By Rob Renfroe —
On December 28, 2022, the exiting bishop of the North Georgia Annual Conference and her appointive cabinet sent a very clear message to the churches, pastors, and laypersons of that conference. The message was: We don’t trust you.
I initially chose not to write about the bishop and cabinet’s decision to suspend the ability of churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church until General Conference 2024. Others had done so fairly and insightfully. But then I spent some time on the UM Clergy Facebook page and saw that not only was the North Georgia decision being praised, it was even being widely suggested that other bishops and cabinets follow suit. So, I feel compelled to address what the leaders in North Georgia have done and what others might be inclined to do, as well.
Disaffiliation is being disallowed in North Georgia because, according to a statement posted on that conference’s website, “many local churches have been misled about the disaffiliation process and have been presented with information about the process, and about The United Methodist Church and its leadership, that is factually incorrect and defamatory.” The statement continued “we do not have confidence in the validity of upcoming church conference disaffiliation votes. … We have agreed that our Annual Conference cannot rely upon such votes for purposes of negotiating a gracious exit.”
In essence the bishop, the cabinet, and the trustees of the North Georgia Conference are disallowing votes in local churches because they do not trust pastors and laypersons to listen to all sides, sift through contradictory information, and decide what is true and what is best for their congregations.
There are United Methodist businesspersons in north Georgia who are CEO’s and CFO’s who run multi-billion-dollar companies and who must make decisions in the best interest of those companies after reviewing information and data that is often incredibly complicated, even confusing. Others go to work and make million-dollar decisions if not every day, then every week, in that same complex environment where various views often compete with one another, all presenting themselves as true and the best way forward. Other UM members in north Georgia we trust to teach children in the schools there, determining what scientific, historical, and cultural claims are valid and should be passed on to the next generation. Still others run farms and ranches and family business, and they make decisions every day, not based on certainty, but on what they ascertain to be true and determine to be the best way forward.
Companies, businesses, schools, and families trust these good Methodists to make terribly important and complex decisions every day. Still others are pastors who are trusted to determine what spiritual truths are valid and worthy of being taught in our churches and which spiritual claims must be discarded, even exposed as false. And we trust them to do so.
But when it comes to listening to all the information available about the divisions within the UM Church and the process of disaffiliation, the previous bishop, district superintendents, and conference trustees in north Georgia do not believe their lay members and pastors are capable of discerning what is true and what is in their best interest. They may have heard wrong information and cannot be trusted to be motivated enough or intelligent enough to determine what views are correct. What a magnificently patronizing and demeaning message to send to people who are quite capable and trustworthy in every other area of their lives.
One reason the leaders of the North Georgia Annual Conference cannot trust churches and laypersons to decide what is best for their congregation is because “certain organizations as well as clergy and lay members of various churches and outside groups” have shared “misleading, defamatory and false statements and materials” with churches in the conference. As is typical with those claiming that traditional groups and pastors are spreading misinformation, no particular group or person is mentioned by name and no specific example of false information is cited. (My colleague, Tom Lambrecht, addressed the conference’s general allegations in last week’s Perspective.) Without specific citations of who said what when and where, it is impossible to refute or even address these allegations.
What is apparent is that more churches in North Georgia have either already left or are prepared to disaffiliate from the conference than the leaders there expected. During the process of discernment, conference officials have either presented the official UM line to these churches or have had the opportunity to do so. Still, after hearing the “Stay UMC” pitch, these congregations have decided it is best for them to leave. And now the conference leadership has decided to make it impossible for them to do what, after praying and listening to all sides, these churches have decided God is calling them to do.
Many, maybe most, of the current bishops in the UM Church are similar to my age. That means their formative years were in the 1970’s. It was a tumultuous time, and our generation decided that we would not trust “the establishment” simply because people in places of power told us they knew what was right for us. We would decide, we had a right to decide, for ourselves – even if we were young – what was right for us. We swore that when we rose to positions of power, we would be different. We would not lead or govern through manipulation and control or by exerting our authority over others. And we would never do what had been done to us – tell others they could not be trusted to make their own decision because we knew better.
Still, this is the exact message and the very methodology that the leaders in North Georgia have exhibited: You lay people and pastors may be very competent in your fields of expertise and trusted by many in your work life, but when it comes to making spiritual decisions, we don’t trust you. And we – the elites, the knowledgeable, the authorities – we will decide for you.
As The Who sang when many of these bishops and I were young, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
Maybe some folks in north Georgia have been confused by what is purported to be “misinformation” about the UM Church and its future. But I am confident they see very clearly that their leaders are willing to change the rules when it suits their purposes, are only too happy to exert their authority to control people when Jesus told us to lead as servants, and are distrustful of their people’s intellectual capabilities and their spiritual maturity.
If other UM pastors want to praise such leadership and recommend it as a model for other bishops and conferences, they may. But it is simply one more reason that many faithful Methodists cannot wait to leave the UM Church and join a new movement where people are trusted and empowered to make good decisions for themselves and for their congregations.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.