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.