By Elizabeth Fink
Would you believe me if I told you that from the age of 18 to the present, I have had at least 13 different addresses and attended eight different churches? I think it is safe to say that I had good reason to refer to myself as a nomad during my early adult years. Each place I lived offered its own unique experiences and has helped develop me into the person I am today. However, there is one challenge that presented itself everywhere I went, and that was the lack of a peer group or community of young adults that shared similar foundational beliefs. Many young adults find it difficult to cultivate that kind of formational community in or around the Church.
From my perspective, United Methodism does not offer a strong young adult ministry. The UMC’s “Young People’s Ministries” mainly focuses on children and youth. Young adults are often tacked onto that group because they don’t know where else to put them. In most churches, no one really knows what to do with young adults, so they either get ignored or attached to another group. There is a wide gap between youth ministry, college ministry, and young adult ministry, and yet churches often think of them in the same category.
What made it more difficult for me to find community was that even if I did find a young adult group, it either leaned theologically more progressive or functioned solely as a social club, with too much virtue signaling and not enough Jesus. I remember thinking to myself on a fairly regular basis, “Am I really the only traditional Methodist young adult around?” On occasion I did find another traditional young adult in UMC circles, and it was the Holy Spirit that led us to find one another. We were drawn to each other like bees to honey.
It wasn’t until I joined the WCA and got more involved that I truly began to feel like I wasn’t alone. I met more and more young adults who were seeking the same kind of community and foundation of faith I was. Many of these are spread out across the United States and even around the world, so when the idea of starting a young adult group was brought up in the WCA, I thought, “This is brilliant!”
We are in the beginning stages of creating a group called the Young Adult Methodist Connection. The Wesleyan Covenant Association sees and acknowledges the struggle for young adults to find and connect with one another and wants to help link those clergy and laity who are under the age of 40 and interested in joining the Global Methodist Church. By leaving young adults without a deep faith resource to turn to, the UMC has inadvertently stirred up a holy discontented generation of young adults who crave a deep relationship with the living Christ and are motivated to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.
The WCA’s hope is that no one will feel alone or isolated, and that young adults won’t struggle to find others in the GMC like them who are strong in their foundation of biblical faith. This is especially important now because many of us are feeling the effects of being caught up in the toxic environment that is found throughout the UMC as it struggles with splitting. When it comes to what a young adult group needs to look like, some words that are familiar to a lot of us come to mind: “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” More than ever, young adults need a space where they are encouraged and can serve as an encouragement through prayer, testimony, and having a safe space to ask questions and to discern.
There will be opportunities for general group gatherings with the potential for events specifically geared towards young adult clergy, seminary students, and lay leaders. We will keep you informed on new developments and upcoming events. Be on the lookout for information regarding Zoom meetings, and There will be an in-person gathering next Thursday over lunch during the upcoming New Room Conference. RSVP for the lunch meeting here.
One of the exciting parts of developing this fellowship from the ground up is that we have a chance to shape it from the beginning. It will be a global community of young adults formed and led BY young adults. If you’d like to be part of forming a movement from the very beginning, now is the time to get involved.
I’m looking forward to meeting and connecting with more young adults like me spread out over the connection. We are a generation of leaders ready to enter a new denomination with excitement about the future!
If you are interested in being a part of this group or have any questions, please contact me at email@example.com. The young adult Facebook page may be accessed here. Feel free to share this article with young adults in your congregation or family.
Elizabeth Fink is a student at Asbury Theological Seminary and the secretary of the WCA’s Global Council. Photo: Shutterstock.
By Mindy Dennison
I was about 5 years old, sitting next to my mother in church when we came to the place in the service where we say the Lord’s Prayer. My mother looked down at me, a little taken aback, when I joined in the liturgy. I heard those familiar words recited so many times that they were ingrained in me already, even at such a young age.
It was still the beginning of my bringing up among “the people called Methodists.”
My memories of our little United Methodist church are many and golden. At Christmas, we hung the greens, placed “Chrismons” on the big tree, and lit the advent candles. I waved the branches on Palm Sunday, and sang “He Lives” on Easter.
I went to Sunday school. I attended VBS. I had the lead role in the Christmas musical when I was 8. In 5th grade, I attended “Sonshine” camp. In 6th grade, I was confirmed and baptized. In 7th grade, I joined the youth group and went on mission trips.
I wasn’t just told what to believe, but why we believed, and how to apply tradition, reason, and experience to the study of God’s Holy Word. As an analytical child with a need to understand the “how” and “why,” this intellectual approach to scriptural study and interpretation was important. In Methodism, science and faith were reconciled – not separate – celebrating and even validating each other.
The church nurtured my gift for music, which eventually became my vocation. I sang in the choir, I played handbells, my piano teacher was a member of our church and our recitals were held there. I first learned to read music from the hymnal. I was in 8th grade, when I sang my first Christmas Eve solo to a packed sanctuary – something I would do for the next 10 years.
As I grew up, The United Methodist Church continued to play a central role in my life.
I worked in church music programs, directing choirs and handbells to groups of all ages, from 3 to 93. I met and married my husband in a United Methodist campus ministry. I have been a United Methodist clergy spouse for 16 years. Our children have been welcomed into the nurseries, Sunday schools, VBSes, and church pews of over a dozen United Methodist congregations.
I say this to make the point: You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody more Methodist than I am. Of all the cradle Methodists in the world, I’m among the most Methodist. Just ask my Baptist friends!
But my lifelong history, my golden memories, my deep personal connections, my admiration for the Wesleyan quadrilateral, my commitment to thorough Scripture study, my fierce, long-rooted loyalty to the United Methodist denomination – all these could not withstand a truth that first crept and then crashed into my heart in recent years: the United Methodist denomination that raised me is gone. What remains of it has abandoned me and much of my traditional theology.
The decision for me and other orthodox United Methodists is not just about staying or going – it’s about accepting that we have already been cast aside by this institution and determining what we’re willing to compromise moving forward. Will it be our membership in this institution, or our traditional beliefs rooted in Scripture?
Four years ago, I not only denied this truth, I fought it. Vehemently. I considered myself a centrist, deeply loyal to the institution of The United Methodist Church. I saw the division. I heard the arguments. But I could not imagine my faith outside of the institution I championed for so long. In hindsight, I might have even made the denomination itself an idol in my life. My devotion was entirely misdirected.
The turning point for me happened with the special session of the General Conference in 2019. What I witnessed during the streaming of the proceedings, as well as on social media, from self-proclaimed progressive and centrist Methodists, was nothing short of alarming. It made me question what was really happening, and what was actually at stake for “the people called Methodist.” A strong conviction took root in my heart. This was about so much more than the presenting issue of human sexuality. Ultimately, this was a battle to determine at what altar we will serve: that of the institution, or The Kingdom of God.
There has been no shortage of complete disregard and open contempt for clearly stated teachings in our Book of Discipline. No doubt, you’ve heard accounts of this. But the ruling minority, those who serve in high positions of leadership within our denomination, do not align with the congregational majority. This is why open defiance to our social and theological doctrine has been allowed to persist, while threat and punishment take place against traditional Methodists who raise concerns. Denominational leadership is cherry-picking which parts of our doctrine and discipline it will uphold and enforce, giving preference to that which preserves the institution, not historic Christian beliefs. “Rules for thee and not for me.”
And woe to those who stand in the way. I could expound on this by sharing several disturbing stories of open hostility toward my family by progressive leaders in the United Methodist institution. I’ll just say that as a traditional clergy household, I’ve been holding my breath for the better part of three years.
But there is Good News: In the midst of great denominational turmoil, Jesus is still Lord. That has not changed, nor will it.
And for my fellow cradle Methodists, and for United Methodists everywhere who find themselves struggling with the idea of what comes next, I have this good news: meaningful and relevant ministry exists outside of the institution of The United Methodist Church. My prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness won’t mean less outside of this denomination. We are members first and foremost of Christ’s Holy Church. The ministry that happens therein MUST be for the glory and in the name of Jesus Christ. Not in the name of Methodism, not in the name of John Wesley, not in the name of intellectualism, or politics, or even social justice. It must begin and end with fierce loyalty to the one and only Truth, the one and only Light, the one and only Life. This is the way.
Our mission is the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow, and our ability to carry out that mission is not determined by membership in anything but the body of Christ.
I don’t know what the future holds for me outside of The United Methodist Church. I may commit to another form of Methodist expression, perhaps through the Global Methodist Church or some other Wesleyan denomination. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. And even if we aren’t a people called United Methodist anymore, it is more important to me that we be a people called “faithful.”
Mindy Dennison is a lifelong United Methodist and, along with her husband and three kids, is active at Asbury Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mindy is a former public school teacher turned entrepreneur and small business owner. Photo: Shutterstock.
By Steve Beard
Of the more than 5,000 artifacts displayed floor-to-ceiling at The Little Museum of Dublin, few are more intriguing than a broken stained glass panel of Saint Brendan (484-577) hanging in a window. The scene portrays the beloved Irish holy man in a boat with three other monks. The poster-sized damaged window looks as though a golf ball or a mop handle knocked out a couple of sections of the illuminated glass – eliminating what once was Brendan’s face.
Thankfully, the unique piece was rescued by an architectural historian after it was thrown out of a public building in Dublin. This was not merely an overly-pious salvage operation. The stained glass panel was the treasured work of the late Harry Clarke, one of Ireland’s most spectacular visual artists. He created more than 150 stained glass windows in Catholic churches, Protestant sanctuaries, and secular venues. Clarke’s depiction of Brendan – even fractured – was a triple-barrel celebration of Irish adventurism, faith, and artistry.
Saint Brendan the Voyager (also known as the Navigator or the Bold) is one of the most celebrated ancient Irish heroes. His sea-faring nomadic spirit led him to set sail in the Atlantic to share the gospel message on distant shores 1,400 years ago. For some early Irish monks, there was a noteworthy phenomenon called peregrinatio pro Christa or “wandering for Christ.” Counterintuitively, it was a heartfelt notion that “leaving home” would free one’s soul to have a greater sense of home or intimacy with God. This is most dramatically illustrated with an incident recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in the ninth century. Three Irish monks were discovered off the coast of Cornwall, England, in a boat with no oars or rudder. “[We] stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where,” the monks confessed.
Today, we don’t know the names of those wandering monks but Brendan’s journey lives on. Centuries after his passing, a Middle Ages blockbuster was published entitled The Voyage of Brendan (Navigatio) that chronicled his seven-year epic Atlantic journey – complete with run-ins with sea monsters and witnessing a volcano (“lumps of fiery slag from an island with rivers of gold fire”). Written by a narrator with literary embellishments and remarkable detail, the description of islands along his route have led some modern readers to believe he could possibly have reached North America hundreds of years before Columbus, Vespuci, or the Vikings.
As unlikely as that may seem to modern sensibilities, so powerful was Brendan’s tale that adventurer Tim Severin recreated a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1977 in the exact type of open vessel that carried Brendan on his oceanic quest. Severin created a 36-foot, two-masted boat with an Irish oak and ash framework wrapped with tanned and wool-greased ox hides – exactly as Brendan’s boat was described. Following the original route, Severin and his small crew sailed more than 13 months, traveled 4,500 miles, arriving on Peckford Island, Newfoundland. Severin wrote about the expedition in The Brendan Voyage. Without proving the maritime saint actually reached North America, he demonstrated that it was undeniably possible.
We will never know if Brendan the Navigator ever found the shores of North America, but we can, when faced with our own journeys and wanderings, take comfort in a simple prayer attributed to him: “Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown. Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with you. Christ of the mysteries, I trust you to be stronger than each storm within me. I will trust in the darkness and know that my times, even now, are in your hand. Tune my spirit to the music of heaven, and somehow, make my obedience count for you.”
Unintended pilgrimage. Unlike Brendan and other ancient Irish monks, my sister, brother-in-law, and I were simply on vacation. We were wandering, alright – but it was largely the kind that produced white-knuckle exhilaration and moments of panic while driving 600 miles on the wrong side of the road through the Irish countryside. My sister and I were especially interested in travelling to the Emerald Isle because our maternal and paternal family lines emigrated to the United States from Ireland hundreds of years ago.
Although this was not a pre-packaged spiritual pilgrimage, it was almost impossible to overlook the structural remnants, artistic expressions, and long shadows of 1,500 years of Christianity in Ireland. Blossoming under the seismic spiritual and cultural upheaval introduced by the bold mission of St. Patrick in 422 – all without the use of violence and the sword – Christianity saturated Irish culture. During its heyday between the fifth and the seventh centuries, there were a captivating and colorful cast of saints that included Aiden of Lindisfarne, Brigit of Kildare, and Columba (also known as Colmcille).
Like the stained glass artwork in Dublin, there are missing pieces, broken bits, incomplete details, and yet undeniable beauty in Irish Christian history. Three particular touchpoints made an impression on me.
Kilmacduagh. One of our most memorable brushes with Irish antiquity was discovered accidentally on our way to a tourist-magnet. About an hour away from the Cliffs of Moher – stunning 700 foot sea cliffs on the west coast – we stumbled upon the ruins of Kilmacduagh Monastery near the town of Gort in County Galway. There were no tourists or guides and there was a ghost town silence as we walked around on the loose gravel pathways from one structure to the next and in-between the grave markers of the departed saints buried underfoot.
Among the ancient stone slabs was the final resting place of Saint Colman Mac Duagh (560-632). After spending years in seclusion as a hermit in prayer and fasting, Colman transitioned in his spiritual journey to launch the monastery on this site in 610. In an interesting twist of history for a man who once lived a cloistered existence in a cave, Colman’s gold crozier (a pastoral staff with a curved top carried by a bishop or abbot symbolizing the Good Shepherd) is now displayed in the National Museum in Dublin.
One week after having walked through the ruins of Kilmacduagh, I was more than surprised to find myself face-to-face with Saint Colman in the Dublin City Gallery – one of the few artistic portrayals of the ancient saint. On display was a three-paneled stained glass depiction of Colman’s life from the late Wilhelmina Geddes, another world-class artist. Her illuminated glass work depicted an austere and brooding Colman on his journey from hermit to bishop and monastery abbot.
At the monastery, the skeletal stone remains – a cathedral, three small chapels, a two-story home for the abbot and monks – were built between the 11th and 14th centuries.The ancient slightly-leaning round tower – the tallest remaining in Ireland – is estimated to be from the 12th century. Previous structures had been destroyed. There is an otherworldly rush when you trace the mortar between the stones with your fingertips. I closed my eyes and imagined Irish monks 1,400 years ago walking from morning prayers to milking the cows or off to fix the roof of the chapel or transcribing ancient texts by candlelight.
In 1995, historian Thomas Cahill wrote an international best-seller entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization about the vital importance of monasteries in Ireland that methodically transcribed literature – both sacred and secular – while barbarians were burning irreplaceable manuscripts and poetry in bonfires on the European continent. “Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile,” wrote Cahill, “the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one – a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.”
In the last several decades, there has been an eager enthusiasm to learn more about the unique contributions of Celtic Christianity. Many of these books are in my library. But with each step on the gravel pathways, I was simply at peace with a rudimentary affirmation: God moved. God moves. Thanks be to God. Acknowledgment. Expectation. Gratitude.
Belfast, Northern Ireland. Two hundred miles northwest of Kilmacduagh is Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland. Most tourists arrive in search of the world-class Titanic Belfast museum or to explore the natural phenomenon of polygonal rock columns called the Giant’s Causeway on the northern coast.
For the visitor, it is unavoidable to drive through Belfast and not see the graffiti murals that reflect deeply held beliefs about past political and sectarian strife, “the Troubles,” and the underpinnings of reconciliation – or at least a lasting truce to end violence with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Although usually identified with his teaching posts at Oxford and Cambridge, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a son of Belfast. To those who grew up in church, Lewis’s work is most well-known through Mere Christianity and the Screwtape Letters. To those outside the faith (and within), Lewis is the celebrated author of The Chronicles of Narnia, a fantasy allegory filled with deep meaning and higher truth for children. Readers of the tale discover that the entrance for four young siblings into an enchanted and mystical world is through a seemingly ordinary wardrobe.
More than 20 years ago, the Belfast City Council commissioned visual artist Maurice Harron to sculpt characters from the seven-story Narnia series for placement in a square to celebrate Lewis’s story-telling gift. The striking figures portray both the valiant and villainous from the series: Aslan (the lion), Maugrim (the wolf), Mr. Tumnus (the faun), The White Witch, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver.
As I cast an eye upon the majestic Aslan, Lewis’s Christ-figure, my mind replayed the dialogue from the story as the children learn about Aslan. Mr. Beaver tells them, “He is King of the wood and the son of the Great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
The older sister, Susan, responds, “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mrs. Beaver responds, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” asked her younger sister, Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Sculptor Ross Wilson created a life-sized Narnian Wardrobe art piece called “The Searcher” for the square. “C.S. Lewis did not just hang clothes in a wardrobe, he hung ideas – great ideas of sacrifice, redemption, victory and freedom for The Sons of Adam and the Daughters of Eve. Set within the commonplace, revelation within something that looks ordinary on the outside – revelation through investigation,” wrote Wilson for the sculpture. “We should not stop looking, some of the greatest things can be found in the most ordinary of places, like a wardrobe.”
For his part, Lewis concluded the final chapter (“Farewell to Shadowlands”) of the Narnia series with an eye on the everlasting. “And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story,” he wrote. “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Dublin. Two hundred years before the Narnia tale was created, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels – the satirical adventure of Lemuel Gulliver. The tale of faraway kingdoms, giants, scientists, talking horses, and Yahoos captured the vivid imagination of readers in 1726.
Interestingly enough, Swift was also the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) in Dublin. The gothic sanctuary is built near a well that is believed to have been used by Patrick to baptize new converts to Christianity. Having grown up in low church Methodism, I still have an awe and fanboy enthusiasm for gothic cathedrals. St. Patrick’s didn’t disappoint.
In the self-guided audio tour, it was mentioned that Swift once preached a four-and-a-half hour sermon. I laughed to myself and was reminded of a story Bono once told about his first visit to St. Patrick’s. Of course, Bono is the Dublin-born singer of the rock band U2, perhaps the most recognizable Irishman on the planet. He also grew up in Ireland looking through the unique prism of having a Catholic father and a Protestant mother.
“How come you’re always quoting the Bible?” asked journalist Michka Assayas in a remarkable set of published interviews with the singer several years ago. “Was it because it was taught at school? Or because your father or mother wanted you to read it?” In response, Bono tells the story of attending a Christmas Eve service at St. Patrick’s and the moment when the incarnation really made sense to him.
During the service, he was jetlagged and sitting behind a huge pillar. “But I was falling asleep, being up for a few days, travelling, because it was a bit boring, the service, and I just started nodding off, I couldn’t see a thing.” But then there was a spark of epiphany. “It had dawned on me before, but it really sank in: the Christmas story. The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough,” said Bono. “That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty … I just thought: ‘Wow!’ Just the poetry … Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable.”
The rock star who had become a believer in his teen years described gaining a deeper illumination and insight into an ancient and familiar story. “It’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this,” he said of the birth of Christ.
“Love needs to find form, intimacy needs to be whispered. To me, it makes sense,” Bono said. “It’s actually logical. It’s pure logic. Essence has to manifest itself. It’s inevitable. Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.”
Wandering through a legacy. Ireland has so much to offer the unintentional spiritual pilgrim, but I was most at peace as I sat amongst the flickering candles and stained glass in the stately sanctuary and thought about St. Patrick’s story of being kidnapped as a teenager in Britain and enslaved in Ireland, only to return as a missionary after a mystical dream helped him escape. He stirred up the Irish sense of righteous and heroic adventure – in his case, returning to the place of captivity and preaching liberation and a new way of living together.
For its contribution to Western Civilization, Ireland is singled out as the Land of Saints and Scholars. But that designation is incomplete without the sea farers, story tellers, sculptors, stone masons, stained glass artists, and song writers.
In St. Patrick’s, surrounded by tourists like myself snapping photos, a few lines of a U2 song flittered through my mind: “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been/ A place that has to be believed to be seen.” For me, there was no better place to be reminded of that hope than wandering around Ireland.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Image: Kilmacduagh Monastery ruins in Gort, County Galway, in the Republic of Ireland. Photo by Steve Beard.
By Rob Renfroe
I don’t understand those in The United Methodist Church who call themselves “centrists.” I have listened carefully to their claims, but the more I listen, the more questions I have.
First question: Do centrists actually believe that truth is “contextual”? I’ve heard them say the UM Church can have different practices regarding sexual ethics because we are in different contexts. They state in more liberal parts of the country we may marry gay couples and ordain practicing gay persons. In more conservative areas, people may not be ready for the church to adopt those practices, so it’s permissible not to.
But is truth contextual? Missiologists stress the importance of using words and images that present the gospel in a way that is understandable in a given culture/context. But they never argue we should change the message of the Bible to be acceptable to a particular culture. But that’s what centrists are championing – the church may proclaim two contradictory truths at the same time – one affirming same-sex behavior, the other condemning it. Why? Because one view will be accepted in one context and the other in a different context.
Do centrists believe the culture we live in should determine our message? That truth is relative and ethics are situational? That when necessary the church may, and perhaps should, “conform to the pattern of the world” (Romans 12:2), rather than transform the world? The apostles proclaimed a message of sexual holiness that was easily accepted by the Jews of their time. It was the same message they preached to the hedonists in Rome who found the apostles’ views offensive and restrictive. Different contexts. Same message. Why? Because the apostles knew their task was to make the truth plain, not palatable.
Another question: How can centrists state they are staying within the UM Church because UM theology will be uniquely positioned to reach our current culture after the traditionalists leave? Those who believe adopting a progressive sexual ethic will attract secular people to the UM Church and reverse our 50 plus years of decline are either so monumentally naïve that it borders on the miraculous or they are disingenuous.
In 2010 The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allowed for the ordination and marriage of gay persons. Today the ELCA’s Office of Research and Evaluation projects that the whole denomination will have fewer than 16,000 in worship by 2041. Since endorsing same-sex marriage in 2005, United Church of Christ membership has declined by 30 percent. Since the Presbyterian Church USA re-defined marriage in 2015 as the union of “two people” membership has decreased by 20 percent and youth profession of faiths have dropped by over 50 percent. The Episcopal Church USA approved their clergy performing same-sex unions in 2015. Rather than an influx of secular people to the church, the Episcopal News Service quotes church growth expert the Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile, “The overall picture is dire … At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”
Abandoning the biblical view of marriage has not caused any mainline church to grow. Doing so has only increased the rate of their decline. There is no reason to believe it will be any different with the UM Church.
A third question: How can centrists promise the post-separation UM Church will not become predominantly progressive in its teachings? I know one centrist pastor of a large church who responded by saying, “That won’t happen, not on my watch, I won’t allow it.” I had to laugh.
The Reconciling Ministries Network recently hosted a panel that was asked about their dreams for the future UM Church. One panelist shared his hopes that the UM Church would become a “queer denomination.” Another envisioned a church that includes “every thought, every idea.”
A pastor on the staff of the church I served for over twenty years recently attended a seminar for youth pastors. Led by staff members of some of the denomination’s largest “centrist” churches, he and others were informed that in the future youth leaders would not use the word “kingdom” because it represents God as King – as male. In fact, those leading said we should no longer refer to God as Father. Gender-neutral pronouns would be used for the kids, who would not be divided into groups for boys and girls. This, he was told, was the future of youth ministry in the post-separation UM Church. He was uncomfortable with the presentation, but not as uncomfortable as when the lecture stopped and the entire room stood and applauded. His conclusion was that he and other traditionalists have no place in the future UM Church.
When traditionalists are gone, the pastor who said the UM Church will not go woke on his watch, and others like him – 10 years or so left in ministry, white, in large churches and who are trying to keep the UM Church from becoming thoroughly progressive – will be who we conservatives have been for decades: the enemy progressives see as impeding the march towards justice. They will be surrounded by progressives who care little about their achievements as leaders and pastors because status in the brave new world that will be the UM Church will be gained not by growing a church but by how many “victim boxes” a person can claim, what’s known as intersectionality.
Centrists will not be the driving force of the Post-separation UM Church. Very quickly, they will not be the ones electing bishops or delegates to General Conference. Young, woke progressives will soon be in charge. You may believe the centrists know where the UM Church is going and that they will keep it from going too far. Or you can listen to those who long ago predicted that the church would be right where it is today when we tell you that the future of the UM Church will become more and more theologically and socially progressive until it is unrecognizable as a truly Wesleyan church.
One last question: Would centrists rather be in a denomination that requires its pastors and bishops to be orthodox but would not marry gay persons? Or would they rather be in a denomination that marries and ordains gay persons but allows its bishops and pastors to deny critical Christian beliefs? The UM Church presently has a bishop who has taught that Jesus can be an idol. We have a past UM seminary president who said it’s wrong to tell others about Jesus if they already have a religion. We have pastors who believe that Jesus did not die on the cross to pay for our sins. We have annual conference boards of ministry that will not ordain persons who believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life for everyone. We have pastors who do not believe in the virgin birth and some who either do not believe in the resurrection or who teach that believing in the resurrection is not essential for Christian faith. This will not change in the future UM Church. It will only increase.
So, my question is this: when did gay marriage become more important to centrists than being in a church that with one voice proclaims that Jesus is Lord; that he is the Savior of the world; that he died for our sins; that he was crucified, dead and buried, but on the third day he rose from the dead?
I know many centrists hold to the most important truths of the Christian faith. But for the life of me, I do not understand the claims they make: truth is not absolute but situational, the UM Church will grow once we codify a liberal sexual ethic, and the UM Church will not become significantly more progressive and woke. And I certainly cannot comprehend how being part of a church that rejects 2000 years of Christian teaching on marriage is more important than being in a church with pastors and bishops who together, as one, affirm the great scriptural truths that define the orthodox Christian faith.
By Thomas Lambrecht
In a newly released decision, the Judicial Council states, “the process in Par. 2548.2 may not be used as a pathway for local churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.” This decision responds to a May request from the Council of Bishops to rule on whether Par. 2548.2 can be used by local churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church. It comes on the heels of an earlier decision that ruled out the ability of annual conferences to disaffiliate from the UM Church.
Par. 2548.2 would allow an annual conference to transfer the property of a local UM congregation to another evangelical denomination. Several bishops and the leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association saw this paragraph as one possible means to facilitate local church disaffiliation in light of the further postponement of General Conference. In fact, Bishop Thomas Bickerton indicated to us in December 2020 his desire to explore ways to implement the Protocol without it being enacted by General Conference. He agreed that Par. 2548.2 might be a vehicle for doing that. (The 2019 General Conference also envisioned Par. 2548.2 as a possible means of disaffiliation when it included that paragraph in the pension provisions it enacted in Par. 1504.23. But the Judicial Council ignored that inconvenient fact.)
A task force within the Council of Bishops began working on disaffiliation through several paragraphs in the Discipline, including Par. 2548. A negotiating team of several bishops and WCA leaders worked for nearly 18 months to try to craft a model agreement and provisions that could allow local churches to use Par. 2548.2 to disaffiliate using the terms of the Protocol as much as possible. In the end, the bishops broke off the negotiations when we could not reach an agreement, deciding instead to use only Par. 2553. The Council of Bishops then filed their request for a declaratory decision on the validity of using Par. 2548.2 as a local church pathway to disaffiliation.
Importantly, this week’s Judicial Council decision does not nullify any church disaffiliations that have taken place, nor does it jeopardize any churches who are currently in the disaffiliation process. Up to now, bishops have been unwilling to use Par. 2548.2 for disaffiliation until there was a Judicial Council ruling, so almost no churches have been using the now-outlawed process.
Also, the Judicial Council ruling does not prevent any local church from disaffiliating from the UM Church and joining the Global Methodist Church. While the Council of Bishops has been given the authority to determine if a certain denomination qualifies under Par. 2548.2, the ruling does NOT give the Council of Bishops the authority to say that the GMC is not a real denomination. The GMC has been formed, is incorporated, has a governing Transitional Council, has a Book of Doctrines and Discipline, and has clergy and congregations who have affiliated with it, the number of which are increasing daily.
This Perspective gets a bit technical, so those not interested in following the argument may skip to the last section to understand the implications. Here are the important points of this new Decision 1449.
Who Must Authorize the Use of Par. 2548.2?
The Judicial Council ruled that any agreement under Par. 2548.2 would involve the Council of Bishops and the leaders of the other denomination (in this case, the Global Methodist Church). This is reasonable, since “The Council of Bishops shall have the authority to enter into ecumenical agreements with other Christian bodies” (Par. 431.1).
Further, any agreement signed by the Council of Bishops would have to be ratified by the General Conference before going into effect. This is a stretch, since the Discipline only requires ratification of “formal ‘full communion’ relationships and permanent membership in ecumenical organizations” (Par. 431.1). The Judicial Council reasoned, however, that an ecumenical agreements involving the transfer of property are “ecumenical relations with churchwide implications and, therefore, by their very nature are ‘matters distinctively connectional’ over which the General Conference has full legislative power under ¶ 16.”
The Judicial Council appears to have an inconsistent understanding of when something is “distinctively connectional” and when it is not. Minimum standards of ordination were ruled to be not “distinctively connectional” in Decision 1366, even though clergy are ordained as clergy of the whole church. Here, though, matters of local church property are deemed to be “distinctively connectional” and require General Conference approval.
This part of the ruling automatically postpones any possible use of Par. 2548.2 until after the 2024 General Conference meeting, which has been the goal of the Council of Bishops all along – to delay the possibilities of disaffiliation as long as possible. (But see the other part of the ruling below that disallows Par. 2548.2 entirely.)
What Qualifies as “Another Evangelical Denomination?”
The Judicial Council ruled that the Council of Bishops is the body that must determine if an entity qualifies as “another evangelical denomination” under Par. 2548.2 to which local church property can be transferred. The Judicial Council thought this was consistent with the fact that the COB is the body empowered to enter into ecumenical relationships. This gives a lot of power to the Council of Bishops without any check or balance. The COB could arbitrarily decide that the GMC does not fit their definition of “another evangelical denomination” and thereby prohibit any ecumenical relationship or transfer of property. And the dissenting opinion by Judicial Council member Dennis Blackwell advocates that “The majority’s ruling invests authority within the Council of Bishops that the General Conference has not given them in the Book of Discipline.” We agree.
A Convoluted Process?
The Judicial Council ruled that Par. 2548.2 is constitutional because it does not violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of church government. The General Conference may confer legislative “authority on an annual conference to enforce the transfer of church property. However, this annual conference authority is neither unrestricted nor unqualified.” In order for Par. 2548.2 to be executed, an ecumenical agreement must be in place signed by the COB and ratified by General Conference, the local church must request the property transfer, the bishop and a majority of district superintendents, as well as the district board of building and location, must agree, and the annual conference must approve by majority vote. Unless all these conditions are satisfied, Par. 2548.2 cannot come into use.
This process outlined by the Judicial Council may be legal under church law, but it illustrates one of the terminal maladies of The United Methodist Church. Our denomination has set up a system with so many approvals required as to make changes in the system nearly impossible. There are so many ways to block action from occurring that many times we do not even try. That is why often bishops, district superintendents, and clergy ignore provisions of the Discipline because they are so unwieldy and seem designed to block constructive changes rather than facilitate adaptation to changing environments.
This is why Good News has come to the conclusion that the UM system is not reformable. Reform can be blocked by so many entrenched special interests in so many different ways that it does not even pay to try. We have concluded we are better off starting fresh with a new system that is more permission-giving and offers more flexibility to local churches and annual conferences. When there is basic agreement on our theological framework (as in the GMC), it is unnecessary to impose all kinds of restrictive rules and processes.
A Realistic Option?
The Judicial Council ruled that an ecumenical agreement would have to be in place before any annual conference could consider transferring UM local church property to the other denomination. Since only two such agreements are currently in place – with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Moravian Church – property transfers could occur only with those two denominations. Any other transfers under Par. 2548.2 would have to wait for the COB to negotiate and sign such an agreement and then have it ratified by General Conference. There is no realistic chance for such an agreement to be put in place with the GMC by 2024. Given the rapidly accumulating hard feelings and resentful atmosphere surrounding this separation, it may be decades before any such agreement could be considered.
The lynchpin question the COB asked of the Judicial Council was whether Par. 2548.2 could be used as a separate process of disaffiliation or termination of a local church’s alignment with the UM Church. The Judicial Council answered a resounding NO. Their reasoning is that Par. 2548.2 addresses the transfer of property, not the transfer of members. As such, “any use or application of Par. 2548.2 to accomplish the disaffiliation of local churches would not only defy logic but also subvert the clearly stated purpose of this disciplinary paragraph.”
Of course, Par. 2553 (the current disaffiliation pathway) does not address the transfer of members, either. It allows for the disaffiliation of a congregation as a corporate unit through the release of the trust clause. It is assumed that the members of the congregation would remain so in their newly independent (or later newly affiliated) relationship, unless specific members requested otherwise. The same could be assumed of Par. 2548.2, that the members would remain with the congregation’s property unless they requested otherwise. But the Judicial Council reasoned otherwise.
The Judicial Council further reasoned that, if Par. 2548.2 provided a disaffiliation pathway, there would have been no need for the 2019 General Conference to pass another one – Par. 2553. This ignores the fact that the existing Par. 2549 on church closure has been used for decades to allow particularly small local congregations to leave the UM Church with their property. The conference would “close” the church and then sell the property back to the congregation for a reasonable amount. It also ignores the fact that Par. 1504.23, also adopted at the 2019 General Conference, lists Par. 2548 and 2549 as ways in which “a local church or charge in the United States changes its relationship to The United Methodist Church.”
Par. 2553 was adopted in order to provide an even clearer pathway for disaffiliation by local churches that could not support the actions of the 2019 General Conference to adopt the Traditional Plan. In other words, it was for congregations that are more progressive. It was never the intent of those who proposed and supported that paragraph that annual conferences could add onerous requirements to the process. It was intended as a smooth, well-defined, reasonable disaffiliation path. Only, churches that are more progressive refused to take that pathway of disaffiliation, leading to the situation where now traditionalist churches are doing so. And some annual conferences are turning a simple process into a much more complicated one and adding requirements that the General Conference delegates never envisioned.
It seems the Judicial Council is penalizing General Conference for trying to do something to clarify processes, while not intending to make other options obsolete. Once again, it shows the impossibility of reforming the UM structure or processes. At every turn, there are individuals and bodies poised to try to block the changes, and the inherently judicially conservative Judicial Council is ready to favor the status quo.
The appeal of using Par. 2548.2 was to circumvent the complexity and the onerous requirements, allow for a different mechanism for handling pension liabilities (such as payment over time), and facilitate the disaffiliation of congregations to be true to their conscience. Instead, some bishops and annual conferences have weaponized the process in an effort to coerce congregations into remaining United Methodist or giving up their property.
The bottom line is that the Judicial Council has essentially ruled out the use of Par. 2548.2 as a realistic pathway for local congregations to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.
That means essentially the only pathway for congregational disaffiliation with their property is Par. 2553. Once that paragraph expires at the end of 2023, there will be no viable disaffiliation pathway out of the UM Church, unless General Conference enacts a new one sometime in 2024.
That means any church that might want to disaffiliate must do so quickly. Some annual conferences have September 1 deadlines for entering the discernment process. Only 15 annual conferences contemplate holding special annual conferences in 2022 to approve disaffiliation. Only a couple annual conferences have said they would schedule special annual conferences late in 2023 to approve disaffiliation.
If a local church does not finish the disaffiliation process in time to be approved by the last annual conference session in 2023, that local church may be unable to disaffiliate at all in the future. As I have written before, there are no guarantees that the 2024 General Conference will pass a new disaffiliation process. Good News hopes it will do so, and we remain committed to working toward that end. At the same time, there is also no guarantee that any new process would be more equitable or less expensive than Par. 2553.
The COB has accomplished its objective of choking off as many avenues for disaffiliation as possible. It is concerning that the COB during the pandemic has appropriated to itself more and more authority. The legislative branch of our church government has been silenced by the continued postponement of General Conference. In its absence for now eight years, the COB has used the Judicial Council to control the direction of the church. In this instance, the Judicial Council decision followed almost exactly the arguments of the COB in their briefs, along with a supportive brief from a conference chancellor. The Judicial Council made almost no reference to any opposing briefs, nor did it engage with the arguments and objections of the opposing briefs. It rubber stamped what the bishops wanted. The loss of the legislative power and the coopting of the judicial power enables the COB to essentially run the church according to its own understanding. This sets up an unhealthy dynamic within the denomination that will not be easy to correct, once life gets back to “normal” with the resumption of General Conference meetings in 2024.
There is a sentiment among some of our church’s bishops and other leaders that disaffiliation itself should not be on the table. The concurring opinion by Judicial Council member Beth Capen states, “The act of disaffiliation is in direct contradiction to this denomination’s long-standing polity of connectionalism. It is an anathema to that connectional cornerstone which distinguishes our denomination from most other Protestant Churches.” If it were up to persons who think this way, there would be no pathway for local churches or annual conferences to disaffiliate at all from The United Methodist Church.
One hopes that this sentiment against any sort of disaffiliation is a minority position in the church. Or at least that people will recognize the practicality of allowing churches that can no longer be part of the UM Church due to objections of conscience to disaffiliate with their property. Coercion should play no role in maintaining institutional United Methodism.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.
By Thomas Lambrecht
It is important to have accurate information about all the issues surrounding disaffiliation in order to make good decisions. Last week, we explored the information shared by UM Communications in a post called “Is the United Methodist Church really …? (Part I).” We covered the status of our doctrinal standards in United Methodism today, the reality of separation, and whether it is likely that traditionalists will have a respected voice in a post-separation UM Church.
Today’s post deals with issues particularly related to the church’s stance on marriage and human sexuality. You can find this information in Part II of the UM Communications blog series.
Changes to the UM Church’s Stance
The UM Communications piece rightly notes that the advent of separation does not immediately change the policies of The United Methodist Church, which are set by the General Conference. However, as we noted last week with regard to doctrine, the fact that the UM Church has policies on paper does not necessarily mean that those policies are being followed.
Based on their resistance to the actions of the 2019 General Conference reaffirming the church’s traditional teachings, and in keeping with the proposed Protocol moratorium on complaints and charges, some bishops and annual conferences have disregarded the denomination’s stance that marriage is only between one man and one woman. They have allowed (and in some cases explicitly permitted) clergy to perform same-sex weddings and have commissioned or ordained non-celibate gays and lesbians as clergy.
The UM Communications piece maintains that the majority of U.S. annual conferences are not “ignoring or refusing to implement the Discipline’s statements, restrictions, and requirements regarding practicing homosexuals and same-sex weddings.” Following the 2019 General Conference, 26 annual conferences in the U.S. (more than half) passed resolutions repudiating the General Conference actions. Some explicitly stated they would not follow the Discipline, while at least a half-dozen conferences ordained openly gay clergy. The Iowa Conference began explicitly permitting same-sex weddings in January of this year. The Western Jurisdiction bishops publicly stated that they will not “withhold or challenge ordination based on a candidate’s gender identity or sexual orientation,” nor will they “punish clergy who celebrate the marriage of two adults of any gender or sexual orientation.” A number of annual conference boards of ministry have said they will no longer consider a candidate’s sexual orientation or inquire about their relationship status.
The UM Communications piece rightly points out that the Discipline does not prohibit ordination based on “sexual orientation or gender identity.” But the piece fails to reckon with the fact that this language has been used over the years as code for disregarding not only the orientation of a person, but also their practices. Boards of ministry have demonstrated that when they talk about ignoring sexual orientation, they also mean they will ignore whether the candidate is or is not in a same-sex marriage or relationship.
UM Communications points out that bishops do not punish in the complaint process, so they are not ignoring the Discipline. Again, the piece fails to reckon with the fact that bishops control the complaint process, deciding whether to process a complaint or dismiss it.
Whether or not a majority of conferences are now ignoring the Discipline, a significant number are. This has resulted in a de facto change in the denomination’s standards in those conferences.
Will the UM Church “drop all prohibitions related to human sexuality at its next General Conference in 2024?” The UM Communications piece states, “all of these kinds of proposals have come before General Conferences in the past. And all have been defeated, every time. At present, there do not appear to be enough shifts in the makeup of the delegations to the General Conference in 2024 to conclude that any of these proposals will pass.”
As many have noted, the margin for passing the Traditional Plan in 2019 was fairly narrow. The shift of only 28 delegates would have changed the outcome. The election of delegates in 2019 for the 2020 General Conference saw a definite shift, with an increase in progressive delegates elected in the U.S. Whether or not it would have resulted in the 2020 General Conference changing the church’s stance, it would have been a very close vote.
Looking ahead to 2024, it seems likely there will be new elections of delegates. And this time, many traditionalist members of annual conference – both clergy and lay – will be missing because they have disaffiliated. This could result in the election of a much more progressive delegation in the U.S. Maintaining the current stance of the church is not as assured an outcome as UM Communications seems to think.
Drag Queen Clergy?
UM Communications states that the UM Church is not ordaining drag queens. This comes from a situation in the Vermillion River District of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, where the district committee on ministry voted unanimously to certify a candidate for ordained ministry who identifies as a non-practicing homosexual but preaches under the drag name Ms. Penny Cost for the purpose of evangelizing people of many sexual and gender identities.
UM Communications accurately notes there is no prohibition in the Discipline against a person performing in drag from being considered for ordained ministry. One might question the wisdom of having a candidate for ministry who does so, independently of whether or not it is prohibited in the Discipline.
The piece asserts that certification as a candidate is the beginning step of what normally is a five to eight-year process toward ordination. It states that, until a person is commissioned by a ¾ vote of the clergy session of an annual conference, they cannot preside at sacraments or at weddings. However, a district committee can license a candidate as a local pastor, which does not require the approval of the clergy session. Licensed local pastors can preside at sacraments and weddings in the church they serve.
Given the previous unanimous support of the district committee, it seems likely that this candidate who preaches in drag could be appointed to serve a church as a licensed local pastor, while continuing the process toward ordination.
Worship of a “Queer God?”
The UM Communications piece brings up an incident at Duke Divinity School, one of the official United Methodist seminaries. A student group at the seminary led a Pride worship service in the chapel affirming LGBTQ+ identities and practices and identifying God as “queer” or “strange one, fabulous one, fluid, and ever-becoming one.” According to the article, one participant stated that God is “drag queen, and transman, and gender-fluid.”
The piece notes that a student-led service in the chapel does not necessarily reflect the official position of the seminary or of the UM Church. It identifies one of the students named in the article as a candidate for United Methodist ministry. However, two other students in the article also interned at Duke Memorial UM Church.
The issue here is not that one worship service represents the official teaching of a particular seminary. Rather, this is one example of how many official United Methodist seminaries have a climate of advocacy for affirming LGBTQ+ identities and practices that often morphs into a re-imagining or distortion of our understanding of God in line with gay categories. “Queer theology” is an academic discipline found at some of our seminaries that seeks to reinterpret Christian faith in light of the experiences of gay and gender non-binary people. “Pride” worship services have become commonplace at the various seminaries.
Students preparing for ministry in the UM Church are often enculturated into the affirmation of LGBTQ+ identities. Many of them support having non-celibate gays and lesbians in ordained ministry and the ability to perform same-sex weddings. These students become pastors who go into their churches as advocates for LGBTQ+ affirmation. The unanimous support of the Vermillion River District committee for a gay man preaching in drag is evidence for this viewpoint. After 20-30 years of this kind of education in many of our seminaries, the result is a clergy that is much more progressive than the laity of our church. These clergy have led their congregations into a more affirming stance, leading to annual conferences that have become more affirming, and eventually to the anticipated change in our denominational policies regarding the definition of marriage and the qualifications for ordination.
Traditionalist United Methodists see this trajectory as an indication that the church is on the wrong track. We do not support this direction of the church, and it is one of the reasons we believe separation is a necessary option for congregations and clergy. If the bus is headed toward a destination where you do not want to go, it may be time to get off the bus.
Our desire is not to mischaracterize The United Methodist Church or mislead anyone seeking to understand the likely futures represented by the options available. If one wants to belong to a denomination that affirms the 3,000-year-old understanding of marriage as between man and woman, the Global Methodist Church would be a likely option. If one wants to belong to a church that is increasingly affirming of LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, The United Methodist Church would be a likely option.
The underlying message of the official communications from the denomination seems to be: “nothing is going to change; traditionalists are welcome in the UM Church; there is no need to push a decision now; wait until after General Conference 2024.” Unfortunately, as I explained last week, the deadline for disaffiliation right now is December 31, 2023. It is uncertain what the 2024 General Conference will do when it comes to pathways for congregations or conferences to disaffiliate. We hope they will enact a fair and equitable pathway, but there is no guarantee. And for many traditionalists, waiting two more years will only further weaken their congregation and delay their ability to focus single-mindedly on the mission of their church.
There is no need to demean or distort what others stand for. Rather, it should be in the interest of all to accurately portray the directions taken by various denominational alternatives. These two blog posts have hopefully clarified where traditionalists stand vis-à-vis the direction that United Methodism is taking. Individuals and congregations can weigh their options in light of the available information and choose their future as the Lord leads.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.