As I briefly explained to Gideon and Greenbrier UMCs on Jan. 26, every year at this time, pastors and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) of their churches enter into a time of consultation about pastors' appointments. Appointments begin each each year at the end of June. In the Tennessee Conference, every appointment is for one year at a time, basically from the beginning of July to the end of the next June.
During the still-ongoing consultation process it became clear to the SPRC's of both Gideon and Greenbrier that I will not be returned to the Greenbrier-Gideon Charge as pastor. The two predominant reasons are:
Retirement of pastors in the Conference this year will likely be higher than average, which causes more moves than usual.
The financial condition of both congregations, especially forecasting to January 2021.
Here is why January 2021 figures in. Starting this year, 2020, every church is fully responsible for paying all of its pastor(s)' health insurance premium and pension "match." For 2020 only, the Conference is paying half of the insurance premium and three-fourths of the pension match. Starting Jan. 1, 2021, both subsidies drop to zero. That means that in the middle of the appointment year, the direct-billing total rises very sharply -- for Greenbrier church alone more than $9,000 and for Gideon proportionately.
Both churches have been faced this year with declining offering amounts chiefly because of deaths of members whose giving has not been significantly offset by other members, and by persons moving away, either literally by moving van, or figuratively by attending another church.
(Almost every UM pastor either within our conference or outside it I have spoken with, and it has been a lot, have said their attendance has also dropped. That many, maybe most, of the departures have resulted from the ongoing turmoil in the UMC regarding actions of last February's General Conference, and the guaranteed continuation of it coming in this May's GC, there is little doubt. )
With all of this as background, in my consultation meetings with both SPRCs, we all agreed that my continuation as pastor of this charge was not financially supportable. Frankly, had the SPRCs' members not already understood that, I would have put it on the table. But we all knew this. The main task now for each church's SPRC is preparing for their own consultations with our district superintendent, the Rev. Scott Aleridge. I continue to work with both committees on that.
As for myself, Cathy and I had always planned on retiring in 2022. We frankly see little point, and have no desire, to move our home and begin new at another church, then retire after only two years there. I do not think it would be fair to that church. And, since Greenbrier is very north in the Conference, any move would almost certainly take us farther away from our new grandchild to be born in March. Add the hassle of selling our home and possibly having to buy a new one, or live in a parsonage for only two years, then move our household again, and other things like that. For these reasons, I informed Rev. Aleridge last weekend that I would retire this summer.
As I said Sunday, Cathy and I are deeply grateful to the people of Greenbrier and Gideon churches for the time we have been here, and for the five months I still have to enjoy as your pastor. It is possible that I may be asked to take a part-time appointment somewhere within driving distance, but there is no way to know now. But today, you and I serve our Lord and one another in love, thanks be to God!
I wrote this with non-UMC readers in mind, so I do not dwell on the minutiae of the recently-released "Protocol" document. Besides, this is long enough without that.
Just after New Year’s Day there was national and regional news coverage announcing, “United Methodist Church Announces Proposal to Split Over Gay Marriage” (NPR), or similar headlines.
Why did this become suddenly worthy of such large-scale coverage? That the church has been wrestling with homosexuality since at least 1972 is no secret. Accurate headlines would read, "United Methodist Church leaders agree to catch up to fact that the UMC is already splitting over gay rights."
The UMC is the America’s second-largest Protestant denomination with about 7.5 million US members, and about that many around the world, with the largest foreign numbers in Africa.
So, what is the situation now, what comes next, and what after that?
“Status quo” is Latin for “the mess we’re in”
In fact, nothing has been decided and no actual actions have been taken to split the UMC. That a split is nearly certain to come before this summer is not much in doubt. But what the details will be no one can predict.
The UMC’s only body that can determine policy denomination-wide is the General Conference. Presided over by bishops, who can speak to issues but may not vote, the GC convenes once per four years and does not exist in between. It will convene again on May 5. The “gay issue” will certainly be the priority matter. Voting delegates come from the church’s conferences, which is what the UMC calls dioceses. The number of delegates is fixed; how many come from each conference is based on their membership number. Delegates per conference must be both laity and clergy.
So, what will the fight be about?
The present canon law of the UMC, called the Book of Discipline, says this:
• ¶ 304.3: The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. View full statement.
• ¶ 341.6: Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.
This has been the policy for many years. However, a special, called General Conference in February 2019 added mandatory penalties for violations and prohibited giving …
… United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The UMC "not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends."
That GC also adopted means by which churches that could not abide by these provisions could withdraw from the UMC while retaining possession of their real estate and buildings. Some did, but not many.
Instead, the vast majority of progressives remained in the UMC to continue the fight. This caused two major consequences:
Traditionalists rebelled against the never-ending infighting and started to leave the UMC individually, causing a significant decline in attendance and collections. This was amplified by the relatively smaller number of progressive Methodists who made the same choice. Progressive churches (in aggregate) sharply dropped paying their apportionments (denominational dues) in protest. Only two months after the special GC, The Hill reported, "Liberal Methodist churches withholding dues after denomination vote to ban LGBT-inclusive practices." Presently, the denomination and its congregations are financially tenuous.
While traditionalists patted themselves on the back for winning, progressives redoubled to orient on the election of delegates to this May’s GC. As a result, it is generally acknowledged that the majority of American delegates elected are clearly progressive.
Long before the “Protocol” was released on Jan. 3, clergy from one end of the spectrum to the other had concluded that some sort of split of the UMC was not merely inevitable, it was desirable.
That the new changes to the Discipline formally provided for churches to withdraw was simply dismissed by UM progressives. They were determined that the UMC itself would become fully progressive, not some church splintered from it. That determination has not lessened.
The near horizon
True, the Protocol is not even on the agenda for this May’s General Conference, although there are ways it can be added. Even so, that it was released by the COB in an obviously pre-planned, coordinated national media campaign for maximum coverage, compels pulpit pastors like me to understand a sobering fact: We may not be interested in the Protocol, but the Protocol is very interested in us.
... the Protocol does not allow local churches or conferences to remain neutral any longer. In its current configuration, the Protocol requires that a choice be made—even if that choice is not to vote and thus remain in the post-separation UMC after the dust settles. The fight will now be taken to the local level.
The Protocol simply torpedoes whatever remained of the center. The center, or what was left of it, now no longer exists. When the president of the Council of Bishops is a Protocol signatory and its first appearance is on the COB's web site, the idea that there remains sort of centrist path is shredded. It is reasonable to assume that this is the outcome preferred by a clear majority, perhaps all, of the UM's bishops. On the date of this post the UM News Service announced that members of the team that developed the Protocol "will be interviewed in a live-streamed panel discussion on Monday, Jan. 13" for an hour at 9.30 a.m. EST on umnews.org. No other proposal for General Conference on this or any other topic has received such genuflection, which IMO speaks volumes.
So even if some bishops think there should still be a middle way, their peers have shut them down. (Remember, though, that the Council of Bishops formally endorsed a centrist plan for the UMC at the February 2019 special General Conference, and it was promptly rejected by both left and right.)
Pastors' shepherding of congregations through the coming schism will be challenging, to say the least. Each pastor will have to choose a side while still pastoring all the people of the church, and the people will be choosing their sides, too. Most congregations' members will not be unified with one another. I have known, for example, members who hold the traditionalist position but who also have homosexual close family members. For them, the issue is very personal. And that puts ministers right here:
The reason is that congregants will fall into three basic groups of response:
Those who will leave the church because the pastor chose the "wrong" position,
Those who will leave the church because the pastor would not announce his/her position,
And those who feel so deeply rooted that they are not going to leave their church no matter what, or who simply want this whole issue to just go away - at least until a very progressive or very traditionalist pastor takes the pulpit in their church. Then, to borrow Robert Heinlein's metaphor, they will hoist the Jolly Roger.
Which is to say, we ministers (but not only us) are being presented with a Star Trek Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario, for which this Forbes article is useful in understanding in trying to maintain ethical leadership. It explains, among other things,
A crucial feature of good ethical decision-making in the real world is understanding the limits of your powers. You try to make choices that bring lots of good consequences and minimal bad ones, that fulfill your obligations to everyone to whom you have obligations (including yourself) — but you’re doing it in a complicated world where you must make your choices on the basis of imperfect information, and where other people are doing things that may impose constraints on your options. Ethics cannot require us to be omniscient or omnipotent. This means that sometimes even the most creative and optimistic ethical decision-maker has to face a situation where none of the available choices or outcomes are very good.
Even allowing for all that, the Protocol's basic premise that traditionalists and progressives must divorce one another is hardly disputed within the UMC. The Protocol likely will be added to the handful of "split up" proposals already on the General Conference's agenda. For sure, no one expects “the mess we’re in” to continue post-GC.
A safe assumption is that at least two Methodist denominations will arise from this May's GC. One will be progressive/liberal and the other orthodox/traditionalist/conservative. What the actual names will be who knows, but theologically and ideologically that’s how they will be. There could be other denominations, too.
It must be recognized that individual churches will get to choose. If My Town UMC's conference votes to be in the progressive church but MTUMC's members are mostly traditionalist, then MTUMC's members will be able to vote to join another denomination. But they will still lose some members when they do. Likewise if a progressive congregation votes to leave a traditionalist conference. Not all the sheep will follow. Shrinkage, probably dramatic at that, is inevitable.
And then what? There will be no Promised Land for either faction.
Both or all new denominations will be significantly down-funded from now. Staffs at the denominational, conference, and local-church level will diminish and there will be significant downward pressure on salaries from top to bottom. That means that most pastors and staff who can retire will do so and those who cannot yet retire but have other options will take them. The already-over bureaucratic structure of today's UMC will not collapse, exactly, but it will shrink a lot. Even assuming there is an amicable split, or at least not an angry one, the coming few years will not be unicorns and rainbows for either progressives of traditionalists. I think both denominations will have many difficulties getting organized (which is to be expected) but also fights over their respective purity codes will erupt also. That is, what is it that marks one as a True Traditionalist or a True Progressive? Neither side can answer that right now because any answer given now is mainly influenced by the "mess we're in" and not what will pertain then.
Both denominations will find themselves bickering about a whole host of matters other than homosexuality, which as a topic will be off the table anyway. This will further cause church members to vote with their feet, accelerating the decline of Methodism in America. The Baptists or the MCC , however, will probably be very grateful. And then there was this posted by a friend I have known since before the internet:
Went to a Catholic funeral. At the supper I mentioned how beautiful their church was. The answer was, "Beautiful yes, but it takes a lot of money for upkeep. We couldn't afford it if it were not for all the Protestants that are converting."
That will continue.
Where do we find God here?
I hope for a far finer future than I envision. But as a very senior leader observed in my prior career, "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." In our history since our founding in the Christmas Conference of 1784, there have been quite a number of splits. The only one approaching the scale of what is coming this year was a full-scale schism in 1844 over slavery. But slavery was ended and the two denominations finally reunited. The coming schism will be permanent. After all, homosexuality is not going to simply be ended like slavery was.
I know that God never withdraws his grace and guidance. Jesus' resurrection never becomes less efficacious. But I also remember this:
And we will get it good and hard.
If you think I am overstating all of this I only reply, wait and see. Because you ain't seen nothing yet.
The outcome will be like this, only it will not be funny.
(Washington, D.C.) - A diverse group of representatives from United Methodist advocacy groups with contrasting views and bishops from around the world has collaborated on a proposed agreement for the separation of The United Methodist Church (UMC) that has the unanimous support of all the parties involved.
The action comes amid heightened tensions in the church over conflicting views related to human sexuality after the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference failed to resolve differences among church members.
Legislation to implement the Protocol statement — an eight-page document detailing the terms of a split of the 13+ million-member denomination — is expected to come before the United Methodist General Conference for a vote at their legislative meeting in Minneapolis, Minn. in May 2020.
The 16-member group came together as an outgrowth of a consultation initiated by bishops from Central Conferences located outside the United States. The parties sought assistance from prominent attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who specializes in mediation and alternative dispute resolution. Feinberg, who served as Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund, along with a number of other complex matters, agreed to provide his services pro bono.
Meeting over several months, the unofficial group reached an agreement by signatories associated with all of the constituencies within the UMC for a mutually supported pathway for separation, bridging differences among other plans to be considered by the General Conference. “The undersigned propose restructuring The United Methodist Church by separation as the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person,” says the Protocol Statement.
The document’s signers include representatives from Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and the United States, and include persons representing UMCNext; Mainstream UMC; Uniting Methodists; The Confessing Movement; Good News; The Institute on Religion & Democracy; the Wesleyan Covenant Association; Affirmation; Methodist Federation for Social Action; Reconciling Ministries Network; and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus; as well as bishops from the United States and across the world. The representatives have pledged to work together to support the proposal and develop legislation to implement it.
The Protocol anticipates the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. Once formed, the new church would receive $25 million over the next four years and give up further claim to the UMC’s assets. An additional $2 million would be allocated for potential additional new Methodist denominations which may emerge from the UMC. Acknowledging the historical role of the Methodist movement in systematic racial violence, exploitation and discrimination, the Protocol would allocate $39 million to ensure there is no disruption in supporting ministries for communities historically marginalized by racism.
Under the Protocol, conferences and local congregations could vote to separate from The United Methodist Church to affiliate with new Methodist denominations created under the agreement within a certain time frame. Churches wishing to stay within the UMC would not be required to conduct a vote. Provisions exist for entities that choose to separate to retain their assets and liabilities. All current clergy and lay employees would keep their pensions regardless of the Methodist denomination with which they affiliate.
Under the Protocol, all administrative or judicial processes addressing restrictions in The Book of Disciplineof The United Methodist related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same-sex weddings, as well as actions to close churches, would be held in abeyance until the separation is completed. The Protocol also references a plan which calls for a special general conference of the post-separation United Methodist Church. The purpose of the Special Session would be to create regional conferences, remove the current prohibitions against LGBTQ persons, and to repeal the Traditional Plan.
Speaking on behalf of the group, Bishop John Yambasu (Sierra Leone) stated, “All of us are servants of the church and realize that we are not the primary decision makers on these matters. Instead, we humbly offer to the delegates of the 2020 General Conference the work which we have accomplished in the hopes that it will help heal the harms and conflicts within the body of Christ and free us to be more effective witnesses to God’s Kingdom.”