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One of the options for The United Methodist Church is dissolution: ending The UMC denomination and dividing resources and churches. What does that look like in practice?
1990s Divorcing Couple splitting up Beanie Babies. [source]
Dissolution is not a Divorce
A commonly-used metaphor for the United Methodist Church is to say we are in a divorce proceeding. Divorce makes it seem straightforward and simple. That metaphor is not helpful (if anything, we are in a domestic violence proceeding as an abusive spouse has done harm to the other for 47 years), and, it turns out, it isn’t legally accurate either.
The United Methodist denomination is a government, not a marital relationship. A bishop was the first person who articulated this reality to me: the structure and framework of the denomination is a governing entity. It facilitates the worship of God known through Jesus Christ, but its function and purpose are more like a country more than a non-profit.
The UMC is a connection, a web of relationships, a quantity more than the sum of its parts. This is true. But it is also a government, a corporation without a head. Dissolution is the dismantling of a 50-year-old corporation’s governing relationships. It will be less like a divorce proceeding and more like…well…what would it look like?
I’ve asked some polity and outside counsels’ opinions and here are some thoughts if this ends up being The UMC’s future.
No precedent in church or society
There’s no contemporary precedent for this question of dissolving the United Methodist Church, even when we look at other churches.
When the other Seven Sisters of Protestantism engaged LGBTQ+ inclusion, there were eventually majorities that were affirming of LGBTQ+ relationships. There was no dissolution proceeding: the Traditionalists just left. The Presbyterians who didn’t agree with LGBTQ+ inclusion joined the Presbyterian Church of America, and the Episcopalians who didn’t agree with LGBTQ+ inclusion became the Anglican Church of North America. They did not dissolve anything: one sizable chunk just left and reconstituted, leaving the mother organization behind.
Other denominations experienced disaffiliation and reconstitution—they didn’t practice dissolution. If in the UMC the LGBTQ+ affirming folks disaffiliated and left, or if the Wesleyan Covenant Association disaffiliated and left, that has precedent, but that scenario is not dissolution. The ending of a denomination—closing down the mother organization entirely—has not been seen on this scale in modern times. On a smaller scale, when multisite Mars Hill church ceased to exist in Seattle, they eliminated the coordinating entity and set free each individual site to be on their own church–we’ll come back to this idea below.
There also isn’t a precedent in the secular recent history. The closest to taking a company and breaking it up into two competitors would be the anti-trust breakup of Bell telephone system into the Baby Bell telephone companies in the 1980s: a large company broke up into regional companies that were in the same market. The second closest is a scenario where a private equity firm buys up troubled firms for really cheap (ie. Richard Gere in Pretty Woman) and renegotiates the terms of their debt, splits or streamlines the company, and then does something with the pieces.
So without precedents, we are forced to step outside of examples and case studies and move into informed conjecture: What if the UMC decided to Dissolve? What would it look like?
It turns out there are at least two ways to do it: one with millions of dollars poured into lawyers and accountants—and the other (possibly) with those millions kept for missions and ministries.
Assets and Liabilities: The [Twenty] Million Dollar Problem
The closest comparison we might get to ecclesial dissolution is the restructuring of a corporation. The Rev. Christy Thomas, a blogger on Patheos, replied to my Facebook query about dissolving the UMC with this truly helpful commentary:
I asked my husband your questions–he has done this sort of thing for many years [in the secular world]. First, the main reason a company would do that (split into different companies) is because the administrative load has become unwieldy. It is unlikely they would intentionally be competing with each other. At the very least, they would work in separate territories.
Second, the firm seeking dissolution and restructuring would start with a first class accounting firm–something like Price Waterhouse (and their billing rate probably begins at about $400/hour for the more junior of the accountants). As they begin to sort out the assets (and if we are talking about the UMC, keep in mind that they are owned by lots of different agencies, jurisdictions, and AC’s), the complexity of the situation probably means several years of work. At that high billing rate, which will only go up as the complexities are uncovered bit by bit. Once the assets and ownership have been fully laid out, it becomes time to bring in the attorneys to draw up the dissolution and reorganization contracts.
That work demands that the CEO’s of the new divisions (or their reps) both be at the negotiating table to battle for their respective sides. They will need their own set of attorneys, and their sky-high billing rates, to represent them. Since the UMC doesn’t have CEO’s, that will be yet another challenge.
Likely, considering the complexity of the situation, we’d be talking at least [millions of dollars] in accounting and legal fees and several years of work.
Here’s the key point: figuring out assets and liabilities is not cheap. Both dissolution models (like the one written by the WCA President) and reconstitution models like Bard-Jones (writeup here on UMNS) reference determining assets and liabilities so they can be divided equally or proportionally. The above is what that means: hiring outside consulting firms to determine them, and then dividing them accordingly.
If we must determine such assets and liabilities, then the above is a likely scenario: years of work and small armies of accountants and lawyers draining our reserves, and in the end, all we have is fewer assets to disperse.
A [Better] Way to Dissolve: Set free.
The above example (using an asset/liability model which is part of the WCA President’s Plan and, to a lesser extent, Bard-Jones Plans) imagines Dissolution from the top-down: a consulting or strategic advisory firm comes in and evaluates and divvies up The UMC after years of resources have been consumed.
Is there a better way? Yes.
What happens if we do it from the bottom-up?
Technically, The UMC does not exist. What exists is a network of separately incorporated entities (annual conferences, general agencies, jurisdictions, and other institutions) doing business as “The United Methodist Church.” Legally, each entity owns its own assets/liabilities, though they are fiscally bound together as part of the whole.
Maybe the simplest answer is to just set free all the actual entities. The annual conferences, the general agencies, and other institutions all become independent, separate from each other. They already have their own legal statuses, 501c3 numbers, boards of directors, and organization plans. Annual conferences own their own property as the holders of the trust clauses. So by setting free each legal entity, you free the UMC from having to evaluate and divvy up assets and liabilities.
Then each legal entity can self-determine how to affiliate with other entities:
Annual Conferences can choose to band together with other like-minded or geographically close conferences to share resources, appointments, etc. Local Churches can choose to go with their parent conference or they can leave and become independent through whatever process the AC determines. ACs already legally own their clergy’s pensions so their asset/liabilities would go with them at the funded rate, not the market rate.
General Agencies: Some general agencies are wholly dependent on apportionments, so perhaps a 2-year funding plan can be part of any dissolution to give them time to reorganize. Some entities (ie. WesPath and United Methodist Women) are self-funded. Others may become part of their host institutions (Global Ministries is located in an Atlanta local church, Archives and History is at Drew University). And, sadly, some would close, sending their missions into different bodies.
Seminaries, Universities, Hospitals, etc that already are their own legal entities would be set free to affiliate however they want.
Central Conferences already exist in their own legal framework given their multinational presences, so they can affiliate with whatever legal entities they choose to be bound together with.
Bishops would be problematic because they are technically employees of the GCFA. But they would be figured out by transfer to an annual conference or something.
In short, to avoid the asset/liability calculating conundrum and divvying up of General Agencies, the entities that comprise the United Methodist Church could simply disconnect and re-network together. That takes trust and relaxation of control, but it helps The UMC retain its money for missions and ministry.
Dissolution, like the 2019 plan by the President of the WCA, is the most costly direction forward for The United Methodist denomination, sucking millions of dollars from UMC coffers—dollars that local churches thought were for ministry and instead would go to legal processes, accountants, and lawyers. While proponents would claim it could be done cheaply, if we take our billions of dollars seriously—and the ministry they provide—then we should engage a reputable consulting firm if we are forced to evaluate assets and liabilities. To do any less is to dishonor decades of tithes and offerings.
But it turns out we don’t necessarily have to do it that way.
If dissolution is the way forward for The United Methodist Church, one possible path to avoid that would be to simply close down the network and allow the individual nodes to reconnect organically. Each legal entity as small as a community building and as large as an annual conference could become independent and band together with whichever conferences they want to, and contract for services from whichever former General Agency or Independent Commission they want to. It would take a few years, sure, but each entity could self-determine its best future, or hopefully band together with others for a common future.
The choice is ours: years of litigation or years of forming new expressions of Wesleyanism. I know which one I’d prefer.
I’m not advocating this as my preferred way forward—but if we do go this route, it doesn’t have to be a top-down process of lawyers and accountants but could be much more organic and collaborative, though surely not as simple as I outlined above. In this blog post, I’m just naming some of the realities we will have to contend with as we spend the next two months crafting something new by the September 18th deadline.
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United Methodist Women continues to lead the denomination when it comes to prophetic acts of solidarity with the marginalized, with women and children being their primary missional focus. Included in that list are LGBTQ teenagers and young women who struggle with their sexual orientation, especially in a United Methodist denomination that has demonized and demoralized them for over 47 years.
United Methodist Women, the largest denominational, lay women of faith organization in the world, today announced it has awarded two grants for work to thwart suicide among LGBTQ youth. The organization committed to the needs of women, children and youth awarded two $50,000 grants to The Trevor Foundation and the Tyler Clementi Foundation for their work to prevent LGBTQ youth suicide.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. Another 157,000 young people are injured during suicide attempts each year. LGBTQ youth are three to six time more likely to attempt suicide than other youth.
“When we witness a problem, our faith compels us to act,” said Shannon Priddy, president of the United Methodist Women board of directors. “These grants are about supporting young people. Given that LGBTQ youth have an increased risk of being bullied in school and online, and since bullying increases the risk of depression and suicide among youth, we have a responsibility and the great honor of doing as much as we can to create environments that are safe and inclusive for LGBTQ youth, and to support organizations who are doing the same.”
The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people under 25, and the Tyler Clementi Foundation’s mission is to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces, and faith communities.
It shouldn’t be newsworthy that a United Methodist entity has given funds to support groups to stop teen and young adult suicides. It shouldn’t be newsworthy that a women’s mission organization is continuing its mission of supporting vulnerable women and children.
But it is newsworthy. Because The United Methodist Church has a long history of silence on LGBTQ programs and forbidding funding of anything that remotely offers affirmation and comfort to LGBTQ children. And learning that history brings much more weight to this United Methodist Women’s action—and a call for others to do the same.
History of The UMC Denying Ministry to LGBTQ persons
Barely a year after The United Methodist Church was created, the relationship between money and affirmation of LGBTQ persons came to the forefront with opposition to a student-edited magazine that affirmed LGBTQ persons. From Jane Ellen Nickell’s book “We Shall Not Be Moved: Methodists debate Race, Gender, and Sexuality” chapter 4.
“In 1969, motive, the UMC’s student magazine, created controversy when it published an issue on women’s rights that included a discussion of lesbianism. United Methodist congregations and individuals threatened to withhold their apportionment dollars, and the denomination’s Board of Education, which published the magazine, withdrew its support. Without institutional funding, motive ceased publication, devoting its final two issues to gay rights.”
While the original language against LGBTQ persons came in 1972, a ban on denominational financing anything remotely affirming of LGBTQ persons came in 1976. It had three components:
Ordered the Council on Finance and Administration to “ensure that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any ‘gay’ caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
Mandated “the use of resources and funds by boards and agencies only in support of programs consistent with the Social Principles of the Church.”
Prohibited “funds for projects favoring homosexual practices.”
The next General Conference in 1980 entertained discussion on prohibitions of gays and lesbians from being employed in church offices, and from using church spaces. These prohibitions were eventually voted down, but they speak to the desire of some to apply the funding ban to local church decisions.
The 2004 General Conference expanded the funding restrictions related to groups that promote the acceptance of homosexuality. Prior to 2004, these restrictions applied only to the national General Conference on Finance and Administration. However, following a complaint filed with the Judicial Council relating to annual conference funding for a ministry* with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in the New England Annual Conference (JC 491), the 2004 General Conference extended the prohibition to include annual conference councils on finance and administration. (*Full disclosure: I was a member of Cambridge Welcoming Ministries at this time.) The funding restriction would ultimately read:
“To ensure that no annual conference board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures. This restriction shall not limit the Church’s ministry in response to the HIV epidemic, nor shall it preclude funding for dialogs or educational events where the Church’s official position is fairly and equally represented.”
Thus in Decisions 1081 and 1084, the Judicial Council ruled that the annual conference Councils on Finance and Administration (CF&A) are responsible for ensuring that no groups that promote the acceptance of homosexuality receive conference funding.
Finally in 2008, General Conference delegates voted to add an additional restriction for funds used for programs that would “violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church ‘not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.’” So they wouldn’t fund programs that directly affirm or directly deny the existence of LGBTQ persons.
(Editor’s note: sections of the above have been adapted from T.L. Steinwert’s 2009 Dissertation “Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: An Ecclesiological Dilemma” at Boston University School of Theology).
Some Results of the Funding Ban
The effects of the funding ban were felt most strongly in educational and direct services areas. The Ecumenical Campus Ministry at Ohio Northern University had its United Methodist funding cut because of involvement with the LGBTQ community. In 2005, the University Of Puget Sound’s UMeth campus ministry was brought up for judicial review because of their welcoming statement. It seems campus ministries were the most scrutinized and vulnerable to anyone with an anti-gay axe to grind. And curriculum development always had to tiptoe around anything gay-related.
Most heinously, the funding ban on AIDS support and “in response to the AIDS epidemic” was not lifted until 1988, after countless numbers of United Methodists had died without any support or care from General Conference and The United Methodist Church. At the end of 1987, the World Health Organization estimated 7-10 million people worldwide were HIV+. Up until that time, the upper echelons of United Methodism had to be silent or avoid offering care out of fear of losing their funding, and after that change, even local organizing efforts continued to be under attack. Examples include the HIV/AIDS Ministry in West Ohio in 1990 which ultimately prevailed over attempts to shut down its ministry to the HIV/AIDS community, and a RAIN team of meals-on-wheels for AIDS patients in Oklahoma City which continued for a time despite the ban.
In summary, Rev. Dr. T.L. Steinwert reflects in her 2009 dissertation (page 52):
The 1976 prohibition on funding initiated a movement toward silencing advocates for the full inclusion of homosexual persons. With the threat of denial of funds, this legislation censured those in local churches, annual conferences, seminaries and national church agencies who sought to talk about homosexuality from an affirming perspective. Citing incidents at St. Paul School of Theology, the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Reporter and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women…this prohibition on funding “effectively stopped any real dialogue on homosexuality by silencing one side of the debate.” In each case, any discussion of homosexuality that strayed from a strict condemnation of the practice was censured through local church protests and actions taken by General Boards and Agencies.
United Methodist actions and inaction has contributed to this culture of fear and self-loathing by LGBTQ persons. We have been complicit and in some cases outright culpable of the harm and death.
While opponents of LGBTQ persons hide behind rhetoric and rationales, the reality is that United Methodist polity and funding bans have made us part of the reason organizations like the Trevor Project need to exist in the first place.
While it is in line with the Discipline in the way it was given and awarded, the renewal groups love to jump on anything UMW-related, especially when UMW takes tangible, bold, and faithful action. So I offer the above history to provide context of what the funding ban actually caused so you can see what tradition the complainants live into.
Today, there are places where the funding ban is an iron gate, and there are places where we can see the cracks. Recently, a local church’s ministry had a grant denied by Global Missions because they had a statement of inclusion in their description. They removed it and it was affirmed the next year. But also this year the Missouri Annual Conference approved funding a “new ministry in new places” effort specifically for and with LGBTQ persons. The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference has a staff person for LGBTQ ministries, which had to have a unique funding structure, and several annual conferences employ LGBTQ persons in annual conference positions. So there is still a patchwork effect locally and at the regional level even though the global structures continue to be banned from active ministry for and with LGBTQ persons.
My hope is that this gift inspires other agencies and annual conferences and local churches to begin to redeem the radio silence The United Methodist Church has had for over 40 years, and commit more resources to saving the lives of vulnerable LGBTQ+ persons—whose vulnerability was created by the polity and practices of The United Methodist Church in the first place.
It’s the least we can do—and if you don’t like it, as we say in the Bible Belt, bless your heart.
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There’s this perception that the entire Western Jurisdiction is this idyllic place of progressivism and rampant inclusion. While the latter is accurate to a degree, the former is not because there’s actually a lot of variety in the West. As we discuss the future of The United Methodist Church in the West, we see greater variety in the conferences.
A very public example of the difference came this month during annual conferences in the West. While the Greater Northwest conferences were passing disaffiliation study committees and openly debating withholding apportionment dollars, the California Nevada annual conference was adamant that such things were anathema. From the pulpit in the episcopal address to the ridicule of the will of the body in a press release, the California Nevada appointed leadership (ie. staff appointed by the cabinet and the Bishop, not elected as part of the annual conference representative leadership) re-stated their opposition to disaffiliating, and to even studying it. This week, they continued this opposition with the release of a six-point statement against disaffiliation and withholding apportionment dollars.
I’ll only include the bolded sections of each point with choice quotes, but you can read the whole statement here. The dot points in response are my own commentary or others’ quoted responses.
#1: Does disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church fulfill the promise of the Wesleyan Spirit and Methodist Ethos? Cal-Nevada claims that:
Our belief is that it does not and if we are to embrace our General Rules and plant a stake in our connectional system, we must remain on the side of unity…Disaffiliation is contrary to every fiber of Wesleyan theology. As Wesleyans, ours has always been a dynamic faith not one of dogma and ideology.
From the start, the document places connectionalism above justice, unity above integrity, and ironically places unity AS dogma: higher than anything else. If the UMC rescinded clergywomen’s rights or restructured the conferences based on ethnicity, would those be deal-breakers to unity? If those ARE reasons to study disaffiliation, then that would certainly call into question the value of LGBTQ+ persons to California-Nevada in comparison to those of different races and genders.
Additionally, any Wesleyan Originalist scholar (who I argue with all the time) would tell you that separation is Wesleyan–schism is not. While we can debate whether we match Wesley’s concept of schism today, to call the AME, AMEZ, Nazarenes, Free Methodists, and other Wesleyans as “contrary to every fiber of Wesleyan theology”—that would be news to them! Heck, the Methodists started disaffiliation from Anglicanism before Wesley had died–that’s why WE are Methodists even though Wesley remained.
We are a dynamic church that constantly binds and loosens the inherited faith. That’s why we reclaimed women’s ordination from the first century. That’s why we recast ethnic equality as central to the Gospel. And that’s why we are enmeshed in this conversation over LGBTQ inclusion: we are a dynamic faith, not one of dogma and ideology.
#2: How does disaffiliation fulfill our calling to leadership as a jurisdiction within the denomination? Cal-Nevada writes:
Some members of the Wesley Covenant Association, Institute for Religion and Democracy, and others have been planning this deconstruction of the connection for almost 40 years….facilitating THEIR exit should be the primary goal rather than having us waste valuable time and energy planning what is ultimately the will of the WCA and IRD. Remember, it was the Methodist Episcopal Church South that left the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Rev. Adam Briddell, pastor of First UMC in Eugene, Oregon, writes:
Yes WCA and IRD-minded communities have been pushing for disaffiliation. There will always be forces pushing for “schismatic endgames.” But when I look for an example to follow, I would rather look to the Confessing Church, that emerged in resistance to a “connectional” system that had been coopted by sin and death. Sure, the MECS left the MEC. But 80 years later, we are still inspired by the Confessing Church.
#3: How can the Western Jurisdiction best claim integrity as leaders in the denomination? Cal-Nevada responds:
Disaffiliation erodes the integrity of the West as a leader. Rather than functioning as a leader for the church, the West becomes a “leave-er.”…The question must be asked if the perception and the reality of the US church punishing the African church is what faithfulness looks like for the Western Jurisdiction.
If the West chose disaffiliation as a trajectory, they cease to be concerned with leadership within the denomination and center themselves on their unique mission. That’s what it means! And if the West chooses to disaffiliate, then they ARE leading by choosing a path that more heterogenous conferences cannot bring themselves to do.
Finally, was Richard Allen a “leave-er” in 1787 to begin the African Methodist Episcopal church? Asking for a friend.
#4: Is disaffiliation by the Western Jurisdiction a lifeboat to save the church? Cal-Nevada replies (in full):
Here the answer is a resounding No. As the weakest of all the jurisdictions, the West has been dependent on the connectional church for its survival. Loss of the connectional relationship will accelerate its decline. The primary issues facing the West in its disciple-making capacities and congregational vitality will remain whether we disaffiliate or not. We believe that full inclusion is a necessary, but not the sole component of healthy evangelism and growth.
I’m afraid there’s nothing “resounding” about it as our connectional dependence is varied and amendable. For example, I’ve documented before how few church resources are developed by or with the West in mind (read articles here and here). Flip through any Cokesbury catalogue and you’ll be amazed at how many SEJ writers there are–UMPH is based in Nashville! Huh! So the amount of practical, useful, works-on-the-ground-from-the-west discipleship resources we get are small in comparison to the dominant Bible Belt resources.
But I must ask: How will the loss of our connectional relationship with a global church (that finds its voice in our General Conference) accelerate our decline? In the WJ, we have churches NOW that are declining, and we have churches that are growing. How are our healthy churches made more healthy, or how are our struggling churches find new life, by being in relationship with a global connection that degrades the worth of LGBTQ+ people?
Finally, Rev. David Wright in Washington state writes:
“We believe that full inclusion is a necessary, but not the sole component of healthy evangelism and growth.” – when you see the “but” after full inclusion, especially when your connection fails to practice anything close to full inclusion, you’ve just expressed one of the major barriers you have to vitality and health.
In summary, disaffiliation must be studied and examined to see if it is a viable path, not dismissed out of hand—and for an annual conference representative body to approve such examinations—and then have them be dismissed by executive action—is a disturbing development.
The second section of the letter dealt with the question of withholding apportionments, our assigned church tithes to support the connection. This section is much more nuanced than the first, and bears further discussion.
Is non-payment of General and Jurisdictional Apportionments an effective strategy for change? Cal-Nevada responds:
Whether intended or not, non-payment inflicts financial and other forms of punishment on the Central Conferences, the entire connection, and those beyond ourselves whom we are called to serve. It is a clear violation of our first General Rule of “Do no harm.” This action is a misdirection of our pain that evades any notion of a redemptive outcome…
This is a good point. But likewise, by giving to a system that is actively doing harm to our LGBTQ+ siblings, we are complicit and participating in that harm. It also violates our first General Rule of “Do no harm.” So both scenarios cause harm: withholding doesn’t focus the protest on those responsible, and paying allows those who are responsible to continue unabated. That doesn’t mean we stop finding ways through it.
This makes a mountain out of a molehill as the annual conference will to actually do this is low. I attempted three different ways in one Greater Northwest conference to change how the conference handles apportionments. It was voted down or out all three times. So the conversation is important but the will to actually reduce our obligations is just not present enough to validate such opposition. While local churches can make these choices, because annual conferences are unwilling to honor local church choices, apportionments will continue to be paid.
Does the withholding of General and Jurisdictional apportionments create new expressions of justice across the life of the church? Cal-Nevada responds:
To function under the assumption that the Central Conferences are completely beholden to the US church is a de facto admission of a neo-colonial posture. In addition, attempting to control Central Conferences through withholding funds is manipulative and coercive. In fact, this withholding is primarily expressed in Caucasian congregations whose perception is that their entitlement to control others with money is an expression of white privilege…We seek to create genuine relationships with our Central Conference brothers and sisters rather than simply leverage them, for any purpose, using financial means.
There’s a lot a truth here, as the UMC is so enmeshed in white supremacy that it pits marginalized groups against each other—in this case, minority progressives/LGBTQ persons and African delegates. So long as we buy the narrative we are hopelessly opposed to each other, we will not create the unity we seek to oppose white supremacy effectively.
That said, having been in them, many of these conversations are not focused on the past. By seeking to withhold our giving to the global church, we are NOT trying to “control Central Conferences” —we are trying to avoid actively contributing to the harm being done to our LGBTQ+ siblings. Intent and effect, of course, are not always synonymous.
There’s a chance that redirecting money can actively counter the sin (properly named) within the church, but that will take more discernment and prayer and confession than changing a line item on the budget. If our sights are set on the future with equity, then deciding how to use our money is a step towards that equity and a relationship based on mutual care, not manipulation—but it cannot be done outside of the context of confession and mutuality.
In the end, it is circular. If you withhold apportionments, you engage in neocolonialist behavior. If you pay your apportionments, you support our neocolonial structures. I don’t know the way out of this catch-22, but I know shutting down the conversation and shaming others is not the way forward because both produce harm and both produce possibilities, so let’s keep talking about it.
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A thousand blooms!
The next 10 months are critical for United Methodists worldwide, but especially in the simultaneously vulnerable and privileged Western Jurisdiction.
To oppose a special Jurisdictional Conference because it might be “about disaffiliation” is to deny the West an opportunity to weigh the options, and, at the very least, be ready for General Conference.
To allege ethnocentrism as motivations for the withholding of apportionments lacks sufficient power analysis in The United Methodist Denomination.
In short, this action by the California Nevada annual conference leadership does more harm than good to the conversation of the West’s future. I hope they are more attentive to their constituency in the future.
May we all be better about honoring one another’s arguments and perceptions as we in the West will be stuck with each other, no matter which direction General Conference goes. At least, that’s my hope!
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The Traditionalist claim that they have a majority at General Conference is deceptive and ultimately irrelevant to the future of The United Methodist Church .
Annual Conference Referendum on the WCA
The phrase “all politics is local” means that politicians may be nationally recognized but their re-election depends on connecting with their constituents. In the United Methodist world this week, we see this sentiment confirmed as the powerful Wesleyan Covenant got their Association handed to them by their constituents.
The election of waves of progressive/centrist delegates to General Conference and the passage of resolution after resolution against the Traditional Plan has revealed that the denomination-devastating policies that are popular at General Conference do not play well at home. Many conferences saw the WCA-endorsed candidates for delegates barely break 30% of the votes. Entire slates of progressives and centrists were elected in the first round of several conferences, completely shutting out the WCA Traditionalists (Final numbers will be released after the last conferences meet).
The WCA has looked itself in the mirror and thought they were looking cute, but the national obliterating politics they traffic in do not have appeal close to home. In the first election since the WCA began, they lost in droves.
But along with the quantity comes the quality of delegates: WCA Leadership Council Leader who were delegates in 2016 and 2019 were not voted back for 2020. Tim McClendon in South Carolina, Jessica LaGrone in Texas, Christopher Ritter in Illinois Great Rivers, Joe DiPaolo in Eastern Pennsylvania, and the former WCA Chairperson Jeff Greenway (by withdrawal) all failed to make the delegations again. In addition, WCA President Keith Boyette was a reserve delegate in 2016/2019 and he has retired so is not on the delegation, and Indiana Confessing Movement chair Beth Ann Cook was a delegate in 2016/2019 and will not be in 2020.
Top to bottom, a rout. I wonder how they will respond?
Traditionalists:”We didn’t lose, we actually won!”
In order to stem the tide of bad news and demoralizing conferences (the Florida WCA even stopped voting at the end, abdicating their responsibilities to their local church), the Vice President of the Good News movement and submitter of the Traditional Plan Rev. Thomas Lambrecht penned an article with the provocative title: “Traditionalists Secure General Conference Majority.” It’s such a mixture of fact and fiction that we could spend this whole article going through line-by-line; instead we’ll focus on a few points.
First, Lambrecht claims that the laity held strong, claiming “as noted in a previous Perspective, all of the loss of traditionalist delegates fell on the clergy side.” That’s not the case. Iowa’s delegation was led in 2016 by a WCA laywoman who didn’t even make the alternates for the Jurisdictional delegation in 2020–they flipped 6 seats by most spreadsheets. Total sweeps in Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Central Texas, and Arkansas yielded new progressive laity seats. While it is true that overall the WCA-endorsed laity did better than the clergy (41% of laity are WCA slates, compared to 17% of the clergy), there isn’t as wide a gulf as alleged by Candler School of Theology’s Dr. Kevin Watson.
Second, Lambrecht laments the loss of the delegates who are Traditionalist fixtures and worries that the lack of experience will be a detriment. But the reality is that many of those organizing the slates were very intentional to promote young people and people of color delegates and queer delegates, people who reflect the values of inclusion and diversity. This is the future of the church as reaches out to our US context.
We don’t need more of the tired old methods of the past. Lambrecht laments the loss of straight white voices while the rest of the world celebrates the most diverse delegation in history (one entire delegation is queer [Oregon-Idaho] and one entire clergy delegation is queer [New England] with some SEJ queer delegates as well for the first time).
But wait: are the Traditionalists right?
Finally, Lambrecht’s claim that “traditionalists have a majority at General Conference” is substantiated here:
Enough U.S. traditionalist delegates have been elected that, together with conservative delegates from Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, the traditional position should have the majority in Minneapolis
First, those central conference delegations haven’t even been elected from those regions yet. Lambrecht is assuming that they would be conservative or Traditionalist, just as he would have made the same assumption of American delegations that ended up going the other way than expected. He wrote that WCA pickups were likely in Virginia and North Carolina, and they were completely shut out. Is it likely that Lambrecht is right? Yes. Is it presumptuous and colonialist thinking? Also Yes.
But second point is that, in the end, yes, Lambrecht is correct as we mentioned in a previous post. If those central conference delegations vote uniformly Traditionalist, they do have a slim majority. Less than 30% of the American delegates were supported by Traditionalists, only 10 annual conferences out of 54 are Traditionalist majorities, but that is enough to maintain a majority when combined with the central conference traditional pattern of voting. If a basketball team lost 44-10, but those 10 points were enough to seal a championship spot, then they would have a lukewarm celebration indeed.
Traditionalists are spinning this devastating loss of credibility and numbers as a win because they are able to eek out a 1-2% majority, down significantly from previous years. Given that caucus groups like Good News run on money, then it is not surprising they would make this claim to not lose fundraising dollars. But the “win” is far from the spin.
The WCA doubled down on punitive measures and the United Methodists in the United States have said NO. Ordinations of gay clergy in 6 conferences—one in the South! Progressives swept delegations. And this wave means that the hardline goal of the WCA—progressive expulsion and control/liquidation of UMC assets—will no longer be in reach.
It will no longer be in reach because of the Jurisdictional structure, which was ironically created to preserve Traditionalist values by keeping Northern bishops from serving in the South. Each jurisdiction is over 60% progressive/centrist. That means no matter what General Conference does, the jurisdictions will be able to:
Elect a slew of progressive bishops—at least 12—who will keep accountability in their regions and can block prosecutions if they band together. It’s an impossible task for WCA delegates in any jurisdiction be able to mobilize support for a Candidate needing 60% of the vote when they only have 23-35% of the available votes. It’s a lock if progressives choose good candidates.
Boards and agencies will receive an influx of bright new progressive board members, creative thinkers, and people suspicious of the straight white power structure to dismantle.
The TraditionalIsts have a slim majority at General Conference. Progressives, for the first time since 1988, will represent and lead all five US jurisdictions. So the governance of the UMC for the next four years is in much more stable hands than the reactionary forces of the past few quadrenniums.
That’s good. But that’s also bad.
The Warning: Don’t pour this blessing into Old Wineskins.
So much of the above is about control and influence in the old wineskin of the UMC as it is known now. But unless there is structural change in 2020, it will just be a flash in a pan.
I would encourage progressives to see that they have an opportunity to reshape Methodism into something new. They might be tempted because of the influence they will have in the current system. They can take the bait of influence in the old wineskin, or they can truly lead the denomination (in ways the Bishops and the Way Forward Commission have failed) into a new wineskin. Their episcopal candidates will lead annual conferences. Their delegates will lead boards and agencies. Any plan of unity or disaffiliation or dissolution will be in their control after General Conference 2020 so they will be able to implement the particulars of a new structure.
As we reach the end of this article, we realize this was an American-centric conversation, but America is only 53% of the votes come May 2020. The worldwide connection can either together with progressives to find a way forward together or apart with blessings not curses, or United Methodism abroad can watch their connections be cast asunder because they put all their eggs in one WCA basket, and watched them be thrown them away.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.
The following document was developed by Greater Northwest participants at the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference 2019. It was distributed in paper form to the participants—here’s an edited version with the local references removed. Reprint and add local contacts for your community or conference
Each church can host acts of repentance in worship. Lift up the inclusive official statements and policies your church has adopted. Be creative in making a statement. (For example, one church in the GNW burned pages of the Book of Discipline.)
Ask your pastor to invite LGBTQIA+, people of color, and/or young guest preachers.
Use worship materials produced by marginalized people and credit them.
Gather people who are passionate about inclusion rather than only looking to the usual committee chairs, the youth, or other people assumed to be allies.
Then readily include those who want to participate, welcoming them as they are.
Record10-20 second videos of your church members saying why inclusion matters to them or what inclusion looks like at your church.
Post individual videos or edited compilations on social media with #SacredWorth.
Coordinate your efforts with your annual conference communications staff person.
Join Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). It’s free, helpful, and something individuals can do as well as churches. More than 5,000 people have joined RMN since GC2019.
Form a Reconciling small group or encourage one that already exists to join RMN and work for inclusion. Churches, individuals, and small groups (Sunday school classes, committees, etc.) can officially join RMN.
Begin or further conversations about being fully inclusive with resources from RMN: www.rmnetwork.org.
Connect with your Annual Conference’s RMN Chapter.
Begin an active relationship with youth shelters in your community. (LGBTQIA+ youth are especially vulnerable to homelessness.)
Reach out to PFLAG or ecumenical LGBTQ+ advocacy groups to see how an individual or congregation can be helpful.
Donate to the Safe Harbor Fund in the Greater Northwest Area by texting “SAFEHARBOR” to 44321. This fund allows the annual conferences of the GNW to receive clergy into annual conference membership here so their credentials are not removed by hostile annual conferences. Even if you are outside of the GNW, supporting this effort allows this region to continue this important work.
Write letters of support to Bishop Karen Oliveto and the Mountain Sky cabinet. (Mail: 6110 Greenwood Plaza Blvd., Greenwood Village, CO 80111-4803. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Policy & Institutional Efforts
Create a policy welcoming LGBTQIA+ couples to be married in your church building. If the pastor at your church cannot preside at those weddings, you or another lay person can offer to become licensed (by state or online) to officiate.
The church or administrative council can adopt an official public statement making it clear they will resist exclusionary policies and welcome LGBTQIA+ clergy in future appointments.
How else can a local church or individual practice active resistance to the Traditional Plan and intentional welcoming of marginalized persons, especially members of the LGBTQIA+ community? Sound off in the comments!
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.
Across the United States, annual conferences are doing an odd thing: they are electing progressives and centrist United Methodists in droves to the 2020 General Conference. Annual Conferences that haven’t seen a progressive delegate to General Conference since FOREVER are sending half or more of their delegations from the progressive/centrist coalition.
What does it mean? And will it matter?
Case Study: Delegate Organizing Matters in the SCJ
I come from the South Central Jurisdiction (the Oklahoma Annual Conference) and there was always a stigma against organizing overtly: it was apparently uncouth if people had lists of who to vote for. People still shared lists, but they didn’t do it overtly. It was a gentleman’s honor system that we all knew people were breaking all the time.
There was some politicking. I remember seeing buttons at annual conference that had a fraction 30/20: meaning 20% of the delegation should be under 30 years old. So not calling for specific candidates but for qualities that people should prioritize. So in general, conservatives dominated the SCJ most of my time in Oklahoma, and in other SCJ conferences.
But delegates organized this year, using the same approaches as the conservatives: slates of delegates and rapid communication and adaption. A particular blogger wrote election tactics and sent it to progressives in the SCJ. It evened the playing field as both sides were using similar tactics and norms…and guess what happened?
According to David Livingston in Kansas, here’s what happened to the South Central Jurisdiction:
69% of delegates likely identify as either progressive or centrist and oppose the Traditional Plan.
28% likely identify as traditionalist and support the Traditional Plan.
3% are unknown/undecided.
Because the SCJ organized, progressives and centrists can now work together to elect bishops, pass resolutions, and change annual conference boundaries and number to effect incredible change at their jurisdictional conference. The days of Texas conservative men being elected (which dominated the past two quadrenniums) are in peril.
All because the playing field was evened out, both sides organized equally…and the people spoke!
The Magic Number at General Conference
General Conference requests delegates from all over the world. I cannot do much about delegate organizing and election in other countries than my own, so I’m going to focus on the math in the United States for this article.
There are many ways to do the math, so you’ll have to tolerate this approach if it doesn’t match yours. The math that I’ve ran by other progressives and seems reasonable to start is this: if we accept as a baseline for change the vote to implement the Traditional Plan, then here’s the number of votes that need to “switch” to be inclusive in 2020:
27 of the 54 votes to pass the Traditional Plan would need to switch to close the gap.
13 of the 26 delegates that were missing (due to visa issues) in 2019.
11 of the 22 delegates that the USA goes down due to demographic shifts in the USA ceding representation to Africa and the Philippines.
+1 vote to be 50% + 1! Again: this is not the goal, but will give us some assurance that a coalition of ideas will be given equal consideration at the table.
So given that math, American progressives and centrists who want to repeal and replace the Traditional Plan, or to have a stronger presence at the negotiating table for Disaffiliation or Dissolution, would have to switch 52 American seats from “Traditionalist” to “Progressive/Centrist” this year.
Can it be done? Is it happening?
In an email update to subscribers to the Good News Magazine, Traditional Plan submitter Rev. Thomas Lambrecht admits:
So far in the election process, the number of conservative delegates has been reduced by about 20 percent compared to the previous delegation. It is not yet enough to switch the results of General Conference, but the progressive and moderate coalition is making progress toward that goal. In the end, the conservative delegation would need to lose about a third of its strength to give the progressives and moderates a realistic opportunity to reverse the outcome of St. Louis.
So what does that look like in real numbers? If you’re comparing the 2019 delegations to the 2020 delegations in terms of inclusion votes (designations taken from personal conversations, public statements, local organizing efforts, caucus group slates, etc), as of this writing, it looks like 32 delegate seats have flipped from Traditionalist to Progressive/Centrist. There’s still several annual conferences out (with over 100 delegates still to be elected) and some designations missing, but that’s my best guess given the three lists I’ve been merging. I’ll update this in a later article when some of those questions are firmed out (you know I show my work, but my work is squishy right now).
But in addition, prominent WCA Leadership Council members who were previously GC delegates (Rev. Christopher Ritter in Illinois Great Rivers, Rev. Jessica LaGrone in Texas) didn’t make the delegations, nor did other caucus group leaders (who may or may not have aspired to them anyway, given the roles in organizing at GC).
The credibility of the WCA is in peril when it loses voices at the United Methodist tables to which they are accustomed, due to votes by their peers and colleagues. It shows WCA rhetoric and actions may run well globally, but they don’t have as strong an appeal locally when people actually see how the WCA perspective governs.
Too little, too late?
Even eight years ago, these would be tremendous world-changing efforts and would allow the progressive/centrist folks to have great numbers to help the church repair its wound from the Traditional Plan.
But this is today. And the way demographic shifts work is that a small minority of USA delegates who are Traditionalist can pair with Africa to dominate all the laws and legislative agendas in The UMC. As I wrote earlier this year:
Continued distribution of votes in this way will mean that even if only 20% of United States delegates in 2020 oppose LGBTQ inclusion, that will be enough to combine with the conservative votes in the Central Conferences to defeat any efforts toward LGBTQ inclusion. In 2020, only 100 U.S. delegates would be needed to oppose any efforts towards LGBTQ inclusion…One can see how the culturally conservative regions have reached the tipping point as far as controlling a widening majority of votes at General Conference regarding LGBTQ inclusion.
So what the United Methodist polity structure means is that a very small minority of American delegates (100 out of 482) can keep the stranglehold of Traditionalist Correctional polity in The UMC when they combine with traditionalist regions outside The USA. Those traditionalist regions can rewrite their own polity to be contextual (¶ 101) while the USA regions cannot. It’s a gerrymandered system that will be very difficult to make more equitable, and that’s why I have concerns that this progressive wave is too late to effect lasting change.
But there’s a year of organizing, relationship building, backroom deals and open forums until GC2020. New voices from diverse regions will be hugely beneficial, as will the wave of LGBTQ+ delegates from progressive regions. The calculus has changed beyond the numbers, and the qualities of the new delegations have the chance to change The UMC into a more equitable and nimble denomination for the 21st century…or to just end it, I guess!
The choice is yours.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.
A new book by pastors in the most dechurched region of the United States seeks to show the abundance and vitality and the moments of joy that is found in ministry and missions in the Pacific Northwest.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, and particularly here in the global mission field of Seattle, our context is both one of fear and hope, of scarcity and abundance, of confusion and clarity.
We are the Christ canaries in a deep cultural mine that increasingly is void of the oxygen we need to stay alive. And yet, this same cultural mine, has different forms of life growing within it. The mine has different ways of not merely surviving but thriving and revealing the treasure of a better world that is possible.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the church is both floundering and flourishing. It is a time of despair and a time of enthusiastic creativity. The church as we have known it appears to be in irreversible decline. And yet, there are testimonies, here and there, now and then, that surprising new life is rising.
This little book will invite you into some of those testimonies, and some of those struggles as a church on the frontlines of resurrection and faithfulness.
Rev. Rich Lang, District Superintendent of the Seattle-Tacoma Missional District of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
Who and Where are new things happening?
I was enthralled reading through the stories of amazing ministries and effective pastors, many stories I never knew despite years of solidarity with my colleagues through the ups and downs of ministry. No matter your location, these stories will inspire and guide you through whatever transitions or difficulties are in your ministry context.
Stories are shared from these Pacific Northwest pastors in Washington state, with their cities and towns bolded as the most important aspect of their writing:
Introduction by Rev. Rich Lang, former district superintendent of Seattle-Tacoma missional district of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference // Pastor of Lake Washington UMC in Kirkland (as of July 1, 2019)
Rev. Lara Bolger, pastor of Redmond UMC
Rev. Kristin Joyner, Deacon at Bothell UMC
Rev. Dave Wright, Chaplain and Spiritual Life director at University of Puget Sound
Rev. Heather Sparkman, church planter in Olympia
Rev. Kelly Dahlman-Oeth, pastor of Ronald UMC in Shoreline, Washington
Rev. Meredith Dodd, pastor of Bryn Mawr UMC south of Seattle, Washington
Rev. Bradley Beeman, pastor of Aldersgate UMC in Bellevue, Washington
Rev. Jan Bolerjack, pastor of Riverton Park UMC in Tukwila, Washington
Rev. Emma Donohew, pastor living and working in Bellingham, Washington
Rev. Joseph D. Kim, pastor of Bothell UMC (sermons)
Rev. Jennifer Kay Smith, pastor of Marysville UMC (blog)
Rev. Jeremy Smith, pastor of First Church in DowntownSeattle (blog)
Rev. Karen Yokota Love, former Pastor of Mason UMC in Tacoma // Pastor of Blaine Memorial UMC in South Seattle (as of July 1, 2019)
Lynne Pearson, Editor, Filling The Void
And an introduction by Rev. Dr. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, President, Claremont School of Theology, which is moving up to Salem, Oregon, to be a closer repository and resource for the Pacific Northwest!
Get the Book
Here’s the most important thing to know: Profits from the sale of each book will benefit the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s US Disaster Fund. 100% of these donations go to places of need, not to administrative costs or staff salaries. So by buying the book to help with your ministry, you are helping with the mission to care for others. A win-win!
Thanks for supporting ministry in the Pacific Northwest, which I believe informs and empowers ministry across the United States and many areas across the world. If we can figure out what ministry will look like here, then when sweeping secularism washes across your shores, you will be better prepared than we were. May this book be a helpful offering to you in your context. Blessings!
Back in March, this blog ran a survey of non-Western United Methodists, asking them exactly how the West could lead. We had 328 responses, of which 279 were from outside the West (and weren’t jerks filling it out telling us we needed to “comply” with the UMC or “burn in hell” which I think is not in the Western Jurisdiction at all!).
The following are summary images of three of the survey questions:
As you can see, there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and support for the Western Jurisdiction to gather other churches in risky ministry areas in a new way. So many places need support, but also need to be rooted where they are, so just relocating pastors to the Western Jurisdiction isn’t viable for everyone.
How can the West clear this pathway to help inclusive churches beyond our borders? Can it be done inside United Methodism—or must it be done outside of it?
Roadblocks in the Discipline
Most ideas about helping these type of churches come in the form of changing their relationship to their own annual conference. There have been two very good ideas that—sadly—are not currently viable.
First, some have suggested that perhaps inclusive local churches in more traditionalist annual conferences could transfer to other, more progressive annual conferences. A process for such transfers is outlined in ¶41 of the Book of Discipline; however, this paragraph has specific limitations that reflect its original purpose when it was enacted around the time of the 1968 merger: namely, providing African American churches in the then-Central Jurisdiction a means to transfer to predominantly white annual conferences in the five geographically based jurisdictions. Local churches can only be transferred from one annual conference to “another in which it is geographically located,” and such a transfer requires two-thirds approval of the charge conference, church conference, and both annual conferences involved. Even if a church was able to get those levels of approval from each body, they could not transfer to another annual conference outside of their geographic area.
While there might be a possibility of side-stepping this through changes to the annual conference boundaries by the jurisdictional conference, such a move seems unlikely in predominantly traditionalist jurisdictions. However, since no one has tried this provision, it could be piloted by two annual conferences willing to let one church be free to seek self-determination and see about transferring a church from one annual conference to a neighboring one. Why not?
Second, some have suggested that entire annual conferences affiliate with the Western Jurisdiction (like a southern moderate conference could escape the Traditionalist majority in their region). Unfortunately, there is no provision for a move of an annual conference from one jurisdiction to another. The geographic boundaries of the jurisdictions are set by ¶37 of the Book of Discipline and clearly divide them along state borders, so states outside those borders would not be allowed.
So those two paths that seek a change in governance and relationship have serious roadblocks in their way. Any changes would require amending the Constitution, which is an incredibly high bar and would require agreement between progressive, traditionalist, American, and global voices. It’s a serious roadblock to a more inclusive church.
Roadblocks in the Finances
Given the lack of ability to determine a new relationship, the most viable option is that local churches can just plan to leave The United Methodist Church and then affiliate some other way after they have left.
However, leaving bears a significant financial roadblock that folks may not be aware of. There was a significant change in how churches can leave The United Methodist Church, and it wasn’t even part of the Traditional Plan or the Plan of Disaffiliation. It was in the Pensions edits made first thing at GC2019.
Here’s the math and narrative that a colleague did for me. Petition 90016 made a significant change to our procedures for church closures. Our conference boards of trustees must now assess—for any church moving toward closure, disaffiliation, or other change in relationship—a share of the conference’s unfunded pension obligations “using market factors similar to a commercial annuity provider” as calculated by Wespath. A casual reader might assume this is simply the conference’s unfunded pension liability and that, if a conference is fully funded, the amount will be $0 for a departing church.
This is not the case.
For instance, in one well-funded conference in the South Central Jurisdiction, the total cost for a church to leave (including both 12 months of future apportionments [from the disaffiliation legislation] and their unfunded pension liability as assessed by Wespath) roughly equates to $10.25 of exit price for every $1 of current year apportionments. A smaller church with an apportionment of $5,000 would need to pay $51,250 to leave; for some of that conference’s largest churches, the price would well exceed $10 or even $20 million. As every conference’s amount of apportionments and unfunded pension liability differs, and some conference pension funds are underfunded, the actual calculated liability in your conference may vary significantly, as will the exit price for your local church.
In this example, the exit price is likely still well-below the market value of the property; that is perhaps a fair price for the chance at self-determination. But there is a consequence to imposing this exit price: monies that could be used for mission and ministry (such as the sale of property that resides with the conference trustees and many conferences use for new church starts) are instead diverted to pension obligations, and a church must raise the equivalent of over 10 years of apportionments to fulfill its call to ministry. And the money is due up-front, not on a payment plan, per the disaffiliation legislation.
Money isn’t everything, but any church that leaves The United Methodist Church may have their property but they will most likely be lacking the financial resources to start anew on a sustainable path. As well, the clergy that they left behind presumedly hold negative beliefs regarding LGBTQ persons, and paying off anti-gay pastor’s pensions feels really icky.
Question from a Pacific Northwest discussion group
Clearer Pathways Needed
So there are incredible roadblocks to local churches in risky ministry areas beyond the West’s borders. These churches cannot wait for these roadblocks to be cleared: these inclusive churches and pastors are at the mercy of Traditionalist majorities in their annual conferences, and every week could bring the full weight of that authority to crush their dreams or remove their pastors or even take over their church buildings.
What can the West be for them?
First, if you are a church in the Western Jurisdiction, form a partnership with a Reconciling or affirming church in the South or Bible Belt. Share resources. Send books to them, receive things from them, share legal advice. Make the offer even if you don’t know them. Don’t be passive, be an active promoter of peace and justice! If you are a ministry outside the Western Jurisdiction, talk to your Regional Organizer in Reconciling Ministries or your annual conference progressives to see who can be of the best help at this time. These partnerships can form the backbone of connection and resistance and support against traditionalist overreach in the coming year.
Second and more practically, in this annual conference season, the West has the unique opportunity to figure out one aspect of church polity that could have incredible consequences for the rest of the denomination: what does disaffiliation as an annual conference look like?
In the Alaska annual conference, a request for a declaratory decision was approved to be sent to the Judicial Council for its Fall docket. I don’t see the full-text online yet to link to it, but essentially it asked for the Disciplinary restrictions and clarifications on if an annual conference withdraws from the denomination, would it still have to pay the pension liability and other aspects of “disaffiliation.” It will be a very expensive decision no matter how it is rendered, so that will be a court case to watch this coming October 2019.
Various annual conferences in the West (such as Cal-Pac, page 69) will be voting on whether to commission Study Committees or draw up Plans of Withdrawal. It’s important to be clear that these study teams or proposals do not mean the West is seceding from The United Methodist Church—it means they are finding out the actual cost of that action for the rest of United Methodism. If it turns out to be incredibly restrictive, then other annual conferences can know it is not a viable option. If it turns out it is fiscally viable, then you might see some annual conferences begin to leave (progressive or traditionalist ones!). We’ll see more in the coming weeks whether these annual conferences vote to commission such studies.
By figuring out this question, the West will either provide a pipeline for annual conferences to exit and then be able to retain the finances to help local churches in the South to exit their annual conferences with solid footing…or eliminate withdrawal as an option going forward due to its incredible cost and we realize we are stuck together to figure it out together. Either answer will be helpful for everyone!
The Focused Path
Any of these above actions must prioritize the need for a fully inclusive church for LGBTQ persons and other marginalized groups. Only when all feel safe around the table can we grow into God’s dream for all of us. Making these decisions requires bold action on our part, clear knowledge of the paths ahead…and bold voices at the table.
As the West elects delegates to General Conference, my hope is that delegations prioritize:
POC+Q+T voices (persons of color, queer, and trans persons – read more) who have been left out of these conversations since the beginning.
Younger voices with a lot to lose in a split.
Experienced voices with the global connections we need to turn possibility into polity.
(Full disclosure: I’m an under-40 candidate for the delegation in a Western conference. However, I do not wish to serve on the General Conference delegation and am running solely for the Jurisdictional delegation [GC reserves], seeking instead to prioritize the above voices at General Conference 2020.)
Work continues in the Western Jurisdiction to dream of what a fully inclusive future form of Wesleyanism could look like. From jurisdictional work groups to annual conference meetings to local pub theologies late into the night, the West continues to dream, put ideas into paper and processes, and prioritize the safety and experience of marginalized groups.
The naming of these roadblocks and clearing potential pathways around them is a small service we can do to the greater denomination to help all of us move forward.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.
05-19-2002, Jesus Wept Statue outside of OKC Memorial. Photo by Jeremy Smith
Memorials in History
Each year, Americans celebrate Memorial Day, remembering those who died in times of war and peacekeeping. We remember those who served in the front lines are often the most vulnerable to opponents and to human errors. It doesn’t matter what the top-down goal or purpose was, who the commander in chief is: they died in service, and we honor them. We look to their stories and lives when the narratives and agendas from the top let us down.
But every Memorial for every soldier who died in the service and after began in Madness. Madness of people who would go to war with one another to get what they wanted. Madness of those who thought might made right. Historians often trace the beginnings of the major conflicts often to a single moment. World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Winter war of 1939 began when Finland refused to allow Stalin to mine within their borders. The War on Terror began after 9/11. It’s not limited to wars. The civil rights legislation finally became a reality after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Madness all around.
Sometimes the beginnings are less a moment than a movement. The end of WWI’s sanctions against Germany and failure to enforce them properly created a whole generation of Germans who felt shamed, disrespected, and all it took was a torch named Hitler to that powder to engulf the whole world in fire and warfare again. The madness was already there, churning, and it took a madman to give it its horrific form that killed millions of soldiers and millions of Jews in the Holocaust, and thousands of mental health patients, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, and other people groups in their camps. And madmen who give form and voice to churning racism, white supremacy, and violence against journalists will always exist and should always be opposed, no matter their form or office.
All that is to say that what starts in madness we often remember in Memorials. With graveyards, tombs, memorial structures, stonework. Memorials commit a madness and its harm and the meritorious response to memory, lest history repeat itself.
Memorials are important in the life of faith as they help us transcend from madness to imagination.
Memorials in Scripture
In Jeremiah’s time, the madness was unbelievable. The people just lost their nation to the Babylonian horde that ransacked the countryside. Their farmlands, their homes, they lost to another. They became refugees or slaves or just dead from the violence. The people had lost their homeland, their place of countless memories, of the only identity they knew, lost to warring madness and their leader’s own failings.
So Jeremiah, a prophet in the king’s court or in jail, depending on the day, writes a letter to the first group of deportees, whose king has been killed, his son and many people sent into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah advises the exiles to settle down in their adopted home and just wait out the time. He says in Chapter 29:
Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Multiply there, do not decrease…And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you…”
In other words, you’re in for the long haul. There are plans for welfare, not for evil, and they will give you a future and a hope. But what will sustain them in that interim time?
In that call to endure, Jeremiah prophecies that they would not go quietly into the night, they would not vanish without a fight. No, Babylon would fall. The people would return. The land would be fruitful again. But did you hear the time frame? How many years would it take? 70 years. That’s a long time.
Psalm 137, which is written at this time, says:
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs
our tormentors, for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.
That psalm is a Memorial. Hymns and music are memorials, lamenting, celebrating, uplifting that which should be. You are getting a vision of who God is from the hymns we sing and the anthems the choirs sing. They are not chosen because they are easy to sing, but because they are hard and heartfelt.
This Psalm is a spoken and sung memorial, carried by the wayward people who didn’t always have a permanent place inscribe a stone or a carving to make to mark the madness. They turned to music and ways of being to be memorials. They turned to God and God’s covenant of always being faithful, providing the exiles with the ideas that would transform the nation of Israel into the religion of Judaism, which birthed the way of Jesus Christ to which I subscribe.
Today, we rejoice. Madness may lead to memorials, lost lives and souls for senseless reasons fighting unnecessary wars or conflicts. But the movement of humanity does not stop at memorials. The best Memorials and the best people are those who let their imagination become resilient to the madness that created the memorials in the first place, never letting it repeat itself again.
Memorials are problematic when they keep us from having an imagination beyond them. A previous church I served had a long-time conversation about whether to have a Columbarium at the church, a place where the deceased can have their ashes interred. The pastor explained it in this way: if there is a columbarium on the property, it will be harder to move when the mission demands it. If the need of the congregation changes, and many longtime churches have moved in their past, then the mission demands that we move, and a memorial would be a complication of that, holding tight to the past and to family members long gone would keep a church from living into its mission.
Most of the time, memorials should endure when their story stands the test of time, but other memorials like confederate monuments and flags have been irrevocably broken and do not need to endure. Memorials only matter when they confront the madness and leave us invulnerable to its hooks into our hearts, not celebrate those hooks themselves.
Memorials must lead to imagination. When we visit the African American Heritage museum, the tombs, the national graveyards, we are inspired to never commit some atrocities again. It is unfortunate that it is so hard to invoke imagination without tragedy, without showing humans the awful effects of their current worldviews. We do not need their deaths, but we can find inspiration from them. We do not honor people’s lives and legacies if we do not allow ourselves to be shaped by their whole lives and witnesses, and even their deaths.
It’s often been said that prophets and activists who want to change the world into a better place are mad, crazy people who could not possibly change an entire culture into something better. But the Scriptures show us that they are responding to the world’s madness with memorials and testaments to God and to the human spirit that is better than this, and better than that. As the United Methodist hymn says
“Cure our children’s warring madness, let it from the earth be banned.”
Go to the Memorial
It’s often said that people should “go to the funeral” of a loved one or friend because it is important. Likewise, we ought to “go to the memorials” of tragedy, war, violence, hatred, racism, sexism, not because they are easy to see, but because they are hard and they jar us out of complacency. Go to those thin places of human horror and human achievement so that we might become better as a people.
Memorials stand against madness by creating an imagination that resists that madness from taking root. May we celebrate the memorials that matter today so that the madness becomes a memory, and imagining a beloved community becomes our only song.