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Archive for July 21st, 2018

 

The February 23-26, 2019 UMC General Conference in St. Louis has the likely potential of dividing the UMC, local congregations, laity and clergy, and our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  We all weep.

Clergy in North Carolina are dividing into conflicted camps, each asserting biblical and theological superiority.  Laity in local congregations are asking questions and wonder when their voices will be heard.  Congregations are re-considering their loyalty to the denomination.  Young persons in ministry wonder if the UMC is where they should fulfill their vocation.

The Council of Bishops have a vision to maintain a united denomination with a strong episcopacy, dynamic general church structure, and financial stability (primarily pension), in other words, maintenance of the status quo.  Yet many persons and groups are aligning into camps ready to divide over the single issue of inclusion of LGBTQ at every level of the church.

I weep that this issue has become the single issue that will signal the end of the UMC.  We most likely will follow the lead of the Presbyterian Church, USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Episcopal Church in aligning with one party (which party in the UMC will win is still undecided) and becoming significantly diminished in membership and financial strength.  The above denominations are shells of the original selves.  The 2019 General Conference may mark the true end of the old mainline denominations in the USA.

The Way Forward Commission, appointed by the Council of Bishops (COB) with the support of the 2016 General Conference, has made its report.  The Council of Bishops has drafted their initial response and have now presented at least three legislative proposals to the 2019 General Conference.

Initially, the COB will proposed:

  • A model that allows annual conferences to determine their own choices about the ordination of LGBTQ persons and local congregations the option of allowing same sex marriages

The CB initially wanted not to support two alternate proposals:

  • A conservative model to affirm the current Book of Discipline with more accountability
  • A liberal model to remove restrictive language regarding homosexuality and ordination

Now, correctly, the COB has withdrawn from the discussion and will let the General Conference enact its will with even more options expected.

What is unclear is whether to include a “gracious way of exit” for clergy and congregations who wish to leave the denomination. The stated rationale has to do with clergy pension obligations.  Watch what happens with Glide Memorial in San Francisco (the denomiantion’s largest liberal congregation) and Windsor Village in Houston (a mega-African American congregation).

One of the difficulties is that much of the work has been done behind closed doors by the bishops and their consultants. In a contemporary culture that questions authority, many people will question whatever they decide by asking: “who was at the table and was my voice heard?”

The Judicial Council, correctly, refused to allow the COB alone determine the agenda of the 2019 General Conference.  Multiple petitions will be offered.

General conferences have never adopted any major proposal from a Council of Bishops for major legislation.  When the bishops had a model for the ordination of deacons and elders, general conference adopted the opposite.  “A Call to Action” with the unanimous support of the Council of Bishops failed to get out of committee.  The bishops have a higher opinion of their leadership than do general conference delegates.  Lack of trust is the issue.

General Conference, including voting laity and clergy but no bishops voting, alone is the legislative body that votes on any recommendations.  General Conference will substitute, amend, revise, and vote on any proposal offered by the Council of Bishops or anyone else.  Petitions for honorable separation/dissolution by congregations and conferences are being written begun.

I anticipate a major struggle at the beginning of GC over the rules of order, as has happened in the last several general conferences.  With a timeline of only 4 days, rules may never be adopted.  For example, will the legislation be reviewed first by a legislative committee or debated by the entire general conference as a committee of the whole?

If you have never watched an 800+ person committee operate, it is not a pretty sight.  The end result of no rules?  No action.  The status quo continues until the 2020 General Conference, with new delegates (and more from Africa) resumes the discussion.

No outcome is certain.  The Holy Spirit, we pray, may also be involved!

Three Foci

Every option has at least three facets.

One focus deals with theological matters: are non-traditional/heterosexual and other sexual orientations and practices (labeled LGBTQ: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, and Queer) acceptable Christian practice?  The fundamental issue is over theology and biblical interpretation.

On difficulty is that recent sociological/biological studies indicate that there are not just two options – heterosexual and homosexual – but dozens of gender and sexual identities.  See the January 2017 issue of “National Geographic” that explores the complexity.

A second focus is practical: whether pastors may preside at same-sex marriages and may self-avowed practicing homosexuals and other sexual orientations/practices may be ordained?  No congregation is allowed to welcome a same-sex marriage in their facilities.  These practices are currently forbidden by our United Methodist Discipline, yet a number of pastors, congregations, conferences, and jurisdictions ignore the rules.  Or let both options happen depending on conference and local congregation votes?

Such issues deal with real people: our families, our neighbors, and our friends who are heterosexual and LGBTQ.  No one is happy.  Everyone is being harmed.

Both focus one and two will be the matters of most concern to the news outlets and interested parties.  A final focus, however, may ultimately be more critical.

The third and equally important focus are fundamental issues of polity, property, and finances.

 Polity and Financial Implication for the Western North Carolina Conference

What are the polity and financial implications of the actions of the Way Forward Commission, COB, and the subsequent action of the 2019 General Conference on the Western North Carolina Annual Conference?

Some church leaders have sounded the alarm.  Bishop Bruce Ough, former President of the Council of Bishops, wrote, “Let’s be clear, if we divide, nearly all our essential unifying institutional activities would be lost or severely diminished.”  Areas of concern include ecumenical agreements, educational work, prophetic statements, global mission partnerships, benefits programs, communications, publications, and more.

What are the financial implications for the WNCC Council on Finance and Administration, and those of every annual conference throughout the connection?  For example, how will local members and congregations respond in the payment of apportionments?

What are the implications for the WNCC financial connections with the UMC, for example in relationship to WNC pension funds held by Wespath?  Of primary concern is the pension obligations of the conference for pre-1982 pension obligations of $50 million.  Who will pay these obligations?

How will the Trustees of the WNCC respond?  In Mississippi, the conference Trustees were given authority to act to allow two congregations with significant debt to leave.

What are the financial and structural implications for the WNCC Foundation?

Strategies and answers will be needed soon.

Central UMC and Denominational Change

My previous congregation, Central United Methodist Church in Concord, NC, has been part of four different denominations since 1836: The Methodist Episcopal Church, The  Methodist Episcopal Church South, The Methodist Church, and The United Methodist Church.  It is entirely reasonable to think that within the decade my congregation may be part of a new denomination.

United Methodist schism or realignment are not apocalyptic signs of the end of the world.  Communions of faithful people rise and fall.  Mr. Wesley never wanted any denomination independent of The Church of England.  We United Methodists have a full history of schisms and new alignments both in the US and globally.

The United Methodist Church as a denomination just 50 years old.  Some United Methodists yearn for unity and to maintain our current structure at almost any cost.  Yet, survival of the current form of The United Methodist Church should not be an idol to be worshiped.

The United Methodist Church is not the only global Methodist communion nor the only model of a Wesleyan denominational structure.  The World Methodist Council has over 100 denominations in 133 countries around the world containing about 75 million persons who claim the Wesleys as spiritual forbearers.  There are many ways of connecting with one another that are faithful to our Wesleyan tradition.

The Church universal, the living Body of Christ in the world, will last until the end of time.  The United Methodist Church?  Probably not.

We are in a time of flux and chaos, yet we should be confident that in the end God will be with us.

Connectionalism

The UMC is a connectional system that requires a common understanding of doctrine, discipline, and polity.  There is no history of independent Methodist congregations in our own tradition.

Bound together by our Discipline, this book names our common beliefs and practices.  It specifies our common faith and practices as Wesleyan Christians.  Every four years (or three in this case), however, every line of the book (with the exception of the restrictive clauses) is up for debate by elected representatives from the global church.  Every four years, anything can change.

Connectionalism, however, even in our Discipline is not primarily between the general church and congregations.  Annual conferences are the basic connectional body of connectionalism.  Our general agencies are independently incorporated.  The general church emphasis is on a global connection.  Not so much annual conferences, districts, and local congregations.  Who really owns what properties/assets within an annual conference and with the global church?

For example, when a local church is sold, if there are no other restricting covenants, the proceeds from the sale go to the Conference, not the general church.  Our WNCC now has a Church Legacy Initiative helping congregations determine when to close and how to use the remaining resources.

Whatever happens at General Conference will create a mess at every level of the denomination.  One parallel may be the split over slavery in the mid-19th century.  Decades after the split, it took an action of the US Supreme Court to divide the assets of the Methodist Publishing House between the MEC and the MEC, South.

Yet, there are ways to make a transition smooth.  In the late 20th century, the Puerto Rico Annual Conference of our United Methodist Church received permission to withdraw from our denomination and form the independent Puerto Rico Methodist Church.  The Puerto Ricans took with them all their assets without any compensation to the general church yet remained in covenant relationship with their former denomination.  They retained some financial and other relationships with the general agencies and the board of pensions.

A Middle Way Between Two Extremes?

Is there is a middle way?  Both hard right and hard left sides (there are more than two sides) claim the scriptural and theological high ground within our Wesleyan framework.

I believe that the majority of United Methodists are Centrists.  They are distressed that this topic is the major issue facing our denomination.  They understand the position of both extremes (neither of which believes it is extreme), and would like for there to be a compromise.  They see energy for ministry being marginalized as we debate sexual issues.  Instead of focusing on making disciples, we have for almost 50 years debated these topics without any resolution.

The very reality of 50 years of debate without resolution indicates that there is no easy or realistic answer.  Countless groups at every level have tried for compromise.  I doubt that there is a middle way, such as the COB proposes, that all United Methodists can affirm.

The unveiling of the Uniting Methodists Movement (a centrist movement) offered its statement of beliefs.  Some label these leaders as “Reconcilers.”  They want clergy the freedom to choose whether or not to conduct same-sex weddings and conferences the freedom to ordain self-professed practicing homosexuals.  Yet, can you imagine local congregations voting and annual conferences voting on such?  Schism or mass defections could happen quickly.

This consensus model is very similar to “The Third Way” promoted by the general church Connectional Table in 2016 at which I was a voting member.  This “Third Way” was pushed through the Connectional Table after many closed meetings of a small group, no surveys, and less than a hour for discussion.  “The Third Way” never got out of committee or support on the floor of general conference.  Why will this time be different?

If there is just a “local option” compromise, what other items may be compromised?  Standards for ordination?  The Book of Resolutions?  Any other parts of the Discipline?  May congregations/conferences opt out of financial commitments?

Will congregations and pastors be allowed to indicate what kind of appointments may be made?  Will inclusive pastors only be appointed to inclusive congregations? Conservative pastors only to conservative congregations?  What happens when more clergy are inclusive but more congregations are conservative?  The appointive system may collapse.

The opening of Pandora’s box cannot be undone.

The Two Extremes

The moderating/reconciling statement has spurred a furor of statements and analysis.

The liberals/progressives want a complete change of disciplinary language regarding human sexuality.  They emphasize grace-filled Scriptures and receive support from changing perceptions in the US.  They want to offer same-sex marriages (now legal in the US) and the ordination of clergy without any questions about sexuality.  Anything less than complete change is discrimination toward LGBTQ persons.  They want justice and an end to marginalization of some groups.

Follow the developments of the Love Prevails coalition, the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, and Reconciling Ministries.

The liberals/progressives are admittedly violating our Discipline by conducting same-sex weddings within and outside our church buildings, and ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals.  The election of a self-professed, same-sex married bishop in the Western Jurisdiction indicates this direction.

The largest number of liberals/progressives are United Methodists in the western and northeastern parts of our country.

Organizations committed to full LGBTQ+ inclusion, the Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus have issued formal statements rejecting the middle way as perpetuating injustice for the sake of unity

The conservatives/traditionalist insist on maintaining our current disciplinary language on sexuality and increased penalties on congregations/clergy who stand outside the covenant.  Anything less is not aligned with particular Scriptures and disobedient to God.  The subject involves personal holiness.  Follow the developments of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, The Confessing Movement, and Good News.

The largest number of conservatives/traditionalists are United Methodists in Africa and Asia (although not universal).  In the US, we find these folks primarily in the southeast and southcentral parts of this country.  This alliance of conservatives, however, also has its own points of strain.

In practical terms, the conservatives/traditionalists want there to be strict adherence to the Book of Discipline for harsh penalties for those who violate our Discipline.

The April 2017 rulings of the UMC Judicial Council (and subsequent comments) support the positions of the conservatives/traditionalists by overturning the election of a lesbian bishop, insisting that questions about sexuality must be part of candidates for ministry, and the requirement for denominational proceedings against persons who violate the Discipline.

In my own mind, neither extreme will accept any compromise position.  Neither side shows much humility and is self-assured in their own positions.

Let’s be honest.  The human condition of sin leads us to think of ourselves as better than other people and to distrust the other.  Humility is seriously lacking on every side.

I, personally, cannot imagine nor wish to participate in such a debate at our Southeast Jurisdiction or the Western North Carolina Annual Conference.  Within my own congregation, any vote will divide us.  There will be no unanimity at any level, some people will be offended, and some people will leave.

Decline and Division Has Begun

Parallel to these debates, the great majority of congregations in the US have been losing members for the past 50 years.  The loss of membership is most high among the more liberal/progressive congregations and jurisdictions (probably due not to theology but cultural trends).  Yet many conservative/traditional people are also leaving because of the lack of clarity within our denomination.

Two churches in Mississippi [Getwell and Orchard] and one in Kansas have already voted to withdraw to become independent congregations.  The cost of leaving?  The clergy submitted their credentials and payment of 2017 apportionments and purchase of property!  Plus, the congregations kept their debt.  What will happen at Glide or Windsor Village?

As the UMC in the US continues to decline in membership, and our membership grows increasingly older, the future of the UMC in the US is uncertain.  Our membership decline is increasing.  Financial strains are felt throughout the connection.  General Church revenues have hit the tipping point and are in decline.  Irrespective of this issue regarding human sexuality, the UMC in the US faces very deep challenges.

Personal Note

I have attended 8 General Conferences since 1976.  I served on the General Council on Ministries for 4 years and General Church Connectional Table for 8 years.  I have witnessed and participated in many discussions about human sexuality and the impact on the denomination both before, during, and after each one.

My observation is that the debates have become more angry and more divisive every time.  Everyone, including me, leaves wounded.  The reason I asked my fellow clergy not to vote for me to attend the 2016 General Conference was because I had no desire to participate in an even more ugly debate over this topic again.  I do not regret that decision.

Possible Scenarios Based on Voting

While conflict, rivalry, and distrust are the ways of the world, they have infected the UMC.  Pleas for unity are nice but ultimately unsuccessful when it is time to take a legislative vote.

Our system only allows majority vote.  While some look for consensus, ultimately by our Discipline 50% + 1 will decide at the 2019 General Conference.

Below are several possibilities:

  1. No Change: The Conservative Option. If the GC rules fight ends with stalemate, the status quo wins.  Very few will be happy.

2. More Conservative. Maintain current limits on same-sex marriage and clergy restrictions with more accountability.  The liberals will rebel.

What happens to Western, North Central, Northeast Jurisdictions, and Western Europe Central Conferences?

May they leave?  What about property and assets?

Who votes for disassociation?  What about dissenting votes?

Who are their bishops?

What is the impact on General Church apportionments?

What happens to the “liberal” conferences/churches in other areas that are predominately conservative?  May a church in Mississippi join a New England conference?

Will dissenting clergy be allowed/encouraged to leave?

3. Complete Inclusion: The Liberal Option. No limits on marriage and clergy sexual ethics/orientation.  The conservatives will rebel.

What happens to the Southeast and South Central Jurisdictions, Eastern Europe, and Africa and the Philippines?

May they leave?  What about property and assets?

Who votes?  What about dissenting votes?

Who are their bishops?

What is the impact on General Church apportionments?

What happens to the “conservative” conferences/churches in the other areas that are predominately liberal?

Will dissenting clergy be allowed/encouraged to leave?

  1. The Middle Way: The Reconciling Option. Agree on doctrine, differ in practice, multiple organizations under one Council of Bishops.

What about “churches in the middle” who want no part in this fight.  Watch the congregations seeking separation.  They profess publicly that they simply want out of this fight and focus on work for the kingdom of God to make disciples.

What happens when congregations have “split” votes?

Will dissenting members/clergy/congregations be allowed/encouraged to leave?

What about property and assets?

Such an option requires multiple changes to our UMC Constitution that are require two-thirds vote at General Conference and in all annual conferences.  This is almost impossible to achieve.

I doubt that many, in any, churches, left or right, are unanimous.  There will be much pain at the local, district, and conference leave.

No local congregation is stronger if 10% or more of the congregation left on either the left or the right.  The debates themselves will be destructive.

  1. Options for Congregations/Annual Conferences in the Middle. Is “gracious exit” an option?

What happens when conferences have “split votes?

Will dissenting clergy/annual conferences be allowed/encouraged to leave?

Impact on appointments (only liberals to liberal congregations or conservatives to conservative congregations)?

Property?

The assets/ownership/structure of the UM Foundation?

What is our negotiating position with Wespath over WNCC assets?

Again, look at the Puerto Rico example as a model.

  1. Apportionment Payouts

Our WNC policy allows church-directed/self-allocated apportionments.  Fifty congregations now use this model.

How to protect the financial interests of the WNC (and their clergys’ pensions) in the midst of general church chaos?  The #1 priority of any annual conference, I believe, is the health and strength of the annual conference.

General Conference Delegates in 2019

864 (20 from WNCC; WNCC once had 32 delegates)

50% clergy/ 50% laity

(generally laity are more conservative than clergy)

Not one petition to change current Disciplinary language related to these topics of sexuality got out of legislative committees in 2016, nor in any previous years.  These are the same delegates who will be at the 2019 GC.

To add to the uncertainty, the 2020 General Conference can undo any change voted in 2019.  In 2020, Africa & Philippines (Central Conferences outside the US) will grow in their size (45%?) to the whole and other areas (the US and Europe) will decrease.

Region                    Delegates     %       Way Forward Members %

North Central          92                11%             9%

Northeast                86                10%              9%

South Central          108               13%            13%

Southeast               188               22%              22%

Western                  30                3%                 9%

Africa                      260               30%             23%

Europe                   40                5%                 6%

Philippines              50                6%               6%

Other – 10 (usually non-voting concordat churches)

While some persons believe that theology will win the day, votes matter more.  Joseph Stalin was once asked to consider the position of the Roman Catholic Church about a critical issue.  Stalin replied with distain, “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Assume (incorrectly) every NC, NE, W, and 50% of Philippines, Europe, and SC votes for UMC to change = 36% of General Conference (40% of Way Forward).

Assume (incorrectly) every SE, Africa, and 50% of Philippines, Europe, and SC votes no change = 64% of General Conference (57% of Way Forward).

But, if the majority of each area vote like the others from their area, it is clear who will control the final outcome.

Because of change global membership shifts, the 2019/202 gatherings may be the last General Conferences in which US Jurisdictions control over 50% of the votes.  This is the last or next-to-last chance for the US to control denominational polity.

The 2020/2024 General Conference may also then reverse any decision made in 2019.  No decision is ever final in our denomination.

About 40% of all General Church apportionments are paid by the Southeast Jurisdiction.  Central Conferences (congregations/conferences outside the US) pay less than 3% of General Church costs.  Not only the WNCC but also the general church depend on apportioned funds from our local congregations.

What happens in 2020-2023 quadrennial general church budget and subsequent apportionment allocations when 45% of the delegates, who give 3% of the money control decision making?

What are the financial reactions of the WNCC and its congregations to the issue of representation and “taxation”?

 

 

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