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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
By Joseph F. DiPaolo
A famous phrase was born in 1887, when the British historian known as Lord Acton (1834-1902), wrote a series of letters to Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton about the problem of writing the history of the medieval church and its abuses, such as the Inquisition:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases … Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely … There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
I fear that we are seeing the dangers of unchecked power now beginning to play out among some bishops of The United Methodist Church.
In a previous article, I outlined what I believe to be insincere efforts to hold General Conference and the flawed process the Commission on the General Conference used to decide to postpone it. In this article, I want to widen our view to the potential institutional fallout of that decision.
With the recent decision that no General Conference will meet until 2024 – five years after the special session of 2019 and a full eight years after its last full session in 2016 – a power void has been created, into which many of our bishops are now stepping.
Our polity is clear: General Conference is the governing body of the UM Church, not the Council of Bishops. General Conference alone determines the content of the Book of Discipline and makes policy for the whole denomination. Bishops are supposed to implement those policies.
Now, however, with no General Conference, critical decisions cannot be made about all the challenges before the UM Church, including theological division, separation and restructuring plans, questions of discipline and accountability, approval of agency budgets and personnel changes, and more. So, by default, bishops are now beginning to step into roles they were never intended to have, effectively wresting control of the governance of The United Methodist Church away from the General Conference.
How will this play out? We already see it happening. Be wary and prepare to ask questions if some bishops:
- Increasingly use talking points about how our system of governance is not working, and that pressing matters require them to act in unprecedented ways.
- “Interpret” critical passages of the Discipline – like Paragraphs 2548.2 and 2553 – in ways that depend on their regional context, or disallow disaffiliation under these paragraphs entirely, to maximize their control and thwart the aspirations of traditionalist congregations.
- Increasingly ignore those provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree or that are inconvenient for the bishop’s agenda.
- Call for jurisdictional conferences to be held – despite the fact that the Discipline arguably does not allow for that without General Conference meeting first – so they can pack the Council of Bishops with more progressives and displace conservatives.
- Contend that the 2024 General Conference is actually the postponed 2020 General Conference. Whatever their stated reasons for this, the real reason may be to retain a higher proportion of progressive delegates from the US vis-a-vis international delegates. That is because delegate elections for 2020 were based on 2016 membership figures. Delegate elections for 2024 would be based on 2020 membership figures, which will surely result in a lower proportion of US delegates after four more years of US membership decline and African church growth. (Judicial Council will eventually decide this question.)
There is now little or no way to hold bishops accountable or prevent them from enacting whatever policies they personally deem best. As some have said, we have moved into a diocesan model for bishops, where each bishop is a law unto themselves. Some bishops will continue to ignore parts of the Disciplinethey don’t like, while insisting on the letter of the law for those of us who want an amicable separation. Some will increasingly use their power in tyrannical ways to hold on to as much money and property as they possibly can for the institutional preservation of their annual conferences.
Some bishops are counting on traditionalist United Methodists throwing up their hands and walking away. Many undoubtedly will, especially in larger and wealthier churches that can raise the high price of using the disaffiliation clause (which, by the way, expires at the end of 2023, now that there will be no General Conference in 2022 that could have extended it). Without the Protocol, many traditionalist churches and pastors will find it much more difficult to leave with their property.
In fairness, bishops should use the congregational transfer available in ¶ 2548.2 and implement the principles of the Protocol for congregations choosing to move into the Global Methodist Church. Bishops seeking to provide an amicable resolution to our theological divide have a ready-made avenue in the Discipline that does not expire and does not require onerous financial terms. Several bishops have publicly stated that they want to help churches arrive at the destination where they need to be, honoring their consciences and theological commitments. Bishops have the choice to take this path of peace, rather than escalating the conflict and trying to coerce churches into remaining United Methodist against their will by imposing punitive requirements.
Lord Action’s assertion that power corrupts remains as true today as ever, as does his observation that the mere holding of a sacred office – like that of bishop – does not sanctify its holders, or immunize them from acting in authoritarian ways.
Time will tell how some bishops’ power grab will play out among United Methodists.
Joseph F. DiPaolo is Lead Pastor at Lancaster First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Council and a former member of the Commission on the General Conference.
The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, discusses the further postponement of General Conference and the launching of the Global Methodist Church. To watch his video, click HERE.
GOOD NEWS BOARD ENDORSES LAUNCH OF GLOBAL METHODIST CHURCH
The Good News board of directors fully endorses the formation of the Global Methodist Church and is encouraged by its announced launch date of May 1. We are grateful for the work of hundreds of lay and clergy leaders who have worked to create the framework for a new Wesleyan movement that will be centered on Christ, founded upon the Scriptures, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
We regret that such a step is necessary. The theological divide in The United Methodist Church has grown so deep and acrimonious that continuing together will only multiply the harm done to people and congregations on all sides. We affirm the decision to move ahead with separation now, given the lack of urgency by church leaders to resolve the crisis and the evident dysfunction of our denominational governance processes.
Many United Methodist members, pastors, and congregations will move to the GM Church immediately. Others will need more time to negotiate a fair exit from their annual conferences. Some may pursue other faithful options for moving into the future. But the birth of the Global Methodist Church gives hope to all orthodox Methodists that a new and better day is dawning.
We express our deepest gratitude to those who have made the launch of the GM Church possible. We pray for the new church’s success in making disciples of Jesus Christ and spreading Scriptural holiness across the land. And we commend the Global Methodist Church to all Wesleyans who believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.
By Joseph F. DiPaolo –
President Abraham Lincoln was once taken to task by a congressional ally for changing a policy position. “Mr. President, you have changed your mind entirely within a short time.” Convinced that recent events and new information required a change of heart, Lincoln replied, “Yes, I have, and I don’t think much of a man who isn’t wiser today than he was yesterday.”
Perhaps I’ve been wizened, or maybe I just woke up, but I have changed my mind about The United Methodist Church’s Commission on General Conference (COGC). Last September, Outlook published my reassurances that the members and staff of the COGC were doing all they could to ensure the postponed General Conference would be held as scheduled this summer.
I no longer believe that to have been true.
I am grieved and heartbroken over what I have experienced in the last two months as a member of the Commission, and on Monday (March 7), I resigned from that body in protest over the decision to postpone again. I cited as a primary reason for resigning that I had lost trust in the integrity of the process. The Commission deliberated in closed sessions which, we were told, were necessary to protect sensitive contract negotiations (with vendors and venues) which could be jeopardized if the internal debate were made public. Now that the news is out, the church at large deserves to know what happened.
At our January meeting, a surprise motion was made to postpone General Conference due to the ongoing pandemic, and the challenges faced by many non-U.S. delegates to obtain vaccinations. This was unexpected since we thought we were to receive status reports and facts, and then make a final decision at one of two subsequent meetings scheduled for February and March. It was also odd, since many organizations were then moving full-steam ahead with plans for international conferences in 2022. Some members frankly seemed a little too eager to cancel. Fortunately, a majority decided such a move was premature and we voted to delay a final decision to February or March.
At that same meeting, Commission members asked how many non-U.S. delegates were vaccinated – a requirement to obtain entry visas to the U.S. Apparently, no effort had been made to track that information, since the initial reaction from staff was that we could not ask such private medical information. I pointed out that we were not interested in delegates’ medical histories, only if they had been vaccinated, which would have to be disclosed to get visas. We asked for a report on visas and vaccination rates to be prepared prior to our February 24 meeting.
Two days before that meeting, I sent a letter to all commission members, which, among other things, reminded them that we were to receive that report. My email was sent out at 11:28 AM (EST) on Tuesday, February 22. Just a few hours later, beginning around 2:15 PM (as indicated from emails forwarded to me from delegates), General Conference General Secretary Gary Graves began sending emails to all General Conference delegates asking for their vaccination status, with a response deadline of the next day at 5 PM (EST).
It is hard not to conclude that the staff never took the request seriously and were scrambling at the last minute to cover themselves. Despite the short notice, however, Graves reported that he had received about 500 responses, with more than 90 percent indicating they had received at least one vaccination (the others either refused to answer on privacy grounds or were unvaccinated).
With that data, as well as general knowledge of falling infection rates and the relaxation of many restrictions on travel and large gatherings, COVID could no longer be an excuse to cancel. The discussion then turned to how hard it would be for non-U.S. delegates to schedule interviews for entry visas. To obtain visa interviews at U.S. embassies, the COGC staff must send an official letter of invitation to delegates. But none had been sent – which seems doubly suspicious in light of another document sent to Commission members less than two days before our meeting. This document listed all the wait times for US embassies for delegates to obtain visa interviews. In some countries, the wait time was well beyond the August 29, 2022, opening day of General Conference. In some cases, it was over a year! The date and place of the 2022 GC had been known since March 2021 – yet the staff had never sent out any letters of invitation to get on the schedules as soon as possible. Had they not been tracking the wait times during that period? If not, why not? If so, why were letters not sent to get ahead of the deadlines?
Interestingly, the staff said delegates in some countries might have 10-year visas; and it was learned that others had found ways to obtain visas from embassies in neighboring countries where wait times were shorter. But there was no detailed analysis of all these variables. When asked what percentage of delegates typically have not been seated in past General Conferences for whatever reasons, we were told it has approached as high as 10 percent. This time we were warned, it could 20 to 30 percent – yet again, with no supporting analysis or documentation.
And it was also clear that no serious attempt was made to revisit the possibility of a having an off-site gathering of delegates in Africa or elsewhere for virtual participation. I later learned that Dr. Kent Millard, President of United Theological Seminary had offered information about a hybrid process used for the General Conferences of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches, but this information was never seriously studied or even reported to the Commission.
All this raises the legitimate question whether some members, leaders and staff of the COGC ever intended to hold the General Conference in 2022 and were simply leading other Commission members on to achieve a pre-arranged outcome. Nonetheless, a lengthy and robust debate went on during the 3.5-hour meeting on February 24, 2022, and the final vote to postpone was deeply divided, at 14 in favor and 9 opposed (with 1 abstention). Another suspicious feature was that the African members of the Commission argued that we should hold the 2022 conference as scheduled, while white U.S. members argued it would be a kind of “colonialism” to do so if it meant risking a higher number of Africans being absent!
It could have been done. By the way, we were told that the UM Church may lose as much as $3 million in forfeiture fees and penalties for cancelling the General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That money could have been used to purchase tech support, equipment, or even additional staff to make a hybrid international conference happen – which many organizations have already done.
Because of this unwise and unnecessary decision to postpone, the highest governing body of the UM Church will not be able to meet to address the crisis that is fracturing our denomination or deliberate on the various plans which were proposed to address it. I fear we will shortly see renewed and intensified internal conflict across our connection. The experience of other mainline denominations that have divided without an amicable plan of separation suggests that many millions of dollars will now be wasted in legal battles over property.
None of this was necessary. The people of The United Methodist Church deserved better from the Commission. And you deserved better from me. Please accept my apology for deceiving myself – and misleading you – into believing that this process had integrity and honesty. I no longer believe that it did.
Hopefully, all of us are wiser today than we were yesterday.
The Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo is Lead Pastor at Lancaster First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Council. This article originally appeared via the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Outlook and is reprinted by permission.