By Thomas Lambrecht –
As the upcoming General Conference considers the three plans from the Commission on a Way Forward and other proposals for resolving the conflict in our denomination, one question many want to consider is: How will this proposal affect my local church? After all, it is the local church where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak, where Gospel ministry is actualized in the daily lives of members and where personal outreach into communities takes place. The biggest concern we members of the Commission on a Way Forward heard from people was: Do not do something that will damage my local church’s ministry, whether by requiring us to vote or in some other way.
The first important piece of information to note is that local churches will not have a vote as to which plan is enacted by General Conference. Our method of decision-making as a denomination is by representative democracy, not congregationalism. We elect representatives to annual conference, and they elect representatives to General Conference. It is those representatives who are tasked with making decisions on behalf of the whole denomination. Even in the case of constitutional amendments, it is the annual conference that votes whether to ratify them, not the local church.
Some have wondered whether a survey of local church members would help us know how to resolve the conflict. While such information might be helpful to the decision makers, we entrust our representatives with the responsibility of making those decisions, in part because they work to keep themselves well-informed on the issues and ramifications involved-better-informed than most local church members. In theory, these representatives will be in regular touch with their fellow parishioners and colleagues, so that they get a sense of how the people they represent are thinking. The logistical challenges of surveying members outside the U.S. and the cost and time involved have made surveys very difficult.
OCP and the Local Church
The One Church Plan (OCP) would enact a “local option” for annual conferences and congregations in making decisions about same-sex marriage and ordaining homosexual persons. How will this impact local churches?
Local churches that want to host same-sex weddings in their buildings would need to take a vote at a church conference to approve such services. All it would take would be a request from a member or the relative of a member for the church to host such a wedding, and the church would have to face that question. Such a discussion is likely to be divisive in the congregation. How divisive it is depends upon how diverse the theological opinions of the congregation members are and how well the pastor and church leaders handle the conversation over this question. Some congregations have experienced a forceful movement on the part of a group of members to affirm same-sex marriage that has alienated members opposed to such affirmation. The result has been to cause some members who disagreed with the church’s decision to leave the church.
The fact that pastors would be able to perform same-sex weddings would also affect their local churches. Pastors would not need the permission of their annual conference or their local church to do such weddings outside of the church property. A pastor performing same-sex weddings could alienate members of his or her congregation who disagree with that decision. If a majority or even a significant minority of the congregation disagrees with a pastor performing same-sex weddings, that could impact the ability of the pastor to effectively serve that congregation.
There are likely to be more pastors willing to perform same-sex weddings than there are churches willing to have a pastor who performs same-sex weddings. This could cause a mismatch between pastor and congregation when new pastors are appointed. It will cause hardship for the bishop and cabinet in making appointments because pastors are guaranteed an appointment, and there may not be enough churches available to which a bishop can appoint a pastor who is willing to perform same-sex weddings. So a local church that does not want such a pastor may get one anyway. Or a local church might receive a pastor who is not a good match for the congregation in other ways, simply based on the criterion of whether or not the pastor is willing to perform same-sex weddings. In such cases, the local church will have little recourse but to receive the pastor the bishop appoints.
The same is true regarding openly gay pastors. If an annual conference is willing to ordain openly gay persons as clergy, they will need to be appointed to churches willing to receive them. Even if the annual conference does not ordain openly gay clergy, there will be some clergy in that conference who come out as gay and will need to be appointed. There may not be enough congregations willing to receive an openly gay pastor in that annual conference, but the bishop will need to appoint such clergy anyway. In such cases, the local church will have little recourse but to receive the pastor the bishop appoints.
MTP and the Local Church
The Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) continues the current stance of the denomination that pastors are not allowed to perform same-sex weddings and annual conferences/bishops are not allowed to ordain openly gay persons as clergy. If a local church agrees with that position or is willing to continue abiding by that position (whether it agrees or not), the local church will not need to take any action. Since all pastors would be held to the same standard, this issue would not factor into the appointment of pastors to local churches.
If a local church wants to host same-sex weddings or receive an openly gay pastor, it will need to consider the possibility of leaving the denomination in order to do so. The MTP has a provision (amended as a result of the Judicial Council Decision 1366) allowing local churches to leave after a 2/3 vote by the church leadership and also a 2/3 vote by the church members at a church conference. The local church would have to pay its proportionate share of its annual conference’s pension liabilities, as determined by Wespath (board of pensions) and the annual conference apportionment formula. The church’s annual conference would also need to approve the local church’s exit by a 2/3 vote.
The MTP allows annual conferences that wish to affirm the practice of homosexuality and ordain openly gay persons as pastors to withdraw from the denomination. Such a decision would require a majority vote of the annual conference. If a local church agrees with the decision of its annual conference to leave the denomination, it would not need to take any action. If a local church in an annual conference that decides to leave The United Methodist Church wants to stay in the denomination, it could do so by a majority vote of its members at a church conference. In such case, the local church would have to pay its proportionate share of its annual conference’s pension liabilities, since the annual conference would continue to be responsible for those liabilities, even if the annual conference leaves the denomination.
CCP and the Local Church
The Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) would create three new “jurisdictions” called connectional conferences in the U.S. based on views concerning same-sex marriage and ordination. A “progressive” connectional conference would require same-sex marriage and the ordination of otherwise qualified openly gay persons as clergy. A “unity” connectional conference would allow same-sex marriage and ordination, but not require it. A “traditional “connectional conference would not allow same-sex marriage and ordination.
Current geographical jurisdictions and annual conferences would make the first decisions by majority vote as to which connectional conference to affiliate with. If a local church disagrees with the decision of its annual conference, that local church could vote to join a different connectional conference by majority vote of its members at a church conference. That local church would then be joined with other like-minded local churches in a new annual conference in the chosen connectional conference. Pastors would be appointed to local churches only within the chosen connectional conferences and would share the local church’s views on marriage and sexuality.
Exit Paths and the Local Church
The other proposal that could affect local churches is that of an exit path allowing congregations to leave the denomination with their property. The exit path for individual congregations under the MTP (thanks to the Judicial Council ruling) would require a 2/3 vote of both the leaders and members of the congregation, as well as a 2/3 vote of the annual conference. Such a high bar, particularly involving the annual conference, lessens the value of the MTP exit path for congregations.
Many delegates agree that some form of uniform and gracious exit path ought to be established for use with whatever plan passes. (The OCP and the CCP have no exit path for congregations.)
There are five different proposed exit paths submitted to General Conference. Most of them require a 2/3 vote of the members of the congregation, but no vote by the leaders or by the annual conference. This more streamlined process might make leaving the denomination more attractive to local churches that are frustrated by the seemingly endless conflict in our church, whether they be “progressive” or “traditionalist.”
Of course, if General Conference passes no exit path and the OCP is adopted, many local churches will still want to exit from the denomination. At that point, unless they can gain the permission of their annual conference bishop and leaders, it seems logical to expect that the next stop would be the courtroom. Lawsuits for property can work sometimes, but not always, and they would expend a lot of resources, both by the local church and by the annual conference. The decision by a local church to pursue this route would be a difficult one.
The Plans and Membership Loss
So far, we have talked about the impact of the various plans on what actions might be taken by local churches. There is another large variable out there, however: how will individual members respond to the decisions of General Conference?
Undoubtedly, many members will not be tuned in to the actions of General Conference or will not feel strongly enough about the conflicted issues involved that they would take action. However, many members who are committed to either the “progressive” or “traditionalist” viewpoint are very aware of what is going on in the church. They often form the core leadership and financial support for local congregations. And these persons might react strongly to a decision that they disagree with. This will be particularly true if the actions of General Conference end up as the headline in their local newspaper or newscast on February 27.
If the MTP is passed, one can envision “progressive” members no longer able to support a denomination they believe is practicing unjust discrimination against LGBTQ persons. This might affect their willingness to financially support a local congregation and might lead them to leave for a nearby Episcopal, Congregational, Lutheran, or Presbyterian church.
If the OCP is passed, one can envision “traditionalist” members no longer able to support a denomination that is promoting a behavior they believe contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. Where there is not an evangelical UM congregation nearby that they can join, it might prompt them to at least curtail financial support of the church or, more likely, leave for a nearby non-denominational, Baptist, or other evangelical congregation.
The loss of valued members who disagree with the decision of General Conference will vary from one congregation to the next. But it is a factor that pastors and congregational leaders will need to take into consideration as they plan for a new post-General Conference reality.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.