Steering clear of obstacles to reform

By Thomas A. Lambrecht

One of my Dad’s favorite pastimes was taking the family boating in our 17’ power boat. I can remember one time when we were boating on the Mississippi River, just after a rain storm. There were sticks and logs and patches of weeds floating everywhere! I had to sit in the front of the boat and watch out for obstacles so I could help my Dad know where to steer the boat in order to avoid them. There were several times our boat hit a submerged log, leading to scratches on the hull and dents in the propeller!

In the same way, we believe that working through the legislative process to make changes in the Book of Discipline and bring about reform in our church helps steer around obstacles that prevent spiritual renewal in the church. Spiritual renewal is a work of the Holy Spirit through committed clergy and laity who yield to the Spirit’s empowerment in faithfulness to Jesus Christ, but organizational obstacles can hinder that work.

Praying and working for renewal without doing the difficult work of reform can be a dangerous and unproductive experience. Reform can steer around obstacles that prevent or limit the Holy Spirit’s work of renewal. Groups and experiences like Aldersgate Renewal Ministries, the Emmaus Walk, and Alpha provide avenues for the Holy Spirit to bring personal and corporate renewal to the church. Groups like Good News, the Confessing Movement, UMAction, Lifewatch, Renew, and Transforming Congregations work at the hard task of clearing away obstacles to renewal. (It should also be noted that many groups in this second category also devote part of their ministry to fostering the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in a variety of ways addressing specific aspects of the church’s ministry. But their primary emphasis at this point in time is organizational reform.)

We normally approach General Conference with a series of proposals that we believe will help open more channels for the Holy Spirit to work. Here are some of the areas we are focused on in 2012.


International Justice within the UM Church

We are in the process of living into what it means to be a global church. We have chosen not to be a federation of national or regional churches. Instead, we see ourselves as part of one unified United Methodist Church with parts of our body located in the U.S., Europe, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and Africa. In keeping with this understanding of ourselves as a global church, we oppose renewed attempts to create a U.S. central conference that would be able to direct U.S. church affairs without the voice or input of our global brothers and sisters.

As of 2009, members of our body residing outside the United States made up over 36 percent of our church’s membership. Yet in some cases, these brothers and sisters from other nations do not have a fair and equal voice in our denominational processes. We need to ensure that delegates have access to properly translated materials prior to General Conference, so that they can adequately prepare. We also need to ensure that delegates have good quality oral translation during General Conference, not only during the plenary sessions, but in the legislative committees, as well. This has been a very serious issue in the past.

After General Conference, there are again issues of translation and participation. Currently, the most recent translation of the Book of Discipline is one done in 1988 into Portuguese. Since the book can change drastically every four years, it is important to secure adequate resources to make the Discipline available and usable in every country where there is a significant population of United Methodists. Good News will be working to see that funds are set aside for that purpose.

Furthermore, the current structure of United Methodist General Church agencies requires only 10 percent of the board to be members from outside the U.S. The new proposed General Council for Strategy and Oversight raises that percentage to about 20 percent for international members, but that is still only about half of what they should receive by virtue of their proportion of membership. Good News will be working to raise the representation of internationals in our church structure.

The most crucial need for UM churches outside the U.S. is trained pastoral leadership. Where church membership is exploding, there is a dire shortage of trained pastors to ensure that churches are rightly guided and members are taught Biblical, Wesleyan Christianity. In some areas, schools for training pastors (not to mention accredited seminaries) are few to none. From 2009-2012, a total of $2 million was to be spent on pastoral education outside the U.S. (compared to $113 million in the U.S.). For 2013-2016, $5 million is proposed. Good News believes this is not enough. That is why we support a petition coming from the Indiana Annual Conference that would allocate 25 percent of our Ministerial Education Fund apportionments ($28 million for the four years) to fund theological and practical training for pastors in parts of the world where United Methodism is multiplying.

Finally, all these new members need leadership, oversight, and accountability. Based on membership and geographical area, the Congo (in central Africa) should receive two additional bishops to lead the growing church there. In 2008, their request was denied. The proposal in 2012 is for only one new bishop. Good News supports the full request of the Congo for two new bishops.


Focusing the Mission of The UM Church

We have a great mission statement in our church, “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” There is a piece missing, however. Growth in spiritual grace and maturity is there. Reaching out in compassionate and transformative ministry is there. But the proclamation and sharing of the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ is not there, at least explicitly. John Wesley said to his pastors, “You have nothing to do but to save souls.” His parting instructions to the newly assigned superintendents of the American church were, “Offer them Christ.”

It is the failure to winsomely and consistently offer Christ to people that has greatly contributed to our membership decline over the past 42 years. That is why Good News supports a proposal to add to our mission statement, “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Salvation of Souls and the Transformation of the World” (emphasis added).

Our church mission gets sidetracked and unfocused when we do not emphasize the importance of evangelism in our training of pastors. Thanks to the Foundation for Evangelism, there is now a dedicated professor of evangelism at every one of our 13 United Methodist seminaries. Unfortunately, what is being taught in too many of our seminary classes does not always encourage and equip pastors to be active evangelists in their local settings.

One professor at a United Methodist seminary was asked about how evangelism should be taught. The professor responded that he encourages his students to share their faith with others, knowing that other people have their various beliefs as well. In other words, Jesus Christ might bring light and truth into my life, but other religions could do the same for others. Jesus Christ is not the savior of the world, only of my world—he is one savior among many.

This belief that Jesus Christ is not the way, the truth, and the life for all people or the only source of eternal life and salvation for all is taken to a new extreme by Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in California. Bolstered by a $50 million gift to the school, Claremont has now become Claremont Lincoln University, which has the mission of training Christian (including United Methodist) pastors, Jewish rabbis, Islamic mullahs, Buddhist monks, and Hindu priests, among others. This is not just an attempt to expose United Methodist pastors in training to the teachings and practices of other religions. It is a commitment to offer official, accredited training to clerics of many different religions, all at a United Methodist school!

The import of what Claremont is doing is made clear by the statement of its president, Dr. Jerry Campbell. He told The United Methodist Reporter that Christians who feel the need to evangelize people of other faiths have “an incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus. The correct perception [of following Jesus] is much more in [the] side of learning to express love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, since all religions lead to God, and people can be “saved” by adherence to any religion, why not have a United Methodist seminary train leaders for all religions?

Such an approach turns its back on our United Methodist doctrinal standards:

• “[W]e are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Articles of Religion, Article IX);

• “The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world … and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone” (Articles of Religion, Article XX);

• “We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (Confession of Faith, Article VII);

• “Penitent sinners are justified or accounted righteous before God only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Confession of Faith, Article IX, emphasis added in all quotes).

If all religions are valid and lead to God, why have believers down through the centuries been willing to suffer and die, rather than renounce their faith in Jesus Christ?

Why was Paul willing to suffer beatings and imprisonment at the instigation of Jewish religious leaders? Why did he not simply say, “You can go ahead and follow the Jewish religion and get to heaven — you don’t need to believe in Jesus Christ,” and save himself much suffering and trouble? Why did Paul and Barnabas risk their lives by confronting the idol-worshippers of Lystra? “We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God” (Acts 14:15). Paul was stoned for saying this until they thought he was dead. Apparently, he had an “incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus.”

Why were the early Methodist circuit riders willing to risk their lives to spread the faith? One half of them died before they were 30 years old, and two-thirds of them died before they had served 12 years. How many people would sign up for that kind of service, if Christianity were just one way to God?

This action by Claremont is a repudiation of United Methodist doctrine and theology and a betrayal of all those who have given their lives as martyrs for Jesus Christ. That is why Good News supports proposals to remove Claremont from affiliation as a United Methodist seminary and to prohibit any United Methodist seminary from engaging in the official training of persons as clerics in other religions. If Claremont wants to advocate for all religions, let them do it without the United Methodist name or United Methodist money!


Inconsistency on Abortion

The United Methodist Church has a nuanced position on abortion. We “support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures” in the case of “tragic conflicts of life with life.” However, at the same time, we are clear that “we cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.”

Marian Liautaud, in her recent book Unnatural Selection, reports that more than 160 million unborn girls have been aborted in Asia alone since the 1960s, due to coercive population control policies. Research by the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute shows that one of the primary reasons why women obtain abortions in the U.S. is for birth control — either because their primary birth control method failed or because they were not using birth control.

From 1973 through 2008, nearly 50 million abortions have been performed in the U.S., with the most recent year showing 1.2 million unborn children aborted. So the vast majority of abortions performed worldwide are for reasons that The United Methodist Church cannot affirm or unconditionally rejects.

However, the General Board of Church and Society and the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries are both members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). This coalition is made up of various religious groups in the U.S. and was “founded in 1973 to safeguard the newly won constitutional right to abortion.” The RCRC’s position on abortion is not nuanced at all. It favors the legality of abortion in any and all circumstances. They have consistently advocated for “partial-birth abortion,” although The UM Church opposes it, “except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.” The coalition believes that abortion coverage should be required in any national health insurance plan. RCRC allows for no circumstance under which some abortion might be opposed or made illegal.

The RCRC is simply out of step with the United Methodist view on abortion. Yet, general agency staff that favor the right to abortion have continually used the United Methodist name, prestige, and money to push for all types of legislation to allow unrestricted abortion and oppose even the restrictions that United Methodists support. It is time for this inconsistency to end. United Methodist laity are tired of the general church using their tithes and offerings to lobby for moral positions with which they do not agree and that are inconsistent with United Methodist teaching.

That is why Good News advocates that the General Conference pass legislation to remove any United Methodist organization from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Close votes at the 2004 and 2008 General Conferences maintained our membership in RCRC. Now is the time to reverse that decision and act in accord with a clear public witness against most cases of abortion.


Effective Leadership

Some of the obstacles to renewal are found in leadership structures that preserve outmoded patterns of the past or that reflect relationships that militate against effective oversight.

Prior to 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren Church had term episcopacy, in which bishops were elected to serve for a set term and then eligible for reelection. Upon retirement, the EUB bishops would return to the order of elders from which they were elected. In contrast, Methodism has always had a lifetime episcopacy, meaning that persons who retired as bishops would always remain bishops in retirement. The union of 1968 formalized this arrangement, with retired bishops continuing as members of the Council of Bishops with voice but without vote.

The result of this system is that we now have 69 active bishops and 93 retired bishops. Having such a large Council makes its functioning cumbersome. Such a large contingent of retired bishops (even though they do not all attend the Council meetings) makes it more difficult to bring about change on the Council. Retired bishops may act as an anchor to the past, preventing new ways of thinking and new directions in leadership. At the same time, because they are no longer serving in active ministry, retired bishops have less accountability for their actions.

Last year, 36 retired bishops came out with a public statement calling for the church to change its position on the ordination of homosexuals and the ban on gay marriage. Such statements have complicated the task of the active bishops, who are trying to lead the church forward in unity.

This is one example of why Good News favors constitutional and legislative changes that would permit retired bishops to retain the status and compensation of a retired bishop, while limiting membership on the Council of Bishops to active bishops and those retired bishops who are elected by the Council to serve in an official capacity or preside over a given area (for example, as a fill-in for an incapacitated active bishop). This would streamline the functioning of the Council and allow the bishops to move forward in leadership of the whole church, while also saving money on meeting costs.

Another area in which effective oversight is lacking is of our United Methodist colleges, universities, and seminaries. Oversight is supplied by the University Senate, a body that is mainly appointed by the Council of Bishops, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the UM Church. Few members of the University Senate are elected by the General Conference and more than half are chief executive officers of UM schools. The current composition of the University Senate makes it difficult to give adequate objective evaluation of UM schools. The temptation is to downplay expectations and criticisms of other schools, so that one’s own school will not be harshly evaluated.

The University Senate also has a vested interest in promoting United Methodist seminaries over non-UM schools. Over the last 20 years, this has led to a drastic reduction in the number of non-UM seminaries approved by the Senate for educating UM clergy. Many prominent evangelical seminaries have been excluded from the approved list, meaning that pastors-in-training are being channeled into more liberal seminaries, when they would prefer a more evangelical education.

The Council of Bishops is proposing a new, independent Commission on Theological Education that would take over the accrediting responsibilities of the University Senate for seminaries. Good News believes that the healthy way to deal with a compromised group is not to create another group to take over its responsibilities, but to reform the membership of the original group. That is why we favor legislation that would mandate that no more than one-third of University Senate members could be professionally affiliated with a United Methodist-related educational institution. All the members of the Senate would be elected by the General Conference. These changes would remove the vested interests and create a more objective body for reviewing and accrediting United Methodist and other educational institutions.


A time of ferment

United Methodism is in a time of ferment. Structural changes and ethical conflicts present the opportunity to further weaken and divide our denomination. At the same time, we can and should seize this opportunity to create a stronger, more focused system of leadership. Clearing away obstacles to renewal would allow us to concentrate on revitalizing local church ministry, proclaiming the Gospel, making disciples of Jesus Christ, and transforming the world. Our structures and processes ought to serve the church in making us more effective in our mission. Good News invites our delegates and all the church to unity in our relationship with Jesus Christ in mission to the world and a pragmatic willingness to adopt the changes that will most effectively lead us in fulfilling Christ’s mission for us.

Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.