In the face of an impending schism within the United Methodist Church, three writers affiliated with the Collegeville Institute share their reflections.
Marion D. Aldridge
I’m gravely concerned about what’s happening in Methodist life.
In my role as a Baptist minister (first as a Southern Baptist, then after the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship split off in 1991, as a member of that moderate Baptist body), for over forty years, I’ve admired the United Methodists for setting a progressive pace for other Protestants. In 1844, Methodists split over slave ownership, coming back together to be United Methodists in 1939. United Methodists appointed female pastors long before most other denominations. They led the way.
In my retirement, I now serve as the pastor of a United Methodist congregation.
In 2019, at a divisive national conference, the headlines announced the United Methodist denomination was splitting over the issue of homosexuality. The anti-gay faction won the majority of the vital vote.
Then, at the dawn of 2020, a seemingly miraculous breakthrough: a compromise, a far better option than the destructive path my Baptist family took when Cooperative Baptists took their leave. In Baptist life, professors and missionaries were fired. Congregations were divided. It was painful, brutal, and unchristian.
Here are a few lessons I learned from the frontlines of a denominational split:
- This division will bring out the worst in some people. Power and money are real issues in our nation’s largest denominations. I would hope for a seamless, painless parting of the ways for my Methodist friends, with compromises on both sides. But, be prepared. When there is a conflict, people tend to vote for their personal financial security.
- For some, this will be a Holy War. They don’t have the desire to compromise. They see the world as Good and Evil, the Bible as Black and White, decisions as obvious. The fundamentalist leaders in Baptist life said they would “go for the jugular” when Cooperative Baptists left. They did enormous damage to an honorable and already-faithful denomination. Agencies and conference centers eventually were downsized, closed, or sold.
- The marriage and ordination of gay Methodists is the presenting issue. However, other fault lines will be exposed. Secondary issues will emerge that become as important as the original disagreement. Some will use the topics of evolution, abortion, and gun control to muddy the conversation. Laity who are unhappy with their pastor will pile on their grievances. Years ago, as the pastor of a congregation, I discovered that no vote is a pure vote. No vote is only about the presenting issue, and the waters are indeed muddy.
- Under the best of circumstances, change is inevitable, and people resist change. There will be surprises. Cultural realities impact local congregations. Seminarians read contemporary bloggers as much as or more than they read John Wesley. Many Methodist traditions will be challenged, which could be good, but it will always be painful. There will be winners and losers.
The Good News is that God is God, God is good, and God doesn’t keep score the way humans do. Even if United Methodists get into a free-for-all, God will not be defeated. According to any numerical analysis, moderate Baptists lost the battle. We were told to leave; there was no room for us among Southern Baptists. Accused of being a “flea on an elephant’s back,” moderates were swatted aside. Little did we understand in the midst of our loss and grief, this outcome would be one of the best things ever to happen to many of us and to our churches.
The split forced us to rely on new insights from the Holy Spirit.
Little did we understand in the midst of our loss and grief, this outcome would be one of the best things ever to happen to many of us and to our churches.
We were reminded that the reign of God is not based on buildings and budgets, and that bigger is not necessarily better. Denominational and congregational size is a cultural value, not necessarily a merit badge for Christians to wear.
When a resurrection comes, it won’t be because someone planned it. Even the methods of Methodists have limits. Resurrections are the work of God.
If you don’t know that the Methodist church is in the midst of a serious fight, then you probably haven’t been paying very close attention for the last year or so. As a Methodist minister, I was grateful for the news coming out of Buckingham Palace so I wouldn’t have to be an expert on the complicated and archaic rules that suddenly matter very much. Yes I am a Methodist minister, who went to a Methodist seminary and even passed a Methodist polity class, and still all of the ins and outs are complicated. There are very many people who can tell you better than I how we got here and what might happen next, but as a local pastor the question I most care about is what this will mean for the millions of Methodists in this world. If the Methodists splinter (and it looks like that is coming), what will it mean for the local churches that house your pre-schools and your local AA meetings? What will it mean for the annual pancake supper in your neighborhood?
The short answer is: hopefully very little. The scary answer is: this could be financially disastrous for everyone involved. Smaller churches who do good work but have been depending on the propping up of the larger denomination may lose their financial stability. The greater denomination(s) having already made deep cuts may be looking at even more cooperate trimming. Much like any divorce that is avoided until it is inevitable, it looks like the only thing left to fight about is money. Because the Methodist church has an ecclesial structure (the money, the decision making power, and the actual church property all belong to the greater church structure rather than the congregation) the local church has a lot to lose.
Each UMC conference will vote on whether to stay or go.
Unlike a divorce, there are a lot more than two players in this game. Recently a bunch of the leaders of various sub groups of methodists across the political structure sat down at a table with one of the world’s best moderators and struck a proposal they hope that they hope will pass. The more conservative parties will leave with their churches and their property. They will leave the greater UMC properties and agencies and will be given 25 million dollars. Each UMC conference will vote on whether to stay or go. Fifty-seven percent of the people have to vote to leave in order to go. Then, individual congregations can choose to leave their conference if they would rather be in the other conference. It is (as always) more complicated than that, but that is the gist of the situation.
This proposal is, however, not a done deal. The proposal that a bunch of very well connected parties agreed to has to pass through the General Conference in May. In my one semester of Methodist polity I learned that just about anything could happen by the time we get to May. This is a proposal, and only a proposal, and very many other proposals will be presented and voted on. But this proposal is different because of the unique group of people who are all backing this particular protocol.
We are as open to criticism and opinions as we are to who takes communion. Everyone gets to participate.
So, if this thing DOES pass, what does that mean for your local UMC? It might mean nothing. It might mean that they go with the new denomination and change their sign. It might be that they start hosting gay weddings. It all depends on what happens in May. It also depends on how conservative or liberal your particular church is and which side they end up on. I wish I had more information, I am sure your local pastor does too. So what you can really do is pray for us, all of us. In the midst of a massive divorce by a denomination that I love, it seems that we are as open to criticism and opinions as we are to who takes communion. Everyone gets to participate.
“Nothing has been decided yet,” said the United Methodist pastor to her congregation. News of a denominational split recently made headlines around the world when bishops announced an “agreement aimed at separation” (the Protocol).
To some extent, the pastor was right. Nothing has been decided yet, but a separation will likely happen. What hasn’t been decided is how it will happen. The Protocol is one plan among several that have been proposed as a means for the church to separate; elected delegates will vote on these plans at the denomination’s General Conference in May. What makes the Protocol stand out among the other plans is the mediation process that generated it.
Nothing has been decided yet, but a separation will likely happen. What hasn’t been decided is how it will happen.
Sixteen leaders from opposing factions within the church engaged a renowned mediator to assist them in negotiating terms to resolve the decades-long conflict regarding inclusion of LGBTQ persons. Tension has escalated in the past year as opponents and proponents argue vehemently for their positions and LGBTQ persons bear the brunt of the wounds. In the midst of the turmoil, many of us are reminded of—and convicted by—the first of three General Rules attributed to Methodism’s founder John Wesley: do no harm. This admonition comes even before ‘do good’ and ‘stay in love with God.’ It was in the spirit of doing no more harm that these sixteen leaders entered into their mediation process.
“Nothing has been decided yet.”
These were the words we said to our children after my former husband and I announced our separation.
The oldest asked, “So you’re getting divorced?”
“Nothing has been decided yet,” we hastily replied.
To some extent, we were right. Nothing had been decided, but we both knew a divorce would likely happen. We had fundamental differences in how we wanted to live our lives. I had wanted to stay married, though, for the sake of unity; we could pretend all was well, even if it wasn’t. If we divorced, then everyone would know—it would be declared to the world—we could not work things out.
Despite the erosion of the relationship, the tension and tears, and my diminished sense of self, I had wanted to stay together because I presumed my thirty-year marriage provided the structure that held our family together . . . that held me together. Who was I otherwise? Would I even have a place to call home? Would I still be a part of a family?
Some of us are asking similar questions about our church and our place within it. What will it look like for us if the church separates? It is hard to imagine a new way of being in the world, a new way to be a family. There are some who want our church to stay together for the sake of unity. But should the illusion of unity take precedence over doing no harm to one another?
At the end of my marriage, we chose a collaborative process—similar to mediation—where we met face-to-face over a set period of months to negotiate the terms of our divorce. It is incredibly hard work to sit with someone who has deeply wounded you and vow to work collaboratively, to call upon the values you still hold in common to facilitate the dissolution of your union. Neither of us got everything we wanted; we both had to make concessions. But the process saved us from escalating the conflict. It saved us from a prolonged court battle. It saved us from doing any more harm to one another.
Divorce was a death I had tried to avoid at all costs, even the cost of myself. What I discovered out of the ashes, though, was the gift of new life: a new way of being in the world, a new way to be a family.
The developers of the Protocol have given us a gift that enables us to imagine a new life for our church.
The participants who developed the Protocol recognized mediation would be a difficult process, and they undertook it anyway. In the midst of their agonizing differences, they chose to sit with one another and call upon their shared values as Christ followers to facilitate a resolution. This is something that none of the rest of us have been able to do, and most likely, will not be able to do. And because of them, we will no longer have to attempt and fail to do, if our delegates approve the Protocol. It doesn’t give any of us everything we want; we all will have to make some concessions. But it saves us from perpetuating conflict. It saves us from doing more harm to one another.
The developers of the Protocol have given us a gift that enables us to imagine a new life for our church. It calls us to claim the hope that can come from their pain-filled mediation process that facilitates the separation of our institutional structure, yet also frees us—the Body of Christ—to be who we are called to be in and for the world.