And now (sigh) we return to our previously scheduled programming…
Having taken a bit of a break to remember Jesus, United Methodists now return to our ongoing denominational unraveling.
Maybe you spent a fair amount of time over the past several weeks of Advent / Christmas / New Year’s grumbling and fussing over the ongoing conflict within the United Methodist Church, but probably not.
I closed the laptop, welcomed children and grandchildren for Christmas, and enjoyed some traditional holiday music, drama, and television. I overdid it on food and underdid it on exercise. Most pastors don’t have that option. Those of us who are retired, do.
We did go to worship on Christmas Eve…gladly!
Local churches are in high gear during December with special times of worship, outreach activities to connect with their larger community, children’s pageants, concerts, preparations to welcome guests on Christmas Eve, and the unique opportunities for pastoral care during this season. Your church has likely been focused on your local ministry, your local church’s traditions, and your local community. Exactly right!
But while you were focused rightly on your local congregation, there were a number of developments in the larger world of United Methodism that likely didn’t merit your attention. For example:
- Special annual conference sessions in the USA at the end of November and early December brought the total of congregations disaffiliating from the UMC to nearly 2,000 this past year. Many more are in queue (though it is hard to get actual numbers on this) for 2023. Estimates are that another 2,000 of so will disaffiliate. Most of the disaffiliating congregations are migrating to the newly forming Global Methodist Church. The drumbeat of denominational unraveling continues.
- On the other hand, the bishop and cabinet of the North Georgia Annual Conference last week (December 28) announced the suspension of any local church disaffiliations until at least sometime after the next General Conference in April-May, 2024. The bishop contends that there is misinformation being presented to local congregations that is factually inaccurate, defamatory, and, above all, not “officially authorized.” Though the General Conference of 2019 provided a disaffiliation pathway for local churches until December of 2023, the North Georgia leaders have unilaterally closed that option for the local churches and their members. Apparently, local church members in North Georgia cannot be trusted to get appropriate information themselves and must have administrators at the conference office review and authorize what local church members see and hear. Some estimate that up to one-third of the churches in Northern Georgia seek to disaffiliate but are now blocked from doing so. This is the latest regional example of episcopal sandbagging of local churches. The ratcheting up of obstacles and requirements for disaffiliation by denominational officials also continues.
- And, more locally in the Northern Illinois Conference, at least by “reports from the trenches” of local congregations seeking to disaffiliate, the silence, lack of responsiveness, and dearth of clear, transparent, coordinated, and actionable information leaves local church leaders wondering if they will ever get the facts and, especially, the financial figures, they are promised from the Annual Conference. To be fair, the Northern Illinois Annual Conference moved its administrative offices at the end of November, and we have received our newly assigned episcopal leader, Bishop Dan Schwerin, as of just this week (January 1). Some organizational hiccups are expected as new routines and new administrative relationships are forged. Returning phone calls, responding to emails, and setting dates for meetings with congregational leaders, however, seems pretty much normally expected organizational behavior no matter the change of office locations or episcopal leader. Though we hope that with the fresh start of a new year, a new office, and a new bishop we will also have newly engaged attention on behalf of those churches attempting to “follow the rules” of disaffiliation, for the moment, at least, the administrative fog apparently continues.
No wonder we prefer the bright lights and familiar songs of Christmas to the sullen cold and gray of January…
I certainly understand if you are tired of the denominational conflict and the awkwardness in your own congregation when the ongoing divorce within United Methodism intrudes. You might be coming out of your own holiday-induced fog or the distraction of the other more important things of the recent weeks. As one way to push back the confusion and clarify the issues, here are four primary reasons, from my awareness, that local church members and their congregations are reconsidering their denominational affiliation:
- The differences between progressive theological commitments and traditional / orthodox / evangelical theological commitments renders them incompatible. “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matthew 12:25). There is widespread recognition that the United Methodist experiment in pluralism has met its limit with irreconcilable theological convictions.
- The dysfunction of United Methodist decision-making, administrative, and accountability mechanisms renders them largely, some would say completely, undermined, unreliable, or compromised. The current result is a profound lack of trust in our leaders.
- The much-heralded “big tent” of United Methodist is too narrow-minded for theologically traditional, orthodox, or evangelical laity or clergy. Something has got to go to achieve the ideological purity of progressivism sought by our organizational leaders. That something is you…unless you can be coaxed into developing an acquired taste for the “progressive blend”.
- United Methodism is not the only option, maybe not even a good option, if you desire to be part of a life-giving, Christ-centered, Scripture-grounded, community of globally connected Christians intent on the healing of the world in Jesus’ name.
One church member of a disaffiliating congregation said they were choosing the “hard right instead of the easy wrong.” That church, and others, have concluded that United Methodism has become too narrow-minded, exclusive, dysfunctional, and stifling for them. They are seeking a better future.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll unpack those four reasons some congregations are considering disaffiliation. This week as United Methodists return to the “previously scheduled programming” of denominational conflict, however, I thought a brief summary of the concerns that are dividing us might help push back some of the fog.