How come so many members of local churches refuse to be a “lay member” of the Annual Conference?
“Pastor, there is absolutely NO WAY I will ever go to Annual Conference again. Find somebody else. If you go there expecting a spiritually enriching experience, first you’ll be shocked, then dismayed, and finally you’ll leave completely disillusioned. It was more like a one-party political rally. Either get on board or get pushed out of the way.”
That’s the way one of our younger congregational members explained his experience at a session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference.
Has your congregation found it difficult to find any members who want to go to a session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference? Have you had to help laity who have gone to a session of the Annual Conference calm down, get hold of their anger/frustration, and promise to them the congregation would never again send them to the Annual Conference Session? Have you wondered if they would ever have anything to do with your local church after that?
Many of our clergy and the institutional leadership of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference seem to be either unaware or simply dismissive of church members who do not share their “progressive” agenda.
The institutional leadership, unofficial advocacy groups, boards and agencies of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, and actions of the Annual Conference sessions are strongly aligned with the progressive wing of the United Methodist Church. Though there is a very long (and interesting!) history to the development of the progressive movement within and beyond the United Methodist Church, the contemporary identification of the Northern Illinois Conference with the progressive wing of United Methodism is irrefutable – and, for most of the NIC leadership, a source of pride. (If you need a brief introduction or re-introduction to Progressive Christianity, click here for the Eight Points of Progressive Christianity)
Five current examples underscore the NIC alignment with the Progressive Wing of the denomination:
- The Straw Vote (Annual Conference Session, June of 2019) The Special Session of the General Conference (February, 2019) was called by the Council of Bishops for the express purpose of resolving the longstanding conflict within the denomination over homosexuality. Several proposals were offered for consideration by the global assembly meeting in St. Louis. The One-Church Plan, advocated by the majority of Bishops, proposed allowing each congregation and each annual conference to make its own determination about same-sex weddings and ordination of partnered homosexual candidates for ministry. The Traditional Plan reaffirmed the existing standards of the church that marriage is an exclusive covenant between one woman and one man. Further, among other existing qualifications required of our candidates for ordination is “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.” Additionally, the Traditional Plan specified penalties for Bishops and Pastors who failed to adhere to the denomination’s standards and/or refused to administer the accountability processes adopted to ensure compliance.
Following the General Conference (February, 2019), the NIC Session (June, 2019) took a straw poll in which 85% of delegates (clergy and lay members elected by their local churches) rejected the standards of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. 15% affirmed the Book of Discipline. The NIC refuses to live within the boundaries approved by the global United Methodist Church.
- Statement of Identity of the Northern Illinois Conference: Following the approval of the Traditional Plan by the Special General Conference (February, 2019) the Northern Illinois Conference session in June of 2019, out of an unwillingness to align with the decisions of the General Conference, formed a task force, appointed by Bishop Dyck, to explore “alternative expressions of Methodism” that might be more in line with the sentiments of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference leadership.
The following statement was developed by the Task Force and affirmed as presented by a Special Session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference at Kishwaukee Community College (11/16/2019):
|Introduction: The 2019 Special Session of General Conference passed the Traditional Plan that becomes effective on January 1, 2020. In anticipation of the 2020 General Conference, we seek to provide an identity and covenant statement that defines us as a Conference. This statement will help guide us as we make decisions on our future, and as we assess potential partners in ministry.
|Vision Statement/Motto: “Opening Hearts, Opening Minds, Opening Doors”
|Mission Statement: The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
|Identity Statement: Following the witness of Jesus, we, the Northern Illinois Conference, are committed to becoming entirely inclusive and welcoming. We foster and celebrate the dignity and sacred worth of all of God’s creation. By the power of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s love, we commit ourselves to grow in love and understanding for one another, and commit to breaking down the walls that divide us. We hold the fullness of Wesleyan theology as a cornerstone of our faith, including the receiving and testing of Holy Scriptures through the lens of reason, tradition, and experience. We seek to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God.
|Covenant Statement: Therefore, we covenant to the following:
|❖ To live into our baptismal vows to resist evil and injustice and oppression in all forms, including racism, sexism, and every abuse of power and privilege.
|❖ To affirm the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.
|❖ To affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQIA+ persons, and commit to being in ministry together.
|❖ To eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties of marriage and ordination in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQIA+ persons, and stand united in resisting trials and punishments.
|❖ To affirm the right and responsibility of clergy to discern, counsel, and officiate for marriages.
|❖ To engage in acts of justice, grace, mercy, kindness, compassion, and reconciliation.
|❖ To affirm that God works in and through community and acknowledge that Jesus welcomes all people as beloved children of God.
|❖ To embody and exemplify the best practices of our historic Methodist faith, including John Wesley’s emphasis on grace, and to continue the practice of an open table.
The Northern Illinois Conference Exploration Team
This document is available through the Northern Illinois Annual Conference website, click here.
The NIC Statement of Identity and Covenant commits the leadership, Bishop, agencies, activists, and staff members of the NIC to resist and disrupt the decisions of the General Conference. The leaders of the NIC will not be bound by the decisions of the global church.
- Our Episcopal Leadership: The Bishops assigned to the Northern Illinois Conference in recent years (Bishops Sprague, Jung, and Dyck) have all publicly affirmed, advocated, and promoted the Progressive Agenda. This has had a significant impact on the type and scope of programming of the annual conference, the “agenda” of the Annual Conference Sessions, the voices promoted and affirmed, the process of ordination for clergy, and the appointment of pastors. The leadership of our Bishops has undermined the connection between the NIC and the United Methodist Church. The Bishops assigned to the Northern Illinois Conference in recent years have refused to be bound by the decisions of the global United Methodist Church.
- The NIC Board of Ordained Ministry: Within United Methodism, the Board of Ordained Ministry in each Annual Conference is an essential link in the process of ordination for those who have experienced a call to the leadership roles of representative ministry. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church includes established candidacy standards related to theological education, Christian spirituality, emotional and mental health, relational competency, calling, character, moral and ethical behavior, and effectiveness in ministry. These standards apply to every United Methodist clergy-person everywhere throughout the denomination.
The Board of Ordained Ministry of the Northern Illinois Conference has been upfront about its advocacy of LGBTQIA+ candidates for ordination. The Board issued an “Open Letter to the United Methodist Church” which states in part:
- The Board of Ordained Ministry of the Northern Illinois Conference at its meeting on Thursday, May 19, 2016, unanimously voted that “It’s time” to make explicit and public a policy of our board. The policy states:
- “We publicly affirm that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and straight candidates will be given equal consideration and protection in the candidacy process. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not and will not be considered in the evaluation of candidates by the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Northern Illinois Conference.”
- We also stand today with Boards of Ordained Ministries from the Baltimore-Washington, New York, and Pacific Northwest Annual Conferences who have already affirmed similar policies.
- We have been operating this way for some years and it has served us well. Today, it is time to make our process more explicit and public. Therefore, after careful consideration, we share this statement with the church.
This policy, expressing public defiance of the ordination standards of the Book of Discipline, was appealed to Bishop Dyck for a ruling as to whether the NIC Board of Ordained Ministry could establish a policy refusing to utilize the standards of ordination established for the denomination. The Bishop originally ruled the question “moot and hypothetical”. The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church, in reviewing Bishop Dyck’s ruling, however, reversed the Bishop’s ruling and modified it to clearly state that Boards of Ordained Ministry must fully apply the standards of ordination for all candidates.
- The Board’s examination must include all paragraphs relevant to election of pastoral ministry, including those provisions set forth in paragraphs that deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, integrity, indebtedness, etc. ¶¶ 304.2, 305, 306, 310
- For the full text of the ruling, go to Judicial Council Decision 1344 linked here.
- For additional background including the original ruling by Bishop Dyck which the Judicial Council reversed, see Judicial Council Decision 1329, linked here.
Despite the ruling of the Judicial Council, the NIC Board of Ordained Ministry has never publicly withdrawn the policy in public defiance of the established standards of ordination for our clergy. This leaves local churches in the NIC without assurance that the pastor appointed to lead their congregation has actually met the requirements for ordination. The practices of the Board of Ordained Ministry tend to undermine the credibility of NIC clergy altogether because the Board of Ordained Ministry refuses to be bound by the decisions of the global church or its Judicial Council.
- Seminary Education of NIC Clergy: The majority of clergy ordained within and appointed to serve congregations throughout the NIC received their formal theological education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (GETS) in Evanston, Illinois. Garrett-Evangelical is one of thirteen denominational seminaries within the United Methodist Church. GETS has long been identified with the progressive agenda and has long been recognized as critical of traditional theology. The immediate past-president of GETS seminary, Dr. Lallene Rector, summarized the seminary reaction to the adoption of the Traditional Plan at the General Conference of 2019:
- Our students are devastated. I was personally sickened. We’re a left-leaning school. … After the vote, our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up. The denomination’s been arguing over these issues since 1972, and as you can imagine, many people are fed up. We’ve lost a lot of seminary students to other denominations.
- For the full article that refers to the interview of Dr. Rector, go to the link here.
The influence of a politicized seminary education, and its generally dismissive stance toward traditional Christian theology, is difficult to overestimate in the life of local churches in the Northern Illinois Conference. The theological stance of our pastors, the content of preaching, Christian education materials, youth group curricula, and “causes” advocated in the local church derive from the perspective trained into our appointed congregational leaders. The outsized influence of the clergy is tied directly to the composition of the Annual Conference members who vote on the policies, budgets, priorities, and agenda of the ministry of the Annual Conference. Though clergy represent just one half of one percent (0.5%) of United Methodists in the U.S., clergy comprise fifty percent of all legislative assemblies. The Annual Conference session in Northern Illinois, like all other annual conferences, is comprised of 50% clergy. This guarantees the perspective of the clergy dominates and the perspective of church members “back home” remains largely unheard.
Maybe it is time for you and the congregation of which you are part to consider disengaging from the “progressive push” for an alternative that is much closer to home.