Korean American United Methodists demonstrate outside the California-Pacific Conference office in Pasadena, California, on May 21. The group was protesting Bishop Grant Hagiya’s decision to move three Korean American pastors from the churches they’ve been serving. Photo by Ted Smith III.

By Tom Lambrecht –

In a continuing development of the conflict between Bishop Grant Hagiya and three Korean churches in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, the Korean Western Jurisdiction Laity Network and the Korean United Methodist Church Laity Network have issued open letters calling for the intervention of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops and the Council of Bishops.The conflict arose when Hagiya notified three Korean pastors that they would not be continued in their current appointments to three of the largest congregations in the annual conference.He made that decision because the three pastors had been educating their churches, as well as others, about the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and the potential decisions congregations would make in light of the Protocol.

The discontinuation of the three pastors’ appointments prompted an open letter in April from the Korean UMC Laity Network calling on Hagiya to “stop the persecution of the Korean Church.” Unprecedented protests by laity and sympathetic clergy were held outside a church in Hawaii where the bishop was present and one week later outside the conference office in Pasadena, California.

Now that Hagiya has refused to reconsider the appointment changes as requested, the Korean Laity Network is appealing to the larger College and Council of Bishops to get involved.

The letters request three actions from the bishops:

“1) Withdraw, stay, or suspend current pastoral terminations and reassignments in Korean United Methodist churches until the separation issues can be resolved in a fair, orderly, and amicable manner at the next General Conference;

“2) Refrain from future pastoral terminations and reassignments, absent extenuating and/or exigent circumstances in other Traditional United Methodist churches and pastors until separation issues can be resolved in a fair, orderly, and amicable manner at the next General Conference; and

“3) Allow Traditional United Methodist pastors to freely and openly discuss the issues and options relating to anticipated transition and separation of The United Methodist Church regarding the LGBT+ controversy without fear of removal.”

Potential Consequences

The letter continues, that if the requests are not met “before June 30, 2021, in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, the Korean United Methodist Western Jurisdiction Laity Network shall seek with all of its influence that all Korean United Methodist Churches withhold their Shared Ministry Apportionment. Further, we will ask all supportive non-Korean United Methodist Churches to do the same with their Episcopal Fund payments.”

In addition, the laity state, “we may not have another option but to ensure that our churches and pastors’ rights and faith are protected by bringing the charges against active bishops who violated the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church in the Western Jurisdiction first, and then we may ask others to join in to file similar complaints against other bishops in The United Methodist Church.”

Again, the appeal for the College and Council of Bishops to step in and the outline of a potential response are virtually unprecedented within the fifty-year history of United Methodism. The Korean Laity Network represents over 40,000 laity in Korean congregations across the U.S. Many Korean congregations tend to give disproportionately more support to the annual conference apportionments because their members tend to give more generously to the church. As an illustration, the Bethany Korean UM Church in Wayne, NJ, which is the largest congregation in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, paid over $200,000 more in conference apportionments than the next largest congregation.

Roots of the Conflict

“We humbly appeal to your leadership and wisdom,” states the letter to the Council of Bishops, “that you would see fit to implement a strong policy of holding in abeyance the termination or reassignment of pastors, except under exigent circumstances; otherwise, such authority over pastors is susceptible to parochial politics and mischief. … These actions by bishops have unnecessarily provoked pain and discord among all involved, which distract from the UMC’s mission, the very situation the UMC and the Protocol seek to avoid. … Bishop Hagiya’s callous and discriminatory actions are hardening the resolve of many to leave the UMC, certainly not what the UMC’s leadership wants.”

As the letter to the Western Jurisdiction Bishops puts it, “Just because we have followed the Scripture and what is required of us as stated in the Book of Discipline, our own Bishop is punishing us for not complying with his openly declared position with respect to the LGBTQ+ ordination and marriage issue. Even though he himself has declared that he doesn’t believe The United Methodist Church has any authority or power over this issue, he is now using the same Book of Discipline (which he has rejected and refused to follow) to punish and intimidate three Korean pastors and the related United Methodist congregations using his appointment authority.” Ironically, the Western Jurisdiction has stated its support for the Protocol.

In October 2020, the jurisdiction issued a statement “encouraging congregational engagement, conversation” – just what the Korean pastors were seeking to do with their congregations. The WJ statement says, “The Protocol … offers a path forward through the nearly 50-year-old dispute over the role of LGBTQ+ people in The United Methodist Church.” Bishop Karen Olive to, president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, affirmed, “The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation offers a way forward to begin easing the five decades of pain created by the wounds inflicted on LGBTQ persons by the church.” It seems incomprehensible that the three Korean pastors are being punished for supporting something that the Western Jurisdiction and its bishops are also on record supporting.

Seeking an Amicable Resolution

The Korean Laity are taking these actions reluctantly. “Please understand that we did not want to take this action [filing a complaint] against the bishop. Instead, we were sincerely hoping and waiting for The United Methodist Church to discuss and adopt the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation at our next General Conference, so that we can decide together as a church on which path to take in such separation process. …

“We are actually hoping for amicable resolution to this long-standing issue by waiting on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation to be adopted. However, when we learned of Bishop Hagiya using his authority to punish and discriminate against the Korean pastors and churches who he believes have acted contrary to his instructions with respect to this issue, we then have no choice but to ask The United Methodist Church to first review Bishop Hagiya’s actions and violations before reviewing whether the bishop acted appropriately with his appointment decisions with these reasons. …

“The decision on whether we act with grace and respect for each other’s beliefs in the Word and the practice of our faith is in your hands; how you decide will show us and others how you practice your faith.”

Implications

The Korean UM Laity Network seems committed to fighting the action of Bishop Hagiya to reassign the three pastors to different congregations. They feel disrespected and discriminated against – even “picked on” – and are mobilized to resist.

This situation illustrates the fragile nature of the current truce within The United Methodist Church. It would be a shame if unprovoked and unnecessary actions by bishops lead to the disintegration of that truce. We are hoping to maintain a spirit of peace during this time of waiting for the next General Conference to convene. But if progressive and centrist bishops take provocative actions against traditionalist clergy and churches, we are prepared to respond.

We hope that Bishop Hagiya and other bishops will see the wisdom of backing down in this confrontation. No one gains by an escalation of the conflict. We should all be seeking to de-escalate the situation. However, it takes both sides’ willingness to compromise and back down. So far, all we have seen from the bishops involved has been adamant intransigence. That will not lead to an amicable resolution.

The full text of the letter to the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops may be accessed HERE

The full text of the letter to the Council of Bishops may be accessed HERE