We Don’t Actually Believe All That

We Don’t Actually Believe All That

The Rev. Mike Tupper (left) and the Rev. Frank Schaefer during a May 13 press conference. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

The Rev. Mike Tupper (left) and the Rev. Frank Schaefer during a May 13 press conference. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

By Walter Fenton-

“How effectively can a church retain the lukewarm or uncertain if it keeps its most controversial teachings while constantly winking to say, ‘Don’t worry, we don’t actually believe all that?’”

Although New York Times columnists Ross Douthat wrote the above about the Roman Catholic Church, recent cases involving three United Methodist Church pastors and one of its bishops aptly illustrates its applicability to our denomination as well.

It’s no secret that the UM Church forbids its ministers to preside at same-sex services and does not ordain or continue in ministry openly gay clergy who are self-avowed and practicing. Both are serious offenses that could lead to the loss of one’s ministerial credentials. But evidently not in the cases of the Revs. Anna Blaedel, Valerie Rosenquist, Mike Tupper, and retired Bishop Melvin Talbert.

At the Iowa Annual Conference this past June, Blaedel requested a point of personal privilege so she could announce at a plenary session, “I am a self-avowed practicing homosexual…. I am out, queer, partnered, clergy.” A complaint was immediately filed against her, but on August 30, as one of his last acts as the conference’s presiding bishop, Julius Trimble, dismissed the complaint without comment. Blaedel continues to serve in her appointment at the Wesley Center on the campus of the University of Iowa.

Tupper, a pastor in the West Michigan Annual Conference, presided at his daughter’s same-sex wedding in 2014. He subsequently reached a “just resolution” in the case, which allowed him to keep his ministerial credentials. However, he officiated at another same-sex wedding in 2015. Offered another penalty-free settlement, he refused it and instead embarked on a nationwide tour demanding a church trial, believing it would draw greater attention to the LGBTQ+ cause.

His bishop at the time, the recently retired Deborah Kiesey, mooted his requests for months, hoping to run out the clock on her tenure and his. This September, the recently retired Tupper finally accepted he would get no public church trial, so he agreed to his second penalty-free “just resolution.”

Earlier this year, Rosenquist and Talbert co-officiated at a same-sex union in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. Complaints were filed against Rosenquist, but in the final days of service before his retirement, Bishop Larry Goodpaster announced that a “just resolution” had been reached in Rosenquist’s case. While the terms of the resolution were not shared, it is clear she has avoided a church trial, retained her ministerial credentials, and is being continued in her clergy appointment.

Talbert, who had a complaint filed against him for presiding at a same-sex wedding in 2013, reached a non-punitive just resolution in that case. He has had no complaint filed against him for violating the Discipline again, even though his latest infraction breached the terms of the first just resolution he signed.

Obviously some bishops have decided they will no longer, in a meaningful way, enforce the church’s teachings when it comes to these matters. They have apparently decided to wink when it comes to the church’s controversial teachings, and say, “Don’t worry, we don’t actually believe that.”

Of course, some LGBTQ+ advocates will applaud their actions, even if they’re done in a Nicodemus kind of way. Still other United Methodists shrug their shoulders, and ask, “What’s the harm? Who cares what a bishop and a few pastors do in Iowa, North Carolina, and Michigan? Can’t we all just get along? Isn’t unity more important than our differences over our sexual ethics and same-sex marriage?”

For people who ask these questions, the answers are easy. There is no real harm. It doesn’t trouble them, so it shouldn’t trouble anyone else. And yes, they do believe unity is a greater good than the church’s sexual ethics and its teachings on marriage. They are of course entitled to their opinions, and to advocating for changes in the Discipline.

But we would argue to the contrary. The harm done is serious and substantive. In a connectional church, people are right to care about what happens in Iowa, North Carolina, and Michigan. And no, “unity” does not trump the church’s sexual ethics and its teachings on marriage.

Bishops who wink and nod on these matters undermine respect for themselves, their office, and the church. Whether they like it or not, the church has repeatedly affirmed its teachings on these matters. And whether they agree with them or not, the vast majority of United Methodists believe the church’s sexual ethics and teaching on marriage are rooted in Scripture, affirmed by tradition, and grounded in reason. Furthermore, they maintain the church’s teachings on these matters are essential to the practice of the faith, and are predicated on core doctrinal teachings.

So when bishops, whether quietly or flamboyantly, undermine these teachings they undermine their own authority, harm the work of colleagues and mock the beliefs and values of the people they are entrusted to care for and lead.

And this is particularly egregious when it is done in less than candid ways. For instance, back in 2014, Bishop Elaine J. W. Stanovsky reached a toothless settlement that supposedly resolved Bishop Talbert’s very public presiding at a same-sex wedding in October 2013. She released word of the settlement on December 30, nearly 15 months after the infraction. The announcement date was clearly chosen to bury it in the long holiday week between Christmas and New Year. It was analogous to politicians who release bad news on a Friday night after 9 pm. It lacked candor and courage. Why do in the dark what you believe to be just and right?

The best that might be said for Trimble and Goodpaster, the retiring bishops involved in two of the cases cited above, is that they were trying to dispose of delicate situations as of way helping their successors. However, reaching a just resolution that appears to involve no serious consequences, and dismissing a legitimate complaint during one’s last days in office demonstrates tone deafness at best, and a lack of leadership at worst.

The cases these bishops handled involved pastors who clearly wanted, in very public ways, to challenge the teachings of The United Methodist Church. Given the public nature of Rev. Rosenquist’s actions, Bishop Goodpaster should have insisted that no just resolution could be agreed to without all parties consenting to a public release of the resolution. And Bishop Trimble should have openly shared his reasons for dismissing what appeared to many Iowan United Methodists as a legitimate complaint against a pastor who openly announced, “I am a self-avowed practicing homosexual…. I am out, queer, partnered, clergy.”

By failing to deal openly and candidly, Bishops Goodpaster and Trimble, as well as Stanovsky and Kiesey, have deepened the already low level of distrust rank-and-file United Methodists have for their episcopal leaders. Their actions give the appearance of condescending to their flocks rather than showing them respect. They appear to lack either the time or courage to gamely defend decisions that justifiably appear dubious to many.

It was widely noted – well before the 2016 General Conference, before all the ecclesial defiance at annual and jurisdictional conferences, and before the election of an openly gay bishop – that UM worship attendance in 2014 in the U.S. fell by 2.6 percent. It would be unfair and misguided to suggest this dramatic drop is all due to the church’s long debate over the practice of homosexuality. But the debate, the open acts of defiance, and the dubious dismissal of complaints and “just resolutions” are surely accelerating the plunge.

Now might be a good time for bishops to regularly see monthly or even weekly attendance records so they have some sense of what kind of damage is being done in terms of attendance and giving to the church. This is not to suggest bishops run the church like a business, shifting course according to the preferences of consumers. But it is to suggest that we need to know where we stand, and where we might be headed. Clergy families, people who work at our boards and agencies, young seminarians accumulating debt, and local church boards trying to decide whether to embark on a capital campaign (the list goes on) should have some concrete information about where the church is headed. And they should know sooner than later.

It is not scare mongering to suggest the church is in crisis. And yet despite the crisis, no one expects our bishops to get every detail right. In truth, United Methodists are looking for leadership and are willing to be led. However, they rightfully expect that their values will be honored and fairly considered. They also rightfully expect their leaders to act with integrity and courage, and therefore to candidly and forthrightly explain themselves when they make controversial decisions.

Winking and nodding might be a clever political play, but it’s not leadership.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.

We Don’t Actually Believe All That

Lesbian Pastor Takes Involuntary Leave


The Rev. Cynthia Meyer (second from right) gets a hug and well wishes from supporters. Photo by Todd Seifert, Great Plains Conference.

By Heather Hahn-

A complaint against the Rev. Cynthia Meyer, a lesbian pastor in Kansas, has ended with her taking an involuntary leave of absence at least until the conclusion of the next General Conference. The resolution, announced August 3, averts a church trial.

Under the agreement, Meyer will go on leave starting September 1 and no longer serve as pastor of Edgerton (Kansas) United Methodist Church. She cannot receive an appointment or perform the duties of a United Methodist elder, such as administering the sacraments. In short, she will be out of a job.

However, a church or other United Methodist entity can hire her for functions equivalent to that of a layperson. She also will receive $37,000 — about a year’s pay in her current appointment.

She officially will retain her clergy credentials at least until 90 days following the next General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly. Depending on what the legislative body does, she may:

• see her full elder status restored immediately and receive a new appointment

• take advantage of another provision the body approves

• see the trial process begin again.

Meyer faced a charge that she is a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member, a violation of the Book of Discipline, the church’s governing document.

The agreement came August 1 after more than 12 hours of closed-door discussions among Meyer, Great Plains Area Bishop Scott Jones, four counsels involved in the case, and two facilitators from the denomination’s JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation.

The resolution also comes as United Methodist bishops are preparing to appoint a commission, charged with reviewing the denomination’s policies related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning individuals.

The bishops also are considering calling a special General Conference in 2018 to consider any of the commission’s proposals. Meyer’s leave will last at least through a special General Conference. Yet, if a special session is not called it will last until the next regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020.

Thoughts on resolution. Jones, whose former area encompasses the states of Kansas and Nebraska, is a member of the Council of Bishops executive committee that is planning the Commission on a Way Forward. He will became the bishop of the Houston Area, starting September 1.

“The agreement we reached upholds the Book of Discipline and yet recognizes that the larger denomination is in a time of discernment about a way forward,” Jones told United Methodist News Service. “So this agreement recognizes that accountability was necessary and yet holds open possibilities for whatever the general church is going to decide.”

Meyer said in a statement that she recognizes the agreement as a complaint resolution but not a just response. Nevertheless, she said she moves ahead in hope.

“I hope that The United Methodist Church, through a fully representative, inclusive commission, then a focused General Conference, will intentionally, prayerfully remove all discriminatory language and practice from its Book of Discipline,” Meyer said in a statement.

How case came to be. Meyer, an ordained pastor for 25 years, came out during her January 3 sermon to the Edgerton congregation. She told the church that she was choosing to serve “with full authenticity, as my genuine self, a woman who loves and shares my life with another woman.” In addition to serving other churches in Kansas, Meyer also spent 12 years as dean of students at United Methodist Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.

A complaint soon followed her sermon, and she knew her clergy credentials could be at risk. Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has proclaimed all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book lists officiating at same-sex unions and being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.

Meyer moved a step closer to a church trial in April after she and Jones initially failed to agree on a resolution to the complaint. However, the Book of Discipline says a trial should be regarded as “an expedient of last resort.” Under church law, a resolution without trial remains an option throughout the complaint process.

The Great Plains Conference meeting June 1-4 approved an “aspirational resolution” that urged “a just resolution” in the case. Jones said he took that resolution seriously. Meyer told UMNS that she is doubtful that going forward with a trial “would have provided justice in the denomination.”

“Given the likelihood of a negative and quite harsh end to the trial, I did not want an annual conference or the church as a whole to go through the process,” she said.

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

We Don’t Actually Believe All That

Conflict Shifts to Judicial Council

Judicial Council members from left are the Rev. Dennis L. Blackwell, Beth Capen, the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., Ruben Reyes, the Rev. Øyvind Helliesen, and the Rev. Luan-Vu Tran. Not pictured are Deanell Reese Tacha and Lídia Romão Gulele. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

Judicial Council members from left are the Rev. Dennis L. Blackwell, Beth Capen, the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., Ruben Reyes, the Rev. Øyvind Helliesen, and the Rev. Luan-Vu Tran. Not pictured are Deanell Reese Tacha and Lídia Romão Gulele. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

By Thomas Lambrecht-

In the aftermath of General Conference, Annual Conferences, and Jurisdictional Conferences that exhibited the conflict between progressive and traditionalist perspectives, the focus of attention now shifts to the upcoming meeting of the Judicial Council. Some of the recent actions taken by annual and jurisdictional conferences are being appealed to the Council, which is the only body in the church that can overturn a conference’s action.

The Judicial Council is the equivalent of our denomination’s “Supreme Court.” It is the final authority on church law and legal processes and is able to review actions taken by the various conferences. In order for the Judicial Council to review an action, either the conference has to vote to ask the Council for a declaratory decision or an individual needs to pose a question of law that relates to the action in question.

Three questions of law are being considered by the October meeting of the Judicial Council relating to actions of three annual conferences.

Moot and hypothetical?

Two of the questions relate to whether an annual conference may ordain or commission a self-avowed practicing homosexual for ministry within The United Methodist Church. Both the New York and Northern Illinois Annual Conferences announced that their boards of ordained ministry would disregard the issue of one’s sexual orientation or practice when considering whether the person is qualified for commissioning or ordination in the church. The New York Annual Conference went on to commission or ordain four persons who had earlier signed a statement acknowledging that they are homosexuals. The New York board of ordained ministry refused to give assurances that the four persons in question were “celibate in singleness” and thus qualified for ministry. The questions of law asked whether these boards of ordained ministry policies were legal under the Book of Discipline.

Both Bishop Sally Dyck of Northern Illinois and Bishop Jane Middleton, acting bishop of New York, ruled that the questions of law were improper and therefore did not need to be answered. Bishop Middleton made the novel argument that bishops cannot interfere with the functioning of an annual conference board or agency, even though the bishop is charged with upholding the Discipline and “ensur[ing] that the annual conference and general church policies and procedures are followed” (Discipline ¶ 415.2).

Bishop Dyck argued that the annual conference took no action, so the question was “hypothetical.” This despite the fact that the board of ordained ministry took an action that essentially binds the annual conference with its policy and the annual conference refused to overturn that policy. She also redefined the “question of law” as a “declaratory decision” and then ruled it improper because it did not meet the standards of a declaratory decision!

Both of these decisions are part of an increasing trend by bishops to try to avoid ruling on any question of law by arguing that it is “moot and hypothetical.” That is fancy legal language for a question that does not deal with a real factual situation. Judges (bishops) and courts (Judicial Council) are only supposed to rule on real cases because they have to consider the facts and circumstances of each case. However, the definition of “moot and hypothetical” has been so stretched over time that bishops and the Judicial Council are now routinely avoiding rulings on real situations that impact the whole church.

Significantly, the persons who posed the questions of law in these two cases are arguing that the whole notion that “moot and hypothetical questions should not be ruled on” no longer applies under church law and should be thrown out.

The rule against “moot and hypothetical” questions dates back to 1946 and is based on explicit wording in the 1944 Book of Discipline of the former Methodist Church that outlawed the Judicial Council from ruling on a moot or hypothetical declaratory decision (1944 Discipline ¶ 914). The Judicial Council itself extended this prohibition to questions of law (judicial activism, anyone?). Ever since, this rule has become more deeply entrenched in church law.

The only problem with this is that the prohibition against “moot and hypothetical” questions was taken out of the Book of Discipline in 1952, when the current language of the Discipline was adopted. Therefore, the basis for the Judicial Council’s rule against “moot and hypothetical” questions was removed, and the rule should no longer apply. The 2012 Discipline provides that “The decisions of the Judicial Council of The Methodist Church heretofore issued shall have the same authority in The United Methodist Church as they had in The Methodist Church, persuasive as precedents, except where their basis has been changed by the terms of the Plan of Union or other revisions of Church law” (¶ 2611, emphasis added).

The Judicial Council is being asked to nullify a rule that has been improperly used for over 60 years. The Council will then hopefully rule that the two bishops must in fact rule on the questions of law, as asked. Unfortunately, this will delay a final resolution of these cases until the Judicial Council reviews them again in spring of 2017.


The other important question of law concerns a resolution passed by the New England Annual Conference stating that it would “not conform or comply with provisions of the Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons.” New England was one of five annual conferences that passed a resolution of “non-conformity” to the Book of Discipline. This action was challenged by a question of law.

In response, Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar has ruled that the resolution is “in violation of the Discipline.” That ruling was consistent with many earlier Judicial Council decisions that held that “annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” Bishop Devadhar acknowledged that his ruling was “a painful one to make.” He explained that, “as a United Methodist Bishop, I cannot challenge what I believe to be an unjust law by approving an illegal law.” Although not supportive of United Methodist teaching on marriage and human sexuality, Devadhar acted with integrity in this instance.

The Judicial Council will automatically review this ruling and hopefully affirm it.

Coming attractions

Other significant actions from this summer’s jurisdictional conferences have yet to be heard by the Judicial Council. These actions took place after the deadline for scheduling matters to come before this October’s session of the Council. Instead, they will be considered at the Council’s spring session in April.

The Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference passed a resolution that urged its annual conferences not to comply with provisions of the Discipline dealing with LGBTQIA persons. The resolution invited annual conferences not to allocate money for complaints, investigations, or trials to enforce the Discipline, nor to take part in such accountability processes. Bishop Mark Webb responded to a question of law by ruling the resolution null and void, as a violation of the Discipline. The Judicial Council will automatically review this ruling and hopefully affirm it.

The most widely watched case involves a request by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference for a declaratory decision as to whether it is legal for a jurisdictional conference to elect a self-avowed practicing homosexual as a bishop. While this request for a declaratory decision is not directly related to the election of Karen Oliveto as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction, the ruling of the Judicial Council on this request will have implications for her election. Despite a request from the Council of Bishops and others for the Judicial Council to expedite a ruling on this request by considering it at its October session, the Council declined to do so.

All of the cases described in this article highlight the importance of the Judicial Council as a means of accountability within the church. It is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the church’s actions and processes conform to the requirements of the church constitution and general church policies.

However, compliance with Judicial Council decisions is voluntary. There is no such thing as a United Methodist police force to enforce the Council’s decisions. One must ask whether persons who have already demonstrated a commitment to disregard or disobey the Book of Discipline will turn around and voluntarily comply with the Judicial Council’s decisions. The unity and integrity of The United Methodist Church depend upon it.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

We Don’t Actually Believe All That

Is It Time for the Itinerancy to Go?

truck goes on the highway

By Donald W. Haynes-

In today’s ecumenical religious environment, the current model of United Methodist itinerancy has become more a liability than an asset. Here are a few reasons.

• With over 60 percent of current United Methodists having come from other communions, the itinerancy system is foreign to many of our members.

• Given the ethos of the American social order, the authoritarianism of sending our pastors is difficult for both clergy and laity.

• Questions must be asked of whether the evolved paradigm of itinerancy benefits the missional needs of any given community or the career aspirations of the clergy.

• The modern reality of spouse professions makes moving the clergy more difficult and places more pressure on any dual-employed married couple.

• As deeply controversial issues polarize the denomination’s connection, the appointing of clergy will demand far more consultation. Can either the parish or the pastor be effective if theological positions on social justice issues are not negotiated?

• A parish’s ethos in “contemporary” or “traditional” worship demands that criteria other than salary are priority factors in appointments.

• The bishops’ study commission to preserve denominational unity should consider either relaxing or abandoning the current modus operandus of the itinerancy.

Now is the time for the above rationale to be factored into any new paradigm if United Methodism is to survive. It was 1991 when Dr. Donald Messer edited his important volume, Send Me? The Itineracy In Crisis. (The book changed one thing, and perhaps only one thing – the historic spelling of the word “itinerancy” became “itineracy.”) In his Introduction, Messer wrote, “The future system of deploying United Methodist clergy, therefore, will emerge from an informed debate that includes critical assessment of past history and present practice.” He might have added that a new paradigm is needed if we are to be the church that God can use holistically and redemptively “to serve this present age.” Itinerancy must not be the defining dimension of Wesley’s progeny. After all, the British Methodist Church has never had an episcopal polity.

Messer continued that we often are so incensed by any critique of the itinerancy that we seem to believe our current system to be divinely ordained and institutionally unchangeable. In the top echelons and among traditional clergy, we trigger in defensive excuses that cut off imagination and visioning. We rely so much on our cherished system of the pastors “going where we are sent” and the laity’s acquiescing to the Cabinet’s authority that we fail to discern God’s will for the new world that requires faithful courage. We are hesitant to admit two historical realities:

• The system designed by Francis Asbury for frontier America was intended for single men who stayed on one circuit no more than a year.

• The norm was dramatically changed when a “settled ministry” married and when a longer pastorate enhanced community involvement. Parsonages were built and by the 1860’s “four years” had become the normative tenure.

When theological diversity emerged in the 1880s, the issue was whether “sanctification” as a second work of grace was definitive for Methodists. In 1894, we lost the Nazarene Church over that issue. No one in Methodism had heard of speaking in tongues until 1900 on Azusa Street in Los Angeles; the result was the splintering of Pentecostal Arminian denominations, most of whom are now growing. All other divisions in our history have been polity or racially based.

A monumental Supreme Court decision was made in 1954 when former Republican Governor, Earl Warren, led the court to strike down the 1897 “Plessy vs. Ferguson” decision that schools could be “separate but equal.” In the new decision of “Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education,” the public schools were ruled to become racially integrated. I remember traveling to Little Rock Arkansas in 1957 when President Eisenhower had called out Federal troops to allow for the integration of Central High School, thus overruling the refusal of Governor Orval Faubus to obey federal law. Churches across the land began to discuss the moral imperative of racial inclusion. Institutionally, though, it was 1968 before we celebrated the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction. One can only debate whether so-called “cross-racial” appointments would have come as quickly with a modified itinerancy.

In 1956, thanks to the General Conference “floor” motion of Dr. Zachary Johnson, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, the recommendation of the legislative committee to “continue study” was replaced by immediate action on full ordination and clergy rights for women. Officially, itinerancy became freed from male gender exclusiveness. To argue that only the authority of the bishop has opened opportunities for women to serve parishes is to negate the reality that the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A., the United Church of Christ, and the many Pentecostal churches have more women in parishes than does The UM Church.

The arrival of “contemporary” worship has placed more pressure on the itinerancy. Fewer UM churches are “cookie cutter” clones of one’s present parish. Some pastors do not care for the music in contemporary worship and do not have the gifts for the necessity to ad lib the sermon from a stool or walk in the aisle. That is anathema to some whose seminary training advocated moving United Methodism toward “high” liturgical worship. The challenge to the cabinets to “make the shoe fit” as pastors are appointed is somewhat daunting.

Pastoral families often demand staying longer because of family needs.  Issues that are increasingly important to clergy are school systems, being within the proximity of their aging parents, or the need for a specific type of climate. Presently, most appointments are confined to one’s current annual conference; that needs to change. On the part of the laity, they will increasingly demand a voice in United Methodism regarding their next pastor or they will increasingly leave us.

In recent decades some Central Conferences have joined The United Methodist Church. This brings new cultural diversity when much of the U.S. polity and many of the social justice resolutions are reflective of a distinctively American culture.

The chasm between cultures are accentuated by the deep disagreement regarding same-sex marriage and homosexual ordination. If The United Methodist Church is still together after 2020, imagine the difficulty in making appointments reflecting clergy and parish convictions on LGBT issues! Some negotiation will be mandatory. At that point, the making of appointments would be forced into a presbyterial type of polity, or an episcopal polity similar to that of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

If my understanding of the Episcopal Church polity is accurate, when a rector or a parish discerns the need for a pastoral charge, the bishop’s office provides a list of other churches in the geographic region that is requested, and a list of clergy open to moving. Then profiles of parishes or clergy are exchanged, visits are made where candid questions are asked by both parties, and perhaps there is an invitation to lead worship. Often the rector leaves and an interim is provided by the diocese. Then clergy profiles are scrutinized and some are called for closer “Q & A.” A call is issued, but the bishop has the right of “veto.” The same is true of the Presbytery in the various Presbyterian Churches. Neither is a congregational polity.

The Episcopal Church model would leave us with a modified Episcopal form of polity, including our election of bishops. There would be a much closer connection between the bishop and the parish because the bishop installs new clergy and confirms the confirmands.

Whatever we do, it is time to begin thinking collegially and creatively. A significantly nuanced appointment making process will be the only way to accommodate theological diversity, regarding pastoral gifts and grace, social justice convictions, and personal or family needs. The “go where you are sent” and “take whomever is sent to you” paradigm has numbered days.

Donald W. Haynes is a retired United Methodist clergyperson, former writer of “Wesleyan Wisdom,” author of On The Threshold of Grace – Methodist Fundamentals, and adjunct faculty in Wesleyan Studies at Hood Theological Seminary.

We Don’t Actually Believe All That

Joining Hands After the Rain

Louisiana-flooding-8-2016-014By Kathy Gilbert-

After the deluge come the blessings. And four United Methodist pastors in Lafayette, Louisiana, are standing ready to pour those blessings back into their recovering communities. South Louisiana was hit by 6 trillion gallons of rainwater during August 11-13.

“Rain started on Thursday evening, and Friday it kept raining, and Saturday it kept raining, and I started to realize we had a big problem,” said the Rev. Drew Sutton, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lafayette.

“For me, the awareness arose Saturday afternoon when I called a church member whose husband had recently had surgery and I could hear the tears in her voice. She said, ‘Water is in the house and I don’t know what to do.’ I told her I was on my way.”

By the time Sutton was able to get to her neighborhood the roads were impassable. The National Guard bringing in boats saved the couple. From the boat, Sutton said, he and others carried the couple through chest-deep water to get them to a family member’s home.

Pooling resources. A small group of pastors and congregation members gathered at Asbury United Methodist Church on Sunday night, August 14, and started making plans to pool their resources. “We just decided to be the church and we went out,” said the Rev. Susan Ferguson, associate pastor of Asbury.

The Rev. Ramonalynn Bethley, pastor of Covenant United Methodist Church, deployed 600 flood buckets and sandwiches. The Rev. Robert Johnson, pastor of Louisiana Avenue United Methodist Church — who had an established ministry with the homeless — was out in the poorest areas of the city looking for people in need. Asbury United Methodist Church set up a disaster relief database.

“By Monday morning we were ready to deploy not just to our church members, but to our community,” Ferguson said. “We were out there in the community at the hour of their greatest need. Seeing them face to face, hugging them, praying with them. This was all over our community and we could not have done that if we weren’t working together,” Bethley said.

‘Thank heaven for the pastor.’ Johnson found a community of low-income people living in a large apartment complex with no food and no help. He forged a friendship with Kevin “Tony” Oliver, the complex’s maintenance man who was the spokesperson for the residents during the crisis. Food tables were set up for the frightened people — many of who are undocumented and afraid to come out of their soaked apartments.

“I thank heaven for the pastor who came out and handed out cleaning supplies and fed us,” said Oliver. “You couldn’t walk in the streets. I have never seen anything like it in my life; it came so fast and so sudden.” Oliver said the low-income complex includes lots of elderly and sick people as well as lots of children.

At one point during a tour of his neighborhood, Oliver said, “I think if God was in this community, it would be a much better community.” Smiling, Johnson, replied, “God is here. You just need spiritual guidance to give people hope.”

Leveling the playing field. “That’s what the flood has done, it has leveled the playing field, and we are all in this together. Barriers that separate us are hard to detect in a disaster. We start linking arms. We fall in love with one another as people. I am looking forward to that day when it really shows up in our churches,” Ferguson said.

Sutton agreed that “something mysterious” is happening. First United Methodist Church has been reading Romans 5:1-5, Sutton said, because a pastor from New Orleans shared those verses with him in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Paraphrasing the passage, Sutton said that suffering builds character, which brings help and hope that never disappoints and leads us into love of God. “To be part of that and to see our community enduring and to see the character unfolding by the power of the spirit through events is just really powerful to witness,” he said.

“It’s what the church should look like,” said Bethley. “It is what heaven looks like.”

Kathy Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. The Rev. Todd Rossnagel, director of communications strategies for the Louisiana Conference, contributed to this report. 

We Don’t Actually Believe All That

Accepting the Inexplicable

Frank-DeckerBy Frank Decker-

I enjoy engaging in candid, truth-seeking conversations, especially with persons from other religious backgrounds. Recently I gave a ride to a congenial young Muslim man whom I learned was preparing to become an imam. On the way we had an interesting discussion, which turned to a passage in the Qur’an often translated from the original Arabic into English, “Oh Isa, (Jesus), I will take you and raise you to myself….” Many Muslims hold as a core belief that Jesus did not die but was taken up to heaven without death, and this verse is one often used to assert that belief.

Knowing that the Arabic meaning of this verse literally spoke about death, I asked my new friend why it was translated to state something else. His response to me was, “In this context the word does not mean ‘die.’” When I asked him how this interpretation came to be, he responded that this is how it is understood in Muslim tradition and it is what his teachers have taught him. I responded by encouraging him to earnestly study the translation of that verse rather than simply settle for the traditional interpretation. After all, it would be unfortunate for someone to miss an essential aspect of the gospel because of a dogma.

Of course, it is easy for me as a Christian to question the assumptions and beliefs of someone outside the context of my own faith tradition. I also must be willing to question whether or not I have assumptions that have been handed to me which may color my understanding of the gospel. After all, isn’t the essential challenge of the missionary to convey the transcendent message of Christ to another culture while carefully distinguishing that message from one’s own cultural and traditional impact upon that message? Failure to understand this distinction while bringing our message across cultures will cause our hosts to scratch their heads in bewilderment as we share our wonderful teachings on successful ministry, evangelistic methods, leadership, and other subjects that have captured Western Christian thinking, yet may not address the core needs of others.

I recall a conversation I had with a missionary from another agency while I was serving in Africa. His approach was so rooted in a certain theological distinctive that he was convinced I was a false messenger because we held differing views on predestination and eternal security.  I remember thinking to myself at the time, “Did we both come across the Atlantic to argue about these things?” There is a world of hurting people who really don’t care about our finely-tuned theological arguments. But they do long to see the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those who follow the Prince of Peace.

One of the books that we require our new missionaries to read is Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. This book succinctly addresses our assumptions as Westerners concerning ethnicity, language, individualism, time, relationships, and other areas where we must recognize the cultural “glasses” that we wear when understanding the Bible. I have observed that there are at least two things that help us to appreciate the differences of others, while still being rooted in the essentials of our faith.  One of these is exposure to different cultures and religious contexts; the other is simply a broadening of perspective that is likely to come with age and maturity.

My seminary professor – the late Dr. James W. Fowler – greatly challenged me with his research on the stages of faith. In fact, in presenting the latter stages (which he asserts rarely occur prior to middle age) as accompanied by a more expansive appreciation for that which is mysterious and paradoxical, I occasionally wondered if some of his ideas might not be heretical. The fact that I was in my early twenties and in my youthful enthusiasm had an answer for everything gives credence to Fowler’s research, I am sure.

When someone is cocksure of the truth, in their zeal they may behave in ways that contradict the main tenets of the very truth they profess. As Brene Brown commented in her TED Talk on vulnerability regarding the polarization of political and religious perspectives in our culture, “…we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from faith and mystery to certainty. ‘I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.’”

When we seek to engage persons from other religious perspectives we must, indeed, accept the reality of the inexplicable. In fact, I doubt if genuine dialogue can occur unless both parties are willing to accept the idea that God just might be greater than doctrinal formulations on which we rely. If we accept that possibility, then we have laid the foundation for significant mutual discovery and peace.

Frank Decker is the Vice President of Mission Training and Development for The Mission Society.