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. [I published this article hours before that ruling came out. All of the below still holds––now people hold their breath waiting to see the fallout from the ruling and waiting for a recommendation from our Commission on a Way Forward.]

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.