Tempering Expectations — Dealing with Impatience

By Thomas Lambrecht-

It is no surprise that many members of The United Methodist Church are growing impatient. It feels like we have been discussing (if not fighting over) our views regarding the church’s ministry with LGBTQ people for a lifetime. Many hoped that the 2016 General Conference would give clarity to our situation. Instead, in true Methodist fashion, we appointed a committee. (I say that with a smile, since I serve on the Commission on a Way Forward.)

I understand that impatience and share it. I have been in the struggle for denominational renewal and reform since the 1980’s.

As we contemplate the future of Methodism, however, we would be well served to adjust our expectations for resolution of this matter to the reality of the extent of our brokenness. If there were a quick and easy fix, we would have enacted it by now. For good reason, few want to be reminded to be a bit more patient. But an impasse that took 45 years to make (and according to Dr. James Heidinger’s recent book, took over a century) will not be solved in six months or a year. By definition, we are dealing with a very difficult, complex, and intractable institutional situation.

Many hope that when the Council of Bishops (COB) releases its proposal in May, we will have a clearer vision of the future of United Methodism. However, we must reckon with the fact that the bishops are unlikely to coalesce behind only one plan. Just as the Commission on a Way Forward submitted three sketches to the COB, it is conceivable that the COB will submit two or three proposals to General Conference.

In addition, there are bound to be some who disagree with any or all of the plans submitted by the bishops. They will introduce plans of their own. It is entirely possible that General Conference will have to consider a minimum of four different proposals for a way forward. So we will not know until the end of the 2019 General Conference which direction has been chosen for the church’s future.

Furthermore, most of the various proposals already put forward would take several years to implement. Sketch One, which maintains the current position of the church with increased accountability, would set the table for several years of accountability actions to bring bishops and annual conferences in line with the church’s policy or graciously help them to exit from the denomination. There would be a time of at least a year for annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to decide if they can in good conscience uphold the Discipline in those matters under contention. If not, they will have a time to decide if they will exit from The United Methodist Church to form something new or unite with another existing body. Only after that time will they become subject to disciplinary action. And if conferences, bishops, or clergy resist the policy of the church but refuse to leave, there will be trials and other actions that will take months or even a few years to carry out in order to restore compliance with the Discipline. Rev. Chris Ritter has proposed some ideas about how a Sketch One might work.

Sketch Three, which envisions multiple branches of the church under a type of global umbrella, is a much more radical restructuring of the church. It aims not only to resolve the impasse over homosexuality, but to also position the church for renewed vitality and growth. Such a radical restructure will require amendments to our church constitution. So even if passed by the 2019 General Conference, it will take an additional year to ratify the amendments by the various annual conferences. Then there will need to be time for annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to decide which branch to affiliate with. Once the branches are populated, they will need to be organized and set up with whatever structure each determines. Then the general church agencies will need to be reorganized or restructured. It will take several years to live into this new structure.

Sketch Two looks like the easiest to implement because it does not require constitutional amendments and does not require any accountability actions. (This option allows pastors to determine for themselves whether they will perform same-sex marriages and annual conferences to determine whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.) However, it will be an uphill battle to pass this option, since it requires changing the church’s position on homosexuality, which has never gained traction at past General Conferences and would not be supported by most evangelicals and most central conference delegates. Aside from that, adoption of Sketch Two would undoubtedly cause many evangelical clergy and congregations to depart from the denomination. This departure would itself take time to implement (see the next paragraphs).

Whatever plan is proposed at General Conference, the Commission has always stated that there will be an option for gracious exit for congregations and clergy who could not live with the plan that is adopted. And there will be many evangelicals who are ready to leave the denomination rather than compromise their belief in the teachings and authority of Scripture. At this point, there is no indication what that process of leaving would look like. Will it require a period of study and discernment by local churches? Will churches have to make payments to their annual conferences before they are allowed to depart? If no exit path is adopted by General Conference, will there be lawsuits over property that consume years in court?

If congregations have to depart from the UM Church as an act of conscience, what would come next? Most hope that there would be a new Wesleyan Methodist body formed to which such congregations could belong. Even if groundwork is done ahead of time, the formation of such a body would take time. Structures would need to be formed, decisions made on policies and finances, and leadership chosen. It would take several years to live into the structure of a newly-formed church.

It is tempting to throw up one’s hands and just walk down the street to the nearest non-denominational church. Such a decision, however, could be shortsighted and out of sync with the leading of God. It is worth thinking over very carefully. We have a unique theological treasure in authentic Wesleyan Methodism that we do not want to lose. The marriage of head, heart, and hands in relationship to Christ. The balance of personal and social holiness, as well as concern for the poor and social justice. The juxtaposition of divine sovereignty and personal responsibility. Potlucks and congregational dinners! These and many other treasures are uniquely part of the Wesleyan wing of Christianity. To give them up would be a loss to the entire body of Christ that is the global, trans-denominational church.

As most of us know from our experience with New Year’s resolutions, tempering our expectations and not expecting a quick and easy answer is very challenging. It takes the willingness to work through a longer-than-hoped-for, difficult, and complicated process because we believe that something better will come out on the other side. No matter which way God works in providing a future for Methodism, it is going to take time — more time than we would like. But like anything good, the end product will be worth the wait.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

 

Comments

  1. Thomas thanks for the very true and very realistic assessment of the situation and the reminder of how we need to be patient. I also want to thank you about out duty to safeguard our authentic Wesleyan/Methodist heritage and theology. If we are not careful the teachings of Wesley and the wonderful system of faith and theology will be lost.

  2. I have had my own share of impatience with the UMC not only as a denomination but also as a local church. My longtime local church abruptly embraced a badly executed experiment to become more relevant by adding a contemporary service and each successive pastor now has to conduct their own experiment in how to deal with the situation. The larger experiment has not proved very successful in bringing people in, alienated long time members, and has turned the longstanding traditional worship service that was once characterized as the” heartbeat of the church” into an “also ran”. I was also not prepared to discover that the denomination is in disarray and basically has been all my life. My contact with the local church is currently restricted to Sunday morning worship which I attend with a confused and heavy heart because nothing in my lifelong association with the church prepared me to deal with current realities including the fact that the sexuality debate is only the presenting issue of a much deeper and deep-seated problem that is not easily remedied. I recently realized that I am pretty much where I was a s child: showing up and putting my “quarter in the plate” with no real understanding of why I am doing what I am doing–other than it is a habit. When it comes to the future of the church, I don’t even know what to hope for. The debacle at the local church proved helpful in that it forced me to wander off in search of a God worth worshiping so I am comfortable with where I stand theologically. However, if things get to the point that I feel like I have to completely leave the church, I think chances are great I would never become part of another one–I have already had way too much dysfunctional church and not near enough understanding. I currently run an antique mall and everyday I get to see a sign posted in one of the booths that says “Raised on Sweet Tea and Jesus”–I wished I had been that blessed and lucky.

  3. My age seems to be outpacing my patience. Do hope I survive my earthly presence to see a solution. I am just unable to imagine how either Option #2 or Option #3 would, in any way, solve our schism. Rev. Ritter, for example, says he favors #3 but continually talks, in detail at times, of #1. Confusing.

    In fact, both #2 and #3 are most confusing, and I fear by design. I do believe that progressives want to keep this whole thing as convoluted and incoherent as possible. Either would place the church in direct conflict with itself — and fulfill the prophecy of a house divided against itself.

    Most of all, how would the church ever be able to articulate two diabolically opposite Biblical interpretations, doctrines, and theologies?

    The only way Forward is Option #1 with real financial consequences as the enforcer, as Rev Ritter points out.

  4. Pastor Tom,

    I have been an outspoken supporter of the GN movement in our church…but, I have a long memory. During the late 60’s-early 70’s, there were those in the EUB connection that believed the GN movement was a “straw man”, erected to give the evangelicals somewhere to channel their joint frustrations at the creeping liberalism in the UM church. As my father chose to stay the course and maintain his UM credentials as an ordained elder, I followed his sense of loyalty and believed that patience was the needful approach. I must say that 50 years have not rewarded my “slow and reasoned” approach to church renewal and Wesleyan theology. Obviously, I’m not in a position to suggest what the majority of UM’s will or will not do. However, I do not read scripture as a flexible, multiple choice document. I cannot believe that God has brought the church to this juncture to see us accept sin as justifiable weakness or a matter of 2018 opinion. It is not unreasonable to expect some clear and focused direction from our leadership three years after the last GC. Truth is this: God is speaking and the reason He is not being heeded is that we as a church don’t have the fortitude to take those difficult, final steps. If we truly believe that sin is sin, the way is plain. We are not discussing God’s leading; rather, we fear that His leading will result in a split denomination. We know exactly what the future holds…now, we simply need those of strong Wesleyan conviction, who are filled with the Holy Spirit to hold to God’s word!

  5. If it becomes clear that the UMC is going to continue to ignore Scripture and the Book of Discipline, then I will be exiting the denomination post haste, and I suspect tens of thousands of others will as well.

  6. Because a gospel was lost, a preacher was lost, because a preacher was lost, an administrative board was lost, because an administrative board was lost, the ministry of the church was lost. Because the ministry of the church was lost, the church died. AT what stage of the lost portion of the Church do we see the peril. How soon do we want to try reviving what has been lost?

  7. Gary Bebop says:

    Anyone who seeks a clear determination in this crisis is going to be disappointed in Tom’s post, while praising his forthrightness. He has shown his cards. Tom is wagering on a wilderness crossing and is prepared for a “long obedience” in a faithful direction. But Methodist clergy, almost unanimously, must say this. They have high financial stakes in this crisis (ecclesial rights, appointment, salary, housing, pension, and more). We cannot be dismissive of this reality. Progressives long ago dug in and determined to wage war and win incrementally by holding on to the prerogatives of acquired power and assets. The church turns on the screws of institutional aggrandizement: control of assets and domination of offices. I have never witnessed clergy to retreat from crude power once acquired (Karen Oliveto, e.g.).

    • Gary,
      IF what you’re suggesting is true, then I submit that there is a serious lack of integrity and obedience to scripture within the ranks of the UM clergy. I can name churches and clergy that adhered to their spiritual convictions and chose to not enter into the merger of the Methodists and EUB’s back in the 60’s. This may not fit them for halos and wings…but, it cost both local congregations and ordained clergy financial resources and denominational standing. I pray that God will give us men and women who heed the leading of the Spirit, rather than the threats and politics of this rapidly degrading denomination. Faith means more without a paycheck or pension than it does with the assurance of both.

      • Gary Bebop says:

        I, too, have known EUB dissenters who chose exodus to the ECNA rather than unite with Methodism. This meant relinquishing their future prospects within the UMC. But the focus of my comment was on those who intend to hold on to their entrenched power and assets within the UMC today. It’s this strategic entrenchment that makes the sort of transformation hoped for by conservatives unlikely. Karen Oliveto could spare the church much anguish by resigning office. But she’s just one of the WJ cast. e.g., who believe her agenda is God’s will for the church.

  8. Thanks again for reminding us that this is going to take time. I’m convinced that there will be some kind of “amicable separation,” since there’s no way for the various sides to live – theologically speaking – under the same roof.

    I’m hoping we can sort this out – IOW complete the amicable separation – by 2024. Here’s Tom’s paragraph on what a gracious exit might look like (I want to make a couple comments on this):

    “Whatever plan is proposed at General Conference, the Commission has always stated that there will be an option for gracious exit for congregations and clergy who could not live with the plan that is adopted. And there will be many evangelicals who are ready to leave the denomination rather than compromise their belief in the teachings and authority of Scripture. At this point, there is no indication what that process of leaving would look like. Will it require a period of study and discernment by local churches? Will churches have to make payments to their annual conferences before they are allowed to depart? If no exit path is adopted by General Conference, will there be lawsuits over property that consume years in court?”

    As an evangelical/orthodox pastor, I find it insulting to think that I might be expected to enter a period of “study and discernment” or that churches who want to maintain orthodoxy might have to make any kind of payments to leave a denomination when we are the ones who have been faithful to the Book of Discipline! If anything like this is proposed, I hope it is voted down, as it will crate more bad feelings (when we’re trying to be “amicable”), and may just cause many individual church members to walk away. (This will, of course, be harder for pastors to do, since we have a pension on the line.)

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for all you do, Tom!

    • Mike,

      It seems that orthodox folks only are mentioned with the discussion of an exit plan. Of course, if something is enacted that they can’t live with, they have already indicated an exit — like through the Wesleyan Covenant Association. But, like you point out, they are not the ones in rebellion. These rebellious segments of the church have already essentially separated from the UMC. But, they have not indicated an exit if they don’t get their way. Apparently, they’re willing to stay and continue the destructive fight, unless there is actually an exit plan established and put in place to bring about their exit should the church stay the course.

  9. “We have a unique theological treasure in authentic Wesleyan Methodism that we do not want to lose”

    We are not losing it. It is being shredded and thrown away by our own bishops. No solution will work if the leaders within The UMC are determined to fight it. I fear that I will run out of patience.

  10. This succinctly and unequivocally defines the abject destruction that either Option #2 or Option #3 would bring to the UMC. This “uniting” movement is the most deceptive and dishonest initiative offered up to date —— wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    https://wesleyancovenant.org/2018/02/06/2053/

  11. It seems like a pure ministry would be un encumbered by the worldly persuasions that inevitably enter into a professionalized clergy working for an established bureaucratic organization. Think of how much money and property is at stake in this deal. Organizational Behavior and Psychology are at play and the motivation is worldly. What is the motivation? Money and Power. If the motivation of spiritual and faith matters were the over arching motivation, a pastor, a church within the organization or many of them would walk out on the property and start again on pure faith. This is not sound advice from any worldly sense or logic, but it was not sound for the disciples to follow Jesus or for St Paul to be a missionary. God requires total discomfort and sacrifice at times and He requires the willingness to sell all, give to the poor and live on faith. If a pastor or group of pastors want to change an organization, bet all the chips on the line and call the opponents hand. You might be broke afterwards, but you will have your answer and you will also gain the respect of the onlookers who will likely follow you and build a much better Church that is faithful to the scriptures. Bet the whole thing on Jesus and see what happens. Hope for the best and expect nothing in return but the privilege of serving the Master. Money and Property, financial security, cannot be a factor when deciding what to do. Be willing to walk, and maybe your church will follow because real men only have one Master.

  12. Could someone explain to me the pension ramifications if the church splits, please? I understood that our pension was OUR pension and once earned, couldn’t be taken away.

    • Gary Bebop says:

      Your Wespath invested funds belong to you and are secure. This is not the issue. You aren’t going to lose your funds. The issue is employment status and future contributions and costs to investors. (Others may ant to expatiate on this.)

    • Nancy,
      Have no idea how this all works. Like most, I have placed my TRUST in the church over these many years to do the right thing with my donations, including the pension plans and benefits for clergy, et al. Of course, that’s not how it always works out.

      https://www.wespath.org/retirement/plan/

    • The way our pensions work is that money is set aside while we are working to pay for our pensions when we retire. (This is the 1982-20012 pension plan.) These pensions do not depend upon further contributions and are secure without anyone having to do anything.

      The pre-1982 pension plan and (to a much lesser degree) the new post-2012 pension plan, depend to a degree on ongoing contributions to support the plan. Many annual conferences have put aside enough money to cover the expected need for those pensions. Some annual conferences have not (which is called “unfunded liability”). That unfunded liability will need to be assumed by somebody.

      Options are:
      1) Local churches who leave could pay part of the unfunded liability that their annual conference owes.
      2) Churches that remain in the annual conference could pay a bit more in order to pay off the unfunded liability.
      3) General church reserve funds that are undesignated could be drawn upon to pay the unfunded liability.
      4) The unfunded liability could be recalculated by Wespath and redistributed to the annual conferences that leave and those that stay, based on where retired pastors place their membership.
      5) The money to be given for pensions could be capped at what is currently there, and pensions could be reduced, if necessary, to fit within the money that is currently there.

      A complicating factor is if the stock market tanks, there may not be enough money to cover the liability. Or if clergy live longer than expected the liability might increase and there might not be enough money to cover it.

      No one wants to shortchange a person’s pension. The church will do everything it can to maintain the level of pensions that have been promised in the past. But promises for the future might need to be changed to fit the financial resources available.

      • Thanks for taking time to walk us through this, Tom. It sounds like the Commission on the Way Forward (and/or you and/or Good News) have given some serious thought to the ramification of the several possible outcomes for the church.

        Obviously, most of us who are clergy are concerned about this, but I trust that Wespath and church leadership will act with wisdom in stewardship of the pension program for the future, no matter the outcome.

  13. Nancy, you hit the nail on the head. The pension benefits are at stake. It’s my understanding that the Erisa act of 1974 does not apply to religious organizations pensions. It would be an act of extreme dishonor to take away the pension from pastors and others who earned it. This lack of faithfulness to scripture could very well reduce pension benefits to clergy and others who have been playing with fire like little disobedient children and when their Heavenly Father gave instruction via the scriptures to stay away from the fire to all, the clergy decided to play with it. Many a house has burned down when the children play with the fireplace because father or mother are out of the room.

  14. “It is tempting to throw up one’s hands and just walk down the street to the nearest non-denominational church. Such a decision, however, could be shortsighted and out of sync with the leading of God.”

    I don’t think it was meant this way, but I find this statement disingenuous and insulting. God has no stake in whether an arbitrary, human-created organization keeps its members or not. There is no reason a church that is not part of the United Methodist denomination cannot follow the Wesleyan theology we love. There is no reason a group of churches that follow that theology cannot associate into another denomination. If this schism continues until 2024, as someone above suggested, this will most certainly happen. The right thing to do is to allocate assets by church and pensions by clergy and allow them to move to another group with their property.

    The commenter who said this fight is over money and power hit the nail on the head. Progressives could easily form their own church with a Book of Discipline that agreed with their views and invite others to join them. That won’t happen because they want the money and the power behind the UMC, not just their theology. It looks like the traditionalists are making this decision on an individual level and trickling out, but the exodus of churches has not started in earnest. That will probably happen in 2019 whether the Conference does the right thing or not.

    • You mention two different dates when churches might start exiting – first 2014 and then 2019. I don’t think there are many churches that are wanting to get ahead of the engine on this train (and start jumping off the train, so to speak, in 2019).

      They have always tended to move forward with caution and patience (for good or for ill); while we all know this has to happen, no one is in a hurry to see the anguish in local churches where there are people on both sides of these important issues who will have to make hard decisions about where they will affiliate in the future (esp. if their local church chooses an affiliation that doesn’t follow their views on these issues). I know that a majority in my church are orthodox/conservative scripturally, but there are some who are liberal and very supportive of embracing everyone. This will be a difficult time for our church, and for me as the pastor of ALL of them.

      • Can’t figure out how to edit the above post – my first sentence obviously includes a wrong date; it should have read:

        “You mention two different dates when churches might start exiting – first 2024 and then 2019.”

        2024 – NOT 2014…sorry.

  15. A Retired Pastor says:

    It is now my understanding that the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference has created a new half-time position on the conference staff. This position, paid for by a private non-profit organization, is entitled LGBTQI Advocate. With actions such as this, it would seem that those of a conservative persuasion in that conference are seeing “the writing on the wall”, and that there is no longer room for them. I can certainly see the desire for patience that many feel is necessary, waiting for the greater church to do it’s work at the discussion table. But when the top leadership of an Annual Conference have already pre-determined their direction, waiting even one year for the General Conference of 2019 to meet might seem to be a futile effort.

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