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.