Editorial: Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett deserves better. And so do we.

Rob Renfroe

Rob Renfroe

In September, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert announced his intention to perform a “holy wedding ceremony” on October 26 for two men in Birmingham, Alabama (see page 25). Shortly after his plans were made public, North Alabama Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett issued a statement that she had asked Bishop Talbert to reconsider. Conducting the service, Bishop Wallace-Padgett stated, would be a violation of “United Methodist Church law” and would be disruptive of her conference’s work to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to care for hurting persons. Bishop Talbert refused Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s request.

Bishop Talbert’s action is unprecedented. All UM pastors are prohibited from undermining the ministry of another UM pastor. And bishops have traditionally lived by a higher standard, asking permission of a resident bishop before accepting an invitation to speak or even attend a meeting within his or her annual conference. Bishop Talbert’s lack of respect for his colleague’s ministry is unparalleled and his willingness to harm the ministries of many faithful pastors and congregations is disgraceful. Bishop Wallace-Padgett and the churches of North Alabama deserve better.

Almost as shocking as Bishop Talbert’s violation of church law has been the lack of a public response by other UM bishops in support of Bishop Wallace-Padgett and the Book of Discipline (Bishop Leland of Alabama-West Florida being an exception). There is a process that must be followed before the Council of Bishops as a whole can issue a statement regarding Bishop Talbert’s actions. But there is no process that would prohibit individual bishops from making a public declaration that he or she supports Bishop Wallace-Padgett. There are no formal procedures that preclude any bishop from stating he or she is offended by Talbert’s disrespect of a fellow bishop.

Perhaps a more public statement from the Council of Bishops will be issued between the time we go to press and the date of the ceremony in Alabama. If so, Bishop Wallace-Padgett deserves a statement that does not in any way equate Bishop Talbert’s breaking of our covenant with her commitment to upholding it. The church deserves better than a tepid, institutional response that tries to make everyone happy and that comes down “somewhere in the middle.” We need leaders — not institutionalists. And we don’t need a statement about how well-intended Bishop Talbert’s motives may be. We deserve to hear from our bishops that no one is free to break our covenant publicly and purposefully, regardless of the motivation, without being held accountable. And we need them to state clearly that they themselves will be the ones to hold their own responsible for his or her actions. Anything less will only increase the sense of disappointment and distrust that many laypersons feel toward those in positions of leadership.

Bishop Talbert’s announcement that he would perform a service of marriage for a gay couple is hardly surprising. At General Conference 2012, when United Methodists reaffirmed our position that God’s design for marriage is the union of one man and one woman, Bishop Talbert publicly called upon UM pastors to defy the will of the conference. Referring to the church’s prohibitions against gay marriage and the practice of homosexuality “as immoral and unjust,” he stated that these rules “no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.” He reiterated his call for UM pastors to marry gay couples a month later when he preached the ordination service for the California-Pacific Annual Conference.

That same summer, 79 leading pastors and laypersons sent every active bishop a letter, asking that the Council censure Bishop Talbert and the 14 other active and retired bishops who stood with him when he made his original call for disobedience in Tampa.

There was no response to the letter. None. Not for seven months. And then only after an additional communication requested an acknowledgement that the letter had been received by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council. None of the other bishops have ever responded. The pastors who signed the letter serve some of the largest congregations in the denomination. Ten serve churches with over 2000 in attendance. Together the churches represented by the signers are expected to pay over $10 million per year in apportionments. But not one bishop felt the need to respond to the letter or to make sure the president’s office had. We deserve better.

Receiving a clear message from the Council’s lack of response to the letter, Bishop Talbert continued his call for disobedience to the Book of Discipline. At the Reconciling Ministries Network’s FaithQuake Convocation, he offered a special blessing for the union of same-sex couples present at the evening worship service on Sunday, September 1, 2013. Using the Declaration of Marriage printed in the United Methodist Book of Worship, Talbert pronounced that same-sex couples present who had given themselves to one another by solemn vows were married in name of the Creator. The public response from our bishops charged with guarding our faith and doctrines? None. We deserve better.

I know our bishops have their burdens and busy schedules. And I am certain they care about the church. But we deserve leadership that publicly stands up for a colleague; defends the doctrines of the church; tells a rogue bishop to cease and desist before he is disobedient, not after; and leaves no doubt in the minds of our laypeople where the church stands. We deserve that much.

No functioning organization on the planet, when one of its leaders announced that he or she is planning to break its policies in a way that would publicly disrespect one of its officers and throw the organization into a crisis, would respond that “there’s nothing that can be done until we meet a month and a half from now.” Instead its leaders would act quickly, decisively, and publicly to guard the institution. Don’t we deserve at least that much from those who have been charged with guarding the faith?

As we go to press, Bishop Talbert has not yet performed the service in Birmingham. Assuming he fulfills his pledge to do so, we call upon the Council of Bishops to file charges against Bishop Talbert. Not only will he have undermined the ministry of the pastors of North Alabama, which is a chargeable offense; he also will have disrespected and undermined the ministry of one of its own, Bishop Wallace-Padgett. The Council could issue a general statement disapproving of Talbert’s actions and leave it at that. But Bishop Wallace-Padgett deserves better. The gracious dignity of her response and her principled commitment to upholding the covenant that holds us together requires the Council hold Bishop Talbert responsible for his actions.

The Council could issue a statement and then wait for a pastor or layperson to file a complaint. But we, the members of The United Methodist Church, deserve better. We deserve leadership. We deserve the kind of leadership that holds its own accountable. We deserve the kind of lead­ership that does not simply state it is committed to upholding the Discipline ­­­— we deserve the kind of leadership that acts to do so. We deserve the kind of leadership that sends a clear message to every pastor who would follow Bishop Talbert’s example that he or she will not be allowed to destroy our unity or undermine the work of other UM pastors. We deserve that much, if not better.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. 


  1. Judy Billings says

    No matter on which side of this issue one stands, AS THE B.O.D CURRENTLY STATES, our denomination does not sanction gay marriage. One may ask for change in the denominations stance at General Conference — as has been tried. As a local pastor, I am bound by the Book of Discipline in my behavior, in my leadership, and in my lifestyle. Whether I agree with everything in the B.O.D. is immaterial. My understanding has always been that this is also true for ordained elders and I have seen no exceptions provided for bishops. Anarchy is not acceptable in our church leaders, even after they retire. If someone does not agree with our rules, try to change them within the legal structure or find another denomination.

    • Judy,
      I agree with you. I am a layperson and find that the people in the pews are not aware of the actions being taken by Bishop Talbot and the semi approval stance of the Council of Bishops. The Bible is unequivocal concerning homosexual practice as being an abomination. The Bishops are to lead the Church on moral and Biblical issues. They have vowed to uphold the Discipline and theology of our church. It is time for them to censure and defrock those who decide to break with the BOD and if they do not, they need to turn in their resignations. This is heartbreaking for our denomination.

  2. Chris Ellis says

    While I appreciate Renfroe’s position and continued worked for the denomination, I tire of reserved comments in the face of such blasphemy. Where is the anger in proportion to this damning madness? The push for acceptance of sexual perversion is the strongest attack of Satan against the church in the modern era and it seems we are content to do little but offer neutered suggestions of minimal duty by those charged by God to keep the faith. Where is the joint effort to withhold funds to cripple these spineless Bishops? To think, they gave no real response to legitimate complaints of the above mentioned clergy and laypersons. They are all corrupt as evidenced by their silence.

    Talbert has been disobedient with or without performing this ceremony. He is disobedient to God and to the Scriptures by promoting the heresy of turning grace into license. What is the Book of Discipline to that?

  3. Dewayne Guyton says

    I agree 100% with this article!!! I’m just a supply pastor doing the same job as any other pastor but I’m angry!!! Since getting behind the scenes of the UMC I’ve never seen so many liberal minded peoe in leadership positions. I’ve never seen more CAREER minded pastors who are more interested in furthering their career in the UMC than they are in furthering God’s Kingdom! THAT is another problem we face on getting heard! I’m in the North Alabama Conference and it’s as if the mindset is “don’t talk about it or people will see it”. It’s as if people are afraid to speak against it for fear of other denim stipend finding out we have battles with division! ALL denominations have battles with division!!!

    My question is this, WHY CAN’T WE BE HEARD?! We can’t be heard because no one is willing to speak out openly!!! We will sign petitions and send letters but no one truly wants to rock the boat! Then when you find someone willing to rock the boat, the question is, “what’s the first step?”

    Brother I commend you on this article!!!

    • Chris Ellis says

      More over, I think we are afraid to be viewed as aggressive or bigoted or angry. Yet, I think of Paul wishing full castration upon the “Judiazers” who taught the erroneous doctrine of circumcision for salvation (Galatians 5:12) and Jesus, physically driving people out of the temple.

  4. Dan Matthews says

    In my mind, the Council of Bishops are as individuals and as a body committing sins of omission, by turning their heads and looking the other way. They are all guilty of “It is all about Me!” They do not want to be considered as being not PC (politically correct). I pray for them and all the UMC pastors that struggle daily to conduct themselves within the guidelines and laws of the BOD. I’m a firm believer if they can’t stay within those guidelines and laws, they should leave the UMC.

  5. Garry Ruff says

    Our bishop in Mississippi has issued a statement in our conference newsletter (and perhaps elsewhere). Here is the text:

    Dear Mississippi United Methodists,

    I greet you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I write this pastoral letter to you to express my deep sense of despair that Bishop Melvin G. Talbert (retired) has decided to perform a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same sex couple in Birmingham, Alabama. This is in direct violation of ‘The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church’ that declares our clergy shall not perform marriage or celebrate such ceremonies. The other troubling part of Bishop Talbert’s action is that Bishop Deborah Wallace-Padgett, had a conversation with Talbert and asked him to respect her authority as the presiding bishop of the North Alabama Conference and not to perform this ceremony. Bishop Talbert made a choice to not honor her request. Therefore, I consider that he has not only disregarded the restriction of ‘The Book of Discipline’ in regard to same sex marriages but also violated the covenant between clergy that we will not undermine each other’s ministry.

    So, how shall we respond to this? My response is to make it clear that I consider Bishop Talbert’s actions as clear violations of ‘The Book of Discipline.’ I ask that you join me in a time of prayer for our Church. I ask that we continue to display a Christ-like spirit in the midst of our disagreement over this issue so that even while we debate, those that do not claim Jesus as Lord and Savior will see that we yet love one another. I assure you that a process will be followed to address Bishop Talbert’s actions and I ask that you pray for a Godly and just resolution of this matter.

    I am in full support of the Council of Bishops’ statement and I call on the Church to exercise Christian restraint as we move forward in this process, living into the POWER of We.

    Yours in Christ,
    Bishop James E. Swanson, Sr.

  6. Well said, Rob. Most in the church are growing WEARY of this kind of rebellion in the name of Christ and the UMC. If he is not held accountable, the covenant is devoid of meaning. I wonder if it isn’t time for evangelical UM churches to place 100% of the apportionment money into escrow and hold it there until such time that the bishop is held accountable for this egregious action.

  7. Nelson "Bill" Temple says

    Thank you Rob for having the Holy Spirit filled conviction to speak truth. I sent a letter to the COB following the General Conference voicing my concern about the direction our church is taking and the lack of leadership displayed by the Council. – I did not receive a response. I followed that with a letter to our Bishop. I did receive a response but no action or plan of action.

    If we as a church will not teach and preach the word of God as revealed to us in the Holy Bible, then it is time to close the doors of our churches. It is far better to have them closed than to present to a lost word false teaching, preaching and example.

    We need to be in earnest prayer for God’s guidance.

  8. DL Dusty Herring says

    Thank you, Pastor Rob, for this most excellent article and for keeping us up to date with all that is going on with this extremely troubling issue. I don’t understand why the Council of Bishops hasn’t called an emergency meeting to immediately suspend Bishop Talbert’s credentials, at least until a Church trial could be convened. No matter what side any UM member’s opinion falls on the gay marriage issue, we cannot tolerate this flagrant violation of the Book of Discipline. The schism of our Church is now here and we’re past the point of no return in stopping it.

  9. So, because churches pay $10 million in apportionments, they deserve to be responded to? As far as I’m concerned, the church is not for sale and we could certainly do without that $10 million when yiu think that’s an appropriate reason that you should be responded to. Sounds quite childish and sounds like you’re running out of excuses. A response should have been given because it’s appropriate, not because pastors who make too much money feel an injustice was done by their being or feeling ignored. Pull your money from the church and go on your own…no one really cares about your money. And don’t try to make it about Bishop Wallace-Padgett. It’s about advancing your own agenda and continuing to refuse to come to the table and work toward some semblance of reconciliation.

    • Degradation of truth and compromise on Biblical principles and laws is NOT reconciliation. Do not be deceived. Start your own religion, but stop trying to twist our Bible to fit your desires and opinions. Reconciliation is being willing to die to our wants and desires and pursue God’s truth no matter what…laying down our lives and sinful nature to God and His Word is to be truly reconciled.

      • I’m sorry…I was unaware of the bible belonging to anyone other than God. I have never heard of it referred to as “The Christian Right’s Word.” Only as God’s Word. I seem to remember Jesus exemplifying some reconciliation and it didn’t involve rules and regulations as you suppose. It involved turning the present model of religion upside down. What is everyone afraid of? What’s the danger of loving people who are different and offering ministry to them? Do we not all sin and fall short of the glory of God? I pray that you live a perfectly sinless life, Jay. If not, I pray God will have mercy on your soul. To me this is less about the “gay-issue” as much as it is about a big church with a big fancy-pants pastor (so he thinks) who got his feelings hurt because he felt and continues to feel ignored. Haters gonna hate.

  10. Jay Jonson says

    How appropriate that this wedding of two good men and presided over by a compassionate and prophetic Bishop is taking place in Birmingham, where Dr. Martin Luther King admonished “good Christian people” for refusing to embrace justice and love. Bishop Talbert is a profile in courage. Thank God for him.

    • That’s a good point, Jay. And although it may be unfair to the two bishops mentioned in the Rob’s editorial, it’s ironic that Dr. King’s famous ‘Letter From Birmingham City Jail’ was written in response to the Methodist bishops of those same two conferences (North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida) who, along with other religious leaders, had urged Dr. King to move slowly in pushing civil rights. I can’t help thinking that Bishop Talbert is on the right side of this, ethically, biblically, and even with respect to the Book of Discipline.

      • And your thinking would be flawed. The Bible and the Book of Discipline are VERY clear on this matter! Start your own religion and denomination if you want to pursue such untruth…but leave our church alone! I am so tired of people comparing something that is so spelled out in the Bible as a sin to civil “rights” issues. It just simply is not the case.

        • What a sad reply. No debate, no discussion, just accept our views or get the hell out of “our church.” It’s not that Bishop Talbert’s actions are an affront to the Bible, the BOD or the UMC, but that they threaten the exclusionary attitudes of you and your church – and rightly so.

  11. The only thing that matters in this world is the Word of God. It seems that certain members of the body of Christ have forgotten that and have abandoned the truth for man made doctrines and policies.

  12. This is the first I have heard about this. I read about it in Tim Tennent’s blog and have followed his link to this article and am shocked and appalled that this would go on. As a youth minister that is expected to hold to the Methodist doctrine of the church that I serve, I am sad and actually just plain ANGRY that this has gone on and yet again, spineless “Christians” in leadership and in layperson positions continue to look the other way and not stand up for Biblical truth and Methodist doctrine. And we wonder why the church is shrinking and “dying” and becoming less and less effective. God will NOT bless that which he is not the center of. He will not bless and guard those that pick and choose His laws and further blemish His Bride. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE stand up and be counted, do not be silent and do not let the enemy win by further degrading the faith and principles that John Wesley and so many others have given their lives for. Be godly…be willing to stand up and take a stand for Christ!! This is NOT a civil rights issue to the church!! That is a lie that is being promoted as truth and it just is flat untruthful and deceiving! The BIBLE IS VERY CLEAR, do not believe those who twist the truth to self serve their agenda, the devil has been doing THAT for thousands of years, heck he even tried to convince Jesus with twisted truth in his temptations, but Christ didn’t fall for it, neither should we!! Be willing to do the hard thing! If we do not, I fear for our church and the world around us, because God will NOT be mocked! Strength, blessings, wisdom and peace to those who pursue God and are willing to be His voice of truth in our church and world, especially on this issue. And THANK YOU to Rob Renfroe and Tim Tennent and men like them that ARE standing up and speaking truth and not hiding these atrocities. Thank you and God Bless YOU!

  13. Charles Kent says

    I certainly agree that what Bishop Talbert has done is an abomination. I also agree with Rob Renfroe that disciplinary action must be taken. However, I am disappointed the neither Mr. Renfroe nor the Council of Bishops, included Scripture in their statements. The Book of Discipline is to be respected, however, Scripture is our ultimate AUTHORITY and we seem to be ignoring it. This is dangerous and disappointing.

  14. There aren’t any excuses or arguments about this issue. They should stop and realize that this its plain and simple and God does not allow this. He should never be allowed to practice again. See how nice and simple God made this for us.

    • It seems Joel and others only want to accept Jesus’ invitation to come follow Him on their own terms (cf Mt 19:16-22). God loves you too much to allow that; surrender to Him, and all else will fall into place. This is the church’s message, including that of the UMC. At the foot of the cross, there are no gay or straight people, only people accepting Jesus’ atoning gift and forgiving love.

  15. “Shocked” in Casablanca

    Thank you for that informative piece. Is leadership being too judgmental to do their job? What is going on? (and it has been going on for some time — this didn’t happen overnight) I saw a particular issue at a church and yet not one voice has risen to defend the rules. I was astounded when it was even mentioned publicly, in a Sunday service, in answer to a direct question, that the pastor did not see how he could say no to performing a same-sex wedding. I nearly fell out of the pew. And the followup from that was….silence. Seeing it in leadership is yet another example of the same response. Alabama –to Maine – to Oregon, we have a problem!

    “We deserve better”, indeed. So does Debra. Apparently had she been bucking the rules, rather than defending them, no doubt countless people would have come to assist her. Since she wasn’t … you figure it out. (more could be said)

  16. John E. Baker III says

    Why would I care to belong to a church with a “Book of DISCIPLINE”? I wouldn’t. I thought “God is Love”? I and my sisters were all baptized in the same UMC in Sumter County; older sister was married there and Momma & Daddy buried there! Haven’t darkened its door for over 12 years. And I won’t.

    Why should I listen to 1) a WOMAN [in “authority”!?! In the CHURCH!?!] and 2) one who can’t make up her mind WHAT her last name is?

    I won’t.

    Besides, when y’all start stoning your children to death for talking back to you and you’ve stopped eating that Gulf shrimp, THEN you might have a leg to stand on. You’d better start following ALL of your holy babble [yes, that is intentional] before instructing others to follow what is known as “the clobber passages,” i.e., those used to clobber LGBT folks with. Meanwhile your “second-largest denomination” in the U.S. is going to be the first-largest to completely die and become irrelevant.

    From what I’ve seen, no one will miss you. But you’ll have plenty of SBCs to keep you company.



  1. […] “Bishop Talbert’s action is unprecedented.  All UM pastors are prohibited from undermining the ministry of another UM pastor.  And bishops have traditionally lived by a higher standard, asking permission of a resident bishop before accepting an invitation to speak or even attend a meeting within his or her conference.  Bishop Talbert’s lack of respect for his colleagues’ ministry is unparalleled and his willingness to harm the ministries of many faithful pastors and congregations is disgraceful.  Bishop Wallace-Padgett and the churches of North Alabama deserve better.”  (Read entire article.) […]

  2. […] Rob Renfro, president of Good News, an unofficial caucus that supports church law in this regard, wrote in support of Wallace-Padgett and criticized the Council of Bishops for not speaking out. His piece was posted before the Council of Bishops executive committee issued its […]

  3. […] I think the editorial by Good News President Rob Renfroe entitled “Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett Deserves Bette…” found in the November/December 2013 issue of Good News magazine sums up my feelings quite well. […]

  4. […] Rob Renfro, president of Good News, an unofficial caucus that supports church law in this regard, wrote in support of Wallace-Padgett and criticized the Council of Bishops for not speaking out. His piece was posted before the Council of Bishops executive committee issued its […]

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