African Regionalization Support Not Unanimous

African Regionalization Support Not Unanimous

African Regionalization Support Not Unanimous

By Forbes Matonga

(This week, UM News ran two commentaries from United Methodists from Africa dealing with pivotal issues that will be before the upcoming General Conference in Charlotte. We encourage United Methodists to read both pieces. For this week’s Perspective, we are featuring the commentary by the Rev. Forbes Matonga, a pastor and General Conference delegate from the Zimbabwe West Annual Conference. – Editor)

The United Methodist Church continues to be an exciting organism. It never stops, especially during General Conference season. We are exactly in that season again.

One of the complex dynamics of The United Methodist Church is the existence of pressure groups, commonly known as caucuses. Historically, caucuses were largely an American phenomenon, unknown to African United Methodists.

In the U.S., these groups took the flavor of national politics. Thus, the division was clearly along the lines of conservatives vs. liberals or traditionalists vs. progressives. It used to be that when Africans got to General Conference, they were amazed to see how these groups would solicit their votes, at times using demeaning methods I shall not describe here.

Over time, Africans realized that they do not exist at General Conference to push American interests. They have their own. African interests have included funding for Africa University, funding for theological education in Africa and fair representation on boards and commissions of the general church, to name a few.

The need for Africans to advocate for their own interests led to the formation of the first African caucus, named the Africa Initiative. This group was able to galvanize African delegates into a force that could not be ignored.

American conservative caucuses quickly formed alliances with the Africa Initiative that included providing financial support to gather and strategize. Progressive American caucuses, meanwhile, supported the startup of other African groups that differed from the Africa Initiative. They provided funding and helped these groups strategize.

Africa was targeted because its delegate numbers were growing, while American numbers were decreasing.

This sets the context to understand what was happening in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, recently, where Africans attending the United Methodist Africa Forum gathering are said to have unanimously endorsed regionalization and rejected disaffiliation by the same margin. Those who made this big decision included some African delegates and alternate delegates to the upcoming General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The first thing that makes this gathering interesting is the presence of big names in the United Methodist hierarchy, such as the chair of the Connectional Table, who happens to be the resident bishop of the hosting episcopal area including Tanzania. This is a sign of an express approval of this group by the powers that be in the denomination, both in Africa and globally. By contrast, in 2022, the African bishops denounced the Africa Initiative and the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

The question must be asked: How legitimate was the Dar es Salaam gathering?

I am the head of the Zimbabwe West Annual Conference delegation to General Conference. We were not invited to Dar es Salaam. I know in fact that no delegates from either Zimbabwe West or Zimbabwe East or the Malawi Mission Conference attended this gathering or the first Africa Forum gathering in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2023. I may not be qualified to speak for all African delegations to the General Conference, but this is the case for the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area.

The United Methodist Africa Forum may speak for itself and pronounce its position, but it does not speak for me or the Zimbabwean delegates. The Africa Forum is not a forum for all African delegates.

The Africa Initiative, which has a substantial number of General Conference delegates as its members, clearly opposes the regionalization agenda. The initiative’s position is regularly articulated by its general coordinator, the Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia, a General Conference delegate himself.

A few African delegates have since moved away from The United Methodist Church in response to a wave of disaffiliations that hit the U.S. United Methodist Church, leading to the birth of the Global Methodist Church. However, most African delegates to General Conference chose to remain in The United Methodist Church, contending for the retention of the disciplinary language that prohibits same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” homosexuals anywhere in The United Methodist Church. This African group is very much alive and very capable of frustrating the liberal agenda to change the position of the church on human sexuality.

Let me stress this point: Regionalization as proposed does not go far enough to assure Africans that their position against the affirmation of same-gender relationships will not be compromised under the so-called big tent theological umbrella. Indeed, as long as the Council of Bishops itself is not regionalized, then this whole talk of regionalization is a smokescreen.

Currently, bishops of The United Methodist Church are bishops of the whole church. A gay bishop elected in America is a bishop for Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is what Africa is rejecting. I hope our progressive and centrist brothers and sisters will understand that this time around.

The regionalization legislation requires a constitutional amendment, which needs approval by two-thirds of the delegates, plus two-thirds of all annual conference members across the globe. That’s not going to happen.

Many African delegates, who are the principal reporters to annual conferences on the outcomes of the General Conference, will advocate against regionalization, and it will fail at the annual conference level — even if progressives somehow get a favorable vote at General Conference.

It is instructive to note the pushback Pope Francis is getting from African Catholics for trying to promote liberal theology on human sexuality. They are rejecting his reasoning that one can bless gay people without marrying them while they are living as married couples. The United Methodist Church will, if it veers from its current policies on human sexuality, face similar pushback from Africans.

It is written, “A man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24, NIV). “…. and he (Jesus) said, ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’” (Matthew 19:5, NIV). “For this reason, a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31, NIV).

We African United Methodists shall listen to no other voice, be it from angels, those who call themselves apostles, theologians, biblical scholars, or philosophers of this world. We trust the Word of God as given in Scripture! SOLA SCRIPTURA!

 Forbes Matonga is an ordained pastor and a General Conference delegate in the Zimbabwe West Annual Conference. The Rev. Forbes Matonga, a clergy delegate from the West Zimbabwe annual conference, speaks to the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS. 

(As a counterpoint to Rev. Matonga’s piece, UM News also ran a commentary from the Rev. Gabriel Banga Mususwa. You can read it here​​​​​​​– Editor)

Why We Will Be in Charlotte

Why We Will Be in Charlotte

Why We Will Be in Charlotte

By Thomas Lambrecht

Two recent stories from United Methodist News deserve a response. The first was a news article about the announced intention of Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) to participate in the upcoming General Conference in Charlotte, NC, in April.

The second article was a commentary by the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr. further criticizing Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) for our involvement. The argument voiced in both articles is that only those who have a long-term commitment to the UM Church should participate in deciding the future of that church.

In the words of the Rev. Drew Dyson, a delegate from Greater New Jersey, “Our polity should be determined by those whose intention is to remain faithfully within the UMC. In my estimation, Good News and the WCA are simply attempting to undermine and harm the work of the UMC under the guise of ‘fairness’ for their allies.” There were a handful of other critical responses in the news article. Fair enough. (It should be noted that both Good News President Rob Renfroe and I remain ordained clergy in good standing in the UM Church.)

Since 1972, Good News has participated in every General Conference by expressing our views on topics up for consideration at the conference. We have helped to organize like-minded delegates to support traditionalist positions on issues. Other caucus groups, such as Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Ministries Network, and other more liberal groups have engaged in similar activity at these same General Conferences. In the past, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition has even recruited non-United Methodists to come and participate in protests that have disrupted the functioning of the General Conference.

Our participation in the 2024 General Conference, however, will be different. Rather than lobbying the delegates on a host of issues of concern, Good News and the WCA are in Charlotte to focus on only two issues. First is the need to provide equitable, feasible disaffiliation routes for annual conferences and local churches outside the U.S. who have been denied the possibility that we in the U.S. had to discern our future. Second is to support our African friends in their opposition to the proposed regionalization of the church.

We will not be in Charlotte to “undermine and harm the work of the UMC” in any way (unless one considers enacting fairness and justice harming the work of the church). We will not be lobbying on the budget or attempting to block changes to the denomination’s definition of marriage and ordination standards. We will not be critiquing the proposed new Social Principles or weighing in on the number of bishops the church should have.

The future of the UM Church is for those who will be living with that future to determine. The question is, however, who will be part of the future UM Church. Will the church be a “coalition of the willing” or a “fellowship of the coerced?”

Is Disaffiliation Over?

The heart of the institutional UM narrative is that, in Weems’ words, “The period of disaffiliation is over. It is time for all groups to move on from dividing to unifying and disciple-making.”

Who gets to say that the period of disaffiliation is over? Institutional leaders in the U.S.? People who have already had the chance to discern their future in the UM Church?

How can disaffiliation be over when more than half the UM Church has not had an opportunity to consider disaffiliation, much less act on it? If the shoe were on the other foot, would the charge of colonialism be leveled? U.S. leaders should not be the lone arbiters for determining that the privileges and opportunities available in the U.S. will not be allowed in the central conferences outside the U.S.

There are other questions of fairness:

  • How can disaffiliation be over when several annual conferences convinced some of their churches to wait to see what the 2024 General Conference does before considering disaffiliating?
  • How can disaffiliation be over when a dozen U.S. conferences imposed such draconian costs on the process that it has been nearly impossible for churches in those conferences to afford to disaffiliate?
  • How can disaffiliation be over when one annual conference said in late 2023 that churches had no grounds under the Discipline or Par. 2553 to disaffiliate and denied all further requests?
  • How can disaffiliation be over when there are at least four lawsuits underway in annual conferences that have made it nearly impossible for churches to disaffiliate?

Weems writes, “The upcoming General Conference is for those who remain after the chaos of recent years. … They have chosen to remain not because they all agree, but because they are willing to live together despite differences.” Unfortunately for Weems, nearly half the delegates there have NOT chosen to remain. They have not been given the choice. In denying them the choice, the UM Church has handicapped itself and compromised its ability to move forward in a new direction.

Disunity Incompatible?

Weems states that “disunity is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It is easy to make that glib statement and point to Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21, “that all of them may be one.” At the same time, one must acknowledge that Christian unity is not necessarily expressed by all Christians being in the same denomination. Otherwise, we would all have to become Roman Catholic.

Unity is built on a common faith in Jesus Christ and a willingness to work together for the cause of the Gospel, regardless of denominational affiliation. Such unity and cooperation is less likely to develop in the aftermath of the imposition of punitive costs or the denial of equal rights and fairness.

At times, it may be pragmatically better to separate and work independently for the Gospel when people are unable to agree sufficiently to work together. Paul and Barnabas found that to be the case, as recorded in Acts 15:36-41. In the wake of the unity engendered by the Council of Jerusalem, they had a “sharp disagreement” and parted ways for their second missionary journeys.

Weems recounts that John Wesley and George Whitefield disagreed “vehemently” over some aspects of doctrine. Weems believes, however, that “Wesley concluded that it was better for the cause of Christ for them to work together, despite their differences, than to separate.” However, Wesley and Whitefield did separate in 1741. While they still considered each other brothers in Christ, and Wesley preached Whitefield’s funeral sermon in 1770, they did not work together in any organized way after 1741. Those who held a Calvinist doctrine were not allowed to preach in Methodist preaching houses.

This was one of the first of many separations that occurred within Methodism, on average one every ten years during the first century of Methodism’s existence. Separation, however, does not have to mean disunity. It will take a time of healing of wounds on both sides of the latest separation, but the possibility remains of some form of cooperative unity in the future between those who remain United Methodist and those who have separated. All on both sides should continue to strive now to maintain an attitude of graciousness toward those with whom we disagree in order to minimize the healing that is needed and hasten the opportunity for constructive cooperation.

I agree with Weems’ invitation to that graciousness: “In a country seemingly unreconcilably divided today, is not God calling us to put aside the accumulated acrimony and bitterness from years of words and deeds for which we all could have done better and wish for each other God’s blessings for the future?” Absolutely! Restoring fairness for all could go a long way toward putting “the accumulated acrimony and bitterness” behind us and enabling a positive future working relationship.

Agree on All Topics?

Weems describes the people who choose to remain United Methodist as “compatibilists.” He defines them as those “who do not expect all other members to agree with them on all topics.”

Anyone who has read a Twitter feed or Facebook group of Global Methodists and other disaffiliated persons knows we do not agree with each other on “all topics.” Traditionalists have remained a constructive part of United Methodism and its concomitant pluralism for over 50 years. It is only when the church failed to uphold its own teachings and disciplines that many traditionalists could not in good conscience remain in connection.

From all indications, the upcoming General Conference will most likely change the church’s definition of marriage to allow for same-sex marriage. Furthermore, it is expected to change the ordination standards to allow for the ordination of partnered lesbians and gays. For many traditionalists, this would be a contravention of the plain teachings of Scripture.

Not all traditionalists believe that disagreement over these issues is a church-dividing issue. But we believe those who do should have a fair opportunity to disaffiliate from a church that is changing its teachings and practices in these vital areas. Congregations and annual conferences that in conscience cannot support this change should not be required to forfeit their buildings and property and abandon their mission in order to disaffiliate.

We will be in Charlotte to give voice to those traditionalists who have not had a fair opportunity to disaffiliate, some in the U.S., but mostly in the central conferences outside the U.S. We pray the General Conference delegates will see the justice of our cause and respond in a way that opens the door for congregational self-determination and ends the unfair discrimination against Africans, Filipinos, and Europeans who cannot support the evident new direction of the UM Church.

 Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo: Andres Nino, Pexels

Unpacking Disaffiliation

Unpacking Disaffiliation

Unpacking Disaffiliation

By Thomas Lambrecht

By my count, as of December 31, 2023, 7,651 churches have disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church in the U.S. since 2019. This represents 25.8 percent of the number of churches that were listed by the denomination in 2019.

Dr. Lovett Weems, of the Lewis Center at Wesley Theological Seminary, has published a helpful report analyzing the results of disaffiliation, noting the common characteristics of disaffiliating churches and pointing out salient differences. This Perspective will piggy-back on Weems’ analysis with some points of my own.

What conferences were most affected?

The Southeast Jurisdiction led the way with 37 percent of its churches disaffiliating. The conferences most affected were:

  • South Georgia – 61 percent disaffiliated
  • North Alabama – 52 percent
  • Kentucky – 50 percent
  • North Georgia – 48 percent
  • Alabama-West Florida – 46 percent
  • Tennessee-Western Kentucky – 42 percent
  • North Carolina – 41 percent

Besides the Red Bird Missionary Conference, which lost no churches to disaffiliation, the only conferences that showed fewer than the 26 percent denominational average for disaffiliation were South Carolina, which blocked disaffiliation for many churches and for a long period, and Virginia, which imposed additional fees for disaffiliation. South Carolina continues to allow churches to disaffiliate via Par. 2549 by moving to “close” the church and then sell it to the congregation. An additional 100 churches or more are reportedly currently engaged in this process.

The South Central Jurisdiction had 32 percent of its churches disaffiliate. The jurisdictional numbers were heavily influenced by high levels of disaffiliation in some of the Texas conferences. The conferences most affected were:

  • Northwest Texas – 82 percent disaffiliated
  • Texas – 51 percent
  • Central Texas – 45 percent
  • Louisiana – 38 percent

The rest of the South Central annual conferences experienced percentages much closer to the denominational average of 26 percent. The three Texas conferences above facilitated disaffiliation by absorbing the cost of the pension liability and, in Northwest Texas, absorbing even the cost of the two years’ apportionments. So churches in those conferences were able to disaffiliate at a minimal cost.

The North Central Jurisdiction had 22 percent of its churches disaffiliate. The conferences most affected were:

  • East Ohio – 38 percent disaffiliated
  • West Ohio – 34 percent
  • Indiana – 31 percent

Northern Illinois made it very difficult for churches to disaffiliate and had only 2 percent do so. Illinois Great Rivers imposed additional costs for disaffiliation and had only 10 percent of their congregations do so in a conference that tends to be more conservative. Minnesota had 7 percent and Wisconsin 10 percent disaffiliate. The rest of the conferences were near the average.

The Northeast Jurisdiction had only 12 percent of its churches disaffiliate. Seven of the ten Northeastern annual conferences imposed additional costs or otherwise discouraged disaffiliation. Six annual conferences therefore experienced less than 5 percent of their churches disaffiliating. Two of those conferences are currently in lawsuits filed by churches unable to disaffiliate who wanted to do so. The only outlier was Western Pennsylvania, which had 38 percent of its churches disaffiliate.

The Western Jurisdiction had only 6 percent of its churches disaffiliate. Four of the seven annual conferences imposed additional costs or otherwise discouraged disaffiliation. One of the conferences is in a lawsuit with churches unable to afford the imposed 50 percent payment of property value in order to disaffiliate.

Who Is in the GMC?

Weems’ report mentions that fewer than half of the churches that disaffiliated have joined the Global Methodist Church (GMC). That was based on the information he had at the time, but churches are joining the GMC each week, so that number is increasing. At the time of this writing, there were approximately 4,100 churches in the GMC, of which about 3,850 are in the U.S. Therefore, at this point about half of the U.S. churches that disaffiliated have joined the GMC. Many are still in the process of discernment, while paying off the debt incurred for departure fees. Others are waiting to see how the denomination develops in light of its inaugural General Conference scheduled for September of this year.

One can see from this that joining a denomination was not a high priority for many disaffiliated churches. It is sad that their experience with the UM Church was such as to make them reluctant to join another denomination after disaffiliation. It may be that some churches would just rather be independent, but it may also be that a number of churches are suffering from post-denominational trauma and need healing before considering aligning with another denomination. Eventually, many of these wounded churches will see the value of being part of something bigger than themselves and seek out an alignment that fits their ministry passion.

One should also acknowledge that several dozen disaffiliated churches have joined other denominations, such as the Free Methodist or Wesleyan Churches. Some have formed their own independent networks. The percentage of non-aligned churches may be less than it appears, and it will shrink over time.

Reasons for the difference in disaffiliation

As pointed out above, some annual conferences made it much easier to disaffiliate, while other annual conferences made it more difficult. Conferences that followed a straight Par. 2553 process without additional costs experienced an average 28 percent disaffiliation rate. Conferences that imposed additional costs or made the process more difficult experienced an average 13 percent disaffiliation rate.

Conferences in the North and West that had a low disaffiliation percentage also have a history of more liberal/progressive policies. This was exhibited in resolutions on social issues, as well as a bias against admitting theologically conservative clergy and such clergy receiving less prestigious appointments. More traditionalist clergy and members have left the UM Church in those conferences down through the years prior to 2019, so there were not as many traditionalists left to disaffiliate.

Conferences in the South have had a more traditionalist theological milieu and retained many more of their traditionalist clergy and members prior to disaffiliation. There were thus more traditionalists to disaffiliate. The same was true in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, which were the heart of the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Those areas also retained a more traditionalist theological milieu and thus experienced a higher level of disaffiliations.

Weems wonders whether congregations in the South and Midwest did not fully embrace the unifications that took place in 1939 and 1968. While that may be a factor, it seems like the passage of time would mitigate that effect. It appears just as likely that the theological climate of the prior denominations carried over into the United Methodist denomination following merger, which then influenced the different directions these churches took.

Why more ethnic congregations did not disaffiliate

According to Weems’ research, ten percent of all UM congregations were majority people of color prior to disaffiliation, yet only three percent of disaffiliating churches were majority people of color.

The issue of race within United Methodism has always been a complex and sensitive issue to calculate, since the denomination is overwhelmingly populated by white congregations. In addition to United Methodism, our sister denominations – African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and African Methodist Episcopal – have primarily African American membership.

Speaking in generalities, African American churches (70 percent of all ethnic UM churches) tend to be more conservative theologically, but more liberal politically. They face the dilemma of being a unique element in either a denomination that may be perceived to be more liberal both politically and theologically or a denomination that may be perceived to be more conservative both politically and theologically.

There is an understandable history of mistrust of white churches in the South – and perhaps other parts of the country – that participated in racial segregation in the past. There is also a well-established and laudable support system in the UM Church for black clergy, which would have to be built from scratch in a new denomination. These are only some of the unique factors that would accompany a discussion of disaffiliation.

In addition to cultural factors (and perhaps language considerations), there are some Hispanic congregations that are dependent upon support from the annual conference and/or meet in other UM congregations’ facilities. That makes disaffiliation more challenging. Furthermore, many Hispanic pastors are licensed local pastors and thus more vulnerable to being let go from their positions by bishops and committees on ordained ministry that are hostile to disaffiliation. Once again, their process of disaffiliation could face unique challenges.

Similarities in size

When disaffiliations were first ramping up in 2022, the word from some institutionalists was that most of the disaffiliating churches were small churches, and that the large churches were not disaffiliating. Weems’ research shows that not to be true.

According to Weems, similar proportions of churches disaffiliated at all size levels of worship attendance. In the UM Church, six percent of all churches averaged over 250 in worship attendance. Five percent of disaffiliating churches averaged over 250. In the UM Church, 13 percent averaged between 100 and 250 in worship attendance, while 12 percent of disaffiliating churches did so. In the UM Church, 82 percent of all churches averaged less than 100 in worship, while 83 percent of disaffiliating churches did.

Disaffiliating churches almost perfectly matched the size profile of the denomination as a whole.

As Weems writes, “Researchers have much with which to work in answering the many questions raised by the experience of the United Methodist Church from 2019 through 2023. If past divisions are predictive, there will be a host of partisan narratives. What will be most needed are objective scholars who can go beyond statistical data to representative surveys and qualitative research to answer some [additional] questions.”

While the ideas and explanations proposed above may seem partisan to some, they resonate with the statistics and with personal experience. Further research may bear them out or find different answers.

There is no question that a cataclysmic change has affected American Methodism and may yet heavily impact Methodism in other parts of the world. Aside from the statistical and sociological explanations for what has taken place, it would be wise not to ignore the spiritual aspects, as well. In many disaffiliating congregations, there was a clear sense of God’s leading and a desire to be faithful to non-negotiable theological perspectives. Many church members would have prioritized the spiritual factors leading to separation over the more pragmatic ones, and the spiritual factors will not necessarily show up in a statistical analysis. It is these spiritual aspects that will give unity and purpose to the Global Methodist Church, the UM Church, and to other entities arising out of this traumatic separation event.

 Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.

Extending Disaffiliation Options

Extending Disaffiliation Options

Extending Disaffiliation Options

By Thomas Lambrecht

The main agenda items for the Renewal and Reform Coalition at the 2024 General Conference meeting in Charlotte, NC, April 23-May 3 relate to providing new disaffiliation pathways for churches and annual conferences that have not been offered a fair opportunity to disaffiliate so far. This will be an uphill battle. United Methodist bishops and other leaders want to turn the page on disaffiliation and put it behind them. UM leaders are aghast at the high number of congregations that have disaffiliated in the U.S., particularly in the South and Midwest. They do not want to lose any more.

So, the UM establishment is putting on a full-court press to prevent any more disaffiliation pathways from being enacted at the 2024 General Conference. It is important to understand why these pathways are needed and what the two pathways submitted by African delegates are designed to accomplish.

Why New Disaffiliation Pathways?

United Methodists outside the U.S. have not been allowed to consider disaffiliation under the Par. 2553 pathway provided by the 2019 General Conference. This arbitrary decision by bishops without obtaining a ruling from the Judicial Council has disenfranchised the majority of the church that lives outside the U.S.

Some congregations and one annual conference outside the U.S. have been able to disaffiliate. They did so either by ignoring the requirements of the Discipline or by a negotiated pathway with their particular central conference. Such a negotiated pathway is not realistically available in all the central conferences, and it is never a good idea to foster ignoring of the church’s Discipline.

The Judicial Council has ruled that annual conferences may not disaffiliate unless the General Conference provides a process for them to do so. Several annual conferences in Africa or elsewhere may desire to disaffiliate. Therefore, it is necessary for the General Conference to provide a way for annual conferences to do so.

In the U.S., nearly a dozen annual conferences (out of 53) imposed extra financial and other costs on churches desiring to disaffiliate. These costs ranged up to 50 percent of the congregation’s property value, additional financial fees, and in some cases an outright ban on traditional congregations disaffiliating. Whereas, denomination-wide about 26 percent of congregations disaffiliated, in these conferences requiring extra costs only about 13 percent of congregations disaffiliated. And in the most extreme examples, less than five percent of congregations disaffiliated because the cost for doing so was nearly impossible for most churches.

At least two bishops and several district superintendents that we know of lobbied their churches not to disaffiliate in 2023. They said that the General Conference had not yet met, and that one could not be certain what actions it would take. They assured their congregations there would be a way to disaffiliate after the 2024 General Conference, if it took actions they disagreed with. In order to make good on those promises, the General Conference needs to enact a disaffiliation pathway for local churches that want to respond to the likelihood that the 2024 Conference will allow same-sex weddings, the ordination of non-celibate LGBT persons, and repeal the Traditional Plan.

Simple fairness and justice demand that the General Conference provide a realistic disaffiliation option for those outside the U.S., as well as those few congregations in the U.S., that have not had that realistic opportunity.

Annual Conference Disaffiliation

Right now, there is in the Discipline a way for an annual conference outside the U.S. to become an autonomous Methodist Church (Par. 572). It requires that the conference write its own new Book of Discipline and obtain approval from the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, from the central conference in which the annual conference is located, from two-thirds of all the other annual conference members in that central conference, and from the General Conference. Due to the lengthy process and all the approvals required, the process can take years and is not certain to succeed.

In addition, the process requires the annual conference to become autonomous. But those annual conferences that might seek disaffiliation in response to General Conference action desire to join another Wesleyan denomination, not become autonomous. They should not be forced to go through the process of becoming autonomous in order to move to another denomination.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition is supporting a proposed new Par. 576 that would allow an annual conference outside the U.S. to transfer to another Wesleyan denomination. They could adopt the Discipline of that other denomination, rather than having to write their own. It would require only a two-thirds vote by the disaffiliating annual conference and the majority approval of its central conference. Local churches and clergy in that annual conference desiring to remain United Methodist could do so, with provision made by the central conference for a continuing UM presence where desired.

This much shorter and less laborious process would allow annual conferences outside the U.S. to determine where their most faithful future of ministry lies. They would not be forced to remain in a denomination that has changed its teachings in ways they cannot support. And they would not be subject to the uncertainty of a years-long process that may or may not bring about their disaffiliation.

Local Church Disaffiliation

The Coalition is supporting a proposed new Par. 2553 to allow local churches to disaffiliate, both outside and in the U.S. It would maintain the current requirements of Par. 2553 for two years’ apportionments and payment of pension liabilities. But it would prevent annual conferences from imposing additional financial costs on the disaffiliating church. It would also clarify the timelines for churches to disaffiliate, so that annual conferences cannot impose lengthy disaffiliation processes designed to discourage disaffiliation.

This new Par. 2553 would provide a realistic possibility for local churches to disaffiliate where they have not had the opportunity to do so. It would allow local churches outside the U.S. whose annual conference does not disaffiliate to make the decision that over 7,500 local churches in the U.S. have made.

In a recent fundraising piece for “Mainstream UMC,” the Rev. Mark Holland – self-proclaimed centrist – writes, “Seriously, in this day and age, what organization stays together through coercion?” We agree. Churches should not be forced to remain United Methodist if they do not want to do so. The failure to allow non-U.S. churches to disaffiliate and the imposition of draconian costs on churches in the U.S. amounts to coercion. A coerced covenant is no real covenant at all. A coerced and unfair remainder of churches in the UM denomination is not healthy or good for a denomination that wants to move in a different direction. Hopefully, the 2024 General Conference delegates will consider fairness and provide the needed opportunities for realistic disaffiliation that have been lacking outside the U.S. and in some conferences in the U.S. Future historians and a watching world will see if they do the right thing.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo by Pexels.  

“Mainstream UMC” Condemns Nigerian Bishop

“Mainstream UMC” Condemns Nigerian Bishop


“Mainstream UMC” Condemns Nigerian Bishop

By Thomas Lambrecht

​​​​​​​In a recent fundraising piece, the self-identified centrist caucus group “Mainstream UMC” condemned the United Methodist bishop of Nigeria, Bishop John Wesley Yohanna. Its principal accusation was that Bishop Yohanna made a public statement on TV in which he “lied about the African delegates who gathered recently in Tanzania, saying they support gay marriage.” It alleges he did so “in an effort to intimidate his delegates” and by doing so “putting people’s well-being at risk to support his political agenda of taking the Nigerian church out of the UMC and into the GMC.”

A recent meeting of some African General Conference delegates and other members issued a statement supporting regionalization and opposing disaffiliation for the church in Africa. Bishop Yohanna apparently made his public statement in response to reports about that meeting, reassuring the Nigerian church and public that the church in Nigeria opposes both regionalization and same-sex marriage.

Mainstream UMC leads the story by asking its readers to “please forward this email to your Bishop and demand that the Council of Bishops take immediate action against Bishop Yohanna.” This is plainly an attempt to support Mainstream UMC’s allies in Nigeria who are actively working against Bishop Yohanna’s authority as bishop (see more details below). It is also highly ironic that Mainstream UMC is attacking a traditionalist bishop in Nigeria who has not violated the Discipline, while previously defending two bishops in the Western Jurisdiction that are ineligible (according to the Book of Discipline and a Judicial Council decision) to serve as bishops due to being in same-sex marriages.

Inaccurate Allegations

Anyone who watches the TV clip of Bishop Yohanna’s statement can clearly see that Yohanna never said that the Tanzania delegates support gay marriage. In Yohanna’s words, “Some years back, some groups within the church have been advocating same-sex marriage. For some of us, this is unbiblical and also is incompatible with church teaching according to our Book of Discipline, which is the laws [sic] of the church.” He went on to state that the United Methodist Church in Nigeria says no to same-sex marriage.

It was actually the news reporters – not Bishop Yohanna – who stated that the delegates in Tanzania were supporters of same-sex marriage. We should all be able to agree that Bishop Yohanna cannot be held responsible for what they said.

Further, it should be clarified that while a previous meeting of the United Methodist Africa Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa, supported changing the definition of marriage to allow for same-sex marriage, the delegates and members meeting in Tanzania voted to retain the current definition of marriage between one man and one woman. That is an important distinction.

The only mention Yohanna made of the delegates in Tanzania was to allege that they were taught at the meeting by caucus groups supporting regionalization how to vote at the 2024 General Conference. He emphatically stated that the Nigerian United Methodist Church “says ‘no’ to regionalization.” The truth of the bishop’s statement was confirmed earlier this week when nearly 1,000 delegates at a special session of the Nigerian annual conferences unanimously voted to oppose regionalization.

There is no doubt there were presentations made by representatives of the caucus groups in Tanzania advocating for the church to adopt regionalization. According to the announced results of the meeting, those Africans present agreed with the caucus groups in favor of regionalization. Undoubtedly, the caucus groups explained that if the African delegates present wanted to support regionalization, there were certain petitions they would need to support. That is a legitimate lobbying activity.

But it is important to note that not all those present were General Conference delegates, nor did the delegates present represent a majority of all African General Conference delegates. One cannot therefore take the Tanzania statement as representative of all African delegates. It is certainly the prerogative of the Nigerian bishop to argue publicly against regionalization as a counter to that meeting.

Certainly, nothing that Bishop Yohanna stated was of a nature to “put people’s well-being at risk.” He did not name personally any of the delegates who attended the Tanzania meeting. He did not call for any form of action or retribution against those delegates. Mainstream UMC’s urgent tone and strident call for Council of Bishops action against Bishop Yohanna is an uncalled for attempt to undermine the bishop, his ministry, and his authority.

Other False Allegations

The Mainstream UMC fundraiser also alleges that the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Global Methodist Church, is portrayed in video footage during the newscast because he was in Nigeria to “actively work with Bishop Yohanna for the church in Nigeria to leave the UMC.” The news footage was actually taken during the recent centennial celebration of United Methodism in Nigeria – a full month prior to the meeting in Tanzania. This was Boyette’s first and only trip to Nigeria, and he was there as an invited guest to help celebrate the centennial, along with many United Methodist officials, political dignitaries, and representatives of other denominations. He was not there to lobby the Nigerian church to join the GMC.

Long ago, Bishop Yohanna made it clear that, if the Book of Discipline changed to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBT persons, he would withdraw from the UM Church, and he believed that most of the Nigerian church would withdraw, as well. It did not take Boyette’s presence at a centennial celebration to prompt such a course of action on Yohanna’s part.

The Mainstream UMC piece casts other aspersions on Yohanna meant to undermine him.

It refers to the fact that Bishop Yohanna’s election was challenged in 2012 by some Nigerians before the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council declined to rule because no official body of the church had requested a declaratory decision. The Council of Bishops argued in its brief that “John Wesley Yohanna was ‘validly nominated and elected as a bishop of the West Africa Central Conference.’” Yohanna was elected unanimously out of three candidates by the 57 delegates who cast ballots at the central conference meeting. Thirteen delegates who believed Yohanna was improperly nominated boycotted the meeting. The Council of Bishops stated, “While the resulting boycott by 13 delegates from two annual conferences may have had some impact on the eventual vote totals distributed among the three candidates, there is nothing decisively evident that the outcome of the balloting would have changed the results of the election. Nor is there evidence that any attempt was made during the balloting process to challenge the legitimacy of the election by the West Africa Central Conference.”

The group of challengers was led by the Rev. Philip Micah Dopah, who eventually led a breakaway movement in southern Nigeria that is no longer part of The United Methodist Church, despite many efforts by Bishop Yohanna to resolve the split. One of the issues in the election was tribal identity and the unwillingness to accept a bishop of another tribe. There is no question that Bishop Yohanna was fairly nominated and fairly elected as bishop.

Mainstream UMC also alleges that Bishop Yohanna “worked with the civil authorities in 2021 in Nigeria to jail four members of his clergy.” This is not true.

From a Nigerian clergyperson, Good News received an article from WAX-FAITH Magazine that extensively quotes DSP David Misal, Deputy Superintendent of Police and the Police Public Relations Officer in Jalingo – the capital city of Taraba State in north-eastern Nigeria. In the article, Misal states the four were invited to the police station as part of an investigation into complaints that they were “instigating members of the Church against others, setting division, causing violence among members of the Church and training others to cause violence.” The four came voluntarily and peacefully for police interviews. The article states that, unfortunately, “at the arrival at the Police Headquarters they secretly took photographs of the Police Headquarters gate … and other sensitive locations within the Police Headquarters and attached it with a written complaint and forwarded it to United Methodist Council of Bishops alleging that the police is [sic] been used and paid by Bishop John Wesley Yohanna to harass and torture them.” The four were then charged with spying because taking the photographs was illegal.

According to the article, the police spokesperson stated that, “the Police Command consider the complaints of the clergymen as false misleading and a deliberate attempt to portray the image of the Police in a bad light, as such the Police were professional courteous and civil in handling the case.” The spokesperson “further debunked claims making the rounds that Bishop John Wesley Yohanna was responsible for the trial of the accused persons.”

Missing Context

It is important to note that the group raising concerns in Nigeria is led by the Rev. Ande I. Emmanuel, who was once the secretary of the conference and a trusted aide of Bishop Yohanna. Emmanuel turned against Yohanna and for the last three years has refused an appointment by the bishop. He and his group have been recruiting churches and pastors to defy Bishop Yohanna’s leadership. Those churches have refused to pay their conference apportionments and clergy have refused appointments from the bishop. Emmanuel has announced his own intention to run for bishop, if the General Conference grants an additional bishop to Nigeria, as proposed.

This group has also been holding alternative annual conference meetings with their own delegates, claiming to be the rightful United Methodist Church of Nigeria. As noted in the above article reporting from the police, the group has been accused of fomenting violence. In one incident, a gang of “thugs” invaded a conference youth event and attacked participants, inflicting injuries. Police responded and arrested twelve suspects and recovered weapons. The suspects are being prosecuted for assault.

Complaints were filed by conference leaders against Emmanuel and his group, who in turn filed complaints against Bishop Yohanna. There was a just resolution of the dueling complaints in 2023, but it is apparent that Emmanuel and his group are still not willing to accept the authority of Bishop Yohanna, in accordance with the just resolution. The fundraiser from Mainstream UMC can be seen as part of an ongoing attempt by this group to undermine Bishop Yohanna’s ministry and ruin his reputation. Readers should not accept unchallenged the inaccurate and false allegations that the Mainstream UMC piece makes against Bishop Yohanna.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo: Nigeria Area Bishop John Wesley Yohanna is joined by the Rev. Jolly T. Nyame, former governor of Taraba state and onetime director of connectional ministries for The United Methodist Church in Nigeria, during a commissioning service for a new emergency ward at Jalingo United Methodist Hospital in Jalingo, Nigeria. Photo by Ezekiel Ibrahim, UM News.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Downsides of Regionalization

Downsides of Regionalization

Downsides of Regionalization

By Thomas Lambrecht

The last Perspective spoke about the unfairness of “regionalization” in its treatment of Africa and other parts of the church outside the U.S. As I wrote, “The top agenda item for the 2024 General Conference in April for most progressives is to adopt ‘regionalization’ as the new mode of United Methodist governance. This proposal would be a dramatic shift in how the UM Church functions. …”

Once again, the regionalization proposal is similar to the U.S. central conference proposal that passed General Conference in 2008 but was overwhelmingly defeated by annual conferences in 2009. It would set up the U.S. as its own regional conference, along with three regional conferences in Europe, three in Africa, and one in the Philippines.

​​​​​​​There are other downsides to consider.

Regionalization Rationale

The rationale for regionalization is to allow each geographic region of the church to adapt specified provisions of the Discipline to fit the missional needs of its region. There is also the argument that many of the resolutions on social issues that General Conference addresses relate mainly to the United States and are not of interest to the rest of the global church. Creating a U.S. regional conference would allow the U.S. delegates to issue specific resolutions or take positions on issues that are U.S.-centric without the need for other delegates to participate in discussions that do not concern them.

On the surface, it may seem like the regionalization idea makes sense. Greater flexibility to adapt the rules of the church to meet the needs of each region could make the church’s mission more effective. It seems that the Discipline has moved in the direction of micro-managing the life and work of the church over the past 20 years, not just in the area of sexual morality, but in many other ways, as well. Do we really need 850 pages of rules to run the church by?

One approach to this problem would be to make the rules in the Discipline more general and flexible, so that different cultural contexts could function equally well within the same framework without needing to adapt any of the provisions. This is the approach taken by the new Global Methodist Church Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline.

The other approach is to have a general Book of Discipline that governs some of the functions of the church, while then allowing each region to pass its own Discipline to govern the functions of the church in that region. However, there are some philosophical problems with that approach, as well as some practical problems.

Weakening the Connection

Methodism has always understood itself to be governed by a unique form of polity called “connectionalism.” It started with John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who oversaw the growing Methodist movement through all the preachers who were “in connection” with him. There was the emphasis on personal relationship, along with accountability, as the preachers met annually to determine “what to teach, how to teach, and what to do.” Decisions were made corporately (although heavily influenced by Wesley during his lifetime) and governed the actions of all the Methodist societies in connection with Wesley.

Following the regionalization approach runs the risk of beginning to undo the connection that binds all United Methodists together. Wesley identified that Methodists share a common doctrine, a common discipline, and a common spirit that binds us together. Theoretically, visiting a Methodist church anywhere one would find the same doctrines being preached, and same method of operating as a church, and the same spirit bringing unity to the body.

Importantly, the regionalization proposal keeps doctrine and the Social Principles as part of the general Discipline that applies to all United Methodists. However, the proposal also opens the various regions to have different levels of accountability for our common doctrine, codifying what exists today in a rather lax approach toward doctrinal accountability in some parts of the church.

Other aspects of the church’s life and ministry that really are of significance for our connection are also given adaptability. This includes clergy standards, qualifications for lay membership and leadership, and worship rituals. When these connectional items begin diverging from one region to another, it weakens the connection we have as United Methodists. Important areas of church life that were once decided by General Conference for all United Methodists would now be decided differently for each region of the church.

The ultimate end of such a process of disconnection could be that United Methodism becomes an association of regional or national churches, each one different from the other and having its own way of doing church. We could end up as more of a communion than a denomination. It could be similar to the Anglican Communion that has an Anglican denomination in each country overseen by an archbishop, but where the various national churches function quite differently from each other and have different standards, rules, and even beliefs.

Practical Challenges

Some of the practical consequences of regionalization could include:

    • Clergy may not be able to easily transfer from one region to another if the qualifications and standards for ordination are different. Currently there are many African clergy serving in the U.S. That ability might be limited in the future if the qualifications for being ordained in an African conference differ significantly from those in the U.S.
    • Local church membership could mean different things in different regions. Some regions could require extensive probationary periods before becoming a member and exhibit strict accountability to behavior standards for members, compared to other regions that have a “y’all come” approach to membership.
    • Each region would have its own accountability process. We have seen, especially in Africa, how the current accountability process is not being followed properly. A few bishops are excommunicating lay members and defrocking clergy without any due process, completely contrary to the Discipline. If the accountability process (including investigations and trials) is removed from the general Discipline, one can imagine how the rule of law would go out the window in certain areas and bishops would become dictators, to the detriment of the church’s life and ministry.
    • The current practice of holding bishops accountable only within their region has not worked. Regionalization would codify that practice and make it even more difficult to ensure that bishops behave with integrity, respecting due process and the rights of clergy.
    • With the ability to have different chargeable offenses in different regions, clergy will be held accountable to different standards. What is not allowed in one region could be perfectly legal in another. These unequal standards not only create inconsistency as to what is expected of clergy across the church, but they could occasion resentment between clergy of different regions who are treated differently. Again, it undermines the connection.
    • United Methodist bishops are bishops of the whole church, not just their episcopal area. But opening the legal possibility of having openly gay bishops means they could participate in meetings and events in countries where homosexuality is against the law. Will bishops be redefined as only regional bishops, able to serve only within their region? Regionalization raises problems with having a general episcopacy.

Inconsistent Identity

What does it mean to be United Methodist? Already, there is confusion and inconsistency between different local churches who claim the same name but teach a different theology and practice Methodism differently. Regionalization will only accelerate the inconsistency of identity. The United Methodist “brand” will suffer a loss of identity.

For traditionalists in Africa and elsewhere, the worst consequence is that they will be tagged for being part of a denomination that performs same-sex weddings and has openly gay clergy and bishops, even if that does not happen in their particular region. This poses a grave threat to the mission of the church where the practice of homosexuality is illegal or where the church is under pressure from a militant Islam seeking to discredit Christianity. What affects United Methodist identity in one region affects that identity in all regions. And each region affected is powerless to change that reality.

Regionalization sounds good until one begins to unpack the intended and unintended consequences. At the very least, it would mark a dramatic shift in how The United Methodist Church functions as a denomination. It is being done at the behest of promoting LGBTQ equality and cementing control by the American part of the church of its own affairs. Delegates should think long and hard before taking such a drastic step.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock​​​​​​​.