Some United Methodists have concluded that our denominational leaders can no longer be trusted.

This three-part series grew from a brief conversation between Sunday morning worship services at a local United Methodist Church that was preparing to take a disaffiliation vote in the following week. They would decide whether to leave the United Methodist denomination or remain.

Knowing I was aligned in some way with the “dissident network”, a longtime church member asked me directly, almost accusatorially: “Why can’t we all get along? This is crippling our church.” She wondered out loud why “these people” want to leave, presuming, apparently, that they are motivated by hatred of some sort.

I’ve distilled three statements from numerous and varied conversations with United Methodists over the last three years. These statements provide what I think is a succinct summary of reasons for some United Methodists, and some United Methodist congregations, to determine that they must leave the denomination in one way or another.

As the disaffiliation process in the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) is coming to its awkward and unhappy conclusion, her searching question echoes in the background for many United Methodists in many congregations, whether they are in the throes of the disaffiliation process or not:

Why DO “these people” want to leave so much? And is hate the underlying motivation for their action?

Reason # 2: “The leaders of the United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, can no longer be trusted.”

Trust Deficit: Our Systemic United Methodist Malady

The trustworthiness of our United Methodist denominational machinery has become widely regarded with skepticism. A church-wide study of more than a decade ago diagnosed the depth of our institutional distrust.

Rev. Bob Philips, former Navy Chaplain and retired UM clergy in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, summarizes:

“In 2010 the United Methodist Church entered an extensive study. “The Call to Action” interviewed thousands of laity, clergy, bishops, and staff. It issued a final report prior to the 2012 General Conference, calling for major action in nine specific areas of church life, such as reforms in clergy and episcopal systems and setting metrics for expectations and effectiveness for clergy. Small fragments of some of the nine major areas were adopted by some annual conferences. The re-formation of the denomination envisioned through the process didn’t happen, and most of the proposed fruit of this labor largely has been forgotten amid other denominational travails.”

“One of the most significant challenges for the church discovered amid the multitude of interviews was not the debate on homosexuality. The study uncovered a profound, systemic, and deep lack of trust. This attitude affected bishops, clergy, laity, young, old, ethnic and racial minorities, and theological liberals, conservatives and moderates. Distrust of the system, of boards and agencies, of processes and people, of the treatment and appointment of clergy, of the treatment and use of laity, all were part of the mix. Distrust of the nature and scope of theological education and many of the materials produced by official sources for local church usage made the list, from players representing a wide theological spectrum. Lack of trust in motives, intentions, and clergy preparation and support loomed large. Trust deficits are a greater threat to the healthy future of the church than the sexuality debate.

“Without a foundation of trust by stakeholders (those who are affected by an institution), that institution cannot survive, much less thrive. Without trust, especially in a volunteer-driven organization, leadership cannot lead, vision cannot be cast, and strategic planning becomes irrelevant. Those in secular life know well that trust is indispensable to success.”

For more from Rev. Bob Phillips, click here: Bigger Than Sex: Trust Deficits in the United Methodist Church

Dissent, Disrupt, Disobey: The Playbook of Current UMC Leadership

Since the inception of the United Methodist Church in 1968, the quadrennial General Conference has been the arena of decision-making for our denomination. In the controverted areas of sexuality, gender identity, marriage, and qualifications for ordination, the traditionalists have prevailed repeatedly in this legislative arena.

Even at the specially called General Conference of 2019, the “Traditional Plan” gained the majority support of the delegates. That was, apparently, the “last straw” for the progressive/liberal/liberationist subculture of United Methodism. Though the Western Jurisdiction of our denomination had elected a partnered lesbian clergyperson as bishop in 2016, in violation of the Book of Discipline and despite a subsequent ruling from the Judicial Council concluding that person was ineligible to be consecrated as a bishop, after the 2019 Special General Conference, the floodgates of disruption sprang wide open.

Progressive bishops and pastors, along with a number of annual (regional) conferences, and the entire Western Jurisdiction of the USA, declared in no uncertain terms that they would not abide by the General Conference decisions. They would, instead, dissent, disrupt, and disobey the order and discipline of the democratically decided church policies. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference, in June 2019, voted by an 85% straw poll majority to join the dissent, disruption, and disobedience.

Since the progressives have not achieved their preferred legislative outcomes, they have refused to abide by the decision of the worldwide church. They did not quit and go home, however; the progressives stayed and revolted. Clergy have betrayed their ordination vow to the United Methodist Church, “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline…” (UM Book of Worship, Service of Ordination, p.676). Many of our bishops, pastors, and denominational administrators, by refusing to comply with the decisions of the Judicial Council, have rendered the leadership of The United Methodist Church unaccountable to its own doctrines, policies, and procedures. The General Conference has become largely irrelevant since its decisions are so often disregarded by those who have pledged to uphold them. The current president of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Tom Bickerton, has openly stated his opinion that the General Conference itself is a dysfunctional decision-making body and that the Council of Bishops has, as he says, appointed themselves to take the lead for the future of the denomination. He states in straightforward fashion the unaccountable power the bishops have taken for themselves. (You can check out Bishop Bickerton’s perspective here: Bishop Tom Bickerton Where Do We Go from Here Videocast)

For a positive review of the dissent, disrupt, and disobey strategy from the progressive perspective, click here: How the Resistance Can Stay in the #UMC.

As a result, many theologically conservative United Methodist congregations, whose commitments have prevailed legislatively and who support the current Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, are leaving. (See Big Tent or Revival Tent, Posted September 2022).

Credibility Crisis Close to Home: The Northern Illinois Annual Conference

So how has this denomination-wide organizational dysfunction and progressive-led dissent, disrupt, and disobey effort affected United Methodists in the Northern Illinois Conference?

As noted above, the Annual Conference Session in June, 2019, voted by 85% in a straw poll to refuse to abide by the Traditional Plan adopted at the Special General Conference.

More recently, the North Central Jurisdictional Conference (November, 2022), of which Northern Illinois is a part, voted overwhelmingly (80%) to affirm the Queer Delegates’ Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ People In The UMC as the priority of our Jurisdiction. Queer Delegates Resolution for Affirmation.

One traditionalist delegate to the Jurisdictional Conference last November, Rev. Andy Adams of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, provided a personal narrative of the experience and his review of the candidates running for election as bishops, including our own new bishop, Dan Schwerin, and concludes:

It became abundantly clear to me (during the Jurisdictional Conference) that although my bishop and some centrist leaders say that traditionalists are welcome in the future UMC, that welcome will come with conditions. At best we will not be tolerated by some and barely tolerated by others. At worst, we will be ridiculed as being unintelligent or less than sanctified, we will be labeled as homophobic and heterosexist, and our churches will be targeted for re-education until we are persuaded to change our understanding of Scripture’s teaching. The North Central Jurisdictional Conference had enough evidence to suggest that traditionalists can expect the worst. A Delegate’s Reflection on the 2022 North Central Jurisdictional Conference

Our own recently elected bishop, Bishop Dan Schwerin, has followed up on his progressive bona fides with a recent “statement appointment” of a married gay pastor to one of our former flagship congregations in the Northern Illinois Conference. This is clearly within the discretion of a bishop, of course, though it is also clearly in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline bishops vow to uphold.

In the normal course of United Methodist organizational life this sort of dissident action by a bishop might bring about a written complaint and request for at least an administrative review. However, our bishop, annual conference leaders, and most of the other bishops have signed on to the “dissent, disrupt, disobey” commitment to hold all complaints against clergy (and episcopal leaders) related to the broad scope of LGBTQIA+ concerns in abeyance until…sometime in the future. Bringing any such complaints against clergy for “disobedience to the order and discipline of the church” (a chargeable offense described in Book of Discipline 2016, paragraph 2702.1d) is moot.

Concerns related to anything within the LGBTQIA+ penumbra are irrelevant in the Northern Illinois Conference unless, of course, you are the pastor of a church that is considering disaffiliation from the UMC; perhaps especially if you are a Korean pastor of a Korean congregation considering disaffiliation. In that case, you have apparently and without question, crossed the line.

Disaffiliation Disillusionment in the Northern Illinois Conference

The disaffiliation process was approved by the Special General Conference of 2019 (par. 2553) as a limited time option for congregations to leave the United Methodist Church, provided certain financial provisions were fulfilled. Annual conferences were also authorized to include additional requirements that are consistent with the general terms outlined in the Book of Discipline.

A dozen or so congregations in the Northern Illinois Conference have undertaken this process. In most cases the process has not been smooth, transparent, open, or clear. The NIC added additional costs: first indicated as 50% of value of property, then 33%, then a “negotiated amount” to allow for continued United Methodist witness in the area where a church was leaving the UMC, and now, seemingly, a negotiated additional amount for an unspecified funding of United Methodist witness in the region generally. (For this matter of the additional financial hurdles required by the NIC, among other regions of the UMC, see my Jerry Maguire and the Methodists aka, “Show Me The Money!”)

But if the labyrinthine disaffiliation process itself and the accompanying, often eye-popping, financial requirements aren’t enough to dissuade a local congregation from their attempt to leave the Northern Illinois Conference, the efforts by our annual conference administrative leaders to threaten their pastors seems particularly nefarious. For the time being, due to fears of further “retaliatory supervisory actions” against pastors, the specifics of these situations cannot be shared publicly.

Our Annual Conference regularly passes resolutions against racism, injustice, and the oppressive use of power. And, regularly, most all of us from varying theological viewpoints, give our affirmation and support. So, when we see congregations and pastoral leaders manipulated in these ways by our administrative leaders, the irony leaves us, and the pastors and congregations directly impacted, deeply disillusioned.

We may be shocked, but some of us are not surprised. The progressive subculture within United Methodism, in my opinion, calculates church life largely in terms of politics. And church politics, from this perspective, is a zero-sum battle: if they are to win, others will have to lose. There is no such thing, apparently, as blessing each other to go in peace. That was the promise of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. Though our denominational leaders attribute the demise of The Protocol to the pandemic postponement of General Conference, the systemic distrust of the UMC supports a much more Machiavellian understanding: our institutional entities and their leaders saw the advantage of making each congregation struggle to decide its future and pay the “exit fees” to buy their way out.

The United Methodist denomination in the USA may be continuing its chronic inability to meet even modest metrics of success in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”, but it is clearly making bank through the disaffiliation process. As any farmer with a herd of sheep knows, one of the ways you make money is by shearing the sheep.

You may find my implication here “over the line” and a bit much of a rhetorical flourish. Perhaps. Just yesterday one NIC pastor shared with me that his District Superintendent told him I am a liar and should not be listened to. That pastor asked the DS if he could host a meeting between myself and the DS to specifically address the statements or presentations or whatever that I have made which earn me the title of “liar.” The opportunity for direct dialogue was refused. Of course.

Our NIC leaders may dispute and disagree with my narrative of the facts and outcomes related to our current season of denominational unraveling. If so, perhaps they will open the doors and windows and let the light in. We would all like to know how these congregations and pastors have been treated; not with smarmy words like “inclusive” or “affirmative” or “integrous”, but by openly providing the facts, figures, minutes, notes, formulae for calculating exit fees, and the like.

I expect that all of us would like nothing more, really, than to be sure when a vote is taken on disaffiliations at the coming Annual Conference Session (June 6-8) that we are NOT COMPLICIT in a local exercise of the racism, injustice, and oppressive abuse of power which we so rightly and strongly oppose.

Given what we observe to this point, however, we might reluctantly agree with Rev. Andy Adams conclusion that “there is enough evidence to suggest that traditionalists can expect the worst.”

Perhaps we can understand and even affirm that some individuals and congregations are leaving our denomination because they have concluded that United Methodist leaders, including leaders within the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, can no longer be trusted.

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REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

Interim President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
1 Corinthians 15:58

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