By Thomas Lambrecht
For nearly the last ten years, Good News has advocated for an amicable separation in The United Methodist Church. Following the 2012 General Conference, it became apparent that the different understandings of Methodism could not continue together in one church and remain healthy. That conclusion was only reinforced over the years since that time, with efforts at resolving our differences having failed amid the refusal of many U.S. clergy and bishops to accept the decisions of General Conference.
My colleague Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, has likened our conflicted situation to a cage match, where two opponents are locked in a cage and forced to fight one another until one or the other is defeated. Only then would the cage door be unlocked to let the fighters out. Renfroe’s point was that the cage could be unlocked and the fighting ended without the need for one fighter to lose and the other win, if the denomination were willing to release the trust clause and allow separation to occur.
Leaders from across the theological spectrum arrived at an agreement for such a release in the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. It promised an end to the cage match of our conflict via an orderly and peaceful separation process. It was negotiated by a mediation team of progressives, centrists, traditionalists, and bishops under the guidance of renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, Esq. It provided for central conferences, annual conferences, local churches, and clergy to have a clear way to separate from The United Methodist Church in order to form or join a new Methodist denomination. The costs involved were low, and the process was manageable.
The Protocol still represents the best chance the denomination has of resolving its conflict through an orderly and gracious separation, ending decades of conflict and opening the door to renewed focus on mission and ministry.
None of the Protocol’s signatories or the groups they represent was entirely happy with the terms of the Protocol. But they were willing to sign off on the deal, conceding some terms they did not like in order to gain terms that were favorable and provide for a resolution of the church’s conflict. The focus was on how to amicably end the conflict, knowing that the alternative was to return to the dysfunctional and vicious disputes that characterized the 2019 General Conference.
Unfortunately, it now looks like the Protocol is on life-support. In early June, progressive and centrist leaders withdrew support for the agreement.
All the living signatories to the Protocol representing centrist and progressive viewpoints have signed the repudiation statement. The centrist and progressive groups that had endorsed the Protocol have withdrawn their endorsement, including Uniting Methodists, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries Network, UM Queer Clergy Caucus, UMCNext, and Mainstream UMC.
Reasons for backing out. Some of the reasons given in the statement for their repudiation of the Protocol include:
• The passage of time and “long delays.” We, too, are frustrated by the continued unnecessary postponement of General Conference until 2024. It is this delay that caused the Global Methodist Church to be launched. However, many traditionalists have made the commitment to stick with the UM Church in order to seek enactment of the Protocol. One cannot help but wonder if the postponement was part of a plan to provide an excuse for centrists and progressives to withdraw support for the Protocol.
• “Changing circumstances within The United Methodist Church, and the formal launch of the Global Methodist Church in May of this year.” What has changed is that those traditionalist congregations that are able are moving to disaffiliate from the UM Church. Perhaps the centrist/progressive calculation is that such a move will reduce the number of traditionalist delegates at General Conference enough to allow a change in the church’s position on marriage and sexuality to a progressive one. They may be thinking that then there will be no need to allow traditionalists a gracious way to separate.
It would be wise to remember that traditionalists can still hinder the progressive agenda by defeating the Christmas Covenant regionalization of church government, which requires a two-thirds vote. Traditionalists can also refuse to fund a denomination that has turned its back on the clear teaching of Scripture. A coerced covenant is not a legitimate covenant. A church that thinks it can force people to remain in a denomination they do not support is not operating by Christian principles. It is best for all sides to promote amicable separation on reasonable terms to allow agendas supported by all sides to move forward unhindered.
• Serious misgivings voiced by bishops and church leaders in the Central Conferences, concerned about potentially disruptive impacts in their geographical regions. Obviously, the signers of this statement are talking with different bishops and church leaders than we are. Traditionalists heard universal support for the Protocol from our European and African colleagues. Three bishops who attended a recent leadership and prayer summit of the Africa Initiative stated clearly their desire to wait for any decision on disaffiliation until the 2024 General Conference could enact the Protocol. We have been told that if the UM Church adopts a progressive position on marriage and sexuality, there is no way that many African annual conferences will remain in the UM Church, whether they are “allowed” to leave or not.
• “Growing opposition to the Protocol within the constituencies [they] represent [and] dwindling support among General Conference delegates.” One wonders how much these leaders advocated for the Protocol within their constituencies. Most of the progressive and centrist leaders who signed the Protocol seem to have believed that their job was done once their name was on the dotted line and the group photo-op was taken.
Frustratingly, these leaders did not consult with traditionalist groups who have also endorsed the Protocol. Their statement says, “Out of a spirit of transparency, trust, and accountability, members of the mediation team have reached out to the organizations that initially supported the Protocol agreement, General Conference delegates, and others within our broad constituencies.” But they did not reach out to us. There was no transparency, trust, or accountability toward traditionalists.
What Now? While the Protocol may be on life support, it is not quite dead, yet. We believe that new delegates will need to be elected for the 2024 General Conference. It is possible a slate of delegates could be elected that is more favorable to providing for amicable separation, rather than the doctrinaire progressives that were elected in 2019 in reaction to the Traditional Plan. We will await those elections to determine whether the Protocol is a viable path forward.
Other legislative options exist, as well. The General Conference could reinstate para. 2553 of the Book of Discipline (which will have expired by then). The General Conference could also create special provisions for Central Conference members to disaffiliate without going through the arduous, four-year-plus process mandated by para. 572 in the Discipline.
Disassociation blues. With the launch of the Global Methodist Church, more local churches are seeking separation under processes currently available in the Book of Discipline. Good News has asked for and hoped for an amicable and reasonable response to this desire to move forward with separation now. Some bishops and annual conferences have accommodated the need for separation with grace and integrity. Others seem determined to keep the church locked in its cage match indefinitely.
It is important to note that, for decades, bishops and annual conferences have allowed individual congregations to withdraw through a negotiated settlement, sometimes involving the “closing” of the church and reselling the property to the departing congregants. While always a sad occasion, congregational disaffiliation is nothing new in The United Methodist Church.
Faced with the prospect of larger-scale disaffiliations due to deeply held theological convictions, the 2019 General Conference adopted a process for disaffiliation in a new Discipline para. 2553. The intent was to provide a straightforward process that cared for clergy pensions and provided a bit of a transitional cushion for the annual conference through an extra year’s apportionments. While annual conferences could flesh out the disaffiliation process in different ways depending upon their context, the authors of the provision never intended that annual conferences could add financial terms to the requirements. Unfortunately, through a clerical error, the language in the paragraph did not explicitly state that.
Now, some bishops and annual conferences are adding costs that make disaffiliation under para. 2553 so costly as to be prohibitive. Some are demanding a percentage of the congregation’s property value or total assets, anywhere from 20 to 67 percent. Others are demanding reimbursement of any annual conference legal fees. (I have yet to see a reasonable accounting of what legal fees an annual conference might be expected to incur. Such fees should be minimal or nonexistent.) Other conferences are requiring the repayment of any grants given the local church by the annual conference up to ten years or even 20 years in the past (ignoring the benefit the annual conference received in higher apportionment payments in the intervening years due to grant-facilitated congregational growth). At least one annual conference has added just about any costs they could think of, including 18 months’ salary and benefits for the pastor (in case the pastor does not withdraw with the congregation), expenses for two pastoral moves, $500 honoraria for conference-approved representatives to make presentations to the local church extolling the virtues of the UM Church, and more.
To add insult to injury, one bishop is saying that none of that annual conference’s churches can disaffiliate because they do not meet the qualifications of para. 2553, which requires the churches disagree with the General Conference’s position on marriage and sexuality or with the annual conference’s action or inaction regarding those issues. As this bishop is interpreting the situation, a traditionalist church can only leave if its annual conference is in violation of the Discipline, since the denominational position remains in line with a traditionalist position.
Other bishops and leaders are saying that the Global Methodist Church does not qualify as “another evangelical denomination” or as a recognized denomination with which clergy and congregations can unite. They maintain that a denomination must be recognized by General Conference before it fits these descriptions. Never mind that annual conferences receive clergy from dozens of other denominations, including various Baptists, Evangelical Free Church, and others that have never been “approved” by General Conference. All of these actions are purely designed to stonewall traditionalists and delay or prevent separation from occurring.
Alternative Metaphors for Separation. In promoting the idea of amicable separation, Good News has pointed to the examples of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 13 and Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. In Genesis 13, we read that Abraham and Lot both had large herds and flocks, and that there was not enough room in the land to sustain both of them. Conflict arose between their respective herders. But Abraham told Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.” Abraham allowed Lot to choose which part of the land he wanted, and Abraham would take what was left.
Similarly, Good News has said that those wishing to pursue a more progressive agenda could keep the UM Church structure and traditionalists would be willing to withdraw to start something new, rather than attempting to force progressives out of the church against their will. In an effort to resolve our differences in a fraternal way, we advocated for a peaceful, voluntary separation, allowing each group to go its own way. We are not interested in perpetuating the conflict unless forced to do so by not being allowed to separate.
In Acts 15, we read that Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement over whether or not to take John Mark with them on their second missionary journey. Paul did not want to take John Mark because he had abandoned them during their first journey. Barnabas wanted to take him along and give him a second chance. Neither was willing to compromise. So they agreed to go their separate ways. For the sake of the mission of the church, they separated and ended up multiplying the mission. In the same way, Good News has argued that, for the sake of the mission of the church, the two groups should separate and go their own way. Doing so would end the conflict, allowing each group to focus on its mission and ministry, allowing both to become more effective.
Unfortunately, neither of these examples describes some of the more punitive approaches UM leaders are taking. Instead, we find ourselves in a situation more analogous with the conflict between Moses and the Egyptian pharaoh. Moses persistently requested and then demanded that the pharaoh let the people of Israel go. But pharaoh kept hardening his heart and refusing to let the Israelites leave.
Good News has argued that traditionalists need to depart from the UM Church because we worship in different ways, under different theologies, with different understandings of Scripture and even different approaches to our denomination’s governing Book of Discipline.
Unintended Consequences. One thing some UM leaders fail to recognize is that their heavy-handed tactics only serve to make the case for why churches and clergy should withdraw and join the GM Church. Most Methodists do not want to be part of an autocratic church run by power-conscious bishops who impose top-down conformity. Most Methodists do agree with their baptismal promise to resist injustice. Traditionalists are determined to resist the injustice being perpetrated against us by some UM bishops and conferences.
Those promoting a “big tent” Methodism are acting inconsistently with that vision when they attempt to coerce congregations to remain United Methodist against their will. The actions of militant leaders in these days are poisoning any possible future relationship.
It did not have to be this way. We have been and still are prepared to engage in a peaceful, fair separation. We are prepared to follow the model of Abraham and Lot or Paul and Barnabas. But if forced into a corner, we are determined to boldly stand for our understanding of the Scriptures and the Gospel.
It is time to move past this conflict in our church. The Protocol represented the best opportunity to do so in a gracious way. It looks doubtful to pass at this point. There are other options that could lead to a gracious separation, and we will work for them. Even if the separation has to be won through conflict and struggle, we believe in the end it will be worth it.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Image: World renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, Esp. volunteered his time and expertise to help progressives, centrists, and traditionalists reach an agreement on a proposal that would maintain The United Methodist Church but allow traditionalist congregations to separate into a new denomination. In June, progressive and centrist leaders withdrew their support of the Feinberg proposal. (Photo courtesy of the Protocol Mediation Team.)