Archives for May 2015

Changes in PC(USA) Bode Ill for Methodism

One of the proposals for preserving “unity” in The United Methodist Church in the midst of our controversies over same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is the “Local Option” idea promoted by Adam Hamilton and others, with legislative support from the Connectional Table. This proposal would essentially legalize same-sex marriage within the UM Church while not requiring it. And it would allow those annual conferences who wish to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals to do so without penalty.

Proponents claim that this approach would allow freedom of conscience within the church, while allowing all United Methodists to stay together and continue working together to make disciples for the transformation of the world. But would it?

Other denominations have taken this approach. One such is the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the seven Mainline churches.

In 2006, some local presbyteries (the equivalent of our United Methodist annual conferences) began ordaining non-celibate homosexuals, contrary to the denomination’s stated standards. In 2010 the PC(USA) changed its ordination standards by removing the requirement for “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” In 2011 this constitutional change was ratified by a vote of the various presbyteries. The door was opened and such ordinations began to take place in 2011.

pcusaWhat impact did this change have on the membership of the PC(USA)? When local presbyteries began defying the denominational standards, the membership loss jumped 50 percent, from 2 percent to 3 percent a year. When the denominational standards changed, the rate of 3 percent membership loss per year shifted to over 5 percent per year. In other words, the rate of membership loss shot up by 150 percent altogether.

In response to the change in ordination standards, a new Presbyterian denomination was formed: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). In the first two years of its existence, 185 congregations left the PC(USA) to join ECO. An equal number of congregations left the PC(USA) to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Additional congregations became independent or joined other Presbyterian bodies.

In 2014 the PC(USA) changed its definition of marriage, calling it “a unique relationship between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” (This wording approach bears resemblance to the proposal to say that The United Methodist Church historically considered “the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.”) That constitutional change has been ratified by the presbyteries in 2015.

After the initial burst, has the pace of membership loss slowed down in the PC(USA)? No, the loss in 2014 was worse than the loss in 2013, and initial reports of membership loss in 2015 continue to maintain that devastating pace. Losing 5 percent of membership per year puts a denomination on track to extinction in 20 years!

How do these results translate to The United Methodist Church?

The Presbyterians took a two-step approach, legalizing ordination first and then marriage. My guess is that if United Methodists were to take a two-step approach, we would probably begin with marriage and then ordination. However, the proposal likely to come to General Conference would adopt both changes at the same time. And those changes would not be constitutional changes. They would only require a majority vote by the General Conference and no ratification by the annual conferences (different than the Presbyterian Church process). Thus, it would be much easier to accomplish in our setting. (The PC(USA) voted three times unsuccessfully to allow ordination, beginning in 1997, before finally achieving ratification on the fourth try.)

Just as a change in policy by the PC(USA) brought about a sharp jump in membership losses for them, it would also translate into increased membership losses for the UM Church. It is impossible to say for sure the magnitude of the impact. Whereas we now lose about 95,000 members per year, replicating the PC(USA) results would increase that to 238,000 members per year. I suspect the real number could be even higher, as surveys have shown that grass roots United Methodists more consistently identify themselves as theologically conservative than do Presbyterians.

Just as in the PC(USA), a change in policy by The United Methodist Church would undoubtedly spur the formation of a new Methodist denomination to which fleeing UM congregations could join. Over the last three years, the PC(USA) has lost about 2 percent of their congregations per year. That would translate to over 600 congregations a year leaving United Methodism. (The Presbyterians have the same type of trust clause that we do, but they do have a way for congregations to exit with property. However, that process is administered unevenly across the presbyteries, with some being much more hard-line than others in demanding high payments for leaving.)

The bottom line is that adopting the “local option” would bring about a jump in membership losses for The United Methodist Church. There would be a segment of the church that would be unable to continue in a denomination that allows same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. Whether that segment is closer to 5 percent or 35 percent is unknown. Not only would we lose hundreds of congregations who would attempt to withdraw and join another Methodist entity, but even churches that remain would suddenly lose a portion of their members, some of whom will undoubtedly be those who are most active in leadership and financial support of the congregation.

Those proposing the “local option” should also propose a plan to make this transition as painless as possible and to minimize the impact on thousands of local congregations across the country. Otherwise, we will follow our Presbyterian brothers and sisters into a quagmire of confusion, conflict, and court battles.

Pew Study Prompts Varying Explanations for Decline

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 9.54.58 AMBy now, many people have seen the articles about the “collapse” of Christianity in the U.S. A recent study by the Pew Research Center  found that Christianity had decreased from 78.4 percent of the population in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics fared the worst, with declines of more than three percentage points each. Evangelical Protestants suffered a lesser decline of nearly one percentage point.

Non-Christian faiths grew by 1.2 percentage points to encompass nearly six percent of the population. But the big news was the jump in “unaffiliated” persons from 16.1 to 22.8 percent of the population, a growth of 6.7 percentage points. Atheists and agnostics grew from 4.0 percent to 7.1 percent of the population.

As an aside, United Methodists went from 5.1 percent in 2007 to 3.6 percent in 2014.

There is of course a lot of hand wringing about these survey results. Many in the liberal media are predicting the demise of Christianity! (Of course, we are nowhere near that point.) Conservatives blame liberal theology. Liberals counter that some conservative groups are shrinking just as badly.

What is the real story?

1)     Part of the issue with how this survey is compiled is that it is based on self-reporting by the survey participants. This leads to inaccuracies in the results. For example, as I noted above, United Methodists supposedly make up 3.6 percent of the population. Southern Baptists, according to the survey, make up 5.3 percent of the population. Yet the SBC has 16 million members, more than twice the UM Church’s 7.3 million. (Based on the percentages, United Methodism ought to have 11.5 million members.) The results don’t add up. So people’s perception of their religious affiliation is different from the official membership numbers.

2)     Stemming from this point, it has become less necessary to identify oneself as a Christian in order to fit into our society. It used to be fashionable to be a Christian. No longer. So some of the increase in “unaffiliated” could be people who were never Christians in the first place, yet used to identify themselves as Christians for social reasons and do not feel the need to do so any more. Ed Stetzer, the research guru of the Southern Baptist Convention, makes this point in his USA Today article []. He points out that most of the decline in Christianity is coming from the Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, who harbor more “nominal” Christians (in name only) due to their lower expectations of church members.

3)     Religion commentator Jonathan Merritt attributes part of the greater decline among Mainline Protestants to a lower birthrate than among evangelicals. However, this does not explain the equal decline of Roman Catholics, who encourage larger families.

4)     Dr. Gregory Popcak, a Catholic psychologist and radio host, points out that divorce and broken families play a big role in younger generations failing to find faith. Just on a practical level, when children in a divorced family alternate weekends between different homes, they also alternate between different churches (or a church and no church), making it much more difficult for them to bond with or even understand a particular faith. The psychological trauma of divorce causes children to distrust authority figures and caregivers. This translates into mistrust of the church and even of God. Parents who are going through a divorce are often not in the best position to pass along their Christian faith and values (if they have them), and may indeed even be questioning their own faith at that point in their lives. It is no wonder that the youngest generation (Millennials) is feeling the brunt of growing up in an increasingly divorce-laden world.

Religion Insights reports on a study of teens and young adults by Christian Smith. “Parents, Smith finds, are the single most important predictor of a young adult’s attitude toward religion. Young adults raised in a religious home where faith is taken seriously and practiced regularly will continue those traditions. Parents with halfhearted attempts at inculcating faith wind up with children who are less religiously committed as adults. Short of revamping congregations to make them friendlier to young people of this age group, Smith concludes church leaders ought to focus instead on children and especially on parents. ‘The best thing they can do is help parents be faith-formers,’ said Smith. ‘However it works to get parents committed and involved, that’s what matters.’”

Ed Stetzer in the article linked above points out that American Christianity is becoming increasingly evangelical. Fully 55 percent of all U.S. Christians identify with an evangelical denomination. And this does not include those in Mainline and other churches who are not counted as evangelicals, but hold evangelical beliefs and values. As Stetzer points out, evangelicals are maintaining their share of the population and growing in absolute numbers. They attend church more frequently than non-evangelicals and often exhibit greater adherence to biblical values.

Evangelical beliefs and values address causes two and four above. Evangelicals in general, and evangelical denominations in particular, often have higher expectations and commitment levels. This ought to encourage United Methodists to raise the bar for church membership and encourage high commitment to the faith, rather than focusing solely on who is “included” or welcomed into the body. And evangelicals tend to divorce at lower rates. Support for marriages and families in church, including parenting instruction as well as teaching the Christian value of marriage, can help build stronger congregations, as well.

While the sky may not be falling, there is no room for complacency in the face of these statistics. There are now at least 56 million Americans who claim no Christian affiliation. Many of them are still open to the Gospel. It is past time for the church to focus on preaching the Good News and growing disciples of Jesus Christ.


So Much for ‘Big Tent’ Methodism

julie_in_circus_tentCentrists and some progressives within The United Methodist Church are fond of talking about how we can have a “big tent” version of Methodism that embraces (or at least accommodates) a broad spectrum of theological and moral understandings.

In my experience, however, there are places in the U.S. church where evangelicals have been marginalized and excluded from the church. Over the years, we have heard first-hand testimony from evangelical candidates for ministry who have not been approved by district committees or conference boards of ordained ministry. Likewise, we have heard from evangelical pastors who have not been given appointments commensurate with their gifts and graces. In some cases, evangelical clergy and laity have not been given leadership positions in the annual conference. My previous blog told the story of one such pastor who was recently given a “punitive appointment.”

Now we are dealing with an exploding situation in North Georgia regarding a licensed local pastor (not ordained) who was summarily dismissed from her pulpit without being given a chance to defend herself. Besides the inherent unfairness in the way she was treated, it appears to observers close to this case that the source of the animosity against her is that she was outspoken in her defense of the church’s position on marriage and homosexuality.

The Rev. Dr. Carole Hulslander had a well-paid position as a scientist working for the Kimberly-Clark Corporation in the Atlanta area when she and her husband, Douglas, began a Bible study in their living room. The Bible study engaged people from various racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds in a diverse community of Christian faith. After meeting and growing for two years, the group felt called to begin a church to reach people like them. In 1999 the church began to meet under her leadership. She was licensed in 2000 as a local pastor, and the church was chartered in 2001. Hulslander pursued theological training, with an MDiv degree from Asbury Theological Seminary and a DMin degree from Columbia Theological Seminary.

In 2004 Hulslander quit her job with Kimberly-Clark to go full-time with the church. The congregation has grown to about 120 members in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic urban environment. When the church was ready to move into its first facility, the Hulslanders, along with a couple other families in the church, put up tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to make that move possible. The church is an active congregation with outreach programs into the community, including a homeless ministry, a Christian day care, elementary, and middle school, music and language schools, participation in the Candler Theological Seminary contextual student mentoring program, and outreaches to a retirement community and three government housing projects. Throughout her 15 years of ministry, Dr. Hulslander received positive annual reviews from her superintendents and the district committee.

According to Hulslander and congregational leaders, without warning, on March 17, 2015, less than three weeks before Easter, Dr. Hulslander was de-licensed and removed from her position as pastor of Still Waters UM Church by the Atlanta-Emory District Committee on Ordained Ministry. This followed her annual interview by the committee on March 16, which – according to Hulslander – lasted all of ten minutes. During the interview, there was no indication that her license might not be renewed, nor was she confronted with any complaints or issues that needed correcting.

Good News has reached out repeatedly to the district superintendent, bishop, and communications director of the North Georgia Annual Conference and received no response or acknowledgement. Dr. Hulslander has told her story publicly in a radio interview and has given permission for her personnel file to be accessed to prove her story.

Why was Hulslander removed from ministry? The committee gave two reasons:

1) “Failure to order the life of the local church to the 2012 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church; in regard to laity serving on standing committees.”

This issue did not come up in her interview with the committee, and Hulslander had no idea what this charge referred to. Only AFTER she was dismissed, did the district superintendent elaborate on this charge in a letter to the chair of the pastor-parish relations committee. Apparently, there were two instances of spouses serving on the same committee and one instance of the same person serving as both financial secretary and church treasurer.

This was not a willful violation by the pastor, but born of ignorance; it was never brought to the attention of the church or Hulslander, even though the district superintendent had presided over several charge conferences that approved the committee membership; she was not given a chance to correct the situation; and she was not warned that this irregularity jeopardized her license or position as pastor.

How many ordained clergy would be dismissed from ministry for this type of error?

2) “Failure to properly report and handle an allegation of Child Abuse within your congregation/ school.”

The district superintendent made Hulslander aware on December 8, 2014, of an anonymous report of an alleged incident that might have been “child abuse” at the school. Hulslander investigated the alleged incident and reported back to the district superintendent two days later (December 10) that the incident was not child abuse, that the parents and school principal had been involved in the alleged incident, and that no further action was needed.

The superintendent responded to Hulslander, “Thank you for your research and your thoughtful approach to the possible concerns being shared via my office.” No further mention was made of the incident.

Although the superintendent claims to have reported the incident to child protective services, the agency never sent a representative to investigate the allegations. The superintendent did not investigate the incident with the parents or school. In the March 16 interview with the committee, this issue was brought up, and Hulslander described how she had handled the reported incident. In the interview, the committee did not reprimand, correct, or instruct Hulslander regarding improperly handling the allegation.

Normally, when a licensed local pastor is discontinued, the person serves out the remainder of the appointment year until a new pastor can be appointed around July 1. In Dr. Hulslander’s case, she was dismissed without warning, effective immediately. Why? The Discipline allows that, “When deemed appropriate, to protect the well-being of the person making the complaint, the congregation, annual conference, … and/or clergy, the bishop, with the recommendation of the executive committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry, may suspend the person from all clergy responsibilities, but not from an appointment, for a period not to exceed ninety days” (¶ 363.1d). Did either of Hulslander’s alleged violations merit her immediate suspension “to protect the well-being” of anyone, much less her immediate dismissal from her position? The district superintendent had not pursued either of these matters with her in the preceding three months, so he evidently did not believe them to be urgent. How then could he suddenly decide to summarily fire Dr. Hulslander from her position?

Was the Board of Ordained Ministry executive committee involved as required in the 24 hours between her interview and the letter announcing her termination? It is unlikely.

The reasons given for Carole Hulslander’s termination are chargeable offenses (“disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church; child abuse” ¶2702.1d, g). Yet, the committee and the superintendent failed to give Hulslander the opportunity to defend herself against these charges. She did not receive the fair process that is required by ¶363 of the Discipline, which applies to local pastors, not just ordained clergy.

Paragraph 426 of the Discipline requires superintendents to engage in consultation with “the pastor and committee on pastor-parish relations” (PPRC) as “both a continuing process and a more intense involvement during the period of change in appointment.” This “process of consultation shall be mandatory in every annual conference.” Yet, neither the pastor nor the PPRC were consulted or even informed of the contemplated change in appointment at the church. Two interim pastors have been sent to the church since Dr. Hulslander’s dismissal, again without any consultation with the PPRC. According to Still Waters leaders, both of them proved unsatisfactory and unable to handle the delicate situation they were walking into.

The approach taken by the superintendent and district committee showed no pastoral concern for Dr. Hulslander or the Still Waters congregation. The abrupt removal of their pastor without legitimate cause traumatized the congregation. Hulslander’s removal allowed no kind of consultation or orderly transition. The congregation could not even prepare a way to say good-bye to their founding pastor or provide for a ritual of leave-taking.

There are so many things wrong with the way Dr. Hulslander was treated that a lawyer would have a field day in court, proving that the district did not follow the church’s own processes laid out in the Book of Discipline. Just from a moral and ethical perspective, the way she was treated is wrong. According to sources close to the case in the North Georgia Annual Conference, the underlying motivation for her dismissal on trumped up charges appears to be her vocal support for The United Methodist Church position on marriage and homosexuality, as defined by General Conference and the Book of Discipline. It appears that there is no room in the Atlanta-Emory district for an evangelical clergy woman who stands up for what the church teaches.

Here is a pastor who left a professional position with a large corporation in mid-life to pursue God’s call to ministry. She has devoted 20 years of her time, energy, and personal finances to birthing a church. Her ministry has borne fruit, yielding that most rare of animals—a multi-racial, multi-cultural thriving congregation whose members’ average age is 40 years old. When the church was formed, they asked to become a United Methodist congregation. They began paying apportionments before they were even chartered as a church, and they have consistently paid 100 percent of their apportionments as loyal United Methodists. She is the only pastor this congregation has ever known. To have her taken from them in one day without warning, less than three weeks before Easter and seemingly without cause, has devastated this congregation. As a typical smaller congregation, they depended upon her leadership for many of the ongoing ministries of their church. Without her leadership, some of those ministries have stalled or stopped functioning. How has any of this furthered the cause of Christ or strengthened The United Methodist Church? Instead, the irresponsible actions of a district committee and superintendent have alienated a loyal congregation of people and alarmed an annual conference that thought there was room there for devoted evangelical clergy.

Heavy-handed exclusionary practices like this, when added to a decades-long pattern in some areas of anti-evangelical experience, make us pessimistic that a “big tent” United Methodism has ever existed or could ever exist. It seems like the theological cleansing of United Methodism is a reality in some areas.

Punitive Appointments

excellent-silhouette-of-a-man-walking-george-f-mobleyMost United Methodist pastors who have been around for a while can tell a story or two about a colleague (or themselves!) who has received a “punitive appointment.” This is an appointment to a church that is less desirable or has less potential than the one you are currently serving, or that requires you to take a substantial cut in pay. It may be an appointment that is farther from family or that requires a spouse to quit his/her job with little prospect of finding a new job closer to the new appointment.

What makes it a “punitive appointment” is not that it requires hardship or sacrifice — many United Methodist clergy willingly offer themselves unreservedly for ministry, despite the challenges. Sometimes we pastors knowingly make the sacrifice, and other times we find out after we get there that we made a sacrifice unknowingly.

No, what makes an appointment “punitive” is the REASON for that appointment. Rather than being made because the bishop and cabinet believe one has the gifts and graces needed by a particular congregation, a “punitive appointment” is made as a form of “punishment” for some alleged wrongdoing.

Sometimes, it is a personality conflict with the district superintendent or with a powerful parishioner. Sometimes, it is because of a disagreement with conference leadership over some issue. Sometimes, it is because of what one believes (theology) and how one practices ministry.

Sadly, we have seen occasions over the years when evangelicals have been penalized — relegated to only small churches, low-salary appointments, places with little growth potential, excluded from conference leadership — by a “progressive” bishop and cabinet who want to marginalize evangelicals in their annual conference.

Let me be clear that I am not saying that appointment to a smaller church or lower salary is automatically a “punishment.” I accepted such an appointment and found it to be a place where God really blessed my ministry. But when evangelicals as a group are marginalized in the type of appointments we serve, it reveals a pattern that is harmful to the church, as well as to individual ministries.

Let me also be clear that I am not saying that all progressive bishops or superintendents act this way.

I recently received a call from a colleague who has served in ministry for many years and been effective. The story he tells is chilling. I’ll call him Gary.

Gary had been in this particular church for a number of years when he was preaching through a book of the Bible and came across a passage that dealt with homosexuality.  In his sermon, he defended the current teaching of the church in a winsome and compassionate way. Several months later, he was called into the district superintendent’s office. The superintendent proceeded to rebuke Gary for preaching as he did, referring to a letter from someone who had visited the church that particular morning and was very upset by the position Gary had taken. The letter said that Gary was hateful and homophobic, and that his sermon had brought great harm and pain to the individual who wrote the letter.

Gary was not allowed to have a copy of the letter. He was not allowed to know whom the letter came from (although the writer mentioned that he was in church that day because of some connection with a family in the congregation). The superintendent did not ask to see a transcript of Gary’s sermon or notes or receive a recording of the sermon, so the superintendent could judge for himself whether Gary’s sermon was hurtful. The superintendent did not talk to any members of the congregation to find out how the sermon came across to them. He did not talk to the pastor-parish relations committee (or even just the chair of the PPRC) to see if they had received any complaints about the sermon.  And in case you were wondering, there were no complaints from anyone in the congregation.  Gary was in fact commended by many parishioners for his faithful stance.

In other words, the superintendent took the word of one individual who had no connection to the congregation, who just happened to show up on the one Sunday this topic has come up in all the years Gary has served this church, and who disagrees with our church’s position on homosexuality, to reprimand Gary for his sermon. Gary also learned that the letter had been read by the bishop and the whole cabinet and discussed in their meeting, all without the benefit of anyone talking to Gary or a member of his congregation first. In fact, Gary subsequently asked for a meeting with three superintendents as a way for them to know him better and understand his gifts and hopes for ministry, in preparation for any future appointment. His request was disregarded. In fact, contrary to ¶ 426 in the Discipline, there was no consultation at all between Gary and his superintendent prior to a new appointment.

This one letter colored the cabinet’s impression of Gary and called into question decades of faithful ministerial effectiveness. The result is that Gary has been asked to move to a different church and take a $10,000 per year cut in salary.  When Gary asked two different superintendents if it was because of his sermon, neither superintendent would answer his question. When Gary asked if he had any other options, both of the superintendents told him he had to take this appointment if he wanted to continue to serve in ministry in that annual conference.  There were no other options.

This is not the way that clergy should be treated. Every elder should have a fair opportunity to answer complaints leveled against him or her, in line with the fair process requirements in the Book of Discipline. Defending the denomination’s stance on marriage and sexuality should not leave one open to a punitive appointment. Unfortunately, this is happening not just in the North or West, but even in some parts of the South. This is another sign of the deep division in our church over issues of theology. One expects persecution or opposition from the secular world, but to receive that opposition from the leadership of one’s own church is disheartening. If quality pastoral leadership is a key to turning our denomination around into one that is vital and growing again, we are shooting ourselves in the foot when we treat clergy like this.

Gary will accept his new appointment because that is what he promised to do when he was ordained, and he is a person of integrity. And we know that God will take this situation and work it for good—for Gary and for his congregations (both new and old).

But the fact that pastors are being blatantly mistreated because they AGREE with United Methodist doctrine and policy tells us just how far down into the rabbit hole we have fallen into this “Alice in Wonderland” world. We have given license to our leaders to undercut the church’s teaching at every turn, and we bend over backward to accommodate those who disrupt our meetings and try to intimidate us into letting them have their way. Yet we are unable to treat fairly people who serve faithfully and well. How can we continue to live together in such a dysfunctional system?