by Bob Phillips
A man went to his neighbor’s house and asked to borrow his lawnmower. The neighbor said no. The man politely asked why, since it was sitting unused in the garage. The neighbor replied, “Well, I have to shave.” Puzzled, the man asked, “Do you shave with your lawnmower?” The neighbor replied, “Friend, if I don’t want to loan you my lawnmower, one reason is as good as another.”
It appears the owner of the lawnmower has moved into a leadership position in the United Methodist Church. Honorably retired UM clergy who have served in supportive pastoral roles (such as pastoral visitation) in disaffiliating churches are being told bluntly to quit such positions on pain of charges filed to strip them of conference membership and ordination, i.e., the ecclesial version of the death penalty. No dialogue, no mercy, no kidding. The only pastor I have known personally who has been so treated was a clergyman from another conference, who faced such threats and language after court conviction for the murder of his wife.
The reason offered for this blunt force trauma approach to collegiality apparently arises from a tactic embraced by the Council of Bishops. Only when/if General Conference 2024 declares the Global Methodist Church a religio licita (legal religion…to borrow the Roman Empire’s official 1st century phrasing) can UM clergy serve in a GMC setting. Until then, the GMC remains literally “anathema,” a religio illicita, a label by which the Roman Empire justified rejection and legal pressure against the infant Christian church and now defines UM clergy who achieve traitor status. Failure to distance oneself completely from any GMC congregation risks the cancellation of decades of honorable service and the loss of vital pension benefits attached to a local conference program but limited to retirees “in good standing.” Retired and extension ministry clergy who happened to be part of or employed by a church that has disaffiliated must quit their employment or be…canceled.
For decades, retired clergy have served honorably in numerous denominations never “officially recognized” by any General Conference. No charges were filed, ever. No public uproar was kindled, ever. No one, regardless of theological leaning left or right, ever dreamed that pastoral presence in such churches in need (ranging in my personal knowledge from Mennonite to American Baptist to Presbyterian to UCC and even in one case Unitarian-Universalist) were grounds to be defrocked and booted. Two esteemed colleagues in my conference served, in retirement, a Mennonite Church, one of whom retains a webpage title of “Pastor Emeritus.” The Mennonite church, with 1/4th the congregations of the GMC, shares the identical status of no recognition by any General Conference of a type now required of the GMC. No one forced those two pastors into exile. In contrast, deep satisfaction is kindled as retired clergy continue to offer ministry with compassion and conviction, fulfilling the preaching-teaching-pastoral care vision that is part of the lifelong vocational calling of ordained ministry.
The GMC has been recognized as a legitimate faith group by secular entities such as the Department of Defense, the Veteran’s Administration, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Internal Revenue Service. Faith groups have recognized and/or worked affirmatively with the GMC. These include (in part) The Association of Professional Chaplains, the National Association of Evangelical (representing the Wesleyan Church, Free Methodists, Primitive Methodist, Salvation Army, Nazarene, and other Pentecostal cousins), the Anglican Church of North America and the Church of God Anderson Indiana.
Asbury Theological Seminary graduates more UM clergy than 12 of the 13 official seminaries of the UMC, and official UM school United Theological Seminary is joined with Asbury in official partnership with the GMC. Warm and collegial relations have been formed with numerous Christian denominations that the open hearts and open minds of professional United Methodism refuse to accept with a closed doors policy. Rationalizations complaining about the GMC premature launching, or the lack of an official Discipline are straight from the lips of the lawnmower neighbor. If such as the Department of Defense, after rigorous and non-partisan vetting, finds the GMC to be a legitimate faith group to endorse ministry chaplains, legitimacy before unbiased eyes is beyond doubt. UM leadership is modeling its attitude toward retiree pastoral connection with the GMC as akin to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice snorting, “It is not so stated in the bond.”
Prior to the voting process for one annual conference for disaffiliation, the Dean of the Cabinet made specific comments that all churches and clergy involved are and would remain “siblings in Christ,” and all are part of “the Church universal.” Subsequent legal threats more accurately reflect the “siblings” called Abel and Cain than they do brothers and sisters in our common Lord Jesus Christ. Appeals that leadership only is being obedient to the Book of Discipline fall flat with the publicly unchallenged precedent of selective obedience to that same Discipline and General Conference actions by several members of the Council of Bishops.
What to do? Yes, retired clergy caught in this bind can follow conscience and incur charges and a church trial. It is true that a few hundred such trials would gain national attention but that mostly would bring laughable discredit on Methodism in general among the larger secular population. One of the main reasons many traditional folks are leaving the legacy church, despite a clear “win” at General Conference 2019, is distaste for fighting. People do not pick a church or go to Annual or General Conference to fight. Major swaths of US United Methodism either openly disobey church teaching without consequences or expend serious energy bending the rules. Thus, many evangelicals just have gotten tired and wish to reboot.
All sides realize the real challenges are those of demographics of age, church geographic mis-locations, trust deficits, fractured theology, inability to agree on basic definitions (such as “make disciples’ or “resurrection of Jesus’) and denial of all the above plus a host of other issues. These are pulling churches down regardless of their views on sexuality, with a nearly 70% decline in presence in the US population since 1968. One option, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, is to ‘let a thousand church trials bloom, ’but to whose good? Not the witness of the church to the world.
Another option is for the retired pastor to do ministry under the radar. Since the typical DS is not Gestapo material, a gentle non-statement of activity often suffices. To those who may thunder that retired clergy should “confess” their sin of pastoral visitation or preaching at a forbidden church, one could morally consider a sweet change of subject. Call it redemptive “misinformation.” Think of it as better to seek forgiveness than permission. If one’s conscience in Christ is informed and clear (Acts 24:16) simply do what Bishop Talbert did in Cal-Nevada around 1998 when he defended dismissing complaints against clergy who conducted “Holy Unions” in violation of official church teaching. View the law through the lens of a clear conscience. Don’t follow his subsequent actions of flipping into a “Champion of Discipline strict obedience” when he forced 13 evangelical pastors and over 4,000 conference members out of the denomination when some suggested putting part of their apportionments into escrow as a protest of their conscience.
In the long view one finds hope. The Mission Society for United Methodists formed in the early 1980’s as an evangelical alternative to the Global Ministries with its largely (but not exclusively) left-of-center approach in theology and practice. Bishops surrounded the wagons and (with a few exceptions) refused to appoint any UM clergy to serve as missionaries under the official flag. Appointment as chaplain to “Snap-On Tools,” or to totally secular teaching positions in public settings remained fine, but not service as a missionary of Christ under a foreign Wesleyan banner. Today the current expression of the Mission Society, called TMS Global, has 170 full-time missionaries in the field, compared with 240 by the Board of Global Ministries, with hostilities and public spats laid aside in the common Kingdom interest. That is 410 Wesleyan witnesses, not a zero-sum grudge match. People (on all sides) can “get over it,” and must.
If, as I believe, God is kindling a Methodist renewal moment, the hissing and sniping one sees in numerous settings will give way to a larger win-win vision…and right as well as left both need moments of confession. Imagine a UM General Conference with zero attention given to fighting over sexuality. Imagine center-left and center-right expressions of Wesleyan Christianity, each reaching wide segments of US and global society that the other group cannot effectively reach. Imagine a rebooted UM church and a reinvented GMC both lean and focused on what matters most. Most of all, imagine a respectful collaboration in numerous areas for gospel purposes. Imagine an approach to one another where gospel seed for the harvest, not salt on the wound, is sown in the fields of our siblings in Christ. Just imagine…and let the Spirit make it so.
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.