Friday, June 16, 2023

The Disaffiliation Story You May Not Have Heard

I've been on renewal leave during annual conference season this year so I've been following the goings on very loosely. Some headlines have still stuck out at me, particularly the ones excited about the number of disaffiliations (Jimmy Boone: “Updated June 9: We are now at 5,556. By July 1 projections show we will see a total over 6,000!”). I continue to shake my head at this excitement like this. Note it is not an excitement about building something up, but about tearing something down. It is, though, an important reminder about a disaffiliation reality you may not have thought about.

The most pessimistic (from my point of view) estimates suggest that when all is said and done, about 25% of U.S. UMC churches will disaffiliate. It will definitely be at least 20% I think most of us thought we'd end up between 15% and 20%, so no doubt this is a higher number than we had hoped for. But consider this:

  • As noted above, there are people and groups (the anonymously run "Leave UMC" comes to mind) who are fully invested in tearing the UMC down.
  • Organizations like The IRD and Good News have staff teams and hundreds of thousands of dollars fully devoted to promoting disaffiliation.
  • Disaffiliation forces have resorted to secular political rhetoric, using words like "woke" and "leftest" to provoke emotional and fear-based responses instead of logical and faith-based responses.
  • Pastors allegedly have had people as young as 8 vote on disaffiliation, had last-minute selective membership drives to influence the vote, and in one case had their mother-in-law join the church only to vote against disaffiliation so that they could use the parliamentary procedure of "reconsideration" if the vote failed.
  • Organizations are allowing churches to borrow money to fund disaffiliation.
  • "How to disaffiliate" webinars and rallies have happened all over the country.
  • Lies, misinformation, and mischaracterizations have been propagated consistently. The most generous statement that could be made about traditionalist leadership in the WCA and GMC is that they have allowed lies to be told without correcting those who have told the lies.
In summary, what we have experienced over the last 18-24 months is a full-frontal assault on the denomination. The forces aligned against the United Methodist Church have pulled out all the stops in their fight. They have given it their absolute best shot, using a repugnant means-justify-the-ends ethic to destroy the denomination.

They got 25%. That's it? All of the rhetoric, money, and energy and they could only get 25% to go along with them? I know this is no consolation for the churches and communities that have been torn apart by their efforts. The churches whose pastors have forced votes and the small towns who will now struggle to have any viable congregations because of the unnecessary destruction to relationships will not be relieved to know that there could have been even more suffering. They will still hurt and struggle to rebuild. The very groups saying they are committed to the Good News have done tremendous damage to the actual sharing of the Good News. I don't want to minimize that. At the same time, to only have one in four churches follow you when so much has been invested is, frankly, not very impressive. It is evidence for the point that so many of us made in 2019 and beyond that the Methodist movement is better defined by who we are for than who we are against. We actually are still a "big tent" denomination and we will not be bullied into giving up grace. 

In the years ahead, the UMC will continue to experience decline. You will be told that this is the inevitable result of our bankrupt theology and what we have experienced over the last few years. That's not true. It will be because of the demographic and sociological trends that have affected every denomination. But our end is not inevitable. It's not even likely. A house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:25). Those who have insisted on fighting are leaving. Those who are willing to live in peace are staying. Having withstood this onslaught, the UMC will now be positioned for a brighter future of sharing the Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Post-Separation Myths - Trapped Traditionalists

This occasional series examines popular statements that misrepresent what the United Methodist Church (UMC) will most likely be like following the 2024 General Conference.

Following the traditionalists' leadership withdrawal from the Protocol last May, it became clear that many churches would begin to disaffiliate from the UMC. I even encouraged it with language like, "those who need to leave, please do." I stand by that statement. If you absolutely know that you need to leave the UMC, then now is a good time to do that. But what if you aren't certain? What if there is, say, a 10% chance that your church could stay in the denomination? Traditionalist leadership is saying with one voice that if you are ever going to leave, it must be now because the provision allowing a church to leave that was approved in 2019 will sunset at the end of 2023. It is true that the provision (paragraph 2553) will sunset. That does not mean that you are trapped. Here's why:

1. As I've previously shared, the denomination moving in a more "progressive" direction does not necessarily mean what you have been told it means. 

2. While paragraph 2553 does sunset and there will be at least four months when it will not be possible to leave under its provisions, it is possible that the General Conference meeting April 23-May 3, 2024 will approve a similar avenue.

3. There will be other avenues for disaffiliation. For those wanting to leave the UMC, the most important aspect of paragraph 2553 is that it allows you to take your property and assets with you (i.e., the trust clause is suspended). When the paragraph sunsets, that guarantee is gone. However, in many cases your conference will be happy to work with you. The majority of churches disaffiliating right now are smaller, often more rural churches. In most cases, while your state and county will assign a value to your property, it effectively has little if any real value. The key question is, if you chose to close your doors and your conference sold the property, what kind of offer would be received? If you are in a rural setting, there' a reasonable chance the building would sit empty for years and be a liability to the conference. If you are in an area where the property is more valuable, you could still be waiting years for another church to buy it - and if there is not a church interested in your building there is a good chance it will need to be torn down for a new structure to be built. Our buildings are worth for more to us than they are on the open market, and your conference may not want an "asset" that could prove to be a "liability." In a situation like this, it would be in everyone's best interests to allow a church to leave with their property at minimal cost. Please note this is a very general statement and there are undoubtedly many exceptions.

4. The large majority of our conferences are truly working with those seeking to disaffiliate in good faith. There are exceptions, which is very unfortunate. There is a clause in 2553 that allows conferences to add on lots of costs. While I don't think it's in keeping with the spirit of General Conference, that clause makes it possible for a conference to make disaffiliation as expensive as they want it to be. This means that while there is no guarantee disaffiliation would be less expensive after GC2024, if you are in an uncooperative conference, it is equally unlikely that disaffiliation will become more expensive. Similarly, if you are in a cooperative conference, there is no reason to think that cooperation will stop January 1, 2024.

The sorting that we are doing right now will not end on January 1st, or at the end of the 2024 General Conference. If you are certain of the action you need to take, then act. There is truly no reason not to. But don't allow yourself to be pushed into a step that may not be right for you out of fear that you will be trapped.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

A Failure to Communicate

 I use the same language as everyone else in the United Methodist Church (UMC) today. We have three groups: traditionalists, progressives, and centrists (though some conflate the last two). I put myself in the third category. Like every system of categorization, the groups are helpful in how they simplify our conversations and also wholly inadequate at fully capturing those who are put into the categories. 

In an effort to be gracious to traditionalist leadership, I'd like to suggest that, at least in one way, the inadequacies of our categorizing has now overcome the helpfulness.

What is a Progressive?

People in conflict will often define their opponent and hold to that definition, even if it is flawed - and it usually is. The definition of a progressive that I see from many who identify as traditionalist is something like this:

- Ethically, adheres to the philosophy, "If it feels good, it must be right."
- Tolerates every belief other than "traditional" beliefs.
- Sees the Bible as an important but human book
- Jesus was fully human and NOT divine, born just like every other person, died like every other person, and was not physically resurrected.
- Miracles are not and never were real
- Salvation is universal and has nothing to do with the death or resurrection of Jesus
- Rejects all language of God as, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"

If this is what you hear when someone says the word "progressive," and if you have more traditional beliefs then you are probably alarmed when you hear news like every bishop elected in 2022 was progressive or that there will be no place for traditionalists in the future UMC.

Are there United Methodists who believe all of the above? I'm sure there are. You can always find at least one person who will believe anything. Loosely speaking, there is a thread within Christianity called "Progressive Christianity" whose adherents will believe most but not all of the tenets above and there are United Methodists who will identify themselves in this way. So, for example, you can find 72 Methodist churches (out of more than 40,000 worldwide) listed at

Within the current debate in the UMC, none of that is what we mean by progressive. 

Over the last six years, I've been involved in dozens of formal conversations and hundreds of informal conversations about the future of the denomination with people who call themselves progressives or centrists. As someone who holds to the core teachings of United Methodist Doctrine as found in our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and who, after reading their Book of Doctrine and Discipline completely, could sign off on 90% of the theological beliefs of the new Global Methodist Church, I can recall exactly one conversation where I felt my beliefs were criticized or mocked. 

What is a Traditionalist?

According to some of their opponents, the test of a traditionalist is simply whether you can tolerate anyone who believes differently than you do. Traditionalists:

- effectively worship the Bible by elevating it above Jesus himself. That is, if Jesus were to come back in this moment with signs proving without a doubt that he is indeed Jesus and said something that contradicts a literal reading of the Bible in any way, (say, for example, that creation didn't happen in six literal days) they would tell Jesus he is wrong because the Bible is always right.
- are really Southern Baptists in disguise
- Refuse to think critically and reject science
- Voted for Donald Trump and are members of QAnon
- Believe that any person who believes differently from them is damned to Hell for eternity.

If this is what you think a traditionalist is, you may not want to be in the same church or denomination with them. I know self-described traditionalists who don't believe any of these things. It is a caricature, just like traditionalists give a caricature of progressives. Are there United Methodists who fit this description perfectly? Sure - if you read the comments on Facebook or twitter you will see several! But out of the millions of United Methodists across the U.S. and around the globe, the number who fit this description is very small. 

Behind the Rhetoric

From the standpoint of a progressive or centrist, there is only one "litmus test" that distinguishes a progressive from a traditionalist in the UMC today - one's stance on full inclusion of people who identify as LGBT+. That's it. 

Example #1: I insist on calling myself a centrist, not a progressive, to distinguish clearly that I do not adhere to many of the beliefs you would find at the progressive website mentioned above. I've served as probably the most theologically conservative pastor at one church and among the more theologically liberal pastors at another and helped grow both churches. And I have never had someone in the movement to reform the UMC tell me that I am too conservative or traditional for them. 

Example #2: Leading up to Jurisdictional Conference last fall, all candidates for bishop were vetted by every conference delegation. Every candidate filled out paperwork, answered written questions of wide scope, and interviewed with full delegations. As is always the case, there was also organizing among similar-minded people prior to the conferences. There was a theological litmus test for candidates. They had to be committed to a future United Methodist Church that would move towards full inclusion. This is no different than a litmus test Good News, the WCA, or other traditionalist caucuses have applied in years past. Candidates had opportunities to share as much of their theology as they wanted to, but there was never, for example, conversation about candidate X or Y having too literal a view of the Bible or too liberal a view of salvation. That is not what we are arguing about.

The words we use must have meaning. People must be able to self-define what they believe. I write this hoping to bring clarification for the traditionalist "people in the pews" who have been unintentionally misinformed about what a future UMC will look like. There will be room for you. There always has been. 

Monday, November 14, 2022

General Conference 2019: A 2022 Epilogue

The day after the South Central Jurisdiction's election of bishops made history, I commented to a delegate how grateful I was that the election surpassed my already high expectations. She simply said, "David, we are just doing what we were elected to do."

It's true. 

In the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference, a conference that passed draconian language that you can read about here, here, and here, our Annual Conferences in the U.S. elected delegations that were, on average, over 75% progressive and centrist. These elections happened because we understood clearly that the Traditional Plan adopted by General Conference did not represent a future that the majority of United Methodists would want to be part of. Other reactions included the Connectional Table's plan for regionalization as well as the Christmas Covenant, a similar plan written by people outside the U.S. Across the globe, and particularly in the U.S., we vowed that this mean-spirited plan would not stand unchallenged. The election of bishops and passing of resolutions the first week of November, 2022 was the fruit of that vow.

This context is important. As I predicted the week before the elections, we are now hearing traditionalist leaders calling the elections proof that there is no place for anybody other than extreme progressives in the denomination. This is a misstatement for three reasons. First, our vocabulary is wrong. When you hear most of us talk about "progressive" and "traditional," we are not talking about a holistic theology. When I was in seminary, one person labeled me as "ultra-conservative" because of my beliefs. I don't think that was a fair assessment, but it is fair to say my core beliefs have not changed since then. I still believe all the basic tenets of the Christian faith and could, today, sign off on nearly every aspect of the Global Methodist Church's doctrinal and social statements. In many ways, I have a very "traditional" theology. But my interpretation of scripture has led me to a less traditional understanding of human sexuality, thus earning me the label of "progressive." I'm labeled progressive only because I believe in a) full-inclusion of people who are LGBTQ+ and b) a Church that allows for wide differences in opinion. If we must put people into groups, there is only one group who is being rejected by the denomination right now - the "traditional incompatibilists" who, by their own admission, believe that they cannot share a denomination with people like me. To be clear, even these people would be welcome to stay - they have chosen of their accord to identify themselves as people who cannot stay. 

The second reason bishop elections were not proof that conservatives must leave is that it is not the case that only theological progressives were elected. To be fair, I don't know the full beliefs of any of the elected bishops. I do know that there was no theological test of the candidates to make sure they were not orthodox. The WCA's Jay Therrell actually gives good evidence. Therrell is becoming famous for his unfiltered venting. His predecessor, Keith Boyette, was always measured and under control. Therrell comes across as someone holding a personal grudge. Yet even Therrell could come up with objections to only four of the thirteen bishops elected. The objections to those four are that one is gay (true - and with this we get to the heart of the matter), one made a poorly worded speech at GC2019 (true - my friend Tom Berlin was not the only person who could have chosen their words better during that highly emotional week, but all who know him understand the snippet that is being taken does not reflect his heart), and one didn't speak in an orthodox way of the incarnation (what really happened is she didn't answer a "gotcha" question the way the asker wanted her to and instead gave an on-the-spot answer that was theologically rich). The fourth objection, in my opinion, is potentially a legitimate concern that I would have asked clarifying questions about if the candidate had been in my jurisdiction. It is true that no "traditional incompatibilists" were elected - that is, we did not elect any bishops who believed they could not stay in a "big tent" denomination. 

Finally, we have to consider the nature of the episcopacy. A bishop has two complementary roles - as a member of the Council (and colleges) of Bishops and thus the General Church and as a Resident Bishop. Every bishop serves in both capacities. As one who appreciates the gift of theological diversity, if we were electing bishops only to serve on the Council of Bishops I would have intentionally endorsed candidates from a variety of perspectives. We are stronger when we have a variety of beliefs represented at the table. However, every bishop serves an executive function within a geographic area. We could not elect a bishop who would use that executive function to bring further harm to LGBTQ+ people in the immediate area they serve. It's really that simple. 

This year's jurisdictional conferences were not a rejection of people with a certain theological perspective. They were not a turning point in denominational history. They were the fulfillment of a promise delegates made when they were elected three years ago. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

Complaints about Bishops Are Going to Get Loud

 If all goes well, every bishop elected at our Jurisdictional Conferences the first week of November will be inclusive. You will undoubtedly hear rhetoric from traditionalist leadership that this is evidence traditionalists are not welcome in the United Methodist Church. This is not true.

One problem is how we have defined "traditionalist." If by traditionalist we mean someone who affirms the creeds and the core of United Methodist doctrine then, having looked through the papers and participated in interviews of the seven candidates in the South Central Jurisdiction, I can assure you we will be electing traditionalist bishops. But that's not what is meant by traditionalist anymore.

The common definition of traditionalist now is one who disagrees on whether LGBT+ persons should be ordained and whether we should be allowed to perform same sex weddings. Using this definition, we may or may not elect traditionalists. Honestly, that's not a question we have asked.

The way Good News and WCA will define traditionalist is as someone who will not ordain a person who has gone through the entire candidacy process and been approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Session of the conference and/or will follow through with the abeyance imagined in the Protocol. By that definition, there is a very good reason why no "traditionalist" bishop should be elected.

We are dreaming of a Church where there is freedom for interpretation. This is why, for example, progressives and centrists continue to want churches across the globe to remain United Methodist. We need bishops who share that dream. We are asking questions like, "Will you ordain an LGBT+ person who has been approved for ordination?" not, "What do you personally believe about ordination of LGBT+ persons?" That means:

- bishop candidates are NOT disqualified for having a conservative theology

- bishop candidates are NOT disqualified solely on their personal opinion concerning LGBT+ inclusion. 

- bishop candidates MUST be disqualified if they are not committed to a United Methodist Church that will truly be a big tent. Using the language many of us have become familiar with, that means any candidate who is a "traditional compatibilist" could serve well. Any candidate who is a "traditional incompatibalist" AND any candidate who is progressive but will follow the letter of the law instead of the spirit of where we are moving should not, and likely will not, be elected.

We have a number of outstanding candidates to consider with a wide variety of gifts and experiences. I'm looking forward to seeing how the Spirit moves in and continues to bless our denomination next week.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

A Lesson from St. Andrews

In the fast-paced environment of United Methodist news, the decision of St. Andrew's UMC in Plano, Texas to leave the denomination and not join another denomination is now old news. It's also not remarkable for a church to take these actions. Two things about St. Andrew's departure are newsworthy. First, they are leaving by taking advantage of an apparent opening in Texas law that allows a church's leadership to simply remove the trust clause from their bylaws. Second, the leadership has made this decision without a vote of the church. To the best of my knowledge, both of these actions are unique in current times. 

St. Andrew's pastor and executive committee chair stated, "The UMC has offered many services during the decades of our affiliation. However, as one of the largest churches in the system, we realized how independent we are, already providing many of our own services. The fact is we can protect our finances, our property and our pastors by going in a new direction.” This is the single most disappointing statement I have read in relationship to the United Methodist Church this year. It represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of our connection, whether we are talking about the United Methodist Church or the newly forming Global Methodist Church. We are not independent churches. We never have been. The quote from St. Andrew's leadership could well be translated, "We have used the denomination when it was helpful to us. Now that it isn't helpful to us, we're leaving." It reminds me of a church in the former Kansas West conference that left our denomination abruptly when St. Andrew's senior pastor's father was the bishop. That church's leadership also believed their mission could best be served independent of the UMC structure. But Bishop Jones, and presumably his son, rightly understood that we are more than a collection of individual churches. That is still true today even though the shoe is now on the other foot.

So I'm disappointed, both at how the leadership handled this decision with the church and, more generally, that the disaffiliation happened at all. So it goes. Life has disappointments. More constructively, there is a lesson to be learned.

St. Andrew's leadership was clear that their departure from the denomination is in no way linked to any of the arguments we are having right now. They are not leaving because of (as traditionalists would describe it) doctrinal disputes or (as progressives would describe it) concerns over full inclusion. They are leaving because they think they are better off without the denomination.

Countless churches who are helped by St. Andrew's presence in North Texas will be directly harmed by their departure - another disappointment. More importantly, in our individualistic society, there will be many other St. Andrews in the years ahead unless we who are in denominations can be clear about the "why' for our existence. To put it bluntly, while Rob Renfroe lobs lies at the UMC and people like me reply with accusations like I just did, churches like St. Andrews will increasingly say they don't want to be like either of us. Maybe this is why it is true that while more churches are leaving the UMC than many of thought would leave, fewer are joining the GMC than traditionalist leaders thought would. 

As I've stated many times before, those who plan to leave the denomination need to do so now so that we can all get about the work of being the Church. Those of us who plan to remain in the UMC are not without responsibility either. We must do the hard work of understanding not only what we are against - namely, the GMC perspective - but also what we are for and how we will live into the future God wants for us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Post-Separation UMC Myths - Changing Doctrine

This is the first in a short series of posts on myths people are sharing about what will happen in the United Methodist Church after the current wave of departures comes to an end. They are not lies or rumors. I think the large majority of people who share these really do believe what they are saying - they just aren't based in reality.

One of the most persistent myths is that as traditionalists leave the denomination, we will inevitably take a great step to the theological left. The logic seems fair - if a number of more conservative people leave the denomination, then what remains will be less conservative. But, as is often the case, the theoretical won't translate into the real world.

Denomination Standards

The first version of this argument was that after traditionalists leave progressives will be free to make changes to our official doctrine. This would happen through the action of General Conference. No doubt the U.S. component of delegates to General Conference will shift somewhat. We will, though, still be a big-tent denomination. There are many people who take very traditional positions on any number of theological questions and also believe in full inclusion for people who identifiy as LGBTQ+. It remains to be seen just how much of a shift there will actually be. Anecdotally, I have not heard any mention of attempting or even a desire to change any of our doctrine.

Second, even if there was a radical shift, it is nearly impossible to change our doctrinal standards. The vote threshold is simply too high - a 2/3 vote of General Conference and a 3/4 aggregate vote of Annual Conference members. Even if there was a desire, and I don't think there is, it simply couldn't be done.

This theory is so easily dismissed that virtually all traditionalist leadership has given up arguing it. They have shifted, instead, to a second approach

Practical Standards

By Practical Standards, I mean the doctrine that is actually taught by our pastors in our churches. The argument is that our pastors will now preach and teach different doctrine regardless of what is in the Book of Discipline. Unlike the first argument, this one is at least theoretically possible. There are three reasons why it shouldn't be a concern.

First, it is inconsistent with what has allegedly led us to the place where we are today. Remember that while most progressives and centrists say that our divide is centered on the question of inclusion, traditionalists like to say the real issue is doctrine and scriptural authority. In other words, the issue is not what will happen in the future, but what has already happened. It is entirely fair for a person to say, "I can't stay in a denomination that believes X." If that is our denomination, then go with God's grace. If that is not our denomination, then stay. Don't leave a denomination that does not yet teach what you don't want it to teach. 

Second, the exact same argument can be turned the other direction. I have shared before my concern for the future of women as pastors in the future Global Methodist Church. The closest denominational parallel we have for our split is the Episcopalian Church. The ACNA, their version of the GMC, gives each regional group (think our annual conferences) the option of whether to ordain women. However, I believe GMC leadership when they say they have every intent of maintaining the ordination of women. Thus, a better parallel may be the Church of the Nazarene. The Church of the Nazarene is in the Methodist tradition, ordains women, and does not have a guaranteed appointment of pastors - just like the GMC. Also, fewer than 10% of their pastors are women. While their official doctrine allows women to be ordained, the practice of the large majority of local churches is to not accept them as pastors. If traditionalist leaders want to assert that our doctrinal practice will not mirror our official practice, they must acknowledge the same for themselves.

Third, and most importantly, our pastors aren't changing. Remember the assertion is that our preaching and teaching will change regardless of what our official doctrinal standards say. Also, remember the accusation is that we are already not being held to the doctrinal standards. If these are both true, then what exactly will change once the separation moves further along? A concrete example: My preaching will not change if the Book of Discipline changes in 2024, just as it didn't change after General Conference in 2016 or 2019. 

The Bottom Line

The statement that our doctrinal standards will change is a classic "slippery slope" argument. These are alluring arguments because they can't be proven false. The future is not yet written, so anyone is free to speculate about what may or may not transpire. But here is what we know for sure.

1. Changing our official doctrine is nearly impossible.
2. Our pastors and teaches are not going to change their teaching

Given these two facts, the idea that our doctrine will either officially or unofficially change seems far-fetched.