All In for the United Methodist Church

Over the last few years, I’ve talked to dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who are “hedging their bets,” “keeping their options open,” or “waiting to see what happens” when it comes to the United Methodist Church.

These are uncertain times, to say the least. Right now is a particularly uncertain time, with a landmark Judicial Council ruling soon to come. That ruling, however it goes, is likely to send some people to the exits.

So several ministry candidates tell me they’re anxious to know what will come of the UMC. They’re not ready to make any commitments until they see more. I’ve heard of church members who have scaled back their giving or reallocated it until they know more.

While my worshiping community was looking for property, people told me often that it might be wise to wait a while before we buy. “You’re in a great position! If things don’t go well, you can leave and there’s no property for them to take!” (For those unfamiliar, one of the greatest forms of compulsory unity in the UMC is our property clause: if you leave, your property doesn’t go with you.)

We’ve chosen a different route. My community purchased a building a year ago, a month before the much-anticipated 2016 General Conference of the UMC. I believe we’re the newest property owners in the conference.

That was a nice, practical move on our part. (How I love being settled into a neighborhood that we can reach out to! And not rolling sound equipment in and out each week.) But it was also a statement.

We’re all in for the United Methodist Church. I’m all in for the United Methodist Church. And maybe you can be, too, even now, with uncertain times ahead. Especially now, with uncertain times ahead.

We sometimes confuse “all in” for something more or less than it should mean. Here’s how I mean it:

All in means in for good

No hedging bets. No “just in case this blows up” decision-making. I believe in the church and the denomination I’m part of today. That’s not the same as saying I think we have everything right (see below). But I will not withhold or redirect my prayers, presence, gifts, service or witness. I won’t stop giving to the UMC and to its general fund. If I can’t be all the way in, I shouldn’t be in at all.

I’ve advocated the same for our local church. Part of our commitment to the larger connection is that we will pay our full apportionment. We will do that even when we disagree with something happening in the denomination or in the conference. We don’t withhold funds in protest. We will do that even when we hit severe budget crisis (as our church did in 2008 and some suggested we reduce our apportionment giving as part of the remedy). We will do that even when we’re starting new communities with sparse resources. Our Offerings Community has paid all in from day 1.

We do all of this because we expect to be part of the United Methodist Church for good. So we will love and support and honor this church. We will be faithful to her. Even when it’s difficult. Even when we’re not confident the church has been faithful.

(Want to run quickly toward divorce/schism? Fight unfaithfulness with unfaithfulness.)

All in doesn’t mean without qualification

The kind of steadfast faithfulness I just described is close to a “no matter what.” But it’s not no matter what. We can have only one unqualified allegiance: to God the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Allegiance to God entails a commitment to the Church, the body of Christ, but it doesn’t entail an unqualified commitment to the United Methodist Church as a denomination.

So when is the commitment to the denomination worth breaking? I ask myself two questions:

1 — Does the United Methodist Church still glorify God in this world?

In my humble opinion, Yes. Not in whole—we have failed to be an obedient church, we have not done God’s will, we have broken God’s law. We need God’s forgiveness. But I believe that on the whole, God is still glorified and exalted through the UMC.

2 — Am I able to make the commitments I make to the United Methodist Church in good faith—neither compromising my allegiance to God, nor hedging on my commitments to the UMC?

Yes! I love our doctrines and can preach and teach them in earnest. I can maintain our form of government and polity (see more below). And I’m committed to live and minister according to the historic questions we ask our clergy, even when I fail in practice. The United Methodist Church has not required me to do anything that violates my commitment to God, nor has it made me abstain from anything that my commitment to God demands.

Should the day come that I can’t say “Yes” to those two questions, then I’ll need to leave this denomination for the sake of integrity and allegiance to God. If possible, I’ll first stay and “fight clean” for change (see below) until I’m forced to either disobey or leave.

So long as I can answer “Yes” to those two questions,[1] I’m in. All in.

What about you? When is the commitment to the denomination worth breaking for you? Can you identify the bounds and your reasons for them?

All in means full obedience

There is no way around this. We can’t claim allegiance to a person, a group, or a system when we openly disregard their rules. This is a point that lies at the heart of Wesleyan theology. Wesley defined sin as “a willful transgression of a known law of God.” Those who knowingly and willingly break God’s laws are in rebellion against God. They cannot claim full devotion to him while willingly disobeying him.

By the same token, you cannot be “all in” for the UMC while willfully disobeying our rules. Those pastors who practice re-baptism are in open rebellion against our denomination. So are those churches that have chosen to withhold their apportionments. So are the pastors who have chosen to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.

But I’m trying to save/fix the UMC by my ecclesial disobedience,” many of these say.

We have means of disagreement, outlined processes to work toward change. Those are ways for us to “fight clean,” in ways that are difficult, yet preserve the unity and sanctity of our body. When people choose rebellion, they’ve chosen destructive tactics instead, “fighting dirty.” They can’t claim it’s for love of the UMC.

My community has had a special conviction about this point. Over the last year, we identified some ways that we weren’t in full compliance with the UMC’s approved liturgy and order. We could explain our non-compliance pragmatically and theologically. Actually, we preferred it. But this isn’t finally our decision. Though we preferred our way, we need to be all in. That means full conformity to our order and liturgy.

Two notes on obedience that seem to have caused confusion:

1 — Wesley specifically talked about willful disobedience for a reason. Not all disobedience is willful. Some is unknowing. We can claim Christ as Lord while sin continues unintentionally in our lives. Imagine the person who goes on making decisions blinded by selfish ambition or vain conceit, even while (s)he remains devoted to Christ. It’s a departure from God’s intentions for that person, but it’s not open rebellion.

We have a number of churches, pastors, and members who are unintentionally disobedient to the UMC. For some easy examples, the UMC proscribes preconsecration of communion elements, come-and-go communion, and Christian-hosted Seder meals. Technically, all of these could be chargeable offenses. If pastors and churches know this and continue, they need to stop! Many are simply ignorant to these, though. They’re not in open rebellion against our Church and the commitments they’ve made to it. (For those of you reading this, you’re no longer off the hook.)

2 – Sins of omission and commission are different in their nature. When a pastor fails to recommend fasting or abstinence by both precept and example, (s)he needs to do better, not be put on trial (unless this has gone from unintentional negligence to active refusal). Failure to do all the good we can, when it’s unintentional, is a negligence to be improved, not a rebellion to be put down.

Sometimes we confuse full obedience with full agreement. So another corrective:

All in doesn’t mean full agreement

Several years ago, United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague was put on trial for heresy. Among other things, Sprague openly denied Christ’s eternal divinity and bodily resurrection. If he said any of our historic creeds, he had to imagine he was putting air quotes around a lot of those words (the “virgin” Mary… the third day he “rose” from the dead…). I believe Bishop Sprague was a textbook heretic—openly denying doctrines that are and have been central to the Christian confession throughout the church’s history.

He was ultimately cleared and continued to serve as a bishop. I disagreed with that decision. Not a mild, “I-would-have-preferred-that-go-another-way” disagreement, but a distressed, “we-have-a-heretic-as-a-bishop!” disagreement. And every time I gave to my local UMC while he was bishop, part of those funds were going into our Episcopal Fund, which actively supported his heretical teaching.

That’s distressing. But I didn’t leave the United Methodist Church because of it. If ongoing breach of orthodoxy among our bishops is a deal-breaker, I would have needed to flee a while ago.

I took issue with that decision about Bishop Sprague. If I had been writing at the time, I would have written in strong opposition. No matter which way the upcoming Judicial Council decision goes, and no matter what our Commission on a Way Forward proposes, many people will speak up in strong opposition. That’s okay. You can disagree and still be all in. So long as you’re constructive and well-reasoned, not just belligerent, we need people who will speak up in disagreement. The UMC hasn’t yet attained entire sanctification.

But I’ve experienced the ways that people associate disagreement with hostility…

For instance, I believe the UMC has created practices of licensing and ordination that aren’t deeply grounded in a robust theological understanding of Christian ministry and ordination. We have significant problems with how we’re treating ordination. I’ve been accused of being unMethodist for that belief. But that first line is a direct quote from the Report of the UMC’s 2013–2016 commissioned study of ministry. Some of our brightest people, tasked with an in-depth study of our ministry practices, believe that we have significant problems in how we’re handling ordination. Those people are not at all unMethodist. They’re concerned United Methodists who believe we can do better.[2]

I’ve also raised public concerns about how we’re compensating our clergy––in some ways I stand by and some that I’d love to re-do.

Points of disagreement like this have been a point where others have accused me of being less than all in. I imagine others have been accused of being unMethodist for disagreeing with our stances and practices regarding human sexuality, for disagreeing with how some of our boards and agencies operate, or for the issues they have with itineracy.

None of these make you unMethodist. You can disagree and be all in. We need people who believe in the UMC, believe we can be better as the UMC, and will fight in appropriate ways for us to get better, all the while remaining obedient to our present structures.

All in doesn’t mean Elder

A final important point: we need to dispense with a common attitude that elder is all in and everything else is somehow less. Deacons understand this and have had to prepare their standard answer to “Why not elder?” Licensed local pastors especially understand this. Dozens of people have suggested that my position as a licensed local pastor means that I’m not fully committed. One person approached me at a conference and said, “So you’re the one who found the loophole in the system.” Not at all! I’ve found my place in the system. This is no loophole. Many of our local pastors are doing great work for the kingdom and for this denomination. Their commitment and faithfulness is no less than that of the ordained folk around them.[3] (I spoke recently to a retired DS who lamented how difficult it is to remove lazy and ineffective elders [a small minority, I think] due to their guaranteed appointments and the threat of lawsuit. This is no issue with our unprotected local pastors. If we’re not all in, we’re at risk of being out.)

The group that can most easily claim equal commitment to any other is our largest contingent: our lay members. Who are some of the most faithful and committed people in the UMC? Our long-time (often several-generations) faithful laypeople. It’s time to stop measuring commitment by ministry orders.

 

With a Judicial Council decision looming, a Way Forward yet to be recommended, and a special General Conference coming in 22 months, I’m all in. No waiting, no hedging, no keeping options open. How about you?

I write about theology, ministry and the UMC, usually about twice a week. Click here to subscribe by email.

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[1] I admit they’re subjective and broadly open to interpretation.

[2] They go on to say that we have emphasized the rights and responsibilities associated with conference membership at the expense of deploying ordained persons to do the work of the ordained. Our attachment of ordination to full conference membership (instead of to the work set aside for the ordained) has subordinated the primacy of the Church’s mission to the Church’s structure.

[3] In light of this, I’ll share another area I believe we need to change in our system. Currently, lay members may represent their conferences at General Conference and so may ordained clergy. Local pastors, however, are barred from participation. As full members of the United Methodist Church, we should have opportunity to be included. That could be as laity (after all, we are unordained––which would make us laity according to almost all of church history) or it could be as clergy (as we are designated in the UMC), but it should be somewhere an option.

Posted in UMC

Silencing Our Leaders: The Demotion of UMC Bishops

 

mcalilly

Picture courtesy of https://bishopbillmcalilly.com/

At the United Methodist Church’s 2004 General Conference, Rev. Bill McAlilly of Mississippi stood on the Conference floor to represent a group he referred to as the “Methodist Middle.” His statement about unity and the sin of silence was profound:

The faithful United Methodists who are not represented or identified with any coalition group, those of us who are neither on the right or on the left, must be included at the table. More often than not, we are silent, and perhaps that’s our sin. But we fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as ‘the opposition.’ If those of us in the middle can contain those on either side, maybe we can find the unity we seek.

Eight years later, he was elected as a bishop. That would ensure that he would never make a statement like this again at the UMC General Conference. He was effectively silenced.

Instead, he came under fire at the 2016 General Conference, accused of bias in the way he presided over a conference session. This happened because the role of our bishops at General Conference is to be neutral facilitators of parliamentary procedure in its most dense and nuanced form. Their roles at annual, jurisdictional and central conferences are much the same, by what I have observed.

Can we stop and all acknowledge that this is absurd?

We take some of our strongest leaders, elect them to our highest office, then expect them to come to our most important gatherings and not lead. Does any other organization in the world do this?

Not only do we ask them not to lead, but instead we put them in the uncomfortable position of acting as expert parliamentarians. Is this really what we need from our bishops? Is this why we elected these faithful men and women to these positions? If so, our first questions to episcopal candidates should not be about their character or their theology. We should ask them instead whether a motion to end debate is debatable, and whether it requires a majority or 2/3. (For episcopal aspirants, the answers are no and 2/3.)

This has gotten so ludicrous that at our most recent General Conference, delegates voted on a motion for the bishops to lead. We voted about whether our bishops should actually offer leadership. During that discussion, Rev. Tom Berlin remarked, “This morning, Bishop Ough said that at General Conference, the role of the bishop was to preside. Quite frankly, Bishop, we think it’s your role to lead. We are asking for your leadership.”

It is mystifying that anyone had to say those words. Imagine the United States taking a vote on whether our President should offer leadership. Imagine Facebook taking a vote on whether Mark Zuckerberg should offer leadership. Imagine your church taking a vote on whether its pastor should offer leadership.

We elected Bill McAlilly to serve as a bishop based on his leadership in the Church. Then we removed him from the conference floor, where he had boldly stood and spoken at previous conferences, and we placed him in the presiding chair to determine which should come first, a speech against or a point of order. What a bizarre way to handle leadership!

More often than not, we are silent,” McAlilly had said years before, “and perhaps that’s our sin.” If this statement applies to our delegates, should it not apply to our bishops, as well?

Is facilitating the will of the people the best leadership our highest-elected leaders have to offer? Do they have no direction to offer us? No word that may attempt to bring opposing sides together? Surely the leadership they offered as pastors and delegates was more than this. Why have we silenced them now?

Our Book of Discipline stipulates that one role of our bishops is to “preside in the general, jurisdictional, central, and annual conferences” ( 415). But it also stipulates that they are responsible for “Leadership––Spiritual and Temporal” ( 414). Note that these are listed as separate paragraphs. Because presiding is not leading. Nowhere do I find the suggestion that our bishops should abdicate their leadership duties at our most important conferences, so that they may instead preside there. But perhaps we see these two roles as conflicting. How can someone preside without bias while offering leadership and direction? If this is the case, I suspect I speak for the majority when I say that we need our bishops’ leadership more than their presiding. We can find others to preside for us. We must expect our bishops to lead.

A simple proposal: let’s hire a trained parliamentarian for our next General Conference (whether 2020 or specially called). That role is an illogical and cumbersome burden to place on our bishops. They don’t need to be the world’s greatest experts in parliamentary procedure, and we don’t need to consume their time and energy with training in that skill. What we do need is their leadership and voice. And we shouldn’t have to take votes to request it.

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Why the Wesleyan Covenant Association? a guest post by Bill T. Arnold

wesley stained

A note of introduction from Teddy:

By the standard definition of the word, the United Methodist Church is in turmoil––a state of high confusion and uncertainty. Short of a miraculous move of God, we will not achieve peace quickly or easily. In times like this, I’m especially thankful for those who risk to lead. I’m thankful for those who show a deep love and respect for our Church and its institution and an equally deep love and respect for people, regardless of agreement on issues. I believe peace––slow and hard, though it may be––will require these kinds of leaders.

Because of that, I want to share with you a guest post from Dr. Bill Arnold. I think you’ll hear in this post all of those things I listed above. If his leadership reflects the tone and leadership of the newly forming Wesleyan Covenant Association, I have high hopes for what may happen through that alliance.

—————–

Why the Wesleyan Covenant Association?
by Bill T. Arnold

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) is a new alliance of congregations, pastors, and laypeople, coming together to enhance and support vibrant, scriptural Christianity within United Methodism. (For more, see here.)

The question for many is why? Why form the WCA? And why now?

I have been involved with the WCA since its beginning, and will participate in the launch event in Chicago, October 7. My reasons are complicated, and reach back to my ordination as an elder in the Church, and beyond.

When I was ordained in the UMC, I answered certain familiar questions that many have answered before me. These are part of what we call the “Historic Examination for Admission into Full Connection” as an elder in the church (Book of Discipline, paragraph 336). These questions were formulated by John Wesley and have been asked of every Methodist preacher from the beginning with little change. They are, of course, “historic” and are therefore not obligatory as official polity. Few would insist, for example, that every Methodist minister must recommend fasting and abstinence “both by precept and example” (question #16). And yet, while not official polity, they are treasures left to us by Father John himself, and they contain wonderful insight into what we ought to be and do as Methodist clergy (such as diligently instructing “the children in every place,” #14). Along these lines, I find especially instructive the following three, which seem as relevant now as in Wesley’s day (questions ##11–13).

Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
Do you approve our Church government and polity?
Will you support and maintain them?

In the context of Methodism’s early history, one of the reasons these questions were asked was to address the debate between episcopal forms of government versus congregational forms. As a United Methodist, I continue to believe the episcopal form of church governance is preferable. In this, I agree with John Wesley in his sermon “Catholic Spirit” in which he embraced an episcopal form of government as scriptural and apostolic. I have been privileged to serve as a member of the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s Committee on Episcopacy for four years. I have seen firsthand the task of our bishops, and I think I have a good understanding of the challenging role bishops have in the Church. I stand in awe and appreciation of our SEJ bishops and I am grateful for the leadership they provide.

But of course, these “historic” questions also relate to the concept of accountability. One of the many beauties of early Methodism was the accountability built into being a Methodist Christian. Even now, we have accountability built into the system all along the way (theoretically), from General Conference (and the decisions it makes contained in the Book of Discipline), through the annual and charge conferences, into the life of every local church. I love our connectedness, and the strength in ministry it provides. And that’s part of why I answered “yes” to the historic questions.

Studied United Methodist discipline and polity? Check.
Approve our government and polity? Check.
Support and maintain them? Check.

So how does all this relate to the WCA? Some pastors, local churches, and conferences in the UMC, have decided, with deliberate forethought, that they can no longer approve our church’s government and polity.

General Conference 2016 did not alter our views on human sexuality. And yet, since the conclusion of General Conference in Portland this May, a number of boards of ordained ministry in some annual conferences have said they will no longer uphold the ordination standards prescribed in the Book of Discipline. Others have declared they stand in “non-compliance” with the General Conference on the question of same-sex weddings and ordination of practicing LGBT+ candidates for ministry. On July 15, the Western Jurisdiction elected a married lesbian as bishop, who will assume an episcopal role in the Mountain Sky Area September 1 (being the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences).

By contrast, the General Conference did, in fact, change our Church’s relationship with the abortion-rights advocacy group “Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice,” by requiring our boards and agencies to withdraw from it. Almost immediately, several annual conferences, in deliberate defiance of the intent and will of the General Conference, voted to join the RCRC.

The accountability of our polity is broken. Our Book of Discipline is no longer accepted as an agreed upon form of administration, holding our Church together as one.

On the one hand, part of me understands and even respects the decision by some United Methodists to declare their open rebellion against the General Conference. They have fought these fights for many decades. They feel the US culture and popular opinion has changed in their favor, and they believe they are standing in a prophetic tradition that requires these actions. They have had enough. They think the UMC is wrong, and needs to be forced into changing its positions.

I hope those United Methodists will allow me to disagree civilly. I think the changes in US culture and popular opinion are alarming and reflect our broken society as much as anything. Besides, I think such cultural changes are irrelevant to the Church’s position on human sexuality. Fifty years ago during the sexual revolution, the Church failed to articulate and defend a consistent foundation for sexual ethics. As a result, the UMC’s current standards for ordination and our affirmation of Christian marriage (joining one man and one woman in union for life) appear to many to be hopelessly out of step with the times. But I believe these are biblical and theological mandates, and in the best parts of Christian history, the Church has stood for these principles. The burden of proof for changing those standards must rest squarely on the foundation of clear and compelling biblical exegesis. So far, I have been unconvinced such a case can be made. I also believe the Church is being called to a more proactive, loving, and robust ministry to persons experiencing same-sex attraction. With regard to the UMC specifically, I grieve over the loss of accountability in our Church’s governance and polity, without which we cannot move forward as a unified branch of the Wesleyan movement.

And so, at this moment in our Church’s history, many have publicly announced their decision to break from the governance and polity of The United Methodist Church. I have chosen this venue, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, as a place to say, just as publicly, that I support and maintain that governance and polity. Through the WCA, I commit myself to uphold and maintain the governance and polity of The United Methodist Church.

The WCA is nothing more for me than a way to embrace Methodism. I love our Church. I love its rituals, its history and heritage, and I love its Wesleyan theology. In short, I love being United Methodist. Other than the influence of my godly parents, God worked through The United Methodist Church more than anything else to redeem my life, nurture my faith, teach me the Scriptures, confirm my calling, and ordain me to ministry.

The WCA is a way of saying all this publicly – of recommitting myself to my ordination vows. I want to be a good Methodist. At this point in time, that means participating in the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

If you agree and are able to join me, I hope you will make your way to Chicago October 7, for this special launch event. You can read our faith statement here and register here.


My thanks again to Bill for his strong leadership and allowing me to share this article here.

What can you do now?

  1. Register for the WCA launch event.
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