Why Traditionalists Are Not Leaving

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey observes the results from a Feb. 26 vote for the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

In a recent blog post, the Rev. Adam Hamilton outlined the results of two leadership meetings held to identify options for a way forward for The United Methodist Church from the perspective of moderates and progressives. He identified two options his groups are considering:

  1. Leave to form a new United Methodism
  2. Stay, resist, give the Good News/Confessing Movement/Wesleyan Covenant Association the gracious exit they’ve been looking for in hopes that they will leave, and then reform the United Methodist Church for mission and ministry for the 21st century

Is Option 2 a realistic one? Will traditionalists really leave? Let’s take a closer look.

Traditionalists have not been eager to leave the denomination. It is a mistake to think traditionalists have “been looking for” a gracious exit. For over 50 years, Good News has enthusiastically encouraged evangelicals to remain in The United Methodist Church and help reform it. We have heard from hundreds of clergy and laity that they would have left United Methodism long ago, if it were not for Good News. Our ministry’s whole reason for existence is to help bring reform and spiritual renewal to The United Methodist Church, not to lead evangelicals out of the church. There have been multiple times over the past 25 years when leaving might have seemed like a good idea, if that were the direction Good News wanted to take. Yet we have steadfastly committed to staying and helping make the church better.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has consistently said that its goal is to reform United Methodism. It has stated that, if the church were to change its position in order to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, only then would the WCA seek an exit for those wanting to maintain the current, biblically-based teachings on marriage and sexuality. When it looked like the One Church Plan might pass the special General Conference, the WCA engaged in extensive contingency planning in order to be ready for such an exit, should it be needed. But exiting the denomination was never the first priority of the WCA.

To fair-minded observers in the broad center of United Methodism, it would be more than a little befuddling to ask traditionalists to leave after the General Conference adopted a Traditional Plan. It would not make sense for traditionalists to abandon the denomination when it affirms traditional standards on marriage and sexuality.

Readers of the proposal at General Conference knew that the gracious exit that was part of the Traditional Plan was primarily for those who could not live with the current requirements of the church. We acknowledged that there might be a few traditionalist congregations that might desire to leave because of their unique local circumstances, perhaps feeling isolated in an overwhelmingly progressive annual conference. But in an attempt to implement the Golden Rule of treating others as we would want to be treated, we sought to implement as generous an exit path as possible for progressives who could no longer live under the church’s Discipline. Ironically, it was the moderates and progressives who opposed an exit path and blocked our attempts to ensure it was constitutional. The very ones that it was for, rejected it.

Traditionalists believe that we stand in the line of the Wesleys and Asbury, Otterbein, Boehm, and Albright. We see ourselves as purveyors of the same doctrine, the same disciplined way of discipleship, and the same spirit that prompted the founding of Methodism in England and America. Justifiably, traditionalists would be reluctant to depart from that inheritance.

United Methodism’s teachings on marriage and sexual ethics stand in continuity with 2,000 years of Church teaching and 135 years of Methodist teaching. It is those who want to jettison our teachings on marriage and sexuality who should be unencumbered to launch into a new direction with a new vision and a new denomination (Option 1 in Hamilton’s scheme).

Traditionalists are unwilling to abandon our brother and sister United Methodists outside the United States. Generally, United Methodists in Africa, most of the Philippines, and Eastern Europe and Eurasia hold to the same traditional perspective on marriage and sexual ethics as traditionalists in the U.S. They make up the vast majority of United Methodist members outside the U.S. Devoid of evangelicals and traditionalists in the U.S., our international brothers and sisters would have few partners left whom they could trust to share their theological perspective. It would set up a dynamic of conflict between U.S. United Methodists and those outside the U.S. Such a conflict would probably spell the end of a global United Methodist Church. Persistent attempts to create a U.S. central conference demonstrate the move away from global Methodism to national Methodism on the part of some. The hostile reaction of some moderates and progressives toward African and Russian United Methodists who spoke out for the traditional perspective at General Conference are harbingers of the coming conflict, should U.S. traditionalists leave the church.

Traditionalists believe we have the votes to fully pass and implement the rest of the Traditional Plan at General Conference 2020. With Africa gaining votes and the U.S. losing votes, and with the full ten-day time frame available, revised versions of the provisions that failed to pass in St. Louis or are declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council can be passed and implemented. The denomination can continue to move in a more traditional direction, opening the way for other reforms that can make the church more effective for 21st century ministry. Why would traditionalists leave when their prospects for further success in reforming the church are growing increasingly brighter?

There are many reasons why traditionalists are reluctant to leave The United Methodist Church. But traditionalists would be open to a mutually agreed separation that multiplies Methodism into two or three new denominations. In that case, no one would be “leaving” the UM Church, but everyone would be on the equal footing of deciding on a new affiliation with a new denomination.

A scenario of multiplying Methodism would seek to treat everyone fairly and equally. There would be no winners or losers. All annual conferences and local churches would be able to make an informed choice about which new Methodist expression they want to be part of. The consciences and convictions of all would be respected because all could belong to an expression that embodies their convictions.

The contingency planning that the WCA has done could provide the foundation for a new evangelical Methodist denomination. The current Discipline altered to include the Simple Plan or the One Church Plan could provide the foundation for a new progressive Methodist denomination. Both groups could modify and reform their church structures in a way each believes would best position the church to engage in 21st century ministry.

Unhindered by the theological conflicts over the authority and interpretation of Scripture, marriage, and sexual ethics, each expression could focus more intently on its vision for mission and ministry. The possibility for two new vital expressions of Methodism could spark the turnaround that our denomination needs after 52 years of decline.

Multiplication/separation is a lot different than “leaving.” And Good News has maintained for a number of years that some form of separation, allowing different groups to follow their own path in ministry, is the only reasonable way to resolve our theological conflict.

Interestingly, this multiplying Methodism scenario is not included among the progressive/moderate options, based on Hamilton’s published report. It appears that some progressives and moderates may still be stuck in binary win/lose, leave/stay models that ensure continuing conflict, rather than leading to peaceful resolution. One hopes that they will be willing to entertain other options. If they are banking on traditionalists leaving The United Methodist Church, they are simply setting us all up for another hurtful and divisive General Conference.




6 thoughts on “Why Traditionalists Are Not Leaving

  1. I read Adam Hamilton’s blog and his failure to consider a graceful exit for progressives is a glaring hole. Why do you suppose he considers only the options of a graceful exit for traditionalists, or the splintering of the existing denomination? Fundamentally the progressives, like Hamilton, can find other existing denominations that already allow what they want. If they insist on a Wesley-version of it, they can certainly start their own. I keep returning to the conclusion that it’s just easier to take over an existing organization and change it to what suits them. In their thinking, the exit path in the traditionalist plan was made for the traditionalists, and they didn’t want it to be gracious then – they wanted the traditionalists to lose and leave with nothing. Adam Hamilton seemed very proud that they had ‘people of color’ at their meetings but does not ever say that about traditionalists, who relied very heavily on votes from Africa! I pray that those who cannot abide by the Discipline will accept a graceful exit – for the traditionalists will gladly offer it to them. The progressives, like Hamilton, neither sought nor attempted to offer traditionalists a graceful exit before the vote demonstrated that they didn’t have the votes to win. It is terribly disappointing to me that, despite all of us sharing a commitment to Christ, both sides can’t show charity. I believe the traditionalists have been very admirable in their attempts to treat the other side according to the golden rule. It seems that the one church plan supporters, at least the leaders of that group, are so convinced they are right and that the other side isn’t just wrong – they’re evil – that treating the traditionalists contemptuously is somehow consistent with God’s love. This does not demonstrate to the unbelievers that Christians are any different – if squabbles are just as nasty among believers – why join them? I hope the progressives can see this and take it to heart and seek a just and loving separation so that both sides can aim more fully at their vision of what it means to be Christ’s followers today.

    1. Hi Bryan.

      I think you misread the blog by Hamilton. (I think Rev. Lambrecht did too, but I’ll touch on that in a minute)

      “As the groups began to discuss what happens if the Traditional Plan is retained at the next General Conference, participants seemed to gravitate to two different paths forward: 1. Leave to form a new United Methodism, or 2. Stay, resist, give the GN/CM/WCA the gracious exit they’ve been looking for in hopes that they will leave, and then reform the United Methodist Church for mission and ministry for the 21st century. ”

      That’s straight from the Hamilton blog, and I can see where it can be misconstrued. But the very next paragraph:

      “The first path, creating a new UMC, would need to be done in concert with the GN/CM/WCA coalition and the Central Conferences, through some kind of dissolution of the UMC and the creation of two or three new Methodist bodies in its place. Annual conferences might decide which of the Methodist bodies they would associate with, and churches wishing to associate with the other Methodist body would vote to join another annual conference.”

      Leaving would require collaboration with the Traditionalist side of the UMC house. A graceful and grace-filled discussion on how to move apart, and how to make this not contentious. It’s actually a variation of the Connectional Conference plan that got shot down, but seems to have much more viability than originally thought.

      Rev. Lambrecht – I want to put out an apology to you. I responded to this same article on the GoodNews site; my response has not been posted yet, but in retrospect I feel I was overly aggressive and accusatory. I do think you misread the Hamilton piece, but it was out of line for me to suggest that you did so willfully or faithlessly. I apologize for that, and if my response is posted I will make a similar statement there as a follow up.

      1. JR – you are assuming that any exit would be graceful. Any exit, even painful, would require collaboration to some extent. There is no indication of what terms they would expect each group in the dissolved entity to take with them or how shared resources would be divided. Simply stating that this would happen does not imply a graceful process. Grace requires honesty. Many one church plan supporters are in open revolt against the Discipline. I have seen newspaper stories where UMC clergy have proudly declared they will not abide by the Discipline or the decision of the special conference – this is all done with the knowledge (and I would assume approval) of the Bishop of the Wisconsin Conference. I assume the same is true in other progressive conferences. The traditionalists made it clear they would let any dissenters depart gracefully, but that only happens if the traditionalist plan wins. The math now clearly indicates that this will happen, but that wasn’t certain when the traditionalists made that offer to the one church plan supporters. Now that the math of delegates firmly indicates that the traditionalist plan will be fully enacted, it’s a question of how graciously will the one church plan devotees (what Hamilton calls ‘non-compatibilists’) exit? Since they are proudly declaring their resistance, it seems only remotely possible that the exit will be graceful. If the denomination splits into two or three separate denominations, it will be the traditionalists that remain UMC and the leavers can become whatever they want to become. I hope you’re right and that it’s graceful, but as I said, there’s no indication from Hamilton and his group that they intend to go quietly or gracefully. I hope I’m wrong, but they have made very harsh statements and I’ve seen no indication that they will change their tunes. I will continue to read Adam Hamilton – I rather liked his material in general up until this recent convention, but this sullied my opinion of him greatly. I understand people can have dogmatic differences, but shamefully lying about others positions and calling them unloving is inappropriate.

        1. Hi Bryan,

          Tensions are understandably high right now, which is where some honest leadership is necessary. Grace has to come from both sides in this (and I’m not sure what the middle of the road churches are going to do here if they are forced to take sides).

          Hamilton’s blog points that out. Lambrecht’s post seems to miss that Hamilton says pretty all the same things about multiple expressions of Methodism that Lambrecht supports in this same post. And remembering that we, as Methodists, have more in common than we have differences, would hopefully be a great basis for us to start working on the graceful plan to have a split.

          This won’t be a quick resolution – but if we can avoid sniping at each other (something I’m admittedly trying to work on) and try to find common-ground points of agreement, it certainly would go more smoothly than if we entrench ourselves on our respective hills and wait for the other side to take action.

          1. JR – I think what we agree on is that both sides agree that a turning point has been reached and now it’s a matter of how the various factions will split and how many new paths are formed (2 or 3?). What we disagree on is whether the departure plan from Hamilton et al involves grace or is simply accepting that there will be a departure. I don’t know if you receive the email from the Bishop from Wisconsin – if you can read it then you will see why I think the progressive side, on which the Bishop has taken a firm side, is not willing to extend much grace to evangelicals. The Northern Illinois Conference has also made it’s support for the one church plan and progressives very clear with little if any support for evangelicals. I would expect the North East and North West to be more of that kind of response. Hamilton was certainly very agitated and came across as very hostile to opposition to his preferred plan. There was a lot of talk of accepting the vote as the word of God when the progressives expected to win, but when that desired outcome failed to materialize, the tune changed to how unloving traditionalists are and how much the progressives would resist. It was a replay of the 2016 Presidential election – the progressives were worried that Trump and Republicans wouldn’t accept the outcome of the election, but when Clinton lost, it was the progressives who refused to accept the results and committed themselves to resistance. In contrast to Adam Hamilton, I think Tom Lambrecht and the leaders of the evangelical position have admirably refused to resort to invective or call the opposition unloving. They have extended the progressives every opportunity to come to a peaceful resolution. I have not seen Tom or anyone else from the evangelical side say anything that required an apology or would be deemed hurtful or untrue. What I would like to see is that, at the 2020 convention, an agreement is made that terminates the UMC. It is okay for a denomination to come to an end when factions within it are simply incompatible and they need to follow their own paths. Getting on their separate paths in the best shape is more easily done if all parties know and accept that is the best way forward for all concerned. The evangelicals can form their new path. The progressives can form theirs. Anyone in the middle can form a 3rd path, or find a home in the other two paths. A mechanism needs to be solidified where each church/pastor can decide which path they transition to, and each conference leader (DS, Bishop, etc.) would need to decide which path they join. Mutual resources will need to be handled amicably. Debts and other fiscal responsibilities will need to be handled fairly. These decisions should be fairly straight forward, but when emotions are running high and decisions are based on hostility and anger, the most loving and equitable path of transition becomes unattainable. Will the resistance calm down to where it can reasonably negotiate a parting? If the vote were soon I would be highly doubtful that emotions can be reigned in. However, it’s a year away and maybe that will be enough time for everyone to calm down and accept the most obvious path forward that is most loving and gracious to everyone. The leaders should all be about doing God’s will, not their own will, so hopefully God’s grace will allow us all to see past our own preferences and biases and seek an amicable and sanctified division that allows us all to praise God more effectively.

          2. Hey Brian,

            I think I totally agree with 90% of your post – and the rest is really just a different perspective lens that I see through, so that can be ‘I just don’t see it the same way’ stuff.

            I think that there was a strong expectation on the Progressive side that change would happen, and a lack of awareness caused the result to be more painful than expected.

            That drove a lot of the short term responses – resist vs find a new path. Now that heads have cooled a bit, I think that there are a LOT of people getting on board with the Connectional Conference idea, with it really being the most logical and least disruptive (and since it’s really disruptive to the status quo, that’s saying something).

            Lambrecht really hit on a number of the same issues as Hamilton did in his piece (at least a significant part of it).

            I think we’re over the hump on ‘what do we need to do here’ – I think there’s a momentum now towards changing the structure and figuring out how we can share some good works and such, while having differences of opinion on certain doctrinal stuff. I think there’s a lot of logistics to work through, not the least of which (in my opinion) would be an actual census of active members so we can figure out how it all needs to work out. Then determining pastoral assignments, church designations, etc. I wish I could say that we could get the plan worked out for GC2020, but I don’t think that can happen. I think we might be able to get some of the basic groundwork started, but I wonder how many members we’re going to lose while we figure out what exactly we are doing.

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