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.

#CurrentUnitedMethodism Is Alive

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Photo Credit: Joe Iovino

Another week, another UMC-related hashtag, but this is one that I can get behind with full force.

The rumors of the UMC’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Last summer when I went on my Wesleyan Pilgrimage with the UMC’s Discipleship Ministries, I met Joe Iovino. Joe is a web content manager with United Methodist Communications (UMCOM), which means he oversees and contributes a lot of the articles and other electronic publications of the UMC and UMCOM. Joe has felt a lot of the same frustration I have in the seeming obsession of so many of the church’s best and brightest in what a new Methodist movement may look like in the #NextMethodism discussion. Like me, Joe feels that the church needs to be about God’s business now instead of pining away for something new, and he feels that there is need to highlight the good things that UMs are doing right now. Also, like me, Joe disagrees with those who have seemed to give up on the church and are ready to throw it all away as dead and useless.

Joe has begun a conversation that I feel is an important one to have, much more important than giving in to the distractions that the enemy can use to derail the work that we should be doing now. I want to contribute to that conversation in hopes that several others will join in and that we will help the world and our well-meaning colleagues to see that there is work to be done now, there is much more to be done now, and that we are wasting our time and potentially giving in to a trap set by Satan to keep us from doing that work.

One of the tenants of any Wesleyan, but especially United Methodists, is putting our faith into action. I want to share stories from two churches: My own and one pastored by my friend and mentor Rev. Phil Bradley.

Shiloh United Methodist Church is the church that I am appointed to. Shiloh is located just outside of the city of Stanton in Powell County, Kentucky. Powell County has one of the highest rates of poverty and drug use in the Commonwealth and arguably in the nation. Powell County can be a tough place to do ministry but there is also so much greatness everywhere and, at the risk of being biased, among the people called United Methodist. Shiloh participates in the county’s ministerial association and we were the host church for this month’s Praise in the Park, an ecumenical community worship service held in a city park. 200ish people enjoyed some great food, heard some amazing music, and heard of how we are all united in the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Backpack Blessings backpack and school supply drive is underway which will culminate in the donated backpacks, donated supplies, and school items of Shiloh’s students and school staffers being prayed over at an upcoming worship service. The donated supplies will be taken to the schools throughout the county to be given to students in need. Additionally, we are in the midst of a heatwave and Shiloh is opening its fellowship hall as a cooling station and offering water, fellowship, and the love of Christ.

This is faith in action. This is #CurrentUnitedMethodism.

My friend and mentor, Phil Bradley, is wrapping up his first month as the new pastor of Bardstown (KY) United Methodist Church. Last weekend, a young man named Tariq Armour drowned in a tragic accident. Tariq was a beloved member of the community and the death was devastating to many, especially his friends at Bardstown High School. Bardstown UMC opened their doors to the student body and to the community for a grief counseling session facilitated by professional counselors, as well as teachers and administration from Bardstown High School. Bardstown UMC showed the community that they were loved and that they were grieving along with them. Most importantly, Bardstown UMC shined the light of Christ into the darkness of grief and showed one and all the love of Christ.

This is faith in action. This is #CurrentUnitedMethodism.

These are just two examples of how United Methodists are ministering and moving right now. There is much work to be done. I say again, the enemy can use our denominational struggles to distract us from the vital work that we have to do now. I simply will not allow myself to give in to that trap and to concentrate on a future that may or may not even materialize.

#CurrentUnitedMethodism is strong, alive, and being used of God for his work. Our church will be even stronger if we resist the temptation to throw it away and instead work as we have been commanded to do.

#NextMethodism? What About #MethodismNow?

Another day, another UMC-related hashtag.

The hashtag flavor of the week is #NextMethodism. Some of the United Methodist Church’s brightest – mainly on the conservative side but a few moderates – have been engaging in conservation about their visions, hopes, and dreams of what may come out of any split of the United Methodist Church. The authors seem convinced that the UMC is too far gone to save and so they are preparing for something new to come about, perhaps in the form of a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

If such a thing were possible, John Wesley would be spinning in his grave that such a discussion was even happening.

I know, I know… The whole Methodist movement came about from a schism within the Church of England. And I also know that Wesley never set out to begin a new church. But once the new church began to take shape, Wesley had some heavy expectations out of the people called Methodist. In a nutshell, it was his way or no way (the whole bishop thing excluded) and he was not afraid to let his pastors know that they were out of line. 

I can not help but think that if Rev. Wesley were alive today, he would be having some serious discussions with several of our clergy to remind them that their minds were better served by offering the people Christ now instead of engaging in political pandering and other activities which I believe are unbecoming a clergy person.

This discussion has borne a little quality fruit but mostly it has yielded only horse apples.

There have been conspiracy theories and accusations floated, name calling and backbiting, defensiveness, and a general smug tone taken by those engaging in the #NextMethodism discussion. And frankly, I feel that much of the childish behavior that I have witnessed has been vastly unbecoming of a clergy person and some of the people involved would do well to check themselves.

And at least one lay person (who is no longer UM, I may add) would do well to stop his childish name calling campaign.

I have also been outright offended by some of the articles that have been written (that I will not even dignify with a link from this blog – you will have to find them elsewhere). One particular gem was “The #NextMethodism Will Believe in Christ.” Another was, “The #NextMethodism Will Be Biblical.” Really? So, am I to believe that you, as UM clergy, do not proclaim Christ or proclaim scripture, therefore you want a do-over? 

If one attends any given UMC worship service, they will hear scripture proclaimed and the name of Christ lifted up. In many instances, they will also experience the body and blood of Christ consecrated and given to the people. Hopefully, they may even see and participate in faith being put into action outside the walls of the church.

That is #MethodismNow

I know there is clergy who like to proclaim their political agendas from the pulpit instead of preaching the gospel (this does not seem to be confined to one particular political realm or another) but the vast majority do not engage in this behavior. This entire notion of “they’re bad so I’m going to take my toys and go play somewhere else, and here’s what I want it to be like” is just plain ridiculous.

We have better things to do than further advance political causes to score points with the leadership of any potential new denomination. I am also way too busy ministering in a very drug-infested and poverty-stricken area to be too concerned about engaging in such discussions.

I am not naive, I realize that the UMC as we know it likely will not exist in a few more years. I am also not naive enough to think that I will not have to make some serious decisions about how I live out my calling to pastoral ministry. But I also am not willing to engage in fruitless discussions or to accuse the current UMC of being anything but a Christian church (a charge that I think is despicable).

If there are those among us who truly feel that they can no longer minister in the UMC, I may encourage them to begin considering where they can best serve God and go there.

When it comes to such discussions, I will end with the words of the great philosopher Sweet Brown: Ain’t nobody got time for that.