The Global Methodist Church officially launched on May 1st. There was no social media blitz, no advertising on cable or streaming services, and nary a direct mail flyer in your mailbox. In fact, you might not have noticed. Well, of course not. After all, these Global Methodist folks are METHODISTS; there’s probably not a hot-shot, celebrity-creating, buzz-worthy, self-promoter among the whole lot. They are, following the lead of John Wesley, practical people.
Still, the Global Methodist Church is now officially a “thing”.
And, since most of the individuals and congregations joining the Global Methodist Church are coming, initially, from the existing United Methodist Church, this launch raises an important question:
Can the United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church get along?
There are at least three answers to that question.
The official launch of the Global Methodist Church (GMC) has resulted from a simmering, then bubbling, and finally boiling over conflict within the United Methodist Church (UMC) over theology, sources of authority, social and cultural issues, and accountability. Some have observed that from its very beginning at the merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968, the seeds of dissolution were already sown. (See Dr. Dale Coulter, A Failed Experiment in Methodist Unity)
The formation of the Global Methodist Church comes after a half-century of conflict within the UMC. The General Conferences of 2016 and 2019 notably highlighted the irreconcilable differences that have led to this separation. The Covid-19 pandemic also revealed that United Methodism, like many legacy institutions, is much more fragmented and much less able to govern itself than we would have imagined.
So, with that much conflict and organizational overwhelm in the background, it’s a fair question as to whether the United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church will fight like cats and dogs or find ways to get along. How would you answer that question? Here are my three responses:
On the one hand: Not on your life!
Let’s admit the obvious: the institutionalists of the UMC, including many of our Bishops, District Superintendents, and denominational bureaucrats, may feel like the GMC folks are traitors, enemies, and malcontents who threaten to burn the house down as they leave. It’s no surprise, then, that UM News Service downplays the launch of the GMC with “nothing to see here; just move along” coverage. UM Communications, including our own Northern Illinois Conference, is attempting to redirect attention from anything other than “happy thoughts and happy talk” through the #BeUMC social media campaign. (Have you posted your picture doing something UMC-ish yet?) And many of our bishops, despite the “big tent UMC” posturing, are using administrative foot-dragging, intimidation, and “exit fees” to make a congregation’s separation from the UMC nearly impossible. Notably (and sadly, from my perspective) a number of flame-throwing social media posts in Facebook groups and elsewhere on May 1st poured gasoline on the “throw the heathen out!” vitriol of United Methodism’s true believers. Can the UMC and the GMC get along peaceably? Many of those who are part of the institutional ballast of the Good Ship United Methodism are already declaring: “Not on your life!”
On the other hand: Of course, we can get along!
Apart from the angry activists, both progressive and conservative, most local church folks begin by seeking information, engaging in conversations of various sorts, recognizing that there is a threat to fall into aggrieved animosity, valuing the relationships they have with sisters and brothers in Christ who may hold differing perspectives and commitments, and, if a congregational decision is made to separate from the UMC for a future with the GMC, well, though it may be sad, we’re all Christian, aren’t we? For years in places across the country and around the world, various congregations of Christ-followers who hold differing theological understandings, church polity, and missional focus have cooperated for the common good. Besides, as membership in the UMC has endured a half-century of numerical decline, almost every United Methodist has had to figure out how to maintain relationships with Christian brothers and sisters who have left the local UMC to become part of another congregation nearby. Many of our UMC congregations already cooperate with the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Roman Catholics and, where there is an active interfaith group, we make common cause with the Synagogues, Mosques, and Temples in our community as well.
Can the UMC and GMC get along? Of course, we can!
On the “other”, other hand, well, it depends…
Among the undervalued impacts of the General Conference four-year postponement and the helter-skelter governance that has ensued, is this: the decision-making about the future of local congregations by default has been handed to the local congregations themselves and the annual conferences of which they are part. Instead of a worldwide decision being made by the General Conference, right now the determinative decisions about a congregation’s future lie with the local church and the annual conference. The street-level, community-by-community, region-by-region participants have the opportunity prayerfully to discern and decide how they will take up their part of the mission, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, for the healing of the world in Jesus’ name. This is pretty bracing stuff for United Methodists who have become conditioned to taking orders from headquarters, welcoming whomever the District Superintendent tells us will be our next pastor, and getting our genuine Certificate of Appreciation (suitable for framing) if we pay our annual apportionment.
This is untraveled territory for garden-variety United Methodists, isn’t it? We’re not used to making substantive decisions about the future of our congregations, are we? It’s like somebody left the gate open and we’re not quite sure what to do.
Thankfully, we can already see how some participants are finding a cooperative way forward.
Here are just three examples:
The North Central Jurisdiction, in its special session last November (2021), included this gracious paragraph in its BeLoved Community Covenant:
We encourage conferences and local churches to strive for reconciliation and understanding. However, some congregations and clergy may feel called to a different future in the faith. We respect our siblings who depart and desire to do no harm as we anticipate cooperative ecumenical efforts in the future. We grieve each separation. NCJ annual conferences should use existing disciplinary and conference provisions to accommodate local congregations and clergy seeking disaffiliation.From NCJ Covenant to Build Beloved Community.
Apparently BeLoved Community can embrace United Methodists and Global Methodists, too.
Wespath (The Board of Pensions and Health Benefits of the UMC)
One of the financial requirements brought up when congregations consider separating from the UMC has to do with “unfunded pension liabilities.” These liabilities are determined by calculations of pension participant lifespan as well as investment market conditions and anticipated returns. If a congregation separates from the Annual Conference, it may leave behind a liability for the ongoing pension of pastors who have served the congregation while it was part of the UMC. The UMC Book of Discipline requires a congregation to take responsibility for the unfunded pension liability apportioned to it. And that, of course, is only fair. Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline, which applies until the end of 2023 but which many of our bishops indicate they will continue to apply into 2024 and beyond, requires full payment of unfunded liabilities before a congregation is allowed to separate from the UMC. Wespath, who administers pension and benefit plans on behalf of the UMC, “strives to be a bridge-building, non-anxious presence in the midst of change.” As such, they have proposed legislation to the General Conference that will allow Wespath also to administer the pension and benefit plans of the GMC. In addition, they suggest that while paragraph 2553 requires payment of unfunded pension liabilities before a congregation separates, other disciplinary provisions (such as paragraph 2548.2) provide authority to the annual conference to determine the timing of the payment for liabilities and, as one option, utilize a promissory note or lien on property in lieu of cash payment at the time of separation.
While stalwart in their fiduciary responsibility to UMC Annual Conferences, Wespath is also seeking to find ways that allow congregations a fair and feasible path for departure if they so choose. (For further information on this point, see Wespath’s FAQs Regarding Church and Conference Disaffiliations)
United Theological Seminary
There are 13 United Methodist seminaries in the US. Most of them are skeptical about or outright dismissive of orthodox/traditional/evangelical Christian theology. But not all. United Theological Seminary (UTS), a UM school in Dayton, Ohio, has a big enough tent to include both UMC and GMC students preparing for Christian ministry. Here is an excerpt from a statement recently issued by the President of UTS, Dr. Kent Millard:
I am a centrist, and I will remain in the UM Church, but I understand the frustration my conservative brothers and sisters have with this unnecessary delay of General Conference to 2024.
Now my prayer is that United Methodist bishops and annual conferences will practice Christian charity as they work through the process of allowing pastors and congregations to transfer to the newly formed Global Methodist Church. Amicable separation is still a possibility if United Methodist leaders choose a fair and grace filled path in each annual conference. This would be an excellent time for all of us to practice the fruit of the spirit with each other: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).
I currently serve as President at United Theological Seminary which will remain as a seminary of the UM Church. United currently has students from 37 different denominations. We will welcome students from any denomination (including the Global Methodist Church) that supports our mission to prepare “faithful and fruitful Christian leaders who make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Despite our differences, I pray we can all support that mission, and bless one another in Christian charity as we go our separate ways.For the full statement, go to Parting Ways with Christian Charity
It is encouraging to note, by the way, that UTS will continue to be led by Dr. Millard, remaining in the UMC, and Dr. David Watson, Academic Dean, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of New Testament, who is transferring his ordination credentials to the GMC.
These three examples demonstrate how Methodists are finding ways to cooperate in the separation of the GMC from the UMC. Dr. Jack Jackson, Professor at another one of our UM seminaries (Claremont), writing before the fractious 2019 Special General Conference, observed from an historical and missional perspective that the separation of the UMC would be, in fact, an overall positive for the Christian mission:
There is simply no plan that would keep us (the UMC) all together. It is time that we admit that; in fact, we should welcome a fracture. As Protestants and Methodists, we know the advantages of separation and the disadvantages of false unity. Furthermore, we know that faithfulness to our sense of mission, which for many now includes issues of human sexuality, must triumph over unity.
Prioritizing mission over unity is not new to Protestants or Methodists. In fact, Protestantism was born out of the deep conviction of Martin Luther and the other reformers that schism, or as I prefer to say “multiplication,” is sometimes more desirable than a false unity.For Dr. Jackson’s complete statement, see We Should Welcome the UMC’s Inevitable Fracture for Missional Reasons
What about the Our Annual Conference?
Annual Conference sessions are coming up in the USA and around the world. Our annual conference meets June 8-10. Will Northern Illinois choose the “Not On Your Life!” coercive response for congregations considering separation or the “Of course, we can get along” collaborative response? Will congregations and pastors even have space and grace to enter thoughtful and prayerful conversations about these things without the clouds of institutional intimidation and threat hanging over them?
Well, it depends.
The Annual Conference itself has an opportunity to weigh in on which path Northern Illinois prefers to take. I’ve submitted a resolution to that effect for consideration at the annual conference. It might get buried for non-concurrence in the Consent Calendar of the business session or, perhaps, be ruled out of order for one reason or another. But maybe we will have an opportunity to encourage some suggested guidelines that support a clear, fair, transparent, and collaborative process for congregations considering separation. If you are a Lay or Clergy Member of Annual Conference, you will see the resolution in the pre-conference materials.
If you are not a member of the Annual Conference who will have the opportunity to consider this resolution, you might want to know that its main provisions include:
- An intentional, deliberate discernment process by the local church. Any proposal to withdraw from the UMC is to be considered and voted upon at a duly authorized church conference.
- The consent of the presiding bishop.
- Agreement on all financial responsibilities of the local church to the annual conference including documented loans, up-to-date apportionments, and verified unfunded pension liabilities. No additional “exit fees” or payment for local church property would be included.
- Provision for those local church members who do not want to transfer to the new denomination to have their membership transferred instead to a nearby local UMC.
- Consideration of existing pastoral leadership whether to continue or change.
- A written agreement between the annual conference, the local church, the bishop, and the receiving denomination (for example, Global Methodist Church or Free Methodist Church or another denomination) which has been reviewed by the annual conference attorney.
- Vote on the withdrawal agreement by the Annual Conference at a regular or special session.
So, what is the preference for our annual conference? Coercion or collaboration? Adversaries or partners in ministry?
Can the UMC and GMC get along in our area? Well, it depends…
Perhaps we can agree that the “big tent” of Methodism is actually bigger than one denomination.