Giving Thanks (Even Now) –
By Shannon Vowell –
This is the first Thanksgiving in my adult life when the scripture verse that most accurately describes our collective mood seems to be Matthew 10:34-36.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Enmity dominates. From the profound evils of attempted genocide and ongoing war internationally, to the more plebian peevishness of home-grown politicians, the world is living up to its reputation for worldliness.
If only it were “just” the world!
Methodist schism, that necessary but excruciating process of separation, has put both profound evils and plebian peevishness on display in the Church – and Methodists of all stripes are the walking wounded.
As we stagger toward Thanksgiving, temptations abound: Deny the undeniably grim status quo and put on a good show for the sake of faux festivity. Embrace the cynical pessimism of the zeitgeist (implicitly implying Christ isn’t big enough for these problems). Duke it out with whomever still has energy to fight. Etc.
Such temptations, while understandable, exacerbate the misery that inspires them.
Where to turn for alternatives?
Blessedly, Jesus doesn’t just offer us an accurate description of our sorry situation. He also offers us a bridge to beyond the heaviness of the present moment. The bridge, of course, is himself.
In Matthew 5:11-12, he says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In Luke 21:19, he says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
In John 16:33, he says, “In the world you face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world!”
This aspect of discipleship is not our favorite. It contradicts the prosperity gospel and undermines the American Dream and inverts all our wishful thinking about waking up in Heaven after a pleasant and painless life. But because Jesus so accurately predicts our need for endurance and courage, it’s wise to not just believe him – but to receive what he offers by way of sustenance for the battle.
In John 4:14, Jesus promises refreshment. “… those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
In John 10:11, Jesus promises protection. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
In Matthew 11:28 – 30, Jesus promises rest. “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Claiming those blessings from Jesus doesn’t instantly transform the troubles of our times, but it does transform us – even as we navigate those troubles. He replaces our lack with his lavishness. He lifts our burdens so we can stand tall to praise him. He shines his light into those dark corners, and in that shining he banishes the demons of doubt and despair.
It may be helpful to remember that the first Thanksgiving officially celebrated as a national holiday occurred in the middle of the bloody, bitter Civil War – a conflict which still holds the dubious distinction of costing more American lives than any other. In November of 1863, Lincoln enjoined an exhausted, traumatized, demoralized nation:
“It has seemed to me fit and proper that (God’s mercies) should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
If we had nothing else for which to praise him, God’s mercies would be more than enough.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “For our slight, momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen, for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
The approach of Thanksgiving this year need not be “one more thing” to endure. If we rest in our Savior and recall the example of the Great Emancipator, we can be empowered to live into a national holiday as citizens of Heaven – and what glory to our King that kind of witness generates!
Paul’s pragmatic advice on the “how” of this witnessing gives us a step-by-step manual, easier (by far) than the checklist most turkey feasts require.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
May we be fueled by our faith this holiday season, that others might be encouraged by glimpses of Christ in us.
Shannon Vowell, a frequent contributor to Good News, blogs at shannonvowell.com. She is the author of Beginning … Again: Discovering and Delighting in God’s Plan for your Future, available on Amazon. Photo: Shutterstock
The Marks of a Methodist 4: Mission –
By Thomas Lambrecht –
We have been examining what it means to be a Methodist in honor of John Wesley’s tract, The Character of a Methodist, but following a modern version of those ideas in Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s 1960 book, The Marks of a Methodist. We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love. In the previous article, we noted the mark of Discipline, a focused and structured effort toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Today we consider the fourth mark, Mission. It could be said of Methodism in general what our pastors say of the local church I attend: “Missions is the heartbeat of our church.” Mission has an outward focus, without which the church turns inward and begins to die.
Kennedy quotes Wesley: “God, in Scripture, commands me, according to my power, to instruct the ignorant, reform the wicked, confirm the virtuous. Man forbids me to do this in another’s parish; that is, in effect, to do it not at all, seeing I have now no parish of my own, nor probably ever shall. Whom then shall I hear? God or man? … I look upon all the world as my parish.”
Methodists throughout our history have admitted no limit to where we should go to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of people.
Kennedy writes, “Sometimes I think the Great Commission was given with the Methodists in mind. For if there has ever been a Church with the word ‘go’ at the center of its life, it is The Methodist Church.”
The need to go sent John Wesley an estimated 250,000 miles by horseback throughout his life and ministry, mostly in the British Isles. That same motivation led Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism in America, to travel an estimated 270,000 miles by horseback in this country. Asbury was so insistent upon traveling to preach the Gospel and oversee the clergy and churches that historian John Wigger has written, “more people would recognize Asbury on the street than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington,” the famous leaders who lived during the same time.
It was the call to go where the people were that led Methodists to adopt the ministry model of itinerant evangelists and preachers called “circuit riders.” Every six months (and then later, every year) the circuit rider was appointed to a new circuit, or route of towns and churches, on which he rode, preaching and baptizing, performing weddings and funerals. Wherever he went, the circuit rider was establishing new churches. As the frontier in America moved west, the circuit riders moved along with it, always staying on the cutting edge of the country’s growth.
This impetus to go into all the world and preach the Gospel motivated Methodists to be some of the staunchest supporters and participants in the modern missionary movement. Beginning in the early 1800s, thousands of missionaries went to all the continents and countries of the world, establishing schools, hospitals, orphanages, and planting churches.
Today, one can get a sense of going into mission by taking a short-term mission trip, serving on mission projects in the U.S. and other parts of the world. While short-term mission trips bring help and encouragement to the mission field, they more profoundly impact the missioner with the life-changing awareness that God is at work in all places and all cultures. Taking such a trip opens one up to being used by the Lord in new ways to serve others. For many, this experience is transformative.
The need to go where the people are and where the needs are can mean local church members getting outside the walls of the church to serve. It might mean going to the other side of town or into neighborhoods that are different from one’s own. Taking risks and carrying the ministry of the Gospel out to the people of the community is the essence of mission, exemplified by the Apostle Paul and millions of other Christians ever since.
Mission is born of love – love for God played out in love for others, in response to God’s love for us. That love extends not only to the heart and soul of a person, but to the body, mind, family, and every other part of the person. Kennedy reminds us, “There has never been any willingness to believe that any part of life is beyond the reach of our faith. From the beginning we have had a concern for the physical conditions of life. … The Gospel deals with all of life because it comes to heal the whole [person]. The Bible knows nothing about partial religion, and it has no tendency to divide life into compartments. The goal is a Kingdom in which [each person] will be a citizen under the government of God. So, we may begin where we will and go in any direction, but if Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, we will travel straight toward human need. We will soon be involved in solving human problems and making life better for all.”
Our goal as Methodist Christians is to seek the welfare of all people in the name of Christ. That is why Methodists have been in the forefront of establishing schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, farms, and other social service agencies. That is why Methodists have felt called to advocate for policy changes like the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and the ending of child labor in the 20th century.
Where Methodists have often agreed on the “what” of human need, we have sometimes disagreed on the “how” to meet that need. It is important to acknowledge the validity of different strategies to combat social ills like prostitution, drug addiction, human trafficking, world peace, and crime. When the church limits itself to one approach, it runs the risk of being wedded to an ideology, whether liberal or conservative, rather than focusing on the Gospel and practical love of neighbor. The church is at its best when it goes out to meet the needs of people directly. It is less effective and sometimes harms itself when it ventures into the political arena and begins playing by the rules of advocacy and activism.
Even worse is when the church comes to believe that passing resolutions or governmental laws is the sum total of social concern. Kennedy warns, “The world must be changed, but in the hearts of [people]. There is no system that can do it and laws are poor weak things when you are trying to change society. Wars can stop some things from happening, but they cannot build the new life. What a limited thing is force and how inadequate is money! But God has entrusted to us His love and power to conquer our sin and redeem our wills.”
The transformation of the world comes through the transformation of individual lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the power of political rallies or governmental edicts. But much of that individual transformation happens when people see the love of God in Christ displayed in our loving outreach to minister to human needs. That is the essence of mission.
Individual transformation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. That requires evangelism to be a central part of missions. Kennedy states, “When the Gospel is a living experience, there is no need to talk about evangelism. For to share that experience both consciously and unconsciously is inescapable.”
Living a life of love and caring for others opens the door to relationship. In the context of that relationship, one can then share “the reason for the hope that [we] have” (I Peter 3:15). And certainly, we can use the relationship to invite people to accompany us to church, where they can experience the Gospel in that setting.
Foremost on our minds should be our striving to live a life that is congruent with our message. A life that does not display the grace of God and his love for all the world will not be a great advertisement for the truth of our message of redemption through Jesus Christ. It has been said that you and I may be the only Bible a non-Christian will ever read (at least until they get interested in finding out more about Jesus). On the other hand, Kennedy cites a story about a meeting of college students where one student asked, “What is Christianity anyway?” The response was, “Why Christianity is Oscar Westover” – the name of a Christian believer known to the group. “I love those quiet Christians who move among their friends like a judgment and a benediction,” observed Kennedy. “They are witnesses and evangelists.” Our lives can embody the message we proclaim and be the walking definition of what it means to be a Christian.
Kennedy writes, “There is no joy to compare with bringing Christ to another. The Church has bestowed on me many honors, but nothing compares with the privilege it gives me to call [people] into its saving fellowship.”
Kennedy concludes, “Any church must be missionary in spirit, or it dies. But this is particularly true for Methodism because its whole spirit and polity are not proper for a finished institution. We must march or lose our life.” I wonder if modern Methodism has domesticated the spirit of early Methodism and created that “finished institution” that Kennedy thought we had not attained. That “finished institution” can become a museum piece to be preserved and admired, rather than a vehicle for mission. That way lies the death of the church. May we recover the missionary spirit of early Christianity and of early Methodism. For this God has raised us up!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. A woman has her eyes examined by a medical attendant while other patients sit waiting in line at Gwandum Clinc in Nigeria. Photo by the Rev. Ande I. Emmanuel, UMNS.
Judicial Council (Partly) Faces Reality –
By Thomas Lambrecht –
In a recent decision, the Judicial Council has partly walked back their earlier resolution that the 2020 General Conference was not cancelled, only postponed. Unfortunately, this walk-back comes too late to remedy the unfair treatment it extended to our African brothers and sisters.
Postponed or Cancelled?
In Decision 1451, issued last December, the Judicial Council declared, “No provision in [t]he Discipline authorizes the cancellation of a regular session of General Conference or the annulment of elections properly conducted by an annual conference. The next meeting scheduled for 2024 is designated as the postponed 2020 General Conference.” This decision was prompted by requests for declaratory decision by Kenya-Ethiopia, Western Pennsylvania, and Alaska Annual Conferences.
This decision repeated the language of postponement adopted by the Commission on the General Conference and in Judicial Council decisions 1409, 1410, and 1429. In stating that the Discipline did not provide for the cancellation of a General Conference, the Judicial Council ignored the fact that the Discipline does not provide for the postponement of a General Conference, either.
In addition, the Council misidentified the years of a quadrennium. The UM quadrennium begins the year after the General Conference session. So, the General Conference met in regular session in 2016, and the ensuing quadrennium was from 2017-2020. The next regular General Conference was to meet in 2020, with the ensuing quadrennium running from 2021-2024. Instead, the Council referred to “the delegates duly elected to the 2020 General Conference for the 2020-2024 Quadrennium.” That is actually a five-year period, not a quadrennium. The Council correctly identified the quadrennium in their Decision 1409, when they ruled, “The General Conference has full legislative authority in matters of quadrennial budgets and apportionment formulas and acted accordingly in 2016 by adopting the 2017-2020 budget.” The same year (2020) cannot be part of two different quadrennia!
By postponing the 2020 General Conference, there was actually no regular General Conference session during the 2017-2020 quadrennium, only the special session of 2019. The requirement that the General Conference meet “once in four years” was already violated by that first postponement. It will in fact be eight years between sessions of the General Conference, which is certainly a violation of the Discipline.
There is no question that the General Conference could not meet as scheduled in 2020, or even in 2021. There was great controversy over the postponement of the General Conference from 2022 until 2024. That did not need to happen and appeared to be driven by concerns other than logistical ones. By that time, centrists and progressives were having second thoughts about the Protocol, and they wanted to keep the more progressive delegation that was elected for the 2020 General Conference. The third postponement killed the Protocol, launched the Global Methodist Church, facilitated wholesale disaffiliations in the U.S., and cleared the way for a progressive agenda for the UM Church.
Unfair to Africa
By calling it a “postponed” session of General Conference, rather than a “cancelled” session, the same delegates elected for 2020 would be able to serve in 2024. It would also mean that there would be no reallocation of delegates, as there would normally have been for the 2024 conference. Delegates were allocated on the basis of 2016 membership numbers, instead of using the 2020 membership numbers. This resulted in an underrepresentation of African members by fifteen percent of their delegation. Where they should have had at least 320 delegates in 2024, they remain at the previous 278. Most of those 42 delegates now represent the U.S., rather than being reallocated to Africa. One could construe this decision as reflecting a U.S.-centric mindset.
An Extra General Conference Session
The Judicial Council compounded its misinterpretation in Decision 1472. In response to a series of questions from the Council of Bishops, the Judicial Council ruled, “The Commission on the General Conference is required to schedule and plan for a regular session of General Conference to be convened after the adjournment of the postponed 2020 General Conference, between January 1, 2025 and December 31, 2027.”
Given that a regular General Conference costs around $10 million, and even a shorter session would cost at least $7 million, the requirement of an extra General Conference was a huge unfunded mandate by the Judicial Council. It is worth noting that four of the nine Council members dissented publicly from this decision.
With those financial considerations in mind, the General Council on Finance and Administration requested the Judicial Council to reconsider its decision to mandate an extra General Conference session.
Now in the just released Decision 1485, the Judicial Council has rescinded its requirement for an extra session of the General Conference. The next “regular session of the General Conference that is to be convened following the upcoming 2024 regular session, would be held four years thereafter, in 2028” (emphasis original).
In making this change, the Council adopted some of the language and logic of the dissenting opinion in Decision 1472.
Delegate Elections Remain Unchanged
Predictably, the Council left intact its ruling that the delegates elected in 2019 to the 2020 General Conference remain the delegates to serve for the 2024 session of the General Conference. However, in this recent decision, they appear to have changed their reasons for doing so.
Decision 1451 states, “Cancelling or skipping the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections to be held would be tantamount to overturning the results of the 2019 elections and disenfranchising the clergy and lay members of an annual conference who voted in good faith. It would also deprive delegates of their right to be seated and serve at the session of General Conference for which they were duly elected. There is no basis in Church law for such course of action.”
Of course, there is no basis in Church law for any of the other actions the Judicial Council took to deal with the pandemic emergency. They chose which emergency actions to sanction, such as allowing the postponement of the 2020 General Conference, and which ones to deny, such as cancelling the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections.
Their rationale in Decision 1451 appears to be, that for the sake of democracy and honoring the elections that took place in 2019, those delegates must be enabled to serve. Again, many of these delegates will not be serving four years later due to death, change of status from lay to clergy, or withdrawal from the denomination (among other reasons). It seems fruitless to preserve the sacredness of the 2019 elections, when many annual conferences needed to hold supplemental elections this year to fill vacancies in the delegation.
Now in Decision 1485, the rationale for maintaining the 2020 delegates appears to have changed. The decision states, “The reason for this determination … is that the names of all those persons who were elected to serve as General Conference delegates in 2020 were duly submitted in a certified report, by their Annual Conference Secretary, to the General Conference Secretary who was then prepared to issue the credentials for said persons. … the names of all of the duly elected delegates had been certified and submitted to the General Conference Secretary” (emphasis original).
In other words, the reason for keeping the 2020 delegates is “paperwork.” The names had already been submitted and certified. Therefore, we must keep those names. Again, most delegations will have experienced a significant turnover of delegates since 2020 and new lists of delegates will need to be submitted by the annual conferences.
There is no reason why new elections could not be held, since supplemental elections were indeed held this year. There is no reason why new delegates could not be certified, since in many cases new delegates are being certified this year. The only reason for keeping the 2020 delegates was because the Judicial Council declared that it must be so.
At Last – Cancellation
Hidden in the rationale for keeping the 2020 delegates, the Judicial Council has finally admitted that the 2020 General Conference was cancelled, not postponed. “… the global pandemic triggered travel bans and international restrictions and thereby necessitated the cancellation of the regular session of the General Conference that was scheduled to convene in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020.” It would have been much simpler had the Judicial Council faced this reality in 2021, when it first issued rulings on the fact that the 2020 General Conference could not be held. Unfortunately, this belated acknowledgement of reality comes too late to rectify the injustice done to the African part of the denomination.
This decision by judicial fiat deprived the African part of the church from its fair representation. It also deprived the whole church of having delegates who reflect the current thinking and desires of annual conferences. A lot has changed in the past four years. Yet the delegates serving at the 2024 General Conference will have been elected under the conditions of 2019 (before the pandemic, before postponement, before disaffiliation) and may not reflect the best current views of the annual conferences.
It is unfortunate that, over the past several years, the Judicial Council has become a legislative body making decisions on behalf of the whole church that only the General Conference can make. At the same time, the Council of Bishops has assumed similar powers to stand in for the General Conference that was not allowed to meet, making such decisions as deciding Par. 2553 did not apply outside the U.S.
This troubling trend establishes precedents that do not bode well for the future of United Methodism. For non-representative bodies to assume powers that are not theirs will diminish the power of the General Conference and of the annual conferences to act in the future. Coupled with the willingness of some bishops and annual conferences to outright ignore or defy the Discipline, these developments spell the potential for chaos in the future governing of the denomination.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Good News graphic.
The Marks of a Methodist 3: Discipline –
By Thomas Lambrecht –
This series of articles has been looking at the marks of a Methodist, as expounded by Bishop Gerald Kennedy in 1960. How has the expression of Methodism changed or remained the same in the last 60 years? We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love.
The third mark Kennedy points to is Discipline. He quotes John Wesley’s Journal from August 17, 1750: “Through all Cornwall I find the societies have suffered great loss from want of discipline. Wisely said the ancients, ‘The soul and body make a man; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.’”
Discipline might be defined as focused and structured effort toward a goal. For a Christian, the goal is both personal holiness (experience) and pursuing the mission of God in the world (making a difference). In the mind of Wesley and Kennedy, the means to reach that goal is through discipline. Kennedy quotes Methodist Bishop Edwin D. Mouzon as saying, “Methodist discipline is as much a part of Methodism as Methodist doctrine.”
Kennedy illustrates this focused effort by how we spend our time. He quotes one of Wesley’s “Historic Questions” that have been propounded to every aspiring Methodist preacher since the 1750’s. “Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time. Neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary.”
These instructions strike us as somewhat obsessive. One wonders if Wesley ever took a vacation! Unrelenting effort is a recipe for burnout. There are occasions when it is appropriate to waste time. Certainly, the Sabbath principle points to the need for rest and restoration, both physically and spiritually.
On the other hand, many today lack focus and purpose in their lives. When we understand what we are to do with our lives, there needs to be focused time and effort to be faithful to that understanding. We will not accomplish what God has for us to do by sitting on a couch and playing video games. Part of making a difference is devoting our time and energy to those things that will result in making a difference. The more we can give that focused effort, the more we are able to accomplish.
Kennedy sums up his viewpoint, “One of the most serious sins is to waste time. God does not give us a more precious gift than the years of life which are made up of hours and minutes. I find myself more and more in harmony with Wesley’s acute sense of the importance of using every minute of every day with ‘sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,’ as Kipling said.”
Wesley’s General Rules
A primary way that discipline was manifested in the Methodist movement from its earliest days was through Wesley’s three General Rules. Kennedy reminds us that Wesley welcomed anyone with “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins” to be admitted to a Methodist society, “but once admitted, members either followed the rules or they were dismissed.”
The first rule states that Methodists will evidence their desire of salvation “by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind.” The examples given in the original rule include “profanity, breaking the Sabbath, drunkenness, fighting and quarreling, dishonesty, buying or selling without paying the tax, usury, speaking evil, doing anything that is not to God’s glory, self-indulgence, borrowing without the probability of repaying.” As Kennedy put it, “great living often begins with a resolution not to do some things which other people are doing. Many people have lost their moral standards because they have accepted the silly idea that a ‘thou shalt not’ is always wrong. Life is made noble by the people who dare to say No.”
The second rule is the flip side of the first. Methodists are to evidence their desire of salvation “by doing good in every possible way, and as far as possible to all.” We are to do good “to their bodies” by relieving physical needs of people and providing food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. We are to do good “to their souls” by engaging them spiritually, instructing and encouraging them to grow in faith. We are to do good “especially to them that are of the household of faith,” our brothers and sisters in Christ, favoring them in business and taking special care to minister to the needs of fellow Christians. Most importantly, we are to do good whether we feel like it or not!
Finally, the third rule is to evidence our desire for salvation “by attending upon all the ordinances of God.” These are: public worship, the ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, studying the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence. Kennedy affirms Wesley’s promotion of “holy habits” that build our spiritual lives. “[Wesley] was careful to dismiss those who fell away from their obligations, for he knew that such carelessness could destroy the societies. We are not a people under law but under grace. Still, we will lose our way unless we have guideposts and regulations.”
What strikes one is the systematic way that Wesley and Methodism pursues salvation and holiness. This important pursuit is not left to chance, but is carried out in intentional, methodical ways. Just as discipline focuses our use of time, it also focuses our efforts on doing good, avoiding evil, and engaging the spiritual disciplines, the means by which God has ordained for us to grow in likeness to Christ.
Methodism was characterized by the expectation that God would grow the Christian into spiritual perfection. As Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). As Wesley understood it, this does not mean perfect in the sense that we never make a mistake. Rather, it is a level of spiritual maturity whereby we are so filled with the love of God that we do not commit any intentional sin. A familiar saying among Methodists is that we are “going on to perfection.”
Most of us may never reach that goal in this life. Wesley himself never professed to have reached perfection. But if we stop striving toward it, we will settle for being much less than we could be.
These high expectations were manifested in an approach to church membership that was characterized by discipline. Kennedy states that of all the thousands of people who professed conversion in the great revivals on the American frontier, “probably not more than a fourth ended up as members [in the Methodist Church]. Candidates for church membership were carefully examined, taught, sifted. They had to attend classes and testify as to the condition of their souls. Nor was it unusual to have members dismissed for failing to live up the rules of the Methodist Church.”
This high expectation has been lost in many churches today, Methodist and otherwise. Studies in church growth over the years have shown that “high-expectation churches” tend to experience greater numerical growth, as well as (hopefully) greater spiritual maturity. The 1950’s before Kennedy wrote his book was a period of some of the highest church attendance in U.S. history. He alludes to the fact, however, that such a “return to church” had not had the equivalent expected impact on the culture of the time. “If the return to religion in our day has not resulted in the moral and spiritual renewal of our society, it is the fault of the churches. If we fail to make clear what Christianity demands, we need not be surprised if our members take the whole affair lightly. The Church only cheapens itself when it fails to make demands and hold up standards.”
Kennedy particularly singles out ministers for needing discipline in their lives. “True it is that our society has no more difficult profession than the ministry. Indeed, it is an impossible task as can be proved easily if you analyze what is expected from the minister by the congregation. No [one] is up to it. But it has always been true that no [one] can carry this load without divine help. The minister is driven back upon God if he [or she] is to ‘walk and not faint.’”
Indeed, this is true in a larger sense of all Christians. We are not able to live up to the high expectations God has for us. That is why we learn to depend upon God to grow us into that spiritual maturity, rather than thinking we can do it all on our own effort. Kennedy reminds us, “we never discover what God can do until our weakness drives us to Him.”
“The time has come when we must hold up The Methodist Church as something that demands the best and insists on discipline. … The Methodist Church has had its great periods of power and influence which were always times of witnessing. We still worship the same Lord, and we believe the same doctrines. If we would accept the same discipline, we could expect the same mighty results. The essential mark of our Church is a disciplined, witnessing fellowship.”
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Art credit: John Wesley preaching in Ireland, 1789. Maria Spilsbury (1777-1820). John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism.
More “Mainstream” Misrepresentations –
By Thomas Lambrecht –
Last week’s Perspective addressed the arguments made by the “centrist” caucus group Mainstream UMC regarding the need for exit paths to be adopted by the 2024 General Conference. This week, I would like to respond to the factual errors and misrepresentations in the Mainstream article. It is important for historical purposes to set the record straight. And if readers are relying on Mainstream’s representations to guide their thinking on the future of the UM Church, it is important to correct those representations where they are in error. I speak as one who has been intimately involved in the cause of renewal for 30 years, was a member of the Commission on the Way Forward, and led the efforts of the Renewal and Reform Coalition at the 2019 General Conference.
How did Par. 2553 come to be?
The Mainstream article states about Par. 2553, “this is the paragraph that traditionalists wrote and adopted at General Conference 2019. It was their so-called ‘gracious exit,’ and it was intended for the ‘liberals’ to leave, not them.”
The original language of Par. 2553 was written and submitted by Leah Taylor, a centrist from the Texas Conference who was also a member of the Commission on a Way Forward. Options for disaffiliation were discussed by the Commission, but not included in its final report. Those discussions formed the basis for several petitions on disaffiliation, including the one by Taylor that become Par. 2553.
Traditionalists proposed amendments to the original language that did several things:
- Remove the requirement that a church undergo an assessment as to whether it had a viable future before being allowed to disaffiliate.
- Remove the section that allowed for a ten-year payment period for disaffiliation expenses and instead stipulate that payment had to occur before disaffiliation. (This was done because of concerns raised that offering a ten-year payment period could keep the trust clause in effect during those ten years.)
- Remove the requirement that all grants received in the previous five years should be repaid to the annual conference.
Those are the only changes that traditionalists made to the original centrist disaffiliation proposal. There was widespread agreement among the Commission members that pension liabilities needed to be cared for. Unfortunately, at the time we did not realize how high the cost of those liabilities would be.
The proposal for a disaffiliation process arose from the awareness that, whether the 2019 General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan or the One-Church Plan, there would be congregations that could not in good conscience remain in the denomination. The various disaffiliation proposals wanted to provide a uniform and straightforward process for such churches to depart.
The proponent of the traditionalist changes to the proposed Par. 2553, the Rev. Beth Ann Cook, summed it up in her speech for the changes. “Any church that discerns that because of today’s votes, they cannot faithfully live out the gospel would have an opportunity to have a fair process and to leave. The intended process is literally how I would want to be treated if I were the one hurting because of that.”
As it happened, the Traditional Plan passed, and traditionalists wanted to give Progressives who could not in good conscience abide by the Traditional Plan a way to graciously exit from the denomination. However, most were unwilling to take the gracious exit and instead decided to defy the decision of the General Conference and repudiate the Traditional Plan, while remaining United Methodist. That left the traditionalists as the only group that was willing to act on conscience to take the gracious exit provided by Par. 2553 in light of that defiance.
Unfortunately, one amendment that was supposed to be made to the paragraph by traditionalists was inadvertently left out. It was intended that we delete the ability of annual conferences to add requirements and payments to those already called for in Par. 2553. But that sentence was not deleted, and some annual conferences have taken advantage of that authority to make it nearly impossible for churches to disaffiliate in those conferences. That is why a new Par. 2553 is needed that levels the playing field and allows all churches to disaffiliate on the same terms.
Are renewal groups seeking to “harm our church?”
The Mainstream article alleges, “The trio of far-right advocacy groups have drafted and submitted legislation to the 2024 General Conference to not only extend the disaffiliation process, but to make it even easier. Further, these groups are committed to sabotaging regionalization and the removal of the harmful language if they do not get their way. They are working to harm our church on their way out the door.”
Good News, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and UM Action are not “far-right” groups. We represent the majority opinions and beliefs of United Methodism since the denomination’s formation in 1968. The fact that some centrists are labeling us “far-right” indicates how far left the center of United Methodism has moved. Trite name-calling solves nothing. That tells us that the “big tent” of United Methodism may not be big enough to include principled traditionalists, at least in the eyes of Mainstream UMC.
Legislation to extend the option of disaffiliation has been submitted by leaders in the Africa Initiative, an organization speaking for and equipping African church leaders. The only way disaffiliation is being made “easier” under the new proposed Par. 2553 is to make it a uniform process that applies in all annual conferences equally, both in the U.S. and abroad, and disallows the ability of any annual conference to impose draconian costs, fees, and expenses that artificially inflate the cost of disaffiliation to the point of impossibility.
The renewal groups are opposed to the concept of regionalization for several reasons. Allowing different regions of the church to have different policies and even teachings and standards (such as on marriage and human sexuality) could lead to a weakening of connectionalism, which we take to be a major characteristic of United Methodism. It is hypocritical to silence the voice and influence of the African part of the church just when it is getting to be of equal weight to the U.S. part of the church. Some of the stands it is anticipated that the U.S. part of the church will adopt will damage the mission and work of the church in Africa and elsewhere. These are principled reasons and concerns, not merely “sabotage” of the regionalization concept.
At the same time, the renewal groups have offered to drop our opposition to regionalization in exchange for centrists and progressives approving the proposed disaffiliation pathways. Thus far, such an exchange has been ruled off the table by centrists and progressives. If remaining traditionalists, including those in Africa and the Philippines, are blocked from disaffiliating, we are justified in continuing to weigh in on regionalization and other matters concerning the church we are still part of. That does not “harm our church on the way out the door.” Rather, it is exercising responsible stewardship of what it means to be a United Methodist member. If centrists and progressives want us not to “interfere” with the adoption of their agenda, it would behoove them to provide a fair and practical way for traditionalists to continue to disaffiliate.
It is further anticipated that centrists and progressives will have a clear majority of the delegates at the 2024 General Conference. Therefore, they should have no trouble removing what they call “harmful language” on marriage and sexuality. If it is not removed, it will be because of the failure of centrists and progressives to vote for it, not because traditionalists oppose it.
What is the motivation of the renewal groups?
The Mainstream article charges, “The motivation of the [renewal] groups is to grow their new denomination, the Global Methodist Church (GMC). To unpack this, it is helpful to remember that Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) are basically the same organization. Many individuals serve on both boards. They are housed at the same disaffiliated church in The Woodlands, Texas. Their PO Boxes are a few numbers apart, in the same mailroom.”
The Mainstream article misunderstands the relationship between Good News and the WCA. While we work as allies in support of the same causes, we are not “basically the same organization.” Of the 30 members of the WCA Global Council, only three of them serve on the Good News board, including Rob Renfroe and myself. Neither Good News nor the WCA are housed at a church. Good News has its rented offices in a building in The Woodlands, Texas. We also provide office space to the person who receives and processes donations for the WCA. But the WCA has no centralized office. The president lives in Illinois, the administrative secretary lives in Kentucky, and donations are processed here in Texas. And they have an African coordinator who lives in Zimbabwe! The WCA is truly a dispersed organization, with everyone working remotely! We also have our own separate donor bases and sources of funding, though they may overlap to some extent, consisting of like-minded people. Like any organizations that are allies, we communicate regularly and cooperate on areas of common interest, but we each have our own leadership, history, financial support, identity, and sphere of influence.
Our motivation is not “to grow [our] new denomination, the GMC.” Rather, as our tagline says, we seek to lead Methodists into a faithful future. Our goal is to be a voice for traditionalist Methodists and advocate for traditionalists having the opportunity to discern their most effective and fruitful future, whether it is to remain United Methodist, to become independent, or to join the GMC. Obviously, we hope that churches that disaffiliate will join the GMC or another Wesleyan denomination because we believe the term “independent Methodist” is an oxymoron. Connectionalism is in our DNA, and we need to be connected to one another for accountability and faithful discipleship and missions.
But we are out to build the Kingdom of God, not a particular denominational kingdom. You can judge for yourself whether this is “straight-up self-promotion,” as the Mainstream article alleges. It is mystifying how people who have virtually no contact with us can know for certain our motivations and discount our actual statements as “a smoke screen.”
It is also important to note that all these misrepresentations and allegations appear in a fundraising letter that asks for donations of “$5 to $5,000.” It seems hypocritical for Mainstream UMC to accuse renewal groups of self-promotion in a misdirected and misinformed fundraiser that promotes themselves.
It is fair to disagree and debate the relative merits of disaffiliation, the church’s definition of marriage, regionalization, or a host of other important issues. That dialogue is worth having, if it can shed light on the decisions the delegates will be making at the 2024 General Conference. In the process, however, it would be wise to refrain from character assassination, mischaracterizing motives, and downright factual misrepresentation. Such does not serve the purpose of “holy conferencing” and prayerful decision-making, nor does it belong in the interaction between brothers and sisters in Christ.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock
Why “Mainstream UMC” Is Wrong About Exit Paths –
By Thomas Lambrecht –
In an article riddled with factual errors and distortions, Mainstream UMC (the “centrist” caucus in the UM Church) called for “an end to disaffiliations through paragraph 2553.” They maintain that enough local churches have disaffiliated, and it is time to close the door on any more disaffiliations after the end of 2023.
They are wrong. There will continue to be a need for disaffiliation following the anticipated significant changes to be enacted by the 2024 General Conference in Charlotte.
Addressing Mainstream’s Reasoning
The article gives four main reasons for calling a halt to disaffiliations, all of which are specious.
- “There has been enough time.” The Mainstream article mentions the almost five years since Par. 2553 was adopted and states, “Any church that has not been aware of what is going on has been asleep at the wheel.”
Due to the Covid pandemic, churches have primarily been disaffiliating during the past two years. It is true that some churches have been “asleep at the wheel.” In other cases, pastors and district superintendents have prevented local churches from discussing disaffiliation or in some cases even knowing about their options.
However, lack of time is not the reason disaffiliation pathways are still needed. Simply extending the time on the current Par. 2553 will not be enough to correct the injustices plaguing this process. The reason some churches have not disaffiliated in the U.S. is the extra costs imposed by some annual conferences (see more below). The reason churches outside the U.S. have not been able to disaffiliate is because their bishops have prohibited them from using Par. 2553 at all! There may have been enough time for many churches in the U.S. to disaffiliate, but that does not mean there is no further need for a disaffiliation pathway.
- “Disinformation is rampant.” The Mainstream article alleges that “far-right advocacy groups have trumped up all kinds of nonsense to get people to leave. … A church may … be persuaded [to disaffiliate] by the continuing flow of false information. Extending the season for their disinformation is unacceptable.”
It is fascinating how groups that have represented the mainstream view of the UM Church from 1968 until 2019 are suddenly being called “far-right.” That is actually an indication of how far left the center of gravity of the U.S. church has moved. Trite name-calling solves nothing. That tells us that the “big tent” of United Methodism may not be big enough to include principled traditionalists, at least in the eyes of Mainstream UMC.
It is also amazing how often traditionalist renewal groups are accused of disseminating “disinformation,” without any specific examples to point to. The leaders of Good News, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), and UM Action have yet to be confronted with any specific instance where we have been factually incorrect. We espouse opinions and draw conclusions with which centrists and progressives disagree, but that is hardly “disinformation.” What is more, we generally attempt to back up our opinions and conclusions with reasons why we think the way we do. The Mainstream article just makes bald assertions without any evidence and expects their conclusions to be accepted.
Renewal ministries will continue to share information that is relevant for congregations to consider as they discern whether they truly fit within a more progressive UM Church, even though we are sometimes surprisingly hindered from doing so by denominational leaders. In every instance, representatives of the denomination have the unhindered ability to refute our perspective and present the case for remaining United Methodist. That conversation is an appropriate one to have, and allowing equal opportunities to present perspectives aids a local church in making an informed decision. Censoring the traditionalist perspective by calling it “disinformation” does not serve local churches well.
- “Other paths for departure are available.” The article maintains that “churches have, on occasion, left the UMC before Par. 2553 was available. … They still can.”
It is true that local churches have occasionally left the denomination before Par. 2553 was adopted. If a church was small and did not have valuable property, the conference would agree to let them go. This might happen once in ten years in an annual conference. I am aware of only a couple of large churches that were able to leave in this way. Sometimes, they were able to leave because the conference could not afford to assume the large debt on these churches’ property. However, now that dozens of churches want to leave, including churches having valuable property that could be sold to support the annual conference’s ministry, very few annual conferences are willing to let those churches go without a prescribed disaffiliation pathway.
Only two annual conferences have announced a specific policy for disaffiliation that will apply after December 31, 2023. And these policies depend upon the consent of the bishop (who in some cases will be new by the end of 2024) and the agreement of the annual conference. There is no certainty that even these annual conferences would allow large numbers of churches – or congregations that hold valuable property – to disaffiliate. A prescribed pathway in the Book of Discipline is the only sure thing, and even then, some UM leaders have found ways to create loopholes or ignore such provisions when they want to.
- “Fighting is unhealthy.” The article states, “just the act of taking the vote has divided churches across the United States. … We need to move from a conflict-centered church to a mission-centered church. … Extending the fight does not extend the Kingdom of God.”
There is no question that conflict in a church poses a challenge. If conflict is handled well, it can help a church’s ministry move forward. Handled poorly, conflict can devastate a congregation.
The same is true for a denomination. As the 2019 General Conference demonstrated, conflict in our denomination has reached destructive levels. If fighting were so unhealthy, centrists and progressives would have stopped fostering conflict over the church’s traditional sexuality standards that were affirmed at every General Conference since 1972. Instead, they kept promoting a fundamental change in the church’s beliefs and teachings around marriage and human sexuality, leading to the impasse following the 2019 General Conference.
In the aftermath, many church leaders, including Mainstream UMC, realized that, to resolve the denominational conflict, it would be necessary to allow conflict at the local level, as churches discerned whether their future lies within or outside the UM Church. That realization led those leaders, including Mainstream UMC, to endorse the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. That endorsement was intended to allow local churches to discern their future and potentially disaffiliate under more favorable terms than those contained in Par. 2553. Unfortunately, Mainstream UMC and other centrist and progressive leaders withdrew their endorsement of the Protocol, leading to a chaotic disaffiliation process that fostered far more conflict than was envisioned under the Protocol. If fighting were so unhealthy, centrist and progressive leaders would have kept their word and continued to promote the Protocol as the most amicable disaffiliation proposal available.
But now, having once endorsed a disaffiliation pathway that was more standardized and less costly, Mainstream UMC wants to end disaffiliations entirely. It is disingenuous for Mainstream UMC to claim to want to end the fighting when they have been part of promoting conflict in the church and abandoned the best opportunity available to minimize that conflict.
If fighting is unhealthy, so is coercing local churches to remain in a denomination that is changing its beliefs in a way contrary to the wishes of that local congregation. A forced covenant is no real covenant at all. That is what many churches find themselves in now, either because they have been denied the ability to disaffiliate under Par. 2553 or because their annual conference has imposed costs for disaffiliation that are impossible to pay.
Why is a disaffiliation pathway needed?
Simply put, a new disaffiliation pathway is needed to correct the injustice that has been done to some churches. Bishops have denied churches outside the U.S. the possibility of using Par. 2553 to disaffiliate. The few churches that have successfully disaffiliated outside the U.S. have mostly done so outside the boundaries of the Discipline. Most churches outside the U.S. have no wish to defy the Discipline to disaffiliate. In simple fairness, the UM Church should provide United Methodists outside the U.S. the same opportunity to discern their future and disaffiliate as that given to U.S. United Methodists.
It is readily apparent from the Mainstream article that some U.S. centrist leaders do not think it is important to treat non-U.S. members fairly. In fact, the article contains no mention of the situation outside the U.S. Myopically, it treats the U.S. situation as reflective of the global situation, or else does not think it is important to consider the needs of over half the members of the denomination residing outside the U.S.
The other injustice needing to be corrected is how some congregations have been treated by their annual conferences. Some annual conferences have done everything possible to prevent any of their congregations from disaffiliating. Some had long, tortuous processes that discouraged churches from even considering applying to disaffiliate. Others forbid churches from hosting speakers to share a pro-disaffiliation perspective with the congregation or worked through pastors to prevent congregations from even considering the possibility. Most egregiously, some annual conferences have imposed draconian costs of 20 to 50 percent of the church’s property value, as well as other fees and expenses that artificially inflated the cost of disaffiliation to the point of impossibility. One church in California would have to pay over $60,000 per member to disaffiliate.
Furthermore, some bishops and district superintendents advocated for churches to wait to consider disaffiliation until after the 2024 General Conference. Their argument is that nothing has changed, that the UM Discipline still reflects the official position of the church. And that no one can predict what the General Conference may or may not do in 2024. The implied promise is that after the 2024 General Conference there will be a disaffiliation pathway for these churches to use. If the General Conference does not pass a disaffiliation pathway, that promise will be broken.
To rectify these injustices, members of the Africa Initiative (an organization speaking for and equipping African church leaders) have submitted a new Par. 2553 and another new paragraph allowing non-U.S. annual conferences to disaffiliate. Good News and our sister organizations have agreed to support these proposals as the best option to provide fairness for churches still wanting to consider disaffiliation, whether inside or outside the U.S.
History will look back on this time to see how we as Methodist Christians have treated one another. Let both history and our surrounding world see that Christians can be gracious to one another, even in conflict!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.