Are Traditionalists Only a Small Group Within the Denomination?

Recent communications from proponents of the One Church Plan have attempted to portray traditionalists and evangelicals as a small group within The United Methodist Church seeking to divide the denomination. In 2016, moderate leaders suggested that maybe 10-20 percent of the church is progressive and 10-20 percent is conservative, but the “broad middle” is 60-80 percent and constitutes the bulk of the denomination. (We are speaking here only of the American part of the church – roughly 60 percent of the global denomination.) In my own thinking, I have often surmised that American Methodism is one-third progressive, one-third moderate, and one-third evangelical.

It turns out we are all wrong. A recent survey by United Methodist Communications has found that rank and file laity in the American church self-identify as 44 percent conservative-traditional, 28 percent moderate-centrist, and 20 percent progressive-liberal. (It found 8 percent were unsure.)

One can quibble with the methodology of the survey, how the questions were worded, and the validity of accepting someone’s self-identification. But the fact remains that the largest segment of the church considers itself to be conservative or traditional in their beliefs. And this is at a time when reactions against harsh partisan secular politics are causing some American conservatives to be reluctant to use that term about themselves.

Furthermore, although moderates tended to fall between traditionalists and progressives in their answers, they were often closer to the conservative position. “I don’t think you can add the moderates and progressives and say that’s where the church is,” said Chuck Niedringhaus, who oversees research for UMCom. “Theologically, many (moderates) are more traditional.”

The survey indicates that the center of gravity of American Methodists is on the conservative-traditional end of the spectrum. Delegates to the special General Conference this month will need to take into consideration how rank and file members of our churches think and believe. A way forward that adopts a non-traditional understanding of human sexuality risks alienating a substantial portion of the church.

Niedringhaus suggested that the survey results have implications also for how our general boards and agencies function. “There’s a big theological gap,” he said. “At the very least, boards and agencies should be looking at this data.”

For decades, Good News has challenged our boards and agencies to give greater respect and weight to the thoughts and beliefs of conservatives within the church. Too often, agency leaders are themselves progressive in theology and out of touch with what rank and file members believe. As a result, agencies end up promoting many positions and programs that are at best irrelevant to many members and at worst offensive to them.

According to the survey, conservative-traditional members are more active in the church. Fifty-seven percent of conservatives claim to attend church at least 2-3 times per month, compared with 44 percent for moderates and 39 percent for progressives.

The survey points out how wide the theological gap is between traditionalists and progressives. For conservatives, the top two sources for their personal theology are Scripture (41 percent) and Christian Tradition (30 percent). For progressives, the top two sources are Reason (39 percent) and Personal Experience (33 percent). (Only six percent of progressives view Scripture as their most authoritative source.)

In the secular world, there is a perception that conservatives get their news and information from Fox News, while liberals get theirs from CNN. Having different sources leads to divergent opinions and even worldviews. Similarly, traditionalists and progressives in our denomination derive their personal theology from mutually exclusive sources. This is bound to create highly divergent theological perspectives, and it is probably one reason why the two groups often seem to talk past each other. They are using some of the same words, but with totally different meanings and contextual understandings.

The survey also seems to bear out the contention of evangelicals that the disagreements in our church are over the authority of Scripture. When progressives name Scripture as the least authoritative source for their personal theology, named by only six percent, that is a stance that evangelicals are not able to understand or support.

This theological gap has practical consequences in the life of the church.

What should be the primary focus of The United Methodist Church? Eighty-eight percent of conservatives said “saving souls for Jesus Christ.” Only 32 percent of progressives agreed. Progressives favored “advocating for social justice to transform this world” by 68 percent.

For contemporary evangelicals, this is an old and unfortunate dichotomy. Obviously, we believe in preaching the gospel but we are equally compelled to care for the physical needs of our neighbors and work to right injustice. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).

From an evangelical perspective, both focuses are essential. Our mission statement is “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Evangelicals, however, tend to emphasize the priority of evangelism and discipleship because it is something only the church can uniquely do. If we do not do this, no one else will.

Furthermore, evangelicals believe that the way to transform the world is through personal transformation. Yes, structures need to be transformed and laws changed. But unless the human heart is transformed, sin and injustice will continue and grow, regardless of one’s commitment to social justice. We all need Jesus, first and foremost.

Given the disconnect in terms of priorities, one can see how the heavy emphasis on advocating for politically liberal agendas for social justice on the part of our general boards and agencies without a corresponding emphasis on evangelism and discipleship can seem irrelevant and at times even offensive to conservatives and traditionalists. They often feel like their tithes and offerings are going toward an agenda that they do not support. This is part of the reason for a reluctance to pay apportionments.

It is important to note that these deep theological differences (we will highlight more of them in a future blog) were not somehow “ginned up” by Good News or other renewal groups. They reflect the deep-seated differences between groups in our church that are playing out now in the conflict over human sexuality and marriage.

Many evangelicals think they can no longer support an agenda at odds with their beliefs. If The United Methodist Church goes forward with a change in the definition of marriage, allowing same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, most conservatives and traditionalists will feel alienated from their church. If even half of them were to leave, the church would lose one-fifth of its members in the United States. The consequences for the denomination could be devastating.

 

 

 

A Matter of Belief or Action?

Ask the wrong question, and you will get a wrong or misleading answer. Asking the right question will help move toward understanding. A recent newsletter from the One Church Plan advocacy group “Mainstream UMC” makes the claim that, “The central question for every delegate is: ‘Are you willing to share a denomination with Christians who think differently than you?'”

With all due respect, that is the wrong question. Neither the Traditional Plan nor the Modified Traditional Plan nor the revisions being made to those plans ask for uniformity of belief in The United Methodist Church on the question of the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons. For fifty years, evangelicals and traditionalists have shared a denomination with Christians who think differently than we do.

The right question is, “Are you willing to share in a denomination that has mutually contradictory official teachings and mutually contradictory practices?” Under the One Church Plan, the denomination would officially say that marriage is “between two adults,” but elsewhere “traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” Which is it? We would have two mutually contradictory teachings. Some would say marriage is one man and one woman, while others would say marriage is two adults. Essentially, the church would have two official definitions of marriage.

Furthermore, under the One Church Plan some annual conferences would ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy, while other annual conferences would not. Some local churches would accept an openly gay or lesbian pastor, while others would not. Some clergy would perform same-sex weddings or unions, while others would not. There would be mutually contradictory practices within the church.

While most United Methodists can accept the idea that there will be differences of opinion and belief within the church, many could not accept that the church would have mutually contradictory teachings or practices. The contradictions would undermine our connectional system, moving us toward a congregational arrangement and fundamentally altering our Methodist identity.

The Modified Traditional Plan requires annual conferences to vote on this statement: “The annual conference and its subsidiary units will support, uphold, and maintain accountability to the United Methodist standards found in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016, in their entirety, including but not limited to ¶ 304 ‘Qualifications for Ordination,’ ¶ 341 ‘Unauthorized Conduct,’ ¶ 613 ‘Responsibilities of the Council on Finance and Administration,’ and ¶ 2702.1 ‘Chargeable Offenses.'” The focus of this statement is not beliefs, but actions. Will the annual conference abide by the provisions of the Book of Discipline or not?

The Modified Traditional Plan requires bishops to certify this statement: “I, (Name), certify that I will uphold, enforce, and hold all those under my supervision accountable to the standards and requirements of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, in their entirety, including but not limited to standards on marriage and sexuality and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals (¶¶ 304.3, 341.6, 414.2, 5, 9, 613.19, and 2702.1a-b).” Here again, the focus is not on belief, but upon action. Will the bishop abide by, and hold his or her clergy and congregations accountable to, the Book of Discipline or not?

Clergy are not required to certify anything. They are merely required to “maintain their conduct within the boundaries established by the Book of Discipline.” That is what they have always been required to do.

It is false to say that the MTP seeks to drive out those who think or believe differently. It only requires those who desire to be United Methodist to maintain their conduct within the boundaries set by General Conference.

Any organization or business has standards and requirements, and consequences for failing to keep those rules. The church is no different. Those employed by the church, just like those who are members of organizations or employed by a business, are expected to keep the rules of the enterprise. This is not unreasonable, but essential. Inability to live by a common set of guidelines creates anarchy within an organization.

The question is what happens when a person disagrees with the rules that have been established. One may try to get the standards changed, while continuing to live by them. Progressives have worked for over 40 years to change the covenant standards of The United Methodist Church, but have been unable to convince a majority to make that change. Change in the near future seems unlikely. But this response has integrity and allows for the expression of dissenting opinions.

If the disagreement with the rules is a matter of deep conscience or fundamental belief, one may make the decision that integrity demands they resign their position in order to find another church that has standards they can live by. This response also has integrity, maintaining the identity of the organization while recognizing that one may no longer fit within it.

What does not have integrity, and a course too many have adopted, is when our church’s leaders, from some bishops on down, determine they do not have to live by the denomination’s rules. Whether it is failing to live by, or enforce, the Discipline or electing an openly lesbian bishop, their disobedience has fostered the crisis we are in. It distorts our church’s identity and forces the church to devote too many of its resources to gaining compliance with our standards in order to maintain our identity.

We agree with the statement, “In essentials, unity.” Standards of sexual morality are an essential for faith and discipleship. They are founded on the clear teaching of Scripture. They are essential elements in forming our United Methodist identity. Allowing various standards of sexual morality in the denomination would balkanize the church.

The Mainstream UMC caucus newsletter says, “Schism is NOT inevitable. It is a choice by a few.” That is right. The few who have chosen to flaunt the church’s standards and processes in disobedience have created schism. It is not only inevitable, it is already here. Proponents of the Modified Traditional Plan simply recognize a reality that proponents of the One Church Plan want to waive away.

The accountability provisions of the Modified Traditional Plan are not designed for the purpose of punishing people. They are designed to motivate United Methodist leaders to adjust their behavior to stay within the boundaries established by the church. Those who cannot abide by our requirements ought to have the integrity to withdraw from a denomination they can no longer support. Their insistence on disobeying and disrupting the church in order to impose their own judgments is an inappropriate response to 40 years of consistent decisions by our global church and is destructive of the very church they love.

Only by restoring uniformity of practice can our church begin to reestablish its identity. We insist our pastors baptize infants, encourage women to participate in ordained ministry, and offer ourselves in service through the appointment system. That is part of our DNA as United Methodists. Whether they agree with those requirements or not, pastors are expected to abide by them. A common standard of sexual morality is also part of our DNA. To dismantle it would be to deny or fundamentally change our identity.

Is it any wonder that many who hold traditional understandings of biblical sexual morality would find themselves unable to continue in a church that so dramatically changed its identity? Yet the Mainstream UMC and Uniting Methodists caucuses would deny such traditionalists an opportunity to act with integrity on their consciences by withdrawing as a congregation, keeping the mission and ministry of that local church intact. Instead, they want to force people to leave as individuals without church property, destroying a congregation’s ministry in the process.

Mainstream UMC says, “The Commission on the Way Forward did NOT introduce the idea of ‘exit.’ The ‘exit’ provisions were introduced by the few rogue anonymous bishops who wrote the Traditional Plan.”

As a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, I can tell you this statement is simply false. At every meeting of the Commission during the first year of its existence, members spoke of the need for an exit path for congregations that felt the need to depart, no matter what plan or proposal the General Conference passed. An exit path for all plans was included in the Commission’s preliminary report to the Council of Bishops in November 2017. Such an exit path was mentioned in nearly every news story reporting on the work of the Commission during 2017.

Why was there not an exit path in the Commission’s final report? It was because the Council of Bishops initially said they would discuss and recommend an exit path. Then the Council of Bishops decided that it was not necessary to have an exit path at all. Despite their initial support for an exit path, many centrist and progressive leaders have now adopted the Council of Bishops’ position that an exit path is not necessary.

The General Conference faces several important decisions.

  1. Will the church’s leaders vote to fundamentally change our church’s identity by adopting mutually contradictory teachings on marriage and mutually contradictory practices regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals?
  2. Will the church’s leaders ignore the reality of schism currently present in the church and expect its members and clergy to put aside their conscientious objections (on either side) and all “just get along?”
  3. Will the church’s leaders attempt to keep a lid on the pressure cooker by failing to provide a consistent and fair exit path for congregations to depart with their property?

The answers to these questions will determine whether The United Methodist Church has a faithful future ahead, or will simply follow all the other mainline U.S. Protestant denominations into legal conflicts, decline, and irrelevance.

 

 

 

Some Progressive and Centrist Groups Reject Exit Path

The Rev. Mike Slaughter, front, speaks at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida. “I support the One Church Plan, but if we can’t agree to disagree, I would support a gracious exit plan that is just,” Slaughter said recently. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Recent statements from two different groups portend an agenda of institutional survival taking precedence over resolving the conflict in The United Methodist Church at the upcoming General Conference. Many across the theological spectrum (including many members of the Commission on a Way Forward) have previously said that a gracious exit path for congregations to leave the denomination with their property would be necessary regardless of which plan General Conference adopted. Now, some leaders are pulling back from that position in an attempt to coerce churches into maintaining the current institutional structure.

Reconciling Ministries Network, a pro-LGBTQ organization in the UM Church, recently posted a statement on their Facebook page that demonstrates the level of hypocrisy or denial it takes to try to preserve a broken institution.

They state, “Already built into The UMC are ways to leave the Church agreed upon by the Church.” That is only partly true. The Discipline contains a provision allowing an annual conference to deed a local church property over to “another evangelical denomination.” The conditions for such an action would depend upon whatever the annual conference chooses to impose upon the local church. Some congregations have not been allowed to leave with their building at all, despite the fact that over 90 percent of the members voted to withdraw. Other congregations have been asked to pay large sums to keep their property. The local church is at the mercy of the annual conference, which can choose to be gracious or play hardball in what they require. What congregations are asking for is a fair, gracious, and standardized exit path that assures them there is an equitable way to keep their property.

It is helpful for United Methodists to keep in mind the congregations of brothers and sisters who have attempted to depart from other mainline denominations over issues of marriage and sexuality. The legal fees spent by the national Episcopal Church exceeded $45 million, not including what local churches spent. Presbyterian churches spent millions, and found that the disparity between different presbyteries (equivalent of our annual conferences) in how they treated departing congregations created unfair and often punitive and adversarial conditions. We can learn from their experiences and do better.

The Reconciling Ministries statement goes on, “What we need at General Conference 2019 is the resolve to come together to further the well-being of the Church, not to dissolve it.” The statement thus equates some local congregations leaving the denomination with “dissolving” the church. Such hyperbole does not serve us well and distorts the truth. Even if hundreds of congregations were to depart, there would still be a United Methodist Church. We have nearly 30,000 congregations, and no one is suggesting that all or even most are going to depart. And how is continuing the current conflict (by not allowing those opposed to our standards to leave with their property) “furthering the well-being of the Church?”

Finally, the statement says, “Plans for so-called ‘gracious’ exit are plans for schism, dissolution, and disobedience to the mission of the Church.” It is highly ironic that those causing the schism in United Methodism are now blaming those who want a fair and gracious exit path for fomenting schism. It goes beyond irony to arrogance for those who are currently disobeying the United Methodist Discipline and covenant to be charging those who want an exit path with disobedience.

On the contrary, those desiring an exit path want the church to provide that so the congregation desiring to depart is NOT being disobedient in choosing to do so. Evangelicals and traditionalists have consistently operated within the boundaries of the Discipline.

Those who have fomented this crisis through their own disobedience have no standing to call others schismatic or disobedient, nor to prevent congregations from living out their Christian faith and mission in a way that is faithful to their conscience.

Only slightly less objectionable is a statement from Uniting Methodists, a newly formed caucus group advocating for the One Church Plan, calling for all exit paths to be referred to the 2020 General Conference.

“It’s clear that the first priority for the Body of Christ is always to search for unity rather than division,” said the Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish, spokesperson for the group. While unity is indeed a value for followers of Jesus Christ, there are other even higher values. Values like remaining in Christ (John 15:5), allowing the Word of God to remain in us and bear fruit in our lives (John 15:7), and keeping Christ’s commandments (John 15:10). Faithfulness and obedience to God’s will take precedence over unity. Fostering a “pretend” unity through structural coercion is an unhealthy approach to resolving our crisis.

Traditionalists are not “searching” for division, but recognizing the division that already exists and the practical impossibility of continuing structurally united with those who deny the teachings of Scripture and disrespect our United Methodist identity and covenant.

Harnish further maintains, “Action on exit plans are [sic] not consistent with the primary purpose for establishing the Commission on a Way Forward.” However, if one reads the motions adopted at the 2016 General Conference, they do not anywhere mention preserving the unity of the church. Instead, they reference ending or resolving our conflict and providing a way for the church to move forward. We all wish that we could find a way forward that would preserve the unity of the church. But the deep theological divide and unwillingness of some to submit to our agreed-upon covenant makes unity impossible without repentance and a change of behavior.

Harnish’s final reason for postponing action on exit paths is “Delegates will not have adequate time to gather all of the facts, understand the consequences, and participate in thoughtful debate.” These proposals have been publicly before the church for seven months. Much ink has been spilled with writings on all sides of a complex issue. Delegates have had ample time to study the proposals and understand the possible consequences. If the delegates are not ready to act now, they never will be.

Proposals for exit are found in seven of the 78 petitions to be considered. Only two of them need to be enacted (one from the Modified Traditional Plan allowing transfers out by annual conferences and congregations and one exit path for individual congregations). One of those proposals already passed a legislative committee in 2016. In 2020, General Conference will be considering hundreds of petitions spanning dozens of topics. Despite having more days of sessions, the delegates would not have any more time to focus on the exit paths than they do in 2019.

Even some Uniting leaders have publicly supported an exit path. According to a UMNS article, “the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, agrees that exiting the denomination should be done with grace.

“‘I support the One Church Plan, but if we can’t agree to disagree, I would support a gracious exit plan that is just. In other words, one that would come up with a just ‘buyout’ that would cover the liabilities that we are all accountable for. Not unlike divorce, where two parties have to determine fair support for what they have created together,’ he said.”

Since making that statement, Slaughter has reiterated his personal support for an exit path, saying “he doesn’t think discerning a just exit plan should top the agenda but should definitely be part of what’s under consideration. ‘I want to do whatever to keep the majority of us together, and we need to look at that first,’ he said. ‘And then we need to look at, if that doesn’t work for some, how there can be a gracious, just exit.’”

Uniting Methodists’ call to refer the exit path petitions to 2020 is a way to kill those proposals or, at best, once again “kick the can down the road.” If the One Church Plan is adopted, many proponents undoubtedly want to coerce traditionalists into staying in the church so that proponents can continue to try to change our minds while benefiting from our continued financial support of the institutional structure. Our church has reached a decision point on ministry with LGBT persons. Our lay members will not withstand another delay in resolving a crisis that is severely damaging our church’s ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Delaying any exit path would only exacerbate the conflict in our church, not resolve it.

The question is, do our leaders care more about enabling our church to move forward in effectively carrying out our mission, or about trying to preserve an institutional structure? If the latter, our denomination will continue to decline and the kingdom of God will lose.

Here, another saying of Jesus is instructive. “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). We need to be willing to surrender our instinct for institutional self-preservation for the sake of allowing the church to move into a healthier place. We cannot continue to operate in the current way and expect to see fruitful ministry in the years ahead. A healthy institution would allow those who can no longer conscientiously participate in the institution’s mission to amicably withdraw and pursue their own mission as they perceive it. Anything else is simply an institutional power play.

The Plans’ Impact on Clergy

As the special called General Conference in St. Louis is less than two weeks away, it is understandable that one group of people is experiencing perhaps the most anxiety –clergy. Clergy are on the front lines of ministry in local churches. They have to deal with conflicting opinions in their congregations, as well as criticism from members for the denomination. While guaranteed an appointment, clergy see the declining congregations around them that diminish future appointment options and call into question their job security. In some ways, clergy may have the most to lose if the General Conference is not able to find a constructive way for the church to move forward.

In the midst of this anxiety, what are the implications and possible consequences of adopting one or another of the various plans General Conference is considering?

Clergy and the One Church Plan (OCP)

In one sense, adoption of the OCP would set clergy free. They could make their own choice regarding same-sex weddings without any denominational restrictions. Those who felt strongly about the need to do such weddings could proceed without fear of formal complaints and a trial. Those who oppose doing same-sex weddings could continue to follow their conscientious beliefs. Openly gay or lesbian persons could be ordained in at least some annual conferences.

The downside of this freedom is that local congregations would also gain the right to make decisions that until now have been made at the general church level. If a congregation wanted to host same-sex weddings, it could vote to do so at a church conference. Congregations opposed to hosting could also adopt a policy statement at their church conference. This means that many local churches will experience another arena of conflict that the pastor will need to manage and help them navigate. In a congregation of mixed opinions and strong feelings, such conflict could pose a threat to the church’s vitality or even continued existence.

Many evangelical clergy by conscience could not continue to serve in a denomination that they believe has contradicted Scripture by approving same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. For them, the need to leave the denomination would lift anxiety to a completely new level. Will their local congregation also seek to leave? Will there be a place of ministry outside the UM Church? Will they find a place that matches their gifts and graces, as well as meeting the needs of their family? Despite the uncertainties, many evangelical clergy will stand on conviction and choose to withdraw.

For clergy of all stripes who stay, they will have to contend with a dramatically decreasing denomination. Every other denomination that adopted a OCP-type plan has experienced at least a doubling of its rate of decline. In The United Methodist Church, worship attendance is falling at the rate of 3 percent per year in the U.S. Doubling that to 6 percent per year would have a devastating impact on local churches and annual conferences, both financially and programmatically. The clergy who stay will have to deal with the fallout of such a decline. In many annual conferences, clergy morale is already low. This increased decline is bound to decrease morale even further.

Availability of appointments for clergy could become more quickly restricted, as congregations decline to the point that they can no longer afford a full-time pastor or even an ordained pastor. This trend is ongoing now, but could dramatically worsen if the denominational decline gets worse. In addition, since clergy tend to be more liberal in theology (in general) than congregations, there may be a shortage of churches willing to have a pastor who wants to do same-sex weddings. This plan relies on the bishop and cabinet to take into consideration the needs of both congregation and clergy, which might be more difficult to do as options for appointment become more limited.

Clergy and the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP)

The CCP was designed to move into a new church structure with the least possible disruption. Clergy would need to determine which connectional conference they want to serve in, but could continue to serve their current appointment on an interim basis until an appointment opens up in their preferred conference. In addition, clergy could make themselves available to serve in a different connectional conference, as long as they were willing to abide by its requirements. This would most likely be seen in progressive clergy serving in a “unity” (or local option) conference.

Adoption of the CCP could bring about the challenge of dealing with the guaranteed appointment for conferences that have more clergy than congregations. This would be somewhat alleviated by the ability to serve in a different connectional conference. There may also be evangelical clergy who find the need to withdraw because even being in the same denomination with those who affirm practices the Bible calls sinful would be untenable, leading to the issues around leaving mentioned above.

Clergy and the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP)

For clergy who are willing to abide by the current requirements of the Book of Discipline, there would be little change. Clergy who wanted to continue living by our current teachings but happen to be in an annual conference that votes to withdraw from the UM Church would be able to remain in the UM Church. They could either serve their existing congregation, if it decided to also remain United Methodist, or receive another appointment to a church in the new annual conference formed in the area covered by the withdrawing conference.

It is possible there would be more progressive clergy than congregations, in which case there may be a shortage of appointments for clergy wanting to perform same-sex weddings. Such clergy could remain United Methodist as long as they were willing to abide by our Disciplinary requirements.Clergy who want to perform same-sex weddings or be part of a church that ordains self-avowed practicing homosexuals could withdraw from the UM Church. They could either serve their existing congregation, if it decided to also withdraw, or receive an appointment in a congregation in a newly formed self-governing (progressive) Methodist church. If they were in an annual conference that withdraws from the UM Church, they would simply remain in that annual conference.

Local Pastors

The most vulnerable clergy are local pastors, who are licensed but not ordained — and have no security of appointment. Local pastors who are more evangelical in theology would find a ready welcome in the UM Church under the Modified Traditional Plan. There would also be a ready welcome in any new denomination formed by evangelicals leaving the denomination under the One Church Plan. In both scenarios, there could be a shortage of evangelical clergy, and there would be an emphasis on planting new churches, which would also increase the need for clergy.

Clergy Pensions

Many rumors are flying around about the impact of the plans on clergy pensions. The Commission on a Way Forward worked with Wespath (Board of Pensions) to minimize any effects on clergy pensions. Regardless of which plan is passed at General Conference, Wespath is recommending two changes to the pension program.

  1. Clergy who leave The United Methodist Church would have their pension account converted to a defined contribution plan. This means that all the money contributed in your name would be set aside for your pension, but there would be no further money contributed to your account under this plan. You could participate in a pension plan in your new place of service, but it would be a new plan. So your pension would combine what you have accumulated under the UM plan, plus what you accumulate in whatever new plan you participate in. (Under the MTP, departing clergy could participate in a new plan with Wespath.) This would extend pension benefits in line with how our pension program was from 1982 until 2007. The only loss a clergyperson would experience is the loss of a guaranteed 2 percent annual increase in pension amounts after retirement. Instead, the pension would depend entirely upon how well the person’s investments perform prior to and during retirement.

 

  1. Wespath is asking General Conference for permission to bring back to the 2020 session a pension plan that goes back to a completely defined contribution plan, as it was earlier. The portion of the pension plan that is currently defined benefit may not be sustainable, especially in the face of continued denominational decline in membership and finances. To prevent annual conferences accumulating large unfunded pension liabilities in the future, Wespath is recommending a return to a completely defined contribution plan. This is the way most businesses run their pension programs now, and it would place our plan on a secure foundation for the future.

In addition, the MTP provides for an equitable way to secure funding for unfunded pension liabilities. Most of these liabilities relate to clergy who served prior to 1982. Some of the liability relates to the current post-2007 plan. If recommendation #1 above is adopted, there would be no further accumulation of pension liabilities under the current plan for clergy who withdraw, and future liabilities under the post-2007 plan would be eliminated. If recommendation #2 is adopted, there would be no further accumulation of pension liabilities at all for any clergy, once the new pension program was implemented.

Every effort has been made by the Commission and proponents of the various plans, regardless of theological perspective, to ensure the continued viability of the pension program for all clergy and to minimize any pension impact of a particular plan. The language used in the MTP and in some of the exit paths concerning pensions was supplied by Wespath and vetted by them. Those wanting additional information about the impact on pensions can visit the Wespath FAQ page.

 

 

 

Revisions to the Modified Traditional Plan

In November, the Judicial Council declared portions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional. Since that time, a team has been working on revisions to the Traditional Plan to bring it into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366. Any of the Traditional Plan petitions that are not mentioned below can be adopted without change.

For those of you who like to delve into all the details, here are the proposed revisions to the Traditional Plan. We are also proposing revisions to the Modified Traditional Plan petitions (two petitions submitted by Maxie Dunnam to augment the Traditional Plan) to bring them into compliance with JCD 1366.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition can support any one of three petitions on Disaffiliation (Boyette, Ottjes, or Taylor). The latter two also need revisions in order to make them compliant with the exit path ideas put forward by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Traditional Plan. The linked document contains margin notes that explain the reason behind each of the recommended revisions.

The proposed revisions have been endorsed by the Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Mrs. Patricia Miller, and myself, who were all endorsers of the original Traditional Plan as members of the Commission on a Way Forward. The revisions are also endorsed by the Renewal and Reform Coalition. You can find more information about the coalition and our perspective on the various plans at methodistcrossroads.org.

Episcopal Accountability

The Judicial Council declared unconstitutional the proposal that the Council of Bishops hold its members accountable through a process that could result in an involuntary leave of absence or involuntary retirement. We do not see a way of salvaging this proposal. Therefore, we ask that petitions #2-4 of the Traditional Plan not be considered.

Instead, we propose that Petition 90078 (p. 211) – Modified Traditional Plan Global Episcopacy Committee submitted by Maxie Dunnam – be substituted in place of the original accountability proposal. This petition creates a Global Episcopacy Committee to administer the complaint process, in place of the current jurisdictional college of bishops. We have proposed revisions in Dunnam’s petition to clarify some matters that were raised as questions. We have also deleted provisions that were declared unconstitutional.

Board of Ordained Ministry Membership/Responsibilities

Petition #5 of the Traditional Plan needed to have the word “practicing” inserted, to clarify that we are talking about self-avowed practicing homosexuals in terms of ordination. The word was inadvertently left out in the original version.

Petition #6-9 were revised to broaden the responsibility for upholding the entire Discipline, including all the qualifications of ordination and all applicable disciplinary standards (JCD 1366). Revisions also indicate who is to “certify” to whom that these provisions are being observed.

Traditional Plan Implementation

Petition #10 is the implementation of the Traditional Plan. We propose to substitute Petition #90079 (p. 212) – Modified Traditional Plan Implementation Process submitted by Maxie Dunnam – to replace petition #10. It is nearly identical to petition #10, with the following additions:

  • The Global Episcopacy Committee becomes responsible for investigating complaints against annual conferences for not upholding the Discipline and would administer complaints against bishops for not upholding the Discipline or committing chargeable offenses related to homosexuality.
  • Bishops who cannot affirm their willingness to uphold and enforce the Discipline would not receive money from the general church for expenses (travel, office, and housing).
  • Annual conferences that choose to withdraw from The United Methodist Church would receive a one-time grant of $200,000 to help defray transitional expenses.
  • Technical language is added insuring that the plan takes effect upon adjournment of General Conference, rather than January 1, 2020.

This Modified Traditional Plan petition has been revised in light of JCD 1366 to broaden the requirement of upholding the Discipline to include the whole Discipline, with special emphasis on provisions related to qualifications for ordination, unauthorized conduct, responsibilities of the Council on Finance and Administration, and chargeable offenses. The revisions clarify that annual conferences or bishops that declare unwillingness to uphold the Discipline are not thereby given the right to negate, ignore, or violate the Discipline. The Council of Bishops accountability process is removed as being unconstitutional. Clergy are reminded of their accountability to the whole Discipline and withdrawal is allowed, but not “encouraged” (again, to address JCD 1366). The process for local churches to withdraw (transfer) from the UM Church to a self-governing Methodist church is revised in light of ¶ 41, which requires a 2/3 vote by both the charge conference and the church conference, as well as a 2/3 vote by the annual conference. Revisions correct the effective date of withdrawal in light of ¶ 41 and specify the annual conference trustees as the body to deal with withdrawing congregations, rather than the bishop. All of these revisions then would make this petition constitutional under JCD 1366.

Just Resolution

Petition #14 is revised to state that all just resolutions for clergy shall include a renewed commitment by the respondent to adhere to the Book of Discipline in its entirety, including the provisions that were the subject of the complaint. This brings the petition into compliance with JCD 1366.

Church Right of Appeal

The Judicial Council did not declare petition #16 unconstitutional, but they raised some questions about it. Proposed revisions would define “egregious errors of Church law or administration” that would justify a church appeal. Revisions also clarify that such an appeal does not constitute double jeopardy (since egregious error invalidated the original trial). We anticipate these revisions would answer the concerns of the Judicial Council.

Exit Plans

For a more thorough evaluation of the need for an exit path, please see my previous blog. The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes a standardized exit path for congregations should be available, regardless of which plan (or no plan) is passed by General Conference. We encourage the Conference to take up an exit path first, to alleviate anxiety and avoid the exit path being unfairly influenced by whichever plan is adopted. The exit path/transfer provisions in the Modified Traditional Plan (see above) are rendered a bit problematic by Judicial Council 1366, in that they would now require a 2/3 vote by the annual conference. We believe the annual conference should not be able to block a local church from withdrawing from the denomination. The solution, then, is to pass in addition one of the exit plans discussed here.

All three exit plans supported by the Renewal and Reform Coalition allow individual local churches to withdraw from The United Methodist Church in a way that allows them to keep their property and assets, as well as liabilities. None of them dictates that a local church must join a new denomination, since that is what would cause problems with Judicial Council 1366. However, most congregations departing the UM Church would want to form part of a new connection.

The Boyette disaffiliation petition (Petition #90059, p. 201) is acceptable to the Renewal and Reform Coalition as it stands. It requires a 2/3 vote by the charge conference OR a 55 percent majority vote by the church conference, but no vote by the annual conference in order to withdraw. It stipulates that unfunded pension liabilities must be paid, but requires no other payment. This proposal uses general church unrestricted reserves to offset pension liabilities, reducing the amount a local church might pay. If that provision is objectionable, it can be removed by an amendment.

The Ottjes disaffiliation petition (Petition #90058, p. 201) is also acceptable to the Coalition. It has the advantage that a legislative committee already adopted it in 2016 before it was referred to the Commission on a Way Forward process. Under this plan, local church withdrawal could happen with a 2/3 vote of the church conference, but no vote by the annual conference. This proposal needs amendments to include payment of unfunded pension liabilities. Revisions also include technical language to clarify implementation and insure that the legislation would take effect at the close of General Conference.

The Taylor disaffiliation petition (Petition #90066, p. 205) is acceptable to the Coalition with revisions. It mandates a ¶ 213 review of the church’s ministry and projected viability, which would add months to the disaffiliation process and give persons outside the congregation a decisive voice in that congregation’s future, which the Coalition disagrees with. It gives the annual conference the ability to require additional conditions and/or other payments from the disaffiliating church, which defeats the purpose of having a standard exit path and creates the possibility of an annual conference insisting on unacceptable payments. In addition to a 2/3 vote by the church conference and the payment of unfunded pension liabilities, this proposal requires the local church to be current on paying its previous 12 months of apportionments and pay an additional 12 months. Adding all these payments puts the local church at risk of not being able to thrive in its ongoing ministry and could jeopardize its viability. Technical revisions are required, as well, to bring the proposal into compliance with JCD 1366 and clarify implementation. With these revisions, the Coalition could support the Taylor proposal. However, it might be simpler to adopt the revised Ottjes proposal or the Boyette proposal.

Conclusion

Our team believes that the proposed revisions bring all of the petitions into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366. We encourage continued prayer for the delegates and the decisions of the General Conference. We look forward to a prayerful, positive General Conference that will determine the future direction of our church and allow us to move forward in vital mission and ministry.

 

 

 

The Plans’ Impact on Local Churches

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

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

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

OCP and the Local Church

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

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

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

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

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

MTP and the Local Church

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

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

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

CCP and the Local Church

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

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

Exit Paths and the Local Church

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

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

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

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

The Plans and Membership Loss

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What is the Modified Traditional Plan

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

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

What is in the Traditional Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does the MTP differ from the Traditional Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Why Is an Exit Path Necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit as a Way Forward

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

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

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

Reference Committee Decides on Petitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is History an Argument for the One Church Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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