symbolic fuse for some sort of explosion within the connection. The public, resolute and defiant refusal to obey General Conference decisions, for reasons of conscience, by an affluent large minority of the Western global church doomed any status quo can-kicking further into a problematic future. The first law of church physics finally has met its match: For every action there is an equal and opposite inaction. No more.

The Protocol, in attitude and much of its mutually agreed content, offered a powerful refutation to the wisdom of collaboration theory, that contesting parties seriously collaborate only if all other options are exhausted, and that most collaborations fail back into competition when one or more parties begin to think they really can beat the odds and one-up “the other guy” to gain final advantage. The Protocol, to date the only collaboration brokered by a world-class and impartial negotiator (Kenneth Feinberg), offered bright hope of a witness to the world that a constructive mitosis moment, not a destructive mayhem, was how Christians could address deep and sincere differences and concerns. It now appears dead on arrival.

Alas, fallen human nature reminds us that the unregenerate old man…or woman, though water-baptized into Christ, often ‘proves to be a good swimmer.’ I will resist naming names and groups, for I would run out of ammunition before exhausting worthy targets. Simply I affirm that the process of nastiness, name-calling, virtue-shaming, hypocrisy and assorted ugly moral cousins run amok because “ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” All parties have proven capable of living into Jesus’ observation that we easily notice the sliver in the eye of the ‘other,’ while in denial about the log draping out of our own. When various parties shift to a zero-sum game, the winner and loser alike collect the grand prize of zero.

The Good News

Amid the nastiness one can find sources of light and life. Some institutional leaders have allowed for disaffiliation in conscience to proceed without financial decimation or vindictive add-on requirements. Some, on all sides, have affirmed a larger and more expansive Wesleyan witness is possible through a mitosis that can help slow or halt the decline of Methodist Christianity, especially in the Western world. Some voices have seen a gift to the entire church in a call for all congregations to engage in a deep, honest, and holy time of discernment. This addresses their spiritual DNA, core beliefs/values, calling by God to serve specifically who and how in the community; foundational convictions and spiritual gifts which must precede and are separate from any study of possible disaffiliation. Disaffiliation is a secondary question impossible to wisely answer apart from initial self-identity and awareness. Some have maintained a gracious spirit amid painful emotional times and have ‘poured oil on troubled waters” that avoided kindling angry responses that do not honor God.

Some have resisted the lure of confirmation bias and have kindled small fires of trust on the relational glacier of the US church through empathy with the views and wounds of others. I recall with gratitude a person with significant responsibilities on one of the UM general boards who affirmed the existence and integrity of the Global Methodist Church to major third party, non-UM organizations…whose name sadly I cannot share for fear of reprisal against him by others in authority. I recall occasions where traditional leaders had their John McCain moment. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Senator McCain politely but firmly contradicted some at a Republican town hall rally who spoke untrue and unfair words against Senator Obama. Yes, there are true and committed Christians on more than one side. No, those staying UM are not tools of Satan. No, separation from the UMC does not parallel Lot’s flight from Sodom. Even when offered in an (understandably) hesitant manner, a bishop or DS who acknowledges God’s will can lead some into the Global Methodist Church is a moral victory. After all, most but not all of those in authority in the Church of England in the 18th century rejected the possibility of any good in the division of the Methodist church from the legacy Church of England and the American Episcopal Church. Bravo on the “not all” folks.

How can a constructive way forward and spiritual attitude be cultivated amid the cultural and institutional kerfuffle of disaffiliation? Consider these perspectives and actions:

  1. Think mitosis. The body grows and thrives as cells divide, including the Body of Christ. The examples within Christian history reflect a repeated movement of the Spirit toward mitosis moments. Consider Protestant from Catholic, Methodist from Anglican, Salvation Army from Methodist. Consider the positive potential for center/left and center/right Wesleyan expressions that multiply witness by dividing in ways that stop or derail ongoing battles over contested issues. A conscious and consistent refusal to speak or act in ways that feed the notion of a civil war (quash the rebels) or ugly divorce (escape the abuse), can open spiritual and emotional channels to a win-win vision. When it comes to larger church conflict, the choice is win/win or lose/lose. Period.
  2. Beware confirmation bias. I have loved ones who would rather face damnation than watch Fox News, while others would rather face damnation than watch MSNBC. All are muddled by the fact that my wife and I watch both, plus other outlets…for the simple reason we seek information rather than affirmation. Johnathan Haidt’s superb work, The Righteous Mind, offers clear warning of the negative outcomes of only listening to friendly sources. When you can describe the position, values, and reasons of those whose views are seriously different from your own and do so in ways that those who hold those views agree you have fairly expressed their ideas, confirmation bias takes one on the chin. Then, only then, can a Spirit-led decision be wisely influenced by fact.
  3. Emphasize constructive criticism. GMC folks need to ask what is right and what is working and where the Holy Spirit obviously is active in the UMC. UMC folks need to ask what is right, what clearly is improvement, and where the Holy Spirit obviously is active in the GMC. All need to ask what segments of culture the “other ones” probably can reach for Christ more effectively than one’s own tribe. Within that context of grace, framed by Philippians 4:8, one can address honestly specific issues, flaws and missteps that contribute to the overall wicked problem. What are the unintended consequences of an entire Jurisdiction ignoring a Judicial Council ruling, and how can the precedent of “principled disobedience’ be limited to some issues but forbidden for others (such as matters of conscience in paying apportionments)? Has the GMC over-promised the good that will derive from aligning with them, such as in areas of improved process and people for the perennial challenge of clergy appointments? Honesty is key for all.
  4. Ask the tough questions of self. Healthy mitosis thrives in honest self-awareness amid the season of new life, profound change, and major division within the status quo. A defensive response to criticism is understandable when coming from the “others.” Thus, it is crucial to cultivate and practice honest self-criticism and self-awareness within the tent of one’s own tribe. As one aligned with traditional/evangelical Wesleyan Christianity and affirming of the GMC, I (along with others) have raised numerous questions related to unintended consequences, “hope as a strategy” approaches to resolving dysfunctions, being clear of the difference between infatuation and commitment in aligning with the GMC, and related matters. I have noted with gratitude occasions when center/left General Conference delegates such as Lonnie Brooks (laity) and David Livingston (clergy) have offered helpful critique of their own folks as well as understandable critique of the center/right and the GMC. I also have noted, and read with amusement, individuals and lobby/Facebook groups on all sides utterly devoid of self-awareness or self-criticism. Failure by any side to do this hard emotional work with spiritual passion simply gives the demon of a denial a free pass into the future of the GMC and the legacy UMC.
  5. Actively seek honest win-win scenarios. Mitosis vision frees all parties to affirm existing ministries that are delivering the goods for Kingdom ends. GMC churches and individuals need not stop supporting UM missionaries of proven effectiveness and faith, nor cease support of works such as UMCOR. Local volunteers at a new GMC church still can assist a thriving soup kitchen housed in a UM church. UM Conferences and Boards of Ministry need not move to chop Asbury Seminary off their list because of its willingness to educate GMC students. A retired but active UM pastor willing to assist a GM church, or vice versa, need not be excluded because “they” are not “we,” but are in fact siblings in Christ and Wesley. I personally know retired clergy who have served churches part of faith groups never “officially recognized by General conference.” That used to be seen as a positive witness by an ecumenical Wesleyan faith. There is no biblical reason to now treat such pastoral action as a felony.
  6. Swear off swearing at…’them.’ Basic courses in marriage therapy offer insights on healthy disagreement. Name-calling, stereotyping, psychologizing the motives of others, use of absolutist negative language to describe the acts or motives of others, appeals to co-dependent behavior to calming the waters, of such is the Kingdom of Dysfunction. Such are the ways of intensifying conflict and killing communication. Non-Christians are keenly aware of petulant, anger-driven behaviors, and such actions slay Christian witness when such poisonous attitudes hold sway.

Some of those conquered by the Roman Empire were not impressed by claims of the wonders of the Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace” that filled the world with good things. The conquered replied, ‘ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant‘ “They make a desert and call it ‘Peace.’ A Roman conquest approach by the GMC, the UMC, or individuals in authority will bring a bleeding loss to the Wesleyan way. A renewed vision of a Methodist Mitosis process truly can end the journey toward a bitter divorce and lead to an expanded Wesleyan witness reflecting not an imposed Roman peace but the “peace that passes understanding,” lived grace for the 21st century church.

Bob Phillips:

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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