Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Case for Divesting from Africa

That's a tough title for a blog post. And I should be clear from the top that I'm not endorsing divestment. But I do think that a case can be made for United Methodists in the United States to change their giving and partnerships with African conferences without it being viewed purely as being punitive after the General Conference vote.

The argument is actually very simple. I have now been to four general conferences. At each of them there has been at least one speech from an African that goes something like this: "Africa is different from the United States. We need for you to understand that our context is different. We need to not recognize homosexuality as OK because in our context that is important."

I know that this is not universally true. I know a United Methodist in Nigeria who actively works for LGBT inclusion. I'm familiar with an MCC ministry (the MCC denomination is predominately LGBT) is Uganda, where it is illegal to be gay. But I will accept that this is largely true. This is one primary reason that the One Church Plan allowed decisions to be made by every annual conference and every pastor - no church in Africa would have been forced to change.

Because this is largely true, every general conference has respected the different contexts in Africa and other central conferences and has not forced a change. I believe that was and is the right thing to do. With that in mind, if I could talk to all the African United Methodists, this is what I would say today:

The United States is different from Africa. We need you to understand that our context is different. We need to not universally condemn homosexuality so that we can do ministry in our context." I recognize that this may not be true throughout the entire U.S. It is true, though, in my context. The fact that roughly 2/3 of U.S. delegates voted for the One Church Plan is evidence of this.

We have willingly entered into a relationship with Africa that recognizes that cultural adaptations need to be made. Now we need for that to be reciprocated. The truth of the matter is if that is not reciprocated then our connections with African United Methodists will end. As long as we are all United Methodist denominational loyalties will help us continue to work together. But if progressives and centrists are forced out by traditionalists (which is what they seem intent on doing) then that connection is severed. Why would I, for example, not work with the MCC church in Uganda instead?

I serve in the Great Plains Conference. We have three mission partnerships - Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Haiti. If Nigeria and Zimbabwe refuse to allow us to do ministry in the context that we live in does it really seem unreasonable to redirect our funds and mission efforts to other places where we can actually have a partnership? There are so many places in the world that can benefit from our work. Why would we feel morally compelled to continue a partnership with a group that is not treating us as a partner, too?

It would be morally unacceptable to reduce our total funding or mission work overall. We couldn't just redirect those funds to, say, our camping ministry or conference staff salaries. But we could redirect funds and efforts to places where there is truly mutual ministry.

Should we do that? I don't know. I haven't made up my own mind. But it's not crazy to ask the question.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Art of Eisegesis

This is not a post about General Conference or LGBTQ rights. But it does start that way.

Over the last several months LGBTQ+ allies have insisted that Jesus said nothing about same-sex marriage. This has been one of their responses to the use of "clobber verses" like Romans 1:26-27 that are used to show the Bible speaks against same-sex practices.

The response from traditionalists was...creative. Citing Matthew 19:4-5, they claim that Jesus did indeed speak against same-sex marriage. “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the creator made them male and female?And God said, ‘Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’” In reminding us of the words of Genesis, Jesus tells us that marriage is between one and one woman. Let's set aside for the moment that Genesis repeatedly talks about marriage as one man with multiple women and looks specifically at Matthew.

Taken at face value, one might concede that the traditionalists have a point. But it would be a mistake to take these verses at face value. This is actually a perfect example of something we are all guilty of - eisegesis. Exegesis is the art of interpreting scripture. Bible commentaries are full of exegesis and hopefully your pastor is as well. Exegesis helps us understand the meaning behind the text. Eisegesis is a lesser known word that means the opposite. In eisegesis we take our own interpretations and understandings and read them back into the text. One good (and for the large majority of us uncontroversial) example of eisegesis is end-time prophets. Somebody who is convinced that the world is about to end can easily take current events and find a way to interpret the Bible so that it seems to confirm the prophet's prediction. So far the end-time prophets have all been wrong - at least I think they have - but that doesn't stop others from continuing to make predictions allegedly based on the Bible.

The eisegesis of Matthew 19:4-5 is not much more complicated than those end-time prophets. The best way to avoid eisegesis is to look at the context around the verses (especially if the passage questioned cites only one or two verses.) In this case, the context is clear. In verse 3 Jesus is asked a question about divorce. "Does the law allow a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" Saying that Jesus answer rejects same-sex marriage is the same thing as saying that Jesus commands a married couple to be physically grafted to each other when he says the two become one flesh. That's just not what he's talking about.

The proof comes just two verses later when Jesus makes his point clear: "I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." This is also proof of how easy it is for us to practice eisegesis without realizing it. An amendment to ban pastors from remarriage was defeated at general conference by the same people who used the first part of Matthew 19 to same-sex marriage. There is no possible way Jesus meant for this whole passage to refer to same-sex marriage and also not refer to remarriage after divorce. No rational person can make that argument. But when we already know what we believe we tend not to think rationally.

My point is not about whether general conference ultimately made the right or wrong decision in continuing to ban same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ ordination. I'm quite confident that traditionalists could point to other texts that they believe I have interpreted wrongly. My point is that all of us, regardless of theology, must always be vigilant about how we read the Bible. We all interpret. Even the act of translation from the Hebrew, Latin, and Greek manuscripts to English involves interpretation. We all need to be incredibly careful that we do our interpretation as faithfully as possible.

Friday, March 1, 2019

A Glimpse Behind the Curtain: GC2019

I waited in the car for my contact to return. It was 10:30 at night in the parking lot of a hotel. My contact told me to stay where I was - it would be dangerous for the person we were meeting if I were to go inside. After a couple of minutes of nervous silence my contact returned with an African man who glanced around before coming to our vehicle. He opened the front door for a brief hug before sitting down in the backseat. We visited for about five minutes. He got out, returned to the hotel alone, and we drove away.

It sounds like a spy novel. But I'm no spy. I'm just a clergy delegate to General Conference 2019. The story is 100% true. After this encounter I was driven to a second hotel where I met two acquaintances. Together we followed my contact to a room and waited there until he returned with three people from another African country. We shared with one another for maybe 15 minutes and followed the same ritual in reverse for our departure.

I'm pretty naïve. I texted my daughter about what I was doing. When she asked why we were meeting so late in the hotel I told her that I thought it was because of the time zone difference - that maybe this was just the time that worked best for them so I was adjusting to their time as an act of hospitality. My contact cleared that up. At 11:00 not many people were milling around the hotel so it was safer to meet.

This is the nature of discussing homosexuality in a worldwide church with close to 40% of the votes coming from parts of the world where being gay itself is, in some cases, illegal. We counted our votes. We believed that we had a minimum of 88 votes from Africa and potentially 30 from the Philippines. We believed this because we had people we believed were working with us in those various countries who agreed that the One Church Plan was best for the denomination even if they personally did not agree with same-sex marriage or LGBT ordination. Today our estimate is of those 88 and 30 we probably actually received 15 from each. I don't know how any of the four that I met with that night voted. I do know that three of the four said if their vote was known they would lose their jobs.

The pressure on Africans in particular to conform to the wishes of their bishops and fellow delegates is intense. And the pressure on American delegates and political interests to use whatever tools are needed is real, too. Here's a portion of a message I received via Facebook from another African acquaintance last fall as we talked about how to increase our votes: "And let me be clear here about getting the votes from Africa on our side, we must do everything that we can do to make this happen. This is about politics and using money to influence votes from Africa must not be ruled out." Let me be clear that my response to this individual was an unequivocal "no." I was involved at the highest level of the One Church Coalition and I know of nobody in that coalition who ever took any unethical act to secure any votes. Quite the opposite. We were clear that if saving the denomination required bribery then it wasn't worth saving. The day after my late night meetings it was clear that we never had the votes for the OCP. We had been outmaneuvered before General Conference even began. So what do you do when the Traditional Plan train is rolling and you don't have the votes to stop it? You change the game and use strengths as a weakness. The traditionalists had given voting guides to all the African delegates. Please hear me - I do not doubt the ability of people from all across the world to have their own minds and make their own decisions. The cultural differences, language barrier, and parliamentary procedure make it very difficult to have everybody on an even playing field. It is also true that the traditionalists didn't want an even playing field. I'm quite confident that at the multiple meals and the days long pre-conference session for African delegates there was no attempt to give an unbiased view of the One Church Plan or Simple Plan. To the contrary, I was told by one African friend that if I were to speak on the floor I should make a point that I am married and have kids because Africans had been told that everybody who was not for the Traditional Plan was gay. You can hear me awkwardly mention my wife and kids at the beginning of the first speech I gave for precisely this reason. So we used the voting guide against them. The Traditional Plan as it passed is largely unconstitutional because of the one parliamentary victory that we achieved. At the beginning of legislative committee day the traditionalists quietly told everybody to vote for their amendments and then vote to Call the Question to end debate and go to a vote. We let them make a couple amendments - we argued against them but knew we would fail - and then we called for the question. This is how you know that so many people didn't understand what was going on. They needed a minimum of eight more amendments to make their plan constitutional. There was no rational reason a TP supporter would vote to end debate without those amendments. But the instructions given were clear: vote for our amendments and then vote to end the debate. So they did. We moved to end debate and even though we only had 45% of the delegates on our side of the question the motion passed 577-234. The incomplete, unconstitutional plan moved on to the following day's plenary session where we mostly successfully killed clock until the end of the General Conference session. I attended my first General Conference as a delegate in 1996. As we drove to Denver, my GC mentor told me that I would see the Church at its best and at its worst. The political machinations that you read hear and, I'm convinced by second hand accounts, far worse on the opposing side, are the Church at its worst. What will follow from this vile event will, I believe, be the Church at its best. General Conference has become the Principalities and Powers that Paul says in Ephesians 6 that we should work against. It is the evil and injustice that we are baptized to resist. I intend to do that. I invite you to join me.

Friday, February 22, 2019

General Conference Day Zero

I do not expect to write every day from St. Louis. Our official days are long and there are unofficial meetings both before and after sessions. So we'll take it a day at a time.

For today, you might consider reading this post from Chris Ritter. Chris puts his spin on a pre-conference meeting in Illinois. You need to take everything he writes with a grain of salt. There are reports out of Illinois that differ significantly from what he writes.

What I want you to focus on is a number that I do believe. Ritter shares that the WCA vote count from the U.S. is 180. Sounds like a lot until you remember that there are 504 delegates from the U.S. Multiple sources in favor of the OCP have said that we will have 2/3 of the U.S. in support. So that you don't have to do the math, 180 is 35%. In other words, Ritter and the WCA have confirmed what we've been saying. 2/3 of the United States, including a majority from every jurisdiction (region) of the U.S., support the One Church Plan.

The magic number for any proposal to pass is 433. The WCA has conceded that 324 of those votes will come from the United States. If the OCP does not pass it will be because fewer than 109 of the 360 Central Conference delegates, less than 30%, choose not to allow the U.S. to adapt to our cultural reality. I think that is very unlikely.

Friday, February 15, 2019

What a New UM Survey Really Tells Us

You may want to look at this survey that UM Communications commissioned. Right off the bat two shortcomings should be noted. First, with only a little more than 500 respondents it's hard to know how accurate it is. A statistician I am not, so maybe it is a large enough sample. Second, it consistently uses the vague terms progressive, moderate, and conservative.

The second point is especially important now as next week we consider a "progressive' Simple Plan (which some supporters argue is still not really progressive), a "centrist" One Church Plan (which some opponents call progressive), and a "conservative" Traditionalist Plan (which supporters call the status quo and some opponents call fundamentalist). But none of the three plans (and a fourth, the Connectional Conference Plan, which is a hybrid plan) focus on an overall theology. They focus instead of the question of how we include lesbian and gay people in the life of the church (note I only say the first two in the long string of letters LGBTQ+ because the plans only address those two initials - a significant shortcoming.)

This matters because between this survey and a separate Pew survey we have proof that our views on same-sex marriage specifically do not correspond precisely with our overall theology. The UMCOM study shows that 44% of U.S. United Methodists consider themselves traditional, a plurality but not a majority. 28% are moderate, 22% progressive, and the remainder unsure. For the record, I would put myself in the moderate camp. A 2014 Pew study reported that 60% of U.S. United Methodists believed that same-sex marriage should be accepted by society and 49% believed it should be accepted by the church. If every single progressive and moderate in 2018 believe in same-sex marriage AND if the UMC has defied all societal norms by not moving in a more pro-LGBT direction over the last five years then about 1 in 4 self-identified conservatives still believe that same-sex marriage is acceptable.

So, unintentionally, the UM survey tells us that what we are voting on at General Conference isn't really the biggest issue we face.

The survey also shows just how much we need each other. In his 2008 book Staying at the Table Bishop Scott Jones says, "Liberals need conservatives and conservatives need liberals. If one group leaves, we are all worse off." One question in the survey stood out to me. The question was whether the primary purpose of the denomination is to save souls or transform the world. Our mission statement says both - Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our statement is consistent with John Wesley who both preached about salvation and also visited prisoners in jail. In the surveys conservative/progressive breakdown the difference is stark. 88% of conservatives said our primary purpose is to save souls as opposed to 32% of progressives. 62% of progressives chose transforming the world as opposed to 12% of conservatives. Moderates, predictably, fell in-between. But our mission statement and our history say that we need both. In other words, Bishop Jones is correct. In order for us to embrace the full call of our denomination, we need both. We need conservatives to hold us accountable for our lack of evangelism and we need progressives to hold us accountable to be the Body of Christ healing the world. The left wing and right wing keep the bird flying straight. Our left wing and right wing keep our denomination going in the right direction even with the tension that we live in. And that, in a nutshell, is why I support the One Church Plan.

Here are just a few other pieces of insight:

1) None of us really agree about the role of Scripture. We are often told that progressive don't take scripture seriously - that the Bible is unequivocally our prime authority. The survey tells us that only 41% of conservatives view Scripture as our prime authority. Granted that is far more that progressives and moderates, but as someone in the moderate camp who does believe Scripture comes first I think this is a significant issue.

2) Progressives do take the Bible more seriously than they are accused of. When asked more specifically about how they understand the Bible, virtually nobody in any theological camp dismissed it as just an old book. 2/3 of progressives still call it inspired. I am equally disappointed in the 1/3 of progressives who don't think it is inspired as I am by the 30% of traditionalists who call it the "actual word of God and should be taken literally." That is a fundamentalist view. Broken down, then, roughly 15% of UMs take a fundamentalist view, roughly 15% take a view clearly outside of our doctrinal standards, and the remaining 70% have an understanding someplace in between.

3) There is remarkable agreement in many theological views. If you read the full report you'll see a series of theological statements that, with the exception of a belief in a literal hell, show a strong level of consistency. And also show no unanimity even among the three theological groupings.

Monday, February 11, 2019

One Church Plan - Impacts on Clergy

Getting the Facts Straight

As the Special Session of General Conference draws close, it is especially important for all delegates and interested United Methodists to gain as clear as possible a sense of the facts before us. There are and will continue to be legitimate differences of opinion and conflicting interpretations of implications of potential decisions, but there are also some realities we all ought to be able to agree upon. Tom Lambrecht of Good News recently posted comments about impacts on clergy that he perceives as possible from the One Church Plan (OCP). There are several misinterpretations that should be corrected.

Respect for Different Opinions

The One Church Plan makes more options for ministries and holy conversations possible. But it does not force people to engage in practices or conversations or even take votes, unless their faith communities want to do so. Tom Lambrecht rightly notes that the OCP gives clergy a freedom that they have not previously had to marry same-sex couples. He says, “The downside of this freedom is that local congregations would also gain the right to make decisions that until now have been made at the general church level.”

Impacts on Congregations

Certainly one of the most important benefits of the OCP is that it allows congregations to engage in holy conversations and make decisions that up to now have been suppressed or prohibited. Evidently, some fear having hard conversations in the local church about such matters. But no counselor would suggest that a family should categorically avoid such encounters. Certainly we don’t find Jesus avoiding hard conversations with his disciples. Nevertheless, if a congregation isn’t ready, doesn’t see the need, or chooses not to enter into discussions about same-sex marriage, under the OCP they have the complete right to make that choice. The OCP opens up more options about matters that affect the lives and faith of our people. It does not force conversations or votes.

No Need for Schism

The OCP takes great pains to honor the consciences of all people in these matters. In fact, the OCP explicitly protects individual conscience no matter what stance one assumes regarding same-gender relationships.

In his sermon “On Schism,” while acknowledging that there are specific situations when a person may need to leave a church, John Wesley speaks about this in a way that is entirely relevant to our current circumstances. “Suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein” (On Schism, II.7. emphasis added).

Freedom to Choose

Tom Lambrecht asserts that “Many evangelical clergy by conscience could not continue to serve in a denomination that they believe has contradicted Scripture…” But there is nothing in the OCP that requires any layperson, clergyperson, local church, annual conference, jurisdiction, or central conference to take any action. Any anxiety generated by pastors who choose to leave the denomination is caused by their own decisions, not by the OCP. There is nothing in our Wesleyan heritage and teachings and nothing in the OCP that introduces new reasons for any clergyperson to relinquish their credentials.

Tom Lambrecht points out that under the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP), “For clergy who are willing to abide by the current requirements of the Book of Discipline, there would be little change.” And the truth is that there would be no change for those same clergy under the OCP. And yet, to the contrary, with the MTP any clergy whose consciences lead them to differ from unbending interpretations that are advocated for inclusion in the Book of Discipline could find no place within our communion. 

The One Church Plan Honors Conscience

We can all agree that, as Lambrecht says, “In some ways, clergy may have the most to lose if the General Conference is not able to find a constructive way for the church to move forward.” But by careful and prayerful work, and with the endorsement of nearly two-thirds of our bishops, we do have a way forward that makes room for all.

Let’s choose then to move forward, together. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Ten Years Later - The UMC in 2028, pt. 2

In Part 1 we looked at what would happen to the UMC in the next several years if General Conference ends in any of four different outcomes. In this post we look at the final possibility. It's important for me to be clear that this outcome is my preference. I am trying, though, to be objective in what the future holds.

One Church Plan Passes with No Exit Path

  • Some churches, maybe many churches, will leave. Rob Renfroe from Good News and Keith Boyette from the WCA have both promised this and I have no reason to doubt them. We found out yesterday that this has been a known option for at least 15 years. It's important to note that the fact that churches will leave is proof that we actually do have an exit path. Unfortunately it is used regularly. The number of churches that will leave is impossible to quantify. Renfroe recently said 200 from the Texas Conference would leave, which is roughly 30%. In the Great Plains the number 50 has been used. That's 5%. It seems reasonable that the number will be between those two extremes. But note that as we saw in the first post some of these churches are leaving no matter what happens in St. Louis. It just isn't possible for us to know how many will leave with the passage of any plan.
  • An Exit Path will come up again. 2020 is one year away. If no exit path is passed in 2019 it is guaranteed to come up in 2020. And in 2020 I might even be willing to support some kind of exit. I agree with those who say it is not possible for all of us to stay in the same denomination. The difference is that I think 90% of us can stay together while the pessimists will insist that's not possible. Wise pastors, district superintendents, and even caucus groups will tell churches that want to exit to wait a year to see what happens. I'm convinced that one reason there is such a push for an exit path right now is to maximize the number of departing churches. The most important point in the 2004 document linked above is that Good News cited leaving the denomination largely intact as a disadvantage to departure. The WCA doesn't just want to leave if the MTP fails. They want to leave with as many people, pastors, and churches as possible. Those aren't my words. They are Tom Lambrecht's words in the 2004 document. Giving everyone a year to adjust before taking up a plan for exit is just common sense. Nothing will change so quickly that we can't wait for one year to make sure we get a plan right. I have talked to many progressives and have not heard any of them express a desire for holding hostages. Few have talked about the need to hold all the assets. An exit for a smaller number of churches can be accommodated after the crisis moment is over.
  • In the Central Conferences nothing really will change. The redefinition of marriage is a great talking point for opponents to the OCP. In reality, our definition doesn't change much. 131C in our Social Principles is essentially our definition. It is also one of the least changed aspects to the BOD in the OCP. For example, it will still say that traditionally marriage is understood as between one man and one woman. This will not be as hard to explain in central conferences as the fear-mongers would like us to believe. I trust that our central conference communicators will be able to share that a change has happened in some places in the United States that are irrelevant to the work that will be done in their countries.
  • In the U.S. not as much will change as some think. I'm the senior pastor of the largest reconciling congregation in the Kansas City metro. If I was able to perform same-sex weddings I would have one or possibly two couples ask me to do so right away. The reality is that people who have wanted to get married have not waited for us to catch up. They've already married. Outside of congregations already identified as reconciling there will be very few churches that even take a vote. Fear-mongers have said that if even one person in a church wants a vote then that will happen. A pastor would have to be really, really ineffective for one person to hold that kind of power. Similarly, most annual conferences will not choose to ordain "self avowed practicing homosexuals." We already know most of the ones that will.
  • There will be some resorting. Some clergy who are gay will move to a conference that is open to their appointment. More significantly to the average person, some churches will have shifting congregations. This will likely look different in different regions. In rural areas with few options and already well established relationships church members will most likely stay put. In cities where there are other options it's much more likely that parishioners will sort themselves into more comfortable settings. This is going to be challenging. Most of us in larger cities know that it already happens even now. The resorting will be uncomfortable for a few years and then it will be complete.
  • Bishops will keep making appointments - and most of them will be totally fine. I always believe what I preach. I don't preach everything I believe. I suspect that is typical. I trust that most pastors will be wise in how they choose to share their opinions and that cabinets will know where to put pastors to maximize their effectiveness. I also suspect that the pastors who are not wise enough to monitor how and what they say will have a hard time being effective for reasons completely separate from the subject at hand. I wish we all had a little more faith in our elected bishops abilities.
  • The debate will not end, or radically change. We will talk about this again in 2020. And 2024. And 2028. But, importantly, under this scenario it is by no means a forgone conclusion that General Conference will further liberalize their decision. 2/3 of U.S. delegates are going to vote for the OCP. If this was a U.S. only vote change would have happened before now. But remember that under this scenario there is not a widespread exit. There is a moderate exit. The coalition that will pass the OCP in this scenario is not one that would hold together to make more change. At best, the OCP will pass with around 55% of the vote. It's highly doubtful that small margin would hold for a further leftward push in 2020 or 2024 even if an exit path was approved. The votes certainly wouldn't be there without an exit path. And, frustrating to some and a relief to others, the fight for further equality will continue for the foreseeable future. 
There is more I'm sure. Let me know what I'm missing and I'll add to the list. The bottom line to this scenario is this: The One Church Plan without an accompanying exit path will not be painless. There is no pain free path in front of us. It will also not be unbearable. Without a rush to leave we will learn that almost all of us can continue to work and worship together, Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.