Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Kenny Rogers Advice to the WCA

Coming out of St. Louis, the WCA was riding high. Even without 30 delegates from Africa held up with visa issues, they were able to begin the process of pushing through their vision for the UMC. The traditionalist majority, which would only grow with escalating church membership in Africa, would eventually accomplish what the Southern Baptist "moral majority" did back in the 1980's, pushing the UMC to the "hard right". It appeared to them that a total victory was within hand in a quadrennium or two.

But with the memory of Adam Hamilton raging, protesters crying, and disparaging comments about gays and lesbians made by delegates from places in Eurasia and Africa ringing in their ears, UM centrist and progressives from across the country came unglued. Rainbow banners and flags were raised. Newspaper ads were purchased. Apportionments were withheld. Meetings were held. Confirmands decided against membership. And plans to resist the Book of Discipline were crafted in Minneapolis and Kansas City.

What's more, tall-steeple "company" congregations - or as we know them, card carrying institutional centrists - caught between jittery conservative members, and angry progressive ones, unexpectedly joined in the fray, en masse, publicly opposing the Traditionalist Plan. For maybe the first time, many clergy leading those congregations finally spoke out in favor of inclusion.

It appeared to me that the WCA was surprised at the extent of the backlash. Recognizing the danger, they hastily released posts about loving LGBTQ persons and welcoming them as members. WCA leaders released statements of concern and prayer for those grieving the damage that they, the WCA, has caused. But each statement about "loving someone enough to tell them the truth" just continued to dig their hole deeper.

Pretty soon the WCA largely just tried to lay low, hoping to use what they anticipated as a growing numerical advantage at General Conference to press progressives, centrists, and even other traditionalists (dismayed by their heavy-handed tactics) into taking a deal, and leaving the UMC before GC2020.

Or, rather, that WAS the plan until this spring and early summer when many of the 2016 WCA GC delegates found out they weren't going to Minneapolis in 2020. Not as delegates anyway.

In Texas, North Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Great Plains, Indiana, Illinois-Great Rivers, Florida, North Georgia, South Carolina, East Ohio, Rio Texas and a host of other annual conferences where evangelicals considered GC delegates their birthright, a coalition of centrists and progressives took most, and sometimes all, the representation.  This has resulted in about 73% of all American delegates opposing the Traditionalist Plan. And with still much of the West and Northeast still to vote, and some of the South still to lose, that percentage may still yet grow.

What's more, conference after conference has taken the whole "resist" theme to heart. Resolutions and legislation essentially rejecting the Traditionalist Plan were passed. Gay and lesbian clergy were openly ordained (even in Texas!). Boards of Ordained Ministry vowed to pass through clergy whom they believed equipped for ministry regardless of their sexual orientation, and not to take action against those having performed a wedding ceremony. The WCA woke up this June to discover that in about 4/5ths of the American UMC conferences, their Traditionalist Plan dreams would never come to fruition for lack of will to enforce it.

Don't believe me? Just wait and see what happens at Jurisdictional Conference elections next year. Bishops across the American connection will only get elected after pledging NOT to uphold the parts of the Book of Discipline that discriminate against LGBTQ+ United Methodists. I don't think it'll take til December for the first candidate to make that pledge.

In the end, all but but ten or eleven US annual conferences have both stated clearly that they won't support the Traditionalist Plan, and they aren't leaving the UMC. As centrist and progressive determination grows, and American culture changes, by 2024, I doubt there will be that few.

I'll also bet many of the rank-and-file within the WCA agree.

How else to explain the social media response out of pockets within that world? The Michigan WCA, after the beating they took at the polls, vowed to work on starting "the next thing", and essentially give up on the UMC. Florida and Texas chapters have echoed those thoughts. Defeated WCA delegate candidates starting carping about "election irregularities" and "outside agitators" to try to explain why they'll be streaming General Conference at home next year, some for the first time in quadrenniums.

Good News and the WCA have been trying to reassure their increasingly discontent membership that they'll still probably have a majority in Minneapolis. Increasingly though they are now calling for a negotiated schism with progressive and centrist leaders "before they pass the rest of the Traditionalist Plan". But with each resolution to be a "One Church Conference", it's becoming increasingly clear to the rest of us, and I'd venture a guess to WCA rank and file members, of how empty this threat really is. If the "Traditionalist Plan", even fully passed, is ignored across the country, then the WCA is just bluffing.

Which all gets me back to the original reason for this post....

If I were a WCA leader I think about now I'd take the advice of Kenny Rogers. You remember Kenny Rogers (millennials, ask your parents). Had a lot of country and crossover hits. Sang with Dolly Parton. Sold chicken. Appeared on the Muppet Show. Had a great beard. It was Kenny Rogers who had a song called "The Gambler". And if you heard it about thousand times on AM radio back when it was a hit, you'd remember his advice was essentially this....

You got to know when to hold em
Know when to fold em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
when your sitting at the table
there'll be time enough for countin'
when the dealing's done

The WCA, whether they knew it or not, was always bluffing. Sure they had a thin majority at General Conference and a fair percentage of the South in their pocket, but what they lacked was true influence within the denomination. For forty years the Good News' "M.O." was always threatening to leave the UMC, not taking it over. Evangelical leaders put their energy into political caucuses, not denominational leadership. The WCA was built on congregations and clergy who threatened to withhold apportionments. They withdrew from UM groups like United Methodist Women and the General Board of Global Ministries to form their own variations.

How on earth, after more than four decades of breeding contempt and distrust of the institution, was the WCA going to convince their faithful that they could actually run it?

In the end that's why only a few bishops showed the WCA any real love. Very few of the briefcase-carrying, apportionment-paying, high-steeple pastors paid them any mind. Seminaries who'd been castigated by Good News for decades were ready for them to go. The WCA doesn't control any of the general agencies or have much influence in the sprawling UM bureaucracy. UM colleges, hospitals, and other related institutions all collectively threatened to leave, or in a few instances left. There was never a "Hey, yeah, that WCA is right" echoing across the United Methodism. In fact, the institution has been fighting the WCA every step of the way.

Certainly the WCA could have overcome that if they could have boasted they millions of members, but they only had thousands. They never possessed the nickels and noses to strike fear in bishops and denominational bureaucrats like this newfound centrist/progressive resistance is doing right now. Maybe if all the African Central Conferences threatened to leave with the WCA the stakes would be higher. But given the longstanding partnerships with missionaries, pastors, congregations, schools, universities and the like, it just doesn't seem likely.

Frankly, the WCA could potentially undo one jurisdiction. UMC Next could undo the other four. Annual conference GC delegate elections are proving this true.

Now, with even some stalwart annual conferences in the Southeast Jurisdiction standing up to WCA interests, the "Full House" the WCA pretended to be holding, is turning out to be little more than a pair of "nines". What's more, with the resistance growing across the connection, they could well find themselves in Minneapolis holding little more than what my grandfather used to call a "Polish Straight".  

So to the WCA I ask, why not just fold, throw in the cards, and walk away? Your power and influence are only going to diminish with each passing day. Why not use the strength you have now to get the best deal you can, to end this stupid, destructive game once and for all?

Use the "Global Gathering" you've called in November to call the "Convening Conference" for your new denomination. In the meantime, negotiate as a block with conference boards of trustees across the connection to leave with property and a protected pension to fill that new denomination with member congregations and ordained clergy.

Remember, the WCA has leverage. If they simply chose to walk out and choose the pathway of litigation, they could potentially inflict a lot of damage. Some of the most underfunded pension liabilities are owned by conferences in the south who enjoy strong WCA support. An organized effort across the southern jurisdictions to step out together may be all it takes to start serious negotiations between conference boards of trustees, the bishops and WCA member congregations, with Wespath as a trusted resource for negotiation.

WCA leaders and their attorneys negotiating simultaneously with conference boards of trustees across the south - and maybe beyond it in places like East Ohio, Indiana, and Susquehanna - could be the way they leverage their influence on behalf of their interests. If they did this, my guess is that the willingness of conference leadership to play "hardball" in less WCA dominated conference like Northern Illinois or Desert Southwest, would be tempered with the reality of other conferences like North Alabama, South Georgia, Holston, Mississippi, Alabama-West Florida, and even the Central Conferences being severely damaged. One conference, for example, defaulting on their pension obligations means the rest of us have to fill the void. Those are the rules Wespath has to follow not just under own umbrella, but also federal guidelines for not-for-profit pension programs.

Even if by some miracle legislation could be passed at General Conference, be upheld as constitutional by the Judicial Council, and then pass 2/3rds of all the annual and central conferences to dissolve the corporation for the purpose of schism (which seems about as likely as McDonalds giving up selling Big Macs), all of these issues relating to denominational finances - and yes, that really means Wespath - will still have to be settled. Given Lovett Weems "Death Tsunami", the day of reckoning in terms of denominational reform and downsizing was always coming. It's just coming sooner than anticipated.

In short, the WCA could end this, and it wouldn't take an act of General Conference to make it happen. They just need to dust off those old Kenny Rogers records. Walk away before their more excitable lay and clergy members who scour the internet for UM news every day, eventually throw up their hands and start attending and serving the non-denominational church down the street as this terrible game drags on and on and on and on.

And if there are any progressive or centrist bishops or annual conference board of trustee chairs reading this, if you were a "One Church Plan" person like I was, you believe in your heart that the local church of all types and kinds is the hope of the world. Gamaliel really had it right all those years ago, the lives of Peter and the others hanging in the balance. Hear him by taking the long-view of what God may or may not be doing, as opposed to an expedient one. If the WCA takes my advice and starts negotiations leading up to their gathering in November, work together with Wespath to make a deal. Make it fair. Make it gracious. Certainly it will be mean a fair amount of downsizing both within annual conferences and general agencies, but given the current trajectory of the UMC, that was coming anyway. Remember our money is better spent on making disciples who change the world than boat payments for attorneys.

We have a chance to end this beginning in November. Let's throw in the cards on this terrible, destructive game were playing. And maybe, like the fella singing that song, we can all walk away with an ace to keep.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Six Things United Methodists Need To Do NOW If Their Pastor Stands With The WCA

If you thought the rhetoric for the Special Session of our General Conference for the United Methodist Church was heating up before, wait until after Christmas. With the momentum of support growing across the connection toward passage of the the One Church Plan, the Wesleyan Covenant Association - which has pledged to be gone from the denomination sixty days after conference closes in St. Louis - is really going to apply pressure to clergy and congregations to move into their fold. Both before GC 2019, and after, there will be impassioned pleas to both maintain the unity of the United Methodist Church, or seek the schismatic way of the WCA.

The WCA is using the playbook of the North American Lutheran Church. They have been colluding with the NALC who served as their "counsel" instructing them how to leave as early as January 2016 (even as they've paid what we now know is disingenuous lip-service to being committed to the UMC). While the property issues certainly wouldn't be resolved in sixty days, I would hazard a bet that the WCA has everything they need to start a new denomination:

  • Constitution/Statement of Discipline
  • Organized Leadership Structure
  • State Incorporation
  • Working Committees to organize the various denominational responsibilities
  • Legal Plan for Local Church Property Transfer
  • IRS Blanket Exemption
  • Process for Local Congregations To Join
  • Process to Recognize Existing Ordination
While the property piece is much more complicated for us United Methodists than the ECLA, if the NALC is any indicator, a core group of WCA churches will step out right at sixty days. The ELCA Global Gathering was in June 2006 while NALC opened for business August 2006 with fourteen congregations. I'd note all that their growth has only reached about 400 congregations total in a world of thousands of Lutheran congregations. 

The WCA will most likely begin operation with at least a few congregations ready to leave on their self-imposed deadline. Remember, they have been in the working on this since January 2016. Already inclined to work outside of the denomination (Seedbed, Confessing Movement, Good News, the Mission Society, etc...) the WCA is ready to go.

That means that if you are congregant or staff person in an official United Methodist WCA congregation, or a United Methodist Congregation led by a WCA member clergy or clergy sympathizer, YOUR TIME COULD BE RUNNING SHORT IF YOU WANT TO KEEP YOUR CONGREGATION IN THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH. 

So, what do you do? Here are six things to do NOW!

1. Talk to your pastor to ask what their intentions are specifically in terms of their ordination and your local congregation. 

Some congregations have been holding congregational meetings about the possibility of joining the WCA. Others have key leaders who have been prepped for this possibility while the congregation at large hasn't had a collective conversation about this yet. If your pastor has been openly advocating his or her support for the WCA, or has a history of aligning with conservative evangelical entries, make an appointment to meet with them regarding the WCA. Ask specifically....
  • Are you a dues paying clergy member of the WCA? If not, are thinking about joining?
  • Are you planning on leaving the denomination at the sixty day deadline after the special session of General Conference, or at some time thereafter? 
  • Is your District Superintendent and Bishop aware of your intentions?
  • What is the contact information for our District Superintendent and Bishop?
  • Have you discussed your intentions with the PPRC or Leadership/Administrative Board of my congregation about this, and what has been discussed?
  • Has the Leadership/Administrative Board of this congregation discussed the possibility of my church leaving, and what was the nature of this conversation?
  • If applicable, when will the information of you potentially leaving the denomination with the WCA, and this congregation's future be discussed in a congregational meeting? Will the District Superintendent be present?
Remember that under our Book of Discipline, the Lead/Senior Elder or Local Pastor appointed by the Bishop to your church is the chairperson of the Nominations Committee which assembles all the various committees and boards in your congregation. There is the possibility that he or she has "stacked" leadership with those aligned with their intentions. If your congregation is theologically diverse (which most of our congregations are) there could be discussion around amongst your leadership about the WCA without greater congregational knowledge. So take good notes or even record the conversation so you'll have a record of responses from your pastor that could be used later, if need be.

2. If there is a WCA contingent in your congregation, make your desire to keep your congregation in the United Methodist Church known, while also looking for others in your pews who are concerned about your church aligning with the WCA.

Certainly if your pastor is affiliated with the WCA, or has been involved with evangelical caucuses at the annual or general conference level, you won't be able to put an announcement in a bulletin or up on the video screen inviting those concerned about the WCA to get together. This will need to take place by word of mouth. You can start in any bible study, Sunday School, class, other affinity groups,  or with the people you've sat with in the pews of our sanctuary for years. 

Let people know that there is an organization - the WCA -  that right now could leave the UMC and become their own denomination. Let people know that the WCA has done all the legal work necessary to make this happen and they have announced their intentions to leave the denomination sixty days after the special session of General Conference if they don't get what they want: legislation that will lead to the full exclusion of LGBTQ persons from the denomination. Let them know that your pastor, if he or she told you they were OR are listed on the WCA website as a member or office holder, is a member of this organization. If your lay leaders have discussed the WCA and are considering joining, or have joined, share that too. For more information for those concerned here are links to educated people about the WCA that are critical of their rhetoric:
3. Hold meetings and work with likeminded members of your church to make public statements supporting your congregation remaining in the United Methodist Church.

In the WCA's material that's being thrown around now regarding "Gracious Exit" legislation from the UMC, know that they are advocating only requiring a 55% majority of a congregational OR leadership/administrative board vote to leave the United Methodist Church and join the WCA. This too is taken from the template of the North American Lutheran Church. 

So speaking up and organizing, particularly if you know that your church is theologically diverse, is of greatest important right now. In many conferences the WCA have been sending operatives into local churches to hold meetings, distribute materials, and find allies for their cause. They are actively recruiting United Methodist Elders, Deacons, and Local Pastors, as well as local congregations. Yours might be the dissenting voice in your church that could protect it from leaving the denomination when it appears it has no other choice. 

The building you had your children or grandchildren baptized in.... the sight of the confirmation of so many young people you've supported in their faith journey.... the sanctuary you, a family member, or good friend was married in..... the place you spent time, energy, and money maintaining for the purpose of facilitating making disciples to change the world..... the location of your congregation's place to gather to worship the Living God.... your congregation and it's building could have a whole different trajectory and mission if somebody doesn't stand up and make it clear that this isn't ok. 

In divided congregations in particular, the WCA is counting on people NOT SPEAKING UP. Very few UMC's are monolithic in their theological understanding. The WCA knows that most United Methodists are much more attuned to working out compromises in difficult situations. They know we don't care for conflict and do all we can to avoid it. You and your fellow UM's may need to go against your normal inclination toward "not rocking the boat" in order to make sure that people in your congregation are properly informed and prepared for what is coming. Particularly in churches led by WCA clergy and maybe a handful of lay-leaders, there may not be any access to information that more closely aligns with who we are as United Methodists if somebody inside that congregation doesn't stand up. 

Make sure you and those like you voice your concerns to your pastor, lay leadership, District Superintendent and Bishop. Contact members who haven't been as active or have a hard time getting out any more what is going on. Hold meetings in the church building, or if you denied permission in doing so, meet somewhere else and make sure your District Superintendent know the efforts being made to marginalize your voice. 

4. If you are sure that your pastor is on board with WCA make sure that you and those who are like minded let your PPRC or Leadership Board chairperson, as well as the District Superintendent, know you want a new appointed pastor as soon as possible.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Your pastor may be better than some of the others the bishop has sent to you over the years. While the United Methodist Church needs talented, gifted, loving, grace-filled conservative evangelical pastoral leadership, these persons must affirm their commitment to the denomination beyond the March 1, 2019.

If your lay-leadership is stacked with WCA sympathizers in a church that is not of one mind, this will give your District Superintendent a chance to come in and help sort out the situation in your congregation. There may be church officers and leaders who's allegiance is more aligned with a "cult of personality" or theology that more resembles other denominations or non-denominational churches, and not the mission of the church to make disciples who change the world. If it becomes clear that your congregation is not nearly as uniformity aligned as maybe affiliated WCA lay-leaders thought, or hoped, it would be, it may cause them to rethink their position on the WCA, or the potential future of the congregation.

If your congregation is not unified one way or the other theologically, but the WCA occupies your pulpit, you need to get your District Superintendent involved. This may precipitate a crisis, but better to start this conversation now than to get caught with your back against the wall as only 55% of your membership, or even just your Leadership Board, can vote to take your church out of the UMC. 

If you question if you should really create this kind of potential conflict, remember, it was the WCA who chose a 60 day termination period to force the question of schism on the United Methodist Church. The WCA has made these matters of urgent importance we must deal with right now. Responding in earnest is what is necessary given the situation at hand. 

5. Don't believe the lies being promulgated by the WCA about the One Church Plan.

Right now the most effective tool the WCA is using is generating fear among more conservative United Methodists that the passage of the One Church Plan will mean that their church will have to change it's wedding policy to accommodate same-sex ceremonies, and/or take a gay or lesbian clergy person in an appointment. 

Those who put together the One Church Plan - the only plan endorsed by the majority of the bishops - know that United Methodists are not of one mind on not just these matters, but plenty of others also. They understand what may be more prudent in more progressive faith communities may not be adaptable in others. 

The One Church Plan will not require your congregation to do anything different than it does now. Your PPRC or Leadership Board will be able to tell your DS what you want in a clergy person, and what won't work in your community. While admittedly you might not feel like you were listened to previously, the One Church Plan insures that a bishop will not violate the conscience of a congregation who feels they need to maintain traditional values with a like-minded pastor. 

This allows the traditionalist United Methodist Church to maintain it's values, while not making the same mistake as the slave-holding southern United Methodists made prior to the Civil War invoking the history of church tradition over the call of others who believed the Spirit was doing something new toward the cause of abolition. Let's follow the wisdom of Gamaliel, who faced with a growing Christian Church, admitted that if this was of God no amount of exclusion or violence could stop this new work from taking place.  And if it wasn't that would die of it's own accord. 

If the Spirit is leading us, as many believe the Spirit is, time will prove this out one way, or the other. We just need to make that space sensibly across our connection.

6. Pray for the unity of the United Methodist Church!

In your devotional time, pray for the unity of the UMC. In your Sunday School class, Bible study, share group, or whatever place you gather together with others for the purpose of sanctification, pray for the unity of the UMC. If your congregation takes prayer cards or has a time in the service where prayers and concerns are lifted up, pray for the unity of the UMC. In all place, and all circumstances, whether silently or out loud, pray for the unity of the UMC.

Certainly there will be monolithic congregations who no matter what will not remain in the denominations. The vast majority of these are small "family chapels" that have become very insular in their focus. As for the rest of the UMC, even the large "evangelical" congregations in the southeast and south central parts of the country are hardly unified in their theological understanding, particularly when it comes to being welcoming to all people. While a pathway out for the few monolithic congregations may be necessary, in the rest good people need to start asking questions and talking to one another. They need to make themselves known!!!

So for all who love their church, now is the time for action. As the WCA goes low, largely seeking to scare people into their ranks, don't think that being non-confrontational equates with going high. Rather, at the ready to lift up the vows you made when you became a member of the United Methodist Church, in an attitude of righteousness and humility, as you seek the justice love demands. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Why Centrist and Progressive Clergy Need To Have "The Talk" With Their Lay-Leaders

As we speed toward the special session of General Conference, I find myself increasingly in situations where Methodists are speculating about the future. Virtually any conference or district gathering someone will ask, "What do you think is going to happen"... and then we're off to the races.

In my world most of the people I interact with believe that the United Methodist Church will remain united, or at least mostly united, with the passage of the One Church Plan. There are a lot of lines of thinking about this, but the one I hear most often revolves around a deal that the African conference delegates make to shore up the One Church Plan to provide greater protection of traditionalist language for the Central Conferences and American traditionalists, whether the WCA wants it or not.

This would enable some flexibility to be enjoyed across the connection in regards to LGBTQ inclusion, while at the same time allow those who truly love and care for the denomination to vote for unity. There just doesn't seem to be much stomach among American UM centrists and progressives, as well as across the Central Conferences for schism. The WCA has already demonstrated a desire for a divorce the majority of the denomination simply doesn't want any part of. If a vote for One Church becomes the vote for unity, then the responsibility for schism will rest with traditionalists, who would have to make the decision to make good on their threat to leave sixty days after the completion of the special session in St. Louis.

Further the other plank of this foundation also always goes back to finances. Since a broken UMC - which is already looking at an 18% reduction in it's General Church budget - would mean great financial hardship for the growing ministries everywhere. A "One Church" deal would go the furthest in maintaining funding streams even as the American wing of United Methodism faces an increasingly difficult future. This would buy more time for the African Central Conferences to become more independent both operationally and financially, as they seek their stated purpose to bring greater unity to the Pan African Methodist witness.

This is mostly what I hear people saying. But I have to say that while I believe anything is possible, I just can't agree with their assessment. In fact while I support it's passage, I don't believe that the One Church model will ever see the light of day in the United Methodist Church.

When we have been talking about "unity" in United Methodist circles, we have been talking past, not to, each other. While progressive UM's generally hold their nose as they give their tepid approval for "One Church" only because it's better than the status quo or some of the alternatives out there (all which end with their getting tossed out), centrists largely think about "One Church" as a better alternative than the re-creation of a "M.E. North/South" split.

Much like the split in 1841, centrists see this one as temporary. They believe that a combination of continued biblical scholarship, shifting cultural attitudes, and scientific discovery will eventually break down the traditionalist understanding of homosexuality. In a season where the Southern Baptist Church is trying to escape the legacy of the 1980's purge of progressives and centrists, to embrace that same kind of approach now seems short-sighted. Better to allow greater independence congregationally on the matter of inclusion during this period of division. We do this being relatively sure that history will repeat itself, and the doors will eventually be opened wider than before with no caveats. To go to all the trouble of dividing the denomination when we could weather this storm seems unnecessary. We are still united in our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ who change the world in each of our contexts. This unity of mission is what centrists believe could carry us through.

But in an age where Donald Trump is president, and the nation is more bitterly divided across the cultural, political, social and theological fronts, winning these "wars" has taken on new urgency among traditionalists. While at one time we might have worn it as a badge of honor that Jeff Sessions and Hillary Clinton were both United Methodists, the forces of this age seek to drive those polarities in opposite directions as necessity to their own survival. In an age where every same-sex marriage and clergy member coming out of the closet can be thrust in the face of anyone with a Facebook feed, traditionalists pastors are both fearful of looking "weak on sin" within their own context. At a time where often the more conservative "church down the street" is where too many of their congregants have migrated too already, traditionalists don't want to be embarrassed by a "left coast" brother or sister any longer.

This division is only augmented by our global structure. The traditionalist wing of the American United Methodist Church and the growing delegation from the African conferences while divided on many things, have found each other to be useful when it comes to this particular part of the Book of Discipline. The UMC in Africa is also in a battle for members with other larger, faster growing denominations with both conservative and pentecostal leanings. Many African congregants live in parts of the continent where homosexuality is a taboo and punished by law. Like the American traditionalists, there is great sensitivity to how they appear in their context as posts about about more liberal congregations and clergy from overseas circulate in their circles.

Such has created an alliance that numerically cannot be beat at General Conference right now, and will only grow larger with time.

I don't know for sure, but I think the victories that they were winning in Portland caught the traditionalists a little by surprise. Especially now that we know the WCA had already taken the preliminary steps necessary in March 2016 to form a new denomination, for some reason there was concern in this quarter that maybe the predecessor to "One Church" would sneak through. The size, strength, and determination of the traditionalist majority, after a season of open defiance on the part of Reconciling Ministry Network churches and clergy, was so shocking that secret talks in Portland began to take place to do a planned schism. Secret talks led largely by large church pastors and bishops that damaged their credibility in certain corners of the denomination.

That it wasn't the pastoral leader of the largest congregation in the United States, but a staff member of the GBGM that was able to swing the vote to made the special session happen shouldn't be lost on any of us. It took George Howard's relationships built on trust and friendship, to break the African/American Traditionalist alliance that was running the table legislatively toward the Traditionalist Plan. The ties that bind African and American evangelical delegates together are much stronger than we care to admit.

That the bishops, given the chance to lead us couldn't offer a new, fresh viable option for our future I believe will be enough to convince those same African delegates to do what they were going to do a little over two-and-half years ago. For while there are plenty of battles to be had down the road between American evangelical United Methodists and the emerging leaders from the African conferences, they are in agreement as to how this vote should go right now.

The restrictive language will become more restrictive. The loopholes in the judicial system that provide for regional differences will be closed. All LGBTQ clergy and the recently elected bishop, will be exited out of the denomination. I wouldn't be surprised too if all LGBTQ staff people at every level of the UMC will be forced out of their jobs, and even local church membership for LGBTQ persons will be in question. This is all a real possibility in a very short period of time in the life of a denomination where historically nothing happens quickly.

And if it doesn't happen fully in 2019..... so what. The march toward exclusion will continue in 2020, 2024, and 2028, as the balance of power shifts from the west, to the south. This is a numbers game the traditionalists cannot lose.

More and more it appears that the traditionalists want the prize of winning both the denomination's assets (namely Wespath and our property) and it's legacy. Particularly since they know they've already won the General Conference "numbers game", maybe out of confidence or arrogance, an evangelical United Methodist Church will be eager to plant new churches in the parts of the country where our decline has been the steepest. They want to prove that it is lack of theological alignment and commitment to traditionalist doctrine in the United Methodist Church that is at the root of our decline. Their transformation of the United Methodist Church they believe will be their testimony.

So if you are a progressive or centrist clergy in a congregation where inclusion is practiced, or at least isn't opposed if it were practiced in a sister-church elsewhere, you need to start having a conversation with your lay-leaders about the possibility of needing to leave by March 2020. This is the deadline given in the Traditionalist Plan for clergy, congregations, and conferences to uphold what would be a much more restrictive Book of Discipline, or leave either en-masse by conference or in groups of fifty congregations.

Think of it as like being given a cancer diagnosis. Surely you would do everything you could to move forward in beating the disease. Your mindset would be focused on winning the battle completely. But if you have a spouse, children, business interests, and other obligations you'd also want to make sure you'd want to get ALL your affairs in order as a precautionary measure. Hopefully the "Living Will", "Durable Power of Attorney", and prearranged funeral arrangements wouldn't come into play but you will have at least made preparations in the event of whatever happens.

Likeminded progressive and centrist congregations and clergy - particularly in conferences where they are not the clear majority - who do not want to live under a much more restrictive Discipline should begin having conversations about their options before the special session convenes in February. After meeting with Mark Chavez, one of the architects of the North American Lutheran Church splinter off of the ELCA, on this blog in the near future I'll list all the considerations the NALC made as they formed a new denomination, and moved into their future, that those staring down the possibility of leaving the UMC will have to address.

Arrangements, I might add, the WCA has already taken care of because the centrist and progressive caucuses haven't been willing to entertain the possibility of losing this fight in February.

I know for many this seems premature, or even reckless. Why rock the boat when there are so many waves out there anyway?

Have "the talk" because the question of how inclusive you as clergy person, or a congregation is going to be will now need to take place regardless of whatever legislation gets passed, or doesn't get passed. Have "the talk" because One Church will have ramifications just like the Traditionalist Plan or the complicated Connectional Conference Plan for your local church. Have the talk because there's a really good chance the conversation about staying or going either within the denomination, or outside of it, will have to be had.

And if nothing gets passed? Elections for 2020 General Conference are already upon us, and in another year we'll go through all of this, again. It isn't going away. The WCA wants a divorce. The only question will be who will get the assets and keep the institution.

We need to have "the talk", and that right soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Five Reasons Centrists and Progressives Should Support A Gracious Exit

Recently a group of clergy (including myself) issued an open letter to General Conference delegates calling for the passage of "Gracious Exit" legislation that would allow congregation to leave with property, and clergy with their pension, under a uniform set of criteria pending changes in the Book of Discipline in 2019. This is designed to protect local congregations regardless of their size (and mortgage debt they might hold) and sway, and assure clergy they can go forward without losing the benefits they've earned with service. Clergy and laity alike are welcomed to endorse this letter online, all of which can be done if you click here.

As I've watched names be added to the list, I've noticed the names of many influential traditionalists being added, as well names from conferences that might lean more in that direction. Progressives and centrists, however, seem to be withholding their support. As I've been asking around it seems the main reason for this is that clergy and laity are under the assumption that if they endorsed this language, they'll be encouraging folks to leave the denomination while personally supporting the cause of our unity. I respect this, but I personally disagree with the argument. Supporting or not supporting a "Gracious Exit" will make no discernible difference in whatever is coming down the pike this February.

There will be a split, or splintering in the wake of our gathering in St. Louis. It is unavoidable. That's why I believe a "Gracious Exit" is necessary. Let me give you five reasons......

1. The United Methodist Bishops Aren't Going To Lead A Push For Unity In St. Louis

This summer hasn't been a good one for our bishops. After receiving the work of the Way Forward Commission, a joint statement of support for the "One Church Plan" was quickly undercut by a press releases by bishops who opposed it. Confusion rained supreme as we wondered if one plan, or three, would be introduced at General Conference. The "Gracious Exit", which was promised by the commission, was stripped out by the bishops, only to be included in one of the three plans. Conflicting reports regarding how overwhelming, or underwhelming, the vote for "One Church" within the College of Bishops came from multiple sources. Leaks regarding which plans the bishops worked on and didn't work on now have created suspicion that the "Traditionalist Plan" didn't come from the Way Forward Commission, but rather from a conservative caucus one of commission members represent. Dates came and went when promised communication updating us on this work didn't appear, and when it finally did wasn't translated into the languages promised, but rather only English.

In short, in a time when United Methodists were hungering for clarity, the bishops couldn't provide it even in the simplest terms.

Now the bishops representing the African conferences have released their own statement, and following the example set this summer, did so without bringing any further clarity to our current situation. Issuing a stand for the traditional view of marriage, but refusing to endorse the plan that would champion that position, or the plan the bishops said they endorsed last summer seems calculated and cautious. It mirrors the muddled communication received from all the bishops last summer, and is forcing us all to speculate what the bishops really want, at a time when all we want from them is leadership.

Rest assured that if you had any hope that somehow in St. Louis all the bishops would band together, rise above their differences, and lead us to unity, you can pretty much set that aside. Two years have proven they are as balkanized as the rest of us.

2. The Statement of the African Bishops Is Most Likely Still An Affirmation of a "Traditionalist" Understanding of Unity, And Thus the "Traditionalist Plan"

I don't think it's any coincidence that when the African bishops stated their position, they referred back to the statement regarding marriage they crafted together back in 2016. Two years, they tell us, has changed nothing. They want unity, but it will be around the reaffirmation and enforcement of a "Traditionalist" understanding of marriage. The 2016 General Conference in Portland was heading toward this definition of "unity": doubling down on traditionalist language, closing loopholes for enforcement, and expelling those who violated the Book of Discipline. Their desire to keep moving in this direction appears to have not changed at all.

If the bishops from Africa haven't changed their stance, what is the likelihood the delegates from the African conferences have? The math in 2016 seems to be lining up to be the same math in 2019. The path we were heading in 2016, unity by law and order, still seems very likely to win the day.

3. If "One Church", Or Nothing, Gets Passed, The WCA Is Going To Walk 

The WCA has made it clear that the current state of the denomination is for them, untenable. The only reason there hasn't been a walkout over Bishop Olivetto's election is the looming special session of General Conference in 2019. And at that, there's only been patience practiced because the WCA knows regardless of the outcome, that they won't be living inside this current version of the denomination after next February. They'll either put the newly passed "Traditionalist Plan" into effect, or leave. They haven't wavered from this promise. They've been very consistent.

If a sizable body of people go to the trouble of filing all the paperwork necessary to enable them to become a denomination across the country, hire an attorney to represent their interests, put out information and propaganda to fill their ranks, and say again and again that they won't remain in the denomination if they don't get what they want, why wouldn't we believe them? The WCA has effectively asked for a divorce.

If you've been through a divorce, you know that at some point the only grace-filled thing you can give your spouse is an agreement to part. For the good of all involved - family, friends, and each other - it is better to part amicably than seek new, awful ways to punish one another.

4. Pragmatically Progressives and Some Centrists Need To Start Planning For The Possibility Of A World After The UMC And They'll Need A Good Start

There's a possibility (and it's a good one) that the "Traditionalist Plan" is going to be the new discipline of the United Methodist Church. Some churches and clergy will end up getting tossed out on the other side of this reality. But there are others who simply will have no desire to live out what these changes are going to require of them. They will want to get out.

When a church leaves a denomination there's much to consider. Loss of denominational affiliation requires the filing of new incorporation papers with your respective state, and modifying your deed to eliminate the the "trust clause" language. Leaving the UMC means giving up the tax-exempt status under the blanket exemption from the IRS. Polity and self-governance decisions are going to have to be made. The loss of the itinerant system could thrust churches who have clergy who don't go with them into the rare place of having to find their own clergy. All of these changes, and more, will be required to keep the church operating.

Clergy too who turn in their orders, will need to seek alternative means of credentialing. They will  be faced with potential changes in their health insurance and pension plan. Without the rules of their conference or the Book of Discipline, their role will very much have to be re-defined. There's a lot that will need to be done for a former United Methodist congregation to continue to do her work.

While traditionalists could land easily with the Free Methodist or Wesleyan denominations if they so chose, United Methodists who favor inclusion don't really have a clear cut option. Some have talked about trying to work with the UCC to open a "Wesleyan Wing". Others have talked about opening up talks with the ELCA or Episcopalians about creating some sort of landing place. Still others have talked about filing the paperwork to mirror what the WCA has done and create a contingency plan for a "new" denomination or association if the need is there. Still others are looking at the possibility of going out on their own as independent congregations.

In any case, refusing to think about the "unthinkable" is an option, but it probably isn't a good one. A "Gracious Exit" would allow progressives and centrists to move forward with as little upset and interruption as possible doing the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ who change the world.

5. We need a "Gracious Exit" so we can make plans for the future with as much grace and love as possible. 

I know this kind of talk is upsetting to people. Nobody likes change, and the degree that could be coming will be significant. But regardless of whoever it is that'll be looking at leaving, if we care about the ministry of each and everyone of our local congregations, mutually we should agree that the journey shouldn't start with costly litigation. It shouldn't favor churches with greater mortgage debt and the financial means to hire their own attorneys. It shouldn't jeopardize the pensions of retirees who count on that income, or be done without giving thought about the impact on our missional outreach all over the world. It shouldn't jeopardize the function of each of our congregations, and it should give clarity to clergy as they navigate their future.

In a bad situation, this is most grace-filled and loving we can be to each other. There's no need to create more suffering than need be as the Spirit leads us into the future. Creating a way for churches and clergy alike to be faithful to what they earnestly believe regardless of whether they remain in the denomination or not is the best chance we have to continue to facilitate good ministry in our local congregations. To continue the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ, who change the world.

So once again, please consider signing on our open letter calling for a "Gracious Exit" to be included in the work of the special session of General Conference in 2019. Your voice could make all the difference.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Why I'm Not Afraid of the "Gracious Exit"

One of the reasons I ended up becoming a United Methodist Minister is that I'm not all that great at math. I can add and subtract well enough. It's just that in the 8th grade when I hit algebra and they started introducing letters into the numbers, everything kind of went downhill. My lack of math prowess was one of many clear indicators that God wasn't calling me into civil engineering as a vocation. Ministry seemed like a much more viable option.

But you don't have to be an actuary to understand United Methodist math. Barring an appeal from the most trusted and respected American United Methodist in all of Africa (thank you George Howard), the era of Book of Discipline "fuzzy enforcement" would have been over. Parts of the A&W Plan, which is essentially the new "Accountability Option", were speeding toward consideration on the floor of General Conference, while the previous forms of the "Local Option" and the more-complicated-than-algebra "Autonomous-Affiliated-Jurisdictional-Or-Whatever-It-Is Option" languished in committee. Only George's motion, which swung enough African delegation votes after Adam Hamilton's motion failed, stopped that train from reaching the station.

Which brings me back to the subject of United Methodist math.

In 2019 virtually the same delegations from all the various conferences from around the world will convene in St. Louis to take up what George Howard's motion delayed for three years. At that gathering the same three options - accountability, local, and the other one - will finally come up for vote. Only this time, the progressive wing of the denomination is more defiant and the conservative wing is more organized and determined.

The math will be the same.

When the WCA first started, and the news that it essentially had incorporated itself in such a way that it could be a new denomination in all fifty states, I'd have bet the conservative wing of the church was leaving. Why deal with two entire jurisdictions who were simply not going to enforce the Book of Discipline, and force you to exit each clergy member one trial at a time? Why tussle with the entrenched institutionalists who sat on the various boards and worked on the staffs of the various General Church agencies? Why try to face down bishops, the majority of whom are ready for some sort of compromise to move forward? I personally thought the WCA was angling to negotiate a "Gracious Exit" requiring an "exit fee" to protect the fiscal health of Wespath, and go start a new thing.

But the closer we get to St Louis next February, I'm not so sure. The conservative caucuses haven't indicated that they're up for anything other that total victory when it comes to matter of the Discipline and the future of the UMC. In fact, given a favorable Judicial Council, and estimates like this one where only a small percentage of the denomination are projected to leave if the Accountability Option were passed, I'm gathering that there's a heated discussion going on inside the WCA about whether or leave, or stay.

As a committed centrist who has been working toward a compromise where all people would be welcome in the United Methodist Church, I've dealt enough with various members of WCA leadership to know that there will be no compromise. This is a matter of principle upon which they will not budge. No scenario that would permit an ordained gay and lesbian clergy or an elected lesbian bishop to be in any way affiliated with them will be entertained.

Down the road, these same leaders I fear will become as hard-core about other issues as they are about LGBTQ exclusion. For those who stand for any "leftist" sounding cause (Health care reform? Gender equality? Compassionate immigration reform? Reasonable gun control?) or continue to call those to accountability for rejecting infant baptism, confirmation, and female clergy leadership, I have a hard time believing that eventually a target isn't going to be on your back too. If the denomination starts heading "right", my centrist colleagues agree that  LGBTQ exclusion isn't where things will end.

It won't be enough if you've already affirmed the Book of Discipline and sought to uphold it. New litmus tests like the affirmation of the Nicene Creed (which hasn't been an issue in 1600 years) will be established to enforce a more literal view of scripture designed to align us with other evangelicals and the neo-con agenda in Washington. On-line sermons, I'm certain, will be reviewed, with anything deemed objectionable on the table for possible charges. Given the continued rhetoric, I expect the worst if the math from 2016 holds in 2019, and the road to 2020 leads toward greater restriction.

For these reasons, and others, I support the inclusion of "Gracious Exit" for any congregation or clergy who will not be able in good conscience to abide by the changes coming in our Book of Discipline. While there are currently no "winners or losers", and the future remains unwritten, this would insure the most practical and equitable criteria for any interested church or clergy members to follow.

To go further, I'd invite members of the WCA to an theologically inclusive table to discuss a "Gracious Exit" that would be fair and equitable to all. I'm sure the prospect of a world where a "Local Option" has won the day is as unappealing to you as the previous scenario is to me. Quite honestly, after years of fighting I just want to see our churches go forward as healthy as they can be, positioned to do the ministry of Jesus Christ to the best of their ability. If there truly is no middle way, I'd like us to be gracious as we take steps forward into the future.

While I will continue to pray for a unified United Methodist Church, I'm not going to ignore the math. Either way though - United Methodist or whatever is on the other side of it - I'll work toward a denomination that puts the local church first, and aims to make disciples of Jesus Christ equipped to change the world for the better. That's my prayer for all, whether walking together, or on separate paths, that we keep making the journey toward Kingdom of Heaven, following Jesus.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Five Point Note To The Special Commission From Just Another Face In The Crowd

As the Special Commission created by General Conference 2016 meets to come up with some sort of solution to the church's divide over human sexuality, word of this has trickled down to the congregation I serve. As a result we've talked about this here at Shawnee UMC, where I'm in my 10th year as Lead Pastor, 16th year of appointment, and a total of 19 years on staff. At Leadership Board, PPRC, Lay Pastor classes, or just in the lobby of our office, opinions are shared as to what people think the Special Commission should do, and where the denomination should go.

Let me make it clear, Shawnee UMC is a great church, but in terms of size and scope were not some behemoth in the denomination. Our worship, averages in the 300's. We pay about $70k (and change) in our total apportionment. We worship one traditional service early in the morning, and contemporary service at 11am. So we have a band, but we're one of the last congregations in our shrinking midwestern town who still has a choir.

We do cool things like hold a large motorcycle themed service each spring, serve as one of the principle funders of the regional food bank, serve in Family Promise, and our growing small group ministry - Go Communities or GoCo's - are taking care of one another while serving others in a myriad of ways. One GoCo sponsors about 8 neighborhood food distributions a year. Another interviews older members and creates a packet of info about their life that they give to the families. Others do everything from serve a local women's shelter, to serve the families of our large day care, and pray for others in need. We have a large, active lay pastor program that serves in multiple capacities from everything from shut-in visitation to finance ministry to making "prayer squares" as a sign of comfort for those in need.

We worshipped together cross-culturally with a large Missionary Baptist Church in town a year ago, and are about to do so again. More than a 100 people from those two congregations came together for a program on race and faith about a month ago, and they want to continue to meet to begin addressing challenges in our community.

It's a cool place.

It might seem like I'm bragging (and I probably am), but we have our challenges too. The congregation is aging, which means I've had to bury lot of good folk and challenges for resourcing and leadership have been created. In the course of the regular turnover that comes with the church in is age, we've had periods where people disagreed, and in resulted in folks leaving. Cultural changes have challenged us, changed us, divided us, and push us. In turn, all feel welcome here, but the congregation has felt the pain of change.

And right now I'm going thru a very public, and painful, divorce. The overwhelming majority of folks have been supportive and protective of us. A few have disappeared. It's been tough on my family, and I know tough on the church.

So, I want to make it clear that as someone whose been ordained 22 years, I'm just another face in the crowd, leading a good, solid church made up of other faces in the crowd. A church who has been impacted by the polarization of this age, struggles at time to keep everything resourced, and is very much not of one mind when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. It is the friendships that have been formed among those who disagree, and commitment to our mission that hold us all together... but the apple cart can still be upset.

And while it is true that I was the "Steering Committee Chairperson of the United Methodist Centrist Movement", outside of stealing an election in the West Ohio Conference from the an overconfident and under-prepared evangelical caucus, I've not been politically active since. If fact, given my personal life, I checked out of all these discussion last summer. So, I'm no mover and shaker. Nobody in Columbus is asking the question, "How does that divorced pastor in Lima, Ohio feel about (fill in the blank)?"

But with the discussion taking place in what I'd call a typical midwestern United Methodist Church (although, given more than 80% of our congregations in our conference worship less than 100 folks, maybe we're not as "typical" as I think), I thought the special commission might like to hear what folks here have been saying. I've organized it into five points. Here they are...

1. There is no compromise that will make everyone happy, so expect some folks are going to leave by church, block of church members, or individual.

Allen County is a pretty conservative part of Northwest Ohio. After fifty years of economic and population decline, people have become pretty disillusioned and suspicious of change. You would, as an example, have expected the county to vote Trump in 2016. After all it's voted Republican for decades. But after eight years of a sluggish recovery from a catastrophic economic recession, wars, terrorism, cultural undulation, endless news regarding race and the police, and the continued political work of evangelical Christianity and a large Catholic population frustrated with "Roe v. Wade", this was one of the counties in the state where the margin of Trump's victory grew substantially over Romney's back in 2012.

Allen County though is a diverse, dynamic place. We have sizable African-American population whose parents and grandparents migrated here to work in the steel mills during WW II. We have a couple of large hospitals which have attracted professionals from around the world. We have a growing college population thanks to a branch campus of THE Ohio State University, a local community college, and a growing local state supported university (University of Northwest Ohio). Large corporations like Ford, P&G, Dana, PP&G, Ineos, Potash, and Husky Oil want to attract and keep the best talent, so they engage regularly in diversity training to eliminate road blocks of bias. And like everywhere else, we have a sizable LGBTQIA population, and in turn a lot of folks who are friends and family of a LGBTQIA person.

The upshot is that all the cultural changes, relationships, and diversity have resulted in an increasingly polarized community around cultural, political, and theological issues. But simultaneously, in our largest evangelical churches, there's been a softening on LGBTQIA inclusion. Evangelical pastors who came out strong against inclusion a decade a year, are quick now to mention that they have some one or more LGBTQIA persons who attend their church in private conversation. How public that information is, is directly related to how permissive the congregation's leadership happens to be, but the fact that evangelical pastors and lay-people don't want to appear homophobic is a big swing in the last decade.

But there are still plenty of laity who if they think their pastor is too "soft" on the issue, will step out of the congregation for the sake of "Biblical truth". Every congregation locally has experienced this. That's why the discussion here is that there is no compromise that will make everyone in our own church satisfied, let alone the entire denomination. If the Special Commission is instant on hardening the language and position of the UMC one way or the other, the result will the loss of persons in our church, and churches across the country. Either one at a time, in blocks from congregations, or churches as a whole. Nobody is saying the Special Commission shouldn't lead in the way God is telling them too, but they should do so with the expectation that this will result  in loss of members, attenders, congregations, and contributions.

So whatever the special commission announces, it will have ramifications in our church, and other UM churches. Just expect no matter what is decided that it's going to happen.

2. Nobody Expects Continued Unity In the United Methodist Church, And That's OK

If you just read everything in point one, then you'll understand point two. Since the special commission is really focused on the thorny issue of human sexuality, there is no expectation that they'll be able to come up with any kind of statement or direction that will keep the denomination together. Lean in the direction of relaxing the prohibitive language regarding homosexuality, or allow some sort of ordination for gay and lesbian clergy in parts of the country who are more progressive, and the WCA (and I suspect many, many others) will walk.

Keep the current language, or make it more prohibitive, and not only will some progressive congregations give up, but the prospect of more disobedience and fighting will lead some conservatives - and even some moderates -to start looking for a way out. The era where one side gets it's way while the other just kind of waits until a different season agreeable to what they want begins, is now over. There's been enough movement of individuals in and out of our churches to somewhere more "likeminded" and enough cultural changes that have come to pass, that the breaking point in this divide has come. Some people just can't live with those who are different than them any more, and others are just tired of all the fighting.

And you know what.... folks here say that's ok. If it's time for breaks and fissures, either planned or anticipated, then so be it. The stress of the continued uncertainty is taking it's toll on our people and clergy. The people of this church understand this is just a part of this age and time. To pretend that somehow that things can remain the same, or very close to it, doesn't seem reasonable to this church. Nothing else has stayed the same for them. Why should this denomination be any different?

3. Since There Are People Who Will Want To Leave, Let Them While Avoiding Litigation Costs

One of the benefits of having watched the other mainline denominations go through this before us is that we've had a chance to witness the fallout from their experience. The Episcopalians have really been most instructive in what could be awaiting us. According to various sources, more than six billion dollars has been spent in litigation costs to settle property disputes in congregations who have split and fight over ownership of their building, or between congregations and the denomination when they try to leave. Considering there are eight times as many United Methodists as Episcopalians, it's not hard to figure out that the biggest winners if we follow their example, will be the attorneys.

In this case, most everyone who has talked about this, even attorneys, agrees litigation costs are a waste of money. In fact, the "in-trust clause" - where the ownership of all church property is held "in-trust" by each conference - has never been more unpopular among the faithful. At worst, folks believe this is being used as a stick to whip unhappy congregations in line. At best, given that the local congregation does the paying for and maintaining the property, the general feeling is that the congregation should have a greater say in the destiny of their building(s) and land.

So there isn't much (if any) opposition to giving congregations a window to take their building with them, or change the nature of this arrangement between local church and conference so that the "in-trust" clause is ended entirely. There's a lot opposition to helping a lawyer make his or her boat payment with UM funds.

4. If The Special Commission Can't Live With Natural Attrition and Are Talking About A Split, Forget a Planned One Into Two Denominations. Let Individual Churches Make The Choice To Leave Or Go How They Want.... With Stipulations

The most disastrous decision for congregations like ours if a two denomination split. It'll just split us wide open. And even if you open this up to a three denominational split, the overriding questions I hear people ask is, "Why can't we just be given the choice to do what we want to do if it's time for the denomination as we've known it, to come to an end?"

Big institutions right now engender a lot of mistrust from people at this stage of our nation's history. I've heard a lot of support for Shawnee UMC being a part of a smaller, stripped down denomination or association. Whether or not that is the new version of UMC, or something new entirely doesn't seem to matter much to people.  Those who have been a part of non-denominational churches sing their praises and wonder why we'd ever consider ceding the kind of control those congregations have to bureaucrats who really "don't know our church or community". Those who are life-long UM's voice the belief that the current structure is unsustainable and needs radical reform. Those from other denominational backgrounds didn't come here because we were UMC, but rather because the Wesleyan translation we use to conduct our ministry. Big bureaucracy is questioned, and held in disdain by all.

Increasingly I've heard the talk about a "buyout". This idea really came to the forefront because of the "buyout" the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference came to with a large congregation in Quarryville who voted to leave last year. A settlement payment that would not only cushion the transition for the churches in the denomination who stayed, but also make sure that any unfunded liabilities (i.e. clergy pensions, new church start commitments, health insurance obligations, property costs, etc...) are met. People ask a lot if that's what is coming, and how much it would be.

In any event, instead of determining where each church ends up, folks here believe we should leave the decision up to each church. Maybe smaller, regional associations or denominations will get started up. Maybe Centrists will follow the WCA's example and organize something nationwide or international. Or maybe a "limited" UMC membership can be established where the conference apportionment is paid, but the world service is paid a la cart. Who knows. All I know is that Shawnee UMC members want an option that prizes the local church over conference staffs and general church agencies, and they want all the energy that's gone into keeping the denomination together into serving the world as disciples of Jesus.

They just want the age of big bureaucracy to end, which leads into this last point....

5. Embrace the change and the pain.

Once upon a time, the largest employers in Allen County were either owned locally, or had a headquarters not-too-far away. So whether you were talking about Lima Locomotive or Ohio Steel or Standard Oil of Ohio or both of our hospitals, chances are the CEO lived in a nice neighborhood, or headquarters were nearby in Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, or the like. Plenty of good jobs in area factories were available, with good benefits.

Now our oil refinery is owned by a company out of Canada. The chemical plant once all owned by Standard Oil, is now broken up into twenty-three separately owned units by entities from all over the world. The hospitals are owned by large medical conglomerates with headquarters somewhere else. Our downtown continues to struggle to hang on, while now the local mall and strip malls all struggle against big-box stores that buy on a scale that was once unimaginable, or web sites who deliver goods via Fed Ex or UPS. I have as many people in the congregation working for a Japanese owned Honda, as I do those employed by American owned Ford. And those jobs are prized because while there are fewer of those with high pay and benefits, and more with low and no benefits to speak of.

Everything has changed. People are smaller cogs in a bigger machine, or starting something small and independent to take control of their lives or achieve a long-held dream. The internet and globalization has changed every facet of our lives. Retail, medicine, industry, education, communication, relationships.... nothing has gone untouched.

People realize this as they pass by their local churches. The mainlines who were once a crucial piece of the local safety net are all in decline. They've largely replaced by either big, more evangelical congregations that are non-denominational, or are part of an evangelical denomination but hide it which became the vogue over the last thirty years. Or, more likely, with now almost 55% of the county either agnostic, atheist, or "none of the above", they've been replaced by "Pastor Pillow" at "St. Matts of the Springs". Large churches, which rise and fall, just pass around attenders who make their church choice based on what they want, and what the church offers. Old loyalties and traditions which governed how generations of families worshipped have largely gone by the wayside.

The upshot is that all of us aren't making large numbers of new disciples of Jesus. As longtime members go onto glory in an age where people look at the church more as a place of services offered as opposed to a spiritual family to be a part of, this is an age where we are managing change, and the pain that comes with it.

And you know what people think? Just like they've had to in their working and personal lives, they believe the church and the denomination are going to have to embrace same kind of radical change,.... and pain.

Guaranteed appointment..... Itineracy.... MDiv's.... Seminaries... Jurisdictional conference.... Bishops elected for life.... General church agencies.... A General Conference meeting in Zimbabwe....  Districts.... Cabinets.... Conferences as we know them.... Judicial councils and Council of Bishops..... multiple churches in communities as a product of a fifty year old merger.... professional clergy.... pension and health plans....

everything is up for grabs.

Everything except the local church, which can continue without all these listed things. A total re-examination of our priorities, operations, and distribution of resources our people believe must take place if we are to continue to fulfill the mission of "making disciples who change the world" in our Wesleyan tradition.

So, in short, what people are looking for is a stripped-down, more unified denomination, or a stripped-down more unified alternative. Not unified as a theologically monolithic entity with strict rules and boundaries. Unified in the sense that the basics about Christ's mission, ministry, and teaching are stood upon, while we allow plenty of discussion, creative dissonance, and a trust in grace from God and among us to sustain us along the way.

All things being equal, they'd rather stay in a new version of the UMC. But after a couple of disastrous General Conferences, as a member of my leadership board remarked, "It looks like the people with the most to gain by keeping things the same, have the power to make that happen". So our people are not optimistic that change will come out of a denominational will to do so, but rather the consequences that come from not being willing to do so. To them, this is tragic.

And these folks, while not particularly passionate about the denomination, support it. This is not a disgruntled church. We pay our apportionments. We've received grants to help re-start another local UMC, and are thankful for the support of the conference while I took three months of leave after announcing the end of my marriage. People see the good the UMC does, and the idea of making their future within this denomination doesn't upset them.

But they're suggest to the special commission is this.... if you're not going to kick the can down the road in regards to human sexuality, then don't kick the can down the road on anything else. All the issues, challenges, and the reality of decline with which we are confronted, be honest in your assessment of where we need to go, what we need to do, and what it will cost.

The time for change, and pain, have come. We just need to be realistic, embrace it, and use this as an opportunity to think differently about the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church so we might realize a different, but brighter, future.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Bridge Is Out

We had a professor at Miami University named B.H. Smith who started every class he taught with the same question: "Why do we study history?" Of course us students knew the answer, and every hand rose to make a good first impression: "So that we don't make the same mistakes made in the past." Smith would look at us, pause for dramatic effect, and with great emphasis reply, "Most of us will never be important enough to make the mistakes made in the past. For us history is about two things - dates and dead people."

It would get a big laugh, but there was an air of truth to the man's words. Most everyone reading this will never be in the position of making a bad treaty with some nation or propose some economic program that led to hyper-inflation. But if you are a United Methodist know that this last week, you were all a small or large part of a repeat of our denomination's history. One-hundred and seventy-two years after we split into the M.E. North and M.E. South over the election of a bishop, we're on the verge of doing it again.

I have no idea exactly how it will all go down but I am certain that some progressives won't go forward without an openly gay or lesbian bishop, and some traditionalists won't go forward with one. We've reached a dead end, and the bridge so many of us prayed would get built, spanning our divide to allow us to go forward together, isn't even in the design stage.

As a centrist it would be easy to point my finger at the traditionalists or progressives for this position were in right now. The traditionalists in my opinion, never came to the table in good faith to discuss some sort of compromise. In fact, compromise that resulted in any change in our Discipline as it relates to human sexuality to many traditionalists has always been non-negotiable. So whether it was accomplished by taking a majority in General Conference or via a schism, the end game for traditionalists always seemed like total victory without compromise. But all that said, what other arena of work on the face of the planet are you considered the "bad guys" because you follow the rules?

I can't blame traditionalists for this place we've arrived.

I could wag my finger at the progressives. Years of both peaceful protest and civil disobedience to finally get a substantive conversation on the place and role of LGBT persons in the denomination, and just as we are on the cusp of this happening they give half-a-peace-sign to both traditionalists and the growing number of centrists who worked to make this possible. Seven non-compliant conferences and one elected bishop later, the hopes for the special commission aren't dead, but like in the movie "The Princess Bride", you could call them "mostly dead". Short of "Miracle Max" coming up with an eleventh-hour magic chocolate pill (go back and watch the movie), the prospects for maintaining unity where traditionalists, centrists, and progressives could make peace AND reach out to all as their conscience allowed and the Spirit led....  are thin.

But all that being said, with no door or window to open, why should any of us be surprised that the question of inclusion was forced through a new hole in the roof? These are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends who the progressives see themselves standing up for. I can't lay my dismay this at their feet either.

In the end centrists have nobody to blame but themselves. We kept turning a blind eye to the ills that bedevil us. Not just a blind eye to the ever-growing divide as more prohibitive language was added to the BoD, parallel mission societies were formed, thirteen bishops wrote a letter, a challis was shattered, Elders were getting drummed out, time was wasted in Tampa, and the letters "LGBTQ" couldn't even be uttered on the floor in Portland. We turned a blind eye to more than forty years of decline and increasing irrelevance by largely just settling for the status quo.

We turned a blind eye to forty years of cultural, demographic, racial and geographic shifts. We turned a blind eye to a growing group of increasingly ineffective Elders and underprepared Local Pastors. We turned a blind eye to the local church which was hemorrhaging even as we forced her to give more blood to a bureaucracy that's only grown more bloated and ineffective. We turned a blind eye to the "death tsunami", the corrosive influence of partisan politics via the IRD, and generations of Americans who thought it better to be "nones" than "United Methodists". We turned a blind eye to the escalating cost of seminary and a growing distaste for itineracy among younger clergy even as locationalism has made it less viable.

We turned a blind eye to changing attitudes toward LGBTQ persons, and refused to use our influence to heed the wisdom of Gamaliel to open up pathways of inclusion so see if this was a movement of the Spirit. We turned a blind eye to the frustration of our conservative colleagues and congregations who felt increasingly like they were the "villains" even though they largely just upholding the Discipline.

I blame us.

And while there have been successes, pockets of spiritual growth across the connection, for every one of these great stories I can point out ten examples of congregations we've managed into obsolescence. The writing was on the wall. We just decided it was better to keep the prophet locked up in prison and pretend the writing was for somebody else.

We've been reactive. We asserted our influence to keep the boat from rocking. We didn't take seriously Bishop Schnase's assessment that the church needs to engage in "risk taking mission" to be considered healthy and growing. Instead of organizing and forcing hard discussions between bitterly divided parties so that a clear vision could emerge, we just let the ship sail until it absolutely had to turn... and now it's listing near the rocks.

So at this late hour, my prayer is that the bishops to act quickly. Please don't wait to nominate the special commission but please have them in place by Labor Day, their work completed by next year, and the special session of General Conference meeting in 2018. The denomination cannot withstand four more years of resolutions, counter-resolutions, pronouncements, and acts of defiance. Further, if the failure of the "Connectional Table Plan" has taught us anything, it's that under-representing folks in the connection will most likely result in a solution that in real terms, has no chance passing General Conference. So please consider proportionally representing the global connection on the commission as they're represented at General Conference.

Centrists, as we think about being proactive, given the reality of our current situation, as the special session of General Conference nears, let's keep everything on the table. We can introduce restructuring plans which would essentially create multiple apartments under one roof. But we also need not avoid planning for a possible future where "live and let live" cannot be abided by a significant number of clergy and congregations. Since the "trust clause" and the sustainability of the pension system are poor reasons for us to stay together, let's not be afraid to explore a potential pathway where money on litigation isn't wasted on lawyers, and a mutual respect for those who served before us can still be honored, even if our unity cannot.

In closing, in this season of uncertainty we all need clarity to effectively plan for future ministry. It's not reasonable to allocate funding for new church starts or recruitment of new clergy when funding streams could be upended abruptly. It's not sensible to keep working the itinerant system as if all things will likely remain same, when great upheaval in our local churches is now more than just speculation. It's not ethical to keep promising retirees that we will live up to our obligations when so many things are in the air.

And it's no longer acceptable for those of us in the center to keep expecting things to just work out. You can't a build a bridge people don't want, to keep the illusion of familiarity and "sameness". Hard choices will need to be made about what may have to be dug up and pruned so a new season of planting can begin.

In our prayer and devotional lives, local church ministries, communities, conferences, nation, and denomination it is time to heed the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14; to humble ourselves, pray, seek the Lord's face, and turn from the wickedness of worshipping the idol of "not rocking the boat because we're so close to retirement and it might reduce revenue". Then and only then, if we're truly earnest and faithful, we will be forgiven our sin of turning a blind eye, and through us God will heal our church, and our land.