Downsides of Regionalization
By Thomas Lambrecht
The last Perspective spoke about the unfairness of “regionalization” in its treatment of Africa and other parts of the church outside the U.S. As I wrote, “The top agenda item for the 2024 General Conference in April for most progressives is to adopt ‘regionalization’ as the new mode of United Methodist governance. This proposal would be a dramatic shift in how the UM Church functions. …”
Once again, the regionalization proposal is similar to the U.S. central conference proposal that passed General Conference in 2008 but was overwhelmingly defeated by annual conferences in 2009. It would set up the U.S. as its own regional conference, along with three regional conferences in Europe, three in Africa, and one in the Philippines.
There are other downsides to consider.
The rationale for regionalization is to allow each geographic region of the church to adapt specified provisions of the Discipline to fit the missional needs of its region. There is also the argument that many of the resolutions on social issues that General Conference addresses relate mainly to the United States and are not of interest to the rest of the global church. Creating a U.S. regional conference would allow the U.S. delegates to issue specific resolutions or take positions on issues that are U.S.-centric without the need for other delegates to participate in discussions that do not concern them.
On the surface, it may seem like the regionalization idea makes sense. Greater flexibility to adapt the rules of the church to meet the needs of each region could make the church’s mission more effective. It seems that the Discipline has moved in the direction of micro-managing the life and work of the church over the past 20 years, not just in the area of sexual morality, but in many other ways, as well. Do we really need 850 pages of rules to run the church by?
One approach to this problem would be to make the rules in the Discipline more general and flexible, so that different cultural contexts could function equally well within the same framework without needing to adapt any of the provisions. This is the approach taken by the new Global Methodist Church Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline.
The other approach is to have a general Book of Discipline that governs some of the functions of the church, while then allowing each region to pass its own Discipline to govern the functions of the church in that region. However, there are some philosophical problems with that approach, as well as some practical problems.
Weakening the Connection
Methodism has always understood itself to be governed by a unique form of polity called “connectionalism.” It started with John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who oversaw the growing Methodist movement through all the preachers who were “in connection” with him. There was the emphasis on personal relationship, along with accountability, as the preachers met annually to determine “what to teach, how to teach, and what to do.” Decisions were made corporately (although heavily influenced by Wesley during his lifetime) and governed the actions of all the Methodist societies in connection with Wesley.
Following the regionalization approach runs the risk of beginning to undo the connection that binds all United Methodists together. Wesley identified that Methodists share a common doctrine, a common discipline, and a common spirit that binds us together. Theoretically, visiting a Methodist church anywhere one would find the same doctrines being preached, and same method of operating as a church, and the same spirit bringing unity to the body.
Importantly, the regionalization proposal keeps doctrine and the Social Principles as part of the general Discipline that applies to all United Methodists. However, the proposal also opens the various regions to have different levels of accountability for our common doctrine, codifying what exists today in a rather lax approach toward doctrinal accountability in some parts of the church.
Other aspects of the church’s life and ministry that really are of significance for our connection are also given adaptability. This includes clergy standards, qualifications for lay membership and leadership, and worship rituals. When these connectional items begin diverging from one region to another, it weakens the connection we have as United Methodists. Important areas of church life that were once decided by General Conference for all United Methodists would now be decided differently for each region of the church.
The ultimate end of such a process of disconnection could be that United Methodism becomes an association of regional or national churches, each one different from the other and having its own way of doing church. We could end up as more of a communion than a denomination. It could be similar to the Anglican Communion that has an Anglican denomination in each country overseen by an archbishop, but where the various national churches function quite differently from each other and have different standards, rules, and even beliefs.
Some of the practical consequences of regionalization could include:
- Clergy may not be able to easily transfer from one region to another if the qualifications and standards for ordination are different. Currently there are many African clergy serving in the U.S. That ability might be limited in the future if the qualifications for being ordained in an African conference differ significantly from those in the U.S.
- Local church membership could mean different things in different regions. Some regions could require extensive probationary periods before becoming a member and exhibit strict accountability to behavior standards for members, compared to other regions that have a “y’all come” approach to membership.
- Each region would have its own accountability process. We have seen, especially in Africa, how the current accountability process is not being followed properly. A few bishops are excommunicating lay members and defrocking clergy without any due process, completely contrary to the Discipline. If the accountability process (including investigations and trials) is removed from the general Discipline, one can imagine how the rule of law would go out the window in certain areas and bishops would become dictators, to the detriment of the church’s life and ministry.
- The current practice of holding bishops accountable only within their region has not worked. Regionalization would codify that practice and make it even more difficult to ensure that bishops behave with integrity, respecting due process and the rights of clergy.
- With the ability to have different chargeable offenses in different regions, clergy will be held accountable to different standards. What is not allowed in one region could be perfectly legal in another. These unequal standards not only create inconsistency as to what is expected of clergy across the church, but they could occasion resentment between clergy of different regions who are treated differently. Again, it undermines the connection.
- United Methodist bishops are bishops of the whole church, not just their episcopal area. But opening the legal possibility of having openly gay bishops means they could participate in meetings and events in countries where homosexuality is against the law. Will bishops be redefined as only regional bishops, able to serve only within their region? Regionalization raises problems with having a general episcopacy.
What does it mean to be United Methodist? Already, there is confusion and inconsistency between different local churches who claim the same name but teach a different theology and practice Methodism differently. Regionalization will only accelerate the inconsistency of identity. The United Methodist “brand” will suffer a loss of identity.
For traditionalists in Africa and elsewhere, the worst consequence is that they will be tagged for being part of a denomination that performs same-sex weddings and has openly gay clergy and bishops, even if that does not happen in their particular region. This poses a grave threat to the mission of the church where the practice of homosexuality is illegal or where the church is under pressure from a militant Islam seeking to discredit Christianity. What affects United Methodist identity in one region affects that identity in all regions. And each region affected is powerless to change that reality.
Regionalization sounds good until one begins to unpack the intended and unintended consequences. At the very least, it would mark a dramatic shift in how The United Methodist Church functions as a denomination. It is being done at the behest of promoting LGBTQ equality and cementing control by the American part of the church of its own affairs. Delegates should think long and hard before taking such a drastic step.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.
Regionalization: the New Colonialism?
By Thomas Lambrecht
The top agenda item for the 2024 General Conference in April for most progressives is to adopt “regionalization” as the new mode of United Methodist governance. This proposal would be a dramatic shift in how the UM Church functions. It would move from being a connectional church to a regional church, or even an association of national churches.
The regionalization proposal is similar to the U.S. central conference proposal that passed General Conference in 2008 but was overwhelmingly defeated by annual conferences in 2009. It would set up the U.S. as its own regional conference, along with three regional conferences in Europe, three in Africa, and one in the Philippines.
The key is that each regional conference would have the authority to create its own policies and standards in a number of key areas. These include:
- Qualifications and educational requirements for clergy – so there could be different qualifications to be ordained as a clergyperson in each regional conference.
- Standards and qualifications for lay membership – so the standards for being a lay member of a local church could be different from region to region.
- Rules of procedure governing investigations and trials of clergy and lay members – how clergy and lay members are held accountable could differ from region to region.
- Changes in chargeable offenses and their penalties – what is a chargeable offense in one region could be perfectly allowed in another.
- Each region could have its own hymnal and worship rituals. It is unclear from the proposals whether each region could have different baptismal and membership vows or ordination vows.
This type of regionalization is a relatively recent development. In 2012, the General Conference began to move toward allowing central conferences outside the U.S. greater flexibility in adapting the Book of Discipline to their particular context. However, this was not finalized in 2016, but only in process until 2020 (which was of course postponed by the pandemic).
The original concept of adaptability for the Discipline was meant to allow for different laws and property procedures in different countries outside the U.S. But the expansion to other areas of adaptability was (I believe) a precursor to justifying greater adaptability for the U.S. church. If the central conferences outside the U.S. had the ability to adapt the Discipline in the ways listed above, one could hardly deny the U.S. church the same ability to adapt the Discipline. Never mind that the majority of General Conference delegates has always been from the U.S. and the Discipline has always been written primarily from a U.S. context, meaning that such adaptation was hardly necessary.
The real reason for regionalization and adaptability is to allow the U.S. church to liberalize its standards regarding marriage and LGBT persons. Each of the bullet points above has a direct relationship to LGBT persons. Adapting the qualifications for ordination would allow the U.S. church to ordain non-celibate LGBT persons. Adapting the qualifications for lay membership would allow the U.S. church to forbid pastors from preventing non-celibate LGBT persons to become local church members and serve in leadership in the local church, district, and annual conference. Adapting the rules of procedure for holding clergy and lay members accountable would allow the U.S. church to prevent trials for LGBT clergy or for clergy performing same-sex weddings. Adapting the chargeable offenses would allow the U.S. church to remove from the list of chargeable offenses anything related to same-sex marriage and non-celibate LGBT persons serving as clergy. Adapting the hymnal and the rituals would allow the U.S. church to create liturgies for same-sex weddings and potentially alter the ordination vows to mandate support for LGBT persons.
In the wake of the 2019 General Conference’s affirmation of a traditional perspective on marriage and human sexuality, progressives have rebelled. They decided to move ahead with same-sex weddings and the ordination of non-celibate LGBT persons regardless of what the Discipline said. Regionalization would give them the legal ability to do so within the Discipline by codifying different standards and policies for the U.S. church than those adopted in Africa and other regions.
This is the goal of regionalization, as articulated in a recent Mainstream UMC fundraising letter. “Homosexuality is the flashpoint in this conversation. A US-only vote likely would have permitted LGBTQ ordination and marriage as many as 12 years ago, just like the US Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Disciples have done. … The mean-spirited Traditional Plan of 2019 – which doubles down on the harm – has proven to be the tipping point in the United States. Either this policy is completely repealed at General Conference 2024, along with the other anti-LGBTQ language, or the exodus continues, and likely accelerates, in the United States.” (The letter is referring to an exodus of progressives and LGBT persons, which Mainstream UMC blames for the decline in UM membership over the past 40 years. Never mind that, while LGBT-affirming mainline denominations have all declined precipitously, non-denominational evangelical churches and Pentecostal denominations with a traditional understanding of marriage and human sexuality have grown.)
What about colonialism?
It is unquestionably true that UM governance has always had a U.S.-centric approach. Particularly in the realm of social issues and resolutions on particular justice issues, the focus was predominantly on the U.S., although that had begun to change by 2016 with greater attention and sensitivity to global issues and how resolutions could be worded to be more inclusive of global concerns.
The question is whether to solve the problem of U.S. centrism by decoupling the connection through allowing wholesale adaptability of the Discipline, or by allowing greater input from non-U.S. delegates to the forming of a global Discipline. Most progressives and the church’s “establishment” chose the route of adaptability, first through the defeated U.S. central conference plan and then through initiating changes in the Discipline in 2012. Traditionalists have consistently favored the second approach of moving toward a more globally inclusive Discipline. That was the stark contrast between the One Church Plan in 2019 that would have allowed maximum adaptability, and the Traditional Plan that maintained a global standard.
But in its quest to rid the denomination of its U.S. centrism and colonial undertones, does the new regionalization proposal codify a new form of colonialism? Some African leaders have said yes. A closer analysis of the proposal shows they are right.
It is interesting that the big push for regionalization comes just as the U.S. church membership has moved into a minority status. Even before disaffiliations began, membership outside the U.S. had pulled even with U.S. membership. This was not reflected in the percentage of delegates at General Conference, particularly for Africa, as the formula for delegates favors the U.S. with its very large number of retired clergy and clergy serving in extension ministry.
Even as African membership was increasing by 10 to 20 percent per quadrennium, their delegate percentage would only increase by less than five percentage points. It was going to be at least a decade or more before African delegate percentage more accurately reflected their percentage of membership. That, of course, changed with disaffiliation, which has drastically cut U.S. lay and clergy membership.
But Mainstream UMC is panicking over the fact that U.S. delegates will soon be in the minority. “In 2012, … international delegates totaled nearly 1/3 of the votes. For General Conference 2024, the delegates from outside the US will be close to 45 percent. In four years, it will be almost 55 percent.”
In other words, just when non-U.S. delegates are poised to have a significant voice in denominational governance, progressives want to marginalize them through regionalization. No matter what the non-U.S. delegates believe, the U.S. delegates that are a majority progressive can do what they want. Non-U.S. delegates will no longer be able to “interfere” with what the U.S. delegates want. In another fundraising letter, Mainstream UMC says, “There is a growing sentiment in the US that we will not fund a church that constrains our outreach to our local mission field. Period.”
No Override Option
The current regionalization proposal has no provision for the General Conference to override the decision of a regional conference. If a regional conference enacts something that is contrary to UM governance, the only recourse is to file an objection with the Judicial Council, which is difficult to do and made more difficult by the regionalization plan itself. Another region may not have standing to bring an action before the Judicial Council under the new regime of regionalization.
A previous version of the regionalization proposal allowed a regional action to be overturned by a two-thirds vote of the General Conference. Of course, the U.S. would have more than one-third of the votes, so its actions would not be overturned. But Europe, the Philippines, and the three African regions would each have less than one-third of the votes, so their actions could be overridden, while the U.S. would not.
Other Favorable U.S. Treatment
There are other ways in which the U.S. gets favorable treatment under the current proposal. Other regions could set the tenure of their bishops, but the U.S. bishops would be guaranteed life tenure by the Constitution.
The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters would continue with its current 30 to 40 percent U.S. representation. But the U.S. regional conference would have only 14 non-U.S. delegates, making up only 3 percent of the conference. Thus, the U.S. would have a bigger say in non-U.S. matters than non-U.S. delegates would have for U.S. matters.
The General Conference could change the boundaries of non-U.S. regional conferences without the consent of its annual conferences but changing the boundaries of jurisdictions in the U.S. would still require annual conference consent. Again, U.S. conferences would have more say in their affairs than non-U.S. conferences in theirs.
It is no wonder that some African leaders and delegates are opposing the regionalization proposal. In an effort to ostensibly remove colonialism from UM governance, regionalization as currently proposed installs new, discriminatory provisions that reinforce U.S. autonomy and superiority. One must ask whether the UM Church is exchanging one form of colonialism for another. It is enough to cause second thoughts on whether this is the direction the UM Church should take going forward. Time will tell how the General Conference delegates and annual conference members evaluate this proposal.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Image: Shutterstock.
Start Off 2024 with an Act of Rebellion
By David F. Watson
There’s nothing more central to the postmodern Western mind than radical autonomy. Put more simply, we can express the common mindset of our age as something like, “I’ll do what I want and be who I want. I’ll live as I want and die as I want. I am my own master, and none will master me.”
Whether we’re talking about gun laws, abortion, gender identity, sexual expression, or “medical aid in dying” (assisted suicide), our default conviction is, “My will be done.”
We don’t normally perceive this mentality any more than fish perceive the water in which they swim, but it guides our thoughts, words, and deeds. Our minds are neatly conformed to the patterns of this age.
Orthodox Christianity offers us a remarkably different vision of the self. The NRSV renders Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The phrase “to this world” in this passage is more accurately translated “to this age” (Greek: aión).
The current age misshapes our minds. We’re like out-of-tune instruments. In order to discern what is good and acceptable and perfect – about ourselves, other people, and God – we must be transformed. It is necessary for God to renew our minds by the power of the Holy Spirit. As God does this necessary work, we see the world with increasing clarity. The scales come off of our eyes. The Holy Spirit heals the corrupting influence of sin on our minds, and the ways in which we were conformed to the present age become ever more apparent.
If my students or former students are reading this right now, they’re probably rolling their eyes. I’m like a broken record on the epistemic consequences of sin, also called the noetic effect of sin. These are just ten-dollar phrases which mean that sin warps the way we think. The patterns of this age are distorted by sin, and we soak in this distortion by osmosis from the time we’re born. (Yes, I know I talk about this too much but it’s important, okay? No, I’m not defensive. Why do you ask?)
I’m a Wesleyan. Nothing against Calvinism. It’s just not my jam. Being a Wesleyan, I believe we can resist the effects of God’s grace in our lives. What is crucial if we wish for God to renew our minds is a posture of openness to the transforming love of God. That means we give up our commitment to self-will and offer ourselves in joyful obedience to God’s will.
Wesley’s covenant prayer is a great way to enter a posture of openness and obedience to God. I recommend praying this prayer not just at the beginning of the year, but throughout the year. It is a beautiful expression of obedience and devotion to the God who saves us.
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Seedbed also offers a contemporary rendering of John Wesley’s Covenant Renewal Service, which would be great to use in small groups or Sunday morning worship.
Begin this year with an act of rebellion against the patterns of this age. Begin to know yourself as God knows you. Yield to God. Make yourself fully available to receive his transforming power. We Christians are no longer our own. We are God’s. To live out this truth may be treasonous to the spirit of this age, but then, as Jesus said, no one can serve two masters.
David F. Watson serves as Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University, and is an ordained elder in the Global Methodist Church. Dr. Watson is also the lead editor of Firebrand. This editorial is reprinted from his Substack column found here. Duccio di Buoninsegna was an Italian painter in the late 13th and early 14th century. His Pentecost painting is found at The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, an art museum in Siena, in Tuscany in central Italy. Public domain artwork.
Leave Your Stuff Behind
By Maxie Dunnam
Tucked away in the Old Testament story of Joseph’s journey into Egypt is a verse packed with far more meaning than appears on the surface. It teaches an eternal truth that we’d do well to consider as we enter the New Year. Rehearse the story.
Sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh and became one of the trusted officials in Pharaoh’s court. A strange irony of fate, obviously the providence of God, brought Joseph and his brothers who had betrayed him together again. A famine had ravaged the land of Canaan. The people were without food, and they came to Egypt seeking to buy food from the Pharaoh.
It was soon revealed that the person with whom they had to deal was the brother they had sold into slavery. The tables were turned. Here they were asking for food from the person they had cast away. When it came to Pharaoh’s attention that Joseph’s brothers had come, it pleased him. He instructed Joseph to bring the whole family away from Canaan, promising to give them the goods of all the land of Egypt, and it is at this point that a power-packed Scripture passage is found. “Do this, said Pharaoh, take wagons from the land of Egypt for your little ones and your wives, bring your father and come. Give no thought to your goods, for the best of all the land of Egypt will be yours” (Genesis 45:20). King James’ version translates that word this way: Regard not your stuff, for the best of all the land of Egypt will be yours.
There’s all sorts of meaning in that. Another translation has it – leave your stuff behind.
Six years ago, my wife Jerry and I moved into a “life care community.” We have not had a single reservation. Being a Methodist preacher, we have moved numerous times. At our age and station, our intention is this is our last move, until the Lord moves us home with him. Though comfortable with that fact, we were not prepared for both the emotional and physical ordeal. Moving is tough!
The monumental issue: what do we move? What do we leave behind? Moving from 3600 square feet to little more than one third that size didn’t help. It’s amazing how much “stuff” you can accumulate in 66 years of marriage. Thus, the pressing question, “What stuff must we leave behind?”
I invite you now to take a huge emotional/spiritual step with me … What is the stuff, the real STUFF, we need to leave behind as we move into 2024? Let’s be honest.
Self-pity is one bundle of stuff I want to leave behind. I don’t know of a heavier burden which many of us carry than self-pity. It’s the kind of burden we are unwilling to drop off. Someone hurts our feelings, and we carry our hurt with us forever. We’re treated unfairly and we never forget it. Something happens in our family, and it seems that we’re being put down. Someone else is receiving special treatment, so we get a kind of stepchild complex. We suffer physically and we get the idea that the whole universe is out to persecute us. Such an easy snare to fall into, self-pity. Let’s leave it behind this year.
The second bundle of stuff we need to leave behind is what I call illegitimate responsibility. I’m talking about the responsibilities which we rigidly claim for ourselves, but which don’t legitimately belong to us. You know what I’m talking about? We bury ourselves beneath a great burden of responsibility we can do nothing about; that really doesn’t belong to us. We have simply, illegitimately assumed it.
Our journey into this New Year will be more meaningful if we can determine that there are certain responsibilities which are ours. These we will accept and give our resources to. There are other responsibilities which we simply have to leave with others and with God. Let’s leave it behind.
Along with self-pity and illegitimate responsibility, (we can’t name them all) I mention one other bundle that needs to be cast off as we stride into this New Year. I call it the bundle of cancelled sin. The phrase comes from Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Oh, For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.” He claims that this is the work of Christ:
“He breaks the power of cancelled sin/ He sets the prisoner free/ His blood can make the foulest clean/ His blood availed for me.”
Scores of people who beat a steady stream to my study door for counseling are burdened down by cancelled sin. Somewhere in the past, they have done those things, been involved in those situations, had relationships about which they feel morbid guilt. They carry this burden around as an inside burden which no one knows about. But like a malignancy, it grows and spreads until it poisons the person and brings a sickness unto death. I doubt if there is a reader who does not have an idea what I’m talking about. The memory – the haunting memory of some past wrongdoing devastates our life.
It is the very core of the Christian gospel that God through Christ forgives our sins, and our sins are cancelled by God’s grace. But obviously, this fact and experience are not enough. Cancelled sin still has power – destructive power, in our lives. How then is the power of cancelled sin actually broken? Here is the key: confession and inner healing. I believe that under most circumstances, not only confession to God but confession to another is essential for healing and release from the power of cancelled sin. This is the reason James admonishes us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16). Once we have confessed to a minister or to an intimate friend, the poisonous guilt that has been bottled up inside is released.
A medical analogy is apropos. When an infectious boil appears somewhere on the body, antibiotics are given. If these do not destroy the infection, usually the infection is localized and has to be lanced. The surgeon uses the scalpel and opens the boil in order that all the poison might be drained.
Confession is something like the surgeon’s scalpel. Honestly opening our lives in confession, the poisonous guilt we have bottled up within has a chance to flow out. Confession becomes the cleansing process by which the self is freed from the power of cancelled sin.
Now there are two requisites for redemptive confession – one, you must trust the person, the person or the group, to whom you confess; and two, your confession must not be destructive to another person. We dare not disregard the health and wholeness of another in order to seek our own release. The big point is that the burden of cancelled sin is too great for us to carry into the New Year. You can leave that stuff behind because God forgives. Let us leave it behind.
2024 is a new year. Leave your stuff behind – self-pity, illegitimate responsibility, cancelled sin, all your junk. Leave it. You are forgiven. Your failure and weakness are accepted. Your past is buried in the sea of God’s loving forgiveness. Go into the New Year with Christ, and go joyfully.
Maxie Dunnam is minister at large of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. During his more than sixty years of ministry, he has pastored congregations of all sizes, as well as serving as world editor of the Upper Room and president of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a prolific writer, having authored more than forty books, including The Workbook of Living Prayer which has sold more than a million copies and is printed in six languages. This article was first published by Wesleyan Accent published by World Methodist Evangelism and is reprinted here by permission (worldmethodist.org). Image: Shutterstock.
Faith in a Time of Transition
By Thomas Lambrecht
Advent is a season of preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and preparing for his coming again. Advent reminds us that we are in the time “between the times.” We are in the time between Jesus’ first and second Advents (comings). As Professor George Eldon Ladd reminded us, we are in the transition between the already and the not yet.
God’s Kingdom has already come to earth in the form of King Jesus and in the hearts and lives of Jesus’ followers, including us. But God’s Kingdom awaits its full realization when Jesus comes again “to judge the living and the dead.” The book of Revelation and other Scripture passages paint a glorious picture of what the fullness of God’s Kingdom will mean.
But it is uncomfortable to be in between, to be in transition. We have an idea what is coming, but we are not there yet.
Some of my grandchildren have a problem with transitions. It is hard for them to stop doing one thing in order to do a different thing. My daughter has to prepare them for the transition by warning them, “We are going to stop playing and get in the car in five minutes.” That warning enables them to adjust their minds and expectations to what is coming next.
We are in a transition time in The United Methodist Church. Those remaining in The United Methodist Church are in the process of revisioning what the church will look like and how it will operate with fewer members and churches.
Those joining the Global Methodist Church are in the process of creating new annual conferences in various parts of the U.S., as well as in countries overseas. Critical decisions have yet to be made, such as how to elect and assign bishops.
Those churches becoming independent are figuring out how to operate without the support of a denominational structure.
In all cases, we are leaving behind what is familiar and heading into uncharted territory. We have some idea what the future might look like, but there are also many unknowns.
It is tempting to want to stay with what is familiar, even though that world of the past is no longer available to us. The Israelites in the Wilderness longed to go back to slavery in Egypt, at times. Yet the slavery they would have gone back to would have been different from the slavery they left. There is no such thing as going back to what we once knew.
That is why Paul reminds us, “We live by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7). Often, we cannot see the pathway to the future God has for us. However, we can trust the One who leads and guides us each step of the way. We can stay stuck in the past, or we can follow the living Lord into the incredible future he has for us. Each day, we can take the next step God has for us, knowing it will eventually lead us to our true home with him.
Mary and Joseph did not know what the future held when they agreed to become the human parents of the Savior of the world. No father or mother knows what the future will hold on the day their child is born. Yet, we have children in hope for the future and in faith that God will lead and guide us into and through that future.
The decisions we are making now in our churches, are decisions guided by faith and hope in a future held by God. They are decisions that should not be guided by fear or a desire to cling to the past, but are decisions based on a confidence that God will not let us down.
Transitions remind us we are not in control. The wisest saying I have ever heard is, “God is God, and I am not!” That saying has become a mantra for me, acknowledging my life is not my own, but God’s. He is in control. My role is to respond to his leading and be faithful to what he is calling me to be.
Yes, transitions are uncomfortable. Journeying into an unknown future can be intimidating. We can walk through this transition with confidence by adjusting our expectations. Things will not be like they once were. In this season, there is no way to keep what once was. Our only course is to walk into a future we choose, guided and empowered by God, just as Mary and Joseph did. All the rest is up to the Lord.
I pray you experience a blessed and rich Christmas celebration, filled with the joy and peace of Christ.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Artwork via Shutterstock. Stained glass window at The American Church in Paris, France.