Monday, May 18, 2020

Why Our Church Didn't Close

The church I serve chose not to close because of COVID-19. 

The reason is very simple - the Church as the Body of Christ is essential to the wellbeing of the country and the world. Closing would be an abdication of our responsibility. What has happened since the decision not to close has been remarkable. 
  • Our worship attendance has consistently been higher, with some weeks topping 25% more people than the same Sunday one year ago. People who used to call our church home and people who are brand new are all finding their way to us.
  •  Financial support of the church's ministries has remained strong, with some people picking up where others have had to reduce giving. 
  •  Additionally, the people of the church have given generously to special funds for the support of fellow members who have been adversely effected. 
  • Beyond our doors, we have partnered with a nearby congregation and school to ensure that kids who are out of school have access to good nutrition. We have also continued to support other mission work in the community that we were involved with.
  • Our creative staff has excelled in finding ways to involve people in worship, education, and soon in our kids summer camp who otherwise would not be as connected and our musicians have stepped up to the moment with the sharing of their gifts.
  • The congregation has stepped up to the challenge of the moment with flexibility and understanding that goes beyond what I would have envisioned. I am deeply grateful to them.
  • Members have also increased their usual number of "random acts of kindness," making a difference in the community on those occasions when they get out and lifting people's spirits with calls, emails, and notes.
There have certainly been challenges for us. The biggest one is that we have had to remain open without one of our greatest assets - our building. The government, rightfully, told churches to close their buildings so that we won't accidentally spread a harmful and sometimes deadly disease. This is no different than in 1918 except that today we have infinitely more options for connecting with each other and the world than we did 100 years ago.

The government can close a building, temporarily, for the wellbeing of the community. The government can't close the Church. Nobody can do that any more than they can stop children and teens from silently praying in schools. The Church can't be closed because, like the old song says, the Church is not the building. The Church is the Body of Christ. The only way that the Church can be shut down is if the Body decides to shut itself down. Even then, something tells me that Christ's name would still be praised

So about 10 weeks ago we closed our building. The same day, we opened the door to a new way of being the Body and living our faith. We're still figuring it out and we still look forward to getting back into the sanctuary, hopefully someday soon. But, building or not, we're still open for the essential work that we are called to fulfill.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Renegotiating the Social Contract

The world has changed again.

We know to expect these changes to happen. We just don't know when or how they will emerge. We also don't know how long they will last before the next change. So what is the specific change I'm referencing?

Just last year Gil Rendle published a great book on "Leading the Church in a Changing World" - which is really what most of his writing has been on for several years now. One of Rendle's many contentions is that the social structure in the U.S. has changed from an aberrant time of high trust in institutions to low trust. He identifies the post-war years as the height of this time and reflects that the church will now need to accept the unchangeable reality that institutional trust is lower and that individualism over collectivism is inevitably on the rise. "Building institutions of the common good was not seen a distraction from the pursuit of a secure future but as a necessary building block," but now, quoting Hugh, Heclo, "the correct way to get on with life is to recognize that each of us has the right to live as he or she pleases, so long as we do not interfere with the right of other people to do likewise."

Put another way, once upon a time people expected to invest in institutions and in others for the sake of a common good. Today, if people invest in an institution and in others they expect a return on the investment. They expect to get out more than they put in.

I won't argue with Rendle on this point. I think he's right. I think this has been the standard for several years now, decades actually, and I think Rendle has rightly identified this as a major challenges for churches. The social contract was renegotiated and nobody asked us for permission to renegotiate it.

But I do think Rendle may have made an error in his thinking - one that perhaps all of us have made. He says the post-war years were an aberrant time - they were "not normal." I've said and believed the same thing. In light of COVID-19, I would contend that the error Rendle made is in implying that there is such a thing as "normal."

Without doing the sociological research, let's say for the sake of argument that the trust in institutions began in 1940, roughly the beginning of World War II when we had to trust in the war effort, and began to wane in 1970, the year of the Kent State shooting. That's 30 solid years of institutionalism. Let's then consider the 70's a transition time before the rise of individualism in the 80's. By the time Gordon Gekko said, "Greed is good" in 1987 we were in full swing. 1980-2020 gives us 40 years of individualism.

COVID-19 is clearly teaching us that for society to survive we sometimes have to put the good of others ahead of ourselves. In the short-term and as a person in a low-risk group for complications, it is in my personal best interest to go about my life as normal. This is what the notorious spring-breakers on the beach did. But, as is often the case, that's only part of the story. But they may be the exception. More generally, younger generations seem to be more socially inclined than older generations. That may mean more trust in institutions (at least in those institutions that show they are worthy of trust) and a greater understanding of our need for mutuality.

If, and it is a big if, this traumatic moment in our history reignites a swing toward mutuality and higher trust in institutions then a 30 year social contract embracing collectivism followed by a 40 year period embracing individualism will be followed by an as yet undefined period of collectivism. The only normal is that the social contract is periodically renegotiated.

What would that mean for us? As a church leader, it means reemphasizing again the most important metaphor we have - the Body of Christ. It really is true that when one part of the body hurts we all hurt (I Cor. 12:26). It means reminding ourselves that the first church gave freely of themselves for the sake of others (Acts 2:43-45). I hope it means not a blind trust in institutions, but accountable trust. Churches will need to be outward focused ("How can we represent Christ in the world?") instead of inward focused ("How can we make more converts so that we can grow our group?"). By my way of thinking, those changes would be good and more reflective of God's intent for the Church. We are, first, not individuals but members of the Body. If the world comes to see this again and if the Church is willing to embrace this again we will be better prepared for the next crisis and more faithful to God's vision for the Kingdom.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Unraveling the Protocol

When my wife was a young child her mother made most of her clothes. As Tracy set off for school one day wearing a beautifully crafted new sweater my now mother-in-law said, "Tracy, that sweater has a loose piece of yarn on the arm. You can wear it but you must not pull on that piece of yarn.

You know what she did. How could she not? By noon tearful Tracy had to go home because her sweater was now missing an entire arm.

Pull one thread on some industrial manufactured jeans and you'll be fine. Pull one thread on an artfully crafted clothing item and you may well have a problem.

It is called "the art of compromise" for a reason. We were fortunate to have an elite artist, Kenneth Feinberg, work with a group of 16 to craft a deal that could resolve our differences. At the moment of highest tension at the 2016 General Conference I called a friend to say that if someone moved to dissolve the denomination it would not pass and if someone moved to continue the denomination it would not pass. We were stuck. In 2019 some thought we would get unstuck through the Traditionalist Plan. Clearly, and as acknowledged by traditionalist leaders themselves, that is not the case. Enter Feinberg with one more chance.

That is what we have here - we have one more chance. No other denomination has ended this kind of feud well. The last time we were at a point like this, just before the Civil War, we did not end it well. Now we have one more chance.

But people keep pulling on the thread.

  • WCA board member Chris Ritter has published an alternative regionalization plan. The WCA has endorsed the Protocol and been clear that they do not intend to remain in the UMC. A board member recommending a plan that he will not even be around to see, and pitting it against a regionalization plan like the Christmas Covenant which was created and shepherded by central conferences, seems disingenuous.
  • The Liberia Annual Conference passed a resolution calling for multiple amendments, including considerably more money and other provisions that would make the Protocol resemble the Indianapolis Plan.
  • Tom Lambrecht, Vice-President of Good News, responded to the Liberia decision in part by saying, “We hope to arrive at a unified strategy with the Africa Initiative and delegates from Europe and the Philippines in approaching the protocol.” It could be that Lambrecht means Good News hopes to use their considerable influence with the Africa Initiative and others to calm fears and move forward with the protocol together. It could be that this quote was taken out of context by the UMC News reporter. That's not what it sounds like to me. Note: after this was written the Africa Initiative released a statement endorsing the protocol legislation while also urging three changes. This is an important step in the right direction and improves trust both with African and U.S. leadership.
  • WCA regional leader Keith Mcilwain told me on Facebook, "for my progressive friends to realize their dreams, they may have to wait until 2022," because, after voting to separate the denomination, traditionalists will continue to vote against removing what progressives and centrists consider harmful language. Note this is what would happen AFTER already effectively voting to leave the denomination.
  • Separately, last month I had a conversation with a third leader of the WCA (although it was in a public space I don't feel I am at liberty to share the name) about adding another $10 million and the UMC name and emblem for Africa to the deal. 
The authors of the protocol have been abundantly clear that when we pull one thread the whole thing will begin to unravel. I just listed five threads that are being pulled. That I know of. And four of the five are right out in public.

Here's what it means to pass the protocol - separation, regionalization, and removing language. This is clear in Article VI of the original protocol. These are the strings that simply cannot be pulled:
  • Separation - We  must commit to passing the legislation as it is submitted. Any amendment, even those genuinely intended to improve the protocol, will ultimately decrease support. One reason is that opening the door to amendments will only increase the number of amendments.
  • Regionalization - Pass the Christmas Covenant. This legislation, created and submitted by central conference delegates, is the most complete and best of the regionalization plans. It is consistent with but superior to the Connectional Table plan. We will not be able to fully implement this until constitutional amendments are passed, but we at least need a start.
  • Remove harmful language - Some traditionalists may not be able to stomach removing language, even if they are planning to leave the denomination. For those who plan to leave, I believe one can still maintain integrity by either abstaining or by giving their seat to an alternate delegate. Recall that the language only needs to be removed - it does not need to be replaced with language that affirms LGBT+ relationships or clergy. 
Don't pull the thread. Don't repeat St. Louis. Don't take away the opportunity for all groups to get something and force us into a self-destructive, lose-lose proposition. We will leave Minneapolis together with all three of these elements or we will leave with nothing but an embarrassing witness to the world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Like It or Not, We're In This Together

The ink on the legislation for the  Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is barely dry and it may already be on the verge of fraying.

Regretfully, I think the Protocol is the "best bad decision" available to us right now. So I support it. As a progressive on LGBT+ inclusion, I favor the Protocol because it allows for the possibility of regionalization and eliminating harmful language in at least portions of the denomination. I am grateful that progressive and centrist leadership is maintaining this stance.

- The first elected delegates from the Western Jurisdiction have all signed on to all three of those goals.
- The centrist Cavite conference in the Philippines has also approved both the Protocol and The Christmas Covenant (a good regionalization plan).

While I hope that ultimately the post-separation UMC will still be a big-tent church, I do not begrudge those who need to pursue a different path. The Protocol gives them that opportunity. So I am also grateful for the traditionalist leadership, like Keith Boyette in this piece, that has continued to advocate for the Protocol. 

The key to this all working is Article VI of the original Protocol statement. Article VI was not turned into legislation, but it is a piece of the agreement signed by all 16 members of the negotiating team and with the names of 10 others who were involved for months in the process. Framers and others have since recognized that there are some practical limitations to implementing all of this article precisely as written. The intent, though, remains. The intent includes 1) passing a regionalization plan and 2) repealing the harmful LGBT+ language. Understanding that some, maybe most, traditionalists will not be comfortable voting for those changes, Article VI suggests that those who intend to form a new denomination act with integrity by not participating in the discussion of a denomination that they will not be in. All that makes sense, right?

Now for the But.

This only works if we don't get in each other's way. And I don't think that is happening. Here's the evidence (so far).
  1. Chris Ritter, a member of the WCA Board of Directors, has proposed an alternative to regionalization. He goes so far as to say, "Traditionalists will not support passage of the present regionalization plans at GC2020." Ritter was not a signer of the Protocol, but he is a board member of an organization that is. I am not aware of any board member of any progressive or centrist group that signed the protocol making any statements contrary to full support. The key is full support. I become skeptical when board members of signatory groups hedge.
  2. The Liberia Annual Conference just passed a resolution recommending four significant amendments to the Protocol. Jerry Kulah is one of the most influential voices in the Liberia Conference, indeed in all of African Methodism. He is a leader in the Africa Initiative, which is inextricably linked to the "reform and renewal" groups in the U.S. like Good News and the WCA. Like Ritter, he is also a WCA board member. Liberia "unanimously"  passed these amendments - which simply could not happen without the full endorsement of Kulah. Like Ritter, Kulah was not a signer of the Protocol. One can even reasonably say that Africa was underrepresented in the group of framers. But the agreement has to be that we move forward with the Protocol as is or we don't move forward at all. There are lots of amendments I would like to make - and I'm not going to make any of them for the sake of all of us getting to the finish line. U.S. traditionalist leaders have reminded us for years that Africa and traditionalists will vote in lockstep together. Is it unreasonable to question how such an important player as an entire Annual Conference could potentially blow the deal up before it is even officially before us? Was there no "Please don't do this  - help us work together" phone call? Or was there an "I can't say this out loud but you can" conversation instead?

    3. Today, Mark Tooley of the IRD wrote a glowing report of the Liberia decision. Tooley also was not a protocol signatory - but he was a participant in the conversation whose name appears on the original agreement. It is reasonable to assume that the protocol would never have been approved without Tooley's tacit support. Yet he has never officially signed on and is now hinting at undermining it.

    It is in everybody's best interest for the protocol, regionalization, and removal of harmful language to happen. Nobody will get all of what they want. All of us will be disappointed to some degree. This is inevitable in any true negotiation. If all of these three pieces don't pass then we all lose. We will spend millions of dollars on lawsuits. We will still part, but now with total animosity. General Conference itself will be a nightmare. Our trust is so low that the only way we can make this happen is if we all truly work together.

    I'm all in on the Protocol. I promise 100% support on the condition that it includes Article VI - that we achieve regionalization and at a minimum begin to remove the harmful language in the Book of Discipline. If that doesn't happen then I immediately move from 100% support to 0% support. We are either in or out. This is a time for our yes to mean yes and our no to mean no. We know that General Conference is full of dysfunction. We must be fully honest with one another so that we can end the dysfunction and move on to our new realities.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Pastors - It's Time for the Talk

I don't like conflict. I don't think anybody becomes a pastor because they look forward to conflict. Yet if we are going to lead - and an effective pastor must lead - conflict is inevitable. One mark of a leader is how we handle the conflict that arises.

Friends, we are in the midst of conflict over the future of the Church. The reality is that 99.9% of our churches are also in conflict. I don't mean to say every church is in crisis. The amount of conflict is different in different places. In one place it could be a true crisis with a 50/50 split about staying or leaving in the denomination. In another it could be just one or two voices speaking in one direction - or even just our own internal conflicts over leaving a denomination we love or an impending end or change to relationships. Wherever the church you serve is, the reality is that conflict has arrived.

As peacemakers, our temptation is to avoid the conflict. We may do that by delaying conversation about it ("We'll talk about it after General Conference makes a decision"). We may deny it ("I think everyone in our church pretty much feels the same way.") We may relocated it ("The real problem is those other people.") None of those approaches demonstrate leadership. If we are going to lead our congregations it's time to have the talk. Delaying and denying the obvious serves no purpose.

I've had the talk in two churches - one after the 2019 General Conference and now a second after a July 1 appointment change. The first church is relatively young and a reconciling congregation. The second is an established "big steeple" church that is more theologically diverse. For what it's worth, here are some principles that have been helpful for me.

Name the Reality

I'm convinced that we all agree on 90% of the same "stuff." You can name that. It is also important to name that we don't all believe exactly the same. I introduced this most recently by telling the congregation that I gathered together in the sanctuary all of us who believe exactly the same things in theology and politics. Then I showed them a picture of our empty sanctuary. Everyone on both sides of the division laughed because we all recognize that where two or three are gathered there will be differences of opinion. Naming the reality disarms some of the anxiety that your congregation is undoubtedly experiencing.

Name Where You Are

Everybody knows you have an opinion. You may have hidden it well, but they still know that you have it. If they are not certain of your opinion then you can be sure they are guessing at it. Why not end the uncertainty and just say where you are? You might say something like "If you listen to me preach long enough your bound to disagree with me on something. This may be one of those times. For many reasons, this is what I believe..." You might also include a number of beliefs that you know everyone shares as a reminder of what holds us in together. Name where you are but only if...

Give Permission for People to Believe Differently

I'm convinced that people will give us permission to believe differently than they do as long as we give them permission to believe differently than we do. Don't say, "At this church we all believe...." If some don't believe that way you have excluded them. If everyone does feel that way then it probably doesn't need to be said. You might instead say, "Here's where I am. I know that you may not be in the same place. Regardless of what you believe about this or any other subject I am glad we have been able to serve God together and I am grateful for the opportunity to be your pastor."

Prepare the Congregation for What's Next

It's hard to prepare for what's next when we don't know for sure what is next. You can still do some preparation. For example, we do know that something will happen at General Conference. Even if nothing passes it has become clear that we will not continue to live in the same denomination as we have before. You can say that. You could also say, "The plan getting the most attention right now is the Protocol. If it passes, then our annual conference will most likely vote to.... If we want to stay with the other churches in our conference we don't need to do anything. [Most churches will stay in the same conference and will never need to vote. That knowledge alone could deescalate some of the anxiety people feel]. If you think we should do something different then we would have until  the end of 2024 to take a vote. So we will have plenty of time to decide what we need to do." [We get more anxious when we have to make a quick decision].

Give Permission to Grieve

This is hard for all of us. We all will lose something. Change really is hard. It is not helpful to pretend that this is not true.

Give a Word of Hope

John Wesley's dying words were, "Best of all, God is with us." That hasn't changed. We are still called to be Christ's witnesses in the world. Our mission is the same and our God is the same. That's Good News, and nothing that happens in the denomination can make that change!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Most Right for Now

Nobody ever wins a divorce. Ever. One person may not lose as much as another, but everybody loses. Even in a divorce that is necessary, like in an abusive marriage, nobody wins. Staying safe from harm isn't a win, it's just survival.

We should be clear that the Protocol agreed upon by a respectable group of progressives, centrists, and traditionalists is a call for divorce. And yet, there is some reason for hope. Perhaps because of the profound lack of trust that each group has with the other there have been times when it have felt more like some have been more concerned with making sure another group loses than that ones own group wins - to use Steven Covey's language, we would be more satisfied with a lose-lose scenario than a win-win. With the help of a professional mediator, the group that wrote the Protocol has potentially helped us avoid a lose-lose. Nobody "wins" everything, but everybody "wins" something.

U.S. Traditionalists
This is not who I am so I am open to correction from those who claim this camp. There are some traditionalists, notably in the WCA, who have wanted to leave the denomination for some time. This plan let's them do so with their local church property and the formation of a new denomination. That's a win. Other traditionalists genuinely wanted to reform the denomination from within. For them, leaving is a loss. But the reality is that those of us in the center and progressive wings really truly are not leaving. Further, from a purely political standpoint, the votes in the jurisdictions are in place to elect bishops throughout the U.S. who would not enforce the Traditional Plan. The hard reality, which may have been a motivator for traditionalist leadership, is that the 20019 vote in St. Louis awoke a giant centrist voice in the U.S. that rebuked the direction traditionalists want to take the church. There was no guarantee that the 2020 General Conference would go there way. So, while it is not a total win, traditionalists who want to reform the denomination will get to live out their beliefs in a new denomination. My sincere hope remains that many traditionalists, using now familiar language, the traditional-compatibilists, will choose to remain in the new UMC. Almost all traditionalists have wanted a smaller institution with less bureaucracy. A new start with a new denomination is the perfect opportunity to implement this.

U.S. Centrists
This is where I place myself. On the question of inclusion I am unabashedly progressive. On most other theological questions I am very much in the center of the denomination. Once it became clear that there was no way to preserve the denomination as we know it - once the traditional wing defeated the One Church Plan - some degree of division was entirely and regrettably inevitable. For centrists, the hope is that as few people leave as possible. That is why we have advocated for a high bar for conferences and churches to leave the denomination. Contrary to traditionalist talking points, the One Church Plan DID have an exit path - it was the existing exit path in the Book of Discipline which has a high bar. We did not want it to be easy to leave but we did want it to be possible. The 57% threshold for a conference is not as high as I would like but I understand why traditionalists could not live with it being higher. It seems like an acceptable compromise. I'm not a fan of the local church choosing the vote threshold for choosing differently than their conference. I don't understand this part of the Protocol, to be honest. But, again, it's compromise. It is not a total win. And yet there are significant pluses that I am happy with. I want to stay United Methodist. For better or worse, that name really is important. We will have to work hard at rightsizing the structure. That will be a difficult and painful task. But, with God's grace, we'll be up for the task and ready to move forward with all that are willing.

U.S. Progressives
Some on the theological left are complaining that the group was not adequately representative. I get that, and I also understand why the moderator would be clear that there is an upper limit to how large a group can be to effectively negotiate. If it were me, I would have pulled out a couple bishops and added in someone under 50 (even under 40?!?) and another person of color. I suspect we would all have a slightly different formula for the perfect group. Progressives in the U.S. gain two important pieces with this plan. If there are progressives for whom this plan does not go far enough, there is the option of a new denomination. The $2 million offered to this group is very small compared to the $25 million for the traditionalist group, but the reality is that the negotiating team is correct that a potential progressive denomination would be considerably smaller than a traditionalist denomination. That's just how the math works. I would also ask progressives to walk back in time one year ago. Given the events of the special General Conference, I don't think a credible argument can be made that progressive United Methodists would have better options before them other than $2 million to form a new denomination or the opportunity to end the discriminatory language in our Book of Discipline. The goals of the Simple Plan are within reach. That is a good thing.

My friends in Africa are troubled. There is deep concern from some about a WCA denomination based on the draft plan for a new Book of Discipline. Some feel betrayed and let down. There is no question that the large majority of Africans are theologically more traditional AND there is no question that the large majority of Africans very much want to stay United Methodist. I would argue that under this plan Africans could have both. Along with the bulk of the U.S., they could stay United Methodist and with an additional degree of regional decision-making they could remain theologically conservative. Ultimately, though, the win for Africa and all central conferences is that they will get to make a choice. Maybe it is that lack of trust talking again, but I believe too often the U.S. has used people from Africa in particular as pawns in a U.S. game. I know that's how some of them are feeling right now. The charge some have made that going to regional conferences is a racist ploy to not let black Africans control us is outrageous. The reality is that we still have a colonialist mindset. Our current Book of Discipline which allows non-U.S. conferences to make adaptations effectively says, "The U.S. does things the normal way. If you're not normal like us you can make changes to fit your abnormal system." Regional conferences level the playing field for everyone. That's why many of us favored a U.S. Central Conference several years ago even when it was clear that moving in that direction would not alleviate the discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline. Now central conferences will be able to make their own choice without being placed in the middle of a U.S. conflict.

Other Central Conferences
Europe and the Philippines are complicated and more diverse than we might think at first. (See the first comment below on Europe, for example, which necessitated an edit to my original post). I can't speak well to either area and hope for additional comments from those who can.

People who are LGBT+
I consider myself an ally and I acknowledge that I cannot speak for people who identify as LGBT+. What I've heard from friends so far is mixed. Some love this plan and some hate it. What I'm certain of is that discrimination will not end because of the implementation of a plan. I've shared before that at the 2016 General Conference the lay leader from an annual conference told me without apparent embarrassment that 90% of churches in that conference would not accept a woman as a pastor. Legislation can help with discrimination. It can't end it. So I understand that for some this does not go far enough fast enough. I also understand that for many this is a huge blessing. It is not a win. It is more like ending the abusive marriage that I started with. It is not a win, but it is safety. It is progress. For that, I'm grateful.

The Money Question
One last piece. There is common frustration with the $25 million gift from the UMC to the traditionalists who leave. I've got to say that for me this is the least troubling aspect of the entire plan. I can't verify the accuracy of this report, but one blogger who seems to have a handle on the situation says the Episcopal Church has spent upwards of $60 million on lawsuits in their division. And that was four years ago. I have no reason to believe we would spend any less. I have friends who are attorneys. I love them. And I don't want to pay them $60 million.

The Most Right for Now
This is not a win. Divorce is never a win and we need to be clear that this is a divorce. Divorce of a church body is not, I believe, God's desire. I believe the Church is a partnership of the Divine and the Human. We are at a moment when the Human component of the Church is forcing a divide that the Divine component of the Church does not desire. But here we are. In our imperfect state we must, as they say, play the hand that we are dealt. The church I serve recently decided to move from three worship services to two. We formed a group, a negotiating team if you will, that explored eight different models for restructuring our Sunday morning - nine if you include just leaving everything the same. I didn't like any of them. All of them had pluses and minuses. None of them was perfect. So I came to appreciate the phrase that one of the members of the team shared - we ended up agreeing to the plan that was "the most right for now." The arrangement our church will use on March 1 is not perfect but it is the most right for this moment of time. Sometime in the future something else will be the most right for that time. I'm convinced, at least in this moment, that the Protocol team did a faithful job of discerning what is the most right for now for the People called Methodist. May we all pray for continuing discernment as we move towards General Conference and for the day that we are reunited in a new "most right" moment.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A Reminder for Rob Renfroe

Rob Renfroe's latest editorial is a mess. I don't have any other word for it. His overall point is made clear and well in his very last words. "We have traveled the same path for many years, really decades. It has led to acrimony, disobedience, dysfunction, and decline. It's time to choose a path that will make all the difference." True enough. The problem is the editorial is more than those final three sentences. So here's a reminder of some truths that matter.

The editorial is titled, "Who Will Prevail in Minneapolis?" Then the entire editorial pretends that traditionalist leadership has always wanted a peaceful, respectful solution where everyone wins. As the title itself suggests, that simply is not fair or true. Here's why:

1. The entire editorial puts the word "centrist" in quotes. You know that putting something in quotes is a literary way to discount it. It means; "They call themselves centrists but we know they really aren't." Let me make this personal. In one of my last two appointments, the knock on me before I arrived was that I was too conservative. In another appointment the knock was that I was too liberal. I think that qualifies as centrist. Rev. Renfroe has boiled all theology down to one question. Do you approve of same-sex marriage and ordination? My answer is yes. And I also can say the creeds of the church without crossing my fingers behind my back. And I know many pastors and laity who can say that exact same thing. Renfroe must make this about progressives and traditionalists. In the real world there are many variations in-between.

2. Renfroe claims he and other traditionalist leaders want "a solution that has no winners or losers." I don't believe him. In fact, as I and others have previously shared, in 2004 Good News published a document that explicitly says a disadvantage to traditionalists leaving the denomination intact is that " It also leaves the United Methodist denomination somewhat intact". I want to state that again.

Good News, which Renfroe claims wants no losers, published a strategy document that explicitly says progressives must lose. And, in fact, when you listen to traditionalist rhetoric it is easy to understand why. If those who favor full inclusion (progressives and many, many centrists) are truly distorting God's word and will then one can understand why they would want us to lose. We have previously been called false teachers by traditionalist leaders. Forgive me for finding it difficult to trust an organization that has called me and those who I agree with false teachers and our continuing existence as a denomination a disadvantage.

3. Renfroe asserts that centrists and progressives want "an abrasive and harmful fight they believe they can win." I can assure you that this is not the case. Most of us believed there were already appropriate ways for churches to withdraw from the denomination. Now it is clear that there must be a way for larger blocks of churches to form something new. No serious observer of our denomination will argue that there is a way forward where the entire denomination stays intact. It is not possible. The issue that remains is how we can best facilitate separation of those who must separate. The reason centrists and progressives believe that traditionalists are the ones who should separate is that they are the only group that has said they are willing to leave. This is why the centrist and progressive group UMC Next has a proposal that "provides a method for groups of churches to form new expression of Methodism." The door is open. We are willing to open it wider. And we will not call you false teacher or put your descriptors in quotes on the way out.

The Bottom Line

At the end of General Conference 2020 we will set the terms for the divorce. The traditionalist caucuses have consistently vilified centrists and progressives. We have consistently said that we really truly want to work together. They have refused. Because traditionalists have refused, the divorce must happen. A marriage cannot last if one party wants out. The remaining questions are 1) How many churches will choose to be United Methodist and how many will choose otherwise and 2) How will we divide the assets. UMC Next, the Indianapolis Plan, and other proposals all have different models to answer these questions. Don't let Renfroe or anyone else distract you from the reality.