The Plans’ Impact on Missions

Recently, the Connectional Table convened a panel discussion to consider “how the efforts to end the church’s decades-long dispute over homosexuality might affect the denomination’s mission.” According to the article by Heather Hahn, “‘It is untrue that this decision will not affect the agencies and their mission – it will directly,’ said the Rev. Kim Cape, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. She noted that about 2 cents of every dollar placed in U.S. church offering plates supports general church ministries. ‘Any church that leaves The United Methodist Church stops giving to that larger mission fund,’ she said.”

No matter what happens at the February special General Conference, our general agencies will not be able to function as they have in the past. The General Council on Finance and Administration recently voted to propose an 18 percent cut to the general church budget starting in 2021, which will result in a 23 percent reduction for the general agencies of the church.

Change is coming, and the decisions made in February will undoubtedly hasten the changes. Here is a look at how each of the three plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward would likely affect the general agencies and the overall mission work of the church.

Connectional Conference Plan

In the short term, the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) maintains the current level of financial support for the general church structure through 2025. This plan, which forms three theological connectional conferences in the U.S. (Progressive, Unity, and Traditional), would continue sharing certain general agencies among all connectional conferences. These would include Wespath (pensions and health benefits), Publishing House, UMCOR, Archives and History, and parts of Global Ministries. These would continue to be supported by general church apportionments long-term.

The rest of the church’s general agencies would serve at the pleasure of each connectional conference. Each conference would decide which agencies or which services it would like to receive from the general church. A task force would then put together a new general church structure to implement those decisions, beginning in 2026. This approach gives the church a rare opportunity to radically reconfigure the general church structure in a way that is more responsive to the grass roots of the church. Most of the church’s work would be contingent upon the support of the various connectional conferences.

Under the CCP, partnerships between annual conferences and support of mission work could continue, even linking together partners from different connectional conferences based on mutual agreement. The only impact on mission work would come from the number of congregations that would find it necessary to leave the church under this plan. At this point it is very difficult to estimate how many churches would find it necessary to leave.

One Church Plan

The One Church Plan (OCP) tries to keep everyone together, despite our differences. However, it must be acknowledged that this outcome is not likely. For many evangelicals, the change in the church’s position on the practice of homosexuality would be an unacceptable violation of Scripture and of our consciences. We have heard from hundreds of individual lay members and dozens of congregations that they would seek to leave The United Methodist Church if the OCP passes. And those are just the ones we have heard about. In a poll this year in North Georgia, fully one-fourth of the annual conference members said that they would leave the church if the OCP is adopted. I estimate that the U.S. part of our church could lose anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent of its membership in this scenario, and it is possible that up to a half-dozen annual conferences might seek to withdraw.

Such a significant loss of membership would greatly impact the work of the general church. Losing an additional ten to twenty-five percent of its apportionment income would cause the need for significant personnel and program cuts to general agencies. Most other mainline churches have seen significant reductions in their general church programs after they changed their position on marriage and sexuality. Ours would undoubtedly follow the same path.

There is no provision in the OCP for churches to exit with their property, nor is there any provision for exiting churches to continue any kind of missional cooperation with The United Methodist Church. If General Conference provides no exit path, it is likely that much money will be spent on court battles over local church property. Money that could have gone to mission and ministry will instead go to pay lawyers. Such an adversarial outcome will also act to discourage future cooperation between exiting churches and those who remain in the UM Church. The long-term cost to mission and ministry could be quite severe.

Traditional Plan

The Traditional Plan (TP) envisions a gracious exit for those unwilling to abide by the current requirements of the Book of Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. It provides an exit path for annual conferences, local churches, bishops, and clergy that is not punitive.

If all of the annual conferences that have voted not to conform with the Discipline were to withdraw from the UM Church, they represent about ten percent of the U.S. membership. Of course, not every local church in those twelve annual conferences would want to leave the denomination. But there would be local churches in other annual conferences that would want to leave the denomination to join a new, more progressive church. The numbers would probably equal out.

Thus, the TP might see an additional ten percent reduction in apportionment income to the general church. However, the TP also provides that exiting churches can negotiate with UM general agencies to receive services for a fee, meaning that agencies could receive additional financial support by serving those exiting churches (based on mutual agreement). In addition, exiting churches could continue missional partnerships and participation with the mutual agreement of the receiving annual conference or mission. So the funding reduction might not be as severe under the TP as the ten percent estimate.

One must consider also whether more traditional annual conferences outside the U.S. would want to continue relationships with exiting churches that have openly gay clergy and bishops. For some annual conferences, that might pose a challenge.

On the other hand, the churches remaining in the UM denomination might want to enhance their outward focus on mission and ministry, and therefore be willing to devote more dollars to these causes. Such a reorientation of priorities might make up for the loss of some funding from exiting congregations. It also might enable that funding to be more focused and more effective, rather than continuing to support a bloated bureaucracy that continues to exist due to institutional inertia.

There are many factors in play, some of which are difficult to predict. If the above analysis is correct, it appears that the smallest short-term reduction of general church structure and mission funding would likely be from the Connectional Conference Plan. The smallest long-term reduction would likely come from the Traditional Plan. And the largest reduction overall would likely be by adopting the One Church Plan.

Delegates will need to consider the likely impact of each of the plans as one factor in their decision about which plan would best assure a faithful future for The United Methodist Church. We continue to pray for the delegates as they make their decision in the weeks ahead.

 

 

 

 

Why I Appealed the Judicial Council Decision on Exit

I have submitted a request to the Judicial Council that it reconsider part of its Decision 1366 that declared the local church exit provisions of the Traditional Plan (TP) unconstitutional. The TP provided that individual congregations or groups of 50 or more congregations could vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church in order to form or join a “self-governing Methodist church” that would be separate from the UM Church. Part of the TP’s “gracious exit” provisions for those who cannot live within the teachings and requirements established by General Conference, withdrawal would require a 55 percent vote of the church conference (a congregational meeting) and payment of unfunded pension liabilities, with no other requirements.

The Judicial Council in Decision 1366 ruled this provision conflicted with ¶ 41 of the church’s Constitution, which requires that congregations transferring from one annual conference to another need a 2/3 majority vote by the local church and by both the sending and receiving annual conferences. Based on this ruling, an exit path for congregations would apparently require a 2/3 majority vote of the local congregation and also 2/3 majority approval by their annual conference before the church could withdraw.

However, the language of ¶ 41 explicitly governs “a local church … transfer[ring] from one annual conference to another in which it is geographically located.” In other words, a transfer within The United Methodist Church, not a withdrawal from The United Methodist Church. The only situations currently governed by this provision are in Kentucky and Oklahoma, where missionary annual conferences are geographically coinciding with regular annual conferences.

With all due respect, the Judicial Council erroneously applied ¶ 41 to the TP exit provisions, when in reality they address two different situations. The church Constitution gives the General Conference authority to “define and fix the powers and duties of … charge conferences and congregational meetings” (¶ 16.3). So the General Conference can determine the provisions that would govern a church exiting the denomination. The request for reconsideration gives the Judicial Council an opportunity to correct its error. Should it choose to reconsider, the Judicial Council would render a revised decision at its special meeting scheduled to take place February 19-22, just prior to the special General Conference, and its revised decision could be taken into account by the delegates.

This request for reconsideration was submitted for two reasons. First, it is my job as the person assigned by the Commission on a Way Forward to defend the Traditional Plan. I need to ensure that the church’s legal decisions regarding the TP are justly arrived at after full consideration. The Judicial Council did not have the opportunity to fully consider arguments around this particular aspect of its decision, as this issue did not come up in the written briefs submitted to the Judicial Council in advance of its decision. Interestingly, a person with much more progressive views than mine regarding LGBTQ persons has supported my request for reconsideration.

Second, the gracious exit provisions are an integral part of the Traditional Plan. The TP envisions that there will be some progressive United Methodists who will be unable to live with a continuing prohibition on same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals in the UM Church. In order to secure the unity of the church, the TP gives annual conferences, groups of 50 or more congregations, and individual congregations the ability to withdraw from the UM Church in order to form a (progressive) church allowing same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals.

The work of the Commission and the special General Conference is to resolve the conflict over these issues. The TP advocates resolution through graciously allowing those who cannot abide by the 46-year explicit position of the global UM Church to depart and engage in ministry in the way they believe is right. The church can no longer live as a “house divided” – it is causing too much harm to the church, its members, and its mission. Providing an exit path with few barriers to exit is the loving and respectful way to handle this dispute.

In an email sent to General Conference delegates, Mainstream UMC (an organization formed to promote the One Church Plan) alleges that seeking to provide a gracious exit path is schismatic, and that the ultimate aim of the TP is to provide an exit path for traditionalist churches to leave the denomination. While there may be a few traditionalist churches who would seek to leave the denomination under the exit path provided, the TP is the only plan that would keep most traditionalist churches in the denomination. Adoption of the One Church Plan would lead to many more traditionalist congregations and members leaving the church.

Mainstream UMC thinks it is suspicious that the only part of Decision 1366 that I am appealing is the one related to exit for congregations, not any of the other aspects of the TP that were ruled unconstitutional. That is because nearly all the other defects in the TP identified by the Judicial Council can be easily corrected by simple language changes in the plan’s provisions. There is no need to appeal those other provisions, nor is there any legal basis to do so. The exit path portion of the decision was erroneously decided, and this gives the Judicial Council the opportunity to reverse itself upon further reflection. It has done so before regarding other important and controversial decisions.

It is disappointing that the folks at Mainstream UMC appear to be resorting to secular political tactics in an effort to strong-arm acceptance of the One Church Plan. Distortions and misinformation seen in this email and in other publications by Mainstream UMC have no place in the church’s decision-making process. General Conference delegates need the best and clearest information about all three plans (and other proposals), so that they can make informed and well-reasoned decisions about our church’s future.

Mainstream UMC says “unity in Christ means embracing difference.” However, the only difference that they are asking us to embrace is over our understanding of marriage and human sexuality. They are not advocating for different practices on infant baptism or women’s ordination or the payment of apportionments. (I intentionally chose to mention other hot-button issues here.) Different practices in these areas would result in an incoherent denomination. In the same way, different standards regarding marriage and sexual morality would also result in an incoherent denomination.

Traditionalists are not schismatics. The church is already in schism due to the refusal of some annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to abide by the policies and requirements established by the church. Votes and actions of “non-conformity” are in fact schism.

The question is, will we resolve the schism by institutionalizing it in differing moral standards across the church? Or will we restore unity through requiring conformity to the decisions of General Conference and graciously allowing those who cannot conform to depart with our blessing?

Laity and the One Church Plan

One of the less noticed aspects of the One Church Plan (OCP) is how it minimizes the voices of laity in the various decisions around marriage and sexuality.

The OCP allows any pastor to perform a same-sex wedding, whether the local church approves or not. Laity would have a voice in whether same-sex weddings could take place on local church property, but such a decision would require a congregational vote in a church conference.

The OCP would delegate to every annual conference the decision about whether or not to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. In the first instance, this decision would be made by the annual conference board of ordained ministry, which does include some laypersons making up 20 to 33 percent of the board’s membership. Ultimately, however, the clergy session of the annual conference would vote whether or not to approve individual candidates who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. This group consists of all the annual conference’s ordained clergy, plus the lay members of the board of ordained ministry. The lay voice would be overwhelmed in this setting.

It is ironic that two of the three provisions of the OCP declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council would have broadened the voice of laity.

One provision provided that the bishop could “seek the non-binding advice of an annual conference session on standards relating to human sexuality for ordination to inform the Board of Ordained Ministry in its work.” This provision was ruled unconstitutional because the bishop cannot advise the Board of Ordained Ministry about anything. (The provision could be made constitutional by rewording it to eliminate any reference to the bishop.)

The other provision said, “Clergy who cannot in good conscience continue to serve a particular church based on unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage as communicated by the pastor and Staff-Parish Relations Committee to the district superintendent, shall be reassigned.” This provision provided a voice to a congregation’s laity in requesting a new pastor via the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. It was ruled unconstitutional, however, because the General Conference cannot infringe upon the bishop’s right to decide appointments. So the congregation can request a new pastor because of “unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage,” but there is no guarantee that the bishop will appoint a new pastor. (A change of wording cannot salvage this provision.)

As of this writing, there has been no public indication that I am aware of that the authors of the One Church Plan intend to rectify the areas found unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.

In an October 22 article by UM News Service, the Rev. Stan Copeland (a presenter at a Uniting Methodists event last summer favoring the OCP) reflected the attitude of some toward lay participation. According to the article, “one part of the plan doesn’t thrill Copeland: A congregation must have a majority vote in favor of hosting same-sex weddings before holding one on church property. Copeland would rather the pastor and other local church leaders make that call. ‘Any time we have a (congregational) vote it’s potentially divisive,’ said Copeland, longtime pastor of Dallas’ Lovers Lane United Methodist Church.”

The OCP comes across as somewhat paternalistic toward laity. Many advocates of the plan seem to imply that they alone know the best course for the church’s future, and that laity in general do not need to be involved in making those decisions.

This is a mistake. If laity do not feel empowered to be part of the decision-making process regarding their church’s beliefs and practices, they will have less ownership of the outcome. Less ownership means reduced loyalty and a diminished inclination to stay in the church.

Closely aligned with that concern is the question whether the final decision of General Conference represents the thoughts and beliefs of the majority of grass-roots laity. While no surveys have been done of United Methodist members, there is reason to believe a large proportion (if not the majority) of laity in the U.S. hold to a traditional definition of marriage and hope the church continues to uphold what they believe is the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter. Not all would leave the church if it changes its definition of marriage, but many would.

Of course, the views of laity in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe (over 40 percent of the global church’s membership) are strongly traditional. Will the outcome of General Conference adequately reflect their views?

By contrast, both the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) and the Traditional Plan (TP) involve laity in the crucial decisions regarding the church’s future. Under the CCP, jurisdictional and annual conferences, consisting of one-half lay delegates representing their local churches, would vote on which of the three theological branches to affiliate with. Local churches that disagree with the decision of their annual conference could vote in a congregational meeting to affiliate with a different branch.

The TP would require every annual conference (again, one-half laity representing their local churches) to vote whether or not that annual conference would “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the Discipline. If not, laity would have the same large say in whether that annual conference voted to leave The United Methodist Church to form or join a new self-governing Methodist church. Local churches that disagreed with the decision of their annual conference could vote by a congregational meeting to take a different decision, including the possibility of withdrawing from the UM Church to join a new self-governing Methodist church.

 

Laity’s voice is an integral part of the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan, whereas the One Church Plan tends to minimize the voices of lay members. That is a factor that General Conference delegates should consider when they evaluate the various options before them in St. Louis.

 

 

Is the Traditional Plan Unconstitutional?

Minnesota Conference clergy and laity gathered at Normandale Hylands United Methodist Church hold table talk discussions about the three plans set to be considered by the special General Conference. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

Anxious church commentators are wondering if the latest development in the lead-up to the special called General Conference in February 2019 means the Traditional Plan is fatally flawed.

In a comprehensive 58-page ruling released October 26, the Judicial Council has rendered its opinion on whether the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan are constitutional and in conformity with other parts of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

The short answer is that the Traditional Plan is alive and, while a bit broken, can be fixed. (The Traditional Plan would retain the current position of the church on marriage and human sexuality, enhance accountability, and provide a gracious exit for those who cannot live within the church’s expectations.) The One Church Plan, also described as the “local option,” survived scrutiny with a few minor provisions ruled unconstitutional. The Judicial Council declined to evaluate the Connectional Conference Plan, since the  Book of Discipline does not allow the Council to evaluate proposed constitutional amendments, which are an integral part of the plan.

It is important to note that the Judicial Council was ruling on the legality of various parts of the plans, not on the wisdom of enacting any of them. The decision states, “The task of the Judicial Council is to pass upon the constitutionality of the legislative petitions without expressing an opinion as to their merits or expediency. It is up to the General Conference to determine the wisdom of each plan” (p. 1).

The big picture is that the situation is unchanged following the Judicial Council decision. The General Conference will still be able to consider all three plans. Aspects of the two plans evaluated will need to be modified or dropped from the plans in order to address the concerns raised by the Judicial Council. Delegates can put forward such modifications as amendments during the February General Conference.

Evaluating the Traditional Plan

It is not surprising that the Judicial Council found a greater number of problems with the Traditional Plan (TP) petitions. Because the Council of Bishops instructed the Commission on a Way Forward not to develop the details of the TP, it did not receive the same amount of attention and vetting that the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan received. The Judicial Council’s work, therefore, is a blessing to help refine and perfect the TP.

The Judicial Council found constitutional problems with 7 of the 17 Traditional Plan (TP) petitions, as well as with parts of two others. Most of these problems can be fixed with relatively straightforward changes in the wording, without changing the content of the petitions or what they are trying to accomplish.

The idea that the Council of Bishops could hold its members accountable to the Discipline (Petitions 2-4) is no longer viable after the Judicial Council ruled it unconstitutional. The Council ruled that the same bishops who filed a complaint against another bishop for disobedience could not then sit in judgment on that bishop. The decision states, “The COB was not designed to function like an inquisitional court tasked with enforcing doctrinal purity within its ranks. This arrangement poses significant dangers to a person’s right to a fair and unbiased determination of her or his case. There are no safeguards put in place to guarantee an impartial process carried out by an independent body” (p. 32).

Renewal and Reform Coalition leaders have long been skeptical that the Council of Bishops would be able to hold its members accountable in any meaningful way. That is why we proposed an alternative disciplinary process for bishops administered by a new Global Episcopacy Committee. Maxie Dunnam submitted this idea in a petition to the special General Conference. Because it was not part of the original TP, this idea was not part of the Judicial Council evaluation. Based on their ruling, however, I believe it is a viable process that could provide meaningful accountability for bishops.

Several petitions require members of the Board of Ordained Ministry to certify that they will “uphold, enforce and maintain The Book of Discipline related to commissioning, ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” They would require the bishop to certify that all the members he or she appoints to the board have agreed to do so. And they would require that the annual conference certify that all members appointed to the board have agreed to do so.

The Judicial Council’s problem with these petitions was that the requirement focused on certain provisions of the Discipline to the exclusion of others. “The certification is incomplete and selective because it relates to some but not all applicable standards of The Discipline and targets one particular group of candidates for disqualification” (p. 35). This problem can be corrected with a simple language change clarifying that upholding of the whole Discipline is required, not just certain parts to the exclusion of others.

The same problem of “selective certification” was cited as the Judicial Council nullified the provisions requiring annual conferences and bishops to declare their willingness to “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the standards of the church regarding ordination and marriage. Again, this can be corrected by a simple language change.

Importantly, the Judicial Council declared that the Constitution does permit an annual conference to withdraw from The United Methodist Church under conditions established by the General Conference. However, the Council ruled that local churches cannot withdraw under the process set forth in the TP. It ruled that the process must comply with ¶ 41, which requires a 2/3 vote by the congregation and also by the annual conference to approve withdrawal. However, this is a misreading of ¶ 41, which deals with congregations transferring from one UM annual conference to another. It has no bearing on the conditions for a congregation withdrawing from the church. I am requesting that the Judicial Council reconsider its ruling on this aspect of the plan.

The other aspects of the Traditional Plan were upheld.

Evaluating the One Church Plan

The One Church Plan (OCP) was largely held to be constitutional. Several provisions meant to give greater protection to a traditionalist viewpoint were struck down for various reasons. Some could probably be salvaged by changes in wording.

More significantly, the Judicial Council ruled that the idea of “connectionalism” under which our church operates “permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality” (p. 1). The idea that the church could establish moral or ethical standards that are different from one place to another strikes me as unbiblical. Standards for right and wrong should not vary from one country or culture to another.

Think about that. Do not moral and ethical standards by their very nature apply across “geographical, social, and cultural variations?” Should lying be permitted for some social classes, but not others? Should bribery be acceptable in some cultures, but not others? Should same-sex marriage be permissible for Christians in some countries, but not in others? That makes no sense. If something is a moral or ethical matter, by definition it should apply in all similar situations.

It seems to me the Judicial Council is discounting the uniform basis for the “vital web of interactive relationships” that form our connection (see ¶ 132 in the Book of Discipline). Our connection with each other is based on “a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (¶ 104); by sharing together a constitutional polity, including a leadership of general superintendency; by sharing a common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship; by sharing a common ethos that characterizes our distinctive way of doing things” (¶ 132). Where the common foundation is missing, the “web of interactive relationships” cannot develop or sustain itself. And that is what we see happening in our denomination, as the common foundation of beliefs and practices is eroded by the many issues that divide us.

The One Church Plan creates a “a diversity of beliefs” and non-uniform standards of ordination. A person who could be ordained as clergy in one annual conference would not be acceptable for ordination in a different annual conference. This undermines the understanding of ordained ministry as a connectional matter. As Judicial Council Decision 544 puts it, “Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide.” It understands each annual conference as a “door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church.” But someone entering that door in one annual conference would no longer be acceptable to other annual conferences, which means that we would no longer have one connected “ministry of the entire church.”

I believe the Judicial Council is mistaken in their understanding of connectionalism.

The Judicial Council also made a clear ruling that narrowed the scope of what is legally considered our doctrinal standards. They ruled that only changes to the wording of the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith can be legally reviewed by the Judicial Council. This ignores the fact that the 2016 Book of Disciplineconsiders Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament as doctrinal standards. “[The Plan of Union 1968] stated that although the language of the first Restrictive Rule never has been formally defined, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were understood specifically to be included in our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 104).

Judicial Council ruled, “Only the General Conference is competent to determine whether its enactment establishes a new standard or rule of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (p. 13, citing Decisions 1027 and 243). However, that means there is no independent review of a General Conference action. By a majority vote, the General Conference can declare that its action does not “establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 17) and therefore does not require a constitutional amendment process.

So even though Wesley’s Notes define marriage as between “one man and one woman only” (Notes on Genesis 16 and 30, also see notes on Matthew 19 and Mark 10), the General Conference can change the definition of marriage to “two adults” and there is no independent body to review such a decision. This greatly narrows the enforceability of our doctrinal standards, particularly in the face of principled determination to maneuver around them.

Fortunately, the Judicial Council was only ruling on what is legal, not on what the church ought to do. The General Conference can and should still defeat the One Church Plan, adopt a revised Traditional Plan, and preserve a more robust sense of connectionalism founded on our common relationship with Jesus Christ, our adherence to biblical teaching, and our shared understanding of doctrine. Anything less will lead to a splintering of the church.

Is the Traditional Plan Punitive?

While no one has explicitly told me that he or she thought the Traditional Plan is punitive, that appears to be an undercurrent of thinking among those who oppose the plan. One aspect of the plan is that it contains strict accountability measures for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and members of boards of ordained ministry, with the expectation that they will “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to the United Methodist standards” barring the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the celebration of same-sex marriages, and funding that promotes the acceptance of homosexuality. Those unwilling to live within our church’s standards are encouraged to withdraw from the UM Church and form or join a self-governing Methodist church that reflects their beliefs and practices.

The purpose of the Traditional Plan is to restore the unity of the church, which is currently in schism due to nine annual conferences and two jurisdictions voting to reject our church’s standards. The current crisis in the church is prompted not by differences of belief, but differences of practice. There is room in The United Methodist Church for a variety of opinions on many subjects. But once the church has set a standard for how we live our life together in the Body of Christ, it is expected that everyone will live according to that standard, to the best of their ability.

There are two ways to rectify a situation where there are divergent practices that violate the standards or rules of an organization. One way is to change the rules to allow the divergent practices. This is what the One Church Plan proposes. The other way is to expect the organization’s members to live by its standards or find another like-minded organization. This is what the Traditional Plan proposes.

Secular organizations such as Rotary or Kiwanis expect their members to live by the rules of the organization. Those who refuse to do so are often asked to leave the organization. Without such accountability, the organization has no integrity.

United Methodist clergy promise to live by the standards set by the church. One of the qualifications for ordination is that candidates are willing to “be accountable to The United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept the supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.” When candidates come forward for ordination, they must answer, “Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Do you approve our Church government and polity? Will you support and maintain them?” They must also affirm, “Will you observe the following directions: … Do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake?”

The Traditional Plan is based upon the premise that clergy and bishops have promised to live by our church’s standards and should be expected to do so. In light of the fact that the church has been unwilling for over 40 years to change its expectations regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, clergy are expected to either live by them or seek another denomination that is more in line with their theology. After all, most active clergy today came into their status knowing what the expectations of the church are, saying that they agreed with those expectations, and promising to live by them. To refuse to do so now is a breaking of their promise.

While integrity would seem to demand those unwilling to live by the standards of the church should withdraw from ministry in our denomination and seek another in which to exercise their ministry, most have not done so. In fact, many progressives have defiantly stated that they will not leave the church, nor will they live by the church’s standards.

This puts us in a situation where, for the sake of the church’s unity and integrity, discipline must be exercised. That is why enhanced accountability measures are an integral part of the Traditional Plan. Without them, the church simply continues as it is now, with some parts of the church refusing to live by the church’s expectations. This is a state of schism, not unity, and it is leading to the disintegration and decline of the denomination.

By changing the rules to accommodate disobedience, the One Church Plan creates an expectation that individual conscience trumps the standards of the church. It sows the seeds of congregationalism and further disintegrates the unity of the church. One can only anticipate that the church will likewise accommodate other conscientious objections to church standards and practices in the future, perhaps in areas such as the payment of apportionments or belief in the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.

The Traditional Plan believes we must share common practices as a denomination on matters that are distinctively connectional. These help to form our identity as United Methodist Christians. Matters of ordination, the sacraments, doctrinal standards, and essential moral teachings are practices that hold our denomination together. Without them, we become just a crowd of people without a shared identity.

Regrettably, because of the principled refusal by some in our denomination to abide by the shared practices established by General Conference as the only legitimate authority to do so, the only way to recover unity is to enhance accountability and request those unwilling to abide by those shared practices to withdraw from the denomination. The plan balances these stricter accountability measures with an open door for annual conferences, congregations, and clergy to leave the denomination without penalty.

The process for departure is simple and straightforward, without a lot of hoops to jump through. The financial obligations are minimal, seeking only to keep our promises to our retired clergy regarding pensions. And a suggested modification of the Traditional Plan provides for a one-time grant of $200,000 to any annual conference that withdraws in order to assist with transitional expenses. Those departing could even continue some forms of partnership and cooperation with The United Methodist Church, including joint mission work and continued participation in benefit plans through Wespath.

The Traditional Plan is not punitive toward those having the integrity to depart from a denomination that they can no longer support. The stricter accountability measures are only made necessary for those who refuse to keep the promises they made to abide by our polity when they were ordained as clergy and consecrated as bishops. This approach is the only way forward that will restore unity in our denomination in the years ahead.

 

 

 

North Central Jurisdiction Hispanic Caucus Endorses Traditional Plan

The North Central Jurisdiction Hispanic Caucus met in Monroe, Wisconsin, on September 21-22. They met under the theme Transformed to Transform the World. The group discussed the three plans recommended to the special General Conference next February. They approved to support the Traditional Plan prepared by the Way Forward Commission. Pastors and lay leaders from Hispanic congregations from Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio came together for their 34th annual gathering.

This is a significant action because the national Hispanic caucus (MARCHA – Metodistas Asociados Representados la Causa Hispano Americano) is a member of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition promoting the full acceptance of LGBT persons, same-sex marriage, and ordination in the UM Church. Hispanic United Methodists across the country are not agreed in their discernment of the way forward.

 

 

 

 

2019 General Conference Process Set

The Rules Committee of the Commission on General Conference discusses plans for one legislative committee at the 2019 special session. From left are Stephanie Henry, chair of the Rules Committee, commission members Audun Westad and Stanislas Kassongo, and translator Isabelle Berger. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.

As we get closer to the special called General Conference scheduled for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, more aspects of the process are coming into clearer focus.

The Commission on the General Conference just met and decided on how the special General Conference will run, according to an article by Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service.

This special conference, unlike other “regular” General Conferences, will be devoted to one issue only: receiving and acting upon the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) report and proposals. The report and proposals deal with whether or not the church will allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Additional proposals not from the COWF that relate to the same topic will also be considered.

Since the subject matter of the conference is different from what happens in a “regular” General Conference, the process that takes place at the conference needs to be different, as well. It appears that the Commission on the General Conference has come up with a process that is fair, open, and transparent, and that will allow the conference to make its best attempt at arriving at a definitive decision.

Normally, the conference is divided into as many as 12 or 13 legislative committees, with each committee assigned a portion of the several hundred petitions coming to a conference. But in the 2019 conference, there are only 99 petitions, and many of them are linked together as part of one or another overall plan. To consider them separately in different legislative committees would hamper the ability of the conference to deal with the plans as a whole.

Therefore, the Commission decided to have only one legislative committee to consider all the petitions that have been submitted. And that one committee will consist of all 864 delegates. The conference will meet as a “committee of the whole” on one day of the conference, so that all delegates may be part of fashioning the legislation that will be finally adopted. This legislative committee day will be presided over by an elected member of the conference, rather than one of the bishops. It will perfect the petitions that will eventually be acted upon again by the plenary session of the conference. The person to be elected chair will be one of those who served as a legislative committee chair at the 2016 Portland General Conference. That election will take place on the first day of the conference.

This approach will be helpful because it will allow the plans to be considered and perfected as a whole package, rather than piecemeal. It will allow all the delegates to be part of the perfecting process and to hear the arguments pro and con for each of the petitions dealt with. It will also create a more transparent process that can help build trust within the body, and it will enable all United Methodists (as well as others) to witness the whole process through live-streaming (something that could not happen when the conference is broken up into many legislative committees).

The special conference will run as follows:

  • Saturday, February 23, will be a day of prayer and preparation, culminating the bishops’ “Praying Our Way Forward” campaign to seek God’s help for our church’s way forward.
  • Sunday, February 24, will be the first day of business. The conference will hear a report from the Commission on a Way Forward on the three plans it brought forward. The conference will spend the rest of the day debating the three different directions suggested by the plans. At the end of the day, there will be a straw poll to determine which plan will be the one that the body works on. (This is not a final vote, but rather determines which set of petitions will be considered in the committee process. There will need to be more votes before the action becomes final.)
  • Monday, February 25, will see the conference meet as a legislative committee of the whole, presided over by a delegate. The body will consider, amend, and pass the petitions related to the plan they voted to consider on Sunday. Other petitions can be added to or substituted for the ones directly related to a plan. All the other petitions that are not approved will presumably receive a vote of non-concurrence, since all petitions must be voted on by the legislative committee. If the petitions related to the chosen plan do not pass, the body could presumably try to perfect other petitions related to another plan instead.
  • Tuesday, February 26, will be the final day of the conference and it will meet in plenary session, again with a bishop presiding. The petitions perfected on Monday will receive a final vote. The conference will also consider the implications of its actions for the future, particularly for the upcoming regular 2020 General Conference. This day also provides a bit of margin, in case the perfecting work is not completed on Monday or the conference votes to go in a different direction. Whatever is enacted by the plenary session on Tuesday will be the final decision of the conference.

Worship and prayer will be integral to the process of the special General Conference. It will begin each day’s session and be interspersed throughout the day, as well. The process will attempt to create a worshipful atmosphere in which delegates are better able to discern God’s will for the church moving forward.

This proposed process was approved unanimously by the Commission on the General Conference, gaining support from persons across the theological spectrum. It also has the benefit that it will not require changing the rules of General Conference. Changes in the rules were highly controversial in 2016 and took three days to adopt. The proposed process will still need to be approved by the General Conference on the first day of its meeting, but absent any concerted opposition, it seems sure to be enacted.

Of the 99 petitions submitted, 48 are in the report of the COWF. The General Conference Committee on Reference will meet prior to General Conference to determine which of the other 51 petitions are “in harmony” with the topic of the special conference. That report will be considered on the opening day of General Conference, and petitions found “not in harmony” will be able to be voted back in for consideration by the plenary session.

The Commission on the General Conference also tried out new voting machines for use in St. Louis. They have additional security features to prevent one person from voting on both his/her own machine and another delegate’s. They also create an easier mechanism for requesting to speak that will hopefully enable a smoother flow of the conference.

We believe the process proposed by the Commission on the General Conference is a good and positive one. We commend the Commission for placing a priority on fairness and transparency in developing the process. We encourage everyone to continue praying for the special General Conference, for the delegates, and for the many organizational details that have yet to be worked out.

Gracious Exit Supported

According to an article by Heather Hahn of UM New Service, “A theologically diverse group of United Methodists wants General Conference delegates to prioritize passing a ‘gracious and equitable’ plan for churches exiting the denomination.

“‘While we pray for a unified way forward, the reality of our circumstance convinces us that any decision made at the 2019 special session will likely lead to congregations and pastors deciding they are no longer able to remain in The United Methodist Church,’ said an open letter put together by 16 clergy and lay members of the West Ohio Conference.

“‘We write to urge the 2019 Special Session to approve a gracious and equitable process for exit.'”

Good News sees the provision of an exit path for congregations to leave the denomination and keep their property to be of paramount importance in moving forward. No matter what plan is passed (or even if no plan is passed) at General Conference in February, some congregations will find it impossible to continue living in The United Methodist Church in whatever the new reality turns out to be. Rather than tie up bishops, annual conferences, and local congregations in expensive lawsuits that drain away the church’s time, money, and energy, an exit path would provide a way to amicably allow churches to depart (which in itself would be a positive witness to the watching world). In addition, a uniform exit path would prevent unfair treatment of congregations, where an annual conference might let one church go, but not another, or where different annual conferences would have different ways of handling departing congregations that resulted in some congregations being able to leave with their property and others not.

While the Renewal and Reform Coalition does not support every one of the proposed financial provisions in the letter, we strongly endorse the concept of an exit path and support it being the first action of the special General Conference. Such a move could remove the temptation for supporters of whichever plan passes General Conference to be less than generous with those not supporting the plan. And it could greatly decrease the anxiety across the church.

As of this writing, over 1,700 lay and clergy United Methodists have signed the letter calling on General Conference to provide such an exit path. If you would like to read the letter and sign your support, you may do so by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

Upgrading the Traditional Plan

Since the Traditional Plan was presented by the Commission on a Way Forward, other ideas have surfaced in order to enhance it. Those ideas have been submitted to General Conference in two petitions entitled “Modified Traditional Plan” by Maxie Dunnam. What are those upgrades?

Gracious Exit Upgrade. The goal of the Traditional Plan is to provide a gracious exit for those (presumably mostly progressives) who are unable to live within the boundaries of our church’s teachings on marriage and human sexuality. The Traditional Plan seeks to be as equitable as possible to those who are departing, not imposing hefty financial penalties or long, drawn-out withdrawal processes. The only requirement is a simple majority vote by an annual conference or a 55 percent majority vote by a local congregation’s church conference in order to leave. The only payment required is an amount to cover unfunded pension liabilities, as determined by the Board of Pensions.

The reason for allowing annual conferences to leave The United Methodist Church is to provide a ready-made infrastructure to support continued ministry by those departing. Rather than having to start from scratch to put together an organizational structure, the new self-governing Methodist church can conceivably be built around existing annual conference structures. In order to facilitate this scenario, the proposed upgrade is to grant each departing annual conference $200,000 to help cover transitional expenses. This grant would enable the annual conference to rebrand itself and help cover legal expenses connected with the transition to a self-governing church.

Enhanced Accountability Upgrades. The other goal of the Traditional Plan is for everyone in the denomination to live by the church’s requirements. It has been the refusal of some clergy and annual conferences to do so that has precipitated the crisis in which the church finds itself. Since a number of progressives have indicated that they will both refuse to leave the church and also refuse to live by the church’s requirements, there needs to be a way to ensure accountability. No organization can long exist when its members refuse to live by the organization’s standards and requirements.

The enhanced accountability is not designed to be punitive, but rather to encourage church members to either comply with the church’s teachings or make the decision to leave the denomination for a different church that is in accord with their views. Up until now, however, the church’s accountability processes have not been able to deal with the intentional and principled defiance of clergy and annual conferences. Hence, the need for enhanced accountability.

For Bishops. The key player in the church’s accountability process is the bishop. Where the bishop fails or refuses to implement the church’s accountability process, the result is chaos. Regarding concerns around same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, the majority of U.S. bishops have decided not to implement the church’s accountability process. And until now, there has not been a good way to hold these bishops themselves accountable. Bishops have demonstrated that they are unwilling to hold each other accountable in their jurisdictional colleges, which is where that accountability lies.

The original Traditional Plan proposed allowing the Council of Bishops (COB – a global body, rather than jurisdictional) to intervene in holding bishops accountable. It would give the COB the ability to place a bishop on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement as a matter of discipline. Such an intervention would require a majority vote by the COB.

However, there is significant question whether the COB as currently constituted could muster a majority vote to hold one of its bishops accountable on the issues currently in dispute. That is why supporters of the Traditional Plan believe that upgrades are needed, for if the bishops are not held to the Discipline, the enhanced accountability will fail and the Traditional Plan will not work to bring about unity in the church.

The Modified Traditional Plan proposes the following upgrades to enhance accountability for bishops:

* It creates a new Global Episcopacy Committee, with one clergy or lay member from every annual conference in the global church. This body (through its executive committee) would be tasked with administering the complaint process against any bishop who is charged with not enforcing the Discipline, or with immorality (including not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage), or with practices declared incompatible with Christian teachings (including being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or performing a same-sex wedding). This Global Episcopacy Committee would engage in a supervisory response with the bishop in question and would decide whether to forward a complaint for a trial. This means that no bishop would be involved in the accountability process for another bishop regarding these matters.

This provision would not be in conflict with the ability of the COB to hold a bishop accountable or place a bishop on involuntary leave or retirement. Rather, it would be an added layer to ensure accountability happens and would dovetail with the COB accountability process.

* Bishops who do not promise to uphold and enforce the Discipline on matters of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons would no longer receive funding for expenses (housing, office, travel), as of September 1, 2020. According to a recent Judicial Council decision, salary and benefits for a bishop cannot be withheld because it is inherently part of the position, but the General Conference does have the power to withhold expenses.

For Annual Conferences. The annual conference is also a key player in maintaining accountability to the teachings of the church. It is possible that an annual conference could promise to uphold and enforce the Discipline but then fail to do so. The proposed upgrade is to give the new Global Episcopacy Committee the power and responsibility to investigate any allegations that an annual conference, although formally committed to upholding the Discipline, has failed to do so. The Committee could require the annual conference to take remedial action or, for serious infractions, place the annual conference on the list of conferences that cannot use the United Methodist name or insignia or receive United Methodist funds from the general church. (Such decisions could be appealed to Judicial Council.)

Technical Fix. Finally, the Modified Traditional Plan includes an upgradethat would ensure that the provisions of the plan would take precedence over any conflicting provisions in the Discipline that are not in the Constitution. Wherever there is a conflict in language or requirements of the Discipline, the provisions of the Traditional Plan would supersede, avoiding any confusion.

The upgrades proposed by the Modified Traditional Plan strengthen both the gracious exit and the accountability features of the plan, making it more likely to succeed. Good News encourages delegates to support these refinements in the interest of enhancing the unity of the church around a shared understanding of marriage and human sexuality, as well as compliance with shared practices.

 

 

Responding to Talking Points

An organization formed to promote the One Church Plan (OCP) at the special called 2019 General Conference has recently issued a dozen talking points in support of the OCP. Some of those talking points are true and worthy of consideration. Upon closer examination, however, other talking points are either misleading or do not tell the full story. Here are responses to the talking points, quoted from Mainstream UMC.

  • The OCP is faithful to Scripture and the example of the Apostles in Acts 15 of allowing different practices in different mission fields.

The OCP changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” and affirms same-gender relationships. That can hardly be called “faithful to Scripture” (see Genesis 1:26-28; 2:23-25; Matthew 19:1-12; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Romans 1:21-27). The more applicable example from Acts 15 is the decision by Paul and Barnabas to honor each other as brothers in Christ, but separate to do ministry in different ways (vs. 36-41).

  • The OCP has been vetted by one of the most rigorous processes in our denomination’s history, a faithful, two-year study by the Commission on the Way Forward.

While the Commission did work on the One Church Plan, along with other plans, it never took a vote to endorse any of the plans. A lot of thinking and learning went into drawing up the details of all three plans, and they all benefited from that process. The Commission, however, did not endorse the OCP (nor either of the other plans).

  • The OCP has been recommended by nearly two-thirds of all active UM Bishops.

The bishops who endorsed the OCP were primarily from the U.S. According to the information we received, bishops from the central conferences outside the U.S. generally voted against the OCP. This appears simply to be a North American “solution” recommended to a global church.

  • The OCP allows different regions in the U.S. to adapt to their mission field.

One of the major shortcomings of the OCP is that it treats the disagreement over marriage and sexuality as a geographical problem, when it is really a theological problem. There are churches that would favor same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in every annual conference. And there are churches in every annual conference that would find such an accommodation unacceptable. The OCP treats the minority position in any annual conference unfairly.

  • The OCP has no impact on the Central Conferences outside of the U.S.

The OCP changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” or qualified as “traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” According to the Judicial Council ( decision 1185), these definitions bind the church in its universal understanding of marriage and are not adaptable by central conferences outside the U.S. Our brothers and sisters outside the U.S. would be forced to live by and defend marriage as a union of two undefined adults. It is also unclear whether it is constitutional to allow different annual conferences to have different standards for ordained ministry – so can the central conferences really adapt the requirements of the Discipline to their own context?

  • The OCP retains the global structure of the church and shared critical ministries.

Both the OCP and the Traditional Plan maintain the church’s current global structure and ministries (different from the Connectional Conference Plan). Both plans, however, would need to recognize that significant structural changes would undoubtedly follow upon the loss of members, no matter which plan is passed. The Traditional Plan explicitly maintains a way for those departing the denomination to continue participating in the UM pension and benefit plans, as well as mission partnerships, support, and cooperation. The OCP contains no such provisions for any departing churches.

  • The OCP removes most of the controversial and hurtful language about LGBTQ persons.

While the language is controversial and perceived as hurtful by some LGBTQ persons, the church has been forced by progressive advocacy to clarify its understanding of the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. It is unfortunate that much of the prohibitive language in the Discipline was needed because of the refusal of some annual conferences, clergy, and bishops to abide by the teachings and requirements of the church. What is often interpreted as hurtful is not the language itself (which can be tweaked), but the basic position of the church that same-sex relationships are not congruent with God’s will for human flourishing. This is not a matter of removing language but of changing the church’s understanding of same-sex relationships.

  • The OCP protects the conscience of individual bishops, conferences, pastors, and churches.

These protections, however, are found in the regular part of the Book of Discipline that can be revoked by any future General Conference. In other denominations, when the affirmation of same-sex relationships has become the majority position, such conscience protections have been revoked. Some of those promoting same-sex marriage and ordination in our church have said they will not rest until such is affirmed by all parts of the church (including the central conferences outside the U.S.).

  • The OCP requires no votes by conferences or churches.

While not requiring votes, the OCP sets up a situation where inevitably many annual conferences and local churches would have to vote. Every time an openly gay or lesbian candidate for ministry comes up in an annual conference, the clergy session (or in some cases the whole annual conference) would have to take a vote on whether or not to ordain a practicing homosexual. Every time a gay or lesbian member or relative of a member wants to get married in a local church (using the church’s sanctuary), that local church would have to vote whether or not to allow the use of the church’s property in a same-sex wedding. Any annual conference that does not initially ordain practicing homosexuals will be targeted by progressive advocates to change their position, with resulting controversies and votes year after year until the position in that conference is changed.

  • The OCP is financially faithful to pension commitments for active and retired pastors.

The Traditional Plan is also financially faithful to pension commitments. Changes in the pension plan will be needed regardless of which plan passes General Conference. While the OCP envisions some local churches leaving the denomination, it provides no mechanism for churches to do so while keeping their property. This creates the conditions for unfair treatment of local churches by different annual conferences and the potential for widespread expensive litigation over property and trust clause issues.

  • The OCP puts an end to church trials.

 

  • The OCP holds the denomination together to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.

The idea that the OCP will prevent a separation in the denomination is a fond wish, but not grounded in reality. In fact, the North Georgia Annual Conference, which is generally more conservative in its rural areas and more progressive in its urban areas, took a survey this year as to how people might respond to the passing of either plan. It found that 5 percent of its conference members would seek to leave the denomination if the Traditional Plan passed, while 26 percent would seek to leave if the One Church Plan passed.

It would be wise of the General Conference delegates to acknowledge that no matter which plan passes, a significant portion of our denomination’s membership is likely to depart. The delegates essentially face two decisions at the upcoming General Conference:

1)     Does The United Methodist Church want to take a traditional or progressive approach to the issues of marriage and sexuality in the years ahead (which will determine the identity of the denomination)?

2)     Will The United Methodist Church provide a gracious way for churches to depart with their property, while maintaining the financial integrity of the pension program?

Given that some amount of separation is likely to occur, will that separation be amicable or adversarial? Will local churches be treated fairly across all annual conferences, or depend upon the whim of their annual conference leaders and the individual circumstances of the church, creating the potential for widespread expensive litigation over property and trust clause issues?