By Thomas Lambrecht
Last week’s Perspective addressed the arguments made by the “centrist” caucus group Mainstream UMC regarding the need for exit paths to be adopted by the 2024 General Conference. This week, I would like to respond to the factual errors and misrepresentations in the Mainstream article. It is important for historical purposes to set the record straight. And if readers are relying on Mainstream’s representations to guide their thinking on the future of the UM Church, it is important to correct those representations where they are in error. I speak as one who has been intimately involved in the cause of renewal for 30 years, was a member of the Commission on the Way Forward, and led the efforts of the Renewal and Reform Coalition at the 2019 General Conference.
How did Par. 2553 come to be?
The Mainstream article states about Par. 2553, “this is the paragraph that traditionalists wrote and adopted at General Conference 2019. It was their so-called ‘gracious exit,’ and it was intended for the ‘liberals’ to leave, not them.”
The original language of Par. 2553 was written and submitted by Leah Taylor, a centrist from the Texas Conference who was also a member of the Commission on a Way Forward. Options for disaffiliation were discussed by the Commission, but not included in its final report. Those discussions formed the basis for several petitions on disaffiliation, including the one by Taylor that become Par. 2553.
Traditionalists proposed amendments to the original language that did several things:
- Remove the requirement that a church undergo an assessment as to whether it had a viable future before being allowed to disaffiliate.
- Remove the section that allowed for a ten-year payment period for disaffiliation expenses and instead stipulate that payment had to occur before disaffiliation. (This was done because of concerns raised that offering a ten-year payment period could keep the trust clause in effect during those ten years.)
- Remove the requirement that all grants received in the previous five years should be repaid to the annual conference.
Those are the only changes that traditionalists made to the original centrist disaffiliation proposal. There was widespread agreement among the Commission members that pension liabilities needed to be cared for. Unfortunately, at the time we did not realize how high the cost of those liabilities would be.
The proposal for a disaffiliation process arose from the awareness that, whether the 2019 General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan or the One-Church Plan, there would be congregations that could not in good conscience remain in the denomination. The various disaffiliation proposals wanted to provide a uniform and straightforward process for such churches to depart.
The proponent of the traditionalist changes to the proposed Par. 2553, the Rev. Beth Ann Cook, summed it up in her speech for the changes. “Any church that discerns that because of today’s votes, they cannot faithfully live out the gospel would have an opportunity to have a fair process and to leave. The intended process is literally how I would want to be treated if I were the one hurting because of that.”
As it happened, the Traditional Plan passed, and traditionalists wanted to give Progressives who could not in good conscience abide by the Traditional Plan a way to graciously exit from the denomination. However, most were unwilling to take the gracious exit and instead decided to defy the decision of the General Conference and repudiate the Traditional Plan, while remaining United Methodist. That left the traditionalists as the only group that was willing to act on conscience to take the gracious exit provided by Par. 2553 in light of that defiance.
Unfortunately, one amendment that was supposed to be made to the paragraph by traditionalists was inadvertently left out. It was intended that we delete the ability of annual conferences to add requirements and payments to those already called for in Par. 2553. But that sentence was not deleted, and some annual conferences have taken advantage of that authority to make it nearly impossible for churches to disaffiliate in those conferences. That is why a new Par. 2553 is needed that levels the playing field and allows all churches to disaffiliate on the same terms.
Are renewal groups seeking to “harm our church?”
The Mainstream article alleges, “The trio of far-right advocacy groups have drafted and submitted legislation to the 2024 General Conference to not only extend the disaffiliation process, but to make it even easier. Further, these groups are committed to sabotaging regionalization and the removal of the harmful language if they do not get their way. They are working to harm our church on their way out the door.”
Good News, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and UM Action are not “far-right” groups. We represent the majority opinions and beliefs of United Methodism since the denomination’s formation in 1968. The fact that some centrists are labeling us “far-right” indicates how far left the center of United Methodism has moved. Trite name-calling solves nothing. That tells us that the “big tent” of United Methodism may not be big enough to include principled traditionalists, at least in the eyes of Mainstream UMC.
Legislation to extend the option of disaffiliation has been submitted by leaders in the Africa Initiative, an organization speaking for and equipping African church leaders. The only way disaffiliation is being made “easier” under the new proposed Par. 2553 is to make it a uniform process that applies in all annual conferences equally, both in the U.S. and abroad, and disallows the ability of any annual conference to impose draconian costs, fees, and expenses that artificially inflate the cost of disaffiliation to the point of impossibility.
The renewal groups are opposed to the concept of regionalization for several reasons. Allowing different regions of the church to have different policies and even teachings and standards (such as on marriage and human sexuality) could lead to a weakening of connectionalism, which we take to be a major characteristic of United Methodism. It is hypocritical to silence the voice and influence of the African part of the church just when it is getting to be of equal weight to the U.S. part of the church. Some of the stands it is anticipated that the U.S. part of the church will adopt will damage the mission and work of the church in Africa and elsewhere. These are principled reasons and concerns, not merely “sabotage” of the regionalization concept.
At the same time, the renewal groups have offered to drop our opposition to regionalization in exchange for centrists and progressives approving the proposed disaffiliation pathways. Thus far, such an exchange has been ruled off the table by centrists and progressives. If remaining traditionalists, including those in Africa and the Philippines, are blocked from disaffiliating, we are justified in continuing to weigh in on regionalization and other matters concerning the church we are still part of. That does not “harm our church on the way out the door.” Rather, it is exercising responsible stewardship of what it means to be a United Methodist member. If centrists and progressives want us not to “interfere” with the adoption of their agenda, it would behoove them to provide a fair and practical way for traditionalists to continue to disaffiliate.
It is further anticipated that centrists and progressives will have a clear majority of the delegates at the 2024 General Conference. Therefore, they should have no trouble removing what they call “harmful language” on marriage and sexuality. If it is not removed, it will be because of the failure of centrists and progressives to vote for it, not because traditionalists oppose it.
What is the motivation of the renewal groups?
The Mainstream article charges, “The motivation of the [renewal] groups is to grow their new denomination, the Global Methodist Church (GMC). To unpack this, it is helpful to remember that Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) are basically the same organization. Many individuals serve on both boards. They are housed at the same disaffiliated church in The Woodlands, Texas. Their PO Boxes are a few numbers apart, in the same mailroom.”
The Mainstream article misunderstands the relationship between Good News and the WCA. While we work as allies in support of the same causes, we are not “basically the same organization.” Of the 30 members of the WCA Global Council, only three of them serve on the Good News board, including Rob Renfroe and myself. Neither Good News nor the WCA are housed at a church. Good News has its rented offices in a building in The Woodlands, Texas. We also provide office space to the person who receives and processes donations for the WCA. But the WCA has no centralized office. The president lives in Illinois, the administrative secretary lives in Kentucky, and donations are processed here in Texas. And they have an African coordinator who lives in Zimbabwe! The WCA is truly a dispersed organization, with everyone working remotely! We also have our own separate donor bases and sources of funding, though they may overlap to some extent, consisting of like-minded people. Like any organizations that are allies, we communicate regularly and cooperate on areas of common interest, but we each have our own leadership, history, financial support, identity, and sphere of influence.
Our motivation is not “to grow [our] new denomination, the GMC.” Rather, as our tagline says, we seek to lead Methodists into a faithful future. Our goal is to be a voice for traditionalist Methodists and advocate for traditionalists having the opportunity to discern their most effective and fruitful future, whether it is to remain United Methodist, to become independent, or to join the GMC. Obviously, we hope that churches that disaffiliate will join the GMC or another Wesleyan denomination because we believe the term “independent Methodist” is an oxymoron. Connectionalism is in our DNA, and we need to be connected to one another for accountability and faithful discipleship and missions.
But we are out to build the Kingdom of God, not a particular denominational kingdom. You can judge for yourself whether this is “straight-up self-promotion,” as the Mainstream article alleges. It is mystifying how people who have virtually no contact with us can know for certain our motivations and discount our actual statements as “a smoke screen.”
It is also important to note that all these misrepresentations and allegations appear in a fundraising letter that asks for donations of “$5 to $5,000.” It seems hypocritical for Mainstream UMC to accuse renewal groups of self-promotion in a misdirected and misinformed fundraiser that promotes themselves.
It is fair to disagree and debate the relative merits of disaffiliation, the church’s definition of marriage, regionalization, or a host of other important issues. That dialogue is worth having, if it can shed light on the decisions the delegates will be making at the 2024 General Conference. In the process, however, it would be wise to refrain from character assassination, mischaracterizing motives, and downright factual misrepresentation. Such does not serve the purpose of “holy conferencing” and prayerful decision-making, nor does it belong in the interaction between brothers and sisters in Christ.