Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? Part 1

Mt. Bethel UM Church

Mt. Bethel UM Church

The recent news that Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, withheld $200,000 of apportionments at the end of 2014 and will delay making any apportionment payments in 2015 is prompting a lot of debate in the online community.  Clergy and laity are weighing in pro and con with a variety of arguments.  (By my informal observation, the laity seem more in favor of the decision than the clergy.)

Before getting into the specifics of the arguments, it is important to note why Mt. Bethel took this action.  The reason they give for their decision is the inadequate response of the Council of Bishops to the “Integrity and Unity” statement [link]drawn up by over 100 leading pastors and theologians and endorsed by over 8,500 United Methodists last summer.

Despite the fact that the statement was sent to each bishop individually and also conveyed to the Council at its November 2014 meeting, the Council failed to respond.  After all of these many months, not one bishop responded to the group and acknowledged receiving the statement.  (I have heard that a couple bishops met with some of the signers in their annual conferences.)

To laypersons who work outside of the confines of a denomination, this kind of leadership oversight is hard to comprehend.  Ignoring a statement from leading pastors, theologians, and laypersons is disrespectful to the signatories and increases the mistrust between those in the pews and those in episcopal leadership.

The church seemingly felt that the only way to express their voice in a way that could be heard was to withhold money from the church.  It reminds one of the story in 2 Samuel 14, where the only way that Absalom could get Joab to talk to him was to light Joab’s barley field on fire!

In the American culture, money talks — often loudly.  It shouldn’t be that way in the church, but it is.

For the record, I have always promoted the payment of apportionments in the churches that I served for 29 years of pastoral ministry.  The only occasions on which we did not pay 100 percent were when we were financially unable to do so.

Having the utmost respect for the integrity and conscience of those who do so, Good News has never endorsed or called for the withholding of apportionments. There have always been two distinct views among evangelicals as to whether that would be a good idea. In this case, evangelicals are raising some of the same concerns that have been raised by others, and there is an internal debate about whether withholding of apportionments would be justified.

At the same time, most evangelicals fully understand the frustration and disappointment that would lead churches (and there have been a number of them over the years) to withhold apportionments from the denomination either in whole or in part.

Without feeling the need to necessarily defend withholding, per se, let me address one of the arguments most frequently raised against withholding.

“This is not how our United Methodist polity works.”  United Methodists don’t use their giving beyond the local church to get their way.  Instead, we give to some causes we disagree with, so that we can support the totality of the church’s mission and ministry, most of which we agree with.

In response, let it be noted that our polity appears to be broken.  Whether it is reparable remains to be seen.

• When dozens of pastors willfully and publicly violate the Discipline and receive virtually no consequences, with some even being broadly hailed as heroes, our polity is broken.

• When a bishop of the church, who is supposed to teach and represent the church’s doctrine and practice, intentionally undermines another bishop by going into her area to violate the Discipline, despite that bishop’s and the Council of Bishop’s request not to do so, and receives no consequences for doing so, our polity is broken.

• When dozens of protesters invade the floor of General Conference or other church meetings and shut down “holy conferencing,” our polity is broken.

• When legislation is carefully crafted through hours of labor and group discernment, but then stalled from even receiving a vote by the plenary session of General Conference, our polity is broken.

• When an entire jurisdiction, supported by various annual conferences, votes to live and conduct ministry as if certain parts of the Discipline do not exist, our polity is broken.

It is little wonder that laity who see that our polity is broken may feel less bound to live by “the rules” of our polity, when they see so many other instances of others violating those rules without consequence.

What this brouhaha points out, secondly, is that polity is one of the few things holding our church together.  We have such an “anything goes” attitude toward doctrine and theology in the UM Church, that the only thing that keeps us united in one denomination is our polity.  And the expressions of our polity are primarily 1. apportionments, 2. pensions, 3. the trust clause, and 4. pastoral appointments by the bishop.

Although one-third of all local UM congregations do NOT pay their apportionments in full, as a good friend recently pointed out to me, the payment of apportionments has become an idol in our church.  One can engage in all kinds of aberrant theology or behavior, but the one thing guaranteed to get denominational leaders to come down on you is to intentionally not pay your apportionments 100 percent.

It is a shame that United Methodism today is defined, not by a common shared doctrine and ministry, but by the fact that the denomination owns the church buildings, the bishop controls who is appointed pastor, and every church is required to pay apportionments in full as a sign of its loyalty.

In light of our broken polity, it is not surprising that it will break down in other areas, as well.  Good News has consistently warned that failure to uphold the Discipline in certain areas would lead to a more general disorder within the church.

In my next post, I will address some other arguments I have heard against withholding apportionments.

Comments

  1. Hi Tom,

    Thank you for the article. I’d love for you to write specifically about: “we give to some causes we disagree with”

    If you have written about it before, please post a link here.

  2. E. Sewell Dunkin says:

    How many times have we heard from Pastors who became Bishops that we should honor our vows. Now we have bishops who were the preaching clergy who refuse to honor their own vows. And then someone said “All the hypocrites are in the church”.

    Stand up Methodists!

  3. Thank you for your article. Your points are well made. To our bishops, “How can the leadership of any organization expect the people to “obey” the “rules” when they do not follow the “rules” themselves?
    I grow weary of talking about “holy conferencing” when certain leaders and others refuse to accept the determination(s) made through the process of holy conferencing. You must decided whether it is truly holy or it is not. You cannot pick and choose. If you truly believe it is holy (meaning God is in the process – which I do) then humbly accept the results!

  4. My wife was on the Deacon Track towards ordination and one of the things that caught her short was when the committee on ordination insisted the connectional portion of the UMC was apportionment.

    The clergy favor paying because, guess what funds retirement, minimum salaries, potential promotions. The laity favor withholding because no one listens to them. How many checks in the offering plate are now designated to local options only? How much has overall giving dropped? With Bishops unaccountable, the UMC senior members mocking the prolife march in DC, what is the laity to do?

  5. Given that you believe so strongly in consequences, what do you believe should be the consequences to Mt. Bethel UMC for withholding their payment of apportionments?

  6. .Clyde A. Phillips says:

    Greetings in the Name of the Lord:

    You speak of “withholding” apportionments which to me is different from putting the apportionments in an escrow account. I’m old enough to know but the idea of using escrow has never entered my thinking for any purpose. But, if I am not mistaken, holding funds in escrow is effectively putting on hold the actually payment of funds that are “in the tube” and on the way to the payee, in this case an Annual Conference. It is often used to hold a last payment on a contract that has not been fulfilled by the payee. Are we not in that position now with the Council of Bishops? One extra “benefit” is the interest that fund will raise and will, upon release of the funds, go to the Annual Conference.

    I agree with the idea of putting apportionments in escrow but I think that if I pushed for it in a local church I would only agree with “slowing the payment” of just a few apportionments, the Bishops’ Fund in particular. But I would insist on some line items being paid on a regular basis. “Withholding” funds to the end of not paying them is way outside my thoughts. Something has to be done within our church to move the bishops to do what is right. They are not now fulfilling their “contract” with the church. It would be best if that something were done quickly, and correctly, to prevent further deterioration of our once great denomination. The action of Mt. Bethel UMC is the first thing that I have seen that seems like a good idea.

    I look forward to your further input on this subject and I continue to pray for our Lord’s will to be done. Remember, it is to be His will, not ours. Keep up your good work!

    Peace,

    Clyde

  7. David Ceballos says:

    While I agree with virtually all your points, there is one pending statement that is just not true and is very much a standard practice in virtually every conference. The statement “United Methodists don’t use their giving beyond the local church to get their way” is absoluteliy not true. If your statement was true, how do you explain the “First UMC’s” or those “mega churches” of any given Conference who are milk cows to the Conference they are located and play by other “rules” like calling their own pastor and virtually given carte blanc and rubber stamped by Bishops and the Cabinet? This is very much how UMC works unfortunately, two sets of rules. I agree with everything you stated and it is a sad state of affairs. However, I understand withholding resources from a system that perpetuates and continues to support directions and agendas that violate the convictions of the donors. Isn’t that what the Boston Tea Party was all about, hit the economic pockets of a system that was heading the wrong direction? Keep up the good work!

  8. I am wondering: Don’t the bishops and clergy who have violated the Book of Discipline fear God? Don’t they know that they are accountable to God for their actions, attitudes and motives?
    The ungodly actions of bishops and clergy have caused my United Methodist Church to lose over half of its members all at once! This happened several years ago and has been a terrible turn of events for what has always been a viable, spirit-filled church. For those of us who decided to stay, we perfectly understood why the others left and we were tempted to leave ourselves because we do not condone what has happened to our so-called higher leadership. However, we didn’t want the Body of Christ (our church) to be totally broken and decided to pray and work for change. My church is slowly gaining new members and we continue to have a viable missions program and outreach in our community, but the split never would have happened if our leadership obeyed God’s Holy Word. I’m praising God for His continued blessings upon my church. And we have made peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ who left and started their own non-denominational church and we partner with them in several projects in our community, especially in programs to introduce Christ to children in our area. Praise God! It’s such a shame that a minority clergy and bishops are tainting the image of Christ (our churches). I never would have joined the United Methodist Church about 34 years ago if I had known there would be actions from clergy and bishops that go against God’s Word. So sad! Thank you for “Good News” articles and other organizations who are striving to make things right again. I so appreciate being informed.

  9. Do two wrongs make a right? No.

    But is not paying apportionments for causes not voted on by our GC and opposed to our Book of Discipline wrong? Or is paying them wrong?

    What I do know is that the BoD requires full payment of apportionments, but the Bible certainly does nothing of the sort. The Bible is very clear that homosexuality is sin and elective abortion is sin. Yet we are being required by the BoD to pay apportionments in support of these things, contrary to what the BoD says in other places.

    So whether or not withholding payment of full apportionments is wrong is debatable, even just going by the BoD. But that homosexuality and elective abortion, and the support and promotion of these things contrary to the BoD and the Bible is wrong, is beyond debate.

    Both Talbert and Schaeffer were cleared, Talbert without so much as a trial, at least in part because of supposed conflicts in the BoD. Well, clearly some of us, like the folks at Mt Bethel UMC, Marietta, GA, see a conflict between the BoD saying we must pay full apportionments but also saying that homosexual practices, homosexual unions, homosexual ordinations, and the promotion of homosexuality using UM funds are wrong.

    To those who are breaking covenant, promoting breaking the covenant, and not disciplining those breaking the covenant, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot expect others to follow the BoD, or your take on it, if you not only don’t follow it yourself but also don’t follow what the Bible says. Because you are not only breaking the covenant with your fellow United Methodists, you are breaking the covenant with God.

  10. Dr. Charles Klink says:

    This is, unfortunately, one of the most powerful weapons of response a congregation has to get the attention of the conference and denominational entities. We may prefer otherwise, but it is a reality in our imperfect world. As the old addage goes, “Those with the dough run the show!” That being said, we also have another powerful method by which we can make a difference — our vote. This coning annual conference season we will elect persons to represent our conferences at General and Jurisdictional gatherings of the denomination. At the Annual Conference level WE determine the voters who attend — and now is the time to begin talking — talking — talking about the vote and who should go to represent us. Vote the persons who will send the message instead of the “popular” persons. Ask where the persons stand on this issue and others and then promote/vote them to the gatherings!

  11. Chuck Savage says:

    Tom very well said. It is my hope that we can find a way to allow us to go back to the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We can only do this if we are faithful to the covenant we made with God as found in scripture and to the covenant we made with each other when we were ordained/comissioned/consecrated.

Trackbacks

  1. […] polity indeed relies on congregations paying our apportionments. But as my friend, the Rev. Tom Lambrecht at Good News points out, “our polity is broken” when even a few clergy are given impunity in and even rewarded for ostentatiously violating key […]

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