Top Priority

Minneapolis Convention Center, location of the 2020 United Methodist General Conference. Photo: Meet Minneapolis.

By Tom Lambrecht –

As I participate in conversations around the church seeking a way to resolve the crisis facing The United Methodist Church, I have become aware that different people have different goals. A person’s top priority will affect how they evaluate a particular plan or strategy that is proposed to move our church forward. It is helpful to identify some of those top priorities and how they affect our perceptions about the various plans.

One top priority I have heard is the desire to avoid pain or minimize change. “Don’t make us vote!” is one manifestation of this priority. Some want to keep going as we are because they are afraid of the pain involved in facing our crisis and attempting to resolve it. “Our congregation is doing all right now. Please don’t do something that will cause an upheaval that tears our church apart.”

These people will not look kindly on a plan that raises up the issues that divide us, asking individuals and congregations to make a choice. But this approach ignores the fact that change is coming, whether we like it or not. It is not possible for The United Methodist Church to continue as it is. The rapid decline of membership, attendance, and giving in the U.S. is precipitating change, quite apart from the conflict we face.

On top of that, no congregation is going to be able to escape defining its theology and ministry around LGBTQ persons. Sooner or later, someone is going to ask to have their same-sex wedding in your church. How will you answer? Given the fact that a large percentage of clergy across the country in our church favor same-sex marriage and the affirmation of same-sex relationships, your church may soon (if it hasn’t already) receive a pastor who will try to convince your congregation to adopt a progressive view on these questions.

We cannot avoid the pain of living in a culture that is becoming increasingly permissive when it comes to human sexuality. We can allow the culture to determine our ministry standards and moral teachings, or we can study the Scriptures and our Christian tradition to come up with a faithful response. As when facing any painful experience, it is often better to face the pain head-on and get it over with. As my parents used to say, the sooner you “bite the bullet” and go through the pain, the sooner you can heal and move on in a positive direction. That is why the 2020 General Conference ought to seek a once and for all resolution to our church’s crisis. It is time to move on, and the only way we can create a positive future for our church is to go through the pain of birthing a new reality.

Another top priority that I hear a lot is the need to “win.” A number of people have written or said to me that they believe a negotiated separation is to “surrender” the fight and betray the victory that we “won” in 2019 at St. Louis. I agree that the St. Louis General Conference was a strong victory for the traditional Scriptural teaching on marriage and sexuality. But what does that victory look like now? We have a church in turmoil, with large segments of the church refusing to submit to the decision of General Conference. The only way to achieve a lasting “victory” in this scenario is to drive out of the church those who are unwilling to live by our teachings, including a significant number of bishops. Some might leave voluntarily, but others are determined to stay and cause as much pain as possible through resistance. We have to ask: is the “victory” worth the cost?

The leadership of “UMC Next,” a new LGBTQ-advocacy caucus, is bent on “winning” in Minneapolis next May. They believe they have a chance to win because they made significant gains in electing a delegation sympathetic to reversing the St. Louis decision. Many of them are not willing to compromise. They want to change the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality to become more permissive and force evangelical traditionalists to leave. (We would be unable to stay because changing the church’s teaching would violate our principled obedience to God and Scripture.)

Those bent on “winning” on either side are not in favor of a negotiated separation because they believe it is too much of a compromise. Some even describe it as a “sellout.” Why should we “surrender” when we won the vote in 2019? Why should we “surrender” when we won the annual conference elections this past spring? We should double down on our previous strategy because “victory” is within our grasp.

The “win the battle” factions on both sides would set us up for an even more ugly General Conference in 2020 than what we experienced in St. Louis. Some are so committed to winning that they are willing to use any means to do so, including lying, deception, slander, personal attack, parliamentary tricks, and just plain bullying. The spectacle of the church in conflict that was broadcast to the world from St. Louis was not a flattering one. It did not demonstrate Christ-like love or integrity. Do we want an even worse battle next year? Whether the result of the battle is a traditionalist victory with some progressives leaving or a progressive victory with some traditionalists leaving, what will be birthed will be forever tainted by the ugly manner of its birth.

Let me be clear that, if there is no viable alternative, I am fully prepared to work tirelessly to preserve the church’s faithfulness to the Bible and the Gospel (see below). I would do so with as much integrity and honor as God’s grace would enable within me. But Jesus warns us we should count the cost of such a course of action.

Another bottom line concern of some United Methodists is getting or hanging on to as much of the church’s assets as possible. Some have accused evangelicals of being “all about the money.” The leaders of “Mainstream UMC,” another special interest caucus group, are lobbying hard to keep as much of the church’s assets as possible, even to the extent of distorting the truth.

I believe that whatever new expressions or denominations are formed out of The United Methodist Church over the next few years should receive a fair allocation of the general church’s $1 billion in assets. Many of those assets may not be accessible for allocation due to legal restrictions or the fact that they are in property, rather than liquid form. For one expression to get or keep all the assets would be unfair. We have all contributed to those assets, regardless of our theological perspective. For generations, Methodists have contributed to the economic stability of our denomination that included a historically traditional view of marriage and sexuality.

Some social media provocateurs have claimed that evangelicals have failed to contribute our fair share toward the ministry of the church. Like so much of the flamboyant rhetoric these days, that charge is pure fantasy. There are thousands of evangelical churches who have faithfully and sacrificially contributed financially through apportionments over the years. And the money that has been contributed to the church is now the church’s money — it does not belong to those who originally gave it. It was given for the sake of mission and ministry, and it can fulfill that purpose in any of the denominations that are formed. Money should not be used as a weapon in our current conflict.

We should seek a fair distribution of the church’s assets. It is one way to treat each other with love and respect, despite our disagreement. It communicates that the church is not forcing one group out, but rather that we are mutually agreeing to separate for the sake of the church’s mission.

But the failure to receive a fair allocation of the assets should not prevent us from moving forward into a faithful future. A blogger friend recently reminded his readers that when Solomon was faced with the dilemma of the baby claimed by two mothers, the true mother was the one who was willing to let her baby go to save its life, rather than cling to the “half” of the baby that would kill it (I Kings 3:16ff.). Jesus said, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Proverbs wisely states, “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred” (15:16-17).

My own top priority in developing a way forward is to arrive at a church that is faithful to Scripture and to the doctrines of the church, and is in a position to be fruitful in mission and ministry. Right now, there are many who are not faithful to Scripture and the doctrines of the church, not only with regard to marriage and the church’s moral teachings, but also with regard to the foundational doctrines of the church. For many, Scripture is no longer the primary authority by which we measure our beliefs. Some do not believe Jesus Christ is the divine Son of the living God and only Savior of the world. Many annual conferences have allowed doctrinal relativism and even universalism to become accepted doctrinal positions among their clergy.

Because of this doctrinal confusion, local church members are not being discipled in the faith. Instead, they hear one belief system from one pastor, then a contradictory belief system from the next pastor assigned to their church. Many laity do not know what to believe. As Jesus lamented over the people of Israel, they are “sheep without a shepherd.” How can our church be fruitful in ministry amidst such doctrinal confusion? It cannot, and we see the membership decline to prove it.

Furthermore, the conflict in our church is hindering our fruitfulness in ministry. No one wants to join a church that is fighting. And no one wants to join a church that does not know what it believes. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours are devoted to winning the conflict that could be better spent in spreading the Gospel and helping the poor. What we are doing is not bringing honor to Jesus Christ.

I am for a plan (whatever it is) that resolves our conflict once and for all, that enables at least a portion of The United Methodist Church to unite together in common doctrine, and that frees us to be wholeheartedly devoted to carrying out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ with the result that the world is transformed.

We could get to such an outcome by continuing to stand strong for the traditional teachings of the church regarding marriage and sexuality, while hoping that those who cannot live by those teachings would voluntarily leave the church. But such a course of action will probably take another 20 years of fighting the same battles for accountability and working hard to reform the general church agencies to make them effective for fostering ministry fruitfulness. If we have to go that direction, I am willing to do so, and the Renewal and Reform Coalition will be submitting petitions to General Conference to further strengthen accountability.

However, I would rather get to a faithful and fruitful church more quickly than in 20 years. I only have a few years of active ministry left, and I would like to spend them in service of a church moving forward in a positive direction. If a negotiated settlement can be worked out that is mutually respectful and relatively equal and fair, that would resolve the conflict and free us for faithful ministry in the months after General Conference, I think we should take it. We continue to prayerfully commit ourselves to God’s guidance in working toward that best outcome.

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

Comments

  1. Tom,

    If your church is in a liberal conference, what guarantees are the laity going to get to even have a vote. If you look at their plans, they have one thing in common and that is to overturn 2019. I am fine with voting but are churches going to give people the right to vote.

    • Agreed. Liberal annual conferences are not going to let their dissenting churches exit easily. They already are in full re-education mode in my annual conference.

      In the end, the clergy own the future of this institution because they have the power – they go and vote and they usually are the one picking the lay leaders to vote also. Our clergy want to change christian doctrine and teachings to suit their political intetests- and i have no doubt that they will eventually get their way unless there is a glorious moving of the spirit.

      There really is no middle ground. One group thinks the church is welcome to all so that we can get to know and experience god so that our lives can be transformed. Another group thinks the church welcomes all to affirm, validate, and celebrate everyone just as they are and to rejoice in our diversity of thoughts and behaviors.

  2. Hannibal won a great battle over the Romans at Cannae. After the battle Hannibal did not know what to do next. In frustration one of his generals told Hannibal that he knows how to achieve great victories but does not know how to use them. We know what happened to Carthage. Do we not understand that we are at war? Pick your priority and focus on that. Win the war and then make a deal. If we don’t then it will be like World War I which was settled without a clear victory by either side and 20 years later continued in a more devastating conflict. Learn from history.
    “My own top priority in developing a way forward is to arrive at a church that is faithful to Scripture and to the doctrines of the church, and is in a position to be fruitful in mission and ministry.”
    I am onboard with a church that strives to be faithful to scripture. I am less concerned with fruitful in mission because I believe if we are faithful we will also be fruitful. Trying to blend the two will compromise the goal to be faithful and we will be right back where we started.
    What is the point in negotiating with progressives for a fair deal? We are dealing with a faction that has no problem violating their ordination oaths so what makes you think they will keep their word on any deal you make? That would be naïve wishful thinking. The progressives have not played fair with traditionalists and never will. Now that the Africans have made their position clear we need to consider that. No resolutions are going to be passed without their votes. I do not see them advocating for a deal. This isn’t a baby we are dividing. It is an organization with the capacity to regrow severed limbs. Christians have been struggling against the world for 2000 years. What is another 20 compared to that?
    “Money should not be used as a weapon in our current conflict.” It is already being used. I have read of the progressives who want to rigorously enforce the trust clause to keep churches from leaving. There is talk about throttling back subsidies to Africa over the votes they have cast. Real estate, underfunded pension obligations and missions are all in play. Then there is the money from the members. Watch what happens to the collection plates when members are unhappy with leadership. I am OK with letting churches leave with their assets if that is what they want to do. Let them go. Pension funds can be divided. It is just arithmetic. Do not get hung up over such things.
    As far as keeping GC 2020 from becoming a circus I think it is too late for that. The storm clouds are forming and there is no stopping what will happen. I saw some of the Facebook videos from GC 2019 with the chanting and screaming and the pounding on the doors. It was sickening to see full grown “Christians” acting in such a manner. It will be much worse in GC 2020. Count on that. No deal making will stop that.
    I left the Episcopal church and joined the Methodist church because I liked what I saw here. I witnessed first hand what happens when leadership ignores faithfulness and compromises over doctrine. It isn’t pretty.
    We are in an ugly fight and I do not envy the pressures you are under. I have met Keith Boyette on several occasions and know him by reputation. He gave up a lucrative law career to satisfy his call. It pains me to read some of the ugly comments written about him. I know him to be an honorable man. In times like these we need honorable leaders. Stand tall.

    • Thank you Kevin for your clarion clarity: “win the war then make a deal.” Obviously you understand and articulate well our current battlefront, and God’s Team stands together with full backup and are ready… Truth speaks where words have failed, so let us not be afraid to sound the Trumpet! If we don’t, I’m sure God will.

  3. Charles Armour says

    Scripture offers its own opinion on the topics contained within both this and the previous article.

    “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God: as God Said, ‘ I shall live in them and walk among them. And I will be their God and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them and be separate from them.’ ” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17a)

    Perhaps the best and most simple idea would be for traditionalists to strike a deal to just leave with their properties, allowing the others to keep the boards and agencies, most of which have long since adopted both covert and overt progressive political agendas.

    Agencies ought to be extensions of the ministries of the local congregations, but sadly it has become reversed to he extent that many UMC leaders increasingly see the local churches as mere fundraising mechanisms for the boards and agencies from whence they believe the real action and vitality of the church is carried on. It has become an upside down way of viewing the function of the Church.

    Traditionalists might be far better off to take the local dollars thereby saved, and throwing the them all into evangelism. And then, with additional moneys raised, do as Paul did for Jerusalem, take up collections as needed from the congregations to collectively support works of charity and mission. Seems like the Church of those days despite horrible persecution, ended up have a most profound impact upon the world.

    Let them have the bloated structure. It might be painful at first but much less so than what the Children of Israel felt when they were both led and compelled to leave the fleshpots of Egypt. Might it be that beyond all the human arguments back and forth, it is Scripture which in the end offers the best solution?

  4. Thank you Rev. Tom for speaking to my concerns. I am ready to be done with this chaos by GC 2020 and pray a plan of amicable and equitable separation passes despite what I’m hearing from the African Leadership. While on one level I agree with their position, the majority of US Bishops, clergy, Seminarians and Agency Bureaucrats will never accept the Scriptural and Traditional view of marriage and ordination standards. Traditionalists can continue to “win” GC battles and still lose the “war” for the soul of the UMC in the U.S. I don’t see any possibility of “victory” by hoping under our current governance system that the Denomination can enforce what GC passes. The Judicial Council will hold it is up to an individual conference or Jurisdiction to enforce the BOD and many have made clear they will not in open defiance. There is no victory here. Time to shake the dust off and move on, hopefully to a new Traditionalist Wesleyan expression. Some will argue that is giving up. It’s not. It’s moving forward. Giving up is saying I quit being a Christian and no longer care. Moving forward is saying I want to exercise my Christianity in a new Wesleyan expression that accepts a Traditionalist understanding of Scripture and the meaning of marriage and ordination standards and requires those ordained to follow their oaths and to abide by our BOD.

    • John this sums up my understanding and feelings related to the UMC.
      It has been a good attempt by folks like Tom, but the bottom line is that
      the extreme progressive side will not obey christian doctrine. Therefore, our attendance and financial support are at about zero. I’ll support local missions, although not those directed by the conference bishop or pastor at our local church. I am done with supporting missions that disobey the law and are as political as the Bernie Sanders style of debates going on in politics. We have visited and looked at a few other churches in the area and will choose from one of many who aren’t tied to church politics like the UMC global church. I am feeling much better with this decision and the angst has all but disappeared.

  5. This seems the perfect opportunity to ask a question……

    You stated in your article:
    “Because of this doctrinal confusion, local church members are not being discipled in the faith. Instead, they hear one belief system from one pastor, then a contradictory belief system from the next pastor assigned to their church. Many laity do not know what to believe.”

    This is very true from what me and my spouse have experienced. To help us be better informed on just what the UMC does believe, we ordered and read the book: “By Water and the Spirit” by Gayle Carlton Felton. The information in this book was adopted by the General Conference in 1996. We have found no updated version of this book, so we assume it is still valid.

    Our question is if this book “By Water and the Spirit” is still considered a current, valid outline of what the UMC believes? We ask this because of some very curious reactions we have received from other UMC pastors and laity in our local UMC churches. When we shared information from this book we have received som very strong negative reactions. Of course, we live in a VERY progressive, liberal, pro-LGBTQ area, so this may be the reason for the strong negative reactions we received. One pastor even told us to “ignore” what the book said.

    If this book is still considered current and valid, is seems logical that ALL UMC people read it. It should also help those who aren’t sure where they stand on certain issues, and help them determine where they “fit” during this time of turmoil and division in the UMC, and when the dust settles. Hopefully, sooner than later. There are those of us out here who are finding it very difficult to find a good UMC church where we don’t feel we have to always be very careful as to what we say and share. It’s exhausting and isolating. Not an environment to develope good, healthy, godly fellowship with other Christians who stand on the word of God.

    Please, if we could get the current status on this book as a good resource for us to use, and to share with other UMC members who need a good grounding in foundational truths.

    Ann

    • Thank you for your question, Ann.

      “By Water and the Spirit” is a recommended study resource. It is the official “position” of the UM Church on baptism and related topics. However, the most authoritative explanation of what United Methodists believe is found in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith in our Book of Discipline. These are our doctrinal standards. Another resource that is helpful and a bit more recent is the study called “Christian Believer.”

      But outside of the doctrinal standards, there is not an official statement of what United Methodists believe. The church has neglected to nourish its doctrinal heritage and teach it to our people. Some have called for an official catechism that churches could use to teach doctrine. Hopefully, that will be developed in the near future.

      In Christ,
      Tom Lambrecht

    • Good post. In my experience, the last minister we had who taught anything about the faith was back in the 1990’s. Sunce then, we have had one after the other that avoids teaching. We currently have a minister that has encouraged (successfully) the discontinuation of our sunday school and religious ed programs. Liturgically, She never uses creeds, never has more than one scripture reading, and never uses an act of contrition or penance. How in the world are members supposed to know what this faith is all about when our shepherds refuse to tend their flocks? I don’t see any resolution to this with our current pool of clergy.

  6. Exasperated Traditionalists who want to be done and separated from United Methodism must remember this cannot be achieved by fiat, that is, not by simply declaring our disgust and our desire to move forward. This struggle has to be played out. Resolve to do so will require tenacity and endurance and willingness to suffer hardship.

  7. I stand in a state of confusion. Clarification please. Help.

    https://www.umnews.org/en/news/african-bishops-say-they-oppose-separation-plans

    • I apologize to Scott who pointed this out at the “Dissolution or Separation?” discussion.

      But, I was under the impression that the Africans were ready to affiliate with a new orthodox denomination if an amiable separation plan could be accomplished? If progressives manage to overturn the 2019 General Conference decision, are the Africans saying that they will not affiliate with a new WCA denomination as long as they’re allowed to be an “African branch” of some sort of united institution? All of this is so confusing, so wrenching, and so disturbing.

    • Anthony, Everybody made plans without asking the Africans and Philipino’s. Big mistake! It turns out the Bishops of both groups are instituitionalists and are determined to preserve the UMC. I don’t know how much authority and following the Bishops in these regions have amongst their people, but unlike the USA I assume that in their traditional societies they have quite a bit of authority. Both groups have now come out against seperation or dissolution. I seriously doubt it will happen without thier support. The Philipino’s are willing allow the US to be come it’s own Central Conference and write it’s own discipline. I’m not sure how the African’s feel about that since they realize it is a ploy to make homosexuality affirmed in the US and they are against that stand. Also this would take a constitutional amendment which was tried in 2012 (I think) and it failed badly. To pass it takes 2/3 approval of all of the delegates to annual conference world wide. This would be a hard standard to meet even in the US. Over half of the lay delegates to AC’s are traditional and while the clergy vote for delegates was 60/40 progressive, it’s not enough to give a 2/3 majority in this country, let alone in Africa and most of the other central conferences.
      Can you blame the African’s? They allied with the traditionalists in the US this year and won. They are now the largest voting block in the UMC and realize sometime in the next twelve years they will hold the majority of the UMC. They are most likely playing the long game and understand that even if the one church plan was to be passed at GC2020 and the traditionalist plan repealed, it will be ignored in Africa and in 8 to 12 years they will be able to reverse it, returning the UMC to traditional values.
      All of the traditionalists who are so busy writing proposals to GC2020 this week to meet the deadline of the 18th, need to stop and have a talk with the Bishops of Africa and the Philippines. The progressives know this is the last GC where they will have a chance of removing the prohibition against homosexuality from the BOD. I believe Mainstream UMC and the majority of progressives will go for broke. From what is coming out of the west it looks like their backup plan is to seceed from the UMC if they don’t get their way next year. I don’t know if that is legal but I doubt I care and does anyone really have the stomach to launch the legal battle to prevent it. Feel sorry for the traditionalist left in those areas!

  8. There are laity who hold ordination through wedding organizations who can and will marry all who come to them. I choose not to pursue local ministry to make sure that I am not controlled by caucus or Disicipline if I chose to marry a same sex family.

  9. KEN QUATTLEBAUM says

    I thought we spent three years and several million dollars putting together the 2019 Special General Conference which voted on The Way Forward.

    The vote affirmed the current wording of the Book of Discipline. The vote provided consequences for those that disobey the Book of Discipline. The vote provided an exit for those that could not abide by the Book of Discipline. That was determined to be The Way Forward.

    Did I miss something?

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