By Thomas Lambrecht – 

​​​​The Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the Florida regional chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, surrendered his credentials as an ordained elder on July 8. He did so because of requirements that had been placed upon him by the conference board of ordained ministry that were inconsistent with the Book of Discipline and violated the policies of the Florida WCA. (Therrell was on leave of absence in order to serve as the Florida WCA president.)

Therrell gives a complete account of how the situation came to this point in a recent blog. The blog includes copies of the board of ordained ministry’s requirement letter and Therrell’s response to Bishop Ken Carter.

Essentially, both the bishop and the board of ordained ministry had been working over the past year to gain access to the names of the churches and leaders with whom Therrell had been in conversation about the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separationand the options available to churches under the Protocol. It became apparent that Florida UM leaders wanted to monitor the content that Therrell was sharing with the churches and leaders. 

In addition, pastors were fearful that they could be punished for allowing information to be shared and options discussed in their local churches. Licensed local pastors (unordained clergy) are particularly vulnerable, since a bishop can withdraw their appointments at any time for any reason, and district committees on ordained ministry can decline to renew their license for ministry at any time and for any reason. 

As we have seen in other annual conferences, when licensed local pastors are proactive in sharing information with their congregations, conference officials sometimes remove them summarily from ministry. Basically, they are fired for doing what good pastors do in helping their churches stay informed and be proactive in planning for the future. We have also seen even ordained traditional clergy moved to a new appointment simply for sharing information with their congregations.

The board of the Florida WCA chapter had determined to protect the identity of those churches and leaders who consulted with Therrell. They did this to protect vulnerable clergy from being fired and to allow churches to explore options and receive information without the threat of the annual conference closing their church (something that has happened in other annual conferences).

Despite repeated requests over a year’s time from the bishop and district superintendents for this sensitive information, both Therrell and the Florida WCA board refused to disclose it. In fact, the attempt to muzzle Therrell began before he even became president of the Florida chapter. Therrell was forced to resign from the Florida cabinet in 2020 because the bishop wanted to forbid him from working on helping to create what became known as the Global Methodist Church in Florida. At the time of his resignation, Therrell was asked to sign a covenant restricting his ability to speak with other clergy or laity about a proposed new traditionalist denomination. Therrell declined.

The Ultimatum

In June of this year, the Florida board of ordained ministry gave Therrell an ultimatum: report the required sensitive information or (it was implied) run the risk of having charges filed against him for disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church. The board imposed three requirements:

         1. Provide a “full and complete list of all ministerial activities performed while on leave… [including] the dates and locations for all past and henceforth meetings with United Methodist clergy and laity,” whether on church-owned or non-church-owned property.

         2. Obtain permission from the district superintendent for any meeting to be held with UM clergy or laity as president of the Florida WCA.

         3. Video record all gatherings with Florida UM clergy and laity, with the recording to be given to the district superintendent and the board of ordained ministry.

These requirements would have ended Therrell’s ability to serve in the role of Florida WCA president because all of the district superintendents would have denied permission for Therrell to meet with anyone. The requirements would have exposed vulnerable clergy and congregations to potential punitive action by the Florida bishop and cabinet and would have had a chilling effect on the ability of Florida UM churches to gain information and consider options in light of the Protocol.

The board of ordained ministry’s rationale from the Discipline for these requirements was that they constitute “ministerial activities” that must be reported to the board. Meeting with clergy and laity to inform them about the Protocol was considered “giving guidance, training, and equipping to laity,” which is a ministerial activity. Raising funds was also considered a ministerial activity. Because Therrell was on personal leave of absence in order to serve as the Florida WCA president, the Discipline prohibits him from conducting any ministerial activities outside of the local church where he holds membership, unless the bishop or district superintendent gives permission.

Through a Pharisaical application of the provisions of the Discipline, the board of ordained ministry prohibited Therrell from serving as Florida WCA president while also being an ordained clergy. Activities that any layperson could do – holding informational meetings, writing articles, and raising funds – suddenly became impossible for Therrell to do as an ordained elder. That left him no choice but to surrender his ordination credentials in order to continue serving in the position to which he believed God had called him.

Hypocrisy?

Florida’s attempts to muzzle Therrell are unprecedented. No other district superintendent coming off the cabinet and going on personal leave was prohibited from meeting with clergy and laity in the conference. No other person on leave of absence was required to report all meetings held with clergy and laity, much less video record them and give those recordings to the cabinet and board of ordained ministry.

According to Therrell, the same executive committee of the board of ordained ministry that imposed these outrageous requirements on Therrell allowed an ordained elder who is a lesbian married to another woman to return from leave of absence and be transferred to a conference in the Western Jurisdiction, where she would not face charges under the Discipline. This was done in secret without the involvement of the full board of ordained ministry, and the required interview with the board was even waived. Failure to file a complaint for such a clear violation of the Discipline, while holding Therrell to a standard not even the Discipline envisions, smacks of a double standard. As Therrell says in his letter to Bishop Carter, “If an elder is progressive and violating the Discipline, they are given great latitude. If an elder is a traditionalist and conducting lawful activities that promote the current official stance of The United Methodist Church, they are harassed endlessly.”

Throughout his involvement on the Commission on a Way Forward and since the 2019 General Conference, Bishop Carter has promoted the idea that we should interact with each other with a heart of peace, rather than a heart of war. Unfortunately, with its continued harassment and opposition to Therrell, the Florida conference leadership, including Bishop Carter, has not exhibited a heart of peace. Punitive actions, the attempt to prohibit information sharing, striving to control the messaging, all demonstrate a win-lose attitude that only heightens conflict. The motivation of Florida UM leaders, like those in some other annual conferences, seems to be to use any and every strategy to keep as many churches as possible from joining the proposed new Global Methodist Church. The power and agency of laity is being disregarded and their ability to choose to meet with persons to learn about the new Global Methodist Church is being compromised.

The way forward for The United Methodist Church is not to be found in heightened confrontation and conflict. Instead, it is to be found in mutual respect, transparent leadership, and facilitating individual congregational and membership choice. The whole point of the Protocol is to provide a fair and amicable way for United Methodists to decide whether they want to continue being part of a Methodist church that is evolving away from Scriptural Christianity and toward cultural affirmation, or whether they want to be part of a Methodist church that maintains the bedrock doctrines of the Christian faith and a traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality.

Therrell can continue his role as Florida WCA president, working for a new traditionalist Methodist church, now without the hindrance and harassment of Florida conference leaders. When the Global Methodist Church forms, he will be able to receive ordination in that new denomination and serve in pastoral leadership. Still, his costly stand for integrity and faithfulness to the Gospel is an example for all of us to follow. We salute all such clergy, some of whom have lost their livelihoods and others forced through the upheaval of an unplanned (and sometimes punitive) move to a new church.

There are definitely some parts of the church where the theological conflict is causing casualties. We hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail. Such internecine warfare does not serve the Kingdom of God or the mission of the church. Power plays and punishment for theological differences do not build a healthy church. These situations simply demonstrate yet again how necessary the Protocoland separation really are. We continue to urge its support by all fair-minded General Conference delegates.

 

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.