By Tom Lambrecht –
As I participate in conversations around the church seeking a way to resolve the crisis facing The United Methodist Church, I have become aware that different people have different goals. A person’s top priority will affect how they evaluate a particular plan or strategy that is proposed to move our church forward. It is helpful to identify some of those top priorities and how they affect our perceptions about the various plans.
One top priority I have heard is the desire to avoid pain or minimize change. “Don’t make us vote!” is one manifestation of this priority. Some want to keep going as we are because they are afraid of the pain involved in facing our crisis and attempting to resolve it. “Our congregation is doing all right now. Please don’t do something that will cause an upheaval that tears our church apart.”
These people will not look kindly on a plan that raises up the issues that divide us, asking individuals and congregations to make a choice. But this approach ignores the fact that change is coming, whether we like it or not. It is not possible for The United Methodist Church to continue as it is. The rapid decline of membership, attendance, and giving in the U.S. is precipitating change, quite apart from the conflict we face.
On top of that, no congregation is going to be able to escape defining its theology and ministry around LGBTQ persons. Sooner or later, someone is going to ask to have their same-sex wedding in your church. How will you answer? Given the fact that a large percentage of clergy across the country in our church favor same-sex marriage and the affirmation of same-sex relationships, your church may soon (if it hasn’t already) receive a pastor who will try to convince your congregation to adopt a progressive view on these questions.
We cannot avoid the pain of living in a culture that is becoming increasingly permissive when it comes to human sexuality. We can allow the culture to determine our ministry standards and moral teachings, or we can study the Scriptures and our Christian tradition to come up with a faithful response. As when facing any painful experience, it is often better to face the pain head-on and get it over with. As my parents used to say, the sooner you “bite the bullet” and go through the pain, the sooner you can heal and move on in a positive direction. That is why the 2020 General Conference ought to seek a once and for all resolution to our church’s crisis. It is time to move on, and the only way we can create a positive future for our church is to go through the pain of birthing a new reality.
Another top priority that I hear a lot is the need to “win.” A number of people have written or said to me that they believe a negotiated separation is to “surrender” the fight and betray the victory that we “won” in 2019 at St. Louis. I agree that the St. Louis General Conference was a strong victory for the traditional Scriptural teaching on marriage and sexuality. But what does that victory look like now? We have a church in turmoil, with large segments of the church refusing to submit to the decision of General Conference. The only way to achieve a lasting “victory” in this scenario is to drive out of the church those who are unwilling to live by our teachings, including a significant number of bishops. Some might leave voluntarily, but others are determined to stay and cause as much pain as possible through resistance. We have to ask: is the “victory” worth the cost?
The leadership of “UMC Next,” a new LGBTQ-advocacy caucus, is bent on “winning” in Minneapolis next May. They believe they have a chance to win because they made significant gains in electing a delegation sympathetic to reversing the St. Louis decision. Many of them are not willing to compromise. They want to change the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality to become more permissive and force evangelical traditionalists to leave. (We would be unable to stay because changing the church’s teaching would violate our principled obedience to God and Scripture.)
Those bent on “winning” on either side are not in favor of a negotiated separation because they believe it is too much of a compromise. Some even describe it as a “sellout.” Why should we “surrender” when we won the vote in 2019? Why should we “surrender” when we won the annual conference elections this past spring? We should double down on our previous strategy because “victory” is within our grasp.
The “win the battle” factions on both sides would set us up for an even more ugly General Conference in 2020 than what we experienced in St. Louis. Some are so committed to winning that they are willing to use any means to do so, including lying, deception, slander, personal attack, parliamentary tricks, and just plain bullying. The spectacle of the church in conflict that was broadcast to the world from St. Louis was not a flattering one. It did not demonstrate Christ-like love or integrity. Do we want an even worse battle next year? Whether the result of the battle is a traditionalist victory with some progressives leaving or a progressive victory with some traditionalists leaving, what will be birthed will be forever tainted by the ugly manner of its birth.
Let me be clear that, if there is no viable alternative, I am fully prepared to work tirelessly to preserve the church’s faithfulness to the Bible and the Gospel (see below). I would do so with as much integrity and honor as God’s grace would enable within me. But Jesus warns us we should count the cost of such a course of action.
Another bottom line concern of some United Methodists is getting or hanging on to as much of the church’s assets as possible. Some have accused evangelicals of being “all about the money.” The leaders of “Mainstream UMC,” another special interest caucus group, are lobbying hard to keep as much of the church’s assets as possible, even to the extent of distorting the truth.
I believe that whatever new expressions or denominations are formed out of The United Methodist Church over the next few years should receive a fair allocation of the general church’s $1 billion in assets. Many of those assets may not be accessible for allocation due to legal restrictions or the fact that they are in property, rather than liquid form. For one expression to get or keep all the assets would be unfair. We have all contributed to those assets, regardless of our theological perspective. For generations, Methodists have contributed to the economic stability of our denomination that included a historically traditional view of marriage and sexuality.
Some social media provocateurs have claimed that evangelicals have failed to contribute our fair share toward the ministry of the church. Like so much of the flamboyant rhetoric these days, that charge is pure fantasy. There are thousands of evangelical churches who have faithfully and sacrificially contributed financially through apportionments over the years. And the money that has been contributed to the church is now the church’s money — it does not belong to those who originally gave it. It was given for the sake of mission and ministry, and it can fulfill that purpose in any of the denominations that are formed. Money should not be used as a weapon in our current conflict.
We should seek a fair distribution of the church’s assets. It is one way to treat each other with love and respect, despite our disagreement. It communicates that the church is not forcing one group out, but rather that we are mutually agreeing to separate for the sake of the church’s mission.
But the failure to receive a fair allocation of the assets should not prevent us from moving forward into a faithful future. A blogger friend recently reminded his readers that when Solomon was faced with the dilemma of the baby claimed by two mothers, the true mother was the one who was willing to let her baby go to save its life, rather than cling to the “half” of the baby that would kill it (I Kings 3:16ff.). Jesus said, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Proverbs wisely states, “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred” (15:16-17).
My own top priority in developing a way forward is to arrive at a church that is faithful to Scripture and to the doctrines of the church, and is in a position to be fruitful in mission and ministry. Right now, there are many who are not faithful to Scripture and the doctrines of the church, not only with regard to marriage and the church’s moral teachings, but also with regard to the foundational doctrines of the church. For many, Scripture is no longer the primary authority by which we measure our beliefs. Some do not believe Jesus Christ is the divine Son of the living God and only Savior of the world. Many annual conferences have allowed doctrinal relativism and even universalism to become accepted doctrinal positions among their clergy.
Because of this doctrinal confusion, local church members are not being discipled in the faith. Instead, they hear one belief system from one pastor, then a contradictory belief system from the next pastor assigned to their church. Many laity do not know what to believe. As Jesus lamented over the people of Israel, they are “sheep without a shepherd.” How can our church be fruitful in ministry amidst such doctrinal confusion? It cannot, and we see the membership decline to prove it.
Furthermore, the conflict in our church is hindering our fruitfulness in ministry. No one wants to join a church that is fighting. And no one wants to join a church that does not know what it believes. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours are devoted to winning the conflict that could be better spent in spreading the Gospel and helping the poor. What we are doing is not bringing honor to Jesus Christ.
I am for a plan (whatever it is) that resolves our conflict once and for all, that enables at least a portion of The United Methodist Church to unite together in common doctrine, and that frees us to be wholeheartedly devoted to carrying out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ with the result that the world is transformed.
We could get to such an outcome by continuing to stand strong for the traditional teachings of the church regarding marriage and sexuality, while hoping that those who cannot live by those teachings would voluntarily leave the church. But such a course of action will probably take another 20 years of fighting the same battles for accountability and working hard to reform the general church agencies to make them effective for fostering ministry fruitfulness. If we have to go that direction, I am willing to do so, and the Renewal and Reform Coalition will be submitting petitions to General Conference to further strengthen accountability.
However, I would rather get to a faithful and fruitful church more quickly than in 20 years. I only have a few years of active ministry left, and I would like to spend them in service of a church moving forward in a positive direction. If a negotiated settlement can be worked out that is mutually respectful and relatively equal and fair, that would resolve the conflict and free us for faithful ministry in the months after General Conference, I think we should take it. We continue to prayerfully commit ourselves to God’s guidance in working toward that best outcome.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.