Archives for July 2018

What’s in the Connectional Conference Plan?

The report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the legislative proposals for the three plans they developed are now posted publicly on the Judicial Council website. In the interest of helping facilitate discussion and consideration of the three main proposals that will be voted upon at the special General Conference next February, I have now shared the elements involved in each plan. You can read about the One Church Plan here and the Traditional Plan here.

Although this article is shorter than the 232-page full report and petitions, in the interest of thoroughness, many details will be included. For those looking for a shorter report, you can skip to the summary at the bottom of this article.

Features of the Plan

The Connectional Conference Plan is the most complicated of the three proposals coming before the General Conference. It attempts to treat all perspectives on the church’s stance regarding LGBT persons fairly and equally. Due to the great complexity, I will not be able to cover all the details involved in the plan, but I will describe the broad approaches that the plan takes.

The essence of the Connectional Conference Plan is to create three new theological jurisdictions (called “connectional conferences”) in place of the current five geographical jurisdictions. Each connectional conference would cover the entire United States. There would be a Traditional Conference that would maintain the current Discipline’s prohibition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. There would be a Unity Conference that would neither forbid nor require same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals (this branch would be similar to what the One Church Plan envisions, but only for this branch). And there would be a Progressive Conference that would require and expect all pastors to perform same-sex weddings and all its annual conferences to ordain and appoint practicing homosexual clergy.

There would be a sorting process designed to limit the number of votes that would be needed. Current jurisdictions would vote first on which of the connectional conferences they want to affiliate with. (All jurisdictional property would then go with that connectional conference.) Any annual conference that disagreed with the decision of its jurisdiction could vote to join a different connectional conference. (All annual conference property, assets, and liabilities would go with the annual conference wherever it decided to affiliate.) Any local church that disagreed with the decision of its jurisdiction or annual conference could vote to join a different connectional conference. (All local church property, assets, and liabilities would go with the local church.) No local church would need to vote unless it disagreed with the decision of higher-up entities. Any vote by any church body to realign with a different connectional conference (once the plan is implemented) could happen no more frequently than in four years from a previous vote, in order to minimize continuing conflict and membership “churn.”

Bishops and clergy would similarly choose which connectional conference they wanted to join, with a possibility of transitional appointments until a suitable appointment is found for them in their preferred connectional conference. Clergy could serve in a different connectional conference, with the approval of that conference, as long as they adhered to the requirements of that conference.

There is some question whether all three connectional conferences would be populated, with the possibility that many progressives might stick with a Unity Conference instead of forming their own conference. But that decision would be up to each jurisdiction, annual conference, local church, and clergy person, rather than being dictated by the plan itself. There is no doubt that many annual conference boundaries would need to be redrawn and new annual conferences formed. There would be two or three annual conferences covering each geographical location in the United States. Each new connectional conference could determine whether or not it wanted to have jurisdictions as part of its new structure (hopefully with another name).

Under the Connectional Conference Plan, the primary identity would be the connectional conference. Some of the powers of the General Conference would be shifted to the connectional conference, including:

  • Determining the number of bishops needed, electing the bishops, and funding the bishops (no funding for a bishop in the U.S. would come from a different connectional conference).
  • Determining the qualifications, powers, and duties of clergy, including accountability through the complaint process.
  • Determining the qualifications, powers, and duties of bishops, including accountability through the connectional conference college of bishops.
  • Adapting most of the Book of Discipline according to its theological perspective.
  • Holding its bishops accountable to the connectional conference rules and requirements.
  • Creating whatever boards and agencies the connectional conference believes it needs to enhance effectiveness in ministry.

All three connectional conferences would still be part of The United Methodist Church, but each would have much more autonomy to operate in the way it believes would be most helpful and consistent with its theological perspective. The general church would consist of:

  • A General Book of Discipline including the doctrinal standards and theological task, ministry of all Christians, new global social principles, and provisions governing all shared agencies.
  • A shortened General Conference, mostly for celebration, sharing of best practices, and governing those parts of the church shared by all the connectional conferences.
  • A redefined Council of Bishops, caring for ecumenical relationships, fostering cross-connection ministries and partnerships, and serving as a learning and support community for bishops (This redefined COB would not have supervisory authority over the bishops or over the connectional conferences, as that function would pass to each connectional college of bishops.).
  • General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (Wespath).
  • The Publishing House.
  • General Council on Finance and Administration.
  • United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
  • Parts of the General Board of Global Ministries as agreed upon by all the connectional conferences.

All the rest of the general boards and agencies would be subject to whether or not any connectional conferences want to continue to participate in them. Continuing agencies could serve one, two, or all three connectional conferences, and funding would be apportioned from only those conferences participating. Connectional conferences could also contract with specific agencies for fee-based services as desired.

The current central conferences outside the United States would be renamed as connectional conferences and be given equal power and authority with the US connectional conferences. Each non-U.S. connectional conference could remain separate as it is, join with other connectional conferences in its area, or join one of the three U.S. connectional conferences. If annual conferences in a given area realigned, non-U.S. connectional conference boundaries might need to be redrawn. Funding for bishops and ministries outside the U.S. would be shared by all three U.S. connectional conferences, as it currently is.

Enactment of this plan would require nine constitutional amendments that would hopefully be approved and ratified as a package. Implementation of the plan would take until 2023, and the 2024 General Conference would be shifted to 2025, moving the four-year cycle of General Conference so that it does not coincide with United States presidential election years.


The Connectional Conference Plan creates three new theological conferences (Traditional, Unity, and Progressive) in place of the current five geographical jurisdictions. It creates a process of sorting that seeks to minimize the number of entities that will need to vote on an affiliation. It continues a United Methodist Church umbrella of shared services and shared doctrinal standards, but devolves much of the authority and accountability functions to the connectional conferences. Cross-connection ministries and partnerships could continue, but work within each connectional conference would be funded and governed by that conference’s theology and requirements. Bishops and clergy would only serve within their connectional conference.


  • This is a radical restructuring of the church that seeks to treat each perspective fairly and equally.
  • Not only would this restructure hopefully resolve the impasse over marriage and human sexuality, it is designed to create the opportunity to redesign the general agency structure into something that better serves the needs and theological emphases of various parts of the church. It would allow experimentation with ministry and structure within each connectional conference that could cross-pollinate the other conferences.
  • This plan requires a two-thirds majority at General Conference and ratification by two-thirds of the members of all the annual conferences. It can only be adopted if there is broad support across the church for such an approach. At this time, it appears to lack that broad support across the theological spectrum. In the event that other plans fail to pass General Conference, it is possible this plan might serve as a compromise for a way forward.
  • Even though one’s primary identity would be in the connectional conference, rather than in the general church, some evangelicals and traditionalists would still object to being part of the same general church where another part of the church can support and engage in practices that the Bible calls sin. These persons would feel the need to withdraw from the denomination, but there is no provision in the plan for them to do so.
  • The connectional conferences would face a branding challenge in distinguishing their churches from those of a different connectional conference, sometimes in the same community.
  • The four-year implementation period needed is too long for some who are impatient to resolve our impasse immediately. This contrasts with a 22-month implementation for the Traditional Plan and an 18-month implementation for the One Church Plan.

There is no easy or painless way out of the impasse that besets our church, and there is no perfect solution. Unique among the three plans, the Connectional Conference Plan seeks to provide a place for each theological perspective and to treat everyone equally. No one would be forced to leave the church, and hopefully fewer would desire to do so under this plan. I believe it could serve as a good “Plan B” in case the Traditional Plan fails to pass. It is certainly preferable to the One Church Plan and to the option of doing nothing.



What’s in the Traditional Plan?

The report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the legislative proposals for the three plans they developed are now posted publicly on the Judicial Council website. In the interest of helping facilitate discussion and consideration of the three main proposals that will be voted upon at the special General Conference next February, I will be sharing the elements involved in each plan. You can read about the One Church Plan here.

Although this article is shorter than the 232-page full report and petitions, in the interest of thoroughness, many details will be included. For those looking for a shorter report, you can skip to the summary at the bottom of this article.

The Traditional Plan is founded on retaining what evangelicals and traditionalists believe is the Scriptural teaching that sexual relationships are to be reserved for the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. Based on the votes of previous General Conferences, a Traditional Plan appears to have the best chance of the three main proposals of being adopted. It is the approach favored by most evangelicals and traditionalists, including the Renewal and Reform Coalition (Good News, The Confessing Movement, UM Action, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association). 

The Traditional Plan retains the current stance in the Book of Discipline that values all persons as equally “of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and believes that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will. Because of widespread disobedience to the church’s prohibition of same-sex weddings and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the Traditional Plan dramatically enhances accountability to the church’s requirements and closes many of the loopholes currently being used to avoid accountability. At the same time, the Plan offers a gracious exit for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the church’s historic standards.


Key features of the Traditional Plan include:

  • The requirement that every annual conference vote on whether or not it is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Those annual conferences unwilling or unable to enforce the Discipline are encouraged to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and form a self-governing Methodist church that would allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination.
  • Annual conferences that did not agree to enforce the Discipline or who failed to do so would, as of January 1, 2021, no longer be able to use the United Methodist name or logo, and would be unable to give or receive funds through the general church.
  • Any annual conference could, by a simple majority, vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and keep its assets and liabilities. The annual conference would still be responsible for its pension liabilities and could continue to sponsor a pension program through Wespath.
  • Any local church in a departing annual conference could vote by a simple majority to remain in The United Methodist Church and abide by the current provisions of the Discipline.
  • Every bishop would be required to submit a statement as to whether or not he or she is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and to hold those under their supervision accountable to those standards. Any bishop unwilling or unable to do so would be subject to a disciplinary process administered by the Council of Bishops.
  • The Council of Bishops would establish a committee to respond to bishops who are unwilling to enforce the Discipline or who are charged with the offenses of immorality or practices incompatible with Christian teaching. Upon the committee’s recommendation, the Council of Bishops could vote to place a bishop on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement.
  • Any group of 50 or more local congregations could vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church to form a self-governing Methodist church, upon payment of each local church’s share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liability.
  • Any local church that wants to allow same-sex marriage, but is in an annual conference that will continue to prohibit such under the current Discipline, could vote by a 55 percent majority to withdraw from The United Methodist Church to join a self-governing Methodist church that allows same-sex marriage. The local church would have to pay its share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities.
  • Bishops and clergy who are unable to live within the boundaries of conduct established by the Discipline would be encouraged to transfer to a self-governing Methodist church that affirms their beliefs.
  • Annual conferences and congregations that depart from The United Methodist Church could continue to participate in Wespath and could negotiate fee-based services from other general boards and agencies of the UM Church. They could also continue to participate in joint mission through the General Board of Global Ministries, as well as partnerships for mission and other joint projects, with the agreement of the UM entity involved. Changes would be made to the pension program to ensure that pension liabilities are fairly cared for.
  • Institutions related to The United Methodist Church would remain affiliated with the annual conference it is affiliated with, whether that annual conference withdraws or remains in the church. But such institutions could form cooperative relationships with other bodies and could, under the provisions of their own bylaws, change their relationship from one body to another.
  • Any self-governing Methodist church would create its own Book of Discipline and be self-supporting financially, including funding its own bishops.
  • The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” would be expanded to include persons living in a same-sex partnership, union, or marriage, in keeping with Judicial Council decision 1341.
  • Bishops are required to nominate as members of the conference board of ordained ministry only persons who are committed to upholding and enforcing the provisions of the Discipline related to the candidacy and ordination of LGBT persons. Bishops are also prohibited from ordaining a self-avowed practicing homosexual as a clergy person. In addition, bishops are prohibited from consecrating as bishop anyone who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
  • Clergy found guilty by a trial court of performing a same-sex wedding would have a mandatory minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay for a first offense, and removal of clergy credentials for a second offense.
  • Bishops would not be allowed to dismiss a complaint unless it has “no basis in law or fact.”
  • “Just resolution” process and agreements would be reformed to ensure that complainants are included in the process and, where possible, agree to the “just resolution” before it is finalized.
  • The counsel for the church in a church trial process would be given the same right of appeal for egregious errors of church law that the defendant now enjoys.


The Traditional Plan would retain the current stance of the Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. It would enhance accountability by:

  • Encouraging annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations unwilling to live within the requirements of the Discipline to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and form their own self-governing Methodist church.
  • Providing that annual conferences not enforcing the Discipline could no longer use the United Methodist name or logo and could not give or receive funds through the general church.
  • Providing a new accountability process for bishops, whereby the Council of Bishops could place a bishop on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement.
  • Expanding the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include persons living in a same-sex marriage, union, or partnership.
  • Requiring that bishops nominate as members of the conference board of ordained ministry only persons willing to uphold and enforce the Discipline.
  • Providing a mandatory minimum penalty for clergy found guilty of performing a same-sex wedding.
  • Prohibiting bishops from dismissing a complaint unless it has no basis in law or fact.
  • Reforming the “just resolution” process to include the required participation of the complainant.
  • Allowing the church to appeal any egregious errors of church law from a trial process.

At the same time, the Traditional Plan acknowledges the reality that there are segments of the church that cannot live with the current prohibitions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The Plan provides a gracious way for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations to leave The United Methodist Church by a simple majority (or in some cases a 55 percent majority) vote and keep all their property, buildings, assets, and liabilities, in exchange only for covering unfunded pension liabilities.


  • The Traditional Plan maintains the majority position of the church, reaffirmed by every General Conference since 1972. It maintains the unity of the church with its members outside the United States, who overwhelmingly hold the traditional view. It follows the premise that those who want to change the church should be the ones to leave, not those who are in continuity with the church’s historic teachings.
  • It recognizes that there are parts of the church that can no longer live with the current strictures of the Book of Discipline and provides them with an easy and gracious way to leave the denomination and form a church that agrees with their theological understanding. Those who simply disagree with the church’s position are welcome to stay in the church, as long as they are willing to conform their behavior to the church’s requirements.
  • The Traditional Plan seeks to enhance accountability for bishops, clergy, and annual conferences, to ensure that those remaining in The United Methodist Church do indeed live by its standards.
  • Some progressive leaders have said they are not willing to leave the church under any circumstances. This may require that disciplinary measures are taken in order to align with the Discipline. There is some risk that such disciplinary measures may not work or may not be taken, which could lessen the effectiveness of the plan.
  • The Traditional Plan offers a hopeful way to end the conflict in our church by allowing those disagreeing with the church’s teaching to go their separate way with a blessing. Church property and the trust clause ought not be used to coerce people to remain in a covenant against their conscience. The Traditional Plan is the only one of the three that includes a gracious exit provision for those unable to live with the church’s teachings and requirements.
  • The Traditional Plan offers those who disagree with the effectiveness of this approach to also seek an exit from the denomination under the same terms.
  • As annual conferences and congregations depart from the denomination, it will be necessary to redraw jurisdictional and annual conference lines.
  • The Traditional Plan seeks a gracious end to the conflict of our church, so that valuable resources, time, and energy can be directed to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

There is no easy or painless way out of the impasse that besets our church, and there is no perfect solution. Of the three plans, however, the Traditional Plan seems the most faithful to Scripture and the most gracious in acknowledging that all members of the church may not be able to live with that solution. It provides a way for those who cannot live together to go their separate ways with blessing, allowing both to pursue ministry in faithfulness to their consciences without coercion.

What’s In the One Church Plan?

(l-r) Outgoing COB President Bishop Bruce Ough, incoming COB President Bishop Ken Carter and COB President-designate Bishop Cynthia Harvey address a press conference at the end of the Council of Bishops meeting on May 4,2018. Photo by Mike DuBose.

In light of the delay in releasing the report of the Commission on a Way Forward, and in the interest of helping facilitate discussion and consideration of the three main proposals that will be voted upon at the special General Conference next February, I will be sharing the elements involved in each plan over the next three weeks that can be made public. I will not be sharing the actual legislation or the details of the report, in deference to the desire for that information to come at the same time to everyone in their primary language.

In the interest of thoroughness, many details will be included. For those looking for a shorter report, you can skip to the summary at the bottom of this article.

The One Church Plan is the proposal with the most amount of information that has been publicly released. It is based on the idea that the church’s teaching regarding the practice of homosexuality and gender identity is a non-essential issue. Proponents of the One Church Plan believe that Christians can disagree about these issues and even have different practices and still work together within one church.

Key elements of the One Church Plan:

  • The plan states that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality and affirms “those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality,” as well as “those who believe the witness of Scripture calls us to reconsider the teaching of the church with respect to monogamous homosexual relationships.”
  • The definition of marriage is changed from “one man and one woman” to “two adults.”
  • The plan deletes the language, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
  • NOTE: the above three changes apply to the whole church and are not adaptable by the central conferences outside the United States.
  • The plan deletes the requirement that ordained clergy not be self-avowed practicing homosexuals, allowing each annual conference board of ordained ministry and clergy session to determine how standards relating to human sexuality would apply to candidates for ordination. Those who are ordained clergy must be appointed by the bishop to serve.
  • The plan states that ordained deacons and elders, as well as licensed local pastors, are not required or compelled to perform any marriage, union, or blessing of same-sex couples, nor are they prohibited from doing so. The decision about whether to participate in performing a same-sex wedding or blessing would strictly be up to the individual clergyperson.
  • The plan provides that clergy who cannot continue to serve in their annual conference due to disagreement with the conference’s standards for ordination around human sexuality may transfer to a different annual conference. It also provides that clergy who cannot continue to serve a given local church due to disagreements over same-sex marriage should be reassigned to a different church.
  • The plan forbids clergy from performing a same-sex wedding on church property unless the church has approved the use of church property for that purpose by a majority vote of the church conference.
  • The plan allows that no bishop is required to license, commission, or ordain any person who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual, but that another bishop should be brought in to provide these services. The bishop is, however, required to appoint any person who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual and is ordained.
  • The plan forbids bishops and district superintendents from either requiring or prohibiting pastors from performing same-sex weddings or unions. It also forbids them from either requiring or prohibiting local churches from holding same-sex weddings on church property. It forbids superintendents (but not bishops) from coercing, threatening, or retaliating against any pastor for either performing or refusing to perform a same-sex wedding.
  • The plan allows an annual conference clergy session to adopt a policy regarding what standards to apply to candidates for ministry regarding human sexuality.
  • The plan deletes from the chargeable offenses against clergy being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or performing a same-sex wedding.
  • The plan gives central conferences outside the United States 18 months to decide whether or not to accept the above proposals or continue with the current Book of Discipline.
  • The plan requires any local church leaving the denomination to pay its share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities, but it does not include any additional provisions for local churches to leave the denomination and keep their property. Whether or not the local church can keep its property is still left up to each bishop and each annual conference.
  • The plan provides that any clergy who leave the denomination would have their pension benefits converted from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. This means that the amount of future benefits is not guaranteed, but that the amount of benefits would depend upon how much money is in the person’s pension account at the time of retirement.


What does this plan actually do?

  • It changes the church’s official teaching on marriage and sexuality to affirm monogamous same-sex relationships. This is a change that affects all United Methodists everywhere, even if we disagree.
  • It delegates to each annual conference the decision about what standards to impose on clergy regarding same-sex practices. Importantly, laity will have no voice in this decision; it will be strictly a decision of the annual conference clergy.
  • It allows pastors to perform same-sex weddings if they want to without any repercussions.
  • It delegates to each local church the decision of whether or not to allow same-sex weddings to be performed on church property.
  • It includes protections of conscience and forbids bishops and district superintendents from coercing or punishing clergy who disagree with them about same-sex weddings.
  • It protects bishops from having to license, commission, or ordain someone whom they believe does not meet the qualifications for ministry, but it gets around that by bringing in another bishop who is willing to do so. And it does not protect bishops from having to appoint someone as clergy whom they believe does not meet the qualifications for ministry.
  • It allows central conferences outside the United States to continue operating under the current provisions of the Discipline, but the whole church would affirm monogamous same-sex marriage.
  • It changes the church’s pension plan to accommodate clergy and congregations that might leave the denomination, but it provides no mechanism for congregations to leave with their property. 


There are many issues that this plan raises for evangelicals and traditionalists. A few of them are:

  • It changes the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality to endorse conduct that Scripture prohibits. Such a change not only violates our consciences, it very well could remove the religious liberty legal protection that pastors and congregations have relied upon in not performing same sex weddings. While United Methodist clergy currently may point to the church’s official teaching as a basis for not marrying same-sex couples or hiring practicing homosexuals in our churches, that would no longer be the case under the One Church Plan.
  • It officially allows practices in parts of the church that the Bible calls sin.
  • It takes the conflict over the practice of homosexuality from the general church level down to every annual conference and every local church, as each makes its own decision about whether to allow same-sex marriage and the practice of homosexuality. This will multiply the level of conflict in our denomination, rather than resolve it.
  • It sets up a situation where one annual conference will have different teachings and practices than another, and where two local United Methodist churches in the same community could have diametrically opposite teachings and practices on marriage and sexuality. This will cause confusion and lead to the further weakening of the United Methodist “brand.” What it means to be “United Methodist” will depend upon what local church one attends. There will be a much weaker connectional identity for the denomination.
  • Many evangelicals will seek to leave the denomination if the One Church Plan passes because for most of us, adhering to Scriptural teaching on sexuality is an essential issue, but there is no orderly mechanism for congregations to do so and keep their property. This is a recipe for widespread lawsuits over property that consume the church’s resources meant to be spent on mission.
  • Many progressives will not be satisfied with this compromise and will continue to push for the full affirmation of same-sex relationships to be required in every annual conference and local church. The conflict will continue.

There is no easy or painless way out of the impasse that besets our church, and there is no perfect solution. Of the three plans, however, the One Church Plan seems to be the least faithful to Scripture and the least able to practically resolve the impasse. It will not accomplish what the General Conference intended in providing a way forward that resolves the conflict in our church.


Complaints Filed against Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Many United Methodists were surprised to learn that it is possible to file complaints against a lay member of the church for disobedience to the Discipline, a course of action that could lead to a church trial for a lay member.

On June 18, more than 600 United Methodist clergy and laity filed a complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, over the “zero tolerance” immigration policy. The uniqueness of church charges filed against a United Methodist politician stem from the deeply controversial policy – later rescinded by President Trump – to separate children from parents at the border. Even religious supporters of the Trump Administration such as the Rev. Franklin Graham called it “disgraceful” and “terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.”

Sessions is a lay member of Ashland Place UM Church in Mobile, Alabama, and attends Clarendon UM Church in Arlington, Virginia. Also signing the complaint were the two bishops who preside over those churches, David Graves (Alabama-West Florida) and Sharma Lewis (Virginia). In addition, the two district superintendents who supervise those churches also signed the complaint, the Rev. Debora Bishop (Mobile District, Alabama-West Florida Conference) and the Rev. Catherine Abbot (Arlington District, Virginia Conference). The fact that these four signed the complaint is significant because they would all potentially have a role in the process of resolving the complaint through a “just resolution” negotiated with the parties or in pursuing some form of trial.

Filing formal complaints against a lay member of the church is an extremely rare occurrence. I was involved in one situation where a complaint was filed, but the member left the church before it could be forwarded on to a trial process. That is what normally happens when there is a member who is alleged to have done something serious enough to warrant a complaint.

Also extremely unusual in this case is that the complaint is filed not over what Sessions is alleged to have done personally, but over the policies that he is alleged to have promulgated and enforced as Attorney General. The specific alleged violations are:

  • Child abuse – including separating “young children from their parents” and “holding children in mass incarceration facilities with little or no structured educational or socio-emotional support”
  • Immorality – including “the use of violence against children to deter immigration,” “refusal of refugee/asylee status to those fleeing gang or sexual violence,” and “oppression of those seeking asylum”
  • Racial discrimination – including “stopping investigations of police departments charged with racial discrimination” and “targeting incarceration for those engaged in undocumented border crossings … with a particular focus on those perceived as Muslim or LatinX”
  • Dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church – including “the misuse of Romans 13 to indicate the necessity of obedience to secular law”

The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, pastor at Clarendon United Methodist Church where Sessions and his wife, Mary, attend in Virginia, addressed the issue on Sunday. She reportedly told her congregation “that she does not agree with the ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policies that led to family separations, but urged the United Methodist church in northern Virginia not to be torn apart by political differences.”

According to CNN, “Wines told CNN she had a ‘long and excellent’ private conversation with Sessions earlier this week. The attorney general is technically a member of a United Methodist congregation in Mobile, Alabama, but has attended services at the church in Clarendon since his days as a senator. Wines called him a ‘very regular guest.’” Any further processing of the complaint will be up to Sessions’ pastor in Mobile.

It is hard to conceive of a more emotionally volatile hot-button issue than the zero tolerance border policy – even for those who press the case that children are often used by human traffickers in order to enter the country illegally.

In a church trial, however, it could be challenging to prove that Sessions is guilty of child abuse or immorality, depending upon the facts that could be established. What signifies “oppression” to one person might be interpreted by another as merely the strict enforcement of the law. Doubly difficult could be making the case of racial discrimination, based on policies established by the Justice Department. For example, the “particular focus on those perceived as Muslim or LatinX” could be due to the demographic makeup of those attempting to illegally cross the border.

While it garnered a good deal of analysis or protest from Christian commentators – both on the right and the left, the most difficult charge to prove is that Sessions’ use of Romans 13 constitutes “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine” of our church. Our doctrinal standards include the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament.

The 1939 General Conference enacted legislation interpreting Article XXIII of the Articles of Religion, stating “It is the duty of all Christians, and especially of all Christian ministers, to observe and obey the laws and commands of the governing or supreme authority of the country of which they are citizens … and to use all laudable means to encourage and enjoin obedience to the powers that be” (2016 Book of Discipline, p. 72). Sessions’ supporters would contend that is exactly what the Attorney General was attempting to do, and it can be argued that he was fulfilling the doctrinal standards rather than contradicting them.

Is it incumbent upon Christians to obey unjust civil laws? Ethicists differ on that issue, but I would say there is a strong biblical case to be made for not obeying civil laws that contradict or restrict our ability to live out the Gospel. In Acts 4:19-20 Peter places obedience to God above obedience to human authority. At the same time, I Peter 2:13-14 commands that we “submit [our]selves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.” As with many Christian ethical dilemmas, there is a balance required here, one that involves each person’s (and the church’s) prudential judgment, and upon which heartfelt and sincere Christians can disagree.

Are the immigration policies of our country appropriate and morally sound? There is again a balance between helping the “widow and orphan,” the refugee and the poor, while at the same time fulfilling the responsibility to preserve and protect the United States. While Christians can (and do) disagree about where that balance lies, it is most certainly appropriate for the church to lift up principles about how we are to treat others with love and respect, showing love to neighbor, against which specific policies can be measured. And we ought to learn all we can about the challenges of legal and illegal immigration, so as to inform our judgment about what the right course is to take.

United Methodism attracts Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, those on the left, right, and middle. The church ought not to be identified exclusively with one political perspective, whether liberal or conservative. Nor should the church be used as a pawn in a political disagreement. In the end, these questions seem best left to the political process to sort through. We can express our opinions through advocacy and through the ballot box. In the meantime, we can accept that Christians will have different opinions and judgments on these political matters.

Pacific Northwest Continues Defiance

Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, UMNS photo.

In a previous blog I reported that the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference would have an openly married lesbian as a district superintendent. At its recent session, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky ordained as a Deacon a woman who is married to another woman.

On June 25, Rachel Neer was ordained as a Deacon in full connection. Two hours prior to her ordination, she spoke on the annual conference floor, expressing appreciation for the annual conference’s willingness to “speak about the hard things in kindness and respect to one another.” She went on to state, “When I am ordained in two hours, my wife will be standing with me. This is not a small act. I would not be ordained in another conference.”

This action is in stark contrast to that taken by the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, which is also very liberal theologically. In that case, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling ruled that two candidates who are practicing homosexuals could not be considered for commissioning or ordination, abiding by the requirements of the Book of Discipline for “celibacy in singleness or fidelity in a heterosexual marriage,” as reinforced by Judicial Council Decision 1341. Bishop Stanovsky could have followed the same path but chose not to do so.

Unfortunately, such acts of disobedience are becoming routine in a number of annual conferences in the United States. In some places, it is the upholding of the Discipline that becomes noteworthy as a rare exception.

This action by the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference and Bishop Stanovsky demonstrates that we are two churches pretending to be one. One church lives by the covenant adopted by General Conference, while the other church lives according to its own different understanding of Christian faith. Good News believes that two churches practicing ministry in two diametrically opposite ways cannot long exist under the same roof. It is imperative that the 2019 General Conference decides a direction for the church, and that those who cannot live with that direction be allowed to peaceably leave the denomination with their property and assets.

The Limits of Methodism

Pacific Northwest Conference Communications Team Photo, UMNS.

It is refreshing to discover that, for at least one very progressive bishop, there is a limit to how progressive a church can be before it ceases to be Methodist. Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the California-Nevada Annual Conference has been in the news for the last several weeks because of her confrontation with the leadership of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, a church with a well-established reputation for being the largest United Methodist church in the Western Jurisdiction and among the largest in the United States.

Carcaño has refused to appoint any pastor to Glide this year in a dispute with the church that may even lead to the congregation’s attempting to leave the denomination. The church’s last senior pastor, the Rev. Jay Williams, lasted less than a year before resigning to return to his previous appointment in Boston. The two associate pastors on staff are being reappointed to other churches. No new pastors are being appointed to the church at this time, and the district superintendent is arranging for weekly pulpit supply and pastoral care.

The concerns that have led to this situation are theological, as well as financial and related to power and control.

The Rev. Cecil Williams served the church as lead pastor from 1964 until his “retirement” in 2000. In 1967 he removed the cross from the sanctuary in an attempt to make Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, and atheists/agnostics feel comfortable attending the church. According to Bishop Carcaño, however, it appears that in attempting to reach out to non-Christians, the very basis of the gospel was compromised.

In an open letter, Carcaño stated, “Leaders from these [non-Christian] constituencies are quick to publicly state that they do not want the Celebrations, or the church, to be United Methodist or Christian in any form. Sunday Celebrations are uplifting concerts, but lack the fundamentals of Christian worship. Baptisms are conducted periodically but in the name of the people rather than from a Christian understanding of Baptism. Holy Communion was done away with some time ago and only introduced back into the life of the congregation this past Spring, but outside of the Celebration gatherings and with much resistance. We seek to be in good and loving relationship with persons of other faiths and beliefs, and those who claim no faith. However, this should never cause us to lose our own faith.”

According to Carcaño, “the great majority of the participants at Glide’s Sunday Celebrations claim other faiths.” If Baptism has not been administered as a Christian sacrament, one wonders whether membership has been faithful to the vows mandated by the Discipline and found in the Hymnal. It’s possible that many of the over 13,000 members reported by Glide are in fact not even Christian and have not taken vows affirming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Additionally, “there are also serious concerns about the governance and financial administration of the church,” Carcaño declared. “The church has no organizational structure to fulfill its responsibilities as per The Book of Discipline, and has not had a United Methodist organizational structure for decades. The only body that functions in any leadership capacity is a group of congregational leaders hand-picked by Cecil Williams who have never been elected or recognized by the congregation.”

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.

The question here is who really runs Glide Church? It appears that the Glide Foundation, formed by Williams in 2000, is really the governing entity for the congregation. The Foundation receives millions of dollars a year for the social outreach ministry of the church, housing and feeding the homeless, providing ministry related to HIV/AIDS, and many other worthwhile projects. In a guest editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, Williams stated: “The Glide board of trustees controls the foundation’s resources, of which 95 percent support social programming, and 5 percent go toward church activities.”

Responding also in a guest editorial in the Chronicle, Carcaño wrote, “In May, I attempted to appoint a senior pastor to Glide Memorial who was welcomed by the congregational leaders, but rejected by the Board of Trustees of the Glide Foundation.” So the Foundation apparently controls the church.

Behind all of this lies the former lead pastor, Williams, and his wife, Janice Mirikitani. Despite the fact that there have been four lead pastors appointed to the church since 2000, including now-bishop Karen Oliveto, Williams has continued to maintain leadership of the church and the Foundation. Carcaño described it this way: “No pastor has been allowed to exercise their rightful authority or responsibilities while serving at Glide. To this day, Cecil Williams and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, make all decisions in the background at Glide.”

“The Glide Foundation runs the business of the Foundation under the church’s 501(c)(3), yet renders no financial reports through United Methodist disciplinary processes,” Carcaño went on. “Appointed pastors are left to alone protect the resources of the church yet have no access to the full financial records of the church, nor do they have any say over the use of the church property.” In fact, pastors did not even receive keys to the church building, nor has there been a recent audit of the Foundation’s books. While the Foundation shelters its finances under the church’s tax-exempt status, there appears to be little or no independent financial accountability.

Bishop Carcaño should be applauded for attempting to bring Glide back into compliance with the United Methodist Discipline. I’m glad she stated in her editorial, “As United Methodists, we respect all faiths, love all people, and are committed to working with persons of other faiths and goodwill to make the world a better place. We also want to sustain our beliefs as Methodists.”

This is exactly the kind of accountability and supervision that has been lacking from many of our bishops in recent decades. One wonders where the seven bishops were who presided over the California-Nevada Conference prior to Carcaño, while all of this was developing. Since 2000, Bishops Beverly Shamana and Warner Brown should have at least stopped Williams from continuing to exercise pastoral authority when no longer the appointed pastor to the church. Indeed, in many parts of the country, a pastor who retires from a congregation is not allowed to even participate in his or her former congregation for a period of at least a year and in some cases never.

At this point, it is impossible to say how this conflict might turn out. It will be interesting to see if Glide can be brought back under the umbrella of United Methodism, or whether they have departed so far from the doctrine and governance of our church that restoration is impossible. But reasserting the denomination’s discipline and reestablishing healthy theological and structural boundaries are struggles worth having.

No one ought to confuse Bishop Carcaño with being a card-carrying evangelical or even a consistent upholder of the order of the church. There are many other ways in which Carcaño is not abiding by the Discipline. And this act of attempted accountability does not mean revival is around the corner. Even if Glide is restored to the church, it will never be conservative in theology. However, Carcaño’s willingness to exercise the accountability expected of her office as bishop demonstrates that it is possible to hold one another accountable in love for the sake of the mission of the church. If all our other bishops were willing to consistently and fairly follow her example, it would go a long way toward restoring the trust in the Council of Bishops that has been so thoroughly shattered.

“While the cross was removed from the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church sanctuary in 1967, the cross still stands on the tower of the church, at the corner of Taylor and Ellis streets, as a beacon of hope to the people of the Tenderloin and the greater San Francisco area,” Bishop Carcaño wrote in the Chronicle. “Glide Memorial United Methodist Church must remain true to the mission of the United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There are no enemies here. There is only good work to be done.”

For the sake of the gospel and the reputation of The United Methodist Church, we should all pray for her endeavor.

You can read more extensive coverage of the Glide situation here and here.

Finding a Faithful Way Forward

“Here we are today, unable to face the reality of a deeply divided church that can no longer function in a healthy way in unity. And we are unable to consider an option that graciously and respectfully allows congregations and clergy to go their separate ways to pursue ministry that they believe honors God,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, in his address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association of the Iowa Annual Conference.

“Instead, we have a proposal for separation within the church, which is the Connectional Conference Plan. And we have two proposals for separation from the church – a “One Church Plan” that separates out evangelicals and a Traditional Plan that separates out progressives.

“So we are left with no choice but to fight – and fight to win. Our battle is not against people, but for the Gospel. We fight for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). We are not in this battle alone,” said Lambrecht, a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.

“There will be a Traditional Plan put forward at General Conference. It will retain our current biblical position on marriage and sexual ethics, and it will make it easier to enforce that position across the church. And the Traditional Plan will graciously open the door for those who because of conscience cannot live within the boundaries set by our church, setting them free to follow the leading they have from God.

“This plan is a faithful way forward,” Lambrecht concluded. “It is faithful to the Bible. It is faithful to 2,000 years of Christian teaching. It is faithful to the more than seven generations of men and women who built the church that we now call home. It is faithful to a global church that overwhelmingly holds to a traditional understanding of morality and biblical interpretation.

“We can and we must fight for this faithful way forward. We owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us to take our stand on the truth of the Gospel.”

Click HERE to watch Rev. Lambrecht’s complete address.

Conferences Play Hardball with Exiting Churches

First United Methodist Church, Louisville, Mississippi.

Much has been made of the ability of congregations to leave The United Methodist Church with their property through a negotiated settlement with their annual conference. Some bishops are saying that the Book of Discipline already provides an exit path for congregations desiring to leave, and that no further provisions for exit are needed. (For Discipline nerds, they are referring to ¶ 2548.2, which allows an annual conference to instruct local church trustees to deed church property to an “evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement.”)

Some point to the example of two large churches in Mississippi and one in Eastern Pennsylvania that were able to negotiate withdrawal for the payment of one year’s apportionments. What all three churches had in common was a high level of debt, which the annual conference was unable financially to assume. The annual conference then had basically no choice but to allow the congregations to leave with their buildings.

Recent events have shown that such a “gracious exit” will not be allowed for most churches seeking to leave the denomination under current rules, particularly if they are a typical, average-sized congregation.

First United Methodist Church of Louisville, Mississippi, voted in March by a margin of 175-6 to leave the denomination. In May, the conference announced it was going to keep the church buildings and appoint a new pastor to preserve a congregation in Louisville. As a result, the congregation has sued the conference and won a temporary restraining order to keep doing ministry in the building. The dispute will now go through a court process to determine whether the congregation can keep its building while departing from the denomination. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Mike Childs, has a long record of effective service and was a current General Conference delegate. He has now surrendered his credentials. The fate of the Bevil Hills UM Church, yoked with Louisville First, has not yet been determined. That congregation’s 22 members voted unanimously to leave the denomination.

In an even more egregious example, Oakland United Methodist Church inCharles Town, West Virginia, voted in April by a margin of 81-16 to begin the process to leave the denomination. They sought negotiations with the Baltimore-Washington Conference of which they are a part. Instead, a district superintendent showed up unannounced in worship on Easter Sunday and demanded to read a letter from the bishop to the congregation rebuking them for their desire to leave, according to the co-pastor, the Rev. JoAnne Alexander. (Alexander is married to the Rev. Mike Tice and they serve the church as pastors together, although Tice was the only one appointed to the church.) One can only imagine the impact such a letter had on the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the many visitors in the congregation who knew nothing of what was going on. So much for pastoral sensitivity on the part of the annual conference.

According to Alexander, the week after Easter, all of the church council members received a letter from the conference chancellor (lawyer) reminding them that the church property is held in trust for The United Methodist Church, that congregations are not free to leave, and that the annual conference “stands ready to take all appropriate steps, including the prosecution of civil judicial proceedings, to ensure that those principles are honored by all local church officers.” (Perspective was provided a copy of the letter.) The members of the church council read this letter to be a threat to sue them individually for their action to allow the congregation to begin a process to leave the denomination.

In early May, the bishop called Tice in for a meeting, stating that if he did not show up at the assigned time, he would be removed as pastor. Alexander told Perspective that Tice was accompanied by another elder who was not allowed to speak in the meeting. During the meeting Tice was summarily removed from his appointment and forbidden from setting foot inside the church building without the district superintendent being present. (Tice had retired earlier this year and hoped to serve in retirement until after the 2019 General Conference determined the future direction of the church.)

Oakland United Methodist Church, Charles Town, WV

By the time that Tice had driven back to his home, the locks on the church were already being changed by the conference, and all leaders and members of the church were locked out of the building. According to Alexander, no one was allowed to remove any personal property. They were informed that the district superintendent would decide what items they were allowed to take out of the church, including many items made by church members for use in the church and the pastor’s personal property. Previously scheduled ministry events, including a regular Friday evening community dinner, had to be canceled.

Tice and Alexander (also an ordained elder), have served in ministry at the Oakland UM Church for 32 years. When Alexander began at the church, it had an attendance of 17. Before the recent conflict, attendance had risen to 250. However, in the last several years a number of families had left the church in response to the Frank Schaefer trial (where a United Methodist clergyperson was defrocked for performing a same-sex wedding, but then reinstated on appeal) and the fallout from the 2016 General Conference. The church building had been literally built by the parishioners themselves, but has now been taken from them.

The congregation, now called Oakland Community Church, has declined to sue the conference to keep its building. They believe it is more important to move on in ministry to the community. Its first worship service was at a funeral home, and nearly 100 people attended. Fittingly, the last article posted (from December) on the church’s United Methodist website was entitled, “True Love Means Sacrifice.”

These two examples demonstrate the need for a prescribed exit path in the Book of Discipline for congregations (whether liberal or conservative) who cannot in good conscience remain in The United Methodist Church. We simply cannot trust that the bishops and annual conferences will provide a way at all, let alone a gracious way, for churches that want to leave to keep their buildings and property.

It seems fair and reasonable to require congregations to pay their fair share of unfunded pension liabilities, since these liabilities are the result of the pastors who served each church down through the years. But it is unjust and unacceptable for annual conferences to hold congregations hostage to their buildings in order to force them to compromise their consciences.

That approach is morally questionable and it will only precipitate numerous legal conflicts that burn up millions of dollars that should be going toward the mission of the church. These heavy-handed tactics are symptomatic of a heart at war, not a heart of peace. And they demonstrate church leaders saying one thing, but doing another. It’s a good way to tear down what little trust remains in a denomination about to come apart at the seams. 

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.