Why “Mainstream UMC” Is Wrong About Exit Paths

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

By Thomas Lambrecht

In an article riddled with factual errors and distortions, Mainstream UMC (the “centrist” caucus in the UM Church) called for “an end to disaffiliations through paragraph 2553.” They maintain that enough local churches have disaffiliated, and it is time to close the door on any more disaffiliations after the end of 2023.

They are wrong. There will continue to be a need for disaffiliation following the anticipated significant changes to be enacted by the 2024 General Conference in Charlotte.

Addressing Mainstream’s Reasoning

The article gives four main reasons for calling a halt to disaffiliations, all of which are specious.

    1. “There has been enough time.” The Mainstream article mentions the almost five years since Par. 2553 was adopted and states, “Any church that has not been aware of what is going on has been asleep at the wheel.”

Due to the Covid pandemic, churches have primarily been disaffiliating during the past two years. It is true that some churches have been “asleep at the wheel.” In other cases, pastors and district superintendents have prevented local churches from discussing disaffiliation or in some cases even knowing about their options.

However, lack of time is not the reason disaffiliation pathways are still needed. Simply extending the time on the current Par. 2553 will not be enough to correct the injustices plaguing this process. The reason some churches have not disaffiliated in the U.S. is the extra costs imposed by some annual conferences (see more below). The reason churches outside the U.S. have not been able to disaffiliate is because their bishops have prohibited them from using Par. 2553 at all! There may have been enough time for many churches in the U.S. to disaffiliate, but that does not mean there is no further need for a disaffiliation pathway.

    1. “Disinformation is rampant.” The Mainstream article alleges that “far-right advocacy groups have trumped up all kinds of nonsense to get people to leave. … A church may … be persuaded [to disaffiliate] by the continuing flow of false information. Extending the season for their disinformation is unacceptable.”

It is fascinating how groups that have represented the mainstream view of the UM Church from 1968 until 2019 are suddenly being called “far-right.” That is actually an indication of how far left the center of gravity of the U.S. church 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.

It is also amazing how often traditionalist renewal groups are accused of disseminating “disinformation,” without any specific examples to point to. The leaders of Good News, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), and UM Action have yet to be confronted with any specific instance where we have been factually incorrect. We espouse opinions and draw conclusions with which centrists and progressives disagree, but that is hardly “disinformation.” What is more, we generally attempt to back up our opinions and conclusions with reasons why we think the way we do. The Mainstream article just makes bald assertions without any evidence and expects their conclusions to be accepted.

Renewal ministries will continue to share information that is relevant for congregations to consider as they discern whether they truly fit within a more progressive UM Church, even though we are sometimes surprisingly hindered from doing so by denominational leaders. In every instance, representatives of the denomination have the unhindered ability to refute our perspective and present the case for remaining United Methodist. That conversation is an appropriate one to have, and allowing equal opportunities to present perspectives aids a local church in making an informed decision. Censoring the traditionalist perspective by calling it “disinformation” does not serve local churches well.

    1. “Other paths for departure are available.” The article maintains that “churches have, on occasion, left the UMC before Par. 2553 was available. … They still can.”

It is true that local churches have occasionally left the denomination before Par. 2553 was adopted. If a church was small and did not have valuable property, the conference would agree to let them go. This might happen once in ten years in an annual conference. I am aware of only a couple of large churches that were able to leave in this way. Sometimes, they were able to leave because the conference could not afford to assume the large debt on these churches’ property. However, now that dozens of churches want to leave, including churches having valuable property that could be sold to support the annual conference’s ministry, very few annual conferences are willing to let those churches go without a prescribed disaffiliation pathway.

Only two annual conferences have announced a specific policy for disaffiliation that will apply after December 31, 2023. And these policies depend upon the consent of the bishop (who in some cases will be new by the end of 2024) and the agreement of the annual conference. There is no certainty that even these annual conferences would allow large numbers of churches – or congregations that hold valuable property – to disaffiliate. A prescribed pathway in the Book of Discipline is the only sure thing, and even then, some UM leaders have found ways to create loopholes or ignore such provisions when they want to.

    1. “Fighting is unhealthy.” The article states, “just the act of taking the vote has divided churches across the United States. … We need to move from a conflict-centered church to a mission-centered church. … Extending the fight does not extend the Kingdom of God.”

There is no question that conflict in a church poses a challenge. If conflict is handled well, it can help a church’s ministry move forward. Handled poorly, conflict can devastate a congregation.

The same is true for a denomination. As the 2019 General Conference demonstrated, conflict in our denomination has reached destructive levels. If fighting were so unhealthy, centrists and progressives would have stopped fostering conflict over the church’s traditional sexuality standards that were affirmed at every General Conference since 1972. Instead, they kept promoting a fundamental change in the church’s beliefs and teachings around marriage and human sexuality, leading to the impasse following the 2019 General Conference.

In the aftermath, many church leaders, including Mainstream UMC, realized that, to resolve the denominational conflict, it would be necessary to allow conflict at the local level, as churches discerned whether their future lies within or outside the UM Church. That realization led those leaders, including Mainstream UMC, to endorse the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. That endorsement was intended to allow local churches to discern their future and potentially disaffiliate under more favorable terms than those contained in Par. 2553. Unfortunately, Mainstream UMC and other centrist and progressive leaders withdrew their endorsement of the Protocol, leading to a chaotic disaffiliation process that fostered far more conflict than was envisioned under the Protocol. If fighting were so unhealthy, centrist and progressive leaders would have kept their word and continued to promote the Protocol as the most amicable disaffiliation proposal available.

But now, having once endorsed a disaffiliation pathway that was more standardized and less costly, Mainstream UMC wants to end disaffiliations entirely. It is disingenuous for Mainstream UMC to claim to want to end the fighting when they have been part of promoting conflict in the church and abandoned the best opportunity available to minimize that conflict.

If fighting is unhealthy, so is coercing local churches to remain in a denomination that is changing its beliefs in a way contrary to the wishes of that local congregation. A forced covenant is no real covenant at all. That is what many churches find themselves in now, either because they have been denied the ability to disaffiliate under Par. 2553 or because their annual conference has imposed costs for disaffiliation that are impossible to pay.

Why is a disaffiliation pathway needed?

Simply put, a new disaffiliation pathway is needed to correct the injustice that has been done to some churches. Bishops have denied churches outside the U.S. the possibility of using Par. 2553 to disaffiliate. The few churches that have successfully disaffiliated outside the U.S. have mostly done so outside the boundaries of the Discipline. Most churches outside the U.S. have no wish to defy the Discipline to disaffiliate. In simple fairness, the UM Church should provide United Methodists outside the U.S. the same opportunity to discern their future and disaffiliate as that given to U.S. United Methodists.

It is readily apparent from the Mainstream article that some U.S. centrist leaders do not think it is important to treat non-U.S. members fairly. In fact, the article contains no mention of the situation outside the U.S. Myopically, it treats the U.S. situation as reflective of the global situation, or else does not think it is important to consider the needs of over half the members of the denomination residing outside the U.S.

The other injustice needing to be corrected is how some congregations have been treated by their annual conferences. Some annual conferences have done everything possible to prevent any of their congregations from disaffiliating. Some had long, tortuous processes that discouraged churches from even considering applying to disaffiliate. Others forbid churches from hosting speakers to share a pro-disaffiliation perspective with the congregation or worked through pastors to prevent congregations from even considering the possibility. Most egregiously, some annual conferences have imposed draconian costs of 20 to 50 percent of the church’s property value, as well as other fees and expenses that artificially inflated the cost of disaffiliation to the point of impossibility. One church in California would have to pay over $60,000 per member to disaffiliate.

Furthermore, some bishops and district superintendents advocated for churches to wait to consider disaffiliation until after the 2024 General Conference. Their argument is that nothing has changed, that the UM Discipline still reflects the official position of the church. And that no one can predict what the General Conference may or may not do in 2024. The implied promise is that after the 2024 General Conference there will be a disaffiliation pathway for these churches to use. If the General Conference does not pass a disaffiliation pathway, that promise will be broken.

To rectify these injustices, members of the Africa Initiative (an organization speaking for and equipping African church leaders) have submitted a new Par. 2553 and another new paragraph allowing non-U.S. annual conferences to disaffiliate. Good News and our sister organizations have agreed to support these proposals as the best option to provide fairness for churches still wanting to consider disaffiliation, whether inside or outside the U.S.

History will look back on this time to see how we as Methodist Christians have treated one another. Let both history and our surrounding world see that Christians can be gracious to one another, even in conflict!

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