By Thomas Lambrecht
As we move through this season in the life of our denomination, there are lots of developments taking place that it would be good to understand.
Election of New Bishops
Jurisdictional Conferences will be held in the United States next week, November 2-5. These will be a called session of the jurisdictions for the purpose of electing new bishops. With the postponement of General Conference from 2020 to 2024, jurisdictional conferences did not meet on the normal schedule to elect new bishops. By the end of this year, 20 of the 46 U.S. bishops will have retired. Currently, 16 bishops are serving multiple episcopal areas.
To relieve the overload on the remaining bishops, the Council of Bishops set next week as the time for all five jurisdictions to meet to elect bishops. Even though 20 bishops are retiring or have retired, the jurisdictions are planning to elect only 14 new bishops. In light of the fact that between 10 and 20 percent of U.S. congregations are projected to disaffiliate from the denomination, it is likely that some annual conferences will either merge with a neighboring conference or be joined together with another annual conference in one episcopal area, reducing the number of bishops needed. A reduction in the number of churches also means a reduction in financial support for the denomination, and the Episcopacy Fund that supports the bishops has recently been on a shaky footing. If the U.S. church stays with 40 bishops going forward, that would be a 13 percent reduction in the number and (presumably) expenses for bishops.
- The Northeastern Jurisdiction plans to elect two bishops, leaving two vacancies.
- The North Central Jurisdiction plans to elect three bishops, filling all vacancies, since multiple bishops in that jurisdiction will reach mandatory retirement age in 2024. (Any reductions in the number of bishops in this jurisdiction can happen then.)
- The Southeastern Jurisdiction plans to elect three bishops, leaving two vacancies.
- The South Central Jurisdiction plans to elect three bishops, also leaving two vacancies.
- The Western Jurisdiction plans to elect three bishops to maintain the minimum number of five bishops authorized by church law. That jurisdiction will see a turnover of 60 percent of its bishops.
Traditionalist candidates are running in both southern jurisdictions. It will be interesting to see whether any of them get elected, indicating an ongoing interest in preserving a place for traditionalists in the future United Methodist Church. At least four strong traditionalist bishops have retired or are retiring this year, so there could be a drastic reduction in the number of traditionalist bishops on the Council of Bishops if no new ones are elected.
It will also be interesting to see if any practicing gay or lesbian candidates will be elected. It appears that at least two jurisdictions have one or more candidates in that category.
A primary consideration for traditionalists in the election of new bishops is whether they would push for a clean, straightforward exit path for congregations desiring to disaffiliate. Some bishops currently have pushed their annual conference trustees to add costs and procedural roadblocks to make it more difficult for churches to disaffiliate. Such a short-sighted strategy damages congregations and ultimately weakens the cause of Christ, all for the sake of holding on to buildings and resources to prop up the annual conference.
Annual Conference Developments
Since the Wesleyan Covenant Association issued a call in August for churches in 17 annual conferences to place their apportionments in escrow to protest the kind of egregious requirements that make it very difficult and in some cases impossible for local churches to disaffiliate, there has been some movement on the part of those annual conferences to relax their requirements.
Michigan has begun following a clean 2553 process with no additional requirements. Western Pennsylvania reduced its required payment to 2 percent of assessed property value. (Neither of these conferences were on the escrow list, but were listed as annual conferences imposing additional requirements.) North Texas has also created a more favorable environment by reducing its pension liability costs via conference reserves.
Two conferences that were on the escrow list have now been removed. Northern Illinois is following a clean 2553 process with no extra requirements. The Susquehanna Annual Conference reduced its required payment from 65 percent of property value to 1 percent. Lawsuits are underway in Florida and Eastern Pennsylvania that may bring about negotiations aimed at reducing egregious requirements. There are still 15 annual conferences on the recommended escrow list, and many churches in those conferences are beginning to put apportionments in escrow until the conference reconsiders its stance regarding disaffiliation.
Unfortunately, it appears that North Georgia might be going the other direction. Recent action by its Council on Finance and Administration seems to have withdrawn the paydown of pension liabilities from reserve funds that had previously been enacted. This could result in a tripling of unfunded pension liabilities that churches must pay.
However, it is encouraging to see some conference leaders who are responding in a more gracious way to allow churches to move more freely into where they believe God wants them to be. A coerced covenant is no covenant at all, and it only damages the local church and the denomination to try to force churches to stay yoked in a denomination whose theological agenda they oppose.
Progress in Local Church Disaffiliation
As we have stated before, local church disaffiliation is proceeding in waves. There was a small wave in 2021. A larger wave of churches disaffiliating took place at annual conferences this spring and summer. By the end of summer, over 600 churches had officially disaffiliated in these two waves.
There is a third wave of disaffiliations happening right now. More than 15 annual conferences have scheduled special sessions this fall to vote on church disaffiliations. Based on reports we are receiving from annual conference renewal leaders, there are likely to be 500-1,000 churches disaffiliating in this third wave.
A fourth wave of disaffiliations will take place next spring, at the regular meeting of all U.S. annual conferences. It is likely to allow the disaffiliation of another 1,000-1,500 churches.
In a recent UM News story, a Northeastern Jurisdiction bishop projected that their jurisdiction could lose 1,000 churches. Based on that projection, the number of disaffiliating churches could easily reach 5,000 by the end of 2023. That would represent over 15 percent of all U.S. United Methodist congregations. It could represent over 1 million members whose local churches disaffiliate.
Prospects for the 2024 General Conference enacting a new disaffiliation pathway (because Par. 2553 will have expired by then) are uncertain. Even if it does not enact a new pathway, there will be more churches wanting to disaffiliate, especially if the Book of Discipline language on marriage and sexuality is changed. A few annual conferences are putting together a disaffiliation process that will take effect upon the expiration of Par. 2553 at the end of 2023. Whether that process will work remains to be seen, as it will require a lot of integrity on the part of annual conference leaders, and local church leaders may be reluctant to trust that to happen.
Turmoil in Nigeria
We should pray for Bishop John Wesley Yohanna and the UM Church in Nigeria. Parts of the church there are in rebellion against the bishop because he has declared he will not remain part of the UM Church if it changes its stance on marriage and sexuality. A few UM loyalists have filed complaints against the bishop and spread misinformation about him in the church. There have even been some instances of violence. In one case, some thugs with guns reportedly were recruited to attack a UM youth concert. Some of the thugs were arrested by police and their guns confiscated. Christians in Nigeria are already undergoing sometimes violent persecution from Muslim and tribal opponents, violent attacks from terrorist group Boko Haram, as well as a dramatic upsurge in everyday violence, including abductions, religiously motivated attacks, assaults by armed gangs, and police brutality. Now added to the mix is the sometimes-violent clash of different factions within the UM Church.
Ignoring the Discipline
Bishop Minerva Carcaño, serving the California-Nevada conference, was suspended from her duties in March after a complaint was filed against her. The nature of the complaint has not been made public. Since then, there has been no action to proceed forward with her complaint.
The Discipline says that a bishop may be suspended with pay (suspension is not required) “for a period not to exceed sixty days.” There are no provisions for an extension of that suspension like there are for pastors and clergy under complaint. Yet, Carcaño remains on suspension over 200 days after she was suspended.
In addition, the Discipline requires the initial supervisory process to begin within 10 days of receiving the complaint and be completed within 120 days. An extension of 120 days is allowed, which would be running out in the coming days. A third 120-day extension of the supervisory process can only happen with the accused bishop’s consent. Frankly, the supervisory process should have been completed by now.
The Judicial Council recently by a 5-4 vote declined to intervene in this situation to bring an end to Carcaño’s suspension. In that decision, the Council observed that the Western Jurisdiction lacks a functioning Administrative Review Committee, which is required by Discipline to ensure fair process. A strongly worded dissent by the minority of the Council declared, “Fair process is a bedrock principle of the Church that must be present at every stage of a complaint proceeding. In this case, fair process has been violated. The Bishop’s rights have been violated.” Yet a majority of the Council refused to intervene.
A similar situation has developed in Virginia, where a pastor was accused of performing a same-sex wedding. The supervisory process concluded with no resolution, but the bishop has refused to appoint a counsel for the church to proceed with filing charges and the judicial process. In the complaint and judicial processes, the Discipline requires, “Special attention should be given to … the timely disposition of all matters.” Yet, the bishop maintains she has until the statute of limitations expires (six years!) to proceed with the judicial process. This case is now before the Judicial Council for clarification. One hopes they will weigh in on the side of fair and timely process.
As much as traditionalists disagree with Bishop Carcaño’s theological position and stands on many social issues, and as much as we disapprove of pastors violating the Discipline by performing same-sex weddings, these persons should not be treated unfairly. Having possible charges and trial held over one’s head for six years is torturous! Being suspended from one’s job for over seven months without any legal or judicial finding of guilt is egregiously unfair.
These examples from the two “coasts” provide yet more illustrations of the dysfunction of our church’s highest leaders. They renew our conviction that the system is so broken as to be unreformable, leaving separation as the only choice for those who desire a fair, just, and healthy denomination.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and is the vice president of Good News.