Advice to UM Pastors and Churches: Know What You are Going to Do!

Rev. Shane L. Bishop

By Shane Bishop –

I have played competitive softball since I was fourteen years old at every imaginable level. Up to a handful of years ago, I played over a hundred games each season and now in my late fifties, I still play twenty or thirty. For much of that time I was a shortstop. The shortstop is the captain of the infield and a part of my role was to make sure the other players were practicing situational awareness. My constant exhortation to my teammates before the ball was pitched? “Know what you are going to do!” 

My exhortation to United Methodist pastors and churches as we enter General Conference 2020 (GC2020) is very much the same, “Know what you are going to do!”

A handful of churches have already decided what they are going to do and won’t hang on until GC2020. They are the outliers and the wildcards. For them, the aftermath of General Conference 2019 was just too horrible to experience all over again. Most still haven’t stabilized. They don’t care what is decided at GC2020; release them from the Trust Clause and they will be gone. Leaving the denomination under the present rules involves a jagged and potentially contentious process but at least such churches can provide their own narrative. Leaving a contentious denomination feels very different than leaving over disagreements over human sexuality. The former is institutional; the latter personal. For these churches, attempting to get out will be their only move and they should be treated graciously. They did not ask for our current denominational dysfunction. To make them stay is a bad play for everyone.

The vast majority of United Methodist churches will stick it out until after General Conference 2020. They will see what unfolds and they will respond – or not. These churches and pastors need to be asking some important questions right now. Primary among them are, “What will our congregation do in response to GC2020 decisions?” and “What will our pastor do in response to GC2020 decisions?” Unless a pastor started the church, has been in place over a decade or is enjoying a near perfect fit; these will be two considerations with two very different sets of implications, not one.

In softball, you never know where the ball will be hit so you have to anticipate all possibilities. Anything could happen. Clearly the UM Church is at a tipping point; there is no end in sight concerning the conflict and the status quo is unsustainable. It is a good time to practice situational awareness.

 What could happen at GC2020?

  1. The denomination formally divides
  2. The denomination moves further right
  3. The denomination shifts left
  4. Things stay about where they are
  5. An exit ramp is offered
  6. An exit ramp in not offered
  7. Things are passed that are later ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council

 What will happen at GC2020?

  1. The delegates will be flooded with multiple plans and mutually exclusive agendas
  2. Those plans will be subjected to the political processes of the floor
  3. The human sexuality debate will overshadow all other business
  4. The United Methodist brand will be further diminished
  5. Many churches will be further destabilized
  6. Whatever is decided will be rejected by about half the church
  7. Whatever is decided will require more deciding in 2024 and beyond

In the meantime, I would encourage churches and pastors to ask themselves some very specific questions:

 The Big Questions 

  1. Can we survive until GC2020? If not, what would be the process of negotiating an exit? If we leave, where will we go? What is involved in legally reorganizing the church once we leave? Who owns the assets? How will ordination work for pastors who leave?
  2. If the UM Church formally splits, where will we land? How many ways might it split? How long will the process for formal separation take?
  3. If the UM Church moves further right, can we stay?
  4. If the UM Church shifts left, can we stay?
  5. Can our congregation survive a congregational vote on human sexuality? Should this be avoided at all costs? What would it take to get them ready?
  6. If there is a clear exit ramp offered, will we take it? Can we afford the terms? If we take an exit; do we go independent, independent but affiliated, form a new denomination or join an existing one?
  7. If there is no resolution to the United Methodist conflict in 2020, will we stay? 

These are difficult questions that anticipate a number of outcomes and grapple with a number of responses. Churches and pastors, even of the same theological ilk, will posit in different places. I encourage everyone to be as proactive as possible on one hand and to carefully “think things through” on the other. A failure to plan for what could happen now will almost certainly be a leadership mistake later. Having informed, prayerful and non-anxious conversations with your church leadership right now will prevent pandemic fear in the present and knee-jerk responses in the near future.

Ready or not, GC2020 will be here in a minute and a half. The field is lined, the opposing teams are warming up, the umpires are discussing the rules, coaches are going over the game plan and players are already trash talking. The first pitch will soon be thrown. Like softball, you never know where the ball will be hit; you just have to know what you are going to do. 

Shane L. Bishop, a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, has been the Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois, since 1997. This guest commentary is reposted by permission.

Comments

  1. I politely take issue with the Denomination “moving further left” or “further right”. Too few times do we couch this decision in a biblical vs nonbiblical argument. The question is whether the UMC chooses so unmoor itself from the bible or remain under its authority. To accept LGBTQ as a sacramental item is to spit on the word of the Lord. We cannot permit ourselves to move with the world because we are supposed to be in it but not of it.

    • To make the current crisis in the Church a simple case of biblical authority shows that you misunderstand the narrative. The question is does the Church adopt the Pauline approach to leading the Church or the Jesus approach to church leadership? These are not complementary approaches. The Jesus movement is an open community open to all, while the Pauline community was based around responding to the Roman state religion and theocratic governance. Too often believers look for a single approach to returning man to the Garden of Eden and right relationship with God. The bible simply doesn’t support this. If anything we see in the word a patient God watching humans struggle in the wilderness trying different things to get to the right relationship. There is no one answer to salvation than belief in Jesus and the blood of crucifixion to cover all sins both known and unknown. In many ways, evangelicals are like Cain. They see that some believers who don’t toe the line of conservative evangelicalism are getting God’s attention and instead of being happy that God has found them good in His sight they instead lash out in anger at their brothers and sister causing harm and spiritual death along the way. But don’t forget that God hears the cry of spilt blood. He doesn’t forget them. So before you cuddle up insecurity of the bible ask yourself. What in your actions and beliefs are harming fellow believers?

      • Charles Armour says

        The above statement, with its separation of the Epistle from what the author considers the higher truth of the Gospel, reminds me of the teachings of an early preacher called Marcion of Sinope.

        Although Marcion ironically proclaimed himself a thoroughgoing Pauline and Lukan scholar, he too separated what he considered the “true Gospel Of Christ” from what he believed to be outmoded and culturally constrained teachings of the Old Testament and Jewish culture. He taught that the loving Christ was a higher deity than the mere creator god of Judaism, as expressed in the Torah. Hence, belief in the old laws with their implied antiquated understandings of God, now needed to be contextualized under the overarching truth of Christ.

        Paul in his Epistle to The Romans, though written a century earlier than Marcion, anticipates such an artificial division of the Gospel. Its embryonic expression was already developing in the Roman Church, and he steadfastly wrote against such misapplications of scripture, including those who would misapply or misinterpret his own words.

        In due course, Marcion was condemned as a heretic, based upon the truth that neither God nor His Sacred Word can be separated. Whether one claims Paul over others, or contextualizes Pauline thought and places it beneath some alternate understanding of a more “enlightened Gospel”, the result is the same. Either extreme creates a false idea of a higher notion of Christ gleaned from a partial and selective reading of the New Testament.

        Humans remain perpetually tempted to keep those parts of God’s word which serve to justify themselves or, in the case of current conflicts, their own particular worldviews. As Barth opined when he challenged Bultmann, once we use the world as a sieve through which to filter scripture, all that we end up with is a “mess of pottage.” In the end, this is why good folk on both sides need to go their separate ways. We face two conflicting views of Scripture which cannot be reconciled. Such has happened many times in the past and likely shall happen many times in the future.

        • Joan Marie Rohrs says

          I agree with you. As a member of the new York annual conference I heard our bishop compare the issue to moving furniture around in the sanctuary! I feel as if I am being held hostage. I DON’T KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN. I WILL KEEP TO THE BIBLE.
          THE WORD OF GOD IS NOT A PIECE OF FURNITURE TO BE REARRANGED.

      • Your reply sound allot like something Adam Hamilton would say. I believe we can live out Biblical truth, while also being caring and compassionate to everyone. Leviticus 18:22 is pretty clear, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” I have read liberal interpretations of this verse ad nauseam, but at the end of the day it stands. I’ve also read Adam Hamilton’s thoughts on homosexuality and he too has been unable to point to anything in the Bible that supports his position. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, does not stretch into overriding anything in print in Leviticus.

        That said, I am a firm believer that there is room at the Lord’s table for everyone. This issue has morphed among some progressives in print and online media to insinuate that homosexuals are not welcome in United Methodist Churches. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This tactic works great for stirring up folks on one side of the issue, but it does nothing to bring folks together.

        The reality is the issue affecting the UMC is simply over gay clergy and gay marriage. There are two distinct reactions to the issue, and neither side is going to budge. The UMC will cease to exist in its current construct next year. That’s a sad ending to a decades long debate.

        I have advocated that the UMC would have been well served had it created its own spin off denomination to serve the needs of the LGBTQIA community long ago. I fully understand that some believe that would not have been inclusive enough. My suggestion is that altering the practices of an 11 million member denomination for less that 4% of its membership was a bad attempt at an outcome that was never going to become reality.

        What we see now is that the UMCNext (read LGBTQIA) organization wants what the UMC could have done all along. They want their own UMC denomination, and I fully expect that’s what they will get.

        So at the end of the day, an 11 million member denomination is being destroyed to accommodate less than 4% of its membership who really wanted what they’re getting, which is their own denomination.

  2. Jim Wolfgang says

    Shane’s advice to have a solid idea of what you and your congregation will do after the May general conference is a very good antidote to the unease and ambiguity many like myself feel. The two churches I pastor have made it clear they will not do ministry in a denomination that approves the practice of homosexuality as a biblically approved lifestyle, and neither will I. I would be very disappointed if these congregations became independent of any denominational affiliation as I do not see that as an authentic model of the local church in the New Testament where congregations are always lifted up as organically connected to the whole body of Christ and under apostolic authority. Some like minded colleagues and I are planning to present resolutions before our annual conference that will clarify where our annual conference stands on the practice of homosexuality issue; at present, I don’t know. I sense a gracious exit plan is needed for any congregation that finds the decision unacceptable, but as no one can know what General Conference in May will decide and our annual conference meets in June, various resolutions will have to be prepared in advance (my annual conference requires resolutions be presented to the committee on resolutions in April or they are not allowed on the floor at annual conference). So a variety of contingencies will be presented with the awareness some will be withdrawn as the General Conference decisions would dictate. We plan to begin wording these soon after the beginning of the year. I will be in contact with our W.C.A. representatives to see if they have guidance on this, or perhaps there are such plans already made. I suspect the “progressive” representatives at my annual conference have a plan and are hoping folks like myself do not. Any suggestions are welcome.

  3. Jim, my conference has the same rule about resolutions being presented no later than April. I assume that if a plan is passed that requires a vote before the following year, the GC will approve enabling legislation which will require AC’s to vote within the alloted time. This should supercede any AC rules. Quite frankly I don’t expect anything to pass the GC unless it is an easier exit plan for churches or AC’s or legislation to allow the US to be a central conference. Which has to be a constitutional amendment which probably will fail again, but which will take a year to vote on anyways. With the Africans and Philippinos being against splitting the denomination I doubt the Indy plan or any of the others will go through. I expect a big ugly cat fight next year, worse than GC 2019, with nothing resolved. There are too many people who still want it their way. The Africans do not live in the pressure cooker that the US lives in and time is on their side.

  4. The Question before Us is: Do We Believe in God? or Do We Believe God? Only 8 people believed God before the Flood. Only 2 of 12 Spies Believed God about going into the Promised Land. After Jesus ministered for 3 years and 40 days after Resurrection, Only 120 people had believed in Jesus and showed up at the Temple on Pentecost Day. True Believers are in short supply. Methodist need to do some deep thinking, praying and Affirmative Planning before GC2020.

  5. ALL are welcome at God’s table but on God’s terms. Yet, the LGBT+ contingency in the UMC is trying to welcome God to their table on their terms. Full inclusiveness at God’s table has been divorced from repentance by them demanding that those engaged in the sexual practices found among those identifying as LGBT+ are in no need of repentance and salvation (Justifying Grace). Therefore they should be accepted into the church, even celebrated in the church in their present human conditions as an expression of love. This, in and of itself, is a repudiation of Jesus on the Cross and rejects the very purpose of his sacrifice for all of our sins, the rejection of the entire Gospel.

  6. Here is the problem I see. Some churches are not having this discussion at all. Progressive Bishop’s don’t really want this discussed in my opinion. If they did, they would be ensuring the issue is discussed at all levels. Bishops should be recording videos on the issue, they should briefly mention each of the major plans and then they should send their DSs to each charge to show the video and discuss the issue with the congregation. But progressive Bishop much prefer this be kept on the “down low,” as much as possible. Here’s why.

    The Book of Discipline doesn’t give the congregation a voice in this issue unless they request a church conference and the DS approves their request. (Keep in mind they have to know there’s something to discuss to request a conference in the first place.) So far I haven’t seen word one from the 2019 GC mandating all churches hold a conference. Absent that, I can assure you that some church councils will vote on this issue one way or the other without the congregation ever knowing they did.

    Many in church leadership hold certifications as lay speakers and lay ministers. As we have seen, if you don’t toe the line of the DS and Bishop, they will yank your certification in less than a nano second. So for a conference led by a progressive Bishop, this is a very real concern.

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