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.