Integrity, Disaffiliation, and What Was Left Unspoken
Over the past two weeks the incoming bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, Rev. Dan Schwerin, has held “get-acquainted gatherings” for clergy and laity in the five geographical districts now under his leadership. Besides showing up in person (much better than gathering on Zoom!) and introducing his background and calling to ministry (well-told and engaging), he generally outlined his perspectives, preferences, and priorities as our newly arrived chief administrative officer. This is a “setting the agenda” tour often undertaken when a new executive arrives to lead an organization. Well done!
In his presentation, Bishop Schwerin focused notably on ways United Methodism is and must continue to be true to its underlying nature (integrity) even as a significant number of congregations are choosing to leave the UMC (disaffiliation).
I couldn’t agree more that we need to open the windows to let in some fresh air and light at this very point of integrity and disaffiliation. Overall, our bishop contends that “no one needs to leave the UMC”. I respectfully disagree; for many there is no other possible choice. Here’s why.
Bishop Schwerin covered a lot of ground in this introductory encounter with the clergy group I attended. I presume the same outline was followed in all the get-acquainted meetings, whether with pastors or laity. A three-page, double-sided outline distributed to each participant provided the bullet-points of the bishop’s remarks.
In a get-acquainted appearance of this sort, understandably, there is no real opportunity for dialogue and conversation and, also understandably, there is a lot that is left unspoken. The underlying themes were and presumably are that the UMC is a big tent denomination with room for everyone. A fair amount of our current conflict grows from a misunderstanding of the nature and polity of the UMC. Unidentified “misinformation” and “misdirection” from unnamed sources are fueling the fires of disaffiliation. If we all reacquaint ourselves with the nature and polity of the UMC, at least from the perspective of the bishop, we would see that Nobody needs to leave the UMC (bold print in original document).
Three Cheers for United Methodist Polity 101
Did you take a civics class in Middle/Junior High School? Did you have to pass a test on the U.S. Constitution to get through eighth grade? I did. My guess is that if you had to take the class and pass the test, it was not your favorite class. And, if you are like me, the memorization of the Constitution’s preamble, and the ability to recite it for the teacher, was an exercise in high anxiety. It did absolutely nothing to “insure domestic Tranquility” for me.
The good news for most United Methodists is that a denominational polity test is not required for worship or membership in our churches. But for the deacons, local pastors, elders, and bishops, it is and should be required. This is completely reasonable. “Polity” refers to our form of church government or organization. We expect our leaders not only to know how the organization works, but also what they are committing themselves to believe, commend, teach, promote, and defend as representatives of United Methodism.
I am sure the Bishop Schwerin and I both took and passed academic courses in United Methodist doctrine and polity. It was and is required for any ordination candidate. I’d like to add some brief responses to the bishop’s condensed refresher of United Methodist Polity 101. The bishop helpfully summarized four points of UMC governance. The bold print here is from the hand-out sheet provided at the Bishop’s Days on the District. The not-so-bold print is my filling in the blank of what was left unspoken but is, in my opinion, a pertinent perspective on the intersection of integrity an disaffiliation.
Bishop Schwerin: Covenantal Polity. We agree how we will behave and be together to increase our mission.
My Response: For over 50 years the United Methodist General Conference, the only body authorized to speak for the entire denomination, has supported the traditional understandings of marriage, ordination requirements, and sexual behavior. The 2019 General Conference reaffirmed those standards by the adoption of what was and is called the Traditional Plan. The 2019 Northern Illinois Conference Session, however, in a straw poll declared our refusal to abide by, enforce, or support the Traditional Plan affirmed by the General Conference.
We indeed have a covenantal polity, but it seems our leaders have disregarded or broken the covenant in pursuit of an alternate agenda. If questions of integrity are raised, they should also, in my opinion, be asked of our leaders who refuse to uphold the decisions of the denomination they have sworn to support.
Bishop Schwerin: Apportionment – material sharing for the good of the whole.
My Response: Apportionment, the practice of every congregation sending a portion of the offerings from local church worshipers upstream for the mission of the annual conference and general denomination, is the way United Methodists have traditionally gathered financial resources. But the administrative leaders of the Northern Illinois Conference, after adoption of the Traditional Plan by the General Conference in 2019, chose to withhold a portion of our collected dollars from the general church. Why? Because the NIC straw poll opposing the Traditional Plan was apparently considered a legitimate legislative action. But that was way back in 2019, right?
Even now some of the apportionment dollars gathered from churches in the NIC are sent to the Episcopal Fund which supports our bishops, including a Western Jurisdiction bishop declared by Judicial Council to be ineligible for the office due to noncompliance with our clergy standards regarding sexuality and marriage. (Judicial Council Decision 1341, April 28,2017). Rather than consent to the decision of the Judicial Council, however, the Western Jurisdiction doubled down by voting in November to elect another bishop who is noncompliant with our clergy standards regarding sexuality and marriage. Yet, the salaries, benefits, and administrative costs of these bishops continue to be covered by the apportionment dollars sent from local congregations, including congregations in the NIC, through the annual conference to the Episcopal Fund.
Sending our dollars individually for the good of the whole is a great means of multiplying impact. When the administration of apportionment dollars selectively subverts the decisions of the whole, however, then the integrity of our apportionment stewardship is open to question.
Bishop Schwerin: The Trust Clause – John Wesley could make sure Wesleyan theology was preached, that there was a free pulpit, and assets of the preaching houses were continually re-invested in the mission.
My Response: Bishop Schwerin rightly observed that the “trust clause” currently is very unpopular, but historically has a very important role in United Methodist polity. John Wesley, in his Model Deed (1784) indeed wanted to provide the best possible opportunity for succeeding generations of Methodists to be assured that their pastors were rooted in orthodox / Arminian / evangelical / Wesleyan theology, that a few bullies or wealthy patrons couldn’t subvert the gospel message or ministry of the local church, and that the “preaching houses” could be counted on to carry out the mission of evangelism, holy living, and social transformation with which the Methodists first began. Bishop Schwerin noted that there will always be theological diversity. That is true. But diversity about some things is not in the same category as irreconcilable differences in fundamental convictions.
Currently, the Trust Clause seems to have been turned on its head. Disaffiliating congregations have determined that the UMC denominational apparatus has lost both its message and its moorings. Whether they are able to take the church building with them or leave it behind, they cannot in good conscience remain part of a denomination that holds on to its property so tightly yet, in practice, dismisses its theological underpinnings. The trust clause was intended to guarantee missional fidelity for the generations to follow; its enforcement by many UM administrative leaders begs the question as to whether their concern is about maintaining the mission or retaining the money involved.
Integrity and Disaffiliation
When it comes down to it for those choosing to leave the UMC, the matter is quite simple. The choice to leave is indeed painful and emotionally fraught, but it is simple nonetheless. When a person’s allegiance to Jesus Christ comes into conflict with loyalty to the United Methodist denomination, allegiance to Christ takes priority without question.
Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love. (1 Corinthians 16:13,14 NLT)