Finding an Exodus

Image: Creative Commons. Trailer screenshot, from DVD The Ten Commandments, 50th Anniversary Collection; Paramount, 2006.

By Thomas Lambrecht

June 3, 2022

For nearly the last ten years, Good News has advocated for an amicable separation in The United Methodist Church. Following the 2012 General Conference, it became apparent that the different understandings of Methodism could not continue together in one church and remain healthy. That conclusion was only reinforced over the years since that time, with efforts at resolving our differences having failed amid the refusal of many U.S. clergy and bishops to accept the decisions of General Conference and their determination to impose the “One Church Plan” on an unwilling denomination.

Good News President Rob Renfroe has likened our conflicted situation to a cage match, where two opponents are locked in a cage and forced to fight one another until one or the other is defeated. Only then would the cage door be unlocked to let the fighters out. Renfroe’s point was that the cage could be unlocked and the fighting ended without the need for one fighter to lose and the other win, if the denomination were willing to release the trust clause and allow separation to occur.

Leaders from across the theological spectrum arrived at an agreement for such a release in the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. It promised an end to the cage match of our conflict via an orderly and peaceful separation process. Due to the three-time postponement of General Conference and declining support for the Protocol among some centrists and progressives, its passage looks less likely than it did in 2020.

With the launch of the Global Methodist Church, more local churches are seeking separation under processes currently available in the Book of Discipline, rather than waiting for the Protocol to possibly be adopted in 2024. Good News has asked for and hoped for an amicable and reasonable response to this desire to move forward with separation now. Some bishops and annual conferences have accommodated the need for separation with grace and integrity. Others seem determined to keep the church locked in its cage match indefinitely.

It is important to note that, for decades, bishops and annual conferences have allowed individual congregations to withdraw through a negotiated settlement, sometimes involving the “closing” of the church and reselling the property to the departing congregants. While always a sad occasion, congregational disaffiliation is nothing new in The United Methodist Church.

Faced with the prospect of larger-scale disaffiliations due to deeply held theological convictions, the 2019 General Conference adopted a process for disaffiliation in a new Discipline ¶ 2553. The intent was to provide a straightforward process that cared for clergy pensions and provided a bit of a transitional cushion for the annual conference through an extra year’s apportionments. While annual conferences could flesh out the disaffiliation process in different ways depending upon their context, the authors of the provision never intended that annual conferences could add financial terms to the requirements. Unfortunately, through a clerical error, the language in the paragraph did not explicitly state that.

Now, some bishops and annual conferences are adding costs that make disaffiliation under ¶ 2553 so costly as to be prohibitive. Some are demanding a percentage of the congregation’s property value or total assets, anywhere from 20 to 67 percent. Others are demanding reimbursement of any annual conference legal fees. (I have yet to see a reasonable accounting of what legal fees an annual conference might be expected to incur. Such fees should be minimal or nonexistent.) Other conferences are requiring the repayment of any grants given the local church by the annual conference up to ten years or even 20 years in the past (ignoring the benefit the annual conference received in higher apportionment payments in the intervening years due to grant-facilitated congregational growth). At least one annual conference has added just about any costs they could think of, including 18 months’ salary and benefits for the pastor (in case the pastor does not withdraw with the congregation), expenses for two pastoral moves, $500 honoraria for conference-approved representatives to make presentations to the local church extolling the virtues of the UM Church, and more.

To add insult to injury, one bishop is saying that none of that annual conference’s churches can disaffiliate because they do not meet the qualifications of ¶ 2553, which requires the churches disagree with the General Conference’s position on marriage and sexuality or with the annual conference’s action or inaction regarding those issues. As this bishop is interpreting the situation, a traditionalist church can only leave if its annual conference is in violation of the Discipline, since the denominational position remains in line with a traditionalist position.

Other bishops and leaders are saying that the Global Methodist Church does not qualify as “another evangelical denomination” or as a recognized denomination with which clergy and congregations can unite. They maintain that a denomination must be recognized by General Conference before it fits these descriptions. Never mind that annual conferences receive clergy from dozens of other denominations, including various Baptists, Evangelical Free Church, and others that have never been “approved” by General Conference. All of these actions are purely designed to stonewall traditionalists and delay or prevent separation from occurring.

Traditionalists had hoped that the Judicial Council would act as a brake on episcopal power, maintaining the rule of church law and restoring accountability and balance to the system. Recent decisions, however, have demonstrated that the Judicial Council is no longer a neutral arbiter, but is willing to do the bidding of the Council of Bishops. Just this week, in response to a request for clarification from the COB, the Judicial Council essentially rewrote provisions of the Discipline they felt did not address the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in. While denying the power of annual conferences to exercise powers reserved to them, the Judicial Council has no problem exercising powers they do not have. While ruling that annual conferences are not competent to create provisions for disaffiliation based on multiple paragraphs in the Discipline, the Judicial Council has no problem creating new provisions that do not even exist in the Discipline. We can be sure the COB will take these rulings and run with them, finding more creative ways to block traditionalists from establishing a new, healthy Methodist church.

Alternative Metaphors for Separation

In promoting the idea of amicable separation, Good News has pointed to the examples of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 13 and Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. In Genesis 13, we read that Abraham and Lot both had large herds and flocks, and that there was not enough room in the land to sustain both of them. Conflict arose between their respective herders. But Abraham told Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.” Abraham allowed Lot to choose which part of the land he wanted, and Abraham would take what is left. Similarly, Good News has said that those wishing to pursue a more progressive agenda could keep the UM Church structure and traditionalists would be willing to withdraw to start something new, rather than attempting to force progressives out of the church against their will. In an effort to resolve our differences in a fraternal way, we advocated for a peaceful, voluntary separation, allowing each group to go its own way. We are not interested in perpetuating the conflict unless forced to do so by not being allowed to separate.

In Acts 15, we read that Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement over whether or not to take John Mark with them on their second missionary journey. Paul did not want to take John Mark because he had abandoned them during their first journey. Barnabas wanted to take him along and give him a second chance. Neither was willing to compromise. So they agreed to go their separate ways. Paul took Silas and Barnabas took John Mark and each group went in different directions. For the sake of the mission of the church, they separated and ended up multiplying the mission. In the same way, Good News has argued that, for the sake of the mission of the church, the two groups should separate and go their own way. Doing so would end the conflict, allowing each group to focus on its mission and ministry, allowing both to become more effective. In the end, it would allow for a multiplied ministry, as each group is able to reach people the other group may not be able to reach.

Unfortunately, neither of these examples describes some of the more punitive approaches UM leaders are taking. Instead, we find ourselves in a situation more analogous with the conflict between Moses and the Egyptian pharaoh. Moses persistently requested and then demanded that the pharaoh let the people of Israel go. The reason he gave was so that Israel could go into the wilderness to worship the Lord in a way not possible while they were in bondage in Egypt. But pharaoh kept hardening his heart and refusing to let the Israelites leave. God would send plagues, some of which would temporarily change pharaoh’s heart, but after he promised to let the Israelites go, he would renege on his word and hold them back. Even after the last plague, the death of all first-born sons, pharaoh had second thoughts and pursued the Israelites into the very middle of the Red Sea. He just would not let them go. Good News has argued that traditionalists need to depart from the UM Church because we worship in different ways, under different theologies, with different understandings of Scripture and even different approaches to our denomination’s governing Book of Discipline.

The feeling we get from some centrist and institutionalist leaders is that they will just not willingly let traditionalists go. Even some who agreed to the Protocol are now refusing to operate in its spirit. They are all too eager to suspend any complaints or charges against clergy who perform same-sex weddings. They are keen to approve the ordination of married gay clergy. But they are unwilling to observe the flip side of that Protocol coin and graciously accommodate those who cannot remain in a church that engages in actions that violate both the Scriptures and the Discipline.

The caution here is that the Lord is on his throne. It is he who will lead the formation and growth of the Global Methodist Church, if that is to succeed. In the words of Gamaliel, those who oppose it may find themselves fighting against God!

Unintended Consequences

One thing some UM leaders fail to recognize is that their heavy-handed tactics only serve to make the case why churches and clergy should withdraw and join the GM Church. Most Methodists do not want to be part of an autocratic church run by power-conscious bishops who impose top-down conformity. Most Methodists do agree with their baptismal promise to resist injustice. Traditionalists are determined to resist the injustice being perpetrated against us by some UM bishops and conferences.

Those promoting a “big tent” Methodism are acting inconsistently with that vision when they attempt to coerce congregations to remain United Methodist against their will. How can traditionalists believe in their goodwill when we see the opposite on display in numerous situations and from the highest leaders in the church? Some even pretend that there can be a harmonious or even cooperative relationship between the UM Church and the GM Church following separation. The actions of militant leaders in these days are poisoning any possible future relationship.

It did not have to be this way. We have been and still are prepared to engage in a peaceful, fair separation. We are prepared to follow the model of Abraham and Lot or Paul and Barnabas. But if forced into a corner, we are determined to boldly stand for our understanding of the Scriptures and the Gospel. If necessary, we are resolved to follow the example of Moses, standing in faith on God’s promises and watching to see how he will glorify himself in the midst of animosity and conflict. We all know how that story turned out.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Image: Creative Commons. Trailer screenshot, from DVD The Ten Commandments, 50th Anniversary Collection; Paramount, 2006.

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