Archives for February 2014

Building Strong Families

Recently, the Family Research Council (FRC) released its Fourth Annual Index of Family Belonging.

We believe that strong, lifelong marriages are important because they reflect God’s perfect plan for human flourishing, alongside single people who are committed to serving the Lord with their lives.  Heterosexual marriage is designed by God to reflect the image of God and to portray the relationship of Jesus Christ with the Church.

In addition to its theological significance, however, researchers have found that intact marriages between one man and one woman for life are the best environment for the raising of their children.

Marriage and Religion Research Institute Director Dr. Pat Fagin summed up the research in this way:

“Belonging to each other is very important because family structure has profound effects on an area’s economic wellbeing as well as in all major areas of concern: health, happiness, peace and law-abidingness. Our recent study that used the Index to measure its relevance to the well-being of the nation clearly demonstrated that marriage is the key to success in all public policy goals.

“There is no more important factor in determining outcomes in a host of government focused policies such as TANF, food stamps, SSI and housing, and even college education. Family intactness is as important in determining an area’s employment rate among men as is the fraction of its adults that have completed high school. Marriage is society’s foundational relationship.”

Given marriage’s importance, I was struck by the statistics that FRC unearthed from the U.S. Census data.  They asked the question, “What percent of American 15- to 17-year-olds were raised with both their biological parents married to one another (belonging to each other) since before or around the time of their birth?”  The numbers are startling:

  • Only 46 percent of American 15- to 17-year-olds were raised in intact families from birth
  • Among African Americans, the percentage is 17 percent
  • Native American teens are at 25 percent
  • Multi-racial teens are at 37 percent
  • Hispanic teens are at 41 percent
  • Caucasian teens are at 54 percent
  • Asian American teens are at 65 percent

Think about those numbers for a minute.  More than half of all teens — and more than eight out of 10 African American teens — are not living in a home where they get to experience an intact parental marriage from birth.

Dr. Fagan noted that the culture of marriage is “more caught than taught,” but with the majority of married couples breaking up, it is difficult for young people to see a good marriage modeled.  “The biggest challenge we face is how to make miracles: How do we raise children who will marry even though they grew up within broken families. This is our central challenge: how to belong to another even if our parents didn’t,” Fagan concluded.

One underlying cause of the breakup of marriages over the years is adults putting their own feelings, “needs,” and “happiness” ahead of those of our children.  Many have the attitude that if we are unhappy in our marriage, it must be our partner’s fault.  If we get a new partner, we’ll be happy!

My youngest daughter recently got married, and in his homily, the priest quoted Jesus’ command that “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  The priest went on to comment, “You are marrying your cross.”  Marriage involves self-giving and sacrifice by both partners, also with many rewards.  Having and raising children is a sacrifice, with many benefits.  (Unfortunately, more and more couples are deciding not to make that sacrifice.)

This is where the church can come alongside people in their marriages to give much stronger premarital preparation to singles and engaged couples, as well as supporting programs and ministries that strengthen marriages.  I have used programs like Prepare/Enrich, Marriage Encounter, Engaged Encounter, and Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage in local church ministry that I have found highly effective.  In addition, we can teach our people what marriage is for and what God’s design for marriage is.  Of course the greatest help to marriage is for us to learn how to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

As disturbing as the fight over same-sex marriage is, the more important battle is fighting to reclaim a biblical vision for heterosexual marriage and providing ways to strengthen marriages within our local church ministries.  We are not only losing our children to the institution of marriage, but we are losing a living model of what God’s love in Jesus Christ is supposed to look like.  That is a tragedy indeed.

What do you think?

Tearing Down Trust

Part of the fallout from the ongoing conflict within The United Methodist Church over the church’s ministry with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons is the damage to people’s trust in the church.  The erosion of trust in the institution of the church and in the leadership of the church was pinpointed by the Towers Watson study for the Call to Action report in 2010.  Since then, the erosion of trust has only accelerated.

Those promoting the acceptance of homosexuality by the church have adopted an “ends justifies the means” approach.  That is why there have been disruptive demonstrations at General Conference every time since 1992.  Since 2011, however, the “means” used to force the church to abandon its biblical stance have intensified.

  • Hundreds of United Methodist clergy (active and retired) have promised to violate the Discipline by performing same-sex unions or “weddings”
  • Dozens of such services have been performed, many quietly and others publicly
  • Pro-gay advocates have begun publishing the stories of clergy who have performed same-sex services, some from more than six years ago (and thus exempt from the filing of complaints due to the statute of limitations) and others from a more recent time

How has the institutional church and its leadership responded to this escalation of tactics?

  • Bishops (both active and retired) have spoken out against the church’s biblical stance on human sexuality, even though they are called to “guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition,” and to “teach and uphold the theological traditions of The United Methodist Church” (Discipline, ¶414.3, .5)
  • Most bishops have refused to warn the clergy in their annual conferences not to violate the Discipline (Bishop Jones and Bishop Hayes are notable exceptions)
  • Most bishops who know of violations committed by clergy in their annual conferences have refused to file complaints against them, insisting instead that any complaints filed come from other clergy or laity, rather than initiating the accountability process themselves
  • Some bishops have appointed known pro-gay advocates to serve as counsel for the church, charged with enforcing the Discipline’s prohibition against same-sex “marriages” or against the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, tainting the process from the very beginning
  • One bishop (along with several district superintendents) publicly attended a same-sex “wedding” performed in his annual conference in support of the persons being “married”
  • One complaint against two pastors for performing same-sex “weddings” was “resolved” by the counsel for the church without a trial by simply accepting a 24-hour suspension of the two pastors involved, ignoring the expressed desires of those who filed the complaints (how can there be “resolution” when there is not agreement of the parties involved?)
  • The Council of Bishops promised to uphold the Discipline, yet is not sharing publicly what, if any, actions they are taking to hold Bishop Melvin Talbert accountable for his violations of the Discipline in performing a same-sex union in Northern Alabama last October (lack of transparency fosters mistrust—just ask the NSA and the Obama administration!)
  • The General Council on Finance and Administration voted to unilaterally offer benefits to same-sex partners and unmarried heterosexual partners, contrary  to the teachings of our church

The bottom line of all these actions is that the institutional church cannot be trusted to implement the provisions decided upon by the duly elected representatives of the worldwide United Methodist Church.  It doesn’t appear to matter what the Book of Discipline says.  Bishops and clergy will do what they want to do.  Why do we pay $10 million for a General Conference to meet when its actions can be so cavalierly disregarded?

These actions and responses are like a corrosive acid, burning away the “connection” in our connectional church.  All systems need trust in order to function in a healthy and effective way.  When that trust is lost, it takes a long time and lots of effort to rebuild (just ask any married couple that has survived an affair).  The “any means” approach of pro-gay activists and the failure of our leadership to respond (or in many cases their collaboration with the pro-gay tactics) is severely damaging the trust relationship that our church needs in order to function.  Regardless of which way the church goes in the future, that damaged trust will hinder the church’s ministry for years to come.

What do you think?

Methodism in the Therapy Room, Part II

Last week, we began examining how the therapeutic conflict-resolution process based on family systems theory can inform our understanding of the conflict within Methodism today.  Steps one and two are:

1. Engage in conversation, seek to find the understandable part in the other’s perspective, and make room for their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.

2. If the partner does not make room for your perspective, stand up and engage with them more forcefully.

This week, we will look at steps three and four in the process.

1. If the partner still does not make room for your perspective, fire a “friendly warning shot.”  This step is obviously not referring to a violent confrontation, but to a strong and direct statement that the partner’s perspective is not being heeded.  Here again, the pro-gay partner has made some very strong statements through demonstrations at General Conference and at other events to attract attention to their perspective.  The problem is that such demonstrations are not aimed at gaining the inclusion of the pro-gay perspective in the church, but the elimination of the traditional sexuality perspective. 

The traditional sexuality perspective has been better in this area than in other areas.  When the pro-gay partner has sought to force their views on the whole church by exploiting “loopholes” in the Book of Discipline, the General Conference has responded by closing those loopholes and ensuring that the traditional sexuality perspective is maintained.  Sometimes, however, even these friendly warning shots made room for the pro-gay perspective.  For example, the statements in ¶613.19 and ¶806.9 prohibiting the use of church funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality also include language to prevent the use of church funds “to violate the expressed commitment of The UMC ‘not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.’”

The best example of a traditional sexuality friendly warning shot was Bishop Scott Jones’ answer when asked how he would handle the situation if 100 of his annual conference clergy performed same-sex unions.  He responded that there would be 100 suspensions during the investigative process and 100 trials.  Such a statement goes a long way to maintain equal regard for the church’s teaching on sexuality.  Unfortunately, very few other bishops have so far responded in a similar manner.  Instead, most have promised to “uphold the Discipline,” while at the same time failing to take meaningful actions to do so.

2. The last resort in conflict resolution when the partner still does not make room for your perspective is to cease cooperating with them.  The goal of this step, as in steps 2 & 3, is not to break up the relationship, but to get the partner to make room for your perspective.  Even though the traditional sexuality partner has made much room for the pro-gay perspective, it is the pro-gay partner who has finally resorted to non-cooperation.  The several hundred same-sex services that have been performed in violation of the Discipline, the failure in some instances to enforce the Discipline’s prohibition of such services, and the stated intent of areas of the church to live as if those provisions “do not exist,” are all vivid examples of non-cooperation.  Here, the goal, however, is not to gain equal regard for the pro-gay perspective, but to overwhelm the traditional sexuality perspective to the point where we surrender and agree to function under the pro-gay perspective.

The time is fast approaching when the traditional sexuality partner will also see the need to engage in non-cooperation with parts of the church that are failing to give equal regard to our perspective.  Such non-cooperation could include the redirection of apportionments, refusal to participate in annual conference programs and priorities, or other steps that would weaken the institutions of the church.

I hope this analysis has been helpful in seeing how there has been an unbalanced way of attempting to resolve the conflict within the UM Church over homosexuality.  Because the traditional sexuality partner has, at times, failed to fully engage in the process to maintain equal regard for our perspective (especially by the gatekeepers of the system) and has instead kept on trying to make accommodations for the pro-gay partner, the traditional partner is being forced to go along with the pro-gay perspective.

Sometimes, in the course of following the conflict resolution process above, a couple will discover that their two perspectives are not compatible with each other.  Despite all attempts at compromise and making room for each other, there is no way to continue living together in a common relationship of love and commitment.  There are very few issues that would ultimately pose such a threat to a marriage.  One example might be the infidelity of one of the partners.

I believe United Methodism has encountered one of those incompatibility issues.  The church’s teaching on homosexuality has become a zero-sum game.  Neither partner can give the other what it wants to keep the “marriage” of the church functioning without abandoning one of its foundational values.  The pro-gay partner cannot allow the church to regard homosexual behavior as sinful, and the traditional sexuality partner cannot come to regard homosexual behavior as not sinful.  Each bases their position on a certain reading of Scripture, informed by tradition, reason, and experience.  And each believes that it cannot give ground on this issue.

Despite the best efforts of our “counselor,” we may have reached an impasse in Methodism.  As both partners move farther into the non-cooperation mode, the only foreseeable outcome may be divorce.  What do you think?

Methodism in the Therapy Room, Part I

My wife, Mary, is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and I have learned a lot from her over the years about relationships and dealing with conflict. She and I were talking about the current situation in The United Methodist Church and analyzing it from a systems perspective. Mary uses a four-step process in resolving conflict between husbands and wives (based on the work of Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Brent Atkinson, for those who are familiar with their work). It can be helpful to see how the conflict-resolution process is playing out in United Methodism as a guide for where the glitches are. I know it is simplistic to reduce the conflict within Methodism to that between two “partners,” but taking this angle on the situation can yield some helpful learnings. I would like to take this week’s and next week’s blog to explore how the therapeutic conflict-resolution process can inform our understanding of the conflict within Methodism today. Here is the four-step process:

1. Engage in conversation, seek to find the understandable part in the other’s perspective, and make room for their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. We have had endless conversation and “dialog” over the issue of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. From my (admittedly biased) perspective, the traditional sexuality partner has gone as far as possible to make room for the pro-gay partner’s perspective. Looking at the paragraph on homosexuality in the Social Principles (¶161F), six of the seven sentences reflect the pro-gay perspective (although the traditional sexuality partner would agree with many of those sentences, as well). In addition, there are several references in the Discipline that favor respect for the human rights of GLBT persons. The only step left to take in terms of making room for the pro-gay perspective would be to completely abandon the traditional sexuality perspective and embrace the practice of homosexuality, which the traditional sexuality partner cannot do. (The reason that the Hamilton-Slaughter proposal failed at the 2012 General Conference was that it was so one-sided as to make almost no room for the traditional sexuality perspective. A more balanced proposal may very well have been adopted.)

At the same time, it feels like the pro-gay partner has not found the understandable part in the traditional sexuality perspective, nor have they made room for that perspective. Instead, anyone who disagrees with the pro-gay perspective is classified as a bigot holding to Neanderthal morality and chained to the past. The pro-gay partner is adopting a “scorched earth” policy in attempting to eradicate the traditional sexuality perspective from the church. They see it as a human rights issue similar to racism that therefore must be completely eliminated from Methodism.

2. If the partner does not make room for your perspective, stand up and engage with them more forcefully. The pro-gay partner has certainly been forceful in standing up and engaging in the debate. Numerous statements and methods of communication have very forcefully presented the pro-gay perspective.

On the other hand, the traditional sexuality partner has been timid about standing up and engaging forcefully, even though the pro-gay partner is not making room for the traditional perspective in their thinking. While books and articles have been written from both sides, there is a marked lack of national spokespersons advocating the traditional sexuality perspective. This is particularly true among the gatekeepers of the system—bishops, district superintendents, agency general secretaries, etc. While there have been some bishops and superintendents who have stood up in their own annual conferences, none have taken a national platform to advocate the traditional perspective. The pro-gay partner, however, has many gatekeepers who are using a national platform to stand up and engage more forcefully. The conversation is unbalanced.

What can be done to redress the balance in the conversation in our church? How can our gatekeepers take a more active role in advocating the traditional sexuality perspective? Stay tuned for steps three and four next week.