Archives for January 2019

The Plans’ Impact on Local Churches

As the upcoming General Conference considers the three plans from the Commission on a Way Forward and other proposals for resolving the conflict in our denomination, one question many want to consider is: How will this proposal affect my local church? After all, it is the local church where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak, where Gospel ministry is actualized in the daily lives of members and where personal outreach into communities takes place. The biggest concern we members of the Commission on a Way Forward heard from people was: Do not do something that will damage my local church’s ministry, whether by requiring us to vote or in some other way.

The first important piece of information to note is that local churches will not have a vote as to which plan is enacted by General Conference. Our method of decision-making as a denomination is by representative democracy, not congregationalism. We elect representatives to annual conference, and they elect representatives to General Conference. It is those representatives who are tasked with making decisions on behalf of the whole denomination. Even in the case of constitutional amendments, it is the annual conference that votes whether to ratify them, not the local church.

Some have wondered whether a survey of local church members would help us know how to resolve the conflict. While such information might be helpful to the decision makers, we entrust our representatives with the responsibility of making those decisions, in part because they work to keep themselves well-informed on the issues and ramifications involved-better-informed than most local church members. In theory, these representatives will be in regular touch with their fellow parishioners and colleagues, so that they get a sense of how the people they represent are thinking. The logistical challenges of surveying members outside the U.S. and the cost and time involved have made surveys very difficult.

OCP and the Local Church

The One Church Plan (OCP) would enact a “local option” for annual conferences and congregations in making decisions about same-sex marriage and ordaining homosexual persons. How will this impact local churches?

Local churches that want to host same-sex weddings in their buildings would need to take a vote at a church conference to approve such services. All it would take would be a request from a member or the relative of a member for the church to host such a wedding, and the church would have to face that question. Such a discussion is likely to be divisive in the congregation. How divisive it is depends upon how diverse the theological opinions of the congregation members are and how well the pastor and church leaders handle the conversation over this question. Some congregations have experienced a forceful movement on the part of a group of members to affirm same-sex marriage that has alienated members opposed to such affirmation. The result has been to cause some members who disagreed with the church’s decision to leave the church.

The fact that pastors would be able to perform same-sex weddings would also affect their local churches. Pastors would not need the permission of their annual conference or their local church to do such weddings outside of the church property. A pastor performing same-sex weddings could alienate members of his or her congregation who disagree with that decision. If a majority or even a significant minority of the congregation disagrees with a pastor performing same-sex weddings, that could impact the ability of the pastor to effectively serve that congregation

There are likely to be more pastors willing to perform same-sex weddings than there are churches willing to have a pastor who performs same-sex weddings. This could cause a mismatch between pastor and congregation when new pastors are appointed. It will cause hardship for the bishop and cabinet in making appointments because pastors are guaranteed an appointment, and there may not be enough churches available to which a bishop can appoint a pastor who is willing to perform same-sex weddings. So a local church that does not want such a pastor may get one anyway. Or a local church might receive a pastor who is not a good match for the congregation in other ways, simply based on the criterion of whether or not the pastor is willing to perform same-sex weddings. In such cases, the local church will have little recourse but to receive the pastor the bishop appoints.

The same is true regarding openly gay pastors. If an annual conference is willing to ordain openly gay persons as clergy, they will need to be appointed to churches willing to receive them. Even if the annual conference does not ordain openly gay clergy, there will be some clergy in that conference who come out as gay and will need to be appointed. There may not be enough congregations willing to receive an openly gay pastor in that annual conference, but the bishop will need to appoint such clergy anyway. In such cases, the local church will have little recourse but to receive the pastor the bishop appoints.

MTP and the Local Church

The Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) continues the current stance of the denomination that pastors are not allowed to perform same-sex weddings and annual conferences/bishops are not allowed to ordain openly gay persons as clergy. If a local church agrees with that position or is willing to continue abiding by that position (whether it agrees or not), the local church will not need to take any action. Since all pastors would be held to the same standard, this issue would not factor into the appointment of pastors to local churches.

If a local church wants to host same-sex weddings or receive an openly gay pastor, it will need to consider the possibility of leaving the denomination in order to do so. The MTP has a provision (amended as a result of the Judicial Council Decision 1366) allowing local churches to leave after a 2/3 vote by the church leadership and also a 2/3 vote by the church members at a church conference. The local church would have to pay its proportionate share of its annual conference’s pension liabilities, as determined by Wespath (board of pensions) and the annual conference apportionment formula. The church’s annual conference would also need to approve the local church’s exit by a 2/3 vote.

The MTP allows annual conferences that wish to affirm the practice of homosexuality and ordain openly gay persons as pastors to withdraw from the denomination. Such a decision would require a majority vote of the annual conference. If a local church agrees with the decision of its annual conference to leave the denomination, it would not need to take any action. If a local church in an annual conference that decides to leave The United Methodist Church wants to stay in the denomination, it could do so by a majority vote of its members at a church conference. In such case, the local church would have to pay its proportionate share of its annual conference’s pension liabilities, since the annual conference would continue to be responsible for those liabilities, even if the annual conference leaves the denomination.

CCP and the Local Church

The Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) would create three new “jurisdictions” called connectional conferences in the U.S. based on views concerning same-sex marriage and ordination. A “progressive” connectional conference would require same-sex marriage and the ordination of otherwise qualified openly gay persons as clergy. A “unity” connectional conference would allow same-sex marriage and ordination, but not require it. A “traditional “connectional conference would not allow same-sex marriage and ordination.

Current geographical jurisdictions and annual conferences would make the first decisions by majority vote as to which connectional conference to affiliate with. If a local church disagrees with the decision of its annual conference, that local church could vote to join a different connectional conference by majority vote of its members at a church conference. That local church would then be joined with other like-minded local churches in a new annual conference in the chosen connectional conference. Pastors would be appointed to local churches only within the chosen connectional conferences and would share the local church’s views on marriage and sexuality.

Exit Paths and the Local Church

The other proposal that could affect local churches is that of an exit path allowing congregations to leave the denomination with their property. The exit path for individual congregations under the MTP (thanks to the Judicial Council ruling) would require a 2/3 vote of both the leaders and members of the congregation, as well as a 2/3 vote of the annual conference. Such a high bar, particularly involving the annual conference, lessens the value of the MTP exit path for congregations.

Many delegates agree that some form of uniform and gracious exit path ought to be established for use with whatever plan passes. (The OCP and the CCP have no exit path for congregations.)

There are five different proposed exit paths submitted to General Conference. Most of them require a 2/3 vote of the members of the congregation, but no vote by the leaders or by the annual conference. This more streamlined process might make leaving the denomination more attractive to local churches that are frustrated by the seemingly endless conflict in our church, whether they be “progressive” or “traditionalist.”

Of course, if General Conference passes no exit path and the OCP is adopted, many local churches will still want to exit from the denomination. At that point, unless they can gain the permission of their annual conference bishop and leaders, it seems logical to expect that the next stop would be the courtroom. Lawsuits for property can work sometimes, but not always, and they would expend a lot of resources, both by the local church and by the annual conference. The decision by a local church to pursue this route would be a difficult one.

The Plans and Membership Loss

So far, we have talked about the impact of the various plans on what actions might be taken by local churches. There is another large variable out there, however: how will individual members respond to the decisions of General Conference?

Undoubtedly, many members will not be tuned in to the actions of General Conference or will not feel strongly enough about the conflicted issues involved that they would take action. However, many members who are committed to either the “progressive” or “traditionalist” viewpoint are very aware of what is going on in the church. They often form the core leadership and financial support for local congregations. And these persons might react strongly to a decision that they disagree with. This will be particularly true if the actions of General Conference end up as the headline in their local newspaper or newscast on February 27.

If the MTP is passed, one can envision “progressive” members no longer able to support a denomination they believe is practicing unjust discrimination against LGBTQ persons. This might affect their willingness to financially support a local congregation and might lead them to leave for a nearby Episcopal, Congregational, Lutheran, or Presbyterian church.

If the OCP is passed, one can envision “traditionalist” members no longer able to support a denomination that is promoting a behavior they believe contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. Where there is not an evangelical UM congregation nearby that they can join, it might prompt them to at least curtail financial support of the church or, more likely, leave for a nearby non-denominational, Baptist, or other evangelical congregation.

The loss of valued members who disagree with the decision of General Conference will vary from one congregation to the next. But it is a factor that pastors and congregational leaders will need to take into consideration as they plan for a new post-General Conference reality.

 

 

What is the Modified Traditional Plan

There are four comprehensive plans being considered by the special General Conference in February in an attempt to resolve the deep theological conflict within our church. Three of the plans (Traditional Plan, Connectional Conference Plan, and One Church Plan) were offered as part of the report of the Commission on a Way Forward. The fourth plan is the Simple Plan, offered by the Queer Clergy Caucus.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition is supporting the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP). The MTP is basically the Traditional Plan with the addition of two petitions submitted by Maxie Dunnam. In an effort to dispel any lingering confusion, here is what the MTP (TP+) entails.

What is in the Traditional Plan?

The Traditional Plan is the only plan that maintains the current teachings and requirements of the church defining marriage as between one man and one woman, declaring all persons as created in God’s image, of sacred worth and welcome in the church’s ministries, forbidding clergy from performing same-sex weddings, and forbidding annual conferences from ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Under this plan, this would remain the position of the whole church (not just parts of it).

The Traditional Plan understands that the crisis we face is not one of different opinions, but of different practices. Twelve annual conferences in the U.S. have declared in one way or another that they will not be bound by the requirements of the church regarding same-sex marriage and ordination. These activist annual conferences are responsible for the current split within the denomination. The most effective way to restore unity is to require uniform standards of ordination and church practice regarding same-sex weddings. Restoring unity will therefore require greater accountability measures in order to ensure that the requirements of the Discipline are kept.

Solely because of the disregard for our denomination’s standards for marriage and sexuality, the Traditional Plan must include these enhancements:

  • The definition of a self-avowed practicing homosexual (thus not eligible for ordination) is expanded to include those living in a same-sex marriage or union or those who publicly state they are practicing homosexuals (Petition #1).
  • Measures are enacted to ensure that members of the Board of Ordained Ministry are committed to abiding by the requirements for ordination in the Discipline, and that those who are not qualified will not be recommended for ordination, commissioned, ordained, or consecrated (Petitions #5-9, 12).
  • Annual conferences are required to vote on whether or not they will uphold and enforce the Discipline. If not, they would no longer be entitled to use the name United Methodist or the cross and flame insignia, and they would not be able to give or receive funds through the general church. Such annual conferences would be encouraged (not required) to withdraw from the denomination and form a new, self-governing (progressive) Methodist church (Petition #10).
  • Bishops would be required to certify whether or not they would uphold and enforce the Discipline. If not, they would be encouraged (not required) to withdraw from the denomination and help form a new, self-governing (progressive) Methodist church (Petition #10). Bishops committing acts of disobedience would be subject to charges and possible trial.
  • Clergy convicted in a church trial of performing a same-sex wedding would be subject to a minimum penalty of one year suspension without pay for the first offense and removal of credentials for a second offense (Petition #11).
  • Bishops could no longer dismiss a complaint for any reason (or no reason). They could only dismiss a complaint if it had no basis in law or in fact (Petition #13). Bishops who improperly dismiss a complaint would be subject to charges.
  • The process of resolving a complaint through a “just resolution” would need to include the person who filed the complaint at every step. The person charged would have to recommit to upholding the Discipline, particularly those provisions under which they were charged (Petition #14-15).
  • The church could appeal a trial court verdict if there were egregious errors of church law or administration (Petition #16).

The Traditional Plan is the only plan that provides a gracious exit for those unwilling to live within the boundaries established by the Book of Discipline. This gracious exit is not required, but is available for annual conferences, groups of congregations, individual congregations, bishops, and clergy. They would be able to form or join a new, self-governing (progressive) Methodist church that is separate from the UM Church.

  • Annual conferences could withdraw from the denomination by majority vote. They would continue to be responsible for their pension liabilities and could sponsor a new pension plan with Wespath. They could also become a “concordat church” and contract for services from United Methodist boards and agencies, participate in mission partnerships, and support joint mission projects (Petition #10, 17).
  • Individual congregations or groups of 50 or more congregations could withdraw from the denomination upon a 2/3 majority vote and with the approval of their annual conference (also by a 2/3 majority vote). The only payment they would need to make is to cover the congregation’s share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities. These local churches could also participate in pension programs, mission, and ministry through the new, self-governing Methodist church that they would join (Petition #10, 17).
  • Bishops and clergy could transfer to the new, self-governing Methodist church upon approval by the receiving denomination (Petition #10).
  • Any new self-governing Methodist church formed by those exiting the denomination could become a “concordat church” that maintains a connection through voluntary partnerships and eligibility to participate in some United Methodist programs (Petition #17).

How does the MTP differ from the Traditional Plan?

There are two kinds of modifications that the MTP brings to the Traditional Plan. The first kind of modifications takes into account Judicial Council Decision 1366, which ruled a number of provisions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional. Only six of the original 17 petitions can be adopted as printed. Three petitions (#2-4) cannot be adopted at all, and the rest need amendments in order to bring them into compliance with the Judicial Council decision. The amendments will actually improve the plan, as well as satisfying the letter of the law under the Constitution. The amendments are relatively straightforward and will be made public soon in order to give delegates a chance to consider them.

The second kind of modifications that the MTP brings to the Traditional Plan are a few additions that strengthen and perfect the Traditional Plan as originally proposed. The original version stayed very close to the sketch provided by the Commission on a Way Forward. Since that sketch, proponents of the Traditional Plan have identified ways to strengthen the accountability and graciousness of the plan and submitted those modifications in two petitions by Maxie Dunnam.

The first petition creates a new global committee to handle complaints against bishops. This global process replaces the original accountability process that was declared unconstitutional (Petitions #2-4 of the Traditional Plan). This global committee, made up of one clergy or lay member from every annual conference in the world, would administer complaints against bishops. Since the complaint process would not involve bishops holding other bishops accountable, it would get around the built-in conflict of interest in the current accountability process. Since bishops are colleagues and members together of the Council of Bishops and the College of Bishops (where accountability lies), it is difficult for them to hold each other accountable. The track record of the episcopal accountability process is very poor, with no bishop facing a church trial in 50 years. Many legitimate complaints have been dismissed or otherwise finessed over the years to protect bishops from accountability. This new process is needed in order to restore accountability for bishops.

The second petition actually substitutes for Petition #10 in the Traditional Plan. It is identical to that petition except for the following additions:

  • Allegations that an annual conference is not upholding or enforcing the Discipline would be submitted to the global committee established by the first petition. The committee would investigate the complaints against the annual conference and could recommend necessary remedial actions or recommend that the conference be placed on the sanctioned list. Such recommendation would need to be approved by General Conference and could result in the conference losing its ability to use the United Methodist name and cross and flame insignia, as well as being unable to give or receive money through the general church. This provides an accountability mechanism for annual conferences.
  • Bishops who refused to uphold and enforce the Discipline would no longer receive from the general church expense money for housing, office, or travel, thus enhancing accountability.
  • Any annual conference withdrawing from the denomination would receive a one-time grant of $200,000 to help defray the costs of disaffiliation (mostly legal and administrative costs). This is part of the effort to provide as much grace as possible to the gracious exit.
  • The two Dunnam petitions need amendments to bring them into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366.
  • A technical correction to this petition makes explicit that the plan takes effect upon the adjournment of General Conference, rather than waiting until January 1, 2020.

The MTP makes very few changes to the Traditional Plan, but they are important ones. It proposes adoption of 13 of the 17 original petitions, amended to comply with Judicial Council rulings. And it adds two petitions submitted by Maxie Dunnam, also amended to comply with Judicial Council rulings.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes that the Modified Traditional Plan provides the best path to unity for The United Methodist Church. It maintains unity of practice and standards in our global denomination, rather than allowing each part of the church to create its own practices and standards. It maintains unity with Scripture, 2,000 years of Christian teaching, and the tradition of the church. It allows the creation of a unity based on willing participation and willing compliance with the covenant created by General Conference, while giving those unwilling to participate a gracious way out of the covenant to create their own denomination with standards they are willing to uphold.

Based on surveys and conversation, the Modified Traditional Plan is the way to keep most evangelicals and traditionalists in The United Methodist Church. Up to 90 percent of evangelical leaders have told us they would find it necessary to leave the denomination if the One Church passes. But very few evangelicals are planning to leave if the MTP is enacted. Most will wait to see if the accountability measures restore unity and compliance. The MTP is the best way to keep our connection with global United Methodists, who overwhelmingly have a traditional view toward marriage and human sexuality. Many of them have told us that passage of the One Church Plan would lead them to leave the denomination, as well.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition hopes that General Conference will prayerfully consider the provisions and principles of the Modified Traditional Plan and find in them a viable way toward a united and fruitful future for United Methodism.

 

 

 

Why Is an Exit Path Necessary?

The depth of disagreement within The United Methodist Church over marriage and human sexuality, and over the authority and interpretation of Scripture, means that it will be nearly impossible for all opposing groups to continue living together in the same church. No matter which plan passes General Conference in February (or if no plan passes), there will be some congregations and clergy who are unable to conscientiously live within the boundaries established by General Conference.

This awareness is what fueled the thinking of a majority of the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF), which from its very first meeting acknowledged that an exit path that allowed congregations to leave the denomination with their property should be a part of any plan the COWF submitted to General Conference. The concept of an exit path was included in all the sketches of the three plans submitted by the COWF to the Council of Bishops. A developed exit path was included with the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditional Plan. However, the Council of Bishops acted to take out any exit path from the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.

The Traditional Plan contains an exit path for congregations and annual conferences, which is an integral part of the plan. The Judicial Council ruled (incorrectly in my estimation) that this exit path is instead a transfer of congregations, which would require a 2/3 vote of the local church and a 2/3 vote by the annual conference to approve the exit.

The need for annual conference approval dramatically limits the usefulness of the Traditional Plan exit path, as an annual conference could decide not to approve the exit and thereby force the local church to lose its property or else file suit against the conference in court. It is not a good witness for the church to be involved in hundreds of lawsuits over church property, which could be the result of such an outcome. It would be unconscionable for local churches and annual conferences to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars dealing with lawsuits-money that ought to be going toward the mission and ministry of the church. The Episcopal Church spent over $45 million at the national level (not counting what local churches spent) in order to preserve church property for the denomination.

A more streamlined exit path for congregations is needed that would apply equally to all the various plans that might be adopted. In agreement with a coalition of persons from West Ohio representing the broad theological spectrum, it would be best if General Conference adopted an exit path first before considering which plan to adopt. Such a step would help rebuild trust and lower anxiety in the church.

Is there already an exit path for congregations in the Book of Discipline?

Some bishops and some proponents of the One Church Plan claim there is already a way for local congregations to exit the denomination with their property. This is not exactly the case.

Under ¶ 2548.2, the annual conference may transfer the deed of a local church to “one of the other denominations represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission or to another evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement.” This would require the consent of the bishop, cabinet, district board of church building and location, and annual conference, in addition to the request of the local church.

Under ¶ 2549, the annual conference can close a church that “no longer serves the purpose for which it was organized or incorporated” (as a United Methodist congregation). The conference can then sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of the property, including selling it to the exiting congregation. This would also require the consent of the bishop, cabinet, district board of church building and location, and annual conference, in addition to the request of the local church.

Under either of these scenarios, any one of the approving persons or bodies can stop the congregation from keeping its property. The terms under which the congregation can keep its property are up to the bishop and annual conference officials. They can impose whatever payment requirements they want upon the local church, or they can refuse to allow the local church to keep its property at all.

Within the last several years, a few large congregations have been able to successfully exit the denomination with their property. This was primarily because these churches carried a large debt load that the annual conference was unable to assume. Some other congregations that have tried to leave have been denied the ability to take their property, and some congregations have been locked out of their building in a preemptive move by the annual conference.

The current provisions of the Discipline put the local church at the mercy of the bishop and annual conference. There is no certain or consistent process whereby a local church can exit the denomination with its property. This sets up an adversarial relationship between the local church and the annual conference, which is ripe for escalating into a lawsuit over the property.

A consistent, straightforward exit path for local congregations that does not depend upon the approval of the annual conference needs to be part of the actions of the special General Conference in February.

Which exit path proposal does the Renewal and Reform Coalition support?

Five exit proposals have been submitted to General Conference for consideration. The Renewal and Reform Coalition can work with any one of three of them.

Petition 90058 Disaffiliation – Ottjes is the simplest and most straightforward of the three proposals. It has the advantage that it was passed by a legislative committee at General Conference 2016 before being referred to the COWF process. This petition needs to be amended to include the requirement that departing congregations pay the annual conference their fair share of unfunded pension liabilities, as well as add some technical language clarifying the process of implementation. This option would require at least 90 days of study and discernment by the local church, a 2/3 vote by the church conference, payment of pension liabilities, and the local church retaining all other assets and liabilities/debts.

Petition 90059 Disaffiliation – Boyette is the most acceptable of the three exit options. It already contains the pension liability and implementation language. A controversial provision would offset the local congregation’s share of unfunded pension liabilities with that congregation’s share of all undesignated reserves held by the annual conference and general church. This would lower the pension payment of the local church and require that a portion of the general church’s reserves be designated for pensions. This option would require at least 30 days of study and discernment by the local church, a 55 percent vote by the church conference or a 2/3 vote by the charge conference (leadership of the church), payment of pension liabilities, and the local church retaining all other assets and liabilities/debts.

Petition 90066 Disaffiliation – Taylor was developed by a group of people coming from a more moderate or progressive stance on the issues before us. It is a very thorough process for congregations to exit, but it has many more requirements, including some that could compromise a congregation’s ability to thrive in ministry after departure. It requires more extensive study involving the annual conference, payment of up to two years’ apportionments, repayment of any annual conference grants, payment of pension liabilities, and the local church retaining all other assets and liabilities/debts. This exit path would expire on December 31, 2023.

While the Taylor option is very comprehensive, it contains too many requirements that could burden the local church and make it difficult to thrive in ministry after disaffiliation. The process has too many ways where it could be unacceptably lengthened. It gives the annual conference and persons outside the congregation too much voice in determining the church’s future. It has an open loophole that would allow the annual conference to insert “poison pill” terms or conditions that would make it impossible for the church to keep its property.

The church would be better served by adopting either the Ottjes or Boyette exit path that is simpler and easier to implement, while vesting control of the church’s future in the local congregation. However, the Renewal and Reform Coalition has prepared amendments that would eliminate most of the objectionable requirements from the Taylor option, should it be the one chosen by the General Conference to work on.

The Brooks “Graceful Exit” (Petition 90051) would have only a one-year window for churches to withdraw. It would require payment of 50 percent of the church’s annual budget plus one year’s apportionments. It has no provision for funding unfunded pension liabilities. It also lacks some of the technical language necessary for implementation. The Coalition does not support this proposal.

The St. Marks UMC proposal (Petition 90056) provides only a two-year window for churches to withdraw. It would require approval of 2/3 of all local church members, not just those in attendance at a church conference. It would require repayment of all annual conference funds received by the local church in the previous two years, plus payment of two years’ apportionments. It also lacks some of the technical language necessary for implementation. The Coalition does not support this proposal.

Exit as a Way Forward

In Genesis 13, we read the story of Abram and Lot having problems due to quarreling between their various herdsmen. “So Abram said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.’”

This is the kind of generous spirit the Renewal and Reform Coalition believes ought to govern our decisions regarding congregations that choose to exit from the denomination. They are our brothers and sisters. There ought not to be quarreling or lawsuits over property. We ought not try to coerce unwilling participation in a covenant that a congregation can no longer support. We can find enhanced unity in the church around a willing covenant of congregations interested in pursuing a common mission in a common way through shared beliefs and practices. Those who cannot conscientiously participate in that covenant should be released from it without penalty.

So far, only the supporters of the Traditional Plan are on record endorsing a gracious exit path that would be available to any congregation, whether progressive or traditionalist, to leave the denomination with their property. We should follow the Golden Rule and treat others in the way we ourselves would like to be treated. Here’s hoping the General Conference delegates will embrace a fair, consistent, and gracious path for congregations to exit with their property. The future peace of the denomination may depend upon it.

Reference Committee Decides on Petitions

The Commission on a Way Forward members were from The United Methodist Church around the world, both clergy and laity. Photo by Maidstone Mulenga, United Methodist Council of Bishops.

Of the 99 petitions submitted to the special called General Conference in St. Louis on February 23-26, 78 have been cleared to be considered by that body. This includes all the main plans and proposals that have been under consideration.

A special called session of General Conference can deal with only those matters that are part of the call. In this case, the call was for the purpose of “receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon recommendations of the Council of Bishops.” A May 2018 Judicial Council decision clarified that “It is the obligation of the General Conference to determine, in the first instance, through its committees, officers and presiders, acting in accordance with The Discipline and the rules and procedures of the General Conference, whether any such petition is ‘in harmony.’ However, business not in harmony with the purpose as stated in the call is not permitted unless the General Conference by a two-thirds vote shall determine that other business may be transacted” (Decision 1360).

The Commission on General Conference assigned the Committee on Reference the responsibility of determining which of the 99 petitions are “in harmony” with the call and thus able to be considered. That committee met January 11-12 and made its determination.

All of the 48 petitions related to the three plans submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward are “in harmony.” This includes the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan.

Of the remaining 51 petitions, one was ruled invalid because of technical errors.

In order to be “in harmony,” the committee said the petition needed to meet at least one of three criteria:

1)     submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF)

2)     the content of the petition directly addresses inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ persons, or

3)     the content of the petition seeks to correct or perfect COWF plans for the continuing existence of The United Methodist Church.

Of the remaining 50 valid petitions, 30 were found to be “in harmony” and thus able to be considered by the General Conference. These include the following general areas:

  • Two petitions that would modify and strengthen the Traditional Plan, called the Modified Traditional Plan, submitted by Maxie Dunnam
  • One petition for an alternative type of traditional plan submitted by Lonnie Brooks
  • Four petitions that make the language in the Book of Discipline stronger in a more traditional direction
  • Eight petitions that make up the Simple Plan, which would allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, redefinemarriage as between “two adults,” and would seem to permit other types of sexual relationships outside of monogamous marriage, while providing no conscience protections for a traditionalist viewpoint
  • Three petitions that make up the Fully Inclusive Way Forward, which removes all prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals
  • Seven petitions that make the language in the Book of Discipline more progressive, with such suggestions as permitting Deacons to perform same-sex weddings, adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the requirement for inclusiveness, redefining marriage, and removing the chargeable offenses against performing same-sex weddings or being a self-avowed practicing homosexual clergyperson

In addition to the above petitions, five petitions providing for different pathways for congregations to exit from the denomination with their property were also declared “in harmony” and will be considered. A future article will review the various exit plans.

Based on criterion #3 above, two petitions that provide a mechanism for an amicable separation that would dissolve The United Methodist Church and create two or more new churches was declared “not in harmony” and will not be considered. It would require a 2/3 majority vote to consider these petitions. Such a 2/3 vote would also be required in order to pass the proposal for amicable separation, so if it comes to that point, it would still be a viable alternative with the backing of a supermajority of the delegates.

The good news is that all the petitions that the Renewal and Reform Coalition believes need to be considered are able to be considered. The General Conference will be able to fairly evaluate many different options for resolving the church’s conflict and creating a way for the church to move forward with vitality and faithfulness.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition is supporting the Modified Traditional Plan, which maintains the current biblically-based teaching of the church regarding human sexuality, marriage, and ordination. It contains enhanced accountability provisions that would help move the church in the direction of greater unity of belief and practice in these matters. It also provides for a gracious exit for annual conferences, local churches, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience agree to abide by the church’s teachings and requirements.

The Modified Traditional Plan will require a number of amendments to bring the plan into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366, which ruled certain parts of the plan unconstitutional. These amendments are in development and will be released publicly soon, in order to give delegates a chance to digest them prior to arrival in St. Louis.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.

 

Is History an Argument for the One Church Plan?

A recent newsletter published by Mainstream UMC argues that, just as the church changed its understanding and teaching about slavery, the role of women in the church, and divorced clergy, the church can change its understanding and teaching about marriage and homosexuality. The church got it “wrong” in the past, and now the church can get it “right.” Leaving aside the validity of comparing the past historical issues of slavery, the role of women, and divorce with the contemporary controversies surrounding marriage and homosexuality, I do not think this argument supports the One Church Plan.

To me, this is an argument for the Simple Plan, which removes all prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. If the church’s interpretation of Scripture is wrong on marriage and sexuality, then we ought to mandate a change in our interpretation.

The One Church Plan, however, envisions staying united in “one church” but having two different understandings and two different teachings about marriage and homosexuality that will supposedly be equally valid and affirmed by the church. That is not what the church did with regard to slavery, the role of women, or with divorce.

Essentially, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early 1800s operated under a “One Church Plan” approach to the issue of slavery. Southern annual conferences condoned (and some even defended) slavery, while many northern annual conferences became increasingly opposed to slavery. The church stayed “united” in this way until the crisis of 1844, when the northern delegates outnumbered the southern delegates and voted to suspend a slave-holding bishop. That action precipitated a month-long General Conference that culminated in the North-South split in the Methodist Episcopal Church that foreshadowed the Civil War 17 years later.

In the example of slavery, the moral imperative to end the practice overwhelmed the desire to preserve church unity, and the church split. A “One Church Plan” approach proved untenable in the long term (it lasted less than 50 years).

When the Methodist Church removed the prohibition against ordaining women in 1956, it did not make provision for some annual conferences to ordain women while allowing other annual conferences not to ordain women. Instead, it removed the prohibition and expected that every annual conference would ordain women. There were central conferences outside the United States that would have preferred not to ordain women because of their cultural situation. The Judicial Council ruled that they did not have that option (see Decision 155).

When the church changed its understanding and teaching regarding women’s ordination, it mandated that all annual conferences follow the new interpretation. It did not adopt a “One Church Plan” approach to women’s ordination.

It is more difficult to pinpoint the timeline of how divorced clergy became accepted in The United Methodist Church. The bishop who ordained me, Bishop Marjorie Matthews, was the first divorced person elected bishop (she was also the first woman elected bishop). Nevertheless, divorce per se is not a barrier to ordained ministry today, whereas a generation ago, there was such a thing as a “divorce review committee” whose purpose was to determine if a clergy person’s divorce was biblically justified. (See Judicial Council Decision 497).

Here again, the idea of having two different standards regarding divorced clergy in the church at the same time has not proven to be tenable. A 2016 attempt by the Liberia Annual Conference to bar divorced clergy from being nominated for election as bishop of Liberia was not approved by the West Africa Central Conference.

All these historical examples demonstrate a change in the church’s position on an issue. However, none of them shows the viability of a “One Church Plan” or “local option” approach to the issue. Rather, the church came to a united understanding of a new position that was then enforced throughout the church.

But that may be what supporters of the One Church Plan intend. Many of them have said that they favor complete affirmation of same-sex relationships but regard the OCP as an interim step on the way to such full affirmation. History would tend to support the idea that the move toward a One Church Plan would ultimately result in a change of teaching and practice for the whole church, without exception.

Update on San Francisco’s Glide Memorial UMC

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Google street view.

New action has taken place by the California-Nevada Annual Conference filing suit against Glide Memorial United Methodist Church over Trust Clause issues. Such action shows what might happen in the event other congregations try to leave the denomination.

In a previous post, I described the conflict going on between California-Nevada Annual Conference Bishop Minerva Carcaño and the 89-year-old Glide Memorial Church, on paper one of the largest congregations in our denomination. The conflict revolved around the fact that Glide no longer conducts Christian worship and is not faithful to United Methodist doctrine and practice. Instead, they have embraced a form of interfaith “worship” that encompasses atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, and many others in addition to Christians (and one assumes, some United Methodists).

The crisis erupted when the pastor at Glide resigned because he was not able to exercise full leadership of the church, unhindered by the Glide Foundation’s board of directors. Longtime Pastor Cecil Williams, while long retired, still appears to be making the leadership decisions for the church. Bishop Carcaño attempted to appoint a new pastor, but the Foundation board rejected the person. She then appointed all the pastoral staff to different churches, leaving Glide without a regular pastor.

Six months of negotiations between the conference and Glide have not yielded a fruitful resolution to the disagreement. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the conference recently filed suit against Glide in order to protect the Trust Clause and the conference’s ownership of Glide’s property.

The Glide Foundation board maintains that the conflict is about the conference trying to gain control of the millions of dollars held by the Foundation, 95 percent of which goes to support social service ministries in the community. Carcaño assures that the conflict is about making Glide accountable to United Methodist doctrine and processes and honoring the original intent of donor Lizzie Glide, who established the foundation in order to provide for a Methodist Church in San Francisco.

There have been conflicting decisions about church trusts in California, but the most recent decisions have favored the denomination. The controversy will potentially now play out in a courtroom that will determine the obligations of the Glide Foundation in relation to The United Methodist Church.

One hopes that this high-profile lawsuit is not a precursor to what might happen in the future if congregations try to leave The United Methodist Church. General Conference can alleviate this concern by passing a fair, equitable, and standardized exit path for congregations as a part of its actions at the February special session.

What’s at Stake

The celebration of Christmas reminds us what is at stake in the debates over the future of The United Methodist Church. Christmas marks the beginning of God’s “on the ground” mission to save humanity and restore the world to what he created it to be.

As we look at the world around us, as well as within our own hearts and lives, there should be no question whether humanity in general-and each of us in particular-needs a savior. This world, while often beautiful and awe-inspiring, is not functioning the way God designed it to function. And people are not living their lives the way God planned for us to live. The result is brokenness and pain everywhere we look, mingled with beauty, faith, and joy.

God came into this messed-up world in human form, as one of us. He came not only to share our lot, but to provide a better way. Jesus’ teaching and example demonstrate how God created people to live. But we are powerless to do so consistently. So in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God provided the power for us. We experience that power today through the presence of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives. Just as God was birthed into human form on Christmas, God came into human lives through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Just as Christmas reverberates in our lives today 2,000 years later, Pentecost influences us individually as we open ourselves to the personal presence of the Holy Spirit (our own particular Pentecost).

What is at stake in our church’s debates and decisions is whether The United Methodist Church will continue to be a vehicle God uses to bring salvation, redemption, and transformation into the lives of broken people like us. Or will our church slowly blend into the society to the point that there is no difference?

The decision we need to make in St. Louis next February is really quite a simple one. Will our church remain faithful to the clear biblical teaching that God designed marriage for one man and one woman, and that sexual relations are to be reserved for marriage? Or will our church find a way to accommodate its teaching to the growing cultural perspective that marriage is merely a human-created institution that can be changed according to evolving human ideas?

The Traditional Plan upholds biblical teaching as historically understood and as understood by the vast majority of Christians around the world. Both the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan provide officially endorsed places in our denomination for those who would reinterpret Scripture to allow for same-sex relationships and redefine marriage as between any two adults. The Simple Plan goes even farther by removing the church’s teaching advocating that sexual relations be reserved for marriage.

If our church chooses to accommodate its teaching to the growing cultural understandings around marriage and sexuality, we will lose our ability to be an agent of God’s transformation. Instead, the church would begin to fulfill a chaplain’s role to comfort a society bent on departing from God’s creation intention. The situation would begin to resemble the critique of Jeremiah:

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?

No, they have no shame at all;

They do not even know how to blush.

(Jeremiah 6:14-15)

Jesus didn’t come into the world to affirm our brokenness, but to expose it to grace. He didn’t give his life on the cross to excuse our sin, but to forgive it. He didn’t rise from the dead to preserve the status quo, but to break open the way to a new heaven and a new earth. He didn’t send us the Holy Spirit to assuage our guilt, but to transform our very way of life.

God’s mission to redeem and transform the world is at stake. To cater to a worldly view is to deny God’s ability to transform our lives and enable us to live in holiness and righteousness. “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1).

Jesus reminds us, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). Compromising with the world’s moral standards will cause us to lose our saltiness. It will cause our church to lose its effectiveness in ministry. (Effectiveness measured not only in the number of people attending a church, but in the number of lives transformed by God.) We see that lost effectiveness in the dramatic membership losses of other mainline Protestant churches that have adopted a “One Church Plan” approach to resolving their conflicts over marriage and sexuality.

The whole point of Christmas is God becoming human, so that we can be transformed to become like God. Adopting a worldly moral perspective defeats that purpose by choosing to remain in our brokenness, rather than embracing the possibility of healing, redemption, and transformation.

Before we can become agents of transformation in our world, we need to be at least somewhat transformed ourselves, acknowledging that we will never be completely transformed into Christ’s likeness until we get to heaven. Choosing not to be transformed in this one area (sexuality) jeopardizes our mission to incarnate Jesus Christ in our lives, inviting others to experience Christ’s transforming love. If we live no differently than the world, why would they want what we have?

The Good News of Christmas is that Christ was born into the world as God’s missionary of love and transformation. Christ comes into our lives by faith and surrender to bring God’s love and transformation to us on a personal level. We can and will respond to God’s mission to our lives as individuals responsible directly to God. We pray and work for our beloved United Methodist Church to likewise respond in faithfulness, that we might together continue to carry out the mission of Christmas in our neighborhood, community, and across the globe.