It Looks Like the Northern Illinois United Methodist Conference Leaders Are Pulling a Lucy. You make the call.
The Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs are on the way to Glendale, AZ to compete on February 12th. Rihanna and her crew are putting the finishing touches on the half-time show. Advertisers are giving sneak-peaks of the commercials that will air in all their glory during the game.
Yep, we’re talkin’ Super Bowl LVII!
(That’s #57 for those who don’t normally use Roman numerals). It’s the secular holiday focused on football, feasting, family and friends gathered around the Biggest Available Screen for The Big Game. From the perspective of our nanosecond national attention span, football is front and center. (Bears fans, as is so often the case, get to sit this post-season out…again).
Recent developments in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church brought to mind another football-related tradition: Pulling a Lucy. This is a reference to one of the recurring themes in the Peanuts Comic Strip: Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown just when he’s about to kick it. It captures the uneasy tension between trust and betrayal. Lucy smiles. Charlie Brown ends up flat on his back. The recent distribution of a “Disaffiliation” document by the Superintendent of the Lake South District in the Northern Illinois Conference looks like the NIC has added its own spin on the Saga of the Swipe.
Just the Facts…
What am I talking about? It’s not surprising that you haven’t heard yet.
On Sunday, January 22, 2023, the Superintendent of the Lake South District of the Northern Illinois Conference, Rev. Jacques Conway, made a presentation at Faith UMC in Downers Grove, at the invitation of the church’s Administrative Council, to members of the congregation about the current move by some congregations to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination. The Administrative Council has undertaken a process of seeking clear and accurate information for the congregation. As part of the presentation that day, the District Superintendent distributed a document with the Northern Illinois Conference listing the “terms of disaffiliation”. This is the first time a document of this type has been distributed, though requests for such a document have been made to the NIC Trustees since last June (2022). The document apparently details what the Northern Illinois Conference will require from any congregation seeking to disaffiliate.
I am copying the distributed document here in its entirety, including its format, fonts, and spelling errors, for your reading, consideration, and appropriate response. This is a direct copy of the original PDF document converted to a Word document using the Adobe Acrobat extension:
You can also download a copy of the pdf document (2 pages) here:
I received a copy of this document from the leaders of Faith UMC in Downers Grove the day after its distribution because 1) I was being invited to preach there on the following Sunday (January 29, 2023) and make a presentation on reasons congregations are disaffiliating from the UMC and, 2) because this document added substantial, some would say overwhelming, financial obstacles to any congregation seeking disaffiliation within the Northern Illinois Conference. The congregation’s leaders were seeking clarity on why this document was presented on January 22 for the first time with a deadline for them and any other congregations to initiate considerations just 10 days later (February 1, 2023). This document indicates major additional requirements to the “clean paragraph 2553 disaffiliation process” outlined by previous Bishop John Hopkins.
I emailed our new episcopal leader, Bishop Dan Schwerin, Assistant to the Bishop, the Rev. Arlene Christopherson, the Superintendent of the Lake South District, the Rev. Jacques Conway, and the Conference Treasurer/Director of Administrative Services, Mr. Lonnie Chafin, with the following questions in a yes/no format.
- This document is the current and authorized statement of requirements for all NIC congregations considering disaffiliation under paragraph 2553. Yes or no?
- The deadline to initiate the process of discernment/disaffiliation is Feb 1, 2023. Yes or no?
- Has Faith UMC Downers Grove officially initiated this process or not?
Yes or no? (There seems to be some question about who wrote or contacted DS Conway and if that contact fulfills the requirement of notification in writing)
- The unfunded pension liability will be calculated upon a current statement from Wespath, not the 3/23/22 number referenced in the document. Yes or no?
- In addition to the apportionment payment requirement and the payment of unfunded pension liabilities, the congregation will be required to pay 50% of the fair market value (FMV) of the church property as well as 50% of investments, reserve funds, and other financial assets. Yes or no?
- The BSA settlement share was first indicated by DS Conway as $65 million and then, after a question, left to be answered by the chief financial officer (Lonnie). Is there a current settlement number assigned to the NIC? Yes or no?
My apologies for the bullet points, but clarity and accurate information is, of course, important for all of us as well as the congregations and UM members of the NIC.
I am glad to discuss any of these, but I hope the yes/no options provide a means of brief response among the other responsibilities and tasks before you. I indeed have a bias behind the background issues related to congregational disaffiliation, but I have a commitment to providing clear and accurate information.
The Response to My Emailed Questions
Though I received no response from the District Superintendent, the Assistant to the Bishop, or the Conference Director of Administrative Services, I did receive a response from Bishop Schwerin through his Administrative Assistant, Marva Andrews:
Scott, I send this on behalf of Bishop Schwerin who wants to thank you for the introduction. Also, please know we will work directly to care and support our churches.
Raising More Questions
This Disaffiliation Terms document and lack of direct response to concerns about it raise a number of other questions, of course. Three seem particularly pertinent:
The format, lack of complete letterhead, inconsistent fonts, absence of signatures, and misspellings all contribute to this being, as one reader put it, a “shady document.” Who authored this document, when was it “approved”, by whom, why is it hand delivered to one congregation by the District Superintendent rather than widely publicized and available, and, finally, why does it provide a deadline for beginning a disaffiliation discernment just 10 days after it first sees the light of day?
What happened to Bishop Hopkins’ advice and assurance that congregations will need to “know the numbers” before any vote so that, if they choose to disaffiliate, they will understand their financial responsibilities (even as he indicated that most congregations won’t be able to afford it)?
The standard line about transitions between United Methodist bishops is that one bishop’s decisions do not bind the decisions of his/her successor. Since this document is first distributed less than three weeks after the arrival of Bishop Dan Schwerin to lead the NIC, is it a reflection of his “setting the tone” for his episcopal leadership?
A couple of additional responses you might consider.
We can all meet our new episcopal leader, Bishop Dan Schwerin, at the upcoming Days on the District in February. The clergy are meeting with him in the mornings and probably won’t ask many unsettling questions. (After all, he’s the one with power to appoint and power to punish). The laity, however, meet in the evenings and might raise some concerns about these newly released disaffiliation requirements. We don’t all agree about the matters behind disaffiliation, but the late release of the NIC add-ons seem punitive. Whether we are traditionalists, centrists, progressives, or liberationists, this doesn’t seem right. If you want to know when/where the meet up with the bishop is happening on your district, here you go: Northern Illinois Meet the Bishop Opportunities in February 2023
If you are feeling “stuck” as a United Methodist or congregational leader in the Northern Illinois Conference, I recommend that you check out the recent podcast series from the Wesleyan Covenant Association dealing with congregational grief and anger, faithfulness in an adversarial church environment, and options for starting new. WCA Holy Conversations Podcasts
Flag on the play!
The yellow flag in a football game means there’s a stop in the action while what just happened is reviewed. Seems worth our consideration to review what is going on with the distribution of this newly released and very late “Disaffiliation Terms” document.
Did the NIC leadership “pull a Lucy”? After further review, you make the call.
Many of us are feeling the tension between trust and betrayal. Though it is not especially comforting, I’m reminded of a wise and direct observation from Maya Angelou:
On a lighter note, if you want a thorough overview of the conflicted relationship between Lucy Van Pelt and Charlie Brown by someone who has reviewed all of the Peanuts Comics related to the “pulling the football” theme, here you go: The History of Lucy Pulling the Football Away from Charlie Brown