March 3rd was a big day for United Methodists
Just over a month ago, on March 3rd, the Commission on General Conference announced its decision that the twice-postponed 2020 General Conference is postponed again…until sometime in 2024. So, the expectation of a vote to divide the United Methodist Church is delayed for two more years. Conflict, dysfunction, fragmentation, and local church confusion continue. Click here for more information on postponement.
And the same day, March 3rd, the Transitional Leadership Council, which has been developing the organizational structure for a newly emerging traditionalist / orthodox / evangelical / Wesleyan denomination, announced the Global Methodist Church (GMC) would launch on Sunday, May 1, 2022. Instead of two more years of waiting, an option is available just two weeks after Easter. Click here for more information on the GMC launch.
What you might not have noticed on March 3rd was the news about Kim Kardashian. That bit of news might be a suggestive reminder for United Methodists in general and our bishops in particular.
The Bifurcation of Kim Kardashian and Ye (formerly known as Kanye West)
You may or may not have been aware that the seven-year marriage of Ye and Kim has been troubled for some time. Besides the customary divorce wrangling in such cases that head to court, the issues of property, celebrity, “brand”, parenting, and several intangibles have been particularly difficult to resolve. Using a legal option previously available but not often invoked, Judge Steve Cochran of the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, declared the marriage bifurcated. To quote the proceedings of Judge Cochran’s courtroom: “The Court grants termination of the marital status. The Court restores the Petitioner and Respondent to the status of unmarried persons as of the date of the Entry of Judgment.” (“to bifurcate” = to divide into two branches).
The point: There have been legal filings, counter-filings, delays, continuations, firing of legal counsel and hiring of new legal counsel, etc., etc. Both Kim and Ye cite “irreconcilable differences”, even though there is not an agreement on exactly what those irreconcilable differences are. And, since there are a variety of issues related to property, finances, and legal contracts to be resolved, the process of their celebrity divorce has fallen victim to misinformation, innuendo, social media piling on by fans taking sides, and a swirl of other distractions from the main question.
What is the main question?
It’s straightforward: Are the differences significant enough to end the marriage?
Judge Steve Cochran declared, “Yes.” With that simple “Yes” by the judge, Kim and Ye are both free to enter new covenantal relationships (marriage). The details of property, finances, and other matters will be negotiated…but the judge recognized, affirmed, and facilitated both the end of the marriage and the beginning of their going separate ways.
(If you want more information on this, here’s a gossipy news source that carries the story)
Hold on, there! Are you suggesting what I think you are suggesting?
Are you recommending that local churches wanting to withdraw from the UMC go to court against the denomination? Nope! Not in the least!! Absolutely not!!!
We don’t need to involve costly and acrimonious legal battles. Besides the enormous financial cost, think of the public witness. Who wants to join a church engaged in a pitched battle with itself? Not. One. Person.
We can deal with congregational withdrawal within the existing structures of our denomination…and without waiting until 2024. At this point some of our congregations and pastors want to leave the UMC and transfer to the Global Methodist Church. Our Interim Bishop, John Hopkins, indicated in his episcopal remarks at the 2021 Annual Conference that he estimated there are 50-60 congregations in the NIC that might want to withdraw to align with the Global Methodist Church; see the transcript of Bishop Hopkins’ remarks, page 5. There is a process for this outlined in the UM Book of Discipline (paragraph 2548.2). It requires a written negotiated agreement between the annual conference, the receiving denomination, and the local church.
But that provision in the UM Book of Discipline begins with this condition:
“With the consent of the presiding bishop…”
The bishops, similar to Judge Steve Cochran, have the authority to declare the relationship between a local congregation and the UMC can be terminated, for the terms of departure to be negotiated, and to recommend to the Annual Conference the approval of the negotiated agreement for withdrawal in order for the congregation to align with another denomination.
Our bishops are the gatekeepers of this process.
Now, let’s admit the obvious:
Nobody anticipated the confusing, conflicted, and convoluted situation in which United Methodists find ourselves. Many are grappling with what this means for the future of their local congregation, their pastors, and their annual conferences. Clergy and local pastors, congregational leaders, and various advocacy groups from liberationist, progressive, institutionalist, and evangelical perspectives are all trying to figure out a way forward. Adding to the confusion, our bishops are clearly not singing from the same hymnal on how to manage the situation in their own annual conferences.
For example, Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Annual Conference notes that entire annual conferences can vote to leave the UMC and become part of the Global Methodist Church. Though this re-alignment by entire annual conferences has been affirmed in decisions by the Judicial Council in the past (Decision 1366, page 43), the Council of Bishops (COB) has asked for an expedited declaratory decision from the Judicial Council this spring so that Annual Conferences will know whether they can vote to leave the UMC as early as May or June of this year. The Judicial Council has indicated it will provide an expedited response. See: Questions answered about the UMC future.
An alternate way of dealing with the situation is demonstrated by Bishop Kenneth Carter of the Florida Annual Conference, immediate past president of the Council of Bishops, who sent a district superintendent to a closed meeting of the Florida Wesleyan Covenant Association to video record those who were coming and going from the meeting. It was a clear intimidation tactic to suppress conversation among United Methodists seeking information on the practical, financial, and legal issues involved in discerning a way forward for their congregations. This, of course, raises questions about the fair dealing of a bishop who is one of the original signatories to the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. Video recording for suppression purposes seems to be contrary to the peacekeeping “spirit of the Protocol” he had previously pledged to uphold and promote. Please view the video response to intimidation tactics.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro-Harvey, of the Louisiana Annual Conference, current president of the Council of Bishops and another original signatory of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation, now advocates that bishops utilize the more onerous provisions of paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline which call for local congregations to pay two years of apportionments, their total unfunded pension liability determined by the conference, and 40% of the fair market value of their property BEFORE they are permitted to leave the annual conference. More recently, Bishop Fierro-Harvey has reduced the “exit fee” portion of any congregational departure to 25% of fair market value. Though paragraph 2553 itself is time-restricted so that it no longer applies after 12/31/2023, Bishop Fierro-Harvey and several other bishops indicate that, the time-restriction notwithstanding, they will require these financial “obligations” to be continued into the future for any congregations choosing to separate at any time. Read the Regarding Separation message.
The “see you in court!” option has been chosen by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Annual Conference. Mt Bethel UMC, in Marietta, Ga, in April 2021 notified the annual conference that the church had decided to seek “disaffiliation” from the UMC. Bishop Haupert-Johnson announced a change of appointment in Senior Pastor for the 9,000-member congregation. The congregation refused the change of pastoral appointment since they had already initiated the process of disaffiliation. Bishop Haupert-Johnson initiated a lawsuit against the congregation due to “exigent circumstances” in an effort to seize the property and assets of the congregation valued at more than $35 million. The congregation has counter sued. Court-ordered mediation efforts failed, and the matter returns to court again this spring. Read, Mt. Bethel UMC goes to court with Methodist denomination.
What seems particularly odd in all these examples of variations in approach is that the Council of Bishops (COB) itself has been negotiating for over a year with the Wesleyan Covenant Association to arrive at a blanket agreement for congregational withdrawal under paragraph 2548.2. Though there were a couple of points yet to be agreed upon, the COB circulated a draft agreement to its members on March 8th. The draft agreement allows for congregations to withdraw from the UMC to join the Global Methodist Church largely under provisions similar to the Protocol. Click here to read and review the bishops’ draft agreement for yourself.
However, with the announcement of the Global Methodist Church launch, a number of bishops seemingly have ditched the memo of understanding and instead have chosen the path that is most onerous and punitive for laity, pastors, and local churches considering withdrawal from the UMC to affiliate with the Global Methodist Church.
Some of our bishops, of course, may perceive themselves to be holding United Methodism together by compulsory compliance. Denying the option of self-determination to local churches, however, does not build loyalty to the denomination. The most predictable outcome is resentment.
Refreshingly, the North Central Jurisdiction Special Session last November recognized that some congregations would desire to depart from the UMC. Rather than taking a punitive path, however, the NCJ recognizes that in the future both UMC and GMC congregations will likely have continuing ecumenical relationships and can regard one another as allies rather than adversaries. The Covenant to Build BeLoved Community, adopted by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference (November 2021) and affirmed by the NIC General and Jurisdictional Conference delegation states,
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.Read the complete article: Covenant to Build BeLoved Community
Whatever separation agreements are prepared with local congregations seeking to withdraw in order to join the Global Methodist Church, final approval is reserved to the Annual Conference session. The bishops, however, are the gatekeepers at the beginning of the process. Taking a cue from Kim Kardashian and Judge Steve Cochran of the California Superior Court, our bishops, instead of continuing the conflict can choose a pathway of parting in peace which most of us, on whatever side we find ourselves and our congregations, would greatly prefer.