By Rob Renfroe –
Will we hold General Conference in 2022? That’s the question many people are asking. The simple answer is we must. And we can.
This year, the most vocal progressive church in my annual conference, the Texas Annual Conference, requested and was granted disaffiliation. It will join the United Church of Christ, a denomination that has no ties with our Wesleyan heritage.
Last year, the second largest congregation in our conference left. It is a traditionalist church with a pre-COVID weekly worship attendance of 3,000.
Outside of Texas we are witnessing the same exodus. The largest progressive church in the country, Glide Memorial in San Francisco, disaffiliated earlier this year. Asbury Memorial Church in Savannah, Georgia, left in 2020 explicitly because of United Methodism’s stance on marriage and sexuality. Three smaller progressive churches in Maine are in the process of leaving the New England Conference. UM News Service reports that 51 congregations disaffiliated from the UM Church in 2020.
Two traditionalist midwestern megachurches have also disaffiliated. Granger Community Church in Indiana, with a weekly worship attendance of nearly 4,000, and multi-campused Christ Church in Illinois, with a weekly attendance of well over 2,000, have both departed.
The longer we wait to resolve our differences, the more opportunity there will be for mistreatment of congregations, real or imagined. The largest church in Georgia, Mt. Bethel in Marietta, has announced its intention to leave because its senior pastor was to be removed without the church or the pastor being consulted. The largest church in New Jersey (a Korean congregation) has split for a similar reason. And three Korean churches in Southern California are at odds with their bishop and district superintendents because their pastors have been told they would be removed. (See article on page 36.)
Of course, it’s not just churches; it’s people, too. We are told that some persons are leaving UM churches or not joining because they cannot be associated with a denomination that does harm to LGBTQ persons. Every week our office receives notice from long-time Methodists that they are leaving the denomination because they can no longer sit under the ministry of a pastor or a bishop they believe is preaching a gospel that is contrary to what God has revealed in Scripture.
Some of the exiting churches are uniting with other Wesleyan denominations. Some are not. Most of our members who are leaving are joining Baptist or non-denominational churches.
Whether we are progressive, “centrist,” or traditionalist, we all believe there is something very special about our Wesleyan witness that prioritizes God’s grace and emphasizes his call to holiness of heart and life. The longer we wait to hold General Conference and adopt the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, the more churches and members we will lose to the Wesleyan way and the weaker our witness will be.
We must end our division and move on. That means General Conference must meet in 2022.
But, can we? What if delegates outside the United States are not fully vaccinated and are unable to travel? Or they cannot receive visas to come to this country? Good News is encouraging overseas delegates to get vaccinated wherever possible. We are working with others to try to ensure visas will be available to delegates and others.
But what if, despite all of our efforts, international travel is still impossible and an in-person General Conference cannot take place with all our international delegates present? Then a virtual or a hybrid General Conference can and should be held. Is that really do-able? Of course, it is. Corporations hold meetings with hundreds of their employees in scores of different countries every day. They have found the required technology to hold such meetings.
The reason these companies did not decide that virtual meetings are too difficult to pull off is simple. They want to make money. The desire for greater profits has been sufficient for corporations to find or develop the technology required to conduct detailed, multinational meetings. And if we do not do the same, it will only be because the Kingdom of God is not as important to United Methodists as making money is to corporate America.
Nearly every capital city in the world has a hotel near its major airport with sufficient technology for delegates to connect securely with General Conference. Delegates could stay in those hotels at no greater cost to the church than the hotels in Minneapolis. And whatever additional technological costs may be required will be more than offset by the savings of not having to pay for air travel to the United States.
Some of us have been calling for separation since 2004. It has taken others of us longer to reach the same conclusion. But the vast majority of our representatives were prepared to vote on the Protocol in 2020. We gave the Commission on General Conference the benefit of the doubt when GC 2020 was postponed, and we understood their concern that equal access to technology and full participation at the Conference might not be possible for all delegates.
But it is now time for the Commission to be understanding of us. The Church is hurting. We’re losing congregations and members. Our Wesleyan witness is being weakened. We need the Protocol to be passed. We need to adopt it no later than 2022. It can be done and it must be done.