In Favor of a UMC Separation

I wrote this shortly after the UMC’s 2016 General Conference. At that time, UMC separation was still a quite unpopular opinion. Perhaps because of that, and for a few other reasons at that time, I never published this. Now I come late to the game––after majorities of both the WCA and UMC Next have called for an amicable separation. For the reasons given below, I’m pleased that this is now a majority opinion. I decided to publish this now (1) to add another voice to those calls for separation, and (2) to provide a slightly different perspective than those I’ve seen.

I occasionally meet with married couples who are in marital crisis. I tell them that I’m biased. I love each of them and want what’s best for each of them. In that, I’m not neutral.

I also tell them that I’m biased in favor of reconciliation. Reconciliation and divorce are not equal options to me. Divorce is inherently destructive. It does (nearly) irreparable harm to something that was sacred. I will not celebrate it. At best, I’ll recommend it in grief, as the best option among a number of sad options.

But despite my bias, I will occasionally recommend divorce. I reject the easy answer that says, “God hates divorce!” and makes it off-limits. That has sent many people back into abusive relationships, thinking it their duty to stay. We can’t idolize “no divorce” and allow the violence to continue.[note]A note: I won’t necessarily recommend divorce just because infidelity has occurred. If genuine repentance has followed, I’ll actually encourage the violated spouse to attempt forgiveness and reconciliation, if (s)he is willing.[/note]

I’ll recommend divorce when someone has suffered violence (sometimes both parties) and there’s reason to believe the violence will continue. That violence may have come in the form of abuse (physical, verbal, emotional, sexual…) It may have come in the form of infidelity to the marital covenant without repentance.

I won’t recommend divorce just because people have “fallen out of love,” claim “incompatibility” or say they have “irreconcilable differences.” In those situations, I urge people to find a way to honor the covenant they’ve made, hard though it may be.

UMC in Crisis

The UMC has many similarities to a marriage in crisis. We need to call this what it is––a relationship that has suffered violence and shows every sign of that violence continuing. Specifically in our treatment of human sexuality, two large groups feel like[note]I am using “feels like” and “perceived” for both groups’ feelings throughout, not to diminish the experience of either group, but to acknowledge that both groups may quibble with the other’s definitions of violence and abuse.[/note] they have suffered violence. “Progressives”[note]I don’t particularly like the categories of “progressive,” “traditionalist,” and “moderate” that I’ll be using here. But I’ve struggled to find better terms that don’t consume too much time in defining. And when I tried to write this without giving an identifying name to a group, it was difficult to understand. I wish I could do better than concede to these terms that I don’t like. Sorry that I haven’t been able to here![/note] believe that the UMC’s current official stance regarding human sexuality is discriminatory, hurtful, and makes our church an unsafe place for them. For this group, this is an abusive relationship.

“Traditionalists” believe the UMC’s current official stance regarding human sexuality is orthodox and necessary. They believe it’s unfair and abusive when they are called bigots or discriminatory for holding to these stances. They, too, have felt unsafe, especially during some acts of protest. They also feel like they’ve experienced infidelity to the UMC’s clergy covenant without repentance.

If I were counseling this married couple, I think I would make the observation not just that they both feel like they have irreconcilable differences, but that it’s hard to see how both sides won’t continue to experience violence. In fact, tensions appear to be escalating, not deescalating. The accusations on both sides are becoming more serious, not less. The situation is getting more inflamed. I’m not sure any objective observer would disagree.

Trying to work it out together is only inflaming the situation. Every time we get in a room, we grow further apart. Even the good times (e.g. worship services at General Conference) still carry the tension of an underlying agenda. Sacred moments like Holy Communion at General Conference and the consecration of Bishops have become occasions for deep division and strife.

Time to Separate

If I were meeting the UMC in counseling right now, I would urge a separation. I’m not urging divorce yet, but unless there’s a clear sign that some patterns in the relationship are going to change, it’s moving in that direction.

It’s time to separate, to work on ourselves, to see if the inflammation can go down. A heart surgeon recently told me that after a heart attack, she only does what’s most urgent. She waits until the inflammation has gone down to take care of the next issues. It’s not good to try to fix too much while everything is inflamed. This is where we are. We need to see if some of the inflammation can go down. That won’t happen while we continue living under the same roof.

We can’t keep repeating the “unity” mantra in the same ways that some repeat “God hates divorce,” all the while allowing the violence to continue. It’s time for a separation. Time to live under different roofs, different sets of house rules.

The highest hope: we separate as amicably as possible (don’t burn every bridge as we go!) and give these groups some time for the inflammation to go down, time away from a hostile atmosphere. In that relative calm compared to the storm, we reassess ourselves and consider how we can handle difficulties in a relationship better the next time. How do we handle disagreement without it turning into violence? How do we continue to offer grace and charity in times of conflict? Hopefully there comes a point that growth has occurred, inflammation has subsided, and we can perhaps attempt reconciliation. It’s also possible, though, that this reconciliation will never come. That’s a hard and sad reality. We won’t celebrate it; we’ll grieve it as a bad option. But it may be less bad than all of our other options.

Of course, we have more than two groups affected by all of this. This affects members of UMC churches across the world. It affects boards and agencies. It affects any true “moderates” who just wish we could stop fighting and move on. These are all like the kids or the family in the whole messy relationship. They’re suffering right now.

  • They suffer because we can’t do other important things since we’re too busy fighting. The UMC has many issues to deal with and finds itself unable to get to them all because of the time and energy this fight consumes. (Does any other large organization have a structure where they only have a 2-week window every four years to make major decisions? This seems ludicrous.)
  • They suffer because they’re forced to take sides. On every vote I’ve seen at our General Conference, there are two options: yes and no. On nearly all, the “progressives” are on one side, the “traditionalists” on the other. The “moderates” are left picking sides.[note]A note after GC2019: those who have claimed the “centrist” or “moderate” position voted consistently with “progressives” at that meeting. They have rejected “traditionalist” positions as exclusionary and intolerant but have not acknowledged that many “progressive” positions exclude and will not tolerate what the “traditionalist” position requires.[/note]
  • They suffer the embarrassment of the never-ending fights. Some UMC church members are confused about why their church’s leaders seem to be always fighting and posturing. Some are put in the uncomfortable position of explaining why their leaders can’t get along.

Any separation – and certainly any full divorce – will clearly be harmful to the whole family. It could especially threaten some of our best ministries. What happens to a great mission like UMCOR? What happens to “Imagine No Malaria”? I hope they would be like the loved children in the middle of a messy divorce––still receiving support and attention from both sides. In fact, I hope that they might benefit long-term from this kind of separation. Their best option is to have a full UMC that has learned how to live at peace with each other. Where this fails, though, the best of the bad options for these missions may be a separated UMC––a UMC that can give them the time they deserve rather than spending all of their time together fighting.

A separation is terribly harmful to the true “moderates.” Unless a miracle occurs and we find a way to stay together peaceably, the moderates will again have to choose a side.[note]Even worse for them would be if the constitutions of both “progressive” and “traditionalist” new denominations contain elements they can’t accept, and they end up separated from both.[/note] Or they’ll have to find a solution that appears more like split custody––keeping some affiliation with both sides, yet not living entirely in the house of either. I honestly don’t know what that looks like in practice. But I’d like to explore it. These are the ones who don’t want a full break with anyone. We should work hard to facilitate that. (A note to update this, originally written in 2016: I think the Connectional Conference Plan was our closest effort to achieving this. I’m still sad this didn’t get serious attention in 2019 and is unlikely to receive serious attention in 2020.)

Finally, a separation is harmful to UMC church members across the globe. Now they have to explain not just fights but schism. This kind of separation will not play well in public. It could be embarrassing for them to even be a part. More than ever, this kind of separation will highlight our denomination’s disagreements on human sexuality. Every individual member may feel like they have to choose. Which side will they take on this single issue?

An important note to those church members: You are not required to choose and conform! Those who believe we should ordain people in same-sex unions and perform same-sex marriages will still be welcome in most “traditionalist” churches. Those who believe we should not will still be welcome in most “progressive” churches. Unless it is an absolute violation of your conscience to be in a church that holds a certain position on this issue, you can remain where you are. Full conformity of belief is not required!

I’m no lawyer. I don’t know the ways we can structure this that are legal/constitutional. We need someone to help us work out those complex legalities, to work out how we handle all of our mutual assets, how we make this as amicable as possible. But with deep grief, I’m suggesting that it’s time to separate. Divorce is an awful option. But it is a better option than allowing the violence to continue.

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4 thoughts on “In Favor of a UMC Separation

  1. What you leave out is the effect the irreconcilable theological differences is having on the local church and individuals. As an adult I have been part of a single local UMC since 1981. For the first 20 years, things rocked along–not perfect–but doable; basically I made 20 years because of who and what the local church was regardless of what professional walked in the door. Beginning in 2001 we begin receiving pastors that could not have been more different from each other in theology as well as their view of what the church needed to be. The pastor that arrived in 2001 totally reordered the church to his satisfaction including the badly handled addition of a contemporary worship service that turned a newly constructed facility into a permanent contemporary worship facility. Many of us had contributed to the building because it was supposed to provide a much needed larger space for the church to gather for social and recreational purposes–which became impossible because for this pastor contemporary worship was going to “save the church” for the future. There was an influx of new members that was countered by long term members disappearing or distancing themselves. I call his tenure the “do this and they will come era”. I am now a member of a church that I never joined that blows in the wind with whatever any professional wants to do. With the most recent previous pastor–who had a pretty good liberal/progressive bend worship–attendance hit an all time low of less than 300 and Sunday School attendance also plummeted. With the current pastor, who is of a more traditional bend, worship attendance has seen a modest increase. Furthermore, every successive pastor has done something to undo the massive changes that were implemented during the “do this and they will come era”. We now a little over 300 in attendance spread across three worship services when we used to be 450 in two traditional services–with the vast majority attending late morning worship. Sunday School attendance which used to be well over 300 is now less than 200. Our claim to fame is not worship–which used to be considered the heartbeat of the church–but is rather our very successful Pumpkin Patch; it is so successful, we are known as the Pumpkin Church and orange is our new liturgical color for October. There is absolutely no need to go church hopping because with every pastor a new church with a new focus appears. I did not return to the UMC as an adult simply to chase down whatever it is the next person’s understanding of what the church needs to be. I really thought I would develop a better understanding of God and myself–that did not happen either until the church left me so broken and confused I went searching and discovered a God who is truly worth worshiping–the triune God of holy love who loves even me more than I could ever think about loving myself. I also discovered that Methodism is in existence because John Wesley was passionate about connecting individuals to God and to each other and crafted a “practical religion for a plain people”. Bottom line is the theological plurality that is running amuck within the UMC is creating irreconcilable differences which is not doing local churches or individuals one bit of good. I am no longer surprised that the American UMC is in the midst of 50+ years of uninterrupted numerical decline that has the potential to make it disappear. And as far as staying connected in any form or fashion with a group that is pushing the “new and improved” sexuality ethic–it is not happening. The person in the pew with a long time history with the UMC is the most underrepresented voice in this debacle and we are not all mindless clones who will simply jump when we are told to jump. We are very capable of reasoning things out and coming to our own conclusions.

    1. Very well said as a pastor for over thirty years I’ve had to pick up the pieces and start over in every church I’ve been in. The church needs stability and long term consistency if it is to thrive. Changing direction and theology every few years does nothing but kill churches.

  2. I am a lifelong Methodist and a centrist/moderate. This is a wonderful and helpful perspective and I hope it is widely shared and read. I am a lawyer and I too don’t know how to be effect a loving separation – we need some good minds and hearts working on that now.

  3. I think Teddy has raised a very significant question, with important theological implications. There are good parallels with the example of marriage partners who are breaking covenant or feeling abused and see no way forward. Although he mostly appeals to the question of married couples, the lingering theological question in the background is “what is marriage in God’s eyes and communicated to us in Scripture?” The Church is the Bride of Christ.

    The question his essay raises for me is whether The UMC is actually a true marriage. Without clear commitment to what the marriage vows call for, there is no marriage other than a legal contract. What I’m beginning to see is that from our very beginning in 1968, we formed a ‘union’ but under different terms than the Church universal has always understood. We set aside our former confessional stance as a particular tradition within the Great tradition, made doctrine simply an ‘historical landmark’, and settled to be a kind of theological movement of pluralistic theologies guided by a theological ‘method’, the Quadrilateral. In other words, we have had a divided mind about the nature of our union since ’68. And all our subsequent quarrels and abuses show this. Couples can “agree to disagree” about certain things, but not about the very nature of the marriage covenant itself.

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