By Thomas Lambrecht
The current state of separation and disaffiliation in The United Methodist Church has roots stretching far back into Methodism’s history. Profound disagreements about theology, spirituality, and hot-button social issues have been brewing within Methodism for decades.
“Creeds have had their day. They are no longer effective,” said one liberal writer in Methodist Review clear back in 1910. “Without doubt, they were well intended. Possibly they have done some good – they certainly have done much harm…. The revolt against creeds began in the lifetime of many now active in the work. The creeds are retired to the museums and labeled ‘Obsolete.’”
In his book The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism (Seedbed), the Rev. Dr. James V. Heidinger II writes that “the seeds for Methodism’s decline were sown more than a hundred years ago – in the period of the early 1900s. This was an era in which theological liberalism brought sweeping change to the substance of Methodist thought and teaching. While not embraced widely by local church pastors and most laity, it was affirmed by much of Methodism’s leadership during that period – including many bishops, theologians, editors of publications, board and agency staff, and pastors of large urban churches” (page 190).
Heidinger – our president emeritus at Good News – notes this was an era “in which Methodism and the other mainline denominations experienced major doctrinal transition and revision. For a number of Methodist pastors and leaders (and most all of the mainline Protestant churches in America, for that matter), there was a move away from the supernatural elements of the faith. Doctrines such as the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, the miracles, the ascension, and the promised return of Christ were difficult to affirm amid the exhilarating and supposedly liberating views of the new science and emerging rationalism” (Ibid, p. 190).
Sadly, similar to today’s situation, “Methodist bishops were concerned that renewed doctrinal controversy might lead to further division across Methodism,” notes Heidinger. “They were determined to avoid controversy at all costs and thus chose to emphasize unity and collegiality rather than engage the serious doctrinal questions that were challenging and changing the historic doctrines of their church” (Ibid, p. 191-192).
1972 General Conference
Out of the soil of this unresolved doctrinal confusion, one of the manifestations or “presenting issues” of our fractured church emerged in 1972, when the General Conference endorsed “theological pluralism” and the Board of Church and Society proposed the very first Social Principles for the new United Methodist Church (founded in 1968). One of the provisions in the proposal indicated a sympathetic acceptance of homosexuality. Traditionalist delegates at General Conference were concerned that the biblical position regarding same-sex behavior was disregarded, and the conference voted to add words clarifying that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Those words have remained in our Social Principles ever since.
Almost immediately, those who disagreed with a traditionalist position began lobbying to remove those words and change the church’s position to one of tolerance and even affirmation of same-sex practices. The church was not able to deal effectively with instances of high-profile disobedience through the normal accountability channels. This led to the addition of language in subsequent General Conferences mandating “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” for clergy, prohibiting the candidacy, ordination, or appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as pastors, or performing of same-sex weddings. Each time language was added, it was to close a loophole in the accountability process to reflect the church’s historic teaching.
Over the past 50 years, there have been several church-wide studies, many annual conference task forces, and numerous dialogs between persons with opposing perspectives, seeking to come to some common ground. Often, these experiences were heavily weighted toward a liberal understanding of affirmation and were seen by traditionalists as a way to try to manipulate the church into changing its position. Regardless, the outcome at every General Conference has been to affirm the historic and biblical teaching of the church.
No Theological Accountability
The theological conflict broadened in scope when Bishop Joseph Sprague, serving Northern Illinois at the time, published a book entitled Affirmations of a Dissenter in 2002. As my colleague, the Rev. Scott Field, describes Sprague’s views, he “denied Christ’s virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and atoning death, asserting that Jesus was not born divine but became divine through the faithfulness of his earthly walk, with the implication that others could follow suit.” Sprague suggested an alternative Trinity of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Field asked Sprague subsequently about the role of orthodox affirmations of faith such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. According to Field, “He told me that the historic Christian creeds were simply a matter of who showed up with the most votes when the church councils got together. We are free, he said, to change ‘orthodoxy’ whenever we have majority votes to do so.”
I was part of a group of 28 clergy and laity who filed a complaint against Bishop Sprague for the chargeable offense of “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church.” While those of us who filed the complaint were criticized for doing so, there was no rebuke of Sprague’s doctrinal deviation, and the complaint was dismissed. This episode demonstrated that even blatant departure from the church’s teachings would be tolerated and even affirmed by the church’s hierarchy. (One active bishop wrote a glowing endorsement of Sprague’s book.) There was an unbridgeable divide between those holding to traditional Methodist doctrine and those open to varieties of belief and even changes in doctrine.
2012 General Conference
The closest the church came to changing its position regarding marriage and sexuality was in 2012, when a motion to say that the church is “not of one mind” on these concerns failed 54 to 46 percent. In the run-up to that General Conference, over 1,100 clergy signed up on a website their willingness to perform same-sex weddings in defiance of the Book of Discipline. In 2013, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert performed a same-sex wedding in Alabama despite the request of Northern Alabama Bishop Debra Wallace Padgett that he not do so. A complaint was filed against Talbert. It was eventually dismissed.
Talbert’s action was joined by a number of other situations around the U.S. when ordained clergy performed same-sex weddings. In each instance, when complaints were filed against such clergy, the “penalty” was a 24-hour suspension or some other nominal consequence. In some cases, clergy were required to explain in writing to their colleagues why they violated the Discipline, giving those clergy an official platform to promote their views contrary to church teaching. The clergy accountability system was failing to require clergy to conform their actions to what the General Conference had decided on behalf of the whole church.
On the Verge of Schism
Just before the 2016 General Conference, Bishop Talbert performed another same-sex wedding in North Carolina. Again, there were no consequences or accountability. At the 2016 General Conference, efforts to reinforce the long-standing position of the church were being passed in committee by a greater margin than before, and there was talk that the church might split over this conflict.
I was present in private conversations where a group of prominent traditionalist, centrist, and progressive leaders agreed that a separation of the church was inevitable. The group saw the best way forward to be providing as amicable and mutually respectful a process of separation as possible, as a witness to a watching world. The group sent a request to the Council of Bishops meeting during General Conference to form a commission to develop an amicable process of separation.
The Council declined to accept the possibility of separation. Instead, they proposed forming a Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) to find a way to resolve the conflict, while preserving as much unity in the denomination as possible. The 2016 General Conference agreed, and all proposals regarding sexuality were put on hold until a special 2019 General Conference that would deal only with this issue. The Commission (of which I was a member) came up with three proposals: a Traditional Plan to strengthen accountability to the church’s current position, a One Church Plan to allow annual conferences and local churches to determine their own stance on same-sex marriage and ordination, and a Connectional Conference Plan to create three new “jurisdictions” within the UM Church, based on viewpoint on ministry with LGBTQ persons.
The Traditional Plan was an 11th hour proposal developed by only a few members of the Commission, as the Council of Bishops had previously prevented consideration of either separation or maintaining the status quo by the Commission. We understand that some African bishops objected that there had to be a Traditional Plan on the table for the General Conference to consider, which prompted the Council to reverse course and permit such a plan. The Traditional Plan did not have the benefit of a thorough refinement by the full Commission and was proposed at the Commission’s last meeting only a few months before the deadline for submitting legislation to General Conference. (Indeed, some Commission members said they could not in good conscience work on a Traditional Plan, even though traditionalists had been willing to work on other plans we disagreed with.)
A special General Conference was held in St. Louis in February 2019 to address the COWF proposals. The Traditional Plan passed by 53 to 47 percent. However, about half the provisions of the Traditional Plan were declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council, due to the lack of adequate refinement of the plan by the Commission. More problematic than the actual voting were the vitriolic rhetoric and personal attacks in speeches from the floor, particularly by some centrist and progressive delegates.
Part 2 of this series will deal with the aftermath of the special General Conference and the developments that lead to our current impasse.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: A delegate speaks during a plenary session of the historic 1968 Uniting Conference of The United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo courtesy of the General Commission on Archives and History.
By Keith Boyette
The process of church disaffiliation has completed its second wave, with churches disaffiliating through special sessions of their annual conferences in the fall. This piecemeal process of disaffiliation is not what we had hoped for when I joined other traditionalist, centrist, and progressive leaders to announce the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation agreement three years ago. If General Conference had met in 2020 or even in 2022, there would have been a uniform process for disaffiliation that would have allowed annual conferences and local churches to make an informed, prayerful, conscience-driven decision on where their congregation could best serve the Kingdom of God.
Unfortunately, we have a dysfunctional situation that is causing increased conflict and power plays to block disaffiliation in some places. Despite the challenges, over 2,000 churches have already disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church (UM Church) and many more are in the process to do so during this year.
Now that two waves of disaffiliation have been completed, people wonder what progress the Global Methodist Church is making in its formation.
The GM Church began operations on May 1, 2022. In its brief life, it has welcomed more than 1,200 persons as clergy members and officially welcomed 1,100 local churches that applied to align with it. The GM Church is already larger than the Congregational Methodist and Free Methodist Churches and should soon pass the Wesleyan Church in size. These clergy and churches are from Angola, Bulgaria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, England, Panama, the Philippines, Slovakia, and the United States.
And hundreds of additional clergy and local churches are on the cusp of completing the process of disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church in order to align with the GM Church. Also, more than 50 new GM congregations have been launched globally with more being added each month. And the truth is, many more would have already joined the GM Church, or be well on the way to doing so, were it not for the obstacles UM Church bishops and conferences have placed in their way.
The GM Church’s primary focus is on its mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ who worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly. It is a Church that intentionally empowers local congregations to have maximum discretion in the way they organize and deploy resources for ministry. The denomination maintains a small institutional footprint to ensure local churches have the resources to support the ministry to which they are called. The GM Church exists to empower local churches; to serve, not to be served.
Considerable time has been devoted to organizing for ministry in the various regions of the world. The GM Church currently has nine provisional annual conferences and districts around the world. These conferences and districts have presidents pro tempore and presiding elders appointed to serve. Some have already held convening conferences. Others are holding such conferences soon. It also has ten transitional conference advisory teams preparing for the launch of additional provisional conferences and districts in the coming months with more being organized monthly.
The process of organizing the church internationally involves registering the GM Church with the government of each country. It has completed this process in Bulgaria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, and Slovakia. Registration is underway in a number of other countries around the world. Ultimately, the GM Church will be registered in nearly all of the countries of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. The denomination is also in discussions with non-UM clergy and churches around the world, many of whom are steeped in Methodist heritage and traditions. For them, the GM Church offers an opportunity to join a new, vibrant movement grounded in the warm hearted Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith.
Navigating such a dynamic environment requires exceptional sensitivity to, and dependence on, the work of the Holy Spirit. The GM Church’s Transitional Leadership Council (TLC) is diverse, globally representative, and composed of exceptional leaders. Recently, Bishops Mark Webb and Scott Jones have joined the TLC, along with new members Rev. Arturo Cadar (Eastern Texas, Deacon), Rev. Dr. David Watson (Allegheny West, Elder), and Rev. Bazel Yoila Yayuba (Nigeria, Elder). The TLC will continue to guide the GM Church through its critical transitional period, even as it joyfully looks forward to the new denomination’s convening General Conference.
Of course, starting a new denomination requires significant financial resources. Thanks to hundreds of gifts from faithful Methodists from all around the world, at its inception, the GM Church received over $1 million as a substantial seed money grant from the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Next Methodism Fund, which had been specifically raised for that purpose. In addition to this gift, individuals, local churches, and other entities have continued to generously support the Church in its transitional season. Through December 31, 2022, it has received $210,000 in direct contributions, enabling it to fulfill its calling in its early days.
And as local churches join the denomination, they are now
supporting the ministries of their provisional annual conferences and the general church through connectional funding. The TLC, when requested, has granted relief from connectional funding for congregations that have incurred substantial financial burdens as part of withdrawing from the UM Church.
The GM Church is also equipping and encouraging congregations to fulfill its calling to be a global missional partner with Christian movements around the world. It is a platinum sponsor of the Beyond These Walls conference that will be held at The Woodlands (TX) Methodist Church from April 27-29, 2023. It will gather Christian leaders from around the world, many of whom will be GMC clergy and laity, and will challenge us to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people.
In this space, I can only focus on a few highlights, but all the people of the GM Church celebrate the way in which God is at work in our midst. We have much for which we give thanks. We have only just begun. We will keep our focus primarily upon our mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ who worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly. God expects great things from us. By God’s Spirit, we strive to accomplish great things for God, all so that Jesus will be glorified.
The Rev. Keith Boyette is the Transitional Connectional Officer of the Global Methodist Church, its chief executive and administrative officer. A version of this article appeared earlier this week in the GM Church Outlook.
The GM Church has a website with a wealth of information. The Church encourages you to visit it to learn about its mission, purpose, core confessions, organization, and find answers to a variety of questions.
By Steve Beard
Over the last 40 years, one of the most popular and memorable modern day hymns is “Majesty, Worship His Majesty” written by Jack Hayford. Congregations from all denominations around the globe have sung it with reverence and gusto. It is included in The United Methodist Hymnal, as well as the new collection titled Our Great Redeemer’s Praise.
On Sunday, January 8, 2023, Hayford died at the age of 88 years old. He was a beloved clergyman, prolific songwriter, and sought-after mentor. “Today, we mourn his loss but celebrate the homecoming of a great leader in God’s kingdom,” announced Hayford’s ministry. “We know that this great servant and worshipper is now experiencing the greatest worship service of all.”
For thirty years, Hayford was the pastor of The Church on the Way in Southern California. To an entire generation of church leaders, he was an irreplaceable bridge-builder between Pentecostal/charismatic believers and the wider ecumenical Church.
Fittingly, Hayford’s international notoriety sprung from his memorable worship song. “Majesty” was written in 1977 while he and his family were vacationing through England during the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. As they roamed through historic Blenheim Palace, the birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill, Hayford was inspired by the regal surroundings.
Thinking from the heart, he became mindful “that the provisions of Christ for the believer not only included the forgiveness for sin, but provided a restoration to a royal relationship with God as sons and daughters born into the family through His Majesty, Our Savior Jesus Christ.”
As he was driving around England, Jack asked his beloved wife Anna to write down the words and melody. “So exalt, lift up on high, the name of Jesus/ Magnify, come glorify Christ Jesus, the King.”
Hayford reports that he was filled with a powerful “sense of Christ Jesus’ royalty, dignity, and majesty …. I seemed to feel something new of what it meant to be his! The accomplished triumph of his Cross has not only unlocked us from the chains of our own bondage and restored us to fellowship with the Father, but he has also unfolded to us a life of authority over sin and hell and raised us to partnership with him in his Throne – Now!”
This is one of the many glimpses into the man found in Pastor Jack, the 2020 biography written by Dr. S. David Moore about Hayford’s noteworthy ministry as pastor, Bible teacher, author of 50 books, writer of more than 500 worship songs, editor of the Spirit-Filled Life Bible, denominational leader of The Foursquare Church, and founder and chancellor emeritus of The King’s University (now located in the Dallas area).
“Jack lived in a God-charged, open universe that challenged the reductionism of the modern world,” observed Moore. “At a time in which reality came to be defined in purely naturalistic terms, dismissing the supernatural as antiquated folklore, Jack Hayford’s life and ministry offered a recovery of the biblical world, a world in which God is active and present in his creation.” His teaching and leadership often made memorable impressions on non-Pentecostal believers.
“I’ll never forget the wonderful way Jack Hayford led us in a concert of prayer at the Promise Keeper’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C., in 1997,” recalled Dr. Stephen Seamands, professor emeritus of Christian Doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. “He was such a Christian statesman and role model for me. In his book, A Passion for Fullness, he writes, ‘Let us commit ourselves wholeheartedly to a supernatural ministry disciplined by a crucified life.’ That summed up what I was striving for so well for me.”
In addition to his teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit, Hayford’s thoughts on worship are an essential factor in comprehending his ministry. “In both the Old and New Testaments,” he taught, “God’s revealed will in calling his people together was that they might experience his presence and power – not a spectacle or sensation, but in a discovery of his will through encounter and impact.”
Hayford taught extensively about heartfelt worship being far more dynamic than what is sometimes mistaken as merely the order of a service in a church bulletin. “In my experience, theological discussions about worship tend to focus on the cerebral, not the visceral – on the mind, not the heart. ‘True’ worship,” he wrote, “we are often taught, is more about the mind thinking right about God (using theologically correct language and liturgy), rather than the heart’s hunger for him.
“But the words of our Savior resound the undeniable call to worship that transcends the intellect: ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4:24). We’ve been inclined to conclude that mind is the proper synonym for spirit here, but the Bible shows that heart is a better candidate. ‘In truth’ certainly suggests participation of the intellect in worship, but it is inescapably second – and dependent upon the heart’s fullest release first.”
Hayford concluded, “The exercises of our enlightened minds may deduce God, but only our ignited hearts can delight him – and in turn experience his desire to delight us.”
As a church leader, Hayford was faithfully committed to biblical exposition, racial reconciliation, teaching on the Kingdom of God, praying for churches and leaders outside his own Pentecostal tradition, discerning the difference between “holy humanness and human holiness,” explaining the “beauty of spiritual language” (speaking in tongues), and maintaining irrevocable honesty in his heart.
“My commitment to walk with integrity of heart calls me to refuse to allow the most minor deviations from honesty with myself, with the facts, and most of all, with the Holy Spirit’s corrections,” Hayford believed.
Hayford saw “his private prayer life as the essential foundation of his ministry, and he deeply yearns to know and please God and live in radical dependence,” wrote Moore in Pastor Jack. “His journals are filled with prayers of confession, praise, and especially lament for his weaknesses and shortcomings. And yet almost always his journal entries end with grateful affirmation of God’s faithfulness to his promises.”
The Church on the Way was located only a few miles from the glamour of Hollywood and it attracted a handful of high-profile members of the entertainment industry. However, the congregation grew steadily without glitz or publicity stunts. Hayford’s appeal was built on his personal humility, integrity, and honesty.
“There is, in whatever one studies of Jesus, everything of humanity and nothing of superficiality; everything of godliness and nothing of religiosity,” wrote Hayford. “Jesus ministered the joy, life, health and glory of his Kingdom in the most practical, tasteful ways. There is nothing of the flawed habit of hollow holiness or pasted-on piety that characterizes much of the Christianity the world encounters.”
Authentic discipleship – to be “Spirit-formed” as Hayford called it – involves nurturing intimacy with God. In his relationship with Jesus, Hayford was committed “to seek him daily (1) to lead and direct my path, (2) to teach and correct my thoughts and words, (3) to keep and protect my soul, and (4) to shape and perfect my life.”
Hayford’s love and concern for clergy of all traditions earned him the title of “pastor to pastors.” Despite coming from a relatively small classical Pentecostal denomination, his generous spirit had wide appeal.
“I have a shepherd’s heart,” Hayford said prior to his death. Whether he was teaching before 39,000 clergy in a football stadium or hosting a dozen pastors in his living room, Hayford etched a lasting impression on those that he treasured so much. In a previous era of polarization and mistrust, Hayford stood out as a passionate worshipper and peacemaker. He left a robust legacy of vulnerability and devotion through living a life that was animated by the presence and love of God.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
By Rob Renfroe —
On December 28, 2022, the exiting bishop of the North Georgia Annual Conference and her appointive cabinet sent a very clear message to the churches, pastors, and laypersons of that conference. The message was: We don’t trust you.
I initially chose not to write about the bishop and cabinet’s decision to suspend the ability of churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church until General Conference 2024. Others had done so fairly and insightfully. But then I spent some time on the UM Clergy Facebook page and saw that not only was the North Georgia decision being praised, it was even being widely suggested that other bishops and cabinets follow suit. So, I feel compelled to address what the leaders in North Georgia have done and what others might be inclined to do, as well.
Disaffiliation is being disallowed in North Georgia because, according to a statement posted on that conference’s website, “many local churches have been misled about the disaffiliation process and have been presented with information about the process, and about The United Methodist Church and its leadership, that is factually incorrect and defamatory.” The statement continued “we do not have confidence in the validity of upcoming church conference disaffiliation votes. … We have agreed that our Annual Conference cannot rely upon such votes for purposes of negotiating a gracious exit.”
In essence the bishop, the cabinet, and the trustees of the North Georgia Conference are disallowing votes in local churches because they do not trust pastors and laypersons to listen to all sides, sift through contradictory information, and decide what is true and what is best for their congregations.
There are United Methodist businesspersons in north Georgia who are CEO’s and CFO’s who run multi-billion-dollar companies and who must make decisions in the best interest of those companies after reviewing information and data that is often incredibly complicated, even confusing. Others go to work and make million-dollar decisions if not every day, then every week, in that same complex environment where various views often compete with one another, all presenting themselves as true and the best way forward. Other UM members in north Georgia we trust to teach children in the schools there, determining what scientific, historical, and cultural claims are valid and should be passed on to the next generation. Still others run farms and ranches and family business, and they make decisions every day, not based on certainty, but on what they ascertain to be true and determine to be the best way forward.
Companies, businesses, schools, and families trust these good Methodists to make terribly important and complex decisions every day. Still others are pastors who are trusted to determine what spiritual truths are valid and worthy of being taught in our churches and which spiritual claims must be discarded, even exposed as false. And we trust them to do so.
But when it comes to listening to all the information available about the divisions within the UM Church and the process of disaffiliation, the previous bishop, district superintendents, and conference trustees in north Georgia do not believe their lay members and pastors are capable of discerning what is true and what is in their best interest. They may have heard wrong information and cannot be trusted to be motivated enough or intelligent enough to determine what views are correct. What a magnificently patronizing and demeaning message to send to people who are quite capable and trustworthy in every other area of their lives.
One reason the leaders of the North Georgia Annual Conference cannot trust churches and laypersons to decide what is best for their congregation is because “certain organizations as well as clergy and lay members of various churches and outside groups” have shared “misleading, defamatory and false statements and materials” with churches in the conference. As is typical with those claiming that traditional groups and pastors are spreading misinformation, no particular group or person is mentioned by name and no specific example of false information is cited. (My colleague, Tom Lambrecht, addressed the conference’s general allegations in last week’s Perspective.) Without specific citations of who said what when and where, it is impossible to refute or even address these allegations.
What is apparent is that more churches in North Georgia have either already left or are prepared to disaffiliate from the conference than the leaders there expected. During the process of discernment, conference officials have either presented the official UM line to these churches or have had the opportunity to do so. Still, after hearing the “Stay UMC” pitch, these congregations have decided it is best for them to leave. And now the conference leadership has decided to make it impossible for them to do what, after praying and listening to all sides, these churches have decided God is calling them to do.
Many, maybe most, of the current bishops in the UM Church are similar to my age. That means their formative years were in the 1970’s. It was a tumultuous time, and our generation decided that we would not trust “the establishment” simply because people in places of power told us they knew what was right for us. We would decide, we had a right to decide, for ourselves – even if we were young – what was right for us. We swore that when we rose to positions of power, we would be different. We would not lead or govern through manipulation and control or by exerting our authority over others. And we would never do what had been done to us – tell others they could not be trusted to make their own decision because we knew better.
Still, this is the exact message and the very methodology that the leaders in North Georgia have exhibited: You lay people and pastors may be very competent in your fields of expertise and trusted by many in your work life, but when it comes to making spiritual decisions, we don’t trust you. And we – the elites, the knowledgeable, the authorities – we will decide for you.
As The Who sang when many of these bishops and I were young, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
Maybe some folks in north Georgia have been confused by what is purported to be “misinformation” about the UM Church and its future. But I am confident they see very clearly that their leaders are willing to change the rules when it suits their purposes, are only too happy to exert their authority to control people when Jesus told us to lead as servants, and are distrustful of their people’s intellectual capabilities and their spiritual maturity.
If other UM pastors want to praise such leadership and recommend it as a model for other bishops and conferences, they may. But it is simply one more reason that many faithful Methodists cannot wait to leave the UM Church and join a new movement where people are trusted and empowered to make good decisions for themselves and for their congregations.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.
By Walter Fenton, Global Methodist Church —
United Methodist Bishop Scott Jameson Jones, the former leader of the UM Church’s Great Plains and Houston Episcopal Areas, has resigned from the episcopacy of the church and withdrawn from the denomination. Jones was received into the Global Methodist Church as an elder on January 9, 2023.
As Jones shared the news of his decision to align with the GM Church, its Transitional Leadership Council (TLC) announced it has appointed him as a bishop in the new denomination. Its Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline provides that UM Church bishops may be received as bishops in the GM Church to serve until the latter’s convening General Conference; Bishop Jones has been received in this capacity. Initially, he will serve as one of the general superintendents of the GM Church and will not be appointed to a specific residential area. He joins Bishop Mark Webb and Bishop Emeritus Mike Lowry as the denomination’s third episcopal leader.
“The Global Methodist Church represents traditional Methodism with a strong focus on reaching new people for the gospel,” Jones said about the growing denomination. “It is a new start that will help clergy and congregations move past the disputes of the last several years and focus on our mission. I am excited about forming disciples who worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly.”
Beginning in September 2004 Jones served as the resident bishop of the Kansas Episcopal Area, and then in September 2012 he became the first bishop of the newly formed Great Plains Episcopal Area comprising the Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska Annual Conferences. From there he assumed leadership of the Texas Annual Conference in 2016. Prior to his 18 years as bishop, he pastored local churches in the North Texas Annual Conference and was a faculty member at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology (Dallas, Texas).
“Bishop Scott Jones has stood strong for the faith,” said Cara Nicklas, Chairwoman of the TLC. “With grace and clarity he has modeled and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he has given his life to making disciples of Jesus Christ. With great joy and hope for the future, the TLC warmly welcomes him to the GM Church.”
Jones received degrees from the University of Kansas (B.A. in Philosophy), Perkins School of Theology (Master of Theology) and Southern Methodist University (Ph.D. in Religious Studies). His dissertation research focused on Wesley Studies and the History of Biblical Interpretation.
“Bishop Jones’s remarkable leadership has been a blessing to so many pastors and churches over the years. He has an incredible gift for casting vision and keeping those under his leadership focused on loving God and making disciples of Jesus Christ as the main thing,” said the Rev. Dr. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, Kentucky), a TLC member, and a former member in the UM Church’s Texas Annual Conference. “I’m grateful for the bright future ahead for the Global Methodist Church with his wisdom and guidance leading the way.”
A prolific author, Jones has written numerous articles and published several books. His most recent titles are Scripture and the Wesleyan Way: A Bible Study on Real Christianity (2018), The Once and Future Wesleyan Movement (2016), Ask: Faith Questions in a Skeptical Age (2014), and The Wesleyan Way: A Faith that Matters (2014). Earlier books include The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor: A Theology of Discipleship and Witness (2003), and United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (2002), all from Abingdon Press.
“We are rejoicing over God’s good grace to us,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the GM Church’s Transitional Connectional Officer. “In the span of two weeks we have received two faithful, innovative, and passionate leaders in Bishop Mark Webb and now Bishop Scott Jones. Theological conservatives around the world have greatly appreciated Bishop Jones’ witness to the warm hearted Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith, and his fidelity to faith’s life-giving teachings rooted in Scripture and the great confessions of the Church universal. He will be a tremendous blessing to the GM Church as it grows and flourishes.”
Just launched on May 1, 2022, hundreds of local churches in Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States have already aligned with the Global Methodist Church, and many more are hoping to do so over the next few years.
“I hope we succeed as a church in aligning our resources for evangelism, church planting and increasing diversity in our membership while addressing key issues of social justice,” said Bishop Jones. “It is hard to let go of non-essential but time-consuming practices and to focus on keeping the main thing the main thing. In order to be a healthy and vibrant church, we’ll need to address the challenges of raising up a new generation of lay and clergy leaders who are deeply formed in the Wesleyan way of following Jesus.”
Bishop Jones lives in Dallas, Texas, and is married to Mary Lou Reece. They have three adult children, Jameson, Arthur, and Marynell.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer. Photo: Bishop Scott J. Jones (right) speaks to those preparing to receive communion at a 2018 Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Marietta, Georgia. Photo by Steve Beard.
By Thomas Lambrecht
In a provocative, year-end proclamation as she was walking out the door to her new assignment in Virginia, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson defiantly led the North Georgia Conference to stop all local church disaffiliations. The “pause” announced by the conference is supposed to be “revisited” following the 2024 General Conference, but as of now, there will be no disaffiliation process available after December 31, 2023, for them to revisit.
This draconian action to block disaffiliation is the most severe taken by any annual conference. The rationale given for this action was that “misleading, defamatory, and false statements and materials [have been] shared with local church members by certain organizations as well as clergy and lay members of various churches and outside groups.” Because of this alleged disinformation, the conference claims it does “not have confidence in the validity of upcoming church conference disaffiliation votes.”
The North Georgia action is the very definition of a punitive action. Since you traditionalists have said things we disapprove of, you will not be allowed to disaffiliate from the denomination. Such heavy-handed intimidation tactics will surely backfire. Trampled underfoot is the slogan: “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” Many Georgia Methodists will not want to be part of a denomination that treats their pastors and churches in such a paternalistic way.
Dealing with Misinformation
The conference accuses “certain organizations” (presumably the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the Global Methodist Church, and Good News) of presenting information “about disaffiliation [that is] outside the bounds of normal and acceptable civil discourse. It has not only been false and misleading but has been antithetical to the concept of a gracious exit or a commitment to honoring the mission and ministry of all Christians.”
There are two ways to deal with purported misinformation. One way is to counter the misinformation with better information. The conference claims to have done this. “District Superintendents have held more than 200 information sessions over the past year. The website … [is] updated regularly. The Conference has provided printable, sharable Q&As.” “Informed laity” have been empowered “to speak on the topic to local churches.” The bishop held regional gatherings with opportunities for questions and answers. She has met with pastors and lay members of Annual Conference in every district, as well as with individual UM congregations.
The other way to counter purported misinformation is through censorship. The conference has attempted to control the flow of information by prohibiting clergy from making presentations to churches without the permission of the pastor or the district superintendent. Many local pastors have attempted to prevent their lay members from learning about the controversies in the denomination and the possibility of disaffiliation.
Apparently, neither of these ways to counter misinformation have gotten the results that the conference desired, so now they are pulling the plug on the whole disaffiliation process. Since 71 churches were approved for disaffiliation in 2022 and another 150-200 churches were in process for 2023, North Georgia stood to lose one-third of their congregations. Faced with this reality, the conference has decided to block the process, using the allegations of misinformation as a smokescreen for the real reason for this action.
What exactly has been shared that the conference finds objectionable? One example they give is “Church leaders communicating to members that ‘The UMC’s theological impasse is rooted in our differing beliefs regarding the authority of the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible, its impact on how we live out our faith, and the Lordship of Jesus.’”
Of course, this is exactly what we have been saying for years. The conference leaders may disagree with us on this point, but that does not make what we are saying “misinformation.” In our highly fraught culture, we tend to label viewpoints we disagree with as misinformation, when in reality, it is just a different viewpoint.
The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, signed and endorsed by nine UM bishops, recognized the deeper issues causing our denomination’s theological divide. The very first principle stated in the Protocol reads, “The United Methodist Church and its members – after careful reflection, discussion and prayer – have fundamental differences regarding their understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice.” This acknowledgement was agreed to and widely shared by progressives, centrists, and traditionalists. It is not misinformation.
Other examples of misinformation cited by the conference include that the UM Church no longer believes in the resurrection or divinity of Christ or has changed the Apostles Creed. Of course, these are not true, and we have not said this. What we have said is that the UM Church no longer uniformly enforces its doctrinal standards, so that some individual clergy and bishops no longer believe in the resurrection or divinity of Christ or some of the other elements of the Apostles Creed.
Another misinformation example: “Church leaders claiming United Methodist seminaries are teaching a variety of unchristian material by non-Christian professors.” This is a true statement. Some UM seminaries employ some professors/instructors who are not Christians and are in fact members of another religion.
Still yet another misinformation example: “Church leaders communicating that North Georgia Conference leadership is not following the Book of Discipline.” This is a true statement. There are reportedly non-celibate gay/lesbian clergy serving in North Georgia. The conference leaders issued a vision statement promoting the acceptance of homosexuality and calling on the churches to affirm same-sex relationships, putting this issue on a par with combatting racism or fostering equality for women.
When reading over the disaffiliation announcement issued by the conference leaders, one fails to find any specific quotes with attached dates, locations, speakers, or citations. United Methodists in North Georgia deserve better. If the conference leadership is going to torpedo a General Conference directive, the case should be made with specificity instead of a host of alleged generalities. The conference also fails to indicate how many churches were allegedly impacted by what the conference calls “misinformation.” It is unfair to punish all churches if only some were affected.
The conference also objects to some of the tactics purportedly being used by churches considering disaffiliation.
“Churches holding secret meetings on this matter to which not all members are invited or equally informed.” Are not like-minded members able to meet together to plan how to present their request for the consideration of disaffiliation? (Do we not have freedom of association in the U.S.?) At times, these meetings are considered “secret” because the pastor does not allow them to take place on church grounds and does not allow them to be publicized to all the church members. Some pastors forbid any consideration or discussion of disaffiliation. If the pastor would allow transparency, there would be no need for “secret” meetings.
“Clergy suggesting that members of one church would be willing to join another church to help push them over the threshold to disaffiliate.” For the record, WCA leaders in North Georgia are unaware of any clergy suggesting this. Certainly, pastors who know their people should be able to prevent inappropriate persons from joining the congregation. The pastor has final say on who is ready to assume the vows of membership.
“Clergy making presentations to congregations that are not their own, without the appointed pastor’s permission, and in many cases without their knowledge, therefore undermining their ministry.” Again, we have the freedom as people to gather and discuss information. Being a church member does not put one under the exclusive control of the pastor. For years, Good News has advocated that pastors get ahead of this issue by informing their congregation what is happening and what the options for the future are. Pastors who organize balanced information sessions inviting persons of different perspectives to share information do not have the problems raised by the conference. It only happens where pastors attempt to stifle or control the flow of information to their members, which itself is an unhealthy practice.
Certainly, it is impossible for any organization to control what all its members say. The organizations mentioned strive to ensure their leaders and official representatives speak judiciously and truthfully. Where that does not happen, it is appropriate to call us on it, and we would be bound to correct misstatements. (It is impossible to respond specifically to the allegations made in the announcement without citations or identifications of who allegedly said the things quoted.)
As noted above, however, most of the allegations of misinformation are simply different perspectives with which the conference disagrees. Reasonable people can disagree about the information shared. But it is unreasonable to attempt to control what information can be shared or to use disagreement as a pretext for cutting off the whole process. United Methodist members are adults who can critically evaluate information from a variety of viewpoints and make their own prayerful decision.
The Bottom Line
Bishop Haupert-Johnson and the North Georgia leaders have taken it upon themselves to determine that local churches are incapable of making an informed decision about their own futures. They have cut off all possibility of local churches in that conference disaffiliating this year. And unless the 2024 General Conference adopts a new disaffiliation pathway, they have permanently ended any chance for local churches to disaffiliate.
This action by the North Georgia conference leaders flies in the face of what the General Conference enacted in 2019. Par. 2553 states that “a local church shall have a limited right … to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience” (emphasis added). The conference is attempting to take away this right through a decree by the leaders. They do not have the authority to do so.
Taking this step opens the leaders to the filing of charges against them for disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church. It also opens them up to the filing of lawsuits against the conference for failing to follow the property provisions in the Book of Discipline.
Once again, those who have long clamored for everyone to have a “heart of peace” are instead choosing the path of heightened conflict and abusive power. Rather than allowing people to follow their conscience, they are attempting to coerce people to remain in a denomination that no longer reflects their beliefs. They are punitively holding church property for ransom and damaging the ministry of hundreds of local churches by this decision. This action is unjust, and it is unchristian. Let us hope it is soon reversed.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.