Leadership or Manipulation

Bishop Bruce Ough (left) speaks during the oral hearing of the Judicial Council meeting on May 22, 2018. Also pictured (right), Bishop Scott J. Jones of the Texas Conference. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

The bishops have been asked to lead. Apparently, to some bishops that means strong-arming a progressive agenda that has already been rejected by a previous General Conference.

In its May gathering, the Council of Bishops – behind closed doors – affirmed by a clear majority that it will recommend the “One Church Plan” to the 2019 General Conference. This plan changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” and removes all prohibitions against same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” It also contains allowances and conscience protections for those who want to continue to live by the current biblical standards of the Book of Discipline.

The Commission on a Way Forward also put forward a “Connectional Conference Plan” that would provide for three new connectional conferences to replace our current five jurisdictions: a Progressive Conference (mandating same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals), a Traditionalist Conference (retaining the current stance of the church), and a Uniting Conference (allowing the same “local option” that the “One Church Plan” allows).

A “Traditionalist Plan” was also sketched out by the Commission, but at the request of a majority of the bishops, not fully developed. A group of conservative bishops has further developed the “Traditionalist Plan” for inclusion in the report to General Conference. This plan retains the current prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, increases accountability to the Discipline, and offers a gracious exit to those who cannot live within the boundaries established by our church.

Gratefully, there is a contingent of bishops who do respect the traditional view of marriage and sexuality and who recognize the truly global nature of the United Methodist Church. Regrettably, they are in the minority on the Council of Bishops – even including those bishops from outside the United States.

The North American contingent of the Council of Bishops has put forward a proposal that is riddled with problems, but despite that fact, many bishops have taken to promoting the “One Church Plan” as the only viable option for the church. These bishops have demonstrated their contempt for their evangelical members in several ways.

Signs of contempt

First, the majority of North American bishops have approved a plan that they knew evangelicals and traditionalists could not support. Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association have all made public statements that any type of “local option” plan is unacceptable to us. Over 1,800 attendees at the Chicago inaugural event of the WCA affirmed that “A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the ‘local option’ around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.”

Yet the majority of these bishops adopted the plan anyway.

Second, from the beginning of its work, the Commission on a Way Forward stated that a “gracious exit” for churches with their property would be part of any plan they put forward. The Commission recognized that the denomination is so polarized that no proposal is likely to be acceptable to all. Rather than spend millions of church offering dollars fighting over the buildings and property (like other mainline churches have done), the Commission believed that it should provide churches and clergy that could not continue in The United Methodist Church after the decision of the 2019 General Conference with a gracious way to exit with their property and pension.

Yet the majority of the Council of Bishops has inexcusably removed the gracious exit from its “One Church Plan.” Apparently, some progressive bishops believe that they can coerce United Methodist members to stay in the church by holding their church buildings hostage to the denomination. Some annual conferences are starting to use hardball tactics to punish congregations that want to leave.

Third, the majority of the Council of Bishops attempted to prevent other proposals from being submitted in advance to the 2019 General Conference. The Council president, Bishop Bruce Ough, argued in May before the Judicial Council that the only piece of legislation that the General Conference could act on is the “One Church Plan.” He admitted that the General Conference could amend or substitute for that plan, but he believed that none of those amendments or substitutes could be submitted in advance for the General Conference delegates to prayerfully consider.

Bishop Scott Jones, who submitted his own opposing brief and also participated in oral arguments before the Judicial Council, charged that Bishop Ough was misrepresenting himself. “The Council of Bishops has at no time discussed a recommended answer to the question posed to the Judicial Council nor taken a position authorizing any one or all of its officers to represent it in any particular way,” Jones wrote in his reply brief. “He is misrepresenting the Council which has never taken that position and never discussed how the question should be answered.”

Yet the powers that be on the Council of Bishops felt free to try to restrict the access of grassroots United Methodists in the pews to be able to contribute to a solution to the way forward for our church.

Judicial Council decision

Thankfully, the Judicial Council ruled by an 8-1 margin that “Petitions to the special session of the General Conference 2019 may be filed by any organization, clergy member and lay member of the United Methodist Church as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition is in harmony with the purpose stated in the call.”

This means that any member or organization in the church may file a petition with a proposal for resolving the church’s impasse over the definition of marriage and the practice of homosexuality. Such petitions will need to be received by the petitions secretary in the proper format by July 8, 2018. They will then be translated and published in the Advance edition of the Daily Christian Advocate for the delegates to use at General Conference.

The Judicial Council further ruled that it is “the obligation of the General Conference to determine, in the first instance, through its committees, officers, and presiders, acting in accordance with The Discipline and the rules and procedures of the General Conference, whether any such petition is ‘in harmony.’” The Council did not tell the General Conference how to make that decision, leaving it up to the General Conference and its committee structure to determine the process for deciding which petitions are in harmony with the purpose of the called special General Conference.

The significance of this ruling is that the petition process is open to all, and alternative proposals for resolving our impasse over the definition of marriage and the practice of homosexuality will be allowed. This ensures that a plan that evangelicals can support will be considered by the delegates at General Conference. The Judicial Council should be applauded for a well-reasoned decision that will allow the full participation of all the church through its legislative process to arrive at a faithful way forward.

A late development

Tucked away in a footnote in Judicial Council Decision 1360 referenced above was the statement, “There is nothing in the proceedings of the 2016 General Conference suggesting that the Commission on a Way Forward was supposed to submit its recommendations to the Council of Bishops. Similarly, there is no evidence in the legislative debate prior to the vote on the motion indicating that the Council of Bishops would develop specific legislative proposals based on the recommendations of the Commission and present them to the called special session of the General Conference. The language of An Offering strongly suggests that ‘the work’ of the Commission on a Way Forward, and only this body, is the rationale for calling a special session of the General Conference.”

In response to this footnote, the report coming to the 2019 General Conference will no longer be from the Council of Bishops, but from the Commission on a Way Forward. Although the bishops’ recommendation of the “One Church Plan” will still be included, it does not control the outcome. Instead of only the one plan being submitted for General Conference consideration, all three plans will be submitted in petition form for consideration.

This dramatic turn of events is a repudiation of the way the Council of Bishops managed the Commission’s process. It means that the Commission’s sessions should have been open to the public and the press. The ways that the bishops have influenced the work of the Commission – this includes eliminating the gracious exit provisions – turns out to have been illegitimate. Unfortunately, that influence means that the Commission never had the opportunity to fully develop a “Traditionalist Plan” in the same way that the other two plans were developed. A “Traditionalist Plan” will be submitted, but it could have been made better if the Commission had been able to work on it.

Role of leaders

It is the role of leaders to identify a vision or direction and advocate for it. But closing off other options and restricting the choices that followers can make is not leadership, but dictatorship. When bishops advocate for the “One Church Plan” as the only possible solution to our church’s conflict (despite the fact that a significant number of bishops and members oppose that plan) they are going beyond what healthy leadership involves. Controlling and manipulating the outcome is not healthy leadership.

Those bishops taking this approach are exhibiting contempt for their evangelical members and clergy – as well as disrespecting their non-North American colleagues who do not share their progressive vision. They are promoting a plan that we have said we cannot accept. They advocated (unsuccessfully) for the exclusion of other options or choices for the 2019 General Conference. And they are attempting to coerce churches to stay in the denomination in violation of our consciences (should the “One Church Plan” pass) or else be prepared to lose our local church property.

The Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops are advocating that we adopt a “heart of peace” in working together to resolve the impasse that divides and stifles the vitality of our church. But the bishops must lead with a heart of peace in their actions, not just in their words. Disrespect and contempt are attitudes that destroy relationship and increase mistrust. The recent string of decisions by a majority of the Council of Bishops betrays not a respectful attempt to work together to resolve our differences, but an attempt to dictate a solution and force everyone to accept it. Such an approach is more likely to provoke a “heart of war” and set up the 2019 General Conference as a contentious conflict zone. So far, the “heart of peace” seems to be just empty words. Please continue in prayer for the delegates, bishops, and all those involved in submitting petitions.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. He was also a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.


  1. You are in the loud minority, yet believe you are in the majority. All the signs of “contempt” you have mentioned above are further signs that you are in the minority. Just because you are losing does not mean the game is rigged. If you believe the coming changes are deal breakers, then you can leave. After all, you have been waiting for an excuse to do so for years.

    You spew negativity and misinformation to your giant listserve and see no problem with it. If only you could get past being a sore loser in this process, you’d see that by telling your audience the facts, we could still split in love and not in suspicion and hate. My heart breaks that you have made it like this. Keep your apportionment dollars, but don’t break everything on your way out.

    You will most likely delete this comment, which I expect.

    • Hope Jordan says

      Traditionalists and conservatives are ready to leave–provided they can do so with their properties. It was not sporting of the progressives to deny the conservatives what the latter offered to the former. That the “One Church Plan” denies a “gracious exit” by anyone who disagrees shows that the game indeed is rigged.

      On the other hand, had the conservative/traditionalists been in the majority, though, would they have offered that same “gracious exit”? I do not think so, and the progressives would have also been loud about the unfairness of it all. The problem here is that the issue has indeed become total war.

      Gen. Meade won the Battle of Gettysburg, but by allowing Gen. Lee to escape, he allowed the war to drag on another three years. In a total war scenario, the main objective is the total defeat of the enemy. The enemy must NOT be allowed a “gracious exit”.

      If conservatives were in the majority and they grant a “gracious exit” to progressives, they WILL lose. That is why progressives have to be “unfair”, so they can win and do so totally. It’s just too bad that conservatives are more Christian than they are strategists.

      “For what will it profit if a man gain the whole world but lose his soul?”

  2. Steve Babcock says

    First of all I live in Montana and Karen is my Bishop. In Montana we had a vote on gay marriage. Gay marriage lost by a huge majority the same as it lost in 26 other states. Five SCOTUS judges overturned the will of millions of voters. Your first statements are not TRUE. We are the majority and your side is the vocal minority.
    In electing Karen as our Bishop the Western Jurisdiction committed a racist act. They were angry over losing for the last 20 years at General Conference and blamed their losing on the Africans. Methodist in Africa has become 42% of our Global population of Methodists. They chose not to accept the Africans as equals and sought a way to circumvent them.
    The Western Jurisdiction chose to put the Africans in a very difficult situation, in fact telling them their votes don’t count. I can verify this because at a meeting with our delegates, I asked about the Africans and they both shrugged their shoulders and actually lied to us.
    To sum this up your first statement is a lie. What I have presented is the facts as I know them. My question to you is. Why do you support racism? I will pray for you.

  3. Mason K Dorsey says

    Hey Tom, thanks for all your work and a good article. Will whatever gets passaed at GC2019 have to go back to the annual conferences for a vote to ratify? Thanks, Mason Dorsey

    • Thanks, Mason. As they currently stand, only the Connectional Conference Plan would need to be ratified by the annual conferences. We will find out from the Judicial Council in October whether either of the other two plans would require constitutional amendments. In Christ, Tom Lambrecht

  4. Just read and follow the Bible. How can the church operate on non biblical stand. Leave it like the Bible says and like it’s been for hundreds of years.

  5. “Apparently, some progressive bishops believe that they can coerce United Methodist members to stay in the church by holding their church buildings hostage to the denomination.”

    Hand them the keys, the building, heating/cooling maintenance, and bills, the roofs, the property maintenance, etc.. Even if they only get 10% of the properties back the conferences would collapse under the weight of all the added responsibility. Pure bluff and scare tactics. In fact, it is probably their biggest fear.
    If you want to change the BOD there is a time-tested procedure for that, it has worked well for decades, even in the face of blatant attempts at stacking the decks.

  6. Lance Thomas says

    Vote after vote at the General Conferences affirms that Thomas is correct and that like John Wesley the majority of Methodists are orthodoxed traditional and biblically centered.
    I wish the 2019 GC could take a vote of confidence on the COB leadership and be done with the progressive bullies.

  7. Don Houston says

    The UMC, and any denomination that stands against God’s word, is finished.
    God will not allow it to stand. This is why denominations, and non-denominational churches, that follow God’s word are flourishing and many are just walking way from denominations such as the UMC.

    My wife and I did several yers ago when we realized that the little book of discipline is held in higher regard than God’s word. How many hours and dollars are spent debating man’s rules in the BoD when we have God’s word to follow.

    To those that wish to be obedient to God – #Walkaway. You will be glad you did.

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