Is the Traditional Plan Punitive?

By Thomas Lambrecht –

While no one has explicitly told me that he or she thought the Traditional Plan is punitive, that appears to be an undercurrent of thinking among those who oppose the plan. One aspect of the plan is that it contains strict accountability measures for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and members of boards of ordained ministry, with the expectation that they will “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to the United Methodist standards” barring the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the celebration of same-sex marriages, and funding that promotes the acceptance of homosexuality. Those unwilling to live within our church’s standards are encouraged to withdraw from the UM Church and form or join a self-governing Methodist church that reflects their beliefs and practices.

The purpose of the Traditional Plan is to restore the unity of the church, which is currently in schism due to nine annual conferences and two jurisdictions voting to reject our church’s standards. The current crisis in the church is prompted not by differences of belief, but differences of practice. There is room in The United Methodist Church for a variety of opinions on many subjects. But once the church has set a standard for how we live our life together in the Body of Christ, it is expected that everyone will live according to that standard, to the best of their ability.

There are two ways to rectify a situation where there are divergent practices that violate the standards or rules of an organization. One way is to change the rules to allow the divergent practices. This is what the One Church Plan proposes. The other way is to expect the organization’s members to live by its standards or find another like-minded organization. This is what the Traditional Plan proposes.

Secular organizations such as Rotary or Kiwanis expect their members to live by the rules of the organization. Those who refuse to do so are often asked to leave the organization. Without such accountability, the organization has no integrity.

United Methodist clergy promise to live by the standards set by the church. One of the qualifications for ordination is that candidates are willing to “be accountable to The United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept the supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.” When candidates come forward for ordination, they must answer, “Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Do you approve our Church government and polity? Will you support and maintain them?” They must also affirm, “Will you observe the following directions: … Do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake?”

The Traditional Plan is based upon the premise that clergy and bishops have promised to live by our church’s standards and should be expected to do so. In light of the fact that the church has been unwilling for over 40 years to change its expectations regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, clergy are expected to either live by them or seek another denomination that is more in line with their theology. After all, most active clergy today came into their status knowing what the expectations of the church are, saying that they agreed with those expectations, and promising to live by them. To refuse to do so now is a breaking of their promise.

While integrity would seem to demand those unwilling to live by the standards of the church should withdraw from ministry in our denomination and seek another in which to exercise their ministry, most have not done so. In fact, many progressives have defiantly stated that they will not leave the church, nor will they live by the church’s standards.

This puts us in a situation where, for the sake of the church’s unity and integrity, discipline must be exercised. That is why enhanced accountability measures are an integral part of the Traditional Plan. Without them, the church simply continues as it is now, with some parts of the church refusing to live by the church’s expectations. This is a state of schism, not unity, and it is leading to the disintegration and decline of the denomination.

By changing the rules to accommodate disobedience, the One Church Plan creates an expectation that individual conscience trumps the standards of the church. It sows the seeds of congregationalism and further disintegrates the unity of the church. One can only anticipate that the church will likewise accommodate other conscientious objections to church standards and practices in the future, perhaps in areas such as the payment of apportionments or belief in the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.

The Traditional Plan believes we must share common practices as a denomination on matters that are distinctively connectional. These help to form our identity as United Methodist Christians. Matters of ordination, the sacraments, doctrinal standards, and essential moral teachings are practices that hold our denomination together. Without them, we become just a crowd of people without a shared identity.

Regrettably, because of the principled refusal by some in our denomination to abide by the shared practices established by General Conference as the only legitimate authority to do so, the only way to recover unity is to enhance accountability and request those unwilling to abide by those shared practices to withdraw from the denomination. The plan balances these stricter accountability measures with an open door for annual conferences, congregations, and clergy to leave the denomination without penalty.

The process for departure is simple and straightforward, without a lot of hoops to jump through. The financial obligations are minimal, seeking only to keep our promises to our retired clergy regarding pensions. And a suggested modification of the Traditional Plan provides for a one-time grant of $200,000 to any annual conference that withdraws in order to assist with transitional expenses. Those departing could even continue some forms of partnership and cooperation with The United Methodist Church, including joint mission work and continued participation in benefit plans through Wespath.

The Traditional Plan is not punitive toward those having the integrity to depart from a denomination that they can no longer support. The stricter accountability measures are only made necessary for those who refuse to keep the promises they made to abide by our polity when they were ordained as clergy and consecrated as bishops. This approach is the only way forward that will restore unity in our denomination in the years ahead.

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

Comments

  1. It is called a gracious exit. However, those who would leave have no money; therefore, it is harsh and punitive from where they stand. They want their standards and your money which is why they support the One Church Plan. They don’t believe you will leave. Obviously, they must not follow the PCUSA at all.

  2. Rev. Richard Holt says:

    The only way this plan could be considered punitive is that the definition of punitive be changed. If one decides to take actions contrary to the directives and expressed expectations of the organization in which they were received into membership they should be cognizant of the repercussions of their actions. To expect the organization to change the rules after the action is beyond hubris, and also becomes an act which violates their own statement of affiliation. If such individuals be persons of conscience, they should withdraw from the organization subsequent to realizing that they cannot follow the rules and directives under which they joined, or they should be expelled for deliberate disobedience to those rules and breaking faith with the body to which they falsely aligned themselves.

  3. Eric Pone says:

    I get the arguments. These are the same arguments that have been presented over and over again. As someone who lives within a Progressive District I don’t find a lot of solace in the words. We have lost most of our conservative members to the numerous independent mega churches in our area already. The enforcement of the policies and lets be clear here these are policies within polity being enforced here. It will lead to a severe pastoral shortage in places like Minnesota. I have no idea who my pastor will be next year. And that scares me. I know that many conservatives just want the discipline enforced. I do too, all of it including the bans on smoking and drinking. But if we are going to enforce this I as a member demand to know what the plan is for those churches that suddenly find themselves without pastors. I am assuming based on prior experience that this will close yet more congregations in the Twin Cities. Sigh. I am questioning how exactly this will grow the Church long term.

    • None of us know who our pastors will be next year. They can get reassigned on any given year. If there is a need for a pastor I am not the least bit worried. One will step up.
      The church is not growing now. It is consuming itself from within as you noted the conservatives leaving for independent churches. Without discipline and structure we can’t call ourselves a church so there is nothing to grow. Better to do some pruning and start with the healthy branches.

    • Retired Pastor says:

      Eric, yes, you do live in a liberal/progressive annual conference (not just district), because the pastors come out of the seminaries that way. You WILL continue to experience pastoral shortages, because the few entering the ministry these days don’t want to serve multiple churches in rural, traditionally more conservative areas, with lower incomes than their graduate contemporaries. Progressive/liberal leadership discourages the entry of conservative pastors to their annual conference. More and more laity are being called upon to assume pastoral leadership of churches, but the training of the laity is overseen to ensure that liberal/progressive ideas and theology are a part of the training.And with the loss of conservative membership to the independent churches, you also lose the kinds of commitment to finances and volunteerism and attendance that are a part of a life long lived as a committed Christian. This is why there is such a strong push for stronger accountability of the leadership to adhere to the governing principles of the denomination. Without accountability, which the leadership is doing such a fine job of circumventing at present, your “demand to know” where the next pastor is going to come from, is only going to be a guessing game. However, with less people in the pews needing a progressive pastor, you can certainly anticipate the closing of more churches in your annual conference. Yes, it does ring of negative, doesn’t it. But the truth of the matter is: the laity just don’t know the truth.

  4. There has to be punitive elements or discipline simply does not work. Without the stick we would end up in chaos again.
    I take issue with the so called gracious exit. Why would we want to tell them they have to join an organization of 50 churches. It is like telling your ex-wife who she can marry. Makes no sense. I also think we should forget about asking for apportionments in arrears to be paid. I can easily foresee a defiant congregation refusing to pay their debts just to continue to be part of The UMC and forcing the Conference to take ugly measures to get them out. I say let them go. I don’t care if they go in the woods and worship rocks and trees but do not put strings on the exit or it is not a true exit. If we are to separate get it over with quickly and eat the debt if necessary. Otherwise it is like letting your ex-husband live in the basement. Not healthy.

  5. Punitive? For those who break their vows and teach falsely in our denomination — perhaps they should certainly be concerned with punitive.

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+3%3A1&version=NIV

  6. Thomas Luther says:

    I thank you for the article, it is well written and covers all the reasons the traditional plan is not punitive. However, I do not think the progressives will graciously leave but will call the hand of those who are in a position to hold them accountable. That is what they are now doing. I don’t think there are enough godly men and women with the will to hold Bishops accountable now. So, why should we think that there will be enough godly men and women to hold the majority of the Bishops accountable. A majority of current Bishops did not recommend the Traditional plan. So, I think these Bishops will not leave voluntarily and there will be a long legal battle that will further weaken the effectiveness of the UMC to share Christ with the world. What we need is repentance! If the Bishops will repent of their sin of changing God’s Word to fit the current social climate by preaching that homosexuality is not sin as the Bible clearly tells us it is a sin. In essence these Bishops are representing Satan and proclaiming his word but not God’s Word. By telling people that homosexuality is not a sin they separate them from God and His way to salvation through repentance. It it isn’t sin then there is no need to repent. This leaves the sinner separated from God with no way to be forgiven. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will perish!”

    • 1. Liberals, now called progressives, are responsible for this schism.
      2. In hindsight, traditionalists made the tactical error of accommodation years ago in hope that the liberals would eventually repent.
      3. Liberals/progressives have, instead, doubled down and increased their defiance while continually adding new demands.
      4. Liberals/progressives have assumed the position that breaking their vows in order to pursue their secular driven agenda is noble, and standing against Scripture is intellectually superior.
      5. Liberals/progressives are depending on deception, subterfuge, convolution, Biblical illiteracy, and a liberal secular mass media and culture to carry them across the finish line.
      6. It is now in the hands of the delegates. Pray God that they see this liberal/progressive scheme for what it is, the work of Satan, and vote save the UMC.

  7. Let’s define “punitive”……
    If you mean is the Traditional Plan “corrective”, “setting clear boundaries” or “diciplinary” then yes, the Tradtional Plan is punitive.

    If you mean “overly harsh”, “abusive”, “severe”, etc. then No, the Traditional Plan is not those things.

    Liberal Progressives will always try and put guilt on the other person, or persons that say “no” to their inappropriate behavior that isn’t in line with the rules. They are “mulish”, “recusant”, “contrarians”, “contumacious”……shall I go on?

    They will never be satisfied until they get everything they want. Stop trying to please them. It is like trying to fill a bottomless pit.

    • Exactly liberal demands are bottomless. It is like cutting the bottom out of a barrel and trying to fill it up by continually increasing the volume of water in hopes of an impossible physics outcome.

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