By Tom Lambrecht –
It is fitting that we take the month before Christmas (the church season of Advent) as a time of waiting. Historically, the church calendar teaches us to eagerly await the celebration of Christmas and all the joys and excitement we experience during that time.
With that spirit of anticipation, we eagerly await the future that God has in store for The United Methodist Church. We long for a time when the battles over theology and moral standards in the church have come to an end. We long for a return to a whole-hearted focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, undistracted by incompatible visions for what constitutes discipleship or transformation. We long for a time when we can take it for granted that our bishops and clergy share the deep theological commitments outlined in our church’s doctrinal standards. We long for a rebuilding of trust that allows us to enthusiastically support the directions set by our leaders, confident that they are not pursuing an agenda contrary to the Word of God or our church’s stated policies.
We hope for a time when the focus is not on acts of “resistance” or “ecclesiastical disobedience” but on recognizing and respecting the church’s authority as disciples of Christ and followers of the Scriptures. We long for the church’s agenda to be set by the teachings of Scripture and the commandments of Jesus, not by the latest theological fad or the political machinations of a rudderless world. We long for bishops who winsomely, boldly, and clearly proclaim the Word of God and defend the church’s doctrines against the challenges of an unbelieving world, rather than attacking the church’s faith and questioning the teachings of Scripture. We hope for the church to recover its ability to apply the Christian faith in both word and deed to the needs of a lost world in need of direction and healing.
And so we wait.
The season of Advent teaches us that waiting is part of God’s plan. Even more significant than waiting for the arrival of Christmas, Advent focuses on the reminder that we are waiting for the return of Christ to rule his world in justice, righteousness, and peace. We are conscious of the fact that this world will never measure up to God’s hopes and dreams for it until Christ’s Second Advent (coming). Advent is a reminder that we are caught in the time of the “already, but not yet.” Jesus has already come and brought healing, forgiveness, and restoration of our relationship with God. But we are also conscious that God’s rule on earth has not yet been fully established. We have the down payment or (as the Bible describes it) the “first fruits” of God’s kingdom, but much more is yet to come.
That is how I feel, as we prepare for the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has been envisioning the kind of church we could be in the future, as I described it above. But we are “not yet” in the place to implement that vision. We hope that the General Conference will create a fair and equitable way for the different parts of the church to go their separate ways with love and respect for one another. Such an action would allow us to begin to implement the vision for a revitalized Wesleyan Methodist church. If a pathway for separation is not provided, it is quite possible that the denomination will shatter into many pieces.
It is easy to get impatient while waiting. I hate waiting for anything more than about 15 minutes. (This comes from the fact that my Dad insisted on our family arriving at least 15 minutes early to any engagement. It felt like I spent half my childhood waiting!)
Some have grown impatient waiting for the denominational conflict to be resolved and for the church to return to faithfulness. Some congregations have already withdrawn from the UM Church. Some members have already left their local churches. I sympathize with that impatience. And I know that there are some local circumstances that perhaps made it imperative for a given congregation to leave now, before there is final resolution for our denomination. I do not condemn those who have left.
At the same time, I would encourage those of us who remain to hang in there until after General Conference. After the depth of the conflict was exposed in St. Louis, and the pipe dream of a unity that papered over our differences proved unrealistic, we have the best opportunity yet to finally bring this sad chapter to a close. For the first time, there is a consensus across the theological spectrum that it no longer serves the church well to try to force a unity that is not there. Reluctantly and with sadness, many are realizing that the best hope for a positive future for United Methodism is to allow those with different theological commitments to walk separately in new denominations.
And so we wait.
Biblically, waiting is not a passive time, but a time of preparation. Think of the five wise young women who prepared for the bridegroom’s return by taking extra oil for their lamps (Matthew 25:1-13). The season of Advent invites us to prepare to celebrate Christ’s First Advent and prepare for his Second Advent by cleansing our hearts and re-focusing on our relationship with the Lord.
In the same way, we are preparing for the realization of our hopes and dreams in a new and/or renewed Methodist church. The WCA continues to refine the vision and the structure of what might come next. We continue to work toward a plan of separation that can gain broad approval at General Conference. We will be working with delegates in the U.S. and around the globe to understand the proposals that have been put forward and arrive at a consensus strategy for resolving the church’s conflict.
In local churches, leaders can be talking about what course the congregation might take if there is an opportunity to choose a denomination that aligns with the congregation’s perspective. What choice might your annual conference make? How will that affect your local church? Where does your pastor stand on these issues? The old cliché remains true: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. The next six months are a gift of time for local churches to engage in deep theological and ethical conversations without the pressure of having to make an immediate decision. Once General Conference acts to set in place a framework for decision-making, the pressure of needing to make a decision could cause those conversations to become confrontational, rather than helping the congregation arrive at a decision.
If you are clergy, what decision might you make about which new denomination to align with? How are you networking with like-minded colleagues to work together and support each other during this time of uncertainty? How are you leading your congregation to address this situation?
Waiting is hard. We get impatient with the clock or the calendar. We want God to hurry up and move. Part of spiritual maturity and spiritual discipline is learning to wait upon the Lord. Advent is a reminder of that need for holy waiting and holy preparing. Lord, teach us to wait in a spiritually healthy way!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.