Reasons for Affiliating with the Global Methodist Church

Reasons for Affiliating with the Global Methodist Church

By Thomas Lambrecht

As churches are disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church over theological and ethical differences with the denomination, they are considering where to affiliate next. There is a small percentage that are choosing to remain as independent congregations, a course of action we believe to be shortsighted. (See last week’s Perspective on this issue.)

As someone who was heavily involved in helping create the Global Methodist Church, I whole-heartedly believe this is the best option for local churches looking for a Wesleyan denomination with which to affiliate. Here are a number of reasons why.

1. Formed by leaders we know and trust

The Global Methodist Church was formed by people who want to see the GM Church committed to making disciples for Jesus Christ. They have served in leadership in the same Renewal and Reform groups that have worked for decades to promote doctrinal integrity and biblical positions in The United Methodist Church. These include The Confessing Movement, Good News, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. They are dedicated to the advancement of a Scripturally-based, historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith. They are people of personal integrity and a strong life commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Since these leaders have a track record of faithfulness and integrity, we can confidently follow their leadership in a new denomination.

2. Centered on maintaining Wesleyan doctrine and theology based on Scripture

The GM Church embraces a warm Wesleyan theology and a vibrant spiritual outlook. It has the same doctrinal standardsas the UM Church, with the addition of the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon. Agreement with the doctrinal standards is required of churches aligning with the GM Church. All bishops and clergy will be expected to agree with, preach, and defend these doctrines, with robust accountability to ensure doctrinal faithfulness. The teaching of these doctrines through a new catechism will be a featured part of all GM congregations. At the same time, doctrines not considered part of the theological and ethical core are open for exploration and difference of opinion. As John Wesley said, “as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” The GM Church will have a clear vision about the “root of Christianity” and will make sure it is protected.

3. Prioritizing evangelism and church planting

GM congregations will be challenged to partner together to plant new churches and extend the evangelistic ministry of the church in their communities and in other parts of the nation and world. New churches are already being started under the auspices of the GM Church in the U.S. and in other countries. The GM Church has established a goal of planting thousands of new churches around the world during its first years of existence. We believe our congregations will have a vision for outreach and a global perspective.

4. Leaner, more effective denominational structure

The GM Church at both the general and annual conference level will rely on fewer and smaller organizational units to steer its ministry, rather than building large bureaucracies that require much spending to maintain overhead. The GM Church will partner with existing ministries with demonstrated effectiveness and commitment to Wesleyan theology to extend the church’s work, rather than building new ministries from scratch. This approach will enable much greater flexibility and adaptability to changing ministry circumstances.

5. Prioritizing the work of the local church

The local church is where disciples are made. The GM Church exists to support the ministry of the local church, not vice versa. All denominational decisions will be made within the framework of what will strengthen the ministry of the local church.

6. More resources for local ministry

The GM Church has capped the amount that a local church can be asked to contribute to the denominational structures. A maximum of 1.5 percent of local church operating income will go toward general church expenses. A maximum of 5 percent will go toward annual conference expenses. Initially, only 1 percent will go to each. More resources will stay in the local church to be used for effective ministry there.

7. No trust clause

The local church will own its own property free and clear, with no legal trust or obligation to the GM denomination. A simple, straightforward path of disaffiliation is offered for congregations that no longer find their home in the GM Church.

8. Robust accountability

Bishops, clergy, laity, and congregations will hold one another accountable to maintain Wesleyan doctrine and exhibit continued transformation and growth in discipleship. Bishops will be held accountable by a global committee of laity and clergy, not other bishops. Clergy will be held accountable through a fair and equitable judicial system. Laity will be encouraged to participate in accountable discipleship groups to support their growth in faith and Christian living. In the rare instance that a congregation welcomes teaching contrary to GM doctrinal standards or refuses to support the denomination’s work financially, it may be removed (following a collaborative dialog process).

9. Strong and clear biblical stances on marriage, sexuality, pro-life, and other bedrock issues

The GM Church’s Social Witness statements clearly define marriage as between one man and one woman, while reserving sexual relationships for marriage. Without getting into partisan politics, it states a clear pro-life stance on unborn children, while calling for greater support for women with unanticipated pregnancies. It puts forward clear, non-partisan statements on other bedrock ethical concerns, such as the value and dignity of all persons, opposition to prejudice and discrimination, concern for the poor, care for the earth, the rule of justice and law, and religious freedom. Scriptures are cited in support of each of the GM Church’s Social Witness statements. Readers are encouraged to consult the entire Social Witness section of the Doctrines and Discipline for more details.

10. A truly global church

The GM Church already has members in the U.S., Asia, Europe, and Africa. It is expected that a majority of members might be located outside the U.S. Members from all parts of the globe will be equally and fairly represented at General Conference and in the general work of the church. The denomination will be multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-national, learning from one another and living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in many different ways.

11. Greater local church involvement in pastoral appointments

While pastoral appointments will still be fixed by the bishop, the local church will have greater input into whom the bishop appoints as pastor. Bishops will work with local churches to ensure their welcome of female and ethnic clergy on an equal basis. Pastoral appointments are intended to last longer, giving greater continuity to ministry.

12. A redefined role and process for bishops

While not included in the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline, leaders of the GM Church are committed to a term episcopacy. Bishops are proposed to only serve for a set maximum term, perhaps 12 years, and would not be elected for life. Bishops are envisioned as spiritual and missional leaders, while being relieved of the responsibility to administer the temporal affairs of the church, which can be delegated to lay or clergy staff. Bishops are proposed to be assigned at the call of the annual conference to ensure the best leadership match.

13. Missions through partnership

The GM Church aims to facilitate missions by horizontally linking churches and annual conferences with each other across national boundaries. Financial support for missions will generally travel directly to partners, rather than through a mission bureaucracy. The two-way exchange of volunteers and learning opportunities will foster a mutual equality among mission partners around the world. Local churches and annual conferences will become more invested in cross-cultural missions through increased direct contact with mission partners.

14. Shorter route to ordination for clergy

Rather than the 6-10 years it takes in the UM Church to reach ordained ministry, clergy candidates can expect to be ordained as deacons in 1-3 years. Ordination as elder would take an additional 4-6 years. Half of clergy education would take place after ordination, enabling clergy to integrate classroom learning with current job experience. Various educational routes will enable less expensive and more flexible pathways to ordained ministry. Ongoing clergy mentorship will be an essential part of ministry in the GM Church. Denominational support for clergy education will be a keystone of the connectional financial plan.

15. Greater flexibility in ministry and structure

With unity on essential doctrines, much greater flexibility can be given for how local churches and annual conferences do ministry, based on their ministry context. The GM Church will have minimum requirements for organization of local churches and annual conferences, with maximum flexibility and adaptability for how those structural requirements are met. Best practices will be shared across the church, so that clergy, congregations, and annual conferences can continually learn from each other and implement the most effective methods of winning people to Jesus Christ and discipling them in the faith.

16. Social Witness statements will require greater consensus

To minimize divisions over denominational positions on social issues, all such statements will require a 75 percent supermajority vote to be adopted. The focus of such statements will be more on biblical principles than advocating partisan political solutions.

17. Opportunity to build a new denomination

With the GM Church, we have the opportunity to build a new denomination for the 21st century that maintains the best of our Wesleyan tradition, while adapting our methods to fit ever-evolving circumstances and correcting for the shortcomings experienced in The United Methodist Church. Joining another, pre-existing denomination means agreeing with and conforming to a church culture and manner of operating that has been developed over decades and will not easily change. The GM Church offers a much cleaner slate on which to write the principles of an effective and Christ-centered denomination that is more flexible and adaptable to today’s world.

Churches considering affiliation with the Global Methodist Church should study the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline, which outlines how the church will function initially. A convening General Conference will flesh out details, such as the election and assignment of bishops. Churches should also contact the GM Church to invite a representative to speak and answer questions, as well as offer further clarification on what to expect.

Ultimately, the Wesleyan witness for Christ will be stronger if most of the disaffiliating churches align with one denomination, rather than splintering into various independent congregations or aligning with multiple existing Wesleyan denominations. The GM Church offers the best option for keeping the best of Methodism, while having the flexibility to try new ways of organizing for ministry and reaching the world for Jesus Christ.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Matt Botsford, Unsplash. 

Turmoil in Africa

Turmoil in Africa

By Thomas Lambrecht

Two weeks ago, the African Colleges of Bishops released a statement criticizing the Africa Initiative and the Wesleyan Covenant Association for, in their words, “working to destroy our United Methodist Church.” The statement also accused the Africa Initiative of “working with and supporting the Global Methodist Church, a denomination that has not been recognized by the General Conference.”

As a result of these accusations, the African bishops committed to:

  • “Dissociate from any activities of the Africa Initiative and will not allow any activities of the Africa Initiative in our areas”
  • “Not allow or entertain any activities of the Wesleyan Covenant Association who are wrongly influencing God’s people in our areas”
  • “Not tolerate anyone giving false information about The United Methodist Church in our areas”

Since that September 8 statement, the narrative has sprung up that African United Methodists will not be joining the Global Methodist Church. It is important to clarify what is going on in Africa and what the implications are for the future of Africa in Methodism.

Who signed the bishops’ statement?

The statement is misleading, in that it lists the bishops who were present at the meeting, not those who supported the statement. We have been told by informed sources that at least two of the bishops present opposed the statement and do not agree with it. Seven active bishops were present out of the 13 total active African bishops. Some of those not present also do not agree with it. So this is a statement of some of the African bishops, but not all.

Is the WCA and Africa Initiative “working to destroy our United Methodist Church?”

The bishops supporting the statement apparently believe that any kind of separation would “destroy” the UM Church. The possibility of separation was endorsed by the 2019 General Conference by its enacting the Par. 2553 disaffiliation process. So there is official sanction for discussing disaffiliation. There is no question that the large-scale disaffiliations that are currently going on will usher in change to the UM Church. But even the loss of 20-30 percent of its members would hardly “destroy” the denomination. The bishops are guilty of hyperbole here.

The WCA, Good News, The Confessing Movement, and UMAction, have consistently had only one goal in mind for our working together with the Africa Initiative. That goal is to empower the voice and ministry of African United Methodists. The Africa Initiative reaffirms that goal in their statement of purpose:

  • “To foster partnership, network, and fellowship among leaders of the annual and provisional conferences of Africa
  • “To facilitate training in cross-cultural evangelism and missions, discipleship, leadership development, prayer revivals, and resource mobilization for annual and provisional conferences of Africa
  • “To raise the voice of the African Church within global Methodism, by supporting the practice of biblical orthodoxy, training delegates to General Conference, and speaking out against unbiblical theological persuasions, teachings, and practices that have the propensity to misrepresent and undermine Wesleyan doctrines.”

This is not destroying the church, but building up the church.

Can the bishops effectively prohibit Africa Initiative activities in Africa?

Those bishops who have been opposing the work of the Africa Initiative in the past have already tried to stop its work in their areas. Some pastors and lay leaders have been forbidden to attend meetings or share information. The laity, in particular, have not abided by such prohibitions, believing that bishops cannot prevent people from meeting with whom they want to meet. Some clergy have needed to be more cautious due to the possibility of losing their jobs and livelihood. But the Africa Initiative has found ways to share information that do not open leaders up to the possibility of discipline from their bishops.

The attempt to assert complete control over the life of the church is a very real temptation for some bishops, especially in areas where laity defer to ecclesiastical authority. It is natural that persons who benefit from the status quo would want to preserve it. But African United Methodists will not easily allow their bishops to force them to act contrary to the people’s beliefs and interests. When several of the African bishops attempted to coerce their delegates to vote for the One Church Plan at the 2019 General Conference, the delegates voted their conscience and overwhelmingly supported the Traditional Plan.

The sharing of information and the coordinating of activities will continue in Africa.

The African members of the WCA Global Council have issued the following response:

“As leaders of the WCA in Africa, the statement by our esteemed bishops left us flabbergasted. This militant and combative position by some of these bishops does not proffer the unity and love for which they call. If anything, it opens a massive rift between them and the flock that they are supposed to look after. To openly attack your own flock diminishes the essence of being ‘good shepherds’ that the bishops are supposed to exemplify. In Africa it is generally considered disrespectful to answer back to elders, but we feel pushed into a corner, and unfortunately there is no longer any space behind us.

“The values and mission of the Wesleyan Covenant Association resonate well with what Africans believe and how we live. That makes the partnership of Africans, the WCA, and the rest of the Reform and Renewal Coalition a natural and obvious one. Further, it is most disappointing for us to realize that the Reconciling Ministries Network, which promotes same-gender marriage and the ordination of active gay and lesbian clergy, enjoys free reign in Africa to the extent of building and dedicating churches and our bishops remain very comfortable with it. As leaders of the WCA in Africa we will continue to contend for the undiluted Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The entire response of the Wesleyan Covenant Association to the unfounded charges of some African bishops, including the above words from its African council members, is found here. The entire statement of the Africa Initiative in response to the African bishops is found here.

Rather than issuing statements attempting to stifle and control the actions of renewal-minded African clergy and laity, the African bishops desperately need to get their own house in order. For example, at least one bishop is publicly promoting and supporting the presence of U.S.-based Reconciling Ministries Network in Kenya, which advocates for same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. In addition, the African bishops have thus far refused to call special central conference meetings to elect new bishops and retire existing bishops. Several of them are beyond the mandatory retirement age of 72, yet continue to serve and, by their plan, will continue to serve until at least the end of 2024. Another example of disregarding the Book of Discipline when its provisions are inconvenient. (The Burundi Annual Conference has asked the Judicial Council to rule on whether the African bishops must step down at age 72 and call a special conference to elect their replacements.)

Will the African church remain in The United Methodist Church?

In a report of its May 2022 leadership prayer summit, the Africa Initiative stipulated, “The Africa Initiative shall continue to encourage African churches and conferences to patiently await the 2024 General Conference while advocating for the adoption of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, and while acknowledging unique circumstances in some areas of the Continent that may cause members to act before then.” The strong preference of the African church is to consider the possibility of disaffiliation as annual conferences within the context of an approved Protocol that provides a clear process to follow. At the same time, there are a few countries where traditionalist pastors and lay leaders have been unjustly terminated from the church without the due process afforded by the Discipline. In those areas, it makes no sense to wait to form units of the Global Methodist Church because the individuals involved have already been forcibly “disaffiliated” from the church.

There will be some parts of the UM Church in Africa that will remain in the continuing denomination. After all, there are millions of United Methodists on the continent. As to whether the bulk of the African church will remain in the UM Church following the 2024 General Conference, that is another question. The Africa Initiative prayer and leadership summit stated, “The United Methodist Church in Africa shall not be part of a denomination that changes the current language of the Book of Discipline in order to legalize homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or the ordination of practicing LGBTQIA+ people as pastors. This is the ultimate, decisive, and undisputed position of the UMC in Africa.”

The leaders we have spoken with in Africa have no interest in remaining in a denomination that affirms same-sex relationships in contradiction to Scripture.

Is the WCA or the GMC sharing “false information?”

The official communications of Good News, the WCA, and the GMC have been careful to share information that is accurate and sourced. We have made the details of some of the examples given available upon request. So far, all we have heard are general charges of lying or misinformation, without pointing to any specific statements that we have made that are inaccurate.

No one knows for sure how the continuing United Methodist Church will evolve after separation. It is fair for different people to have different opinions, backed up by solid reasoning. Some centrists declare that the UM Church is not going to change and that traditionalists will be welcome in the UM Church. This is based only on their promises of good faith, promises that we are reluctant to trust, given the consistent violation of other promises made to us down through the years.

At the same time, there are many examples of individual clergy being excluded from United Methodism due to their traditional theological views. A number of licensed local pastors have been summarily fired by their bishop or district committee simply for sharing information about the disaffiliation process with their congregation. The majority of delegates at the 2024 General Conference will probably favor the removal of all provisions limiting same-sex marriage or the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. While probably not requiring pastors or congregations to embrace same-sex weddings or gay pastors, one should not underestimate the power of peer pressure and denominational culture. Nearly all UM seminaries promote the affirmation of same-sex marriage and ordination, meaning that will be the default position held by most UM clergy trained there over the next generation. Absent intentional efforts by progressives and centrists to welcome and support traditionalist views in the denomination, it is unlikely traditionalists will long feel comfortable remaining United Methodist. So far, we have seen little evidence of such intentional efforts at theological inclusion at the denominational level.

Efforts to suppress or punish people for having different opinions by some African bishops does not indicate that traditionalists are welcome in Africa. Good News and our Reform and Renewal partners believe we can trust African people to make their own decisions without being told what to do by their bishop. Our obligation is to make it possible for them to hear our side of the story, which is only fair, since the bishops can share their side of the story unimpeded. By attempting to take coercive and punitive action against their own people, some African bishops are betraying their role as shepherds of the flock. Let us hope they reconsider their position and agree to move forward openly and amicably.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Greater Nhiwatiwa (in purple dress), wife of Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa (left), explains the history and significance of the Chin’ando prayer mountain to bishops attending the Africa College of Bishops retreat held September 5-8 at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Photo by Eveline Chikwanah, UM News.

Why I am a Wesleyan

Why I am a Wesleyan

By Kevin M. Watson 

Almost all of my writing for the church and the academy has focused in one way or another on the Wesleyan theological tradition. From time to time I am asked: Why are you Wesleyan?

When I was in seminary, I remember experiencing some shock at the wide array of opinions and denominations represented by faculty, students, and the assigned readings. I wrestled with what I was going to do when I graduated and began serving in full-time local church ministry. The models I saw seemed to focus on endlessly exploring ideas across a very broad swath of Christianity. The questions were often good and interesting, but they seemed to always lead to more questions. As someone preparing to pastor a local church, I was pretty sure God was calling me to offer the truth about Jesus Christ and his gospel. I needed to work through the questions to return to truth I could proclaim with confidence to the people God sent me to serve.

I eventually came to a place where I realized the best way I could proclaim the truth was by being deeply anchored in the theological heritage of my particular part of the Body of Christ. 

This conviction came as I was taking United Methodist History and Doctrine with Dr. Doug Strong, who would become one of my most important mentors (and my first boss in the academy when he hired me for my first faculty position at Seattle Pacific University).

Doug’s passion for the Wesleyan theological tradition became my passion. He taught Methodist History and Doctrine by anchoring us in the writings of John Wesley. We read Wesley’s sermons and several other occasional pieces he wrote. We studied the basic practices of Methodism. I learned, among other things, that Wesley’s followers were called Methodists because of the methodical pursuit of a particular way of life.

Two things that happened in that class that are crucial for why I am Wesleyan today.

First, I read John Wesley’s teaching on entire sanctification and Christian perfection. I was captivated by Wesley’s optimism of what God can do in our lives through the power of the resurrection of Jesus. I was excited and energized by Wesley’s focus on the importance of salvation and his emphasis on the way of salvation, a journey with God that one grows in with expectation of seeing God deliver from bondage to sin and bring victory in Jesus’s name.

In short, entire sanctification is the Christian belief that the grace of God saves us to the uttermost, freeing us not only from external sins but bringing holy affections, holy tempers. Entire sanctification is loving God and neighbor to the exclusion of sin. 

As I’ve spent time with this teaching, I’ve become more convinced that entire sanctification is true. It is powerful! When I speak to leaders in Wesleyan communities, I often say something like this: “There should not be a church in any of your communities that has a more bold and audacious optimism of what the grace of God can do in the lives of every single person in your communities than your church.” My intention in saying this is not to stir up unhealthy and unhelpful competition or strife between denominations. Rather, it is to call the followers of John Wesley back to the riches of their own heritage. 

There are two key passages that capture this Wesleyan essential for me. The first is from John Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation”:

“But what is that faith whereby we are sanctified, saved from sin and perfected in love? It is a divine evidence and conviction, first, that God hath promised it in the Holy Scripture…. It is a divine evidence and conviction, secondly, that what God hath promised he is able to perform…. It is, thirdly, a divine evidence and conviction that he is able and willing to do it now…. To this confidence, that God is both able and willing to sanctify us now, there needs to be added one thing more, a divine evidence and conviction that he doth it.” 

After defining the faith by which we are entirely sanctified, Wesley then asks, Should we expect to receive entire sanctification gradually or instantaneously? This passage gets me every time!

“Perhaps it may be gradually wrought in some … But it is infinitely desirable … that it should be done instantaneously; that the Lord should destroy sin ‘by the breath of his mouth’ in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. And so he generally does, a plain fact of which there is evidence enough to satisfy any unprejudiced person. Thou therefore look for it every moment…. And by this token may you surely know whether you seek it by faith or by works. If by works, you want something to be done first, before you are sanctified. You think, ‘I must first be or do thus or thus.’ Then you are seeking it by works unto this day. If you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are: and if as you are, then expect it now. It is of importance to observe that there is an inseparable connection between these three points – expect it by faith, expect it as you are, and expect it now!… Christ is ready. And he is all you want. He is waiting for you. He is at the door!” (John Wesley, “Scripture Way of Salvation”).

The second passage is from Scripture itself, and is one of the crucial passages in Scripture regarding entire sanctification:

“This is the will of God, your sanctification… May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3; 5:23-24).

I am a Wesleyan because I believe that God wants to sanctify everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ and not just a little bit, but entirely! This is God’s will. And God, who calls us, is faithful and will do this!

The second thing that happened to me when I was in seminary that is a major reason I am not only Wesleyan, but got a PhD and became passionate about preparing people for leadership in the church, was that I was invited to join a Wesleyan band meeting. When I was invited, I did not know what it was. But I knew I was in seminary because the Lord had called me to give my life to Jesus and his church and I knew I was moving away from that calling and I didn’t know where to turn.

A band meeting is a small group of usually three to five people focused on confession of sin in order to grow in holiness. It is grounded on James 5:16, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” 

Joining a band meeting was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was also one of the most important things I have ever done. We confessed our sins to one another, not in order to brow beat each other, or to shame one another, but in order to receive forgiveness through the grace of Jesus and in hope and expectation of experiencing healing and transformation. 

The highlight of the group was when someone finished their confession and someone else shared words of forgiveness and pardon over them. We often used the words from 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

My life was changed because of my participation in a band meeting. This led me to study the history of the band meeting in early Methodism. It motivated me to write to help contemporary Wesleyans reclaim this practice, as well as the class meeting. The class meeting was a small group of about twelve people that was required of all Methodists throughout John Wesley’s lifetime and for the first several decades Methodism was a formal denomination in the United States (the Methodist Episcopal Church). The class meeting was less intense than the band meeting, focusing on a question like, “How is it with your soul?”

I am a Wesleyan because I have experienced the fruit of the method of Methodism. I am Wesleyan because I am captivated by the hopeful and optimistic theology which believes that the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is greater than sin and even death itself. Even in the times when I have been most discouraged by the state of the contemporary church, I still believe God wants his people to unplug the old wells that were dug by the first Methodists. I am convinced there is still living water there.

One last thing: I am a Wesleyan not because I want to be known as a follower of John Wesley. I do increasingly see John Wesley as the spiritual father of the Wesleyan/Methodist family. But Wesley was not interested in making little John Wesleys. He wanted to help people follow Jesus Christ. I am Wesleyan because it is the best way I know to follow Jesus Christ, to grow in holiness of heart and life.

More than being Wesleyan, I want to be a real Christian. The more I preach the gospel with a recognizable Wesleyan accent, the more effective I believe I will be in following Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. 

Kevin M. Watson is Acting Director of the Wesley House at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is also Associate Pastor of Discipleship at First Methodist Church Waco. Dr. Watson is author of numerous books including The Class Meeting, Pursuing Social Holiness, Old or New School Methodism?, and Perfect Love. Prior to his position at Truett, he served as Associate Professor of Wesley and Methodist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Image:

“John Wesley Preaching at the Market Cross” by Richard Douglas. This is a color version of an earlier illustration by William Hatherell (1855-1928). It is part of the Richard Douglas collection of paintings at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.  

East Angola Controversy

East Angola Controversy

By Thomas Lambrecht

Methodism on the continent of Africa continues to flourish – countering the decline in North America. At the same time, traditionalist African leaders report that there have been some incidents of punitive action by hostile bishops.

In a recent troubling situation, yet another African bishop is persecuting pastors and leaders because of their connection with traditionalist views and organizations. This continues a pattern noted in 2020 in Central Congo and North Katanga episcopal areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In those earlier cases, leading pastors were removed from their appointment and in some cases unjustly suspended without any complaints being filed or opportunity to defend themselves with a due process.

Now, on February 24, 2022, Bishop José Quipungo of East Angola expelled the Rev. Bartolomeu Dias Sapalo from The United Methodist Church under the charge of “treason.” (There is no such chargeable offense in the UM Book of Discipline.) In addition, Quipungo removed Sapalo from his position as Dean of Quessua Faculty of Theology and as pastor in charge of Nova Galileia United Methodist Church. He was given ten days to remove all his belongings and vacate the official faculty residence and told to “get out of Quessua Mission immediately.”

Bishop Quipungo gave as the reason for this action that Sapalo was “involved with the Separatist Movement (Global Methodist) under the leadership of Mr. Jerry Kullah (sic) and after having previously been advised not [to] be aligned with them (‘GMC’).” (It should be noted that Sapalo is not aligned with the “GMC” because that denomination is not yet in existence.)

Sapalo reported, “The bishop received the document entitled ‘Africa Initiative’s Position Statement on Holding 2022 General Conference.’ On this document, my name is included as an executive member [of the African Initiative]. There is no stipulation in the Discipline against participation in the Africa Initiative. Yet, this was the sufficient reason, in his opinion, to call me and then send me a letter of expulsion. There was, however, no church trial at all.”

Under the Book of Discipline, before a clergy member can be removed, a formal complaint must be filed. An investigation must take place, along with attempts to resolve the complaint through mutual agreement. If no agreement can be reached, the clergy person is entitled to a trial, at which the church must prove its charges and a jury of other clergy can decide to acquit or convict the defendant. The charged clergy person is also entitled to have an advocate to help defend them in this process. At the trial, it is the jury (not the bishop) that decides what the penalty for a guilty verdict would be. The defendant is further entitled to appeal the verdict if there were errors made in the church trial.

In Sapalo’s case, none of these procedures were followed. He was summarily fired from his church positions and removed from membership in The United Methodist Church by the bishop alone.

When asked about the possibility of an appeal, Sapalo said, “There is no recourse in this matter because at the local level the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy is non-functional. There are [also] conflicts of interest in play. For example, the [chair] of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is [the bishop’s] nephew. His administrative assistant is another nephew, and other key positions in the church are occupied by his close relatives. There is simply insufficient accountability at the level of the annual conference.”

Another element playing into Sapalo’s dismissal was the jockeying for position in upcoming elections to be the bishop to replace Quipungo. Such elections were originally scheduled for 2020 at the Africa Central Conference. Due to Covid postponements, they are now scheduled for 2024 (unless Judicial Council rules they may be held earlier). Quipungo had reached the mandatory retirement age of 68 in 2016, but avoided retirement through procedural steps. He is now age 75, yet continuing to serve as bishop.

The 2020 East Angola Annual Conference endorsed candidates for the episcopacy. Sapalo was the top candidate endorsed by the conference, and his wife, Rev. Suzana Luisa Lourenҫo Sapalo, was the second endorsed candidate. According to Sapalo, the third and fourth endorsed candidates (who received half the number of votes Sapalo received) are close relatives (a nephew and a grandson) of Bishop Quipungo and members of his same tribe. Expelling Sapalo would make him ineligible to be elected bishop, opening the way for one of Quipungo’s relatives to be elected.

As Sapalo reports, “It is hard for Americans to understand what the systems of authority are like in Africa. For example, pastors or laypersons who try to contradict a bishop can face serious punishment. He threatens them with expulsion. The situation in Angola East is illustrative of a larger problem. District Superintendents are suspended or kicked out, conference staff persons are suspended, pastors are punitively moved from one church to another and sometimes are not given appointments, and cabinet members are not consulted prior to any decision regarding church business. At least five other clergy members have been expelled in East Angola.”

Furthermore, Sapalo alleges Quipungo lacked transparency in administration. “For the past 22 years of his episcopal ministry, we never heard in any ordinary meetings or at Annual Conference session any report on how he uses the funds received from donations, from UMC Agencies, or even from the Government; he has not been accountable.”

For now, Sapalo is unemployed and, as he puts it, “stranded.” “Unfortunately, I cannot attend any United Methodist congregation right now. I now live at my older brother’s house here in Luand, 400 kilometers [250 miles] from where I was engaged in pastoral ministry. I left my wife behind, but she is also pressured to vacate the house, though she is also a pastor. Right now, I am looking for a job as a taxi driver to support my children with school fees and other basic expenses.”

It is difficult to fathom the hardships of ministry and service to the church in Africa to begin with – difficulties in travel, diseases, lack of the best health care, and lack of adequate income. Add to that the dictatorial style of some bishops and their unjust abuse of power against some who are just trying to be a faithful voice for Wesleyan doctrine. Our brothers and sisters are making sacrifices for the cause of Christ that we cannot comprehend.

One of the key premises of the Global Methodist Church is that there must be accountability at all levels of the church, from the lay members all the way to the bishops. We need a radically different approach to power and authority in the church. Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

I can attest that the leaders of the Global Methodist Church exhibit this kind of leadership humility. The Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline of the GM Church contains a straightforward accountability process for all, including bishops.  The fair processes of the church must be followed. Without them, there is an abuse of power. Some of our best leaders have suffered such abuse, both in Africa and in parts of the U.S. It is time for the abuse to end.

The current UM system generally does not allow for bishops to be held accountable. Such accountability is at the whim of other bishops. Increasingly, bishops are unwilling to “interfere” with how other bishops administer their own episcopal area. This lack of accountability and the resulting abuse of power is one of the major reasons for separation in the UM Church.

It is time for United Methodist leaders to renounce their punitive and coercive approach to leadership and allow traditionalists a gracious exit, so that we may all serve the cause of Christ without hindrance in the way we are led to do so.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Reporting for this article also came through Dr. David Watson, dean of United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio. Photo (left) is from Bartolomeu Dias Sapalo and (right) Shutterstock.

 

 

 

The Politics of Refusal

The Politics of Refusal

By Thomas Lambrecht

In the aftermath of the postponement of General Conference until 2024, there is understandably an explosion of interest by local churches in how to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and unite with the Global Methodist Church. As reported in a previous Perspective, this process of decision-making for local churches may take time (several months, up to a year or two). Congregations will act when ready, but it will also take the approval of their annual conference, which may only meet once a year, thus delaying the effective date of realignment.

Because General Conference has not yet adopted the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, there is no unified plan of separation for local churches to follow. What will be required in each annual conference will be different. Good News has appealed to bishops and annual conference leaders to take a gracious and amicable approach toward separation, rather than a punitive one.

Some bishops have said that they will do all they can to help local churches move to where they want to be, whether that is remaining United Methodist or aligning with the Global Methodist Church. They have promised not to put obstacles in the way of churches and pastors who want to realign to the GM Church. A few bishops have indicated a willingness to use ¶ 2548.2 to allow congregations to change affiliation and to work with churches to reduce the financial demands for departure.

As mentioned in that previous Perspective, one option for reducing financial demands, even using ¶ 2553, is to allow the payment of pension liability through use of a promissory note, rather than an upfront cash payment. As the plan sponsor, an annual conference can work with Wespath to make this solution work, so that the liability of future pension payments is covered, no pastor’s pension would suffer because of separation, and that the local church would have an affordable route to realignment.

Other bishops and annual conferences, however, seem determined to try to prevent local churches from moving to the Global Methodist Church with their property and assets. In addition to the already high financial cost of withdrawal under ¶ 2553, some conferences and bishops are requiring repayment of previous grants made to the local church and even a percentage of the church’s appraised property value – anywhere from 20 to 50 percent! This would force a congregation to essentially pay twice for a facility that they already paid to erect and maintain. In most cases, the annual conference put no money into constructing that church building, but will in these instances reap a windfall as the church departs (if it is even able to afford such a departure). Even some bishops who signed the Protocol are now backing off from its principles in order to support onerous financial requirements.

What are the ramifications of such an approach?

Annual Conference Withdrawal

One unintended consequence of a failure for General Conference to meet and pass the Protocol is that annual conferences may be able to depart from the UM Church more easily than if the Protocol had passed. Judicial Council is expected to issue a ruling by mid-May on whether an annual conference can vote to withdraw. In a previous decision, the Judicial Council has stated, “The annual conference … exercises autonomous control over [its] agenda, business, discussion, and vote on the question of withdrawal” (Judicial Council Decision #1366 on page 44).

If the Judicial Council rules in line with its previous decision, the annual conference (in the absence of any other legislation passed by General Conference) could determine to withdraw from the UM Church and align with the GM Church by a simple majority vote. The Protocol, on the other hand, would require a 57 percent vote to do so. This would make it likely that more annual conferences would withdraw before the 2024 General Conference than wait for the Protocol to pass in 2024.

Weakened Local Churches

Annual conferences that impose high financial costs on departing congregations will weaken those congregations that can afford to disaffiliate under those terms. Hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars that could have been used to support the ministry of that local church will now support the bureaucracy of a liberal annual conference. Congregations will have to tap out their financial reserves, cut back on ministry programs and staff, and/or borrow heavily (paying costs for interest on indebtedness) in order to align with a denomination that reflects their theological and missional identity. Some congregations taking this route might not even survive. Other congregations will suffer a heavy financial burden that could hamper their ministry in the community for years. The serious financial costs jeopardize the ability of all these congregations to have a strong start in a new denomination.

These onerous financial demands would do harm to these congregations – contravening Wesley’s dictum to “do no harm” that is often cited by centrists and progressives as one of their guiding lights. What annual conferences might gain to help ensure their institutional status quo could severely compromise the ability of departing congregations to continue strong ministry in their local communities.

Hostage Congregations

The more likely alternative is that congregations faced with insurmountable financial costs of realignment will simply be stuck in a United Methodist denomination that is rapidly leaving them theologically. With these financial demands, the annual conference is essentially holding the church hostage, forcing them to remain within a church in which they no longer fit.

Such a situation is not good for the local church, nor is it good for the annual conference. Obviously, the local church that is begrudgingly still United Methodist is not going to wholeheartedly support its annual conference’s mission and purpose. It may not willingly support financially an annual conference that would treat its congregations with such disrespect. The annual conference may get less money out of the congregation than if it just allowed the church to leave with paying two years’ apportionments and no property payment.

Traditionalist members of that reluctantly remaining congregation may decide they do not need to be part of a congregation held in a denomination against its will. They may decide to drive down the road to another (probably non-denominational) congregation and be lost to Methodism. The remaining congregation will grow weaker with the loss of members, again compromising its ability to offer vibrant ministry in that local community. The vicious circle of members leaving, reduced ministry, and more members leaving could ultimately lead to the demise of that congregation.

How does it serve the interests of the annual conference to force congregations to remain in the annual conference against their will and potentially cause the congregation to close? First, from a progressive perspective, it would disempower and eventually get rid of annoying traditionalists and their “old-fashioned” understanding of the faith that is getting in the way of real progress toward an inclusive progressive church (without losing that congregation’s valuable property). Second, it would allow the annual conference to send liberal pastors to serve that congregation and hopefully change the character of the church to being a progressive one by replacing departing traditionalists with new, more progressive members. Worst case, if the church closes, the annual conference could at least sell the property and use the proceeds to fund progressive ministry in the years ahead.

This warped perspective of the Kingdom of God prioritizes progressive ideology over living by the Golden Rule. It treats traditionalists in a way that no progressive or centrist would want to be treated. It reflects a power play that cynically capitalizes on the fact that centrist/progressive bishops and annual conferences hold most of the power and can treat congregations unjustly with impunity. The only thing that might restrain them is a moral compass that remembers Jesus’ dictum that Christians are called to serve one another, not lord it over one another.

Blocked Progressive Agenda

Another consequence of attempting to hold traditionalists in the UM Church against our will is the potential that centrists and progressives might find their agenda for the church is blocked. Right now, the number one legislative priority of centrists and progressives is adopting a plan to regionalize church government. Their goal is to enable the U.S. part of the church to govern itself without interference from the new African majority.

However, plans to regionalize church government involves amending the church’s constitution, which will require a two-thirds vote at General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members around the world. If traditionalists in the U.S. and particularly in Africa are not allowed to withdraw, there will be more than enough votes to block any attempt to regionalize, thus defeating the centrist/progressive agenda.

I have never understood the centrists’ and progressives’ feverish attempts to keep the African churches part of the UM denomination, when the Africans alone could scuttle their legislative priorities. African delegates are much more informed than in the past and much more willing to have their own opinions and resist the dictates of bishops who go against the interests of faithfulness to traditionalist understandings of the faith. Despite hardball efforts by some liberal African bishops to muzzle traditionalist African leaders, African delegates are prepared to stand on their own in opposition to attempts to change the church’s teachings or marginalize African influence in the church.

The second legislative priority for centrists and progressives is to eliminate from the Discipline the traditional definition of marriage and allow the ordination of non-celibate LGBT persons to ministry. Yet, traditionalists still hold a narrow majority of the delegates to General Conference. Progressives pushed hard to elect progressive delegates to the 2020 General Conference and succeeded in making gains among clergy delegates. It is likely, however, that a 2024 General Conference will require new elections for a new delegation, and progressives might not be as successful. The number of U.S. delegates will decrease due to membership declines, and the number of African delegates will increase due to their membership growth.

It appears likely that if traditionalists are held in the UM Church by unaffordable financial requirements, there will still be a slim traditionalist majority at General Conference 2024. This is counterproductive to enacting the centrist and progressive agenda of “full inclusion” and U.S. autonomy. Thus, the quest for financial gain through intimidating traditionalist congregations into remaining United Methodist may turn out to be self-defeating for centrists and progressives.

Let the Conflict Continue

Ultimately, the worst consequence of forcing traditionalists to remain United Methodists against their will through onerous requirements is that it continues the conflict in the church. As long as a substantial group of traditionalists remains in the UM Church, there will be theological conflict. Previously, the goal has been to resolve the conflict, release and bless one another to pursue ministry in the way consistent with our divergent beliefs, and move forward in a positive direction. Bishops and annual conferences that impose unaffordable provisions on local churches wanting to realign are abandoning the opportunity to resolve the conflict and allow the church to move forward in a positive way. Instead, they would be placing short-term, primarily financial self-interest ahead of setting a positive future for the church.

Bishops and annual conferences in this moment have a choice. They can escalate the conflict with onerous requirements and attempt to block congregations from leaving The United Methodist Church. Or they can take a reasonable approach that facilitates the resolution of our church’s theological conflict for the sake of creating the opportunity for a positive future for all. For the sake of Christ’s Kingdom, it is to be hoped they choose the way leading to a positive future.

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

 

What’s It All About?

What’s It All About?

By Thomas Lambrecht

There was a popular song in the 1960’s, “What’s It All About, Alfie?” It asks the question, what is life and love all about? It was the theme song of the movie, Alfie, in which a wayward man is searching for meaning in life.

With the postponement of General Conference until 2024 and the announced launch of the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022, many people across The United Methodist Church are waking up to the reality of separation in our denomination. Hundreds of churches are applying for disaffiliation from the UM Church. Hundreds more are discerning whether their future lies in the GM Church. In the process, thousands of laypersons who have been in the dark about all the conflicts leading up to this point are asking, “What’s it all about?” Why are many churches leaving the UM Church? Why would our congregation consider leaving for the GM Church?

This article aims to give a succinct, but not exhaustive, summary of what is at stake.

Theological Crisis

Baked into the DNA of United Methodism since 1972 is the idea of theological pluralism – that there are many different understandings of the faith and nearly all understandings are welcome within United Methodism. From the time our denomination was founded, we have not had a coherent, unified understanding of our faith. Is Jesus without sin and error, or was he a flawed human being like the rest of us who somehow became a revered moral teacher? Was Jesus’ death on the cross necessary for our salvation, or was it an act of so-called “divine child abuse?” Did Jesus really rise bodily from the grave, or was his “resurrection” only a greater spiritual awareness on the part of his disciples?

From the beginning of our church in the 1960’s, many boards of ordained ministry have approved candidates for ordination who believed and taught very diverse understandings of the faith. Beneath headline-grabbing issues such as marriage and sexuality, root theological issues have divided United Methodists for decades revolving around evangelism, church planting, the Great Commission, Sunday school curriculum, and even the most fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. Those moving into the GM Church believe clergy (and indeed all Christians) should be able to recite the Apostles’ Creed without holding crossed fingers behind our back or reinterpreting the words to mean something other than what they say.

One way this doctrinal pluralism manifests itself is through disagreements over the understanding and interpretation of Scripture. Is the Bible “the true rule and guide for faith and practice” we say it is in our doctrinal standards (Confession of Faith, Article IV)? The United Methodist Church affirms, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (Ibid). Yet, many bishops, clergy, and UM leaders, for example, want to rewrite the biblical understanding of marriage taught in Scripture (e.g., Matthew 19:2-9) and ignore or countermand the explicit teaching of Scripture that same-sex relationships are not in keeping with God’s design for human relationships (e.g., Romans 1:21-27; I Corinthians 6:9-11). Some high-profile United Methodist leaders would go so far as to relegate whole chunks of the Bible to the category of “they never reflected God’s timeless will.”

This disregard for the clear teaching of Scripture undermines its authority. If the Bible can be wrong about one important aspect of Christian theology, can it be wrong about other aspects of faith? The Bible should be our authority for what to believe, not what aspects of Scripture we accept as God’s self-revelation and what aspects we ignore. In the latter case, we become the authority for our own faith. But that approach contradicts what we say we believe as United Methodists. We would no longer be true to our Wesleyan understanding.

The theological crisis manifests itself most clearly right now in attempts to officially contradict Scripture by affirming same-sex relationships. We don’t vote at General Conference on the deity of Jesus or whether God performs miracles. But that crisis also manifests itself every time a pastor preaches an Easter sermon without reference to the resurrection or communicates that the way to salvation is “doing all the good you can” apart from Jesus’ atoning death on the cross.

For decades, our denomination has been able to muddle through despite all these theological differences. What has cast the church into an existential turning point now is the second crisis, an ecclesiastical crisis.

Ecclesiastical Crisis

The short description of our ecclesiastical crisis is that The United Methodist Church has now become unable to function by the processes and rules set by our church constitution. Over the years, bishops and other leaders who disagreed with the church’s teachings have increasingly turned a blind eye to violations of that teaching. The unwillingness to hold one another accountable to the teachings and practices of the church is the acid that has eaten away the foundation of our denomination.

In 2002, then-Bishop Joseph Sprague published a book, Affirmations of a Dissenter, that reinterpreted or denied many of the main tenets of Christianity. A complaint was filed against him for “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church.” Those in charge of adjudicating that complaint took no disciplinary action against Sprague. Apparently, his beliefs were within the pluralistic realm of United Methodist faith.

Over the last 20 years, the accountability processes for clergy and bishops have broken down. Bishops have decided to circumvent the process by “resolving” complaints with little or no discipline for clergy who violate our church’s requirements. By the same token, complaints against bishops are “resolved” with no accountability by those bishops and church leaders entrusted with upholding the church’s Discipline. Bishops and leaders are only willing to enforce those provisions they agree with.

In 2016, the denomination appeared ready to unravel at General Conference. As a last-ditch effort to preserve unity, General Conference authorized a Commission on the Way Forward to figure out a solution and bring it to a special 3-day General Conference to be held in 2019. Contrary to the wishes and lobbying of many U.S. bishops, the 2019 General Conference reaffirmed once again the church’s historic stance on the definition of marriage and the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. It further added accountability provisions to ensure that the church’s clergy and bishops would abide by the church’s teachings.

In response, many U.S. bishops and annual conferences publicly apologized for the conference’s decision and sought to distance themselves from it. More than half the U.S. annual conferences passed resolutions repudiating the decision of General Conference, with at least 11 saying they would not abide by it. Several annual conferences in spring 2019 ordained persons as clergy who did not meet the denomination’s qualifications. One European central conference removed the church’s teachings from its Social Principles. Another European annual conference and the whole U.S. Western Jurisdiction began looking into the possibility of separating from the UM Church because they disagreed with the General Conference stance.

Faced with this widespread rebellion against church teaching in parts of the U.S. and Western Europe, a group of bishops and church leaders representing traditionalist, centrist, and progressive theological perspectives agreed to a proposal for amicable separation. Called the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, this proposal provided a clear and amicable way for traditionalist congregations and clergy to leave the UM Church, allowing the church to then change its teaching to accommodate a progressive understanding. (For more analysis on why traditionalists are willing to be the ones to move to a new church, despite the current Discipline upholding a traditionalist position, see this article.)

The Protocol was poised to pass at the May 2020 General Conference. With the pandemic causing the postponement of General Conference, finally now until 2024, progressives became increasingly impatient to move the church in a progressive direction. Several annual conferences adopted vision statements that stated they would now start “living into” the future they envisioned, despite the fact that the provisions in the Discipline remain unchanged.

Some individual bishops began taking punitive actions against traditionalist clergy, removing them from their appointments and in some cases even expelling them from the denomination without due process or trial. None of these bishops has been held accountable for their actions. There are bishops now who are openly stating that the General Conference (the only body empowered by our church constitution to make decisions for the whole denomination) can no longer adequately govern the church.

We have evolved to the point in our denomination that the actions and decisions of General Conference can be ignored with impunity by bishops and annual conferences that disagree. Bishops have become a law unto themselves within their own annual conferences, not subject to accountability to other bishops or the broader church. Decisions of the Judicial Council can be ignored. The third postponement of General Conference indicates that the power of institutional preservation of the status quo is greater than the inclination to move into a healthier future. Many progressives and centrists seem increasingly uninterested in an amicable way to allow separation to occur. Instead, many seem to want to punish traditionalists for holding the beliefs that we have and at the same time doing whatever they can to delay or prevent traditionalist clergy and churches from separating from the UM Church in order to join a GM Church that more faithfully represents our faith perspective.

End Game

Where does this leave us, besides in a mess? Given the theological and ecclesiastical dysfunction of the church, many traditionalists are no longer able to wait for General Conference to pass the Protocol. The longer the delay, the less likely its adoption becomes. Meanwhile, theologically conservative church members are leaving our churches and clergy are retiring or leaving the church. Hundreds of churches have requested disaffiliation from the UM Church this year, with hundreds more contemplating that possibility over the next 24 months, even before General Conference meets.

To accommodate this groundswell of departures and to prevent the loss of these congregations to Methodism, the Global Methodist Church has announced it will launch on May 1 of this year. As last week’s Perspective explained, there are ways for a church to move to the GM Church with its property and assets intact. In some annual conferences, the way may be prohibitively expensive, but it is still possible.

Hopefully, the narrative in this article helps explain why many churches are willing to do what they must in order to separate from the UM Church.

 

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