Below are the thoughts and opinions of a committed United Methodist pastor. I will do my best to fairly address the questions and talking points of others, but what follows are only my opinions and suggestions. Links are provided throughout where helpful and necessary – a pdf version to print is at bit.ly/3kZTaxI. Unless otherwise noted, the Global Methodist Church (GMC) is the primary alternative to remaining in the UMC because they are the most vocal and organized in their opposition to and criticisms of the UMC. Rev. Rob Renfroe is referenced and quoted because he is a key leader of the GMC and he came and presented the pro disaffiliation position to my church. Independence or any number of other denominations are options if a church disaffiliates, but it’s far too difficult to explore the implications of all possible options in more than the handful of examples below. An outline is provided so that you can quickly find and focus on whatever information is relevant, interesting, or helpful for you.
Key questions and considerations:
- What are we voting on and why?
- How do I decide what to do?
- How do I vote if I want the church to become fully inclusive of LGBTQ people? How do I vote if I don’t want the church’s stance to ever change?
- Should I vote if I don’t have a strong opinion?
- How many churches have disaffiliated? From where? Where did they go?
- Differences between the UMC and GMC
- Two of my reasons to stay UMC
Talking Points Addressed:
- Africa will leave and the remaining General Conference delegates will become drastically more progressive.
- If we stay UMC, our church/pastors will be forced to change our wedding policies.
- Liberals will never let us leave if we don’t go now.
- The Trust Clause is a weapon holding us prisoner or forcing us to act.
- We should go to the GMC because it will “fully and unanimously affirm what Methodists have always believed.”
- We can’t possibly accept open disobedience to the BOD.
- It is absurd and offensive for someone to claim that the GMC “hates gay people.”
- Rev. Adam Hamilton’s ‘three buckets’ of scripture clearly show that many leaders in the UMC do not believe in scriptural authority.
- An ordination candidate dressing and preaching as Ms Penny Cost is all the proof you need to see that the UMC has gone off the rails.
- Progressives view traditionalists and their convictions as a “virus in the church.”
- The UMC has so much baggage and so many problems that the obvious choice is to leave.
Links to Resources I’ve Found Especially Helpful and/or Relevant
1) What are we voting on and why?
The following is the exact resolution our church voted on:
2/21/23 Rosenberg FUMC Church Conference Ballot
Motion: For FUMC Rosenberg to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church “for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the actions or inactions of [our] annual conference related to these issues…” (Par. 2553 of the 2019 Book of Discipline).
*If this motion is approved, the Leadership Board will develop a process to educate the congregation about alternative denominations and the implications of remaining independent. A congregation wide vote to determine our future affiliation would be taken prior to the effective date of disaffiliation (tentatively set for July 1st).
I provided a Study Guide for discussion and resources to learn more – almost all of the resources I shared can be found at fumcrosenberg.net/dd.
2) How do I decide what to do?
As you might notice in the resolution above, the only officially valid reason to vote for disaffiliation at this time is related to human sexuality; Paragraph 2553 specifies that reason (see quote in the resolution or the full Paragraph here). The most straightforward reading of 2553 is that people who cannot support the portions of the Traditional Plan passed by General Conference in 2019 have a window in which to disaffiliate without having to pay for the value of the church property. The Traditional Plan, in far oversimplified terms, reaffirmed the denomination’s position regarding human sexuality and attempted to make it enforceable in ways that it never has been. Par 2553 was meant to give a way out if your conscience won’t allow you to be part of a church that is changing to more consistently enforce the rules and penalize those who break the rules. The only other clear reason from Par 2553 for a church to leave, again under the most straightforward reading of the text, is if that church’s Annual Conference acts or fails to act in accordance with the rules as amended.
One of the most confusing aspects of this entire process is that the vast majority of churches leaving right now are more Traditionalist churches. The legislation passed by Traditionalists created the pathway to leave for those who conscientiously objected to the Traditional Plan or to a church’s annual conference enforcement of that legislation (or lack thereof) – yet it is mostly traditionalists who are leaving, and most of them from the most heavily Traditionalist Annual Conferences. That pattern began because most of the meaningful enforcement mechanisms passed in 2019 were ruled unconstitutional, which led many Traditionalists to believe that there is no attainable way to fully enforce the status quo. They began developing plans to leave the denomination instead. Something would have likely happened at the 2020 General Conference to make a more clear and universal process for those who felt compelled to leave, but when Conference was officially canceled till 2024 due to covid and its aftermath, Traditionalist leaders began encouraging churches to leave under Par 2553, which expires at the end of 2023.
How the text and history factor into your vote is up to you. I share it because how we got here is one of the main reasons that plenty of what you’ve heard and what you’ll read below has little, if anything, to do with human sexuality, much less a straightforward reading of 2553. Instead of a potentially straightforward question of whether a church conscientiously objects to the Traditional Plan legislation or its Annual Conference’s enforcement (or lack thereof), this has become an opportunity to air pretty much every grievance or concern of the last several decades. Some Bishops and conferences have required a process that sticks close to the text and intent of Par 2553. Our Annual Conference required only that there is a 40 day discernment process, church conference vote, and the bare minimum financial obligation paid – nothing specific has been required for what a church discusses or includes in their resolution to disaffiliate.
3) How do I vote if I want the church to become fully inclusive of LGBTQ people? How do I vote if I don’t want the church’s stance to ever change?
The most certain thing I can say is that if you desire to be part of a church that is fully inclusive (ordain gay clergy, host same gender weddings, etc), the worst option is likely to disaffiliate and then join the GMC. Beyond that, it gets complicated.
Some traditionalist/conservative leaders who desire to maintain and enforce our current stance (the practical prohibitions derived from the conviction that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”) realized after 2019 that there is no way to enforce certain rules across Jurisdictional or Annual Conference lines within the constitutional structure of the UMC. Majority vote legislation can be passed to change some things, but the 2/3rds majority constitutional changes necessary for the kinds of enforcement they have been seeking is highly unlikely. They therefore decided forming the GMC was the only way to ensure a) the rules don’t change and b) the rules become more fully enforceable. It is therefore hardest to believe the GMC will become more officially open and inclusive than the status quo, which is exactly the same right now for the UMC and GMC.
You may have heard it said that there will be no more room for traditionalists in the UMC – at least two traditionalist bishops strongly disagree. Voting to stay in the UMC almost certainly means being part of a denomination that has official space for the existence of openly gay pastors and churches that host same gender weddings. In truth, those already exist (part of the reason leaders formed the GMC, again, is because they realized there are no enforcement mechanisms that would allow the UMC to enforce its rules against those churches/clergy or force them out altogether). There are a million open questions about exactly how things will change to create that space. The Christmas Covenant (FAQ pdf – website here) is the most likely high level framework for how space will be created – it will enable regional and contextual differences to flourish in a much more intentional and structured way. Whether or not a denomination wide change filters down to affect a specific local church in the next decade or century (if ever) is anyone’s guess.
To consider independence or a denomination other than the GMC offers way too many variables to make addressing everything possible. The most consistent thing I can say is that, in most scenarios, a majority vote by the church’s leadership would dictate the church’s policy and expectations at any given time (whether a direct change to our policies or by a vote to join a denomination with a particular set of rules).
4) Should I vote if I don’t have a strong opinion?
There is no single answer for everyone, but I personally hope that as many church members as possible will vote whether or not they have a very strong preference. On some level, the vote won’t directly change anything, but it will likely change a lot over time and I don’t know of a church in which no one left as a result of the vote. It is not helpful or healthy for anyone to threaten leaving as a way to sway the final vote, but it is important to recognize that there will be meaningful consequences for how this process turns out. Have whatever conversations you feel comfortable having, do as much research as you can to get a sense of what you think is best, and, again, I hope you’ll take part in this significant step in our church’s future.
5) How many churches have disaffiliated? From where? Where did they go?
I’m not sure there is a truly official list given that many of the final decisions happen at the Annual Conference level and each Conference sets its own process and keeps its own records. The following two charts are likely as accurate as you’ll find in early 2023 and will at least give a good ballpark of what’s happened so far. The pie chart (left) represents all disaffiliating US churches and breaks that number down by Annual Conference. The bar graph (right) ranks Annual Conferences by highest percentage of churches disaffiliating. These are taken from a UM Insight article (link).
As you can see, the majority of churches leaving have come from only 5 of the 54 Annual Conferences in the US. Our Conference (the Texas Conference) represents the largest number of churches and the second highest percentage from a given region. About 50% of our conference has left and around 6% of US congregations. At least a handful of churches are still in the process in most Conferences, but I’m not aware of any list or way to get a sense of how many or where.
It appears the Global Methodist Church has received around 1100 of the disaffiliating churches, or 58% of the total. I doubt anyone has a definitive list of where all the churches have gone or how many are still in a process of discernment about where to go. The former Woodlands UMC is certainly the most notable church continuing to discern whether it will join a new denomination but churches of all sizes have made a multitude of different choices.
6) Differences between the UMC and GMC
Trying to summarize anything this complex is fraught on a number of levels, but if I might be so bold as to try and summarize the most likely future priorities in a few sentences:
The UMC will seek renewal by clarifying the broad mission and purpose of the Methodist movement within Christianity and restructuring the global denomination as a reflection of that mission and purpose. It will be a big tent connection with a number of regional or local differences in practice. The Christmas Covenant is likely the best overview of what that reality will look like 20-30 years from now, but denominational change is complicated and slow.
The GMC will seek renewal by reemphasizing specific doctrinal and ethical convictions at the heart of the Christian faith and building a new expression of the Methodist movement on a foundation of simplicity and accountability. It will be a global denomination, but with far less bureaucracy (which will both reduce standing administrative costs but also reduce the ability to pool resources for globally impactful agencies like UMCOR) and far more emphasis on networking local congregations rather than creating denominational ministries, boards, or agencies. Only time will tell how much bureaucracy, connection, and autonomy come to be.
7) Two of my reasons to stay UMC:
Reason 1 – Christian community is necessarily formed by diverse people united in Christ. Paul speaks of this reality in terms of Spiritual Gifts in 1st Corinthians 12. In Acts 10, Peter and Cornelius reveal that our diverse unity challenges and changes insider and outsider alike. The covenant of Christian marriage is significant not because compatible soulmates find each other, but because diverse persons are united in a covenant meant to overcome the forces that threaten to divide. Almost every large scale atrocity committed in the name of Jesus has involved an attempt at making “them” become like “us” rather than creating enough room for every child of God to find their unique place in the one body of Christ.
The idea of a “big tent” denomination or “a place for liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between” is undoubtedly a messy and at times chaotic proposition. It is also true that there have to be boundaries and expectations of some kind for any community to exist in the first place. However, I am proud to take part in a denomination that is increasingly committed to finding a pathway toward diverse unity in the midst of a culture that increasingly pushes us toward ideological purity and tribal conformity.
Bishop Mande Muyombo from the North Katanga Area of Africa was recently interviewed on “Pod Have Mercy” (found at youtu.be/drLl4j9FIxs). His comments on whether or not we can disagree on human sexuality and still be one church resonate deeply with me. In part, he shared the following:
“I’m an African. As an African, I will tell you, culturally same sex marriage is not accepted, because of my ethos. But do I have the right to impose that on other people? I don’t think so. I think our theology should be informed by who we are, culturally, the way we’ve been brought up in our ethos. I’ll just make you laugh, I’ll tell you this… my mom told me when I was young, a boy cannot spend time in the kitchen. Each time I would go to the kitchen, try to touch the plates, she would come and pull me out. As a result, I can’t cook. But in [the US] if you don’t cook for the one you love, that’s trouble.”
His example is intentionally a bit silly, but serves to remind me of how many of the things we do and take for granted are not foundational truths about human nature – they are contextual and cultural assumptions that may or may not make sense across time and space. Bishop Muyombo described the need to not only be right but to require that everyone else agree as a very US centric approach. In contrast, he highlighted the Christmas Covenant legislation and other such efforts led by Central Conference members. These approaches embrace regionalization and expect contextual differences as a necessary part of becoming a truly global church.
In Bishop Muyombo’s own words, “Contextual theology creates a prophetic church.” Prophecy is not future prediction, it is a word of God’s truth that reshapes the world. Our denomination needs to be reshaped – we need revival, but not a return to ‘the glory days.’ We need to finally grapple with what it would mean to be a truly global church – not just a US denomination that exported its version of the gospel, but a united church that reflects the diversity of all God’s children.
I don’t expect that the UMC will get it right any time soon or that there is a simple or short term way to fix all the problems we’ve created. But I do believe the majority of leaders committed to the future of the UMC are beginning to take seriously the calling to be a church that is diverse in expression and context, while remaining united in purpose and mission around one simple conviction – the good news of Jesus Christ. That is the kind of church I am happy to serve and honored to help build.
Reason 2 – Part 3 of the Book of Discipline – Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task
Two especially relevant quotes from paragraph 105:
“While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum.”
And: “In the name of Jesus Christ we are called to work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God.”
I don’t believe our doctrines are meant to end conversations; they are meant to be the foundation of faith that make it possible to explore the mysteries of a God whose mercies are new every morning. I find hope in an approach that seeks truth with humility, through diversity, and in reliance on the Spirit along the entire journey.
Addressing Talking Points in Favor of Disaffiliation
Talking Point 1: Africa will leave and the remaining General Conference delegates will become drastically more progressive.
In far oversimplified terms, African delegates have provided reliable conservative votes that have helped ensure no change to the BOD regarding human sexuality. A common talking point from those intending to leave is that Africa will obviously take the path of disaffiliation and likely join with a more conservative strand of Methodism than the UMC. That hasn’t happened yet and there are good reasons to believe it may not happen. No one can tell you exactly what will happen, but there are three data points that are worth considering:
- In an interview, Bishop Mande Muyombo very clearly rejects the notion that Africa is simply a conservative vote. In part, he reminds us that Africa is a continent, not a country, with vast forms of diversity and tribalism that shape their churches and delegates. More to the point, he emphasizes the need for contextual considerations in how we do things – just because same gender marriage is unacceptable in Africa doesn’t mean he believes he has the right to force all others to view it the same way.
- The Africa colleges of bishops issued a statement last September – you can find it here. The statement very forcefully calls out groups that are working to “destroy our United Methodist Church.” One specific group called out is the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which is, more than any other organization, responsible for creating the GMC.
- A broad consensus seems to be developing around the Christmas Covenant (pdf – website here), which would seek to restructure and regionalize the UMC as a way to remain globally connected, but with more regional diversity.
Again, I don’t know what we’ll see take place over the next 10 years or more. But what is happening is far more nuanced and complex than a simple split between ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ in the UMC.
TP 2: If we stay UMC, our church/pastors will be forced to change our wedding policies.
If there is an official pathway that allows UMC churches to host same gender weddings and/or their pastors to perform them (which hasn’t been created and can’t until at least 2024), I would offer three data points to consider regarding the likely impact on clergy and churches:
- Each United Methodist pastor has always had the authority to turn down any wedding they don’t feel comfortable with, there is no mechanism or rule in place to suggest a pastor could be forced to perform such a wedding, and I’ve never heard of any legislation or push toward changing that status quo (even in the most progressive proposals seeking to allow a pastor to perform a same gender wedding if they so desire). Personally, other than a handful of scheduling issues, I have done every wedding that I was asked to perform except one – in that case I did not feel comfortable with what I knew of the couple or the dynamics involved in the wedding. So I refused to do the service and feel confident and completely supported in that decision.
- When Sallie and I got married, we didn’t have a problem finding a clergy person who could marry us – we had a problem narrowing down the list of clergy because we have so many that we know and love to choose from. Nowhere on our priority list of finding someone to bless and celebrate this vital milestone was any thought about making an example out of someone or forcing ourselves upon a pastor who didn’t like us or desire to affirm our relationship. Granted, there are over 300 million Americans and over 7 billion people in the world – I’m sure there are a handful who would love to use their own wedding as a spectacle to make some kind of statement. But I’ve never met the person who thinks about choosing a pastor who wants to not do the ceremony. And I don’t think the possibility that someone would try to make a statement with their wedding is a sound basis on which to decide whether any pastor anywhere has the option to do anything. Plus, I doubt the controversy that would arise if someone did try to make a statement through their choice of pastor would be much, if any, different no matter what the denominational policy was at the time.
- There is no movement or proposed legislation to force churches to host weddings they don’t want to host. With the same rationale and caveat as with choosing a pastor, I don’t see that changing and I don’t see a desire from people looking to make a statement with their venue choice. I do see people wanting to get married in places they want to remember and that are special and meaningful to them.
TP 3: Liberals will never let us leave if we don’t go now.
I can’t speak to everything that has happened throughout the connection, but I know that in our Annual Conference, every vote to ease the burden of leaving has passed overwhelmingly with no caucus or group mounting any opposition. Our formal approval of churches wishing to disaffiliate resulted in well over 90% approval. I don’t have exact numbers, but it was 900+ votes to approve, about 30 against, and 40 or so abstentions. I can’t tell you what the future holds, but I see absolutely no coalition or movement or plan to keep churches locked in place if they can no longer support the denomination. Take it with a grain of salt because I’m not plugged in with those likely to make all the decisions at General Conference, but I’d be surprised if there is not some provision in 2024 or beyond where churches could again choose to leave with minimal friction when the status quo is finally altered in some real way.
Rev. Renfroe also shared with us that 3 churches in Arkansas were not approved by their Annual Conference despite completing the necessary process. The clear implication was that the Conference arbitrarily decided not to allow such valuable properties to be taken from them, and that it could happen to anyone.
I was able to speak with one of the pastors who voted in that Arkansas Conference. Neither he nor I can possibly know everything that led to the final vote but there is no reason to think what happened was anything like what was implied to us. You can find more details and documents created by laity of each church who wished to remain in the UMC – see links here, here, and here. Below, I’ll offer a few consistent themes and specific allegations from those resources.
- The laity of these churches organized swiftly and effectively when they began to feel their church’s process was being handled in a deeply unfair way. What happened was initiated, organized, and led by members of the respective churches and not a conference plot.
- Arkansas went into the Conference session planning to vote on each individual church rather than a single vote for all churches (as was done in our Annual Conference). The process was set up to encourage Conference delegates to seriously consider their role in the democratic process and not simply rubber stamp the church names they were given.
- Multiple churches with high property values left. The difference was that no serious complaints were lodged about the process and the final vote differentials were far more clear.
- There was no other recourse for church members who expressed concerns other than advocating for the Annual Conference to vote against ratification. Repeated requests for intervention from the Bishop and DS went nowhere and members felt their church leadership was entirely one sided.
- One congregation alleged that the pastor and leadership not only didn’t plan a pro UMC program, but would not allow the stay UMC group to plan a single forum or bring in a speaker to come to the church and advocate for the case to stay in the UMC.
- One church did not have enough printed ballots at their church conference, which led some members to leave in frustration.
- One church received 132 new members in the few months leading up to the vote. If all voted, that would represent about 10% of the total votes (I’m not aware of whether there’s a clear record of how many voted). At that church, 41 votes would have swung the result.
Whatever other dynamics were involved in the debate or behind the scenes and whether or not the final outcome was ultimately correct, I empathize a great deal with the laity of those churches. I know of one member at another church who overheard a pro disaffiliation voter explain that if they hadn’t voted to leave, their kids program was going to have to attend mandatory drag shows in the future. I spoke with another church member who had been told that the discernment process was mandatory for every UMC church no matter what. Another had a pastor who told conservatives they had to leave to avoid becoming a progressive church, while also telling progressives that the only possible way to become fully inclusive was to leave the UMC. I had one of our own church members express to me 4 months after I started sharing resources and discussing what’s going on that they would support allowing openly gay clergy and therefore should vote to go GMC (which, as explained above, is likely the worst fit).
I don’t doubt that some if not most of those churches would have left no matter what. But there are so many misunderstandings and so many ways a pastor or leaders can skew this process. Someone asked at our special Annual Conference session what they could do if they had concerns or complaints about their church’s discernment process. They were simply told they should have raised them at the church while it was happening. The more I learn about what has happened at various churches and how little say or understanding most members have had in their church’s process, the more I can empathize with church members like those in Arkansas. I do believe they felt their church was being taken from them unfairly and that the Annual Conference vote was the only pathway available to try and challenge what they saw as a deeply flawed process.
TP 4: The Trust Clause is a weapon holding us prisoner or forcing us to act.
The following is copied almost verbatim from an email I shared with church leaders:
The trust clause has come up a few times in our discernment process. Our feelings about it are not officially valid reasons to consider disaffiliation, but I know any and everything will factor into our decision making process whether it’s the focal point or not. With that in mind, I want to challenge something that I’ve heard here a few times and that I’ve heard iterations of in prior churches. The exact wording/scope changes, but the argument is roughly as follows:
“Because the conference owns our property, the conference at any moment can come and close our church and/or force us to sell part of our property and/or steal the proceeds to pay for apportionments or whatever else they desire.”
Here is my understanding and experience – my last three appointments have been unable to pay all (and for several years any) apportionments. And:
- never once have I received a call from a DS or Bishop mentioning our property, much less threatening or even asking me to do anything about it.
- one of those churches, for 30 years, had said in almost every annual charge conference (I went back and read the minutes) that the conference was trying to shut them down so they could sell their property. Never once was anything take from them, but I did witness them completely shut down (without any repercussion) something the district very much wanted them to do and I know they received tens of thousands of dollars in equitable compensation because they needed a pastor but couldn’t afford one.
- never once have I heard of (or voted on in my 12 years in the annual conference) an action by the Annual Conference or its trustees that in any way forced a church to do anything with the proceeds of a sale (the only limitations in the BOD are related to using the capital from a sale for capital rather than budget expenses, which I’m pretty sure would forbid apportionment spending anyway).
- never once have I heard of a church forced to close against the votes of its members, although I know of at least one that survived for years with part time local pastors and lay speakers because it was down to about 5 people in worship and couldn’t afford anything more – it only ‘closed’ when those members voted to be adopted by another church.
- never once have I seen or heard about a process or rule in our Conference that would allow the Conference to directly force a church to do anything the church and its pastor were united against (including baptizing infants or accepting a female clergy person – which are absolute requirements as much as anything else is in the UMC).
- What I have seen is the power of pastoral appointments used to indirectly enforce the trust clause – if a church can’t pay its bills or refuses to pay apportionments on purpose, the pastor may be reappointed and a new leader sent. The Bishop’s power to appoint pastors is by far the most authoritative and clear enforcement mechanism possible in the UMC (regarding the trust clause and otherwise) – though I know of a lot more times when a bishop was told “no” by pastors or churches than I do of times where a church and pastor were forced into a situation neither wanted.
I am not arguing that the trust clause has no teeth or doesn’t mean anything. It is also true that I haven’t had a true church home since I graduated high school in 2003, which means I have basically always been nomadic and don’t know how this clause or other local church realities have played out when you’re part of the same church for generations. But I say all of this because if you do factor the trust clause into your decision, I want you to have a realistic portrait of what the trust clause actually is and how it functions. One of my greatest confusions/frustrations in arguments I’ve heard in favor of leaving is that somehow the UMC is “so ineffective and unable to enforce its own rules that we need to rebuild a denomination from ground zero for accountability” and at the same time the UMC is “ready and willing to shut us down or take our money or property if we don’t comply 100% with every dictate from on high going forward.” Whatever truth there is in either possibility, I don’t see any possible way these can both be true at the same time. Y’all are welcome to do or not do anything you wish with these thoughts – I’ve just heard an extreme narrative about the trust clause (that in no way matches my experience) too many times not to say something.
TP 5: We should go to the GMC because it will “fully and unanimously affirm what Methodists have always believed.”
There is at least one pretty big challenge for anyone seeking to create such an alternative denomination – there has never been a clear and final list of exactly what Methodists believe.
John Wesley established the first “Methodist” societies as a small group revival ministry within the Anglican Church in the 1700s. Only after Wesley died did the movement he started break away from that church and have to start defining what they uniquely believed. There are certainly consistent themes that have defined Methodists – reliance on the historical creeds, an emphasis on the work of God’s grace, a push for both personal piety (bible reading, study, prayer, etc) and social holiness (soup kitchens, mission trips, etc), and a rejection of predestination for a few examples. But Wesley wasn’t one to systematically write out and define everything first – he saw where he believed the Spirit of God was moving and started moving, whether or not the next step was an obvious or perfect fit with everything else that had been done before. That Spirit of adventure and ‘follow first’ is a big part of why the UMC was the only denomination with at least one church in every county in the US. It is also part of why it is so hard to perfectly pin us down on what we must believe.
There is no more straightforward or simple example of that mentality in my mind than in the preservation of two sets of articles of faith in our Book of Discipline. When the Methodist Episcopal Church joined the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968 to form what is now the United Methodist Church, each group brought with them a list of articles of faith – spelling out their shared beliefs about scripture, justification, the Holy Spirit, etc. Rather than pick between the lists or develop a new list around which to unify the new denomination, they simply added both (currently listed in Paragraph 104 of the Book of Discipline).
It’s not as though there are major or substantive contradictions between the two sets of articles – both will sound very familiar to anyone versed in traditional or historic Christian affirmations. But they are different and they are both preserved as equally binding and foundational statements of our United Methodist Faith (the transitional Discipline of the GMC preserves the exact same set of statements). We can easily argue that they’re similar enough that it doesn’t truly matter (I’m happy to make that argument!), but it raises two vital questions – what is “similar enough?” and “who decides?”
These are exactly the complicated questions the UMC has been struggling to answer for over 50 years with regards to human sexuality. It is perfectly viable and consistent to pick a tradition and declare that our beliefs are in line with that tradition. What is not possible is to put on paper what exactly the “one, clear, obvious, everlasting traditional Christianity” is, much less“the one” Methodism. Traditions are sustained arguments over time – most of the clearest things we do believe were put on paper precisely because there were lots of people who disagreed.
In Acts 15, the council at Jerusalem came together to settle a vital question about what was required of gentiles in order to join the church. The majority of Paul’s letters are arguments about how the church had misunderstood or failed to practice the Christian faith appropriately – usually because a different leader was taking them astray. We have 4 separate gospels that all tell the same story of Jesus from different angles for different audiences with different themes to reveal different things about Jesus. The historic creeds (the Nicene Creed, Chalcedon, etc) were necessary precisely because there was so much disagreement and/or confusion about orthodox beliefs.
And one more example to bring us closer to home – infant baptism. You cannot believe what United Methodists believe about the grace of God and also believe that infant baptism is unacceptable. Our first and most important conviction about the grace of God in baptism is that God’s grace is effective and assured. That means whether we know what we are doing or not, God’s grace is what does the work of cleansing us in baptism and God’s work cannot fail. We don’t have to baptize someone as an infant and there is certainly nothing wrong or “less than” about adult baptism. But to deny that baptizing an infant is an acceptable and equal cleansing of sin and entry into the universal church is to deny that God’s grace is sufficient. And if there is anything that defines what Methodists have always believed it is in the sufficiency of the grace of God. Yet there are UMC churches that refuse to baptize infants. Do they believe “what Methodists have always believed?”
To get to the real point of all this – I’m not suggesting we should give up beliefs just because there has never been a formal and final list for all Methodists (or even Christians) – quite the opposite. I’m arguing that large groups always have to negotiate which beliefs are truly non-negotiable and what to do about it when people stray from them. Sometimes, the right response is to create the room for disagreement and diversity to exist. At other times, the divide is so great there may be a need for separation. But there never has been and never will be full and unanimous agreement about anything at any time, much less over the course of thousands of years. The Christian Church and the UMC and the GMC and every other iteration of church will always have to keep asking what is “similar enough?” and “who decides?” It is a fiction to imagine that any option we choose now will settle all the important questions forever and always.
TP 6: We can’t possibly accept open disobedience to the BOD.
Even accepting, as argued just above, that there is no ‘perfect Methodism’ and that change will come at some point in some form, open disobedience is undoubtedly still a problem – it brings to light a clear and unmistakable brokenness in the denomination that undeniably says we do not agree about what rules and expectations are necessary for our life together. I’m not going to try to convince you about whether the present acts of disobedience are ‘absolutely justified and laudable’ or ‘terrible offenses that are tearing the UMC apart.’ I will challenge you to remember instead, as above, that the question is never actually whether we will be a pure and fully obedient church – the question is always about what counts as “obedient enough?” and “who decides?”
For example, in the Roman Catholic tradition, the church is very clear that contraception is contrary to God’s providence and any use of contraception is an open act of defiance against clear church doctrine. Yet there are vast numbers of Roman Catholics, especially in the US, who use contraception all the time and there are virtually no attempts to bring them back into line.
In the Southern Baptist Church, women are not permitted to teach men (per 1st Timothy 2:12 and as outlined in the Baptist Faith and Message). Yet one of the largest Southern Baptist churches (see link here) has female teaching pastors. The convention failed to decide whether this was acceptable, in part, because there is a lack of clarity about whether the restriction applies only to senior pastors or to everyone in a pastoral role, a distinction some see as absurd.
Roman Catholics have a reputation as one of the most top down, authoritative religious institutions in the world. Southern Baptists have a reputation for being a very hard line, conservative, congregational, and strict denomination. And yet these are examples of rules that are still violated in ways that have no quick or universal solutions.
The point, once again, of both examples is that there will always be violations, even of a community’s clearest rules. Some ways of responding are more (and some less) edifying and healthy than others. You might believe swift and clear removal of violating churches or pastors is the right way to go. You can certainly argue that the status quo in the UMC is untenable (few would disagree). What I struggle most to understand is how the GMC can have, as a primary purpose for existing, a set of enforceable and enforced rules, while also being a locally centered, bottom up partnership of congregations. The more a denomination pushes in the direction of local autonomy and local control, the fewer mechanisms there will be for global expectations or enforcement thereof. The more a denomination pushes toward centralized authority on more and more matters, the more opportunities there will be for local disobedience.
Pointing to a problem somewhere else obviously doesn’t mean there is no problem closer to home, but it should challenge us to reflect on the impossibility of a perfect system. From what I can tell, the GMC expects to have a radically decentralized denomination with absolute and total adherence to universal expectations. I don’t know how it will play out or what exactly the problems will be and when, but it’s just not possible to do both at the same time.
TP 7: It is absurd and offensive for someone to claim that the GMC “hates gay people.”
Rev. Renfroe, in his presentation to us, shared a very personal anecdote about a pastoral relationship he maintains with a lesbian woman. He named some of the deep challenges he’s helped her through and how a group of men from the church recently roofed her house for free. He expressed anger at the thought that anyone could hear his story and have the audacity to think he hates gay people.
Let me first say that I have absolutely no reason to doubt any detail of the story. I don’t doubt the positive contributions he and the church have made in her life or his claim that he did not view her any differently after she came out than before. I don’t doubt at all that he feels a deep sense of righteous anger at any one who cares to question his motives, intent, or contributions. I certainly don’t doubt the anger or frustration he feels at being told he must hate gay people. I completely grant the full truth of all of it.
I expect that most traditionalists have a more or less similar internal framework of how they relate to homosexual people – something like “hate the sin, love the sinner;” and/or “we’re called to try to love and serve them just like everyone else – just don’t ask us to condone sin, allow same gender weddings in our churches, or have openly gay clergy.” To be accused of hating that group of people would not relate at all to the intentions or feelings toward them for most traditionalists.
To understand why people still make the claim, I would offer three considerations:
First, there is a distinction between intent and impact. I can, for an example, intend to push my children to do their best, get an education, and succeed in their chosen careers. One child might experience my push as care and motivation. They may go on to succeed in life by every metric I could create and be grateful for my support and love that cleared a path for them. A second child might experience the same push from me as a mountain they could never climb. They might give up on even trying to achieve anything close to their potential for fear that they could never live up to my impossible standards. A third child might desperately and anxiously try to live up to my standards at every turn, but always feel like they fell short no matter how much they’d achieved or how a stranger might evaluate their success. My intent may only ever be for my children to get the best out of life. My impact could still play out in three dramatically different ways.
Is it, then, a good or a bad thing to push my child to do their best? That’s the sort of question people are asking when they ask if the GMC hates gay people.
If we evaluate only intent, then we’re only asking about the internal framework of how traditionalist people see their relationships with homosexual people. And within that framework it is understandable why someone would feel confused or offended by the suggestion that hate is relevant at all. The intent for most traditionalists is for all people to feel loved and welcomed, while also being challenged and changed in the process of justification and sanctification.
If we evaluate only impact, then it doesn’t matter what people in the church intend to do or say through their actions and words. What matters is how gay and lesbian people are impacted by the messages and practices of the church, many of whom do find deeply important and close community and value within churches that do not formally recognize gay marriage or ordain gay people. Many of those same people might also struggle with anxiety, depression, or shame precisely because the community in which they have found profound meaning and relationship is the same community that cannot accept what they experience as a core part of their identity and humanity.
There’s an interview from 2015 by The Liturgists podcast that does a great job of exploring these complicated dynamics with a person from a more evangelical background (link here). If you’ve never heard a gay or lesbian person share how a church community that they knew and loved also negatively impacted them, I would encourage you to listen. The complexity and pain expressed by the main interviewee match a great deal of other stories I have heard first and second hand.
Obviously intent and impact both matter on some level and there is no perfect balance (whether 50% intent and 50% impact or 60/40, etc) that will allow us to perfectly evaluate the ways we treat other people or what we see happening by and to others. It is also true that people are impacted by the same kinds of words and actions very differently – similar to the example above, there are certainly gay and lesbian people with nothing but positive things to say about their traditionalist church home. I simply offer the distinction as a way to challenge us to face the reality that the status quo in our UMC churches has caused significant harm to a lot of people, whether or not that was ever our intent. Our impact matters and has to also factor into what we do going forward.
Second, understanding our full impact on someone else is far more difficult than describing our intent or even any impact that we could possibly see. People are complex and what we see is almost always only a small portion of what they experience or feel. I can love and appreciate a thousand things about the ways my parents raised me, while also feeling resentment and frustration about all the problems and conflicts that we’ve never resolved. To really understand the dynamics of a relationship takes a lot more effort than simply pointing to the fact that we know or are friends with a certain kind of person.
Third, no matter what else the GMC intends or what problems it is taking the opportunity to resolve, the necessary and sufficient reason for its existence will always be its leaders’ fight against a more inclusive approach to human sexuality. Its leaders and architects refused to give a single inch on the possibility of any United Methodist anywhere treating same gender marriage or openly gay clergy the same as any other – all of the fighting and dysfunction and unresolved problems since then have been born out of or seen primarily through the lens of human sexuality. We don’t, for example, fight for accountability against churches holding raffles, which are expressly prohibited (“It is expected that United Methodist churches abstain from the use of raffles, lotteries, bingo, door prizes, other drawing schemes, and games of chance for the purpose of gambling or fund-raising.” BOD Par 163). We don’t have major legislation proposed and debated at every General Conference about guaranteeing that our clergy are celibate in singleness (we do nothing more than ask once or twice in the ordination process) or that a Biblical standard of divorce and remarriage is upheld (we began allowing divorced and remarried clergy long ago and haven’t looked back). Our denomination wide fights have been about, are anchored in, and/or are a reaction to human sexuality.
For 50 years, a ton of proposals have been on the table for how people might at least agree to disagree on human sexuality. And for those 50 years, traditionalists have said there can be no change anywhere for any reason; culminating in the 2019 passage of the Traditional Plan (legislation to clarify definitions, add minimum penalties for breaking the rules, and create enforcement mechanisms for existing and future rules in service of the status quo). Only when it became apparent that there is no way to ensure enforcement of the status quo always and everywhere did the serious planning for and momentum toward the creation of the GMC develop. For everything else involved and every other motivation people actually have to go GMC, the reason it came to be was because it was impossible to eradicate progressive acts of disobedience in the UMC that challenge the status quo regarding the ordination and marriages of gay and lesbian people.
All of this, again, is not to argue that the GMC hates gay people. I don’t believe hate describes the internal framework or attitude of almost anyone in that camp – we can name or describe our thoughts and feelings in whatever way helps us make sense of our intent and desired impact. I’m also not asking that we all agree with progressive proposals for change or that we have to change our beliefs. What we can’t do is pretend like the status quo (welcoming gay and lesbian people into our churches, while drawing clear lines against marriage and ordination) has no negative impact on a significant number of people. It is that impact which can understandably (whether or not that means accurately) be interpreted as hate.
TP 8: Rev. Adam Hamilton’s ‘three buckets’ of scripture clearly show that many leaders in the UMC do not believe in scriptural authority.
Here is a succinct write up explaining the 3 buckets (original article linked here).
Hamilton offered his own model of a way to view biblical texts. Using three “buckets” of various sizes, he suggested that biblical teachings can be placed inside one of the three.
The first — and largest — bucket contains the teachings that you just know are good and right, he said. “Love your neighbor, love God, love one another,” for example, he said.
The second — and medium-sized — bucket contains those teachings that were relevant for a particular time and place, but are not applicable for today. Hamilton noted circumcision and kosher laws as two examples Christians have discussed and come to different agreements about over the years.
The third — and smallest — bucket is the place for things that “never ever reflected the heart of God,” Hamilton said. Using Leviticus 20:13 as an example, Hamilton said that he knows no one who would “put to death” practicing homosexuals as is commanded here. Instead, he said, “Progressives would put it in bucket 3, conservatives in bucket 2, but no one sees it as a bucket 1 command.”
“Here’s the point,” he writes in the book (p. 273), “there are things commanded in the Bible, in the name of God, that today we recognize as immoral and inconsistent with the heart of God.”
The claim was made by Rev. Renfroe that Hamilton clearly does not view scriptural authority in the same high regard as a traditionalist reading of the Bible. Here (link) is Hamilton’s own response to that particular video. Hamilton also responded to a blog post made by a different pastor who was criticizing the 3 buckets idea. That reply is printed in full below (and linked here):
Thank you for your thoughtful response to my post on The Bible, Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church. I actually agree with everything you’ve written here. Unfortunately it is the nature of a blog – 500 to 800 words – that you have room for a key idea without much background or supporting arguments. The three buckets metaphor is a small part, two paragraphs in one chapter of my new book, Making Sense of the Bible.
The book is meant to foster a conversation among Christians and in the church about the nature of scripture, how God influenced or inspired the biblical authors, its canonization and authority, and how we might read it with greater understanding. Following 18 chapters devoted to these questions, the last 14 chapters focus on concrete questions I’m regularly asked by lay people confused about what they read in the Bible.
My experience suggests that many Christians have a view of scripture that is not carefully examined in the light of the actual phenomenon of Scripture. If our view of scripture is overly simplistic, we find ourselves stuck when we face some of the Bible’s complex and challenging questions. Some of these folks leave the church because we as pastors have not adequately helped them see the Bible’s complexity. I think we can do better. My proposals in the book are a conversation starter. They may not be the right answers, but I’m hoping they help us find the right answers.
You rightly note that what was missing was the theological foundation that leads me to speak of the three buckets, and, I would add, the criteria by which we determine which bucket a scripture goes in. I devote a fair amount of space to fleshing that out in the book.
I appreciate you and your work, David. Thanks for your thoughtful critique of my post!
Beyond Hamilton’s own responses, I would offer my own broader challenge for any of us who desire an ultra simple, bumper sticker size slogan for how to read all of the Bible. A few scriptures to consider (NRSV):
- Ecclesiastes 12:8 – Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
- Genesis 1:31 – God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
- Matthew 19:21 – Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
- Psalm 137:9 – Happy shall they be who take your little one and dash them against the rock!
- 1st Timothy 2:12 – I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
- Leviticus 7:27 – Any one of you who eats any blood shall be cut off from your kin.
Ecclesiastes says everything is vanity (basically, meaningless breath) whereas Genesis says everything God created is good. Matthew sure seems to say the ideal Christian will sell everything and give it all away. Psalm 137 records God’s people celebrating the vengeance they’re going to take out on their enemies. 1st Timothy is still read as binding law for some denominations, but Methodists have long embraced female teaching and authority. I’m not sure we could eat a rare steak if the Leviticus verse is a plain and simple truth of the universe.
I’m not going to attempt a thorough analysis of every scripture, but I would challenge anyone to come up with a single, simple rule for how to read all of these as equally authoritative, equally true, equally straightforward, equally binding and meaningful for all people in all times and places AND also yields a consistent framework to resolve any apparent internal contradiction or clear commands against the way almost every Christian in the world actually lives. We can say Biblical authority is our highest ideal and that it is straightforward and easy to uphold, but different people always do different things with different scriptures in different times, places, and situations.
Hamilton’s entire career has been dedicated to reaching the non-churched and nominally churched – to people who have never read the Bible or to those who never embraced the Bible for themselves. I don’t find the 3 buckets to be the most helpful or authoritative framework to help me read scripture, in large part because I was born and raised in the UMC. Hamilton has also stated that the bucket analogy isn’t the end all, be all analogy to use – but it is intended to give people a framework for beginning to come to grips with the complex history of the people of God that we find recorded in scripture.
There are plenty of people who have only ever known the caricatured or weaponized versions of scripture that have been used against them (ex: women told not to leave an abusive husband or those taught that fear of hell (rather than love of God) is the foundation of the Christian faith). We can be grateful for the ways the bucket analogy has helped people enter the world of the Bible and begin seeking God even if we haven’t perfectly defined who gets to decide what goes where. And, again, I would challenge anyone to figure out what to do with the scriptures above and countless others that does not wind up sounding an awful lot like we treat different scriptures differently for different reasons.
My real point is this – we always have to take at least one step between “reading words on a page” and “understanding and implementing God’s word in our life and faith.” Doing so must be done in a spirit of prayer, guided by the Holy Spirit and is far more effective and faithful in the context of Christian community rather than alone. But there is always some step we take to get from the words on the page to the truth and meaning for our lives. To pretend like any of us come to a perfect and final understanding of the Bible by simply reading a verse and doing what it says is disingenuous at best. To think that “one prominent UMC pastor coming up with a 3 bucket analogy that raises as many questions as it answers” is evidence that “the UMC has hopelessly strayed from scriptural authority” seems to me like a pretty fantastical leap.
TP 9: An ordination candidate dressing and preaching as Ms Penny Cost is all the proof you need to see that the UMC has gone off the rails.
If you have watched Rev. Renfroe’s presentation or video series, you no doubt heard that there is a candidate for ministry who preached in a drag persona named Ms. Penny Cost. I can’t even imagine where a conversation would start regarding drag and I know nothing productive would come from it – so I’ll simply offer one thought and ask you to do two things.
A thought – there is no official prohibition or comment for or against drag in the UMC or GMC. In truth, I’m not aware of any denomination making any formal rule on the topic at all. Something so far outside the norm and so rare is not the kind of thing that ever makes it into churches that do not specifically desire and invite someone willing to push boundaries.
To do – 1) Read the response below offered by the Pastor that invited Ms. Penny Cost to preach (link to original here).
And 2) take 5 minutes to reflect NOT on whether you would go to that church, but on whether you believe there is value in allowing space within our global connection for people to explore their faith in ways that speak to them and make you deeply uncomfortable.
“This is a response to the post below concerning my choice to invite Ms. Penny Cost to preach at Allendale UMC. The comments were shut off on the original post, but I wanted to offer my thoughts as the pastor responsible.
I invited her to preach for several reasons. She is an incredible preacher, grounded as Allendale is, in Wesleyan and liberation theology. I have a dozen+ trans members and half of the youth group are non-binary. I want all people to see people like themselves called by God to preach the Gospel. I try to share my pulpit as much as possible with people who have been relegated to the margins of our church and society. Having a drag queen preach is as normative for Allendale as some of y’all putting a flag on your altar.
The other elder and I pictured wore chasubles for the first time because it was World Communion Sunday and also because we wanted to look fabulous for this special day. We only have pink and purple chasubles, as they were gifts from pastors who had passed. The other elder pictured is Rev. David Franks who is retired from Cal-Pac. He was infamously a member of the Sacramento 68 same sex wedding in 1999. He now serves as our pastoral care pastor. David and I both officiate same-sex weddings at Allendale. I am currently under a complaint that is in abeyance.
For Allendale, this was a joyful worship service. I don’t know if you’ve ever invited a pastor to preach at your church and experienced a sermon that fit the moment and congregation perfectly… that’s what we experienced. It felt like a liminal passage way to a new chapter leaving the pandemic.
I get that many of this might seem odd for your context. It was powerful evangelism for us. Good news was proclaimed to people present from the most hated segment of our communities. Many if not most people at Allendale would not find a home in most churches nearby. Ms. Penny Cost was an angel in heels appearing to shepherds in the fields on the night shift, telling them that Good News had arrived on their doorstep. What was once the margins is the center.
Many of you do practices that would not work at my church. Some of you use the American flag and sing patriotic music. Others celebrate war (also listed as incompatible with Christian teaching btw). One pastor from GA who called us out, celebrated “cowboy church” on world communion Sunday. Some of you use puppets or do ventriloquism or God forbid, Christian miming or clowns 😳. Some of you haven’t had anyone other than a white, straight male in your pulpit in the last year. Some of you say “he” exclusively for God (and never use she for the Holy Spirit)…
If “cowboy church” works in your context, great. I’m not going to get upset about it. I’m going to do my best to witness to God’s love and grace, and try to show the Church what church could look like. If what Allendale does is not your thing, understand that my people are not your people. The calling we have at the corner of 38th Ave and Haines Rd is different than the expression of the Body of Christ where you are. That’s a good thing.
Also understand that when you use vitriolic language because of your hatred of the trans community or maybe because of your fear, you inspire violence. This week, Allendale’s service has received vitriol from The IRD, the lead story on InfoWars, and this clergy page. My greatest fear is that something one of you says will inspire or call some lunatic with a gun to “cleanse” us. I am 100% willing to give my life for this, but people that come to my church shouldn’t have to make that part of their decision to follow Jesus.
Finally, I challenge you to watch the sermon of this first year seminary student (I will post it in the comments). I couldn’t preach like she did at that age. I can’t preach like it now. She has a gift. It is a gift I believe God has given to edify The UMC and maybe even some of you who are angry reading this post. Listen to her words. And if they make you want to run her off a cliff, remember Jesus’ words did the same thing 2000 years ago.”
TP 10: Progressives view traditionalists and their convictions as a “virus in the church.”
Rev. Renfroe states that “progressives and centrists see the Bible’s position regarding sexuality [as] a virus carried by traditionalists.” That claim is based on a quote by Rev. Tom Berlin.
Here is a fuller version of Berlin’s quote – “‘If the Traditional Plan is voted in, it will be a virus that will make the American church very sick. Many pastors are going to leave, many annual conferences will leave. … There will be trials, and they will be on the news. The only news about the church will be about people we don’t serve.” I read that quote pretty clearly to be stating that the Traditional Plan legislation in 2019 is the problem, not the presence of Traditional views or people.
The traditional plan did not change anything about how the UMC viewed homosexuality or whether we would ordain openly gay pastors or perform same sex weddings. What the plan did was attempt to reshape the type of and mechanisms for enforcement of the principles that have been in place since 1972. The plan included legislation for such things as: mandatory minimum penalties for pastors who perform same gender weddings, adding clarity to who is in violation (such as – a person married to someone of the same gender is inherently in violation, no further evidence needed), mechanisms to ensure all Bishops could be held accountable by a denomination wide body, requirements that Bishops certify a commitment to uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety, and a gracious exit provision so that anyone who could not abide by the changes would be free to leave the denomination with minimal friction (Par 2553).
Soon after their passage, many of the provisions in the traditional plan that would have allowed for enforcement were found to be unconstitutional. Almost immediately, movements were made toward developing a plan for amicable separation, which culminated in a protocol that would have been considered at General Conference 2020 and focused on how the denomination could break apart in the most equitable way. That Conference was postponed a few times because of covid and eventually canceled until 2024. When that cancellation happened, the protocol was abandoned and the GMC and other traditionalists decided it was time to leave, which is the genesis of the major disaffiliation discernment process many of our churches are involved in.
I can’t tell you exactly what Rev. Berlin thinks or how you should feel about his words. I’ll instead challenge you to ask a few questions – 1) Was his point that traditionalist beliefs are a virus, or that the legislation of the Traditional Plan is a virus? 2) Have the 3 years since the Traditional Plan passed seen the UMC become more healthy or less? 3) Do people outside our churches hear anything about the denomination that isn’t centered on people leaving and why?
TP 11: The UMC has so much baggage and so many problems that the obvious choice is to leave.
A full throated “not so fast, the UMC is almost perfect!” argument would be absurd on its face – no one argues that the UMC is just a minor tweak away from a return to its glory days; everyone who cares about its long term future is committed to figuring out what sort of deep renewal and restructuring are needed. Here, in conclusion, I want to offer 2 broad concerns I have about leaving that I hope you will deeply reflect upon before making a hasty choice to disaffiliate.
1) It is easy to point out the brokenness and contradictions inside of a denomination that has been in existence for 50 years. It’s extremely difficult to fix those problems in a way that doesn’t immediately create 10 new ones.
I have a quote board in my office that reminds me about various convictions and challenges in leading – one of those quotes says, “In the soil of the quick fix is the seed of a new problem.” I have no idea what the future of the GMC will actually look like – no one does. But I can guess where the brokenness is most likely to develop from the seeds of some deep tensions within the launch of the new denomination.
Rev Renfroe repeatedly characterized the GMC as a ‘bottom up,’ ‘local church led,’ ‘light touch’ denomination. Undoubtedly, there will never be a bureaucracy as large or agencies as powerful and well funded as there have been at the General (world wide) Church level of the UMC. But there are clear trade offs and limitations with how much you can value local autonomy while still expecting adherence to clear, global rules.
For instance, what happens when a local church crosses any one of the lines in the sand that were presented to us by Rev. Renfroe (a pastor questioning bodily resurrection, a church attempting to hire an openly gay pastor, etc.)? A first principle of the GMC is clear and consistent accountability – what are the mechanisms that make it possible to both honor local church autonomy and at the same time enforce global adherence to at least a small list of non-negotiable commitments?
And what happens when one church finds out about another church pushing the line of a non-negotiable in a way they aren’t comfortable with (for example, if they choose the title of associate pastor for a married, openly gay person)? The GMC Discipline intentionally says almost nothing about the specific implications of their stance (celibacy in singleness, marriage as only valid between one man and one woman). How much room is there for local congregations to flirt with the lines that are intentionally left unwritten (such as, “who counts as a pastor?” from the SBC example in #6 above)? If there is no room and enforcement comes swiftly and decisively, how does that honor local church autonomy? If there is a great deal of room for local implementation choices, how is that different from the UMC now? If the difference is that it’s OK to push the line in the GMC because they lack specific rules (whereas clear lines are being crossed in the UMC), are we really to believe that GMC churches will be happy to allow churches under the GMC umbrella to push the lines without consequence? Or, is it more likely that they will draw much clearer lines as soon as necessary? If the goal is to get rid of the lines rather than the line crossing, why not stay and do that in the UMC?
A related but distinct open question arises in terms of education and training for pastors. How do you guarantee and enforce orthodox theology and teaching, but not develop your own seminaries and schools to form the pastors who will know and pass on that theology? Even with seminaries in place, in many ways in the UMC it is actually the job of a District Committee for local pastors and a Conference Board for ordination who clarify and enforce theological and educational standards. A seminary degree is required to be an Elder, but a long process is used within the Annual Conference to test the knowledge and faith of candidates for ministry. The true role more local bodies play will only be determined in the GMC as they credential their 2nd and 3rd generation of pastors (currently, the vast majority of credentials are simply transferred from the UMC) – but I have to wonder, again, how will orthodox beliefs and expectations be guaranteed? If there is no intent to form the bureaucracy necessary for something like a consistent seminary program, it will surely be more local. And if it is more local, then is it up to each church or conference to decide what is and is not acceptable? Increasing local autonomy is a perfectly viable thing to value – but local autonomy is necessarily in conflict with the clearly stated goal of universal accountability and expectations; the amount of local autonomy in the UMC is precisely the problem for many seeking to leave.
A final related, but distinct open question is where will the GMC fall on the spectrum of tight knit denominations on one hand and loosely affiliated congregations on the other? We heard it presented by one of the architects of the denomination that apportionments will not be enforced, but will instead be a recommended formula for a church’s fair share – if a church cannot pay their 1% to the broader church, they will be offered assistance by the denomination rather than hounded or punished. The more apportionments are treated like voluntary and suggested dues, the less possible it will be to pool the kind of resources required for major efforts beyond the local church like UMCOR, seminaries, or Lakeview Camp. Is the goal to be more like the Roman Catholic church with clear hierarchy and rules; or more like Baptist churches with networks and conventions, but no centralized authority? There are pros and cons to either, but these are mutually exclusive priorities.
2) Changing affiliations will not solve all (and may not solve any) local church problems.
The vast majority of UMC churches face a step climb to get back to stability, much less growth. Almost nothing we have discussed here will be directly affected in any way, shape, or form by the affiliation decision that is made. I have heard it said many times over my years in ministry that if the denomination would find a way to stop fighting, that would free our local churches up to focus on real ministry. In my view, remarkably few local churches have had any discussion regarding sexuality or anything related to the denominational fights. Those fights have instead been used as a scapegoat for our local churches’ inability to reclaim a clear mission and purpose that would allow them to grow and make disciples for the next generations.
Whatever is done now and wherever a church goes, you will have to figure out things like: how to prioritize the kinds of programs you run; how to operate the facilities in a sustainable way; what role our neighborhood and location will play in our decision making; how much to prioritize those already here vs the new people we hope to meet; what do we expect of all our members; and what steps we should offer through which people can grow in their discipleship. The discernment process is important and may be necessary, but it will only be the very first baby step toward getting everything else in line toward a solid future.
Links to Resources I’ve Found Especially Helpful and/or Relevant
- An open letter challenging a church’s discernment process and adding context to comments made by Bishops Oliveto and Willimon and others
- Two documents prepared for Triplett UMC addressing various false statements or misunderstandings: Document 1 – Document 2
*(The above links are not included in the text or documents above; the links below are)*
- Interviews with self described UMC Traditionalist Bishops Mande Muyombo and David Graves. Both are deeply critical of the notion that there is no room for Traditionalists in the future of the UMC.
- A discussion guide I prepared to help my congregants understand what’s happening and find ways to talk with each other about how they will make their decision.
- The full text of Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline
- Documents prepared by members of UMC churches in Arkansas who successfully challenged the discernment processes of their congregations and whose congregations were not approved by the Annual Conference for disaffiliation in late 2022 (Jonesboro – Cabot – Searcy)
- An explanation of Rev. Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” and his responses to criticisms in video form and in response to another pastor’s critiques.
- The Pastor who invited Ms Penny Cost to preach wrote a response explaining that decision
- The Saddest Day – a narrative retelling of the events leading up to the addition of incompatibility language in the 1972 UMC Book of Discipline
- The Christmas Covenant seems to be the legislative approach or framework that has been gaining the most momentum to help determine what the future UMC will look like