A Collapsing “Big Tent”?
By Thomas Lambrecht
Throughout this season of disaffiliation, many United Methodist bishops and leaders have attempted to convince traditionalists to remain in the denomination. They have assured traditionalists that there is a place for them in the UM Church and that their views would be respected. Some annual conferences have developed a culture of inclusion that enables traditionalists to participate equally. Other annual conferences – not so much.
Two current examples illustrate the eagerness of some bishops and conference leaders to exclude or punish traditionalist leaders.
Traditionalist Leader Removed from Standing Committee
On August 19, Simon Mafunda, a layperson in Zimbabwe, Africa, received an email notifying him that the (East) Africa Central Conference College of Bishops (the five bishops serving in eastern and southern Africa) had removed him from membership on the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. Mafunda has been a General Conference delegate and a member of the Standing Committee since 2016. He also served as lay leader of the Zimbabwe East Conference, elected as such by the annual conference members.
Bishop Daniel Wandabula, president of the College of Bishops, alleged in the email that Mafunda no longer represented the interests of the (East) Africa Central Conference because he is serving as the Vice President for Africa Strategy for the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Wandabula gave no specific example of how Mafunda has failed to represent the central conference in his work on the Standing Committee. Mafunda was removed from the committee and a replacement named by the College of Bishops in time for the next meeting of the Standing Committee, which took place the same day Mafunda received the email.
There is no provision in the Book of Discipline allowing a College of Bishops to remove someone from a committee of the church. Mafunda was named to the Standing Committee by the Council of Bishops (all the bishops serving in the denomination) and ratified by vote of the General Conference. The College of Bishops had no official role in naming Mafunda and has no official role to remove him from the committee.
The Standing Committee itself has the authority under Par. 711 “to remove and dismiss at their discretion any member, officer, or employee thereof:
- Who has become incapacitated so as to be unable to perform official duties.
- Who is guilty of immoral conduct or breach of trust.
- Who for any reason is unable to or who fails to perform the duties of the office or for other misconduct that any council, board, committee, or commission may deem sufficient to warrant such dismissal and removal.”
It is notable that the Standing Committee did not take this action to remove Mafunda. They did not find his participation on the committee to be a “breach of trust,” nor did they find him unable to perform his duties on the committee.
The College of Bishops does have the authority to fill a vacancy on the Standing Committee (Par. 712), but they did not have the authority to create the vacancy in order to fill it.
It is surmised that the bishops removed Mafunda from the Standing Committee in order to smooth the way for approval of the petitions for regionalization. Mafunda had been an outspoken opponent of the Christmas Covenant and other regionalization proposals. His removal allowed the Standing Committee to approve the latest version of the regionalization petitions without opposition.
The (East) Africa College of Bishops seems very selective about what they consider the interests of the central conference. They removed a strong traditionalist leader who has been an advocate for the current Book of Discipline. At the same time, they had nothing to say about the fact that Kenya now has two Reconciling Congregations, one of which was personally dedicated by Bishop Wandabula himself. The designating of a congregation as a “Reconciling Congregation” has been illegal under church law since 1999 (Judicial Council Decisions 847 and 871). Yet, Wandabula was allowed to promote something that is illegal, while at the same time also violating church law in removing a member of the Standing Committee.
It seems that the traditionalist position is not welcome in the (East) Africa Central Conference among its leaders.
North Georgia Vindictiveness
North Georgia Conference leaders were already in a questionable position after “pausing” the disaffiliation process for all churches at the end of 2022. Only a court ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by 190 churches forced the conference to reopen the process for disaffiliation. At this point, some 250 churches have voted to disaffiliate in North Georgia.
The First United Methodist Church of LaGrange, Georgia, failed its disaffiliation vote by 13 votes. The conference pulled out all the stops to keep that church in the fold. They sent in the conference chancellor, five former pastors of the congregation, three college presidents of LaGrange College, and others to advocate for the church to remain United Methodist. Despite the pressure, 64 percent of the 535 ballots cast favored disaffiliation. It missed the required two-thirds vote by 13 ballots.
The week after the vote, a prayer meeting was held to promote healing and unity in the congregation. The district superintendent recruited another pastor to attend the prayer meeting and video record it. At the conclusion of the prayer meeting, that pastor verbally and publicly confronted both the senior and associate pastors of LaGrange First, yelling, “If you had any integrity, you would resign from The United Methodist Church.”
The following Sunday, the senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. John Beyers, preached a conciliatory sermon indicating his hope that the church could continue its ministry and that it could be a strong traditionalist voice within the North Georgia Conference. At the same time, nearly 250 members of the church met in a Baptist Church gym to start a new Global Methodist congregation.
This past Sunday, it was announced that Beyers had been suspended by the bishop and conference board of ordained ministry. One of the former LaGrange College presidents was appointed as the interim pastor. In keeping with the suspension, Beyers was forbidden any contact with church members and barred from the church campus.
Highly unusually, all administrative committees of the church were also suspended from meeting. This included the church council, Staff-Parish, Finance, Trustees, and Nominations Committees. All non-essential expenditures of money were also frozen. There is no provision in the Book of Discipline allowing the annual conference to shut down the operation of lawfully elected leaders of a local church, unless the conference has declared “exigent circumstances” and is closing the church. So far, that has not been the case here.
Chris Ritter reports that “Dr. Beyers is a distinguished member of the World Methodist Council, a trustee of the historic Epworth Rectory, and widely respected as a center-right presence in the UMC.” He has served in ministry for 35 fruitful years. Beyers had also recently been hospitalized for a serious medical condition. He serves as a member of the Good News board.
It is unknown what would prompt North Georgia leaders to treat a respected traditionalist leader in such a callous way, or what would justify the conference’s illegal and heavy-handed attempt to wrest control of a local church away from its elected leaders, especially in a church where the conference won the vote! The church is remaining United Methodist, and there is nothing its traditionalist members could do about that. Yet the conference still came down hard on that congregation.
The interim appointed pastor, The Rev. Dr. Stuart Gulley, had advocated for the congregation to remain UM by stating, “Ten years from now, I fully expect that positions on homosexuality, like with slavery a century ago and women’s ordination over a half century ago, will have evolved to the point that few people will hold that homosexuality is contrary to biblical teaching.” Gulley certainly reflects the direction conference leaders want to take the church in North Georgia. Based on the conference’s actions, it appears there is no longer any room for a traditionalist voice in that conference.
In her announcement of Beyers’ suspension, the church’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee chair said, “Doctor Gulley is prepared to lead you, in his own words, on ‘the right side of history.’ But as for me and my household, we shall serve the Lord.” She then walked out of the service, accompanied by about a dozen other members.
Sadly, power plays by bishops and annual conference leaders will make many traditionalists believe they, too, have no longer any place in the UM Church. It makes one question whether the “Big Tent” approach to Methodism is sustainable.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Image: Shutterstock.