By Thomas Lambrecht
One of the important financial costs for local churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church is a payment of that local church’s proportional share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liability. That liability is calculated monthly by Wespath and shared with each annual conference on either a monthly or quarterly basis (at the request of the annual conference).
For those looking for a good explanation about why there is an unfunded pension liability, Wespath has an excellent 18-minute video that carefully explains what this is all about. Other resources about disaffiliation and pensions are also posted on that Wespath page.
Several years ago, we learned that the unfunded pension liability payment for most local churches would be seven to ten times their annual apportionment. The dramatic growth in the stock market then reduced that liability to about four to six times a church’s annual apportionment.
The good news just received is that the July 1 pension liability calculation has dramatically reduced the liability once again. As of last September 1, 2021, the pension liability was about $2.6 billion. The latest calculation has reduced that liability to $1.35 billion. So in ten months, the liability has been cut almost in half.
According to Wespath, the primary factor in reducing the liability has been the rise in interest rates. As interest rates have risen, Wespath can project a higher rate of return on long-term bonds and other instruments an insurer would use to fund pension obligations. The higher rate of return means less money is needed up front to achieve a target amount down the road.
Of course, pension assets have declined recently, due to the decline in the stock and bond markets. However, the increased interest rate projections have far outweighed the decline in asset value. So the net effect is to greatly reduce the pension liability.
The further good news is that the Fed just raised interest rates another three-quarters percentage point, which should further reduce pension liability on the next calculation. Further interest rate increases throughout the rest of this year will also continue to reduce the pension liability.
The other factor that helps reduce pension liability is a reduction in the premium that insurers charge to assume annuity obligations or defined benefit liabilities. In the past, that premium added ten percent to the liability cost. Recently, Wespath found that the marketplace premium had declined from ten percent to between five and six percent. Beginning July 1, Wespath is now charging a five percent premium instead of ten percent, which helps lower the liability.
The bottom line in all of this is that pension liability payments for disaffiliating churches just got a lot less expensive. While each annual conference’s situation is different, some conferences will experience a drop of less than half, while other conferences will experience a drop of more than half.
The key is that local churches that are disaffiliating should insist that their annual conference use the most recent calculation of pension liability to set the church’s exit fee. Most annual conferences give an up-front estimate of the pension liability cost and then set the exact number based on the calculation closest to when the local church votes to disaffiliate. This would enable the church to take advantage of declining pension liabilities to lower its cost for disaffiliation.
Local churches that have up until now thought that the cost of disaffiliation was prohibitive might find that the new numbers bring the cost within a more reasonable range. Now would be a good time to take a second look.
For most annual conferences, the window for disaffiliating will close next May-June at the regular annual conference session. If churches do not move through the process in time to be approved next spring, there may not be an equitable avenue for them to disaffiliate at all. General Conference may enact a new pathway in 2024, but there is no assurance that will happen, especially with centrist and progressive leaders dropping their support of the Protocol.
If your local church is at all interested in exploring the possibility of disaffiliation, now is the time to get started in that process. The recent reduction in pension liability may be of great help in making that decision.
Updates on Annual Conference Disaffiliation
Since publishing last week’s list of annual conference disaffiliation terms, there are updates to some conferences.
Western Pennsylvania just established their additional terms of disaffiliation. Besides the pension liability and two years’ apportionments, they require the local church to pay 11.1 percent of any unrestricted endowment funds and 20 percent of the value of land and buildings. Unfortunately, this moves Western Pennsylvania into the category of annual conferences blocking disaffiliation, as most congregations could not afford to pay the additional 20 percent of property value, nor is it fair to require them to do so.
Eastern Pennsylvania has also recently added terms to its disaffiliation, most notably the requirement to renounce previously paid-for liability insurance and the local church’s need to purchase retroactive liability insurance. This retroactive insurance is very expensive, and it requires a church to double pay for liability insurance for the same past period of time. In addition, the conference trustees reserve the right to impose additional payments on a case-by-case basis. The local church will only find out about these additional payments at its first meeting with conference officials. The insurance issue alone is enough to block some churches from disaffiliating. And if the additional payments include a percentage of the church’s property or assets, it will block those churches, as well.
The Oklahoma Conference clarified its disaffiliation process, moving it from a conference that facilitates disaffiliation to one that adds additional costs, but where disaffiliation is still possible for most churches. Before a church can proceed with disaffiliation, the conference will make a study to determine if they believe the local church is “viable.” If not, they will recommend against disaffiliation. Oklahoma requires a church to become current in apportionment payments for the previous two years, instead of just one, which could raise the church’s cost of disaffiliation to three years’ apportionments if the church did not stay current. The conference disadvantages local churches that are hoping to avail themselves of the reduced pension liability cost (see the article above) by using a six-month average of the monthly figures. The next average will be calculated in September, which means that the number will only benefit from three months of reduced pension costs out of six months total. The full effect of the reduction in pension costs will only be felt in Oklahoma next March 2023. Uniquely, the Oklahoma conference includes active and retired clergy who relate to a particular local church as eligible to vote on disaffiliation. This may contravene Par. 2553, which requires “a two-thirds majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.” Since clergy are not professing members of the local church, they should not be able to vote on disaffiliation.
In last week’s Perspective, I said that the Holston Conference had not yet developed its disaffiliation process. That was incorrect, and I apologize for the incorrect information. They have a process that is currently being used by a number of churches. It is not available currently on their website, but is available through the District Superintendent. Fortunately, the Holston Conference has decided to impose no other costs beyond what Par. 2553 requires. They do require a three-month spiritual discernment process. So the Holston Conference can now be classified as a conference that facilitates disaffiliation in a fair and reasonable manner.
In like manner, the Rio Texas Conference is now classified as a conference that facilitates disaffiliation. They impose no additional costs. I had stated that the church would not find out its cost of disaffiliation until after it had voted. While technically correct, the church would also receive an estimate of its disaffiliation cost at the beginning of the process, so they would not be operating in the dark. This will make disaffiliation in Rio Texas more straightforward. They do still require a six-month discernment process, so churches moving toward disaffiliation should get started soon in that conference in order to meet the deadline.
The bottom line on annual conference disaffiliation processes is that 22 conferences (44 percent) facilitate disaffiliation in a fair and reasonable manner. Four of them have reduced pension costs to zero, and one has eliminated the apportionment payments. Fourteen conferences (28 percent) add costs to what Par. 2553 requires, but disaffiliation is still possible for most churches. Fourteen conferences (28 percent) have added requirements that make it almost impossible for a local church to disaffiliate.
For some annual conferences, it appears the intent is to do whatever they can to prevent local churches from disaffiliating. Sometimes, it appears the extra requirements are just a way for the conference to get more money.
One hopes that the example of the reasonable conferences could influence the holdout conferences to become more gracious. Failure to allow gracious separation will only prolong the battle in the church and sap its spiritual and physical energy for ministry.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
By B.J. Funk
There are some decisions we should never make. Like the decision to get in God’s way, especially when it comes to our children. We are sure God did not mean to place our child in that difficult situation. We are sure we must help him or her get out of their misery.
In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) the younger son asked for his inheritance and spent it foolishly. Eventually he had no money to buy food. Hungry enough to eat the pods that the pigs ate, he finally came to his senses. He woke up to his rebellious nature and longed to return to his father.
What if someone had told the prodigal son’s father that his boy was working in a filthy pig pen and had no food except the pods the pigs ate? What if the father stopped at nothing until he located his son and brought him back home to fill his boy’s belly with the richest meats?
What if the pods in the trough never fulfilled their assignment?
He sat down in the pig’s mud, a loud boisterous cry escaping his throat, hot tears covering his face. Why, he was the son of a rich man! Should he have to live like a poor man?
What if this story ended before God’s business ended?
The strong smell of rot moved into his nostrils. He no longer wanted the far country, but he was starving. He determined to eat a pod and dip into the slop, but he couldn’t. Instead, he got nauseous. The prodigal screamed several curse words into the night air and cursed his life.
The rebellious son, looking at his own face reflected in the slop, thought how much better life was for his dad’s hired help. The hired help can eat delicious food, and I can’t!
He was better than this! Sitting among the stench, he became angry. At himself! At his father! At the whole world! His own smell repulsed him. He remembered the warm smells of scrumptious food encircling his kitchen table. Could his father ever forgive him? He wanted to go home.
He got up grumbling that his energy was spent and that he could not get any help from anyone! But he was determined. His torn shoes seemed to talk, the loose straps mocking any effort on his part to get away.
A decision formed in his heart. It could be the most foolish decision he would ever make. Or, it could be the best. He would go home, if indeed his father would have him.
Alone, crying and stinking, he slowly found the long road back home. He rehearsed: “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer……” He turned around – and the pig pen called his name.
However, the call of home became stronger with each step. How often did he turn around and head back to the stench of the pig slop? Two, seven, a dozen times? Each time he practiced what he would say: “Father, I have sinned. I am not worthy to be called your son. Make me your hired help.”
Daylight surrounded him with new hope. Then, the most amazing sight he had ever seen came into view. Someone saw him and was moving down the long road toward him. Wait. Not moving. But running. The Prodigal whispered to his heart his well-rehearsed line once more. “I’m not worthy to be called your son” over and over until he recognized the image was his own father running toward him.
No questions asked. No scolding. Just tears and hugs from this father who had waited so long for this moment. The late Reverend Frederick Wilson writes that when the two met, the father embraced his son – stink and all – and welcomed him home as the son began his apology. The Father interrupted with words of love. “Hush boy. You’re home!”
Got a wayward child? Let the far country do its work. Give the pods a chance to fulfil their purpose.
B.J. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace, available on Amazon.
By Steve Beard
As I watched the evening news during the haunting first few weeks of the scorched-earth invasion of Ukraine, I could not help but see Kateryna Shadrina’s vibrant image of the Madonna and Child superimposed over the video footage on television of mothers carrying their young children in a panicked evacuation of their homeland.
Although I have half-a-dozen depictions of the Mother and Child in my office, the liquid blues and electric yellows and oranges give Shadrina’s a different dynamic. The 27-year-old artist is an iconographer from Lviv, Ukraine.
Her image wreaked havoc on me.
Visual arts animate the imagination in ways that words alone cannot. To see Michelangelo’s Pietà – the sculpture of the lifeless body of Jesus being cradled by Mary after the crucifixion – is to engage a part of the mind and soul that mere nouns and verbs do not touch. Through painting, Van Gogh helped us visualize the story of the Good Samaritan, while Rembrandt illuminated the story of the Prodigal Son. El Greco told biblical stories in Spanish Renaissance fine art, Howard Finster preached the gospel through American folk art, and Marc Chagall challenged us to see the crucifixion from a different vantage point.
Let me be clear, I am not an art critic. I like what I like. But I also understand there is much to learn through the vision of an artist. “The first demand any work of art makes on us is surrender,” observed C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism. “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
Four years ago, I was drawn to an essay written by John A. Kohan in Image journal about a new generation of young iconographers from Lviv. Icons are a very specialized field of religious visual art – a practice of spiritual devotion within the church dating back to the third century. Over time, stylistic peculiarities developed that differentiated icons from other forms of religious art.
Many of these contemporary Ukrainian artists are notably utilizing unusual color schemes and unexpected textures. The images are arresting and have nudged my own personal spiritual imagination in new ways.
Kohan – who had worked for Time magazine for more than 20 years and is an avid sacred art collector – had been drawn to this fresh expression of ancient spiritual artistry because of the “intriguing new variations on traditional tempera-painted holy images” and because the illustrations were being created on “unusual grounds like glass, found materials, and steel-and-copper-wire tapestry, all in an eclectic mix of abstract, neo-Byzantine, and Ukrainian folk art styles.”
His essay in Image was my introduction to the work of marvels such as Ivanka Demchuk, Lyuba Yatskiv, Natalya Rusetska, and Sviatoslav Vladyka. All these artists – and numerous others – are uniquely showcased by Iconart Modern Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv and its website.
After the invasion of Ukraine, the network evening news began broadcasting from Lviv – 40 miles from the border of Poland. That sparked my memory of Kohan’s Image story. The Rev. Kenneth Tanner, an old friend from college, also introduced me to a handful of other artists from Ukraine through Instagram.
Kateryna Kuziv. “Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena.”
While my low-church Methodist heritage does not offer a framework for iconography, I fully respect and appreciate that the imagery expresses a mystical spiritual dynamic for sacramental Christians that far defies the category of mere “beautiful art.” The pieces are often referred to as “windows to heaven.” Icons are meant to cultivate the soul and be an aid in prayer.
“I believe that art should testify of beauty. The search for it always leads to God as the original source – that is why I choose iconography,” observed Kateryna Kuziv (born 1993). “Beauty always points to something more, a sense of God’s presence. Creating icons for me is a pursuit of God, of paradise as a state of being with Him, a reproduction of the transformed reality, of the purified nature of humanity from sin.”
Natalaya Rusetska. “Resurrection.”
Other artists in this spiritual stream describe their work in similarly transcendent terms.
• Natalaya Rusetska (born in 1984): “My art is about the eternal, the timeless, the extraterrestrial, the hidden. One of the inherent features of sacred art is symbolism. This is a figurative creation that reveals the inner essence of the depicted. Sacred art affects and changes the spiritual state of the human.”
Ulyana Tomkevych. “Doubting Thomas.”
• Ulyana Tomkevych (born in 1981): “Painting the icon is the special conversation with the Lord and also with oneself. The silent prayer, that gives me the feeling of inner peace and harmony. This is the time for rethinking the Bible stories and the Ten Commandments in the context of the modern human life because the Bible is timeless. I think that first of all God is Love and Mercy. And the daily icon painting helps me to live my life with this understanding.”
A prescribed new vision
“My parents are doctors, so they did not plan for me to become an artist,” said Ivanka Demchuk in an interview with The Day several years ago. At a very early age, she had serious issues with her eyesight (astigmatism, farsightedness). Her ophthalmologist prescribed an intriguing treatment: “To increase the visual load in one eye, I had to obscure the other eye and then do a lot of painting, sculpting, and coloring. From that time on, I attended children’s art clubs, an art school, took an interest in classic paintings.”
Ivanka Demchuk. “Hidden life in Nazareth.”
Today, we are all the beneficiaries. Demchuk’s artistic imagination is on full display in a particularly captivating rendering above entitled “Hidden Life in Nazareth” portraying the holy family as Jesus takes his first steps as a toddler. In the background, there is laundry drying on a clothesline and a worktable with carpentry tools. I had never contemplated the first step of someone who would become known as “The Way” – but surely, there had to be one to be celebrated and pondered. Demchuk’s work helps give believers like me a more panoramic sense to the Incarnation.
Long before Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, Demchuk (born in 1990) believed in the timeless relevance of stories such as the Good Samaritan and St. George the Dragon Slayer battling evil. In the context of the current barbaric war, some of her images take on even deeper significance and symbolism. “The evolution of human consciousness has not gone far enough to render us qualitatively different from people who lived two millennia ago,” she has observed. “We are facing the same problems and issues; we may become traitors just as those who crucified Christ.”
“A sword shall pierce your soul”
“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too’” (Luke 2:34-35).
The soul pierce. What a gothic declaration to a young mother. Unlike any other human walking the earth, Mary knew Jesus with an unparalleled knowledge and intimacy. In understated fashion, the biblical text declares, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Kateryna Shadrina’s imagery of the Madonna and Child gives an almost expansive stargazing night scope to Mary’s experience. Mother and Child have been artistically portrayed since the era of the catacombs. The great poet Dante referred to Mary as “the lovely sapphire whose grace ensapphires the heaven’s brightest sphere.” Shadrina’s brilliant color scheme reflects that poetic sentiment. Her insightful artistic collection has rejuvenated my own spiritual imagination when I revisit biblical stories I have read for decades.
Kateryna Shadrina. “Victima.”
Shadrina’s exhibition at Iconart Gallery earlier this year was entitled “Victima” and reflected her views on sacrifice, faith, and love. In addition to her artistry, her thoughts on the subjects are equally compelling.
“Where there is true love, there will always be a place for sacrifice. Sacrifice can be considered as the level at which the power of love is measured,” she writes in the exhibit’s narrative. “And the standard in this is God – the perfection of love. He sacrificed the most precious thing for our hope. But in our pragmatic world, it is very difficult to weigh the pros and cons so that one’s sacrifice is not made in vain. We are focused on the terrestrial things, we catch the moment and don’t know exactly whether to think about the salvation of the soul and the kingdom of heaven.”
Art in bomb shelters.
Because missiles do not recognize beauty, truth, or faith, Ukrainians have been storing precious artwork in bunkers. “There is an egomaniac in Moscow who doesn’t care about killing children, let alone destroying art,” Ihor Kozhan, director of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv, told the Washington Post. “If our history and heritage are to survive, all art must go underground.”
There are, of course, pieces of great beauty and value that cannot be hidden in bunkers. Statues have been wrapped in foam and plastic. “The stained-glass windows of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1360, are covered in metal to protect them from Russian rockets,” reports the New York Times.
Maria Prymachenko in 1936. British Museum.
Early on in the invasion, Putin’s army targeted a museum in Ivankiv, 50 miles northwest of Kyiv. Housed in this seemingly insignificant civilian target were 25 paintings by Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997), a world-renowned Ukrainian folk artist who wowed both Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
“The museum was the first building in Ivankiv that the Russians destroyed,” the artist’s great-granddaughter Anastasiia Prymachenko told The Times of London. “I think it is because they want to destroy our Ukrainian culture.”
In a truly heroic gesture, a friend of Anastasiia’s ran into the burning museum and saved as many of the artworks as he was able. “When he saw the smoke from the museum he ran, broke the museum window and went into the fire,” she reported. “He couldn’t take everything out but he knew the most famous paintings were by Prymachenko. Since he only had a few minutes, he just took these paintings, and a few other works of art.”
Prymachenko created brightly-colored mythical and fantastical creatures and her work was called primitive, naïve, or the “art of a holy heart.” With critically acclaimed exhibitions literally around the globe, she stated her motivation in utterly tender terms. “I make sunny flowers just because I love people, I work for joy and happiness so that all peoples could love each other and live like flowers on this Earth,” she once said.
Allowing art to shine
Christianity around the globe is largely represented by three major expressions: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. Within Ukraine, the vast majority of the population is Orthodox. However, Ukrainian Greek Catholicism is the dominant expression of faith in Lviv and in much of western Ukraine (the “Greek” in the title is about its Byzantine liturgical worship style, not about Greek ethnicity).
“Pilate condemns Jesus” by Ivanka Demchuk.
The contemporary iconographers in Lviv come from a spiritual lineage of survival that knows what it is like to hold fast to life and faith underground. After World War II, Joseph Stalin mercilessly attempted to dissolve and destroy the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It was forced to worship in clandestine secrecy. The sanctuaries, art, and treasuries were summarily confiscated and handed over to Moscow’s Orthodox Church.
“Harsh repressions followed,” observed Dr. Nadia M. Diuk, then vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy, in a 2016 Atlantic Council report. “Ukrainian Catholic priests were beaten, tortured, and given long prison sentences. Tens of thousands of religious laity met the same fate. UGCC Metropolitan Josef Slipiy was exiled to a hard labor camp in Siberia. The church went underground: services were held in the forests, or in private homes where they dared. Children were baptized in secret and religious rites performed clandestinely, while the Soviet state continued its assault on priests, monks, nuns, and the Catholic faithful, offering respite within the Russian Orthodox Church or repression as the price for refusal to cut ties with the bishop of Rome.” (Dr. Diuk, herself ethnically Ukrainian, died in 2019.)
In 1994, Jane Perlez reported in the New York Times: “While many priests died in concentration camps and believers were persecuted, it was the biggest underground church in the former Soviet Union. Rites were administered, priests ordained and bishops consecrated secretly during these years.”
Part of the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in 1989 was the restoration of the legal status to this ruthlessly persecuted church. On August 19, 1990, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church received possession – once again – of the historic Cathedral of St. George in Lviv. Tens of thousands rejoiced inside and outside the reclaimed sanctuary.
It is not difficult to see the new generation of imaginative artists and iconographers as a significantly blossoming manifestation of relentless faithfulness during decades of Soviet suppression.
“The time when I create the icon is my way of praying, questioning, searching, the time of being with God, before God, the state of happiness and peace,” said Katheryna Kuziv about her art. “The aim is to express the ‘incarnation’ of God’s Word in a visual image, where a touch of God’s reality must take place to awaken a longing for God, to promote the pursuit of Him.”
Although once viewed solely as a distinct art form within Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, John Kohan (spiritualartpilgrim.com) has hopes that an ecumenical reappraisal is taking place with a new generation. “Expanding the range of prototypes of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints, and key moments in sacred history can only make these images, which are uniquely created for personal prayer and corporate devotion, more accessible to larger numbers of Christians – a development in sacred art-making, surely worth celebrating in the universal church,” he wrote.
During the 1990s, there was not a more popular art commentator on British television than the late Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018). For more than 40 years, she lived in obscurity as a reclusive nun devoted to prayer in the middle of the night. However, the plain-spoken elderly nun – an Oxford-educated amateur art historian – became a media sensation with her insightful BBC/PBS tutorials on various works of art – from cave drawings to Andy Warhol, including iconography.
While she had detractors, Sister Wendy most certainly understood the spiritual dimension of icons. She knew that the apparent surrealism was often utilized to invite our eye to gaze at a world unseen. “They are drawing us out of our worldly reality into their world, the true world,” she wrote in Encounters with God, “summoning us to leave behind all that is earthly and to breathe an air more pure than we can understand.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Art above: “Madonna and Child” by Kateryna Shadrina (left) and Hidden life in Nazareth” by Ivanka Demchuk (right). Special thanks to Iconart Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine.
By Bishop Robert Aboagye-Mensah
If the Methodist movement has any hope for continuing its vibrant global mission into the future, it must build its mission on the same foundations on which John Wesley built.
Bishop Robert Aboagye-Mensah
On February 3, 1738, when John Wesley returned to London after he had served as a missionary in America, he had this to say, “It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country, in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity. But what have I learned myself in the mean time? Why, … that I who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.”
Four days after this confession, under Providence, Wesley met Peter Bohler, a minister of the Moravian Church. Bohler took Wesley through the Bible and on several occasions explained to him that it is by grace that we are instantaneously saved, through faith in Christ alone. Finally, according to his Journal, on May 24, 1738 Wesley experienced this grace firsthand.
“I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans,” he wrote. “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change, which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley later placed his conversion to God – and indeed, his entire ministry – in the context of the Bible.
“I want to know one thing – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach that way: For this very end he came from heaven. He has written it down in a book. O give me that book,” he famously wrote. “At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book]. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual.’ I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable…. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”
Wesley is here recapturing the mission of God as found in the whole Bible. That is, God wills to be known and worshipped by all persons and nations as the One and only Creator, Ruler, Judge, and the Savior of the world, and that in Jesus Christ this mission of God has been fully realized. After his conversion, Wesley referred to the Bible as “the book of God,” and himself as “a man of one book.” For him, in all matters the Church is to be judged by Scripture – and not Scripture by the Church. As he put it, “as long we have the Scripture, the Church is to be referred to the Scripture, and not the Scripture to the Church; and that, as the Scripture is the best expounder of itself, so the best way to know whether anything be of divine authority, is to apply ourselves to the Scripture.”
Wesley also understood that the Holy Spirit who inspired the original authors of the Bible continues to inspire current individuals and groups as they study and meditate on the Word. Additionally, he admonished Christians to “consult those who are experienced in the things of God, and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak.” Here, Wesley is referring to some of the early African Church Fathers like Origen, Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine. In his book The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy: Return to Foundations, Thomas C. Oden states that these Church Fathers were considered among others as “the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with the Spirit by whom all Scriptures was given.”
Dr. Oden points out that in addition to accepting the biblical interpretation of these early African Fathers, Wesley was also greatly influenced by their commitments to holy living, by how they immersed themselves in prayer, their dedicated reading and studying of the Bible and by opening themselves to the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit, particularly in worship. These African saints became models for Wesley’s own life and ministry in eighteenth century England. Today there are African Methodist scholars who also consider the early African Church Fathers as models of reliable interpreters of the Bible and have returned to them, studying their Bible commentaries and Christian spirituality. (African scholars are sincerely grateful to Dr. Oden and the Center for Early African Christianity for making available Bible commentaries of the early Church Fathers, particularly that of the African Church Fathers.)
Wesley’s view of the Bible is extremely important for the future of global Methodism. May we reflect on the opening words of Wesley on “Thoughts Upon Methodism.”
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
To maintain our identity and relevance in the world as the people globally called Methodists, we will have to be people of the “Book of God” – the Bible. As John Wesley and the early Methodists were, may we be a people of one book.
Robert K. Aboagye-Mensah is the past Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church Ghana (2003-2009). During that period he also served as a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and also as the Vice-President of All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) for West Africa sub-region. The Most Rev. Dr. Aboagye-Mensah was a member of the Board of Directors of The Mission Society from 2009 to 2015. This is the third of a series of articles provided by TMS Global to platform some important voices in global Methodism. Image: Celebration in Lawra, Ghana for the dedication of a borehole at the Methodist Integrated Health Project. The Most Rev. Robert K. Aboagye-Mensah, in the middle in the cassock, presents cloth as a gift to short-term team members who helped build a parsonage in another town – and to Mary Kay Jackson. A TMS Global missionary and engineer, Mary Kay had drilled the borehole as part of her work with relief agencies to bring potable water to rural villages in Ghana. Photo provided by Mary Kay Jackson.
Map of United Methodist Jurisdictions and Annual Conferences in the United States of America. Photo Courtesy of the United Methodist News Service.
By Thomas Lambrecht –
A few weeks ago, the Rev. Adam Hamilton was interviewed by UM News Service on his thoughts about the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. He said, “Generally, the idea of allowing people to graciously exit with their buildings, I think almost everybody has agreed to that.” Hamilton notes this is a significant change from five years ago, when very few were in favor of allowing denominational exit. While he notes that anything can happen at General Conference, he believes this idea would have broad support.
At the same time, Hamilton reports that some have raised “questions” about certain provisions of the Protocol. Some question the feasibility of allocating $25 million to the new proposed Global Methodist Church. Others question the ability of an annual conference to vote to withdraw from the UM Church or would like to see the percentage of that vote raised from 57 percent to two-thirds. In this article, I would like to address the thinking behind these particular provisions.
Annual Conference Departure
The Protocol provides that an annual conference may vote to withdraw from the UM Church and align with another Methodist denomination formed under the Protocol based on a vote of 57 percent in favor. This was the very last provision of the Protocol that was agreed upon, and failure to agree on this proposal would have scuttled the whole deal. The 57 percent was a compromise between progressives and centrists, who wanted a two-thirds vote, and traditionalists, who wanted a simple majority.
The idea of an annual conference decision on alignment actually came from the Commission on a Way Forward. The Connectional Conference Plan provided for two conferences within United Methodism, one traditionalist and one progressive/centrist. Annual conferences could vote to align with one or the other, carrying all their local churches with them into that alignment (unless the local church disagreed and took steps to align differently).
This same model was used in the Indianapolis Plan and later in the Protocol, so it is an idea that was broadly accepted across the ideological spectrum.
The reason for having an annual conference vote is to respond to the plea the Commission received from many clergy: “Don’t make my local church vote.” If the annual conference votes on alignment and the local church agrees with the annual conference decision, there would be no need for the local church to vote, thus avoiding the potential divisiveness a local vote might precipitate. Those who do not want annual conferences to be able to withdraw would be mandating a vote by all local churches in that annual conference that wanted to withdraw. Allowing an annual conference to withdraw would minimize the number of congregational votes in that annual conference.
Part of the “grace” alluded to in the name of the Protocol is the idea that all groups want any denominations that emerge under the Protocol, as well as the post-separation United Methodist Church, to be as strong and vibrant as possible, set up to succeed, rather than fail. Not allowing an annual conference to withdraw could cause that annual conference to become non-viable as it remains in the post-seperation UM Church. If a significant percentage of an annual conference’s congregations withdraw to join a new denomination, it would leave that annual conference unable to continue functioning, and it would probably be folded into a nearby annual conference, losing its identity.
For instance, the Northwest Texas Annual Conference recently voted by about an 80 percent margin to endorse the Protocol and indicate that it would vote to withdraw and join the Global Methodist Church if the Protocol passed General Conference. If the NWTX Conference were not allowed to withdraw, it could lose more than half its congregations (perhaps as many as 80 percent) to the GM Church. The congregations that would be left would almost certainly not be able to maintain a viable annual conference in the UM Church. The remaining congregations would undoubtedly be reassigned to a nearby annual conference, defeating the whole purpose of not allowing an annual conference to withdraw. Such an outcome helps neither the UM Church nor the GM Church and does not create strong and viable entities to continue ministry and mission in a geographical area.
The question of what percentage vote would be required for an annual conference to withdraw is a sticky one. Those who argue for a two-thirds majority vote say that any major decision by a unit of the church ought to be made by a supermajority vote. Anything less than a supermajority could mean that a church moves forward without the full support of its members, resulting in an adverse outcome.
On the other hand, those arguing for a simple majority vote say that we live in a democratic society, where people are used to accepting the will of the majority. For a small, one-third minority of the church to block the will of the majority could cause major disruption in the church and resentment by those in the majority. (This happened to a large congregation in Houston whose recent attempt to leave the Presbyterian Church fell just a few votes short of the required two-thirds.)
That is why the compromise of 57 percent seems to fit the bill. It is greater than a simple majority, assuring that the decision by an annual conference to withdraw has solid support in the conference. Yet it is not so high as to allow a small minority to block the will of the strong majority. As with many of the terms of the Protocol, this compromise holds in delicate balance competing values. Any attempt to move the percentage one way or the other would upset the delicate balance and potentially damage the entire deal worked out by the various groups.
Some traditionalists perceive attempts to change the percentage or to disallow annual conference withdrawal as an attempt to coerce churches to stay in the UM Church. Any church should be made up of a coalition of the willing, not a coalition of the coerced. One value underlying the Protocol was to provide the fairest and most straightforward way for local churches and annual and central conferences to align with those with whom they desire to identify. Closing the door on some of those pathways undermines the basic values espoused by the Protocol.
Attempts to change the provision allowing annual conferences to withdraw also smacks of a double standard. In the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference, 28 U.S. annual conferences voted not to abide by the recent changes in the Book of Discipline. Annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction and Denmark began exploring the option of disaffiliating from the UM Church. But now that it is traditionalist annual conferences that would be withdrawing, some want to make it harder or even impossible for that to happen. A good rule of thumb is to treat others as one would like to be treated. If the ability of an annual conference to withdraw from a church that it can no longer support is fair for some, it is right for others with a different perspective.
What about the money?
The other issue raised is whether in Hamilton’s words “the resources are there” for the UM Church to pay out the $25 million to the new denomination. “Does this make sense today like it did before? And for some people it didn’t make sense even then.”
Some consider the $25 million as a subsidy by the UM Church to the new denomination. But the participants in the Protocol saw it as a fair way to allocate the resources that all United Methodists – including traditionalists – have contributed to the church over the past 200-plus years. The amount was not calculated based on the current income of the UM Church, but on unrestricted liquid assets available at the end of 2018, which amounted to $120 million. Of that amount, one-third ($40 million) was to go to the new denominations formed under the Protocol. Traditionalists agreed to contribute one-third of their share ($13 million) to maintain the ethnic ministries and Africa University at their current levels. That left $25 million for the traditionalist denomination and $2 million for a potential progressive denomination.
To take away the $25 million is to say that traditionalists have contributed nothing to the church over the decades. Whereas, in fact, traditionalists have been strong supporters of the mission of the church and contributed to the assets that the church has built up over the years. Allocating $25 million is only a recognition of that fact. It would also allow the new denomination to support ministry in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe where parts of the church indicate their intent to join the GM Church.
To be fair, if the unrestricted liquid reserves of the UM Church have been significantly reduced by the end of 2021, that is something worth reexamining. On the other hand, perhaps the reserves have increased, and the amount should be greater than $25 million. All traditionalists seek is to be treated fairly and with respect.
In the final analysis, these questions are about grace and preserving the possibility of future reconciliation – perhaps not reunion, but at least the possibility of cooperating together in ministries of mutual interest. We can release and bless one another as we go our separate ways. Or we can fight for every last nickel we think we are owed, creating further animosity between different parts of the Body of Christ. A return to conflict was what the Protocol was designed to avoid. We have the chance to show the world a different, more Christlike way to resolve our differences and bring honor to the name of Christ.
By B.J. Funk –
“It is always just possible that Jesus Christ meant what he said when he told us to seek the secret place and to close the door,” C.S. Lewis observed in God in the Dock.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “And when you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they will be seen by people. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But as for you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6, NASB).
When my two sons were little boys, I gave them each a drawer at a table in their room. That drawer was theirs only. I called it their Special/Secret Drawer. They were young – ages five and three – and it gave them joy to have their own special place. Their own crayons, their own stamp collection, etc. I don’t know why it worked so well, but it did.
At that same time, I had my own Special/Secret Drawer in our guest bedroom. Into that drawer, I stuffed page after page of my hurtful marriage. I wrote a lot about my pain, my broken heart, and also a lot about what God was teaching me. I read books that I knew would give me spiritual strength.
The book I clung to was Dennis Bennett’s book, Nine O’Clock in the Morning. Bennett, an Episcopal priest, found himself in a spiritual wilderness. Along with his wife, Rita, he shared the fire that led to a longed-for renewal. This now classic story tells how the Charismatic Movement began and swept into churches across America.
I was in a spiritual wilderness. I could not sleep. I lost weight rapidly. I cried to the Lord for help.
The title of Bennett’s book is taken from a New Testament episode and the words of the Apostle Peter right after the Holy Spirit descended on the small group gathered and waiting for the Lord’s guidance. When they came into the streets, they were swaying and stumbling and so they were accused of being drunk. Actually, they were woozy with the power of the Spirit. Peter corrected them.
“These men are not drunk, as you suppose,” he said. “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning” (Acts 2:15). Then Peter explained that the prophet Joel had prophesied this very thing, that God said through Joel that he would, in the last days, pour out his Spirit on all people. That’s when the church was born, and three thousand people were added to their roll on that very day.
I began meeting the Lord each morning before the boys got up. There, he bathed me in love. I learned that, as C.S. Lewis said, Jesus implores us to pull away and go to God in secret. He would reward us.
That marriage lasted five more years before my husband divorced the boys and me. I include the boys in that statement because, by his choice, their dad has not seen them in thirty years.
But that’s not really the point of this article. I believe that my special times with my Lord in those early morning hours were the real reason I didn’t hit bottom five years later. The Holy Spirit had become real to me. And in all of the feelings of loneliness and betrayal that would come to me again, I knew I would make it. I threw away everything in that drawer.
In many churches, the Holy Spirit is ignored or feared. Yet when we ask him to baptize us with his Spirit, we find a life with Jesus that we had not known before. And by the way, he has never required me to do anything that would embarrass me. He is a Gentleman. My walk with him is between a Gentleman and a Lady.
Oswald Chambers says, “The Holy Spirit makes real in me all that Jesus did for me.” The United Methodist Church needs the power of the Holy Spirit to invade our lives with depth, joy, and power. And we would all welcome a 3,000 member surge. Dear Lord, let it be.
B.J. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace.