The Future of the UMC(s)
On one of the earliest days of the the new year, January 3rd, two major news stories were featured side by side on most national and even global news sites. The first, was the surprise air strike, in Iraq, by US forces against Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. It's not surprising that this event made headline news, as it pushed both of our countries to the brink of open war. The entire world sat breathless, hoping that peace would prevail over conflict.
I was far more surprised by the 2nd major news story of that day, not just because it was reported, but because of how little it reflected the actual reality of the news that was reported. Most major networks reported that the United Methodist Church had agreed to a split. The main part of the article was that a gathering of church leaders from around the world had met multiple times between October and December and had agreed in principle to a proposal called the "Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace for Separation". I encourage you to read the document that can be found at https://www.unitedmethodistbishops.org/newsdetail/united-methodist-traditionalists-centrists-progressives-bishops-sign-agreement-aimed-at-separation-13133654.
The document itself looks very official, and was signed by and endorsed by various Bishops in our denomination, as well as leaders of multiple movements within the United Methodist Church; including the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the Good News Movement, UMCNext, Mainstream UMC, the Queer Clergy Caucus and the Reconciling Ministries Network, among others. The plan outlines how we will divide up the denomination, who stays in the church and who goes, how churches and conferences can vote on whether to stay or go, and where the money gets divided up.
But there is a problem with the way this plan was reported. Namely, this plan is only a proposal. It is not an approved, passed legislative document. One of the realities of the United Methodist Church, for better or worse, is that our legislative body works through General Conference. They meet every 4 years (unless called to a special conference like in 2019) and they determine the direction and policies of our denomination. General Conference is an equal combination of elected Pastors from the local church and elected lay delegates from our local churches and conferences, around 850 people total.
Our Illinois Great Rivers Conference elected our 2020 delegates at the 2019 Annual Conference this past spring. We get 5 pastors and 5 laity who represent us every 4 years. They will go to the General Conference in May and will do their best to represent the will of our conference. Leading up to the 2 week-long conference, they are actively listening to the ideas and values of people within our IGRC, all while studying the massive number of proposals that have been developed and submitted over the past 4 years. So even though this Protocol document was signed and endorsed by UMC Bishops, Bishops are not even allowed to vote on which proposals shape our future. They have as much say as I do (and I don’t get to vote).
We do need to be honest about a reality in our denomination. In 2020, when our General Conference begins, most of the primary legislation will once more be around the issue of human sexuality. However, unlike past General Conferences, this years’ proposals are not about laws and doctrines around this contentious issue (which has been debated since 1972). Instead, most major proposals are about how the groups divided over this issue can go their separate way amicably, without causing more harm to each other. This year, the conversation is primarily over options that split up our denomination in some way. These include minor changes, where individual churches and conferences are allowed to leave, or can buy their way out of the denomination. But there are also proposals that require a full restructuring of our denomination into multiple entities. Some of these proposals are tactfully designed with the hope that we stay in communion and mission together, and others simply reveal groups who have given up on ever being part of a larger United denomination and simply want to leave in any way possible.
Despite all of this, there is one more reality we must address. It is not guaranteed that any proposals will actually pass, or that a complete proposal can pass. In 2019, when the Traditional Plan was approved by a slim 53% majority, leadership knew that we also had to pass an exit plan that allowed churches who disagreed with the decision to leave the denomination. However, time ran out at the Conference and the rushed plan they did pass was deemed unconstitutional by our Jurisdictional Council. Because they couldn’t pass a comprehensive set of legislation, many conferences, Bishops and churches responded by disregarding the Traditional Plan and refusing to enforce it. For any legislation to pass, it must be a true compromise for every side of this issue (and there are way more than two sides to this issue). It is hard to imagine a single proposal satisfying a large enough majority of people to get passed overwhelmingly. My fear is that any plan that passes with a razor thin majority by one side or the other will only further our already untenable divisions and push back this issue another 4 years.
So where can we place our hope? I have worked hard to be in discussion with other pastors and leaders from around the denomination (including going to a gathering in Kansas City this past summer, along with Elizabeth Wild, our Lay leader). I meet regularly in Covenant with other pastors, and I continue to read and study the proposals myself so that I understand the implications of any legislation that gets passed. I continue to remain in prayer about this situation and how it affects both the local church and our global mission.
My hope is that you'll join me in praying for a rational compromise to be passed that not only improves our divisions, but strengthens our ability to do missions. This may involve letting some churches or conferences go elsewhere to form a new denomination. This may require us to decide whether we want to stay in the denomination that remains or go forward on a new journey. Either way, we must stay attentive to the work of the Spirit here in Henry, and in the global church. These sorts of divisions have happened in nearly every generation, and the church is not only still standing, it is still capable of following Jesus. I am optimistic that no matter what happens next, we will have the same opportunity to be the church in Henry that God has always called us to be. Amen.