By Thomas Lambrecht
In a provocative, year-end proclamation as she was walking out the door to her new assignment in Virginia, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson defiantly led the North Georgia Conference to stop all local church disaffiliations. The “pause” announced by the conference is supposed to be “revisited” following the 2024 General Conference, but as of now, there will be no disaffiliation process available after December 31, 2023, for them to revisit.
This draconian action to block disaffiliation is the most severe taken by any annual conference. The rationale given for this action was that “misleading, defamatory, and false statements and materials [have been] shared with local church members by certain organizations as well as clergy and lay members of various churches and outside groups.” Because of this alleged disinformation, the conference claims it does “not have confidence in the validity of upcoming church conference disaffiliation votes.”
The North Georgia action is the very definition of a punitive action. Since you traditionalists have said things we disapprove of, you will not be allowed to disaffiliate from the denomination. Such heavy-handed intimidation tactics will surely backfire. Trampled underfoot is the slogan: “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” Many Georgia Methodists will not want to be part of a denomination that treats their pastors and churches in such a paternalistic way.
Dealing with Misinformation
The conference accuses “certain organizations” (presumably the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the Global Methodist Church, and Good News) of presenting information “about disaffiliation [that is] outside the bounds of normal and acceptable civil discourse. It has not only been false and misleading but has been antithetical to the concept of a gracious exit or a commitment to honoring the mission and ministry of all Christians.”
There are two ways to deal with purported misinformation. One way is to counter the misinformation with better information. The conference claims to have done this. “District Superintendents have held more than 200 information sessions over the past year. The website … [is] updated regularly. The Conference has provided printable, sharable Q&As.” “Informed laity” have been empowered “to speak on the topic to local churches.” The bishop held regional gatherings with opportunities for questions and answers. She has met with pastors and lay members of Annual Conference in every district, as well as with individual UM congregations.
The other way to counter purported misinformation is through censorship. The conference has attempted to control the flow of information by prohibiting clergy from making presentations to churches without the permission of the pastor or the district superintendent. Many local pastors have attempted to prevent their lay members from learning about the controversies in the denomination and the possibility of disaffiliation.
Apparently, neither of these ways to counter misinformation have gotten the results that the conference desired, so now they are pulling the plug on the whole disaffiliation process. Since 71 churches were approved for disaffiliation in 2022 and another 150-200 churches were in process for 2023, North Georgia stood to lose one-third of their congregations. Faced with this reality, the conference has decided to block the process, using the allegations of misinformation as a smokescreen for the real reason for this action.
What exactly has been shared that the conference finds objectionable? One example they give is “Church leaders communicating to members that ‘The UMC’s theological impasse is rooted in our differing beliefs regarding the authority of the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible, its impact on how we live out our faith, and the Lordship of Jesus.’”
Of course, this is exactly what we have been saying for years. The conference leaders may disagree with us on this point, but that does not make what we are saying “misinformation.” In our highly fraught culture, we tend to label viewpoints we disagree with as misinformation, when in reality, it is just a different viewpoint.
The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, signed and endorsed by nine UM bishops, recognized the deeper issues causing our denomination’s theological divide. The very first principle stated in the Protocol reads, “The United Methodist Church and its members – after careful reflection, discussion and prayer – have fundamental differences regarding their understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice.” This acknowledgement was agreed to and widely shared by progressives, centrists, and traditionalists. It is not misinformation.
Other examples of misinformation cited by the conference include that the UM Church no longer believes in the resurrection or divinity of Christ or has changed the Apostles Creed. Of course, these are not true, and we have not said this. What we have said is that the UM Church no longer uniformly enforces its doctrinal standards, so that some individual clergy and bishops no longer believe in the resurrection or divinity of Christ or some of the other elements of the Apostles Creed.
Another misinformation example: “Church leaders claiming United Methodist seminaries are teaching a variety of unchristian material by non-Christian professors.” This is a true statement. Some UM seminaries employ some professors/instructors who are not Christians and are in fact members of another religion.
Still yet another misinformation example: “Church leaders communicating that North Georgia Conference leadership is not following the Book of Discipline.” This is a true statement. There are reportedly non-celibate gay/lesbian clergy serving in North Georgia. The conference leaders issued a vision statement promoting the acceptance of homosexuality and calling on the churches to affirm same-sex relationships, putting this issue on a par with combatting racism or fostering equality for women.
When reading over the disaffiliation announcement issued by the conference leaders, one fails to find any specific quotes with attached dates, locations, speakers, or citations. United Methodists in North Georgia deserve better. If the conference leadership is going to torpedo a General Conference directive, the case should be made with specificity instead of a host of alleged generalities. The conference also fails to indicate how many churches were allegedly impacted by what the conference calls “misinformation.” It is unfair to punish all churches if only some were affected.
The conference also objects to some of the tactics purportedly being used by churches considering disaffiliation.
“Churches holding secret meetings on this matter to which not all members are invited or equally informed.” Are not like-minded members able to meet together to plan how to present their request for the consideration of disaffiliation? (Do we not have freedom of association in the U.S.?) At times, these meetings are considered “secret” because the pastor does not allow them to take place on church grounds and does not allow them to be publicized to all the church members. Some pastors forbid any consideration or discussion of disaffiliation. If the pastor would allow transparency, there would be no need for “secret” meetings.
“Clergy suggesting that members of one church would be willing to join another church to help push them over the threshold to disaffiliate.” For the record, WCA leaders in North Georgia are unaware of any clergy suggesting this. Certainly, pastors who know their people should be able to prevent inappropriate persons from joining the congregation. The pastor has final say on who is ready to assume the vows of membership.
“Clergy making presentations to congregations that are not their own, without the appointed pastor’s permission, and in many cases without their knowledge, therefore undermining their ministry.” Again, we have the freedom as people to gather and discuss information. Being a church member does not put one under the exclusive control of the pastor. For years, Good News has advocated that pastors get ahead of this issue by informing their congregation what is happening and what the options for the future are. Pastors who organize balanced information sessions inviting persons of different perspectives to share information do not have the problems raised by the conference. It only happens where pastors attempt to stifle or control the flow of information to their members, which itself is an unhealthy practice.
Certainly, it is impossible for any organization to control what all its members say. The organizations mentioned strive to ensure their leaders and official representatives speak judiciously and truthfully. Where that does not happen, it is appropriate to call us on it, and we would be bound to correct misstatements. (It is impossible to respond specifically to the allegations made in the announcement without citations or identifications of who allegedly said the things quoted.)
As noted above, however, most of the allegations of misinformation are simply different perspectives with which the conference disagrees. Reasonable people can disagree about the information shared. But it is unreasonable to attempt to control what information can be shared or to use disagreement as a pretext for cutting off the whole process. United Methodist members are adults who can critically evaluate information from a variety of viewpoints and make their own prayerful decision.
The Bottom Line
Bishop Haupert-Johnson and the North Georgia leaders have taken it upon themselves to determine that local churches are incapable of making an informed decision about their own futures. They have cut off all possibility of local churches in that conference disaffiliating this year. And unless the 2024 General Conference adopts a new disaffiliation pathway, they have permanently ended any chance for local churches to disaffiliate.
This action by the North Georgia conference leaders flies in the face of what the General Conference enacted in 2019. Par. 2553 states that “a local church shall have a limited right … to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience” (emphasis added). The conference is attempting to take away this right through a decree by the leaders. They do not have the authority to do so.
Taking this step opens the leaders to the filing of charges against them for disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church. It also opens them up to the filing of lawsuits against the conference for failing to follow the property provisions in the Book of Discipline.
Once again, those who have long clamored for everyone to have a “heart of peace” are instead choosing the path of heightened conflict and abusive power. Rather than allowing people to follow their conscience, they are attempting to coerce people to remain in a denomination that no longer reflects their beliefs. They are punitively holding church property for ransom and damaging the ministry of hundreds of local churches by this decision. This action is unjust, and it is unchristian. Let us hope it is soon reversed.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.