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.

WCA Leaving Regardless? It Seems Possible

StillUMI have not been very quiet about my issues with the Wesleyan Covenant Association ever since I realized their tactics. Recently, I met with someone who is high in the WCA leadership at the conference leadership and we had a nice long chat over coffee. I do appreciate his willingness to meet with me and I do believe he earnestly listened to my concerns. He was very sincere in his answers as well. I still felt uneasy about WCA after our meeting so I have maintained my distance.

Ever since Rev. Brian Collier was allowed to remain part of WCA’s leadership council in spite of WCA’s insistence that it existed to strengthen orthodox ministry within the United Methodist Church and in spite of the fact that Collier led his congregation (The Orchard) out of the United Methodist Church, I felt like some of my suspicions were correct. At the time, I felt that WCA was likely planning to form a new denomination and to leave the UMC at some point.

I hate to use the term “I told you so” but, well, I told you so.

Last night, Mainstream UMC released a letter, purported to have been sent out by the North Alabama chapter of WCA, detailing plans for WCA after the specially-called session of General Conference in a couple of weeks. It would seem that unless WCA gets their way – or even if they do get their way – they are planning to take their ball and go play in a yard that they will make. Also, as of this moment, no one from WCA or WCA itself has refuted the contents of this letter (if this happens, I will edit this post to indicate such).

WCA has set April 25-26  as the dates for the convening conference of the “Next Methodism.” Further, they have apparently had a team of leaders working together on how the denomination will be set up, core beliefs, etc. Many of these were adopted at WCA’s last gathering. So, what are the chances of WCA actually leaving? Per the letter:

If the One Church Plan is passed, there is a 100% probability of calling the convening conference. Our current evaluation is that the proponents of the One Church Plan do not have the necessary votes to enact that plan.

If the special General Conference adopts neither the One Church Plan nor the Modified Traditional Plan, or adopts a Traditional Plan with no enhanced accountability provisions, there is a 70% probability of calling the convening conference. Our current evaluation is that this is the most likely outcome for the special General Conference.

If the special General Conference adopts the Modified Traditional Plan with the enhanced accountability provisions, there still may be churches which are intent on departing from the United Methodist Church. The WCA will work with those churches to transition into a new Methodist movement. Those churches which indicate a desire to be part of something new will be invited to a convening conference. Other churches would be given the opportunity to move to what is new at a later time, if they decided that became advisable. Our current evaluation is that there is a higher probability of the Modified Traditional Plan being adopted than the One Church Plan being adopted.

So, basically, WCA – or at least a significant portion of their organization – will likely leave no matter what happens in Saint Louis. In other words, they have already broken covenant.

Now is not the time to be making plans for departure. WCA has maintained that they were only making “contingency plans” but this is far from a contingency. This is a certainty at this point. I further believe that once the rubber meets the road, WCA is not going to have as much support as they believe they will. I personally know several conservatives who will not be joining them. I know many congregations that hold orthodox beliefs that will not be joining them either. Of course, I could be wrong but I truly believe that that limb they’re going out on is going to be a little lonely. None the less, I do believe that a lot of clergy and laity are going to depart with them. May God be with them and with us. I will not, however, be joining them in WCA or whatever WCA becomes.

I, for one, believe in actually keeping covenant.

Random Thoughts and Ramblings on Being a Moderate in the UMC and The Way Forward

slide-5-communion-of-saints“You need to pick a side.”

“Don’t you believe in scripture?”

“If you don’t pick a side, your opinion doesn’t matter.”

These are actual statements made by various people in response to my right-center position within the United Methodist Church.

I have had everything form my fitness for ministry to my very faith called into question because I refuse to choose a faction with which to align in the human sexuality debate, being it WCA, RMN, Good News, or whatever the cool caucus group of the week is. This has been done by people involved on the left and the right. Frankly, such comments are ridiculous and are largely why there are many like me who refuse to “pick a side.”

I can’t take these people seriously.

Anytime I have brought up this topic, almost without fail the discussion has devolved into unhelpful banter and accusation making. I acknowledge my faults in this and acknowledge that I often can present my arguments better. But, I feel this also illustrates a symptom of a larger problem. We simply don’t know how to discuss tough topics, of which this is probably one of the toughest. We don’t like our view challenged and tend to think the worst of the person on the opposite side of the argument (again, something I have been guilty of). Conservatives assume that progressives are trying to turn the United Methodist Church into a body that worships the devil. Progressives assume that conservatives are trying to turn the church into the church equivalent of a country club.

We (and I definitely include myself) must stop assuming the worst about each other.

We also need to stop thinking that those in the center are apathetic and wishy-washy. I am honestly very frustrated over this more than anything else. My views don’t fit in a box. But here’s what I can say for sure and easily: I know good people on the left and the right (and so do you). I know good people who love Jesus more than anything else and are seeking to give the best witness they possibly can – and these people exist on both the left and the right. Another thing I know is that if we all sat down at tables and had real, deep, challenging discussions we would find out that we all have much more things that we agree on than we do things that we disagree with.

Left, right, center, whatever, we are all made in God’s image.

I think many of us are going to be surprised that there are people we know to hold opposing political views, people who we know only as prostitutes, thieves, adulterers, and others who we view as unfit in the presence of God along with us. We are all afforded the opportunity to accept God’s gift of grace, mercy, and reconciliation. Yes, even the people we don’t like. We have got to figure out a way to get along. This is our mandate as Christians. For my part in stoking the fires of discord, I repent.

But for being somewhere in the middle of what I think the UMC should do, I do not apologize. In his book Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt, F. Belton Joyner likened being a United Methodist to being a passenger on a large tour bus with Jesus driving us all to the same place. All of us together, regardless of our differences. Personally, if there is any way to do so, I would like to keep it that way.

Life is much better when we are together.

Jonathan

My Thoughts on #WCAMEMPHIS (So Far)

17190692_1317897651589772_5539392738647395563_nIt’s been no secret that I have been skeptical of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Specifically, I have been skeptical of the true motives of the organization. My fear is that this group would exist in order to bring about the divorce of the United Methodist Church. In other words, that WCA would be the groundwork for a new denomination that splits off from the UMC. I have been in dialogue with some people involved with WCA and have expressed my concerns. They have all assured me that WCA is not in place to group together like-minded churches and individuals as a united front against anyone who disagrees with them. I remained – and still remain – skeptical.

But I’m starting to soften a little.

I decided to attend the WCA-sponsored “We Believe in the Church” Conference in Memphis, TN in order to gain some insight for myself rather than simply relying on the blogosphere to form my opinions for me. I know a good many people who I greatly respect that support or are directly involved in WCA so this has also been a good opportunity for me to reconnect with some of these friends of mine. Now, I will not rehash all of the negative things which have been said about WCA in the blog world and elsewhere. In all honesty, I was not sure what to expect. We are still on a dinner break, still have two more sessions to go, plus several sessions tomorrow before I head back to Kentucky. I’m still not sure what all I will hear in the remaining sessions but let me tell you about some things that I have not heard. 

I have not heard “We need to split.” Not once have I heard anyone call for a separation of factions in the church. What I have heard over and over again are words like “unity,” and “together.” No one has called for a split and I really am doubtful that I will hear such talk here.

I have not heard hateful remarks about homosexuals. Many have painted the WCA as an organization which is anti-gay and hateful toward homosexuals. The attitudes I have encountered so far have been anything but hateful. A particularly telling moment occurred during a Q&A. A woman who self-identified as a lesbian asked if it was felt that God was absent from her life. The response, more or less, was: “I think that homosexuality is against God’s vision for marriage and relationships. But, I will not say that God is not at work in your life. I know God is present in your life.”

Rev. Chris Ritter related an episode from an experience he had in ministry after he preached on homosexuality. A man wanted to talk to him and then told Rev. Ritter that he is gay. The man asked if he would be welcome in the church. Rev. Ritter responded that he is welcome and is loved. He also said this: “I told him, ‘and if anyone here ever tried to hurt you because of your sexuality, they will have to hurt me first.’”

Such sounds anything but hateful to me.

I have not heard – or witnessed – anything racist. Nothing. Some have accused WCA of being covertly racist due to the racial makeup of its membership. Admittedly, the vast majority of people here are caucasian. However, there are also a significant number of other races present here. So far it seems that painting the WCA as an organization for “whites only” is patently false.

These are just my thoughts so far. The dinner break is almost up so I am returning to the conference floor. I will share more thoughts at a later time.

Picking Back Up at the Hotel

I wrote the first portion of this post while I was still at Christ UMC but I could not connect to wifi. Now that I’m back at my hotel and have wifi, I can share some other thoughts.

As I mentioned above, I have had my suspicions about the true intent of WCA. I acknowledge that there could still be behind the scenes issues but I also have to acknowledge that I could be wrong about that. One thing I did not mention above was that Bishop James Swanson of my home annual conference (Mississippi, in case you didn’t know) brought the thunder this afternoon. Bishop Swanson preached again in the evening session and brought the lightning, the thunder, the hail, and the flood. In a nutshell, Bishop Swanson challenged us to consider that all of the fighting that is going on within the UMC is nothing more than a distraction from the primary mission that God has given us. I believe this is a very real possibility and I can see such tricks of the great deceiver at work throughout social media and blogs.

From such posts, I hear a lot about specific issues but very little about Jesus. I think that’s a major problem.

Jeff Greenway also spoke and questioned whether the church is indeed at a moment like what Paul and Barnabus experienced. He made very clear that he was not calling for, nor is he a proponent of, separation but also acknowledged that a split is a real possibility and may ultimately be what is best for the Methodist movement as a whole. I feel that this is a fair observation and question that we must wrestle with, but I remain dedicated to doing what I can to keep the United Methodist Church United until such time as we have run out of options. Having said that, I hope that day never comes.

One additional event of note: The lady mentioned previously who self-identified as a lesbian also revealed that she is affiliated with Reconciling Ministries (if you’re not familiar with Reconciling Ministries, this is a caucus within the UMC that promotes full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church including recognition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals into the ministry). WCA leadership announced from the stage that she was making herself available tomorrow after the conclusion of the conference for conversation.

Tomorrow we have more speakers and questions to wrestle with. I have been given much to pray on and think about. If nothing else, I have taken this away from my experience today: The WCA may not be the “big bad wolf” that many, to an extent myself included, have made it out to be. Time will tell. May we remain faithful and focused on the mission at hand: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.