Why are local churches leaving the United Methodist denomination?

The ongoing departure of congregations from the UMC isn’t normal. Something is wrong.

In presentations with congregations and local church leaders in northern Illinois, I’ve learned there are four primary reasons for which congregations decide to leave. Last week I posted on reason #1, far and away the primary issue for all churches seeking to leave: the profound differences in theological convictions underlying the headline issues of LGBTQIA+ inclusion. (See North Georgia Throwdown: Liar, Liar Pants on Fire!)

Here’s Reason # 2: Denominational Discombobulation

We don’t get to use a juicy, six-syllable word like “discombobulation” very often, but then these are very unusual times, maybe completely unique times, for United Methodism. “Discombobulation” is a state of confusion, upset, and disorientation. (Seriously, it is in the dictionary).

For perhaps the last decade there has been a growing awareness that the decision-making, administrative, and accountability mechanisms of United Methodism are not up to the challenges before them. Experiences even more recently have rendered them largely, some would say completely, undermined, unreliable, or compromised.

United Methodism is a very large and diffuse organization with an admirable history. Why have organizational deficiencies become part of the “make or break” concerns of local congregations right now?

Tipping Point: The Dubious Third Postponement of General Conference

United Methodists of all varieties recognize that the Special General Conference of 2019, called to definitively resolve the contentious issues of LGBTQIA+ inclusion, was a dumpster fire. As a result of the unresolved and bitter conflict on display there in St. Louis, as well as the declarations of resistance, disruption, and disobedience in response to the adoption of the Traditional Plan, the late Bishop John Yambasu (Sierra Leone) called together a group of leaders and influencers from various caucuses and networks, laity, clergy, and bishops. The group produced The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. It was a dramatic and widely supported proposal to allow for an amicable division of United Methodism based on theological differences. Legislation was developed and recommended for the General Conference of 2020. All eyes turned to Minneapolis where the Protocol was to be considered and acted upon. The expectation was that it would, in some form, be adopted as the way to move beyond a crippling half-century of intramural conflict.

Then…a global pandemic.

The General Conference for 2020 was postponed until 2021.

Then it was postponed again until 2022.

The third postponement, announced by the General Commission on General Conference, pushed the 2020 General Conference into 2024. This, it seems, was simply too much.

The rationale given for the third postponement was, despite the general loosening of pandemic related restrictions on travel and large group gatherings, international delegates would not be able to procure visas for travel to the USA. Presuming that our UMC value of inclusion would not support proceeding without the international delegates, General Conference was postponed…again…to 2024 (now scheduled for April 23 – May 4, 2024, in Charlotte, NC).

A member of the Commission on General Conference resigned when he came to realize that the international delegates were never sent invitations (in order to get visa interviews) and there had been no tracking of vaccination status for international delegates (a requirement for visas to enter the US at the time). He concluded that the staff and some members of the commission had cooperated in making sure the General Conference would be postponed, the Protocol would not be considered, and the possibility of “amicable separation” would never come to pass. Commission Member Resigns Over Decision to Postpone General Conference Again

In reaction to the dubious postponement decision, some of our bishops, predictably, commended putting first priority on “doing no harm”; many United Methodists, however, saw it as cynical political maneuvering. Given the increasing number of declarations by bishops, denominational officials, and other influencers condemning the Traditional Plan, the political networking has become transparent. With the General Conference postponed for five years, perhaps enough traditionalist delegates would leave or die and perhaps there would be enough progressive and centrist delegates around to rescind the Traditional Plan entirely. Instead of anything like the substantial payouts proposed by the Protocol to assist in the launching of a new Traditionalist denomination, the traditionalist congregations – one by one – would be required to pay substantial amounts determined by each annual conference before they could exit. So, it was a win-win-win for the denomination. If local churches leave through the process of paragraph 2553, the annual conference can receive an abundance of cash with almost no restriction on its use. If the leaders/members simply walk away from their building, the annual conference can sell the property and reap the windfall of cash. And if a majority of the congregation wants to leave, but fails the 2/3 supermajority vote, well, it is retained by the annual conference as a potentially profitable “franchise;” and if not profitable, it is still under control of the annual conference to determine if the congregation is “viable” or should be closed or merged or its building sold. Cynical? Well, maybe. But, as they say in watching a controverted play in sports, “review the video and then you make the call.”

Shortly after the postponement decision was made, traditionalist leaders announced the formation of the Global Methodist Church. Leaders of the Progressive and Centrist networks in the denomination pulled their support for the Protocol.

Though the process of disaffiliation is administered in a variety of ways in various annual conferences, one obvious result is that the “exit fees” for congregations are a financial boost for annual conferences and a great burden, sometimes an overwhelming burden, for local churches. Some bishops, as we might expect, declared that they wanted to administer the disaffiliation process for local churches in the “gracious spirit of the Protocol”; their draconian tactics, extra fees, and bullying behavior, however, underscore the irony, if not hypocrisy, of their stated intentions.

Is it any wonder that local congregations are concluding the “system is rigged against them”, the administrative and decision-making structures of the UMC are inadequate or too compromised to be trusted, and the integrity of our episcopal and administrative leaders can no longer be presumed? You can understand why congregations might consider leaving United Methodism behind.

A Top-Down Bureaucracy in a Digitally Connected World

Beyond the dubious postponement of a meeting of the one body with authority to decide the future of United Methodism, many local United Methodists experienced the “imperial episcopacy” at work in pandemic lockdowns mandated by their bishops (even when religious services were exempted from lockdown orders by civil authorities). For most, this seemed like an unwarranted restriction on the agency of the local church and its leaders.

But the pastor then assured the local church members that this is how United Methodism operates. Stay home because the bishop says so; I’ll be in trouble if you don’t follow the rules.
Of course, a number of pastors and local congregations gathered in person despite their bishop’s orders…which only underscored to the local members that their bishop was not their advocate. The bishop, and administrative structure of the Annual Conference, seemed more like an adversary.

A more recent example of this heavy-handed administrative overreach was the vaccine verification registration requirement for the 2022 session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. The Annual Conference required anyone (lay member or clergy) to upload verification of “full vaccination status” or they would not be allowed to register. There was, unfortunately, no mention of data security or of who was reviewing the vaccination status in the first place (a committee member? A Registered Nurse or Physicians Assistant? An administrative staffer in the NIC office?). More to the point, however, is that clergy members of the annual conference are required to attend the Annual Conference session unless they write to the bishop for an excused absence. (I know, it sounds like what you had to do in fifth grade to be excused from school for a dental appointment, but that is how command-and-control, top-down organizations like ours operates).

But guess what? Despite appeals from those most affected, the Annual Conference Committee refused to make any exceptions (even for medical reasons — like for example, clergypersons undergoing cancer treatment). There was no alternative means of attending virtually, though the NIC had used virtual meeting technology for two years of the pandemic and all of the annual conferences adjacent to Northern Illinois provided for “remote participation” during sessions in 2022. When one of our clergy members told his DS that he may come to the Renaissance Center in Schaumburg to observe the conference action, though from a distance, he was warned that if he showed up security personnel might be alerted to remove him from the premises. Note also that none of the staff or vendors at the Renaissance Center in Schaumburg were themselves required to provide vaccination verification in order to work there, or be present while the Annual Conference Session took place, or to be in direct contact while attending to the needs of Annual Conference members.

The day is long past when local churches were dependent upon denominational offices to tell them what to do, how to do it, when it should be done, and who should do it. Top-down organizations are challenged to adapt effectively in a digitally connected, option-rich world. You can see why local congregations might consider leaving United Methodism behind.

The Foxes Guarding the Henhouse

The dubious postponement of General Conference until 2024 might have made some local churches and their leaders skeptical about the integrity of our decision-making mechanisms. The extensive and expensive bureaucratic structure might also have local churches question why they need to be connected to and fund such an administrative behemoth. Maybe, of course, with enough time, energy, and attention, United Methodism could correct itself, re-structure itself, and prepare for a vibrant future. Unfortunately, the accountability processes in United Methodism seem ill-designed for accountability in the first place.

For example, clergy preparation, ordination approval, pastoral appointments, evaluation, and correction of our clergy are all led by …clergy. The accountability of bishops is in the hands of, guess who? The bishops. The University Senate, the board charged with evaluating our seminaries, their curriculum, and their effectiveness in training our pastoral leaders, has a mandated majority of the heads of the seminaries and colleges it oversees. This is what organizational development practitioners recognize as a “closed system” or a “self-reinforcing system.” Colloquially, we call it the foxes guarding the henhouse. Such an organizational system cannot correct or change itself since the ones in supervisory and leadership roles have a vested interest in maintaining the organization as it is.

For years United Methodists likely presumed the denomination could hold itself accountable to its own standards, decisions, and priorities. The past several years have revealed, sadly, that United Methodism does not have the capacity for self-correction. You can see why local congregations might consider leaving the United Methodist Church.

What About the Canaries in the Coal Mine?

The ongoing departure of congregations is not normal. Something is wrong. But our organizational systems, leaders, and administrative mechanisms don’t have a way to respond. Many local congregations no longer believe “someone will take care of it” or “it will work itself out.” They have come to realize that they will need to take the initiative for finding their own way forward. Denominational resources are either inadequate or adversarial.

The “canary in the coal mine” refers to the practice of English coal miners beginning over 100 years ago. A canary was taken into the mine because canaries were (and are) more sensitive to a noxious atmosphere than the miners were. If dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide collected in the mine, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning for the miners to exit the mine immediately.

Though the numbers of departing congregations in 2022 and 2023 may seem relatively small (estimated roughly to be 13-15% of congregations in the US), they may be the proverbial “canaries in the coalmine” warning of an inhospitable denominational environment. Expect more congregations to get out in one way or another over the next several years…and if not the congregations, many of their members will find the exit themselves.

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REV. DR. SCOTT FIELD

REV. DR. SCOTT FIELD

NIC Clergy/Retired
Resource Networking Coordinator
Northern Illinois Wesleyan Covenant Association

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