Steps to Move Forward

Steps to Move Forward

Steps to Move Forward

By Rob Renfroe

May/June 2024


Not long ago The United Methodist News Service published an article reporting that some of us who lead Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association intend to be present at the upcoming General Conference in Charlotte. The article was fair and balanced, quoting us and those who disagree with us. Shortly thereafter UMNS published a commentary by a well-known church leader on our being at the General Conference that was quite critical.

Reaction by United Methodist clergy and laity on social media to the two articles was predictable. We were described as hateful and disingenuous, portrayed as “foxes in the hen house,” and blamed for creating all the division within the UM Church. The main message was: Disaffiliation is over and it’s time for Good News, the WCA, and other critics to move on and stop damaging The United Methodist Church.

“Disaffiliation is over.” That’s the claim most centrists and progressives in the U.S. are making and that’s one of the reasons they think we should not be in Charlotte. But how can disaffiliation be over when it was never allowed to begin for the majority of United Methodists? Paragraph 2553 that permitted churches in the United States to leave was ruled by our bishops not to be applicable for congregations outside the U.S. where the majority of United Methodists live. The statement that “disaffiliation is over” evidences a US-centric view of the church that diminishes the importance of and denies the rights of churches in Africa, Europe, Russia, and Asia.

If the General Conference acts as if disaffiliation is over and does not give international churches the same right to determine their future that we in the U.S. were afforded, the message will be clear to members in Africa and the Philippines: United Methodists are willing to extend privileges to primarily white and wealthy congregations in the United States that it will deny to churches in the developing world whose members are predominantly poor and persons of color.

Liberal and “centrist” United Methodists talk often about justice and frequently denounce colonialism. Yet they seem intent on creating a two-tiered denomination where UMs in the U.S. are given more privileges than those outside the States.  We agree it is time for the UM Church to move on. But not before it provides the same rights to those outside the United States that were given to churches here.

Second, some responded to the articles with the understandable sentiment that those no longer in The United Methodist Church should not have a voice at the General Conference. That’s one reason Tom Lambrecht, Good News’ vice president, and I, are still United Methodists. Rev. Lambrecht is an ordained elder in the Wisconsin Annual Conference, under active appointment. I am a retired UM elder in the Texas Annual Conference, properly located at a United Methodist congregation in Houston. I understand many are tired of hearing our voices and disagree with our views, but we are still United Methodists. How long we remain United Methodists will be dependent upon what the General Conference decides. But both of us have been UM elders for over forty years. We have both given our lives to the UM Church. For the past four decades we have cared deeply about its health and its future. We still do. When we leave, we will no longer feel the need or possess the right to attempt to influence the direction of The United Methodist Church. Until that time, we have as much standing as any other UM clergyperson to call upon the UM Church to do the right thing.

Others have charged that we have created division within The United Methodist Church for too long and our work at the General Conference will only continue the dissension we have sowed in the past. The truth is the UM Church was divided long before the Wesleyan Covenant Association came into existence in 2016, many years prior to Rev. Lambrecht’s and my ordination in the 1980’s, and even before Good News was formed in 1967. We did not create the issues that have divided the UM Church and have led to the exit of a quarter of its congregations.

We, like those within the UM Church possessing views different from ours, have expressed our beliefs and encouraged delegates to vote in line with what we believed was best for the church. But we did not create the differences that led to disaffiliation. Nor did we promote disobedience to the Book of Discipline as some charging us with fomenting division have done.

A UMNS reporter asked me, “How do you respond to those who say your work at General Conference is nothing more than your trying to harm The United Methodist Church on your way out?” My response was, “All we’re planning to do is call upon The United Methodist Church to be fair and do justice. If that harms an institution, it must be a very sick institution.”

Lastly, we have heard the objection that those who do not plan on remaining in the UM Church should not try to impact its future. Again, that is a very valid concern. Good News and the WCA have no desire and will not be working in Charlotte to influence the future direction or policies of The United Methodist Church – not its views of marriage, not its standards for ordination, not its policy on abortion, not its Social Principles, not its budget.

Our efforts will be constrained to asking the General Conference to provide justice for two groups. One of those groups being the churches outside the U.S. which have been denied the right to discern if disaffiliation is right for them. The other being the congregations in the United States which were told by their bishop or their district superintendent that they did not have to act before Paragraph 2553 expired – they could wait to see what changes the General Conference made in 2024 and then determine whether to disaffiliate.

It’s possible we will feel compelled to address one other issue in Charlotte. If a just opportunity for disaffiliation is not provided for churches outside the U.S. and if international delegates ask for our help, we will assist them in trying to defeat the regionalization plan. Our friends in Africa with whom we work closely have told us they cannot remain in a church that allows for a contradictory, “contextualized” sexual ethic. If they are given no opportunity to exit, we will stand with our brothers and sisters who have described regionalization as a plan for creating “the separate but equal United Methodist Church.”

The proposed plan for regionalization necessitates constitutional amendments. The passage of such amendments requires a two-thirds vote at the General Conference and then the approval of two-thirds of all the connection’s annual conferences. We believe the amendments can be defeated at the General Conference. We feel certain they can be defeated once the vote goes to the annual conferences. But we have no desire to engage in that struggle, and we will do nothing to thwart its passage if an exit path is offered to churches outside the U.S.

What if the General Conference voted early in its deliberations to fairly extend Paragraph 2553 to churches outside the United States and to those churches that would like to enter discernment in this country? Honestly, I think Good News and the WCA would say “thank you,” pack our bags and go home early.

The other option is we go at it one more time. We have fights on the conference floor. The focus of the General Conference once again becomes our differences and the UM Church that needs to move forward gets mired in the divisions of the past.

I prefer the former – people of goodwill on all sides voting to let those leave who desire to do so. It’s fair. It’s just. It stops the fighting. It’s a path that will allow The United Methodist Church – and us – to “move on.” 

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. 

Until the Work is Done

Until the Work is Done

Until the Work is Done

By Rob Renfroe

Some have asked about the future of Good News – and understandably so. Our sister organization, The Confessing Movement, has concluded its work to reform and renew The United Methodist Church. More than 7,000 churches have now left the denomination. The bishops have said it’s time to be done with disaffiliation. And leading centrists have said that churches wanting to leave should do so by the end of 2023.

It would be reasonable to ask, “Isn’t the work of Good News done? You worked to maintain a biblical sexual ethic in the church’s Book of Discipline – and were successful. You provided resources for churches contemplating disaffiliation and many have said it was the information you provided that made the difference for their congregations. You helped churches find the legal aid they needed when their bishops misused their authority and denied congregations fair treatment and justice. And Par. 2553 in our Book of Discipline that provides a path for leaving the UM Church expires at the end of 2023. So, good job, but it’s over. What’s left to do?”

But it’s because Par. 2553 terminates at the end of the year that the work of Good News must continue. In the United States, some churches considering disaffiliation were told by their bishops, district superintendents and pastors (I heard them say it), “You don’t have to make a decision now. In fact, you shouldn’t make a decision now because you don’t know what the General Conference will decide in 2024. Nothing has changed in the UM Church and it may be that nothing will change. Wait to see what GC 2024 does and then you can determine whether you should stay or go.”

Those representing the UM Church said these things knowing (1) that paragraph 2553 would expire at the end of 2023, (2) that all centrist and progressive leaders along with the bishops said they were committed to supporting gay marriage and the ordination of practicing gay persons and (3) there would not be enough traditionalist General Conference delegates remaining to prevent the 2024 General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, from changing the Book of Discipline. They told churches to wait, knowing that the bishops were done with disaffiliation and had no intentions of creating a new way out for traditional churches.

I get it. Traditional churches that have remained made a mistake. But I also get that it’s hard for good people to believe that a pastor, a district superintendent, or a bishop would mislead them. So, some congregations that trusted the UM Church to be honest and fair will find themselves wanting to leave next May after the General Conference meets and will not have an approved  pathway to do so. Getting out will be a battle. Good News feels compelled to help them fight that battle.

Even more egregious is the unjust treatment that churches outside the United States have received. The bishops ruled that Par. 2553 does not apply to churches in Africa, the Philippines, and other places outside the U.S. So, the pathway that American churches have used to exit the UM Church has been denied to the majority of United Methodists who live in other countries. When I asked a UM bishop if any bishops were making plans to allow those outside the US to leave, the answer was, “Well, I’ve heard some talk about it.” I pressed, “Do you know of any progressive or centrist leader or bishop who is working on legislation for GC 2024 that would allow the Africans to leave?” The bishop’s response was “no.”

The bishops want to be done with disaffiliation – they’ve stated that. It’s apparent they have no desire and no plans to prepare a similar path for international churches to exit the denomination that we in the U.S. were afforded. When I was in Nairobi, Kenya, this September with over forty African leaders, they referred to this double-standard as “colonialism.” And the regionalization plan that the bishops and centrist leaders are promoting so that the U.S. will have its own version of the Book of Discipline and the Africans will not be able to speak into it – that plan, the Africans referred to as “the apartheid plan.”

International delegates know how they have been mistreated by UM leaders. They are very aware that they have been marginalized, discriminated against, and denied justice. When I spoke to the leaders in Nairobi I told them, “You came to the U.S. for decades to fight about issues that were not African issues and that were already settled in the Bible. Still, you came over and over to help us when we needed you. And now that you need us – we’re not going anywhere. We’re staying with you. We’re fighting with you. And we are seeking justice for you.” Even now we are partnering with our African friends in promoting their attempt to receive an exit plan from General Conference 2024.

One of two scenarios will come out of GC 2024. The one that is preferable will provide a pathway similar to Par. 2553 for all UM churches, American and international. If this is the case, Good News will help congregations around the world considering disaffiliation understand where the UM Church is headed and why traditionalists need to leave.

The other possibility is that traditional churches inside and outside the U.S. will be denied justice. In this scenario, churches will need to look at their options and determine their best way forward.

Good News is committed to using all we have learned during this season of disaffiliation to support and coach these churches as they exit the UM Church. Some will leave quietly and start new congregations. Outside the United States, entire annual conferences may decide to leave, as happened earlier this year in Kenya. Other congregations will feel a need to seek justice in the secular courts.

This path is unpleasant, arduous, and emotionally exhausting. Fighting discrimination and oppression always is. But fighting for justice is not something churches in the U.S., Africa, the Philippines and other countries elsewhere will do alone. Because Good News isn’t going anywhere. We’re staying. Until the work is done, we’re staying.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. 

Redefining Glory

Redefining Glory

By Rob Renfroe 

In 1875 a remarkable woman was born. Her name was Mary Bethune. Both her parents had been slaves. At the age of 5 she began working in the fields. But she took an interest in her own education. And she found a way to attended a small, one room, segregated school in South Carolina. 

From there she went to study at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute. That was a big step, huge, almost unheard of for a young black woman at that time. After graduating, she returned to the south and began to teach. But she didn’t stop there. She had a dream. She felt called to start a college for black students. She wanted young African Americans in the south to get a quality education and to step into extraordinary lives.

She didn’t let the cost stop her. She didn’t let what others said stop her. She didn’t let the fact that she was young or black or a woman stop her. She had a vision. And she discovered that the spirit within her was not a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power.

In 1904 in Daytona Beach, Florida, at the age of 29, Mary Bethune founded what would become Bethune-Cookman University. For twenty years as a college president, Mary Bethune made the most of her remarkable ability to inspire young people to dream their own dreams, overcome their own obstacles, and win their own battles. 

At the graduation exercises each year she would charge her students: “Faith ought not be a puny thing. If you believe, have faith like a giant. And may God grant you not peace, but glory.” 

I love that last line. It was Bethune’s way of saying that the battles that matter and the causes that are worthy of our lives are rarely accomplished without difficulty, courage and sacrifice. She was telling her students: You can live a comfortable life or you can live a great life. You can live an easy life or you can live a glorious life. Now, which do you think you were created for? Peace or glory?

And I will ask you the same question: What do you think God created you for? Peace and comfort? Or greatness and glory? Our theme at this conference is living as more than conquerors. Following Jesus in such a way that what we do is triumphant and victorious, great and glorious. What does that mean? To live that way? Fortunately, that’s not hard to determine because Jesus told us what that looks like. 

Shortly before his death Jesus told his disciples. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12).

Jesus says: The hour has come for me to be glorified. And immediately he begins to talk about what? Not his power. Not his miracles. Not even his resurrection. He talks about his death.

You want to see glory? You want to see triumph? You want to see what it looks like to conquer in the Kingdom of God? It looks like a man hanging on a cross. It looks like a man with his back scourged and torn apart. It looks like a man giving his life for others. It looks like a man who would rather die than be unfaithful to his Father. It looks like a man enduring the most shameful and painful death the Roman Empire can devise so the unworthy and the undeserving can know they are loved, have their sins forgiven, and be born again to a new and transformed life.

You want to see glory? That’s what it looks like. You want to be victorious, you desire to be more than conquerors, that’s what’s required. Paying a price, giving your life so others may be saved.

Friends, we had hoped to be at a different place. We had hoped that the Protocol would be passed. We had hoped that a fair and just separation would be ratified. We had hoped that those in power who have long lectured us about having a heart of peace would not now be demanding a piece of flesh so we can step into the future God has called us to. 

But that’s not how we overcome. That’s not how we conquer and become victorious. We conquer by paying a price to be faithful. We overcome when we stop worrying about our churches and stay committed to serving a lost world with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. We are glorious when we follow our Lord to a cross and we are willing to bleed for those who need the hope that is found only in Jesus.

The Roman Empire worshipped power and despised weakness. Human life was cheap. Children born deformed or infirmed or even simply female could be discarded in Roman society, left exposed to the elements to die of starvation or mauled and eaten by wild beasts, and there was no shame for the parents who did so. Gladiators fought to the death, the crowds clamoring for more blood and savagery. Slavery was commonplace. The early Christians stepped into this culture and proclaimed a crucified Messiah, who had died in weakness and shame on a Roman cross. They boldly declared Jesus Christ, not Caesar, was Lord. And for the next two and a half centuries they were persecuted, ridiculed, and despised. 

And yet, three centuries after it began as a Jewish sect in faraway Palestine, the Roman Emperor Constantine announced his conversion. And before the year 400, Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire, embraced, some estimates state, by nearly half of its inhabitants.

How had a despised sect, with no political power, that appealed at first primarily to the poor and the uneducated, born far from the center of power and culture, that was persecuted severely, and that worshipped a crucified Messiah so change the hearts and minds and eventually the culture of people who were as cynical, hedonistic, crass and crude as the people of our culture?

Simply put, they lived the way Jesus lived, they loved the way Jesus loved, they served the way Jesus served. And when persecuted, they died the way Jesus died, praying for the forgiveness and the salvation of those who had ordered their deaths.

And over time the Romans came to see that the way of life of the early Christians wasn’t just different, it was better – and they saw that it could make them better. They came to believe that the most outlandish thing was true – God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, offering life to all who would repent and believe. 

How did the early Christians love and serve? The deformed and unwanted babies, left to die; female babies unwanted and discarded because of their gender so much so that there were 50 percent more boys than girls in Roman families, Christians would go into the woods and find those abandoned children, take them into their homes and raise them as their own.

In times of plague, the Romans commonly abandoned their relatives at the first sign of illness, even pushing them into the streets before they died, in hopes of escaping the disease themselves. Not so the Christians, who not only cared for their own, but also took in unbelieving neighbors and strangers, caring for them, even though many early believers in the process contracted the disease and died themselves.

They provided food and assistance to the poor regardless of their faith, and to both sexes, though Roman welfare was given only to males. They were faithful in their marriages and kind to their children. And in the midst of the decadence and the cynicism and the hedonism of Rome, and the emptiness and the loneliness it leaves within the human heart, the Christian way, the way of compassion and purity and service looked like life – real life, a superior kind of life.

And the glory of Rome paled in comparison to the glory of a man hanging on a cross and those who followed him. What was once despised became treasured. And the One crucified in weakness and shame became adored as Lord of all, God in the flesh. And a culture was changed. That’s how the early Christians became and lived as more than conquerors.

I’m convinced the only way we will impact our culture significantly is to believe that when people see a better way of life, when people see Christians whose lives are about love and compassion and service, people will be willing to listen to us. When the one thing that a secular society knows about Christians is not that we are judgmental, or angry, or condemning or arrogant and self-righteous, or that we vote a certain way, but that we are a community of compassion, and that we care more and love more and serve more and sacrifice more than anyone else on the planet, people will come to believe in the one we proclaim, and just maybe then we will have done something glorious with our lives.

I am grateful that I serve on the Wesleyan Covenant Association council. Many of those on the council I have known for years. Others that I didn’t know I have heard their hearts and listened to their visions. What I have seen and what I have heard in them is what I know lives in you. A desire for all to be saved. A yearning to be part of a Spirit-led servant community that is willing to pour its life out for the salvation of the lost and the spread of scriptural holiness. An openness to all people. And a willingness to do hard things,   pay a high price and make a great sacrifice if need be so people can see who Jesus is and come into the life that he has for them. A longing to be part of a movement that God will use to change our world the way he used the early Christians to change theirs. 

That’s our purpose. That’s who we are. That’s how we conquer. And that is our future. Many of you have a rough road ahead, making your way into the Global Methodist Church. For many of you, it will be unfair and costly. 

But never forget, you can have an easy life or you can have a great life. You can have a comfortable life or you can have a glorious life. And you, my friend, were created not for peace but for the glory of God.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. He has been the preaching pastor at The Woodlands Methodist Church for over 25 years where he has led Quest Men’s Fellowship. He is the author of several books, most recently, Unfailing: Standing Strong on God’s Promises in the Uncertainties of Life. This article is adapted from his address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in Indianapolis in May

Until the Work is Done

Not Peace, But Glory

By Rob Renfroe

In 1875 a remarkable woman was born. Her name was Mary McLeod Bethune. Both her parents had been slaves. At the age of five she began working in the fields. But as a young girl, she took an interest in her own education and found a way to attend a small, one-room, segregated school in South Carolina. 

After graduating, she attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She returned to the south and began to teach. But she didn’t stop there. She believed God was calling her to start a college for black students so they could receive a quality education – and so the world could see just how brilliant and beautiful young black men and women could be.

“If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and buckler of pride – belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past,” Bethune wrote in 1938.

She didn’t let the cost of starting a private school for African American students stop her. She didn’t let what others said stop her. She didn’t let the fact that she was young or black or a woman stop her. The spirit within her was not a spirit of timidity and fear. It was a spirit of strength and power. And in 1904 at the age of 29, Mary Bethune founded what would become Bethune-Cookman University. 

In 1941, Dr. Bethune wrote an essay entitled “Faith That Moved A Dump Heap” to explain the origins and inspiration of her trailblazing school. The article’s title comes from the fact that the only land available was an undesirable plot that had become the town’s dump site called “Hell’s Hole.” She was able to raise the money to purchase the land through the sales of sweet potato pies and homemade ice cream to work crews. 

Through her pioneering work and God-given vision, the first building on that land was called “Faith Hall.”  

“We burned logs and used charred splinters as pencils, and mashed elderberries for ink. I begged strangers for a broom, a lamp, a bit of cretonne to put around the packing case which served as my desk,” she wrote in her essay. “I haunted the city dump and trash piles behind hotels, retrieving discarded linen and kitchenware, cracked dishes, broken chairs, pieces of old lumber. Everything was scoured and mended. This was part of the training – to salvage, to reconstruct, to make bricks without straw.” 

For twenty years as a college president, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune made the most of her remarkable ability to inspire young people to dream their own dreams, overcome their own obstacles, and win their own battles. At the graduation exercises each year she would send her students into the world with these words: “Faith ought not be a puny thing. If you believe, have faith like a giant. And may God grant you not peace, but glory.”

It was Bethune’s way of telling her students that the battles that matter and the causes that are worthy of our lives are rarely accomplished without difficulty, courage, and sacrifice. You can live a comfortable life or you can live a great life. You can live an easy life or you can live a glorious life. Now, which do you think you were created for? Peace – or glory?

As Jesus saw the cross approaching, he told his disciples: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:23-24).

Jesus told the disciples he was about to be glorified and then began to talk about his death. Boys, if you want to see glory, keep your eyes open because it’s about to be on display. It will look like a man hanging on a cross. It will look like a back torn apart by thirty-nine lashes. It will look like blood flowing from a crown of thorns. It will look like a man who is exhausted and spent, struggling for breath. It will look like suffering and sacrifice, like giving your life to do the Father’s will and bring blessing to others.

We can live a life of peace and comfort. Or we can live a life that is great and glorious. But we cannot do both. We can live for self or we can live for others. We can protect ourselves from the pain of this world or we can step into that pain, knowing that it will cause us to suffer as we try to help others. We can endeavor to create for ourselves a paradise on earth or we can go to the hell holes of this world and do the difficult things that will bring hope and redemption to those who are lost. Now which do you think we were created for? 

To those who are doing the difficult work of being a loved-one’s caretaker, setting aside your own needs and plans, and often unseen as you do it – that’s glory.

To those who are loving a child with special needs or being crushed by the weight of trying to help a teenager or a young adult overcome the power of an addiction – that’s glory.

To teachers, first-responders, and health-care providers who have been overwhelmed over the past two years and who have been tempted to quit, but you are still at your post because you know we need you – that’s glory.

To pastors who have and who continue to provide care for those who are struggling; to pastors who are tired and weary because of all the extra strain created by the pandemic; to pastors who have seen the attendance of their churches decline and who have watched members leave over the past two years but who work as hard as ever to prepare sermons that are encouraging and inspiring – that’s glory.

To churches that have expanded their ministries during the pandemic to those who are hungry, homeless, and struggling with mental illnesses; to churches that have overcome the natural tendency to turn inward during a time of stress and uncertainty and that have decided to be here for others – that’s glory.

To faithful pastors who find themselves demeaned and ostracized by their progressive peers and a liberal bishop, but who continue to stay strong, love all, and exemplify joy – that’s glory.

To those who overcome their fear and give generously, even sacrificially, to ministries that are bringing the Gospel to the lost, caring for the poor, and defending the faith, whether the amount is large or small – that’s glory.

We often think of greatness as being seen and celebrated. Doing big things and being recognized by others. But Jesus thought of glory as being a servant, remaining faithful, and sacrificing ourselves so some part of this world is made better, more the way the Father wants it to be. 

So, I join Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and our Lord Jesus, and I wish for you and for our church, not peace but glory.