Imagining What’s Next in the Methodist Movement

John Wesley preaching at the market cross in Epworth, England.

There was a time – 2016 to be precise – that I was completely against any sort of break off within the United Methodist Church. Part of me still wishes to find some way to maintain some sort of unity, but my views have softened as the years have gone by. The work of the Commission on a Way Forward has been completed, a special session of General Conference voted on proposals, and yet the in-fighting has continued until it has reached a fever pitch. My opinion now is that a separation of some sort is going to be in the best interests of all parties so that we can continue doing the work of God’s Kingdom. I could give plenty of “hot takes” of what this should look like, but there’s really no use in engaging in such. There are plenty of others who are eager to do this (if you don’t believe me, just search the #UMC hashtag on any social media platform).

With an inevitable split becoming apparent, I have been keeping my eye on what could be next. The Protocol on Reconciliation Through Separation that has been drafted and proposed by a group representing the spectrum of theological thought within the UMC, while not perfect, seems to be the most equitable means to end the fighting and to move forward. Since the Protocol has been released, I have been watching for proposals for changes within the UMC as well as proposals for new denominations. The only significant work toward a new expression of Methodism, at least as far as I know, has been done by the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

WCA has released two portions of a proposed Doctrine and Discipline for a new traditionalist church. The first section deals with doctrinal standards and clergy deployment. I gave some thoughts and a proposal for changes to their proposed clergy deployment strategy a couple of months ago. In speaking with someone involved with WCA leadership, my proposal was well received by those who read it. I’ve also had conversations with other pastors who I know to be aligned with orthodox theology and they expressed similar concerns to the ones I conveyed, that is that women and persons of color would have a difficult time securing placements under a modified call system. In addition to my thoughts on the proposed clergy deployment system, I offered these thoughts on the proposed doctrinal standards:

I find that their doctrine seems spot-on with expressions of orthodox Methodist/Wesleyan belief. High regard for the sacraments – including baptism of children and babies – is retained and other important Methodist distinctives are contained. I like that WCA has incorporated the creeds as foundational doctrinal standards as well.

The doctrinal standards are solid and strong, and a great representation of Wesleyan theology. In the draft, I noted no fundamentalist bent or overt attempt at excluding anyone. From where I sit, I believe any true Wesleyan would be hard pressed to find anything in the doctrinal standards they disagree with. In fact, this section is almost identical to the current Book of Discipline (with the draft’s inclusion of the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed being notable exceptions).

Since that time, a second section has been released that details credentialing of ministers and a few details of how clergy are to conduct ministry. As with the first section, I like the work that has been done, particularly in providing multiple pathways by which one may be ordained an Elder. Theological education is absolutely required – as it should be – but how one obtains that education is much more flexible under the proposed Discipline. There will still be required subject matter and approved schools but even a clergyperson who completes a course of study outside of a traditional seminary education may have an opportunity to obtain Elders orders. I believe this is a very positive step in the right direction, one that will allow more people to be ordained as an Elder with less debt that if they had attended seminary.

I have written previously (here and here) of expanding the role of the licensed local pastor (LLP) within the UMC. Under WCA’s proposal, local pastors would be ordained as Deacons and be granted sacramental authority when serving as the pastor in charge of a local congregation or charge. As mentioned above, one obtaining their theological education by course of study would be an option in seeking ordination as an Elder. There is currently an option for an LLP to become an Elder within the UMC, but the candidate must obtain a bachelor’s degree and complete additional seminary-level coursework in addition to the standard course of study. In theory, the additional material could be incorporated into the standard course of study, thus enabling a clergyperson to be ordained in a more timely fashion. Likewise, Provisional Elders would also be ordained as Deacons – a practice that ceased some years ago in the UMC – and would be granted sacramental authority while serving a two year residency in preparing for ordination as an Elder.

LLPs would also have full voice and vote on all matters within the annual conference. I believe this is a major positive, something I have also championed in the past. What remains unclear in the proposal is whether or not LLPs will be eligible to serve as delegates to General Conference (this portion of the proposal has not been released yet). The ability for LLps to serve as clergy delegates to General Conference is something I believe is essential, as LLPs currently provide a significant amount of the pastoral ministry within many annual conferences (in Mississippi, LLPs outnumber Elders), therefore ought to be able to participate in shaping the overall ministry of the church.

Overall, I like the work that has been done in this proposal (with the noted exception of the proposed clergy deployment system). Of course, we must remember that what has been presented is a proposed draft so nothing is final. Assuming that WCA’s proposed church is formed, the convening body would still have to approve a discipline, doctrine, polity, etc. Also, a split is not even final, as General Conference is the only body that can actually initiate the work of an official separation of any sort (and as of today, the UMC’s General Conference will not meet until sometime in 2021).

Diversity of thought is not necessarily a bad thing (more on that in a moment) but it’s become clear that those whose interpretations of marriage differ will continue to focus on the issue to the detriment of the mission for Christ. While I lament separation, I acknowledge that this may be the best course of action for the long term. However this shakes out, I would hope that any denominations that form as a result of a separation can carry on some mutual ministry. Missing an opportunity to have an eccumenical relationship between two bodies with the same roots would be a real shame.

I remember a sermon that Bishop Swanson gave at Central UMC in Meridian sometime leading up to General Conference 2019. I’ll never forget a statement he made: “We don’t all have to think alike to be together.” When I wrote previously of diversity, I was talking about a lot of things: Diversity of race, gender, and, yes, theological thought. Not everyone within the universal church of Jesus agrees on every single facet of theology and doctrine, yet we are all united in Christ. In my mind, a snapshot of the kingdom is our unity in Christ in spite of our differences in opinion. I have my convictions but that does not mean that I can’t minister to or be in ministry with someone whose convictions are different than mine.

I hope you will join me in praying into whatever is next in this movement called Methodism. Let’s lean in to how God is working during this time and join in that movement. God is not done with us yet.

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