Commentary by Thomas A. Lambrecht
The fall session of the Judicial Council, United Methodism’s supreme court, adjourned October 29 and rendered two significant decisions. One related to a proposed “maximum penalty” for clergy found guilty of performing a same-sex union or wedding. The other decision requested clarification of previous Judicial Council rulings on the legality of congregations identifying themselves as “Reconciling Congregations.”
Earlier this year, the Northern Illinois Annual Conference passed a resolution suggesting that a 24 hour suspension should be the “maximum penalty” for United Methodist clergy charged, tried, and convicted of officiating at a same-sex union ceremony.
Of course, this resolution makes a mockery of the holy conferencing that takes place at General Conference when we discern the standards for our denomination. For two quadrenniums, delegates have overwhelmingly agreed to prohibit United Methodism’s participation in same-sex unions by our clergy and in our sanctuaries.
In its ruling, the Judicial Council declared the Northern Illinois resolution “null, void and of no effect.” The Book of Discipline makes clear “that only a trial court has the power to set a penalty in a church trial which results in a conviction,” stated the decision. Furthermore, a trial court can consider “the full legislated range of options” when determining a penalty, including the revoking of the minister’s ordination, suspending the minister, or imposing a lesser penalty.
Judicial Council member Jon R. Gray noted that the Northern Illinois resolution is “worthy of Macbeth’s commentary: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Good News applauds the finding of Judicial Council decision 1201. This inappropriate attempt to influence the outcome of potential trials further divides our church. Pressure from colleagues to administer only a “slap on the wrist” penalty for willfully defying the church’s rules increases the likelihood that clergy will disobey the Book of Discipline and contribute to the breaking of our clergy covenant. A broken covenant will invariably lead to a church broken by schism.
In another decision, the Council declined to rule on a request for a declaratory decision coming from the Northwest Texas Annual Conference. The request asked “whether it is impermissible for a congregation of The United Methodist Church to publically identify with, affiliate with, label itself as part of, permit its name to be listed on the website of or in the communications of any unofficial body or movement” in light of the fact that Judicial Council decisions 847 and 871 have declared such identification impermissible and divisive.
The question arose because of several instances of local congregations recently acting to designate themselves as “Reconciling Congregations” and becoming affiliated with the “Reconciling Ministries Network.” The RMN seeks the full acceptance of homosexual behavior by the church, including the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the celebration of same-sex weddings or unions.
In 1999, the Judicial Council ruled in Decision 871 that “a local church or any of its organizational units may not identify or label itself as an unofficial body or movement. Such identification or labeling is divisive and makes the local church subject to the possibility of being in conflict with the Discipline and doctrines of The United Methodist Church.” The decision goes on, “Certainly, an annual conference has the right to correct what it determines to be actions by its local churches identifying or labeling themselves as unofficial bodies or movements which are not in compliance with the Discipline and the Constitution.” The Judicial Council quotes its earlier decision 847 that such action would be “divisive and destructive to the life of the church.”
In refusing to rule on the question for a third time this fall, the Judicial Council stated, “In the request, there is no justifiable cause to revisit, re-open, alter or abandon the cited rulings. The holdings of the Judicial Council in these two decisions are clear. For the Judicial Council to declare as impermissible similar acts that it has twice ruled may not be done for being divisive would be an unnecessary exercise in redundancy.”
Good News endorses this ruling for its clear restatement of the fact that local churches and ministries that identify themselves as “Reconciling Congregations” are being disobedient to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church and engaging in actions that are “divisive and destructive to the life of the church.”
Good News and other renewal groups have refrained from seeking congregational members in order to honor the Judicial Council decisions. We call upon all “Reconciling Congregations” to do the same and to remove that designation and comply with the requirements of the Book of Discipline as interpreted by the Judicial Council. Rather than acting to divide our church, we implore congregations to act for unity. The failure to do so would place personal agendas ahead of the covenantal unity of The United Methodist Church.
Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.
By Linda Bloom
When the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries started work in Russia 20 years ago, the primary goal was to deliver food to the Moscow area.
But a changing political climate also led to the opportunity to re-establish Methodism in the former Soviet Union, and the agency wasn’t the only denominational entity interested in church growth in the region.
Under the board’s sponsorship, the Russia Initiative, which also includes the Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, has created a thriving partnership among the denomination’s annual conferences, congregations, and institutions.
Now, as the Board of Global Ministries continues to redefine its role as the denomination’s mission leader and a 21st century missionary-sending agency, the Russia Initiative provides one possible “roadmap” to change, says Thomas Kemper, the board’s top executive.
The initiative’s model of retaining cultural identification and fostering financial self-reliance should be studied, Mr. Kemper told directors during his report at the board’s October 10-12 annual meeting.
How to engage effectively in global mission work is a constant topic of discussion by both the Board of Global Ministries and the denomination at large. Most of the 10 new missionaries commissioned during the meeting will engage in new or expanding mission activities, Mr. Kemper said.
The Mission Society
A new strategic plan for mission focuses on everything from streamlining the agency’s operations to tailoring missionary placements to reflect new global realities and expanding mission partnerships.
Such partnerships even include other mission agencies that might have been considered competitors in the past. To illustrate that point, Mr. Kemper invited the Rev. Dick McClain, president of The Mission Society, to preach during the board’s October 11 worship service.
Founded in 1984 as the Mission Society for United Methodists, the organization set itself up as a secondary agency to send missionaries outside U.S. Mr. Kemper acknowledged the tense relations between the two organizations in the past.
“We are trying to lay aside animosities from 20, 30 years ago, recognizing that The Society…proceeds in its work as a general missionary-sending organization, but not one constituted or operated in opposition to the General Board of Global Ministries,” Mr. Kemper told directors.
In fact, both Mr. Kemper, a member of the Germany Annual Conference with extensive mission experience, and Mr. McClain, who joined The Mission Society in 1986 as its first Director of Missionary Personnel, spoke of the friendship that has developed between them over the last 18 months.
Cooperation can benefit both agencies, Mr. Kemper said. “We know that openness between the two agencies helps both to deal with real issues that arise in mission areas where we each have personnel or may plan to have personnel,” he explained.
In his sermon, Mr. McClain offered board directors and staff a welcome from the society’s 200 missionaries in 37 countries and 33 staff in its Norcross, Georgia, offices. “Every member of our community rejoices that I’m here today,” he added.
The new realities of the mission field are not just global but also local, Mr. McClain pointed out. For example, 35 percent of the residents in a community near the society offices are recent immigrants and 85 percent are Muslims.
Such diverse communities offer “amazing opportunities and significant challenges to churches all over America,” Mr. McClain said. “While the content of the gospel has not changed, the context in which we proclaim it has changed dramatically, almost overnight.”
Dana Robert, a Boston University School of Theology professor, and David Scott, a doctoral student there, offered a taste of their research into that new context during an October 10 presentation to board directors.
As it was a century ago, Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, but the population it encompasses has changed. “We are a truly multicultural faith today, with roughly one-fourth to one-fifth of Christianity represented on different continents,” Dr. Robert said.
The configuration of Christianity also has shifted. In 1900, one-third of all Christians were Protestants, but today, she reported, “that percentage is less than one-fourth.” Instead, indigenous churches and new denominations are experiencing rapid growth that “may not have any relationship to something like the Methodist Church.”
United Methodist membership has declined in the West and experienced growth in Africa and Asia. However, the global growth rate isn’t as strong as some independent or related churches. “Worldwide, UMC growth is lagging behind sister denominations,” Mr. Scott said.
Directors were invited to ponder possible explanations for such trends, including the idea that United Methodists are stuck in a North American, mid-20th century denominational model.
Dr. Robert had just attended a meeting of what she called “a 21st-century effort at ecumenism,” the Global Christian Forum in Indonesia, where religious groups that don’t usually connect listen to each other’s stories. “There’s a tremendous sense of hope welling up from recognizing what we have in common with Christians from other communions,” she said.
Mr. Kemper said the Board of Global Ministries is indebted to the insights of scholars such as Dr. Robert and Mr. Scott as it continues to organize the church’s global witness—in new mission arenas, such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Mongolia—and in established ventures, such as the Russia Initiative.
Missionaries themselves are more diverse than ever, representing a variety of cultures and nations and fulfilling assignments virtually across the globe. Those commissioned this month include a missionary pilot and air-safety administrator from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Korean-American couple assigned to the United Methodist mission center in Kazakhstan, an Oklahoma pastor headed to Jerusalem, and an attorney working with immigrants in Iowa.
One of the board’s strategic goals is to increase young adult participation in mission. Twenty-five new young adult missionaries were commissioned August 18 for two- to three-year terms.
Another 17 summer interns served at mission sites in the United States. Eleven young people served as Global Justice Volunteers this year in Kenya, and 15 are scheduled to serve in the Philippines.
But mission awareness must start at a much earlier age, Mr. Kemper acknowledged, so the board is “developing educational resources to help children understand and appreciate mission.”
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.
Since October, more than 14,000 United Methodist clergy and lay people have signed on to a letter calling upon the Council of Bishops to issue a clear statement of support for the denomination’s standards regarding marriage and homosexuality.
The original letter to the United Methodist bishops was spearheaded by the Revs. Tom Harrison, Charles Kyker, Ed Robb III, Ken Werlein, and Steve Wood. An additional 54 pastors joined the effort.
After the letter was sent individually to all of the active United Methodist bishops, a website—www.FaithfulUMC.com—was created to allow additional clergy colleagues and lay members to join in the call from the concerned pastors.
“The United Methodist Church needs clear and prophetic leadership right now,” says the Rev. Ed Robb III, senior pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. “As clergy, we are asking the Council of Bishops to make a clear and concise statement supporting our denomination’s stance on marriage and human sexuality.”
The swelling grassroots support of the letter to the bishops developed in response to the proposed threat of more than 1,000 United Methodist clergy to break the denomination’s prohibition against conducting same-sex unions. The letter calls upon the Council of Bishops to “issue a public statement that you understand the proposed disobedience to be a grave threat to the unity and the life of the UM Church and that you stand together in your commitment to defend and enforce the Book of Discipline.”
Concerned laity and clergy from virtually all areas of the United States and several representatives from other countries have enthusiastically responded. Signatures have been sent in and logged on the website from both large and small United Methodist congregations.
“I’m grateful our pastors have given us an opportunity to have a voice,” says Dixie Brewster, the immediate past lay leader of the Kansas West Annual Conference. “I can’t tell you how many times persons in my church have asked, ‘Why do we pay our apportionments when our leaders don’t listen to us?’ At least now we’ve said we don’t want our money going to support the boards that try to overturn the Discipline.”
“The Bishops have to understand that once all these pastors violate the Discipline, people will wonder who’s allowing this—and why,” continued Brewster, a member of Milton United Methodist Church in Milton, Kansas. “And people will leave our churches; some already have. Being a leader means being out front—ahead of what’s about to happen. Not trying to get the cows back in the barn after they’re out.”
“My concern is very simple and basic: Is the Book of Discipline to be followed or is it optional? Does it have authority over my role as clergy and over us as a congregation?” says the Rev. Tom Harrison, senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Chaos results without clarity.”
Many laypeople have rallied around their pastors for taking a public stand. “I signed the laity statement on the FaithfulUMC.com website, and I commend the forthright stance on defending the United Methodist Book of Discipline,” says Jon Goodale, lay member of Faithbridge United Methodist Church in Spring, Texas. “I wholeheartedly support these ministers in this effort.”
Goodale wrote a note of encouragement to his pastor, the Rev. Ken Werlein—one of the original signers, thanking him for allowing his voice to be heard on the unity of the United Methodist Church. “I appreciate the courage of these pastors in remaining true to our faith whether it agrees with the culture or is in direct opposition to the culture.”
Diane West, lay member of Living Faith United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska, is very thankful for the letter-writing campaign.“This is a time in our history where strong, decisive, scriptural leadership is not only necessary, but also imperative,” said West. “The clergy who have taken a stand by adding their names to the letter are to be commended for guiding and protecting their flocks honorably. By their actions, they are helping to restore, in part, a trust in our leadership that has been broken with the laity, and they are letting us know that our voices will be heard.”
Adapted from www.FaithfulUMC.com.
Excerpt from the Council of Bishops response:
“One of the deep disagreements and divisions within the church is over the practice of homosexuality, recently heightened by a group of clergy who have declared that they will perform holy unions in opposition to the Book of Discipline. This has caused different experiences of deep pain throughout the church. As the bishops of the church, we commit ourselves to be in prayer for the whole church and for the brokenness our communities experience. Furthermore, we ‘implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons’ (par. 161F). We will continue to offer grace upon grace to all in the name of Christ.
“At times like these we call upon each other to remember and renew our covenant with God and with one another as United Methodist Christians. As bishops chosen, consecrated and assigned by the Church, we declare once again our commitment to be faithful to this covenant we have made. As the Council of Bishops we will uphold the Book of Discipline as established by General Conference.”
By Frank Decker
One day, while teaching a class of aspiring pastors in Africa I asked, “What would you do if someone in your church asks you a question to which you do not know the answer?” I expected a response such as “I’d say, ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out together,’” or something like that. Instead, the consensus of the class was that you should make up an answer because, I suppose, it would be shameful for someone in authority to be seen as lacking knowledge. After all, missions is about Jesus, the answer. So, doesn’t it follow that those in mission should have, or at least appear to have, all of the answers?
I don’t think so. In fact, there is a sense in which missionaries who appear to “have it all together” may actually be less effective than those whose lives are transparent and exhibit continual growth. Or, as Dr. Craddock once said in my homiletics class, “Preaching is not the preparation of a sermon and delivering that, but the preparation of the preacher and delivering that.”
A transparency in one’s life that reflects enduring transformation, even in mature missionaries, can serve as a catalyst that enables a breakthrough in one’s ministry. One worker in eastern Europe had recently gone through a period of discouragement and feelings of being overwhelmed with her ministry of compassion among children-at-risk. “Finally, after a few weeks of struggling,” she said, “I received what seemed to be a pretty clear answer from the Lord about something He was unmistakably doing in my own life.” The message she sensed had to do with the need for repentance in her own life as well as in the local Christian community. When she asked the Lord how she should respond, “that’s when I felt Him lead me to seek a deeper level of repentance in my own life. By finally confessing some of the sin I’d been carrying around, it gave God room to move deeper, also bringing about some healing in our community in a manner that I had not been expecting.”
The very nature of the missional message is transformation in Christ. So it follows that the bearers of that message should be experiencing that transformation as well. Ruth Burgner, senior director of communications at The Mission Society, has said that this may be the very reason why God allows us to be involved in missions. “Why does the Lord recruit us to do his work while he could do it himself? It’s because of how he forms us in the ways that we can be formed only by doing these things.”
A missionary in South America relates how a quantum leap in his own family’s spiritual growth subsequently became manifested in their ministry. After a few years of a fruitless, frustrating search for an effective way to share the Bible with their hosts, these missionaries discovered an inductive approach to Bible study. “As we began to work through the Bible in this way, it brought insight and transformation to our own lives, opening the Word to us in ways that we had always felt existed but had never experienced before. We began to share this way of exploring God’s Word with others, and it began to have an impact in their lives, bringing change and joy to them as they experienced a new way of life in Jesus. The ministry that started in this way five years ago has now grown to over 4000 participants and is continuing to grow.” It is apparent that this breakthrough would not have occurred if these missionaries had gone to their field of service without a commitment to their own continued personal growth as they ministered to others.
The apostle Paul, who had been known by others as neither very good looking nor a naturally gifted speaker, understood that our continuous transformation as bearers of the message is essential. We are “earthen vessels,” who have the privilege of revealing “the surpassing greatness of the power of God,” which is “not from ourselves.”
A missionary couple who serve as foster parents in the former Soviet Union face a particular struggle in light of the popularity of the “prosperity gospel” and the disillusionment that can accompany it. “On one certain day when the kids were exhibiting normal teenage rebellion, our friend Sasha was visiting,” the missionary recalled. “A particular comment made me feel very unwanted as a mom and very offended. At my wits end, I announced (in English and then in Russian, so everyone in the room would hear), ‘I am ready to go back to America right now. This is driving me nuts!’ Then I asked for prayer. Sasha prayed, and we all started singing a praise song in Russian. The mood immediately got better—something about the sacrifice of praise. Later Sasha told us that he was so thankful to see us when things are not always so rosy and how we handle that. It showed a greater depth of our Christian witness that goes beyond the superficiality of the prosperity gospel.”
Transparency that reflects ongoing transformation in the life of the witness is an essential tool in enabling Christ-centered change in the lives of others. It’s a timeless lesson, one that is easy to forget and even cover up with our facades and titles. But the degree to which we “get real” with those whom we serve is the degree to which they will be impacted by Jesus rather than impressed by us.
The article on heaven and hell by William Reeves in the September/October 2011 issue of Good News was informational and helpful to me as a Christian. I have always believed that a Christian could make choices that were either right or wrong, and then doing so, would pay the consequences. I did not have the scriptures to back my theology up, except for those fiercely contested by the Calvinistic church of my youth.
As a retired public school principal, I have seen this happen several times to students, especially after entering college. I always respected their right to do as they pleased, but was glad when they made the right choices in their lives (according to biblical teaching).
I hope this article will help others to think, and that even Christians need theological guidance. Good News is not afraid to point this out.
I don’t understand why the retired bishops want us to have homosexual pastors. Don’t they realize that this might split the church? Even if there is a split, I for one, would take my membership out, and I think there would be many other who would do the same.
I think the reason United Methodism has been losing membership for many years is because our church has not followed the Bible’s restriction on having homosexual pastors. God only honors and blesses churches who follow his laws. Look how the Bible churches are increasing in membership. They are not afraid to read the Scriptures from the Bible which speak to this issue.
God blesses those who hold the church responsible. Thanks for all you have done.
Opal C. Huettner
Hales Corners, Wisconsin
I find it interesting that Rob Renfroe would use the example of Jesse Owens and the context of Nazi Germany to call on United Methodist Bishops to be “face boys” in confronting what he calls “the most controversial issue facing the church.” The Nazis cultivated a growing nationalistic fervor aimed at saving their struggling country by choosing certain people groups, labeling them as the villainous root of all the nation’s problems and then directing their energy into banding together in their hate for these people. They, of course, accomplished this by becoming masters of propaganda.
Today, the UM Church is facing the culmination of decades of decline, and people throughout the denomination are trying to find those persons or people groups on whom the blame can be placed. Good News claims to be a voice and vehicle for renewal in the denomination and could call on the leadership (both clergy and lay) of the denomination to embrace renewal through commitment to the person, character, words and actions of Jesus Christ. Sadly, instead of being the brave “face boys” who confront the true issues directly, Good News has become little more than an anti-homosexual propaganda rag.
As I peruse my issue month by month, I find very little “good news.” The staff instead uses the magazine to “stir the pot” of a nasty debate which all too often reflects nothing of the character and spirit of Christ. Those who disagree with the prevailing opinion of the Good News staff of writers are seldom written about in a loving, respectful way. Instead, they are portrayed as an active force determined to divide the Church. The truth is, the majority of people who disagree with Good News and their stance on homosexuality are people who want to see the church simply live out the call to love God and love neighbor.
When are we going to stop demonizing homosexuals and blaming them and their supposed “agenda” for ruining the church? The growing irrelevancy of the UM Church cannot be attributed to the sexual lifestyle of a certain group of people, or even to growing secularism or the loss of morality in the church. Instead, the church has become irrelevant because it has not been faithful in actively loving God and others in the model and spirit of Jesus Christ. You claim to be centered in the written Word of God, but what about being centered in the character of the living Word of God? Perhaps we will all see renewal in the UM Church when we are active in such a pursuit and when we stop trying to cultivate religious fervor founded upon the hate, discrimination, scapegoating and demonizing of a segment of the population.
Inglewood United Methodist Church
First and foremost I would like to thank you for the article in the September/October Issue on the Aldersgate Renewal Ministries conference that took place this July in Dayton, Ohio. My wife our three children (ages 10, 7, and 8) four members of our congregation and myself attended this amazing conference. As a local United Methodist pastor, I went to this conference with a dry and weary spirit. One could say that spiritually I was running on empty due to day to day demands of being a pastor.
Yet what I experienced during the conference simply transformed me from the inside out, God though the Holy Spirit did an amazing work on me. Like I said I went there dry but I came home saturated and dripping with the Holy Spirit. Every person that came with us was touched and changed in ways that words cannot start to describe. Especially our children, they learned more and experienced God in ways in the four days that they spent at the Aldersgate Conference than they will in one year of Sunday school.
The thing that amazes me about all of this is that the people of The United Methodist Church are crying out for our church to change so that it will be restored and the cries are the same from the laity as it is from the clergy. Those in the leadership within our districts and conferences are telling us to attend various workshops so that we can transform the local church. However, the conference that we need is the Aldersgate National Conference on the Holy Spirit.
After returning from the conference we have shared our experience with many people in the local church, I have told many of my pastor friends about it too. After we tell them about the great presence of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit the very first thing out of their mouth is, “This is a United Methodist event?”
The UM Church needs to return to the book of Acts and be the church that was birthed on the day of Pentecost. The hope of restoration and revival of The United Methodist Church can only be found in the Holy Spirit. Our denomination needs to return to Holy Spirit and be the church that Jesus has called us to be. We will be returning to the 2012 Aldersgate National Conference in West Virginia, and I pray that many more will be there too and experience the living Spirit of God who is the only true hope for the restoration of The United Methodist Church.
Mark A. Kuhlman
Wayne United Methodist Church