Unity and Doing No Harm

Shortly after General Conference 2012, the 11-member Interim Operations Team (IOT) submitted a report to the church regarding the Call to Action Plan. As many will recall, that plan was worked into legislation, significantly amended, and passed by 60 percent of the delegates, but then ultimately struck down as unconstitutional by the church’s Judicial Council.

In its brief eight-page post-mortem, the team wrote the following: “We repeat, for emphasis, and to assure that there will be no misunderstanding:  Business as usual is unsustainable. Dramatically different and new behaviors, not incremental changes, are required. We have not yet seen the degree of shared sense of urgency, . . . that our situation requires ”  (emphasis included).

When we review the trajectory of The United Methodist Church over it nearly 50-year history it’s easy to understand the urgency of the IOT’s statement. Since its creation in 1968 the UM Church in the United States has gone from a church of 11.1 million members to 7.3 million members (as of December 31, 2013 according to latest figures compiled by the General Council on Finance and Administration).

The denomination lost 3.8 million members between 1968 and 2013. That is a big number, so big it’s hard to put in perspective.  So we might think of it this way: that is equivalent to losing a 231-member local church, every day, of every year, for the last 45 years straight. In that same time span, the U.S. population has grown by 58 percent, while UM membership has plunged by over one-third.

Since 1968 we have gone from approximately 42,100 local churches in the U.S. to 32,500, for a net loss of 9,500. Of the approximately 32,500 churches left, 71 percent of them average less than 100 in worship attendance, and just over half average less than 50.

At many annual conferences this year, someone will inevitably take to the floor and expound on the importance of “unity” and “doing no harm.” Too often, however, these calls are not backed up with any credible plans for actually maintaining unity or arresting the harm already inflicted on a church in steady decline.

Calls for unity and doing no harm are often the easiest thing to say at an annual conference. But unfortunately, these speeches are at best high on passion, but low on substance. At worst, they are distractions that keep us from owning up to the genuine, deep, and irresolvable differences among us. And finally, they keep up from making the dramatic and systemic changes necessary to reform and renew the church.

It seems reasonable, nearly 50 years later, to ask ourselves, “On the whole, how has the unity we have experienced enabled us to accomplish our mission?” And, “Has it not been  harmful  to allow a 40 year plus disagreement over one issue to consume so much of the church’s time, energy and resources, while losing one-third of its membership and suffering a nearly 25 percent net loss of its local churches?”

In the end, unity and doing no harm cannot be purchased at the expense of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unity and doing no harm cannot be purchased at the expense of leading people to lives of faithful discipleship.  And unity and doing no harm cannot be purchased at the expense of our working for God’s justice, mercy and truth.

It will be a sad day if we march into oblivion  united  and meekly  doing no one any harm  because we refused to do challenging and hard things, and because we refused to hold one another accountable.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.


  1. Was Jesus nice? How do you answer that question? Confrontation is an act of Love. Do Parents confront their children when the see something is obviously wrong or immoral is happening or about to happen? We yell, scream if a child is to cross a highway and is in danger. We instruct teenagers about the pitfalls of immorality and abuse of our bodies by many things. We do all this if we love them. Because someone has a PHD, we often acquiesce to their degree or status of position at our peril sometimes. Clergy and Laity have not made people to be accountable to each other or to the Church. We have lost our basics and have not warned; we have not loved one another. We have not been an obedient Church or Individual. Therefore there has been no Unity. A Church divided against itself can not long stand. I think we have lasted this long as God in his mercy has said he would not snuff out a smouldering candle.

    • Susan Clark says

      Amen. “My sheep know my voice, they will not follow a stranger”.
      There are too many voices vying to be heard; attempting to drown out the still small voice—the only voice that truly matters. That voice speaks—not to demand and condemn but lovingly invite; and often with a broken heart when one walks away from truth. God’s Word has been established and will stand forever.

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