Bishops Request Judicial Council Decision

The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church is asking the JudicialCouncil for a declaratory decision on what petitions can be submitted to the denomination’s Special Session of General Conference called for February 2019. The Council of Bishops announced their request in a statement issued this week.

“The intent is to resolve the question of whether additional petitions, beyond the report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, can be submitted to the Special 2019 General Conference prior to the convening of the Special General Conference,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops.

A faction of the Council of Bishops is arguing that the special called General Conference ought to only consider whatever the bishops propose as a way forward for the church in resolving disagreements over our understanding of marriage and same-sex practices. There is a powerful push to adopt the “Uniting Model” that would allow annual conferences to decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals and clergy to decide whether or not to marry same-sex couples. A heavy-handed attempt by some bishops to prevent consideration of other options does not speak well of their leadership, but may indicate a level of panic, striving at any cost to keep the church “united.”

We applaud the Council of Bishops for requesting this decision in order to bring certainty to the process. Based on previous Judicial Council decisions, the Judicial Council should allow other relevant proposals to be submitted to General Conference. (Even if Judicial Council rules they cannot be submitted as part of the regular process, there is nothing preventing other proposals from being introduced on the floor of General Conference as a substitute for the bishops’ proposal.) Allowing proposals to be submitted as part of the regular process is critical to enable those alternative proposals to be properly evaluated prior to being considered by General Conference.

The General Conference delegates ought to be allowed to consider any and all proposals for a faithful way forward for our church. It is their decision that will determine the future course we take, after all. The work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the proposal(s) submitted by the bishops are important, but they do not define the final outcome. Only the General Conference can speak for the whole church in determining how we will proceed.

Baltimore-Washington Defies Judicial Council

In response to six different annual conference boards of ordained ministry voting in 2016 not to comply with the Book of Discipline’s qualifications for ministry in evaluating candidates, the Judicial Council ruled that “The Board’s examination must include all paragraphs relevant to election of pastoral ministry, including those provisions set forth in paragraphs that deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, integrity, indebtedness, etc. ¶¶ 304.2, 305, 306, 310.” In other words, the board of ordained ministry cannot ignore requirements it disagrees with.

The Judicial Council further ruled, “The Board can only legally recommend to the Clergy Session a candidate for whom they have conducted a thorough examination and who has met the disciplinary standards for fitness.”

Now, one of those six original non-compliant annual conference boards has voted to adopt a policy that intentionally disobeys not only the Book of Discipline, but the Judicial Council ruling. Rather than await the outcome of the 2019 special called General Conference, Baltimore-Washington is conducting itself as a break-off annual conference from the rest of the global United Methodist Church.

In a statement issued last week, the board announced that it had adopted the policy recommendation last October and used it to evaluate its current crop of candidates for ministry.

The policy states, “We will not consider or evaluate sexual orientation or gender identity nor see them to be sufficient reasons to deny a candidate’s ability to live up to our United Methodist standards. We will utilize our denomination’s expectation of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness within our examination and expect not only high moral standards but also a strong sense of self-awareness about one’s relational life.” (One wonders what exactly those “high moral standards” are, if Baltimore-Washington no longer operates by the moral standards set by General Conference in obedience to Scripture.)

Despite the fact that Baltimore-Washington has jettisoned the denomination’s ordination standards, it is noteworthy that the board still wants to maintain the standard of “faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” However, since same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, the refusal to consider sexual orientation or gender identity means that persons in a same-sex marriage would be eligible for ordained ministry in the board’s eyes. Transgender candidates would also be welcome under these standards. Given the Judicial Council rulings, this policy calls into question whether any of the candidates recommended by the board at the upcoming annual conference can legally be considered or voted on.

The board acknowledges that it is knowingly violating the provisions of the Discipline and the Judicial Council rulings. Their statement reads, “We write in response to these rulings’ specific mandate to not ignore in the inquiry a candidate’s self-disclosure of sexual orientation. We respectfully disagree with these rulings, acknowledging that the following policy is not compliant with the Book of Discipline.”

This action points once again to the primary problem that is causing the crisis within United Methodism today. That problem is the unwillingness of members, clergy, and bishops to live within the boundaries set by General Conference for the whole church. This intentional defiance has torn the covenant that binds United Methodists together and generates mistrust and cynicism toward the institutional church.

The Rev. Amy McCullough, who co-chaired the board task force that developed the policy, is quoted as saying, “My hope is that this feels respectful. We all want the best for this Church that we love.” However, this policy does feel disrespectful. It disrespects the collegial work of the General Conference, the only body that has the authority to speak for the whole United Methodist Church. And it disrespects the clear and reasonable decisions of the Judicial Council in upholding what the Discipline requires. It also disrespects all of us who took vows to live by our Discipline and have been faithful to those vows, even when we disagree with some of its requirements.

A church that fails to live by its covenants is no longer an authentic church. It has become factions that live by their own lights and disregard the health of the whole body for the sake of advancing their views.

It has become painfully obvious since 2016 that those promoting the affirmation of LGBT practices are not willing to live together in a church that disallows those practices. Rather than take the route of integrity and withdraw from a church they cannot adhere to, they tear apart the unity of the church by their continuing and escalating disobedience.

The only faithful way forward is some form of separation that acknowledges that reality and allows the different factions to go their own way. We gain nothing by continuing to try to hold together members and congregations that cannot live in the same church by the same understandings of faith and moral teachings. In their zeal to force the church to change, many progressives have instead sealed the fate of The United Methodist Church to no longer be a “united” body, but destined for separation.

Northwest United Methodist Defiance

Rev. Kathleen Weber, PNW Conference

United Methodists in the Greater Northwest Area, under the leadership of Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky, have again decided to disregard the letter and spirit of United Methodist Church teachings. Indeed, it seems Stanovsky has gone out of her way to poke the eye of any vestige of church unity during this time of prayer and discernment about a faithful way forward for our denomination.

On February 19, Stanovsky announced the appointment of the Rev. Kathleen Weber to serve as the District Superintendent for the Crest to Coast Missional District in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. Weber is a second generation United Methodist pastor, a graduate of Candler School of Theology, and has been under appointment since 2005. Oh, and by the way, she is married to Dr. Danae Dotolo.

The fact that an openly married lesbian is serving as a pastor in The United Methodist Church in the state of Washington is not surprising, but it is disheartening. The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference is one of those conferences that stated it would ignore the issue of sexual orientation or practice in considering candidates for ministry, and that it would not conform to the requirements of the Book of Discipline regarding marriage and sexuality. It appears that, despite the Judicial Council declaring such actions by annual conferences to be illegal under the Discipline, Bishop Stanovsky and conference leaders continue to ignore the parts of the Discipline that they disagree with.

Even more disheartening during this time of discernment, however, is that the bishop would appoint a married lesbian as a district superintendent. This raising of the profile of Weber is an overt defiance of United Methodist standards and a callous disregard for the attempt by the Commission on a Way Forward to find a fair and faithful way for our church to resolve its impasse over these matters. It certainly makes it more difficult to come to a positive and unifying resolution of our disagreements.

Bishop Elaine Stanovsky

But Stanovsky was not finished. On February 22, she announced that the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (which she also serves) is hiring a half-time LGBTQ+ Advocacy Coordinator for the conference. The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor and was an Assistant Professor of Christian Nurture at Duke Divinity School. He and his partner, Dean, have been together for 22 years and have two adult children.

In deference to the fact that the Book of Discipline forbids the spending of church funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (¶ 613.19), funding for this position is being received from The Collins Foundation, a family foundation located in Portland, Oregon, dedicated to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Many of the activities to be supported by Webb-Mitchell are conducted in partnership with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the group that has been promoting at General Conference a change in the United Methodist teachings in order to allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. (This is in addition to the extravagant funding that pro-gay General Conference efforts have received from wealthy non-United Methodist foundations such as the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.)

These two announcements, within days of each other, constitute a double-barreled assault on the church’s standards and further diminish prospects of an amicable resolution of the current impasse in our church. Along with the continued service of married lesbian Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Mountain Sky Area (despite the Judicial Council ruling her consecration illegal), this escalation in the form of the appointment of two openly gay clergy to annual conference leadership positions is an “in your face” repudiation of United Methodist polity and discipline.

As the Commission on a Way Forward conducts its eighth meeting next week and prepares to send its final report to the Council of Bishops, it has become more apparent than ever that we are two churches pretending to be one.

 

Big Picture Status of United Methodism – Part III (Europe/Asia)

Students from Wesley Divinity Seminary, Wesleyan University, flash smiles and signs of affirmation during a march and rally in Quezon City, Philippines. Photo by SJ Earl Canlas and Jimuel Mari.

Over the last several weeks of Perspective, I have been surveying the growth and decline of United Methodism around the globe. The statistical report is available here. The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. In Part 1, I went into more detail about Africa. Two weeks ago, I surveyed the situation in the United States.

Rounding out our big picture look at the denomination, our attention turns to Europe and Asia. Observers of membership statistics will notice a dramatic dip in the Philippines from 216,300 in 2015 to 140,235 in 2016. That represents more than one-third drop in membership.

According to sources in the Philippines, the difference does not reflect a sudden one-year decline in membership but is due in part to more rigorous attention to accuracy that began several years ago (not solely due to the change in reporting requirements instituted by the 2016 General Conference).

As it stands, the current membership of United Methodism in The Philippines is roughly equivalent to the size of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference or Upper New York or Alabama-West Florida.

There are three episcopal areas within the Philippines Central Conference. The northern area (Baguio) consists of nine annual conferences averaging 7,200 members each, ranging in size from 2,800 to 16,750 members. This area lost 14,750 members or 20 percent of its membership. The central area (Manila) consists of 12 annual conferences averaging 5,600 members each and ranging from 966 to 14,800 members. This area lost 65,600 members or 50 percent of its membership. The southern area (Davao) consists of five annual conferences averaging 2,575 members each and ranging from 1,260 to 4,560 members. This area gained over 1,200 members for a growth of nearly 11 percent. This growth came despite being in an area beset by a violent Islamic insurgency (Mindanao).

Paradoxically, even with this loss of membership, the Philippines will gain delegates in the 2020 General Conference. They added a new annual conference for 2016 and another one in 2020, so they have gone from 48 delegates in 2012 to 52 in 2020. (Each of the 26 annual conferences is entitled to a minimum of two delegates to General Conference.) The Philippines has considered breaking off from The United Methodist Church in the past and becoming an autonomous Methodist church (similar to the Methodist churches in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other parts of Latin America). Their future course of action will depend upon the outcome of the 2019 General Conference.

The most exciting development in Asia is the growth of mission work in Southeast Asia, currently under the supervision of the Bishop of Texas, Scott Jones. These areas have not yet formed into annual conferences, but are moving toward that point over the next several years. There are over 300 churches in Vietnam, 100 in Laos, and over 150 in Cambodia. They face obstacles in working with the government, hostility to foreigners, and in some cases even religious persecution. But these areas are growing, and most will seek to maintain a relationship with The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Christhard Elle leads an outdoor worship service in northern Germany. Photo courtesy of World Methodist Council.

The three European regions lost about 5,500 members, or 9.3 percent of their membership. All the European and Central Asian annual conferences are tiny. The Germany episcopal area is the oldest and largest of the three European areas. It has three annual conferences ranging from 6,400 to 15,500 members. The Germany annual conferences lost 2,000 members or 6 percent of their membership. The Central and Southern Europe area has seven annual conferences, four of which are provisional and not fully able to stand on their own. They range in membership from 468 to 6,763 members, with the largest being Switzerland-France-North Africa. This area lost 2,200 members or over 14 percent of their membership. The Northern Europe and Eurasia area has ten annual conferences, five of which are provisional. They range in number from 174 to 4,237 members, with the largest being Norway. This area lost 1,300 members or 12 percent of their membership.

It is important to remember that the European and Central Asian annual conferences are subject to adverse political conditions, ranging from the armed conflict in Ukraine to religious repression in Russia and Muslim countries. The churches and conferences there are very fragile, and they are likely to be affected more severely by whatever course of action is adopted by the 2019 General Conference. They experience theological differences between more conservative areas and more liberal areas, but have been able to continue working together because of their small size and need for each other. This dynamic could change, depending upon the outcome of the 2019 General Conference.

All of the parts of the UM Church outside the U.S. are striving to become more financially self-supporting. Some parts of Europe and the Philippines have contributed to the global work of the church for many years. Other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa are just beginning to make those contributions. Many have helped to support their own bishop and annual conference expenses, while not being fully self-sufficient. Their desire is to move in that direction, which led to the 2016 General Conference assigning apportionments to the churches outside the U.S. for the first time, based on a formula that takes into account economic conditions and membership.

The move toward self-support is not an attempt to marginalize United Methodists outside the U.S. (as I have heard some people worry). Instead, it is a desire to build their capacity, so that they can fully support the work of their churches and extend that work in their own countries and around the world.

One of the gifts for me to be a member of the Commission on a Way Forward has been to learn from members from other countries and to learn about their challenges and victories. The United Methodist Church is the only mainline Protestant denomination that is a truly global church, having members who serve equally from more than 50 countries in the world. I believe that can be a real strength of our church and help us to broaden our understanding of the Christian faith. Our brothers and sisters can teach us ways to grow our faith and our churches in an adverse environment (which many of them are experiencing). Awareness of our global Methodism can strengthen our church and give us a foretaste of heaven, where there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

What the Bishops’ Meeting Means 

Social media is all abuzz in the aftermath of the Council of Bishops meeting that ended Wednesday. The special four-day meeting was called to enable further discussion of the Commission on a Way Forward report – updating and refining two of the three options it had previously presented to the bishops. In a press release [link] and news story [link], we learned further details about the way forward the bishops are envisioning.

This meeting marked the most extensive and frank discussions the bishops have ever had on the issue of the church’s ministry to and with LGBT persons. It is disturbing that such discussions really did not begin until the church was on the brink of separation in 2016. It is good that these conversations are finally taking place.

The two options currently under consideration by the bishops are:

* A One Church Contextual model that is a repackaging of the local option. Under this plan, the language around marriage and homosexuality would be removed from the Book of Discipline. Each annual conference would be able to decide whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Each pastor would be able to decide whether to perform same-sex weddings or unions. Each local church would be able to decide whether to allow same-sex weddings in its sanctuary and whether to receive an openly gay pastor. Those who could not in good conscience participate in same-sex weddings or ordination would not be required to do so. Congregations that could not continue in the UM Church under this new situation would be able to exit the denomination with their property under terms not yet spelled out.

* Multi-Branch in One Church model that envisions the creation of three new branches based on theology, one progressive, one traditional, and one following the local option approach. These branches would replace the current five geographical jurisdictions and would each cover the entire United States. The current central conferences outside the U.S. could form their own branches or could join one of the three theological branches. The traditional branch would maintain the current stance prohibiting same-sex weddings and ordination, with robust accountability within that branch. Other branches could modify or remove the language prohibiting same-sex weddings and ordination in their branches. All the branches would share a few common services and agencies, and there would still be one Council of Bishops. Each annual conference would decide which branch to belong to, and only those local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s choice would need to vote to join a different branch. Congregations that could not continue in the UM Church under this new situation would be able to exit the denomination with their property under terms not yet spelled out.

This means that the bishops are no longer considering the possible model that would have kept the language on marriage and homosexuality in the Discipline the same, with enhanced accountability to ensure that bishops and annual conferences live by the Discipline. Under this sketch, annual conferences and local churches that could not live by the current Discipline would be encouraged to exit the denomination under generous terms.

It is not surprising that the accountability model is not being considered, since more than half of the bishops favor changing the Book of Discipline’s position to allow same-sex weddings and ordination. For the bishops, the accountability model is too much like separation, and their overriding value is unity.

For the same reasons, it is not surprising that the rhetoric coming from the Council president and other bishops is weighted toward the One Church Contextual model. This fits the desire of many bishops to change the Discipline and still stay together in one church. They cannot comprehend that many evangelicals could not continue in a denomination that condones what the Bible calls sinful behavior. And they believe that somehow the local option plan can pass the special General Conference, even though it failed in the past three General Conferences.

So what does all of this mean for the way forward for our church? The short answer is: not much. Regardless of what plan or plans the bishops put forward, other plans will be on the table to be considered at the special 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. It is not the bishops who will decide the way forward, but the General Conference delegates. A plan for keeping the Discipline the same with enhanced accountability, or a plan incorporating those features, is likely to be put forward despite the bishops’ disapproval. The Council of Bishops has a fairly low influence on U.S. delegates, due to the high level of distrust for the Council, despite the individual regard some delegates have for their own bishop. It is highly unlikely that evangelical delegates in Africa, the Philippines, and Eurasia will vote to change the position of our church, even if it is said that such a change would not affect them.

From my perspective, it is not time for traditional evangelicals to bail out of the United Methodist Church. Nothing has been decided, and the power remains in the hands of the General Conference delegates. We had hoped that the Council of Bishops would present a plan that evangelicals could support. It now looks more likely that will not happen. But for 50 years evangelicals have operated at a disadvantage, and the Lord has enabled our biblically based position that welcomes and loves LGBT persons while teaching against sinful behavior to prevail. We expect that to continue. And if not, we believe that Jesus Christ is still on the throne, and he will guide us into a way in which we can remain faithful. What he asks of us is to stand strongly on his Word and remain faithful.

Please continue to pray for the bishops, the Commission on a Way Forward, and for Good News and the other renewal groups, as we all seek to discern the faithful way forward for our church.

 

 

 

Big Picture Status of United Methodism (Part 2 )

In last week’s edition of Perspective, I began to survey the growth and decline of United Methodism around the globe. The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. Last week, I went into more detail about Africa [link].

When turning to the United States, the picture is more grim. Overall, the U.S. church lost 319,000 members. This represents 4.3 percent of its membership. There was only one annual conference that grew over the four years, and every jurisdiction lost members. Here are the statistics by jurisdiction:

The northern jurisdictions are not far behind when it comes to membership loss. They have a much higher membership level to start with, so the impact will not be felt as quickly. However, these figures have implications for the number of bishops in each of the northern jurisdictions. According to the formula in ¶ 404 of the Discipline, both jurisdictions are now entitled to eight bishops. However, both have nine active bishops currently. The 2016 General Conference froze the number of bishops because of the Commission on a Way Forward and its possible implications for restructuring the church. If the church is not restructured, however, it is likely that each jurisdiction will lose a bishop in 2020. (Of course, if there is a substantial exodus of members from the church after the 2019 General Conference, all jurisdictions may face the loss of one or more bishops.)While it had the smallest membership loss in numbers, the Western Jurisdiction lost the highest percentage of its membership. As has been noted for a number of years, this pace of membership loss is unsustainable in the West. Annual conferences are looking at consolidation/merger. There may come a time when the number of bishops in the West will need to be reduced below the constitutionally mandated number of five. Or the Western Jurisdiction may need to be folded into other jurisdictions. A study committee is looking at jurisdictional realignment, but all such plans are on hold until the 2019 General Conference decides what will be our denomination’s “way forward.”

Also in imminent danger of losing a bishop is the South Central Jurisdiction. Based on the formula, the SCJ has only 2,100 members more than the threshold for losing one of its ten bishops. If 2017 numbers are used to determine the number of bishops, it is possible for the SCJ to lose a bishop in 2020. But it will undoubtedly lose one bishop by 2024. The Southeastern Jurisdiction is not in danger of losing a bishop, as they voluntarily declined to add a bishop to which they were entitled several quadrenniums ago.

Annual Conference Trajectories

The only annual conference showing growth for the four years 2012-2016 was the North Carolina Annual Conference, which gained 76 members (statistically, less than 0.1 percent growth). Five other annual conferences declined by less than one percent:

North Georgia                  -0.4 percent

Kentucky                              -0.6 percent

Texas                                     -0.7 percent

Tennessee                             -0.9 percent

Memphis                               -0.9 percent

Texas is in the South Central Jurisdiction, and the other four (plus North Carolina) are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

By comparison, there were six annual conferences that lost more than 10 percent of their members from 2012-2016.

Upper New York              -17.0 percent

Desert Southwest                -13.8 percent

Yellowstone                          -12.2 percent

Pacific Northwest                -12.2 percent

Wisconsin                           -11.9 percent

West Ohio                           -10.2 percent

Upper New York had the largest number of members lost at 28,500, making up nearly one-third of the membership losses suffered by the entire Northeastern Jurisdiction. West Ohio was next at 19,250, making up one-fourth of the membership losses suffered by the entire North Central Jurisdiction. Among other annual conferences, Florida, out of a much larger membership total, lost nearly 18,000 members, nearly one-third of the membership losses suffered by the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Central Texas lost 13,600, nearly one-fourth of the membership losses suffered by the South Central Jurisdiction, and Iowa lost nearly 11,000.

Three of these six fastest-declining conferences are in the Western Jurisdiction, two in the North Central, and one in the Northeastern. These declines could have devastating impact on some of the annual conferences involved. Yellowstone is the smallest non-missionary annual conference, with only 11,000 members. It is planning a merger with the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference over the next few years. Desert Southwest has only 31,000 members, while Pacific Northwest has just over 40,000 members and may explore a merger with the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (which itself only has just over 25,000 members). Wisconsin has 65,000 members, but may need to share a bishop (relinquishing its own residential bishop) with another annual conference beginning in 2020. Both Upper New York and West Ohio are much larger annual conferences, with almost 140,000 and almost 169,000 members respectively. They will not be as heavily impacted by loss of members in the near term.

The declines in all these conferences, however, are representative of why their respective jurisdictions are experiencing serious membership declines. It is worth noting that all six annual conferences are located in primarily rural areas. However, Washington State, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona rank in the top ten states for population growth since 2010. Montana ranks in the top 20. (Pacific Northwest contains Washington State and part of Idaho, Yellowstone contains Montana and part of Wyoming, and Desert Southwest contains Arizona and part of Nevada.) Wisconsin and Ohio are 39th and 41st in population growth, while New York is 33rd, so that could have played a part in the membership declines in those areas.

Regardless of how fast or slow the population is declining in a given area, recent surveys have shown a surge in the number of unchurched people. The mission field in the United States has plenty of opportunity for harvest! Our church needs to find creative and faithful ways of making more disciples of Jesus Christ. Their eternity, not to mention the future of our church, depends upon it.

Big Picture Status of United Methodism (Part 1 – Africa)

Parishioners sing during worship at the United Methodist church in Kortihun near Bo, Sierra Leone. Several villages in the Bo district will receive new, insecticide-treated mosquito nets from the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign in the first planned redistribution to replace nets given in 2010. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

We are called Methodists for a reason. John Wesley was very methodical in his approach to discipleship (the means of grace, the General Rules) and revival. He always insisted that small groups be formed of those who responded to his preaching. He insisted that they follow a set process. And he kept detailed numbers on each group — who was participating and how often they attended. We sometimes get hung up on “numbers” vs. more spiritual topics, but each number represents a person. When we talk about gaining 5,000 members, we are talking about 5,000 more men, women, and children who are following Christ in a United Methodist congregation. And that is a great victory. And losing numbers of members is tragic. These numbers and these people matter for eternity.

Detailed statistics have been released by the General Council on Finance and Administration regarding membership numbers used to calculate the number of delegates for each annual conference to the 2020 General Conference. These numbers give us a better sense of the growth trajectory of our denomination. Year-to-year statistics are helpful, but there can be fluctuations. A four-year trend, as portrayed in the comparison between 2020 and 2016 numbers, can be more accurate in telling the overall story. (The numbers in determining the 2020 delegates come from 2016, as compared with 2012 numbers used to determine the 2016 delegates.)

The big picture is that The United Methodist Church gained more than 143,000 members over the past four years. All of the growth, however, took place in two of the African regions: Congo and West Africa. Every other region of the world declined in membership. Congo led the way by gaining more than 429,000 members, topping out at about 3 million United Methodists in the Congo alone. This makes Congo the largest region in the church, exceeding even the Southeastern Jurisdiction. West Africa followed by gaining nearly 200,000 members, coming to over 1.7 million United Methodists. This makes West Africa the third largest region in the world, behind the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

Observers were curious to see the impact of new rules for reporting members for 2016. For the first time, the membership numbers needed to be reported down to the individual church level. Previously, annual conferences outside the U.S. could report aggregate numbers for the whole annual conference, which were often thought to be just estimates that may not have been totally accurate. But the new 2016 numbers are far more reliable, and in many annual conferences in Africa the change did not have the effect of shrinking the membership.

There were still some anomalies in the African reporting. Two annual conferences in the Africa Central region (eastern and southern Africa) did not report their membership numbers. This contributed to the membership decline in the Africa Central Conference region, which lost 86,000 members. (There are issues of conflict in some of those annual conferences that also contributed to the decline.) Half of the annual conferences in this region grew, but the other half suffered some significant losses of 20 to 45 percent.

Another anomaly was that one West Africa annual conference (Cote D’Ivoire or Ivory Coast) reported the exact same number of members it had reported in 2012. Liberia led the way in West Africa with a growth of almost 133,000 members (89 percent). That country just elected its second United Methodist as president of the nation in a row! Sierra Leone gained 60,000 members (27 percent). The three annual conferences of Nigeria also grew slightly while adding a fourth annual conference and continuing to battle the adversity of the Boko Haram insurgency and internal church conflict.

All but two annual conferences in the Congo grew over the four years. The Oriental and Equator Annual Conference in the Congo went from 5,000 members in 2012 to over 90,000 members in 2016. Presumably, these recent numbers are more accurate. Two other annual conferences more than doubled in size. The largest annual conference (North Katanga) gained 90,000 members (11 percent). At 910,000 members, they are the largest annual conference in the global United Methodist Church, 2-1/2 times the size of North Georgia, the next largest! This rapid growth is why the Congo will probably receive the lion’s share of the four new bishops to be added in Africa in 2020.

Even with the anomalies, we have a much more accurate picture of the status of United Methodist membership in Africa and other parts of the world.

The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. In my next blog, I will look at the situation in the United States.

A Secular Religion: The Challenge We Face

A recent article in the journal First Things by Mary Eberstadt entitled The Zealous Faith of Secularism makes the case that the challenge we face in the United States and the Western World is one of competing faiths or competing ideologies. Christianity faces off against a secularism that has its own dogmas. Some of those dogmas are so entrenched in our culture that we don’t even recognize them as beliefs in competition with a Christian worldview.

One of these secular dogmas is that the purpose of life is personal happiness. This stems, of course, from the uniquely American DNA reflected in our Declaration of Independence, that holds that we are endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our American “religion” believes that we have the right to pursue happiness in whatever way we believe best, whether we eventually find it or not. This has evolved into the idea that the pursuit of happiness is the purpose of life. It has led to a focus on materialism/greed, sex, and power in a misguided quest for happiness.

Instead, we believe as Christians that the purpose of life is to know God and to glorify him with our lives. That may or may not make us happy in the moment, but it will lead to our ultimate happiness and the deepest joy. C.S. Lewis talks about that in his book, Mere Christianity. “What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. … God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

Another secular dogma is that sex is for pleasure, and I am entitled to have as much of it as I want, with whomever I want, whenever I want. The idea that we ought to reserve sex for the committed relationship of marriage is often thought to be quaint and old-fashioned, if not downright detrimental to happiness (see dogma #1). Paul faced this attitude in Corinth, which prompted him to write: “The body isn’t for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. … Don’t you know that your bodies are parts of Christ? So then, should I take parts of Christ and make them a part of someone who is sleeping around?” (I Corinthians 6:13-15, CEB). Sex is sacred, and we find our greatest joy in reserving the sexual relationship to be shared only with our spouse — but that is not the message that we hear from the world each and every day.

A third dogma is that a woman can do what she wants with her own body, and a fetus is only a part of a woman’s body, not an independent life form. Of course, this leads to the demand for abortion to be available at any time, for any reason, up until the last day of pregnancy. This fits very well with dogma #2, since abortion makes it possible for a person to enjoy unlimited sex without the inconvenience of a child (one of the actual purposes of sex). What a different attitude is portrayed in Psalm 127:3: “children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a divine reward.”

A fourth dogma is that marriage is a relationship between any two people (and sometimes not even limited to two) who want to commit themselves to each other. A corollary dogma is that sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable, and that it is unjust to expect persons with same-sex attraction not to find the fulfillment of marriage that heterosexual people do. Based on these beliefs, people are prepared to change the definition of marriage that has held true for all civilizations for at least 5,000 years. It doesn’t matter that the scientific evidence is decidedly against sexual orientation being an inborn characteristic. It doesn’t matter that some people have indeed changed their sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter that Jesus defines marriage as between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6, cf. Genesis 2:24, I Timothy 3:2).

That last point is what reveals these dogmas as ideologies or quasi-religious matters of faith. They are not based on any kind of empirical evidence. They are just “truths” that people are expected to agree with. And if one disputes these dogmas, there is a visceral, angry reaction to silence dissent and compel (if possible) belief.

I could go on listing secular dogmas, but what the church faces today is a fully developed ideology or religion that cuts out God and substitutes articles of faith that it believes will lead to human happiness. Of course, we know (as Lewis stated in the quote above) that there is no lasting happiness apart from God. But we sometimes allow these secular dogmas to creep into our thinking and guide the church’s beliefs and actions. That is the source of our theological conflict in The United Methodist Church today. It is a conflict between traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity and a Christianity that is influenced by secular ideology.

There is a paramount need to self-critically discern where our theology, ethics, or actions are being influenced by secular ideology. The best antidote to this poison is to be thoroughly steeped in a biblical worldview. We need to know biblical theology to protect ourselves from the secular counterfeit, and we need to live out that biblical theology in order to have any hope of convincing the world it is wrong. It comes back to the formation of Christian disciples as the supreme task of the church. The challenges we face today show that we have not been entirely successful in that task.

Tempering Expectations — Dealing with Impatience

It is no surprise that many members of The United Methodist Church are growing impatient. It feels like we have been discussing (if not fighting over) our views regarding the church’s ministry with LGBTQ people for a lifetime. Many hoped that the 2016 General Conference would give clarity to our situation. Instead, in true Methodist fashion, we appointed a committee. (I say that with a smile, since I serve on the Commission on a Way Forward.)

I understand that impatience and share it. I have been in the struggle for denominational renewal and reform since the 1980’s.

As we contemplate the future of Methodism, however, we would be well served to adjust our expectations for resolution of this matter to the reality of the extent of our brokenness. If there were a quick and easy fix, we would have enacted it by now. For good reason, few want to be reminded to be a bit more patient. But an impasse that took 45 years to make (and according to Dr. James Heidinger’s recent book, took over a century) will not be solved in six months or a year. By definition, we are dealing with a very difficult, complex, and intractable institutional situation.

Many hope that when the Council of Bishops (COB) releases its proposal in May, we will have a clearer vision of the future of United Methodism. However, we must reckon with the fact that the bishops are unlikely to coalesce behind only one plan. Just as the Commission on a Way Forward submitted three sketches to the COB, it is conceivable that the COB will submit two or three proposals to General Conference.

In addition, there are bound to be some who disagree with any or all of the plans submitted by the bishops. They will introduce plans of their own. It is entirely possible that General Conference will have to consider a minimum of four different proposals for a way forward. So we will not know until the end of the 2019 General Conference which direction has been chosen for the church’s future.

Furthermore, most of the various proposals already put forward would take several years to implement. Sketch One, which maintains the current position of the church with increased accountability, would set the table for several years of accountability actions to bring bishops and annual conferences in line with the church’s policy or graciously help them to exit from the denomination. There would be a time of at least a year for annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to decide if they can in good conscience uphold the Discipline in those matters under contention. If not, they will have a time to decide if they will exit from The United Methodist Church to form something new or unite with another existing body. Only after that time will they become subject to disciplinary action. And if conferences, bishops, or clergy resist the policy of the church but refuse to leave, there will be trials and other actions that will take months or even a few years to carry out in order to restore compliance with the Discipline. Rev. Chris Ritter has proposed some ideas about how a Sketch One might work.

Sketch Three, which envisions multiple branches of the church under a type of global umbrella, is a much more radical restructuring of the church. It aims not only to resolve the impasse over homosexuality, but to also position the church for renewed vitality and growth. Such a radical restructure will require amendments to our church constitution. So even if passed by the 2019 General Conference, it will take an additional year to ratify the amendments by the various annual conferences. Then there will need to be time for annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to decide which branch to affiliate with. Once the branches are populated, they will need to be organized and set up with whatever structure each determines. Then the general church agencies will need to be reorganized or restructured. It will take several years to live into this new structure.

Sketch Two looks like the easiest to implement because it does not require constitutional amendments and does not require any accountability actions. (This option allows pastors to determine for themselves whether they will perform same-sex marriages and annual conferences to determine whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.) However, it will be an uphill battle to pass this option, since it requires changing the church’s position on homosexuality, which has never gained traction at past General Conferences and would not be supported by most evangelicals and most central conference delegates. Aside from that, adoption of Sketch Two would undoubtedly cause many evangelical clergy and congregations to depart from the denomination. This departure would itself take time to implement (see the next paragraphs).

Whatever plan is proposed at General Conference, the Commission has always stated that there will be an option for gracious exit for congregations and clergy who could not live with the plan that is adopted. And there will be many evangelicals who are ready to leave the denomination rather than compromise their belief in the teachings and authority of Scripture. At this point, there is no indication what that process of leaving would look like. Will it require a period of study and discernment by local churches? Will churches have to make payments to their annual conferences before they are allowed to depart? If no exit path is adopted by General Conference, will there be lawsuits over property that consume years in court?

If congregations have to depart from the UM Church as an act of conscience, what would come next? Most hope that there would be a new Wesleyan Methodist body formed to which such congregations could belong. Even if groundwork is done ahead of time, the formation of such a body would take time. Structures would need to be formed, decisions made on policies and finances, and leadership chosen. It would take several years to live into the structure of a newly-formed church.

It is tempting to throw up one’s hands and just walk down the street to the nearest non-denominational church. Such a decision, however, could be shortsighted and out of sync with the leading of God. It is worth thinking over very carefully. We have a unique theological treasure in authentic Wesleyan Methodism that we do not want to lose. The marriage of head, heart, and hands in relationship to Christ. The balance of personal and social holiness, as well as concern for the poor and social justice. The juxtaposition of divine sovereignty and personal responsibility. Potlucks and congregational dinners! These and many other treasures are uniquely part of the Wesleyan wing of Christianity. To give them up would be a loss to the entire body of Christ that is the global, trans-denominational church.

As most of us know from our experience with New Year’s resolutions, tempering our expectations and not expecting a quick and easy answer is very challenging. It takes the willingness to work through a longer-than-hoped-for, difficult, and complicated process because we believe that something better will come out on the other side. No matter which way God works in providing a future for Methodism, it is going to take time — more time than we would like. But like anything good, the end product will be worth the wait.

God Still Transforming Lives of Young People

A group of young people pray together after a Christian City Church service in Toronto last month. Christopher Katsarove, The Globe and Mail

“Until recently, Aimee Burke was a cartoon of her generation,” begins the news article in The Globe and Mail, one of the largest newspapers in Canada. “She partied a lot and was partial to coke. Her hookups comprised partners both male and female. She was unhappy.”

Aimee is a millennial hair stylist in Toronto. “Her life began to change,” Eric Andrew-Gee reports, “with the appearance of an unusual tattoo. … About two years ago, a client at her salon flashed a wrist inked with an image of Christ. When Ms. Burke asked about it, the tattooed client said she belonged to a new Toronto church.”

After having confirmed that she could attend in ripped jeans, Aimee visited the church. “I’m pretty sure I went to the service hungover from the night before,” she recalled. But as the service wore on, she found herself weeping. “I just felt less empty.”

“Everyone was within about 10 years of my age and I was 24 years old at the time. They were talking about God, but they looked like people I could party with,” Ms. Burke said. “I felt like I could be myself right away.”

This is the kind of faith-inspiring story that you love to read about — especially in a secular newspaper in Canada, a country where less than 25 percent attend church on a monthly basis.  

“As the Christians would say, I’ve surrendered over my life,” Burke said. “I do everything. I pray in the morning, I pray at night, I read my Bible every day… Now I’m waiting for marriage. I’ve been sober for almost two years.”

The church attendance numbers are not on the upswing for young men and women in Aimee’s age demographic — neither in Canada nor the United States. Nevertheless, testimonies like Ms. Burke’s appearing in the newspaper should remind us that God is always at work. The Holy Spirit is transforming lives — even among young people!

“I think people are looking for something to believe in,” Ms. Burke offered, “even if it’s just themselves.”

The church’s upbeat, easy going style attracted many of the parishioners at its west end campus.

“The big thing here is people come and they don’t feel pressured to be anything other than who they are,” said Jonathan Li, 30. “It’s more about having people to do life together.

“I think people are a lot lonelier these days, even with social media. … I think there’s a false sense of connectedness there.”

Aimee Burke is glad the church met her where she was. At the church, she felt like she could be herself, without feeling “self-condemned,” she said. All the jokes about saying Hail Marys when she swears at work are worth it, Ms. Burke insists. “This is going to sound really Christian-y,” she said, “but it felt like the chains came off of me.”

Further good news comes from Britain, where recent surveys have shown

Churches inspire young people to become Christian, a study suggests. Photo by David Davies.

that 13 percent of people between the ages of 11 and 18 are practicing Christians who attend church, and that 21 percent of this age group consider themselves active followers of Jesus. This is more than double the result of a 2006 survey, which found that only six percent of teens attended church.

Jimmy Dale, the Church of England’s national youth evangelism officer, said his team had been “shocked” by the results. “What is really exciting for us is that there is this warmth and openness that we are seeing among young people — they are really open to faith,” he said.Further good news comes from Britain, where recent surveys have shown that 13 percent of people between the ages of 11 and 18 are practicing Christians who attend church, and that 21 percent of this age group consider themselves active followers of Jesus. This is more than double the result of a 2006 survey, which found that only six percent of teens attended church.

Surprisingly, one of the most influential factors in the conversion of young people in the survey was visits to churches or cathedrals, identified by 13 percent of the respondents. The Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, who is the lead bishop for churches and church buildings, said: “This shows the power of church buildings — they are powerful for all sorts of reasons. They give a sense of stability, and also the sense that the Christian faith has inspired people to build these extraordinary buildings.” (Of course, Britain has the advantage over us there, with 42 cathedrals, many of which are as much as 1,000 years old.)

In addition, one in five said reading the Bible had been important, 17 percent said going to a religious school had had an impact and 14 percent said a spiritual experience was behind their Christianity. A further 13 percent identified prayer as a key factor. “Things which we would class as old hat methods are some of the more effective ways,” added Mr. Dale.

In the midst of sometimes discouraging cultural news, it is heartening to note that in places with much lower Christian discipleship than the United States, God is still actively working to transform lives and call people to follow him. As the song says, “God is on the move!” Will we join him in his mission?