This is one of those of those long posts that will not appeal to everyone, but is meant to be an informational post regarding my own understanding on the United Methodist Church, another postponement of General Conference, and the recent announcement that the fledgling Global Methodist Church will officially be founded May 1, 2022. (I can already hear those who love me cringe that I wade into these waters.) This is certainly not an all encompassing post as it would have been way too long. I pray that you from Wesley Chapel and others like you will find this foundational information helpful.
My wife and I have been attending a United Methodist Church since 1985. We chose Sistersville First United Methodist Church because of the people, not the theology. Honestly, I was 23 years old and did not know the difference between the Church of Christ, the Baptists, the Mormons, or the Methodists. Fast forward 15 years and I got saved and a few years later the church was telling me I was being called to the ministry. By this time I knew the difference between the Mormons and the Methodists, but was still pretty ignorant of all the national and international affairs of the UMC. It really was not until 2007 that I began to see “how the sausage was made”. That was that year I attended local pastor’s licensing school, was appointed full time to a church, received my bachelor’s degree, and began seminary at United Theological Seminary. Like picking out a church, my seminary choice had less to do with their theological leanings than it did that it was a fit – this time for my location and schedule. I went to United because they had a weekend program on Fridays and Saturdays and was a 3 hour drive from my pastoral appointment. In 2010 I graduated with my Master’s of Divinity and became a commissioned elder in the UMC. In 2013 I became fully ordained as an elder in the UMC. Obviously, along the way I learned a lot more about the UMC, allowing me the perspective to write for you who feel like I used to feel. Even though it lengthens this post, that is why I gave you my background.
The UMC is a global church, meaning that all United Methodists around the world have a say in what we say we believe… our doctrine. This happens every four years in a setting called General Conference. Elected representatives called delegates gather from around the world here in the United States to set our beliefs, procedures, etc. This is the only group of people who make policy for the UMC. The membership of General Conference is based on church membership. Because the church in the Philippines and Africa is exploding, almost as in the early days of the church, and the American UMC is shrinking, the American representation of the UMC does not have the votes to change official UMC beliefs as America changes. Because the vote is taken from representation from around the world, the official stance on marriage, abortion, and historical church teachings about Jesus have remained pretty much the same since the UMC was formed in 1968. The adherence to the teachings, however, has not weathered the change in America as well.
One of the main acts of disobedience in the church today comes as the result of the UMC stance on marriage. All people are welcome in the church and loved by God, but we believe the Bible teaches that sexual intimacy is a gift of God to be shared exclusively between a man and a woman and only in marriage. Therefore, the official teaching of the UMC does not permit same sex weddings in their churches and does not allow gay pastors, unless they agree to remain celibate. The same prohibition would keep either member of an unmarried man/woman couple who were in an intimate relationship from being a pastor. The reason gay persons in sexual relations are mentioned specifically in our beliefs as not being qualified to become a pastor is because at the time the language was inserted, nobody was advocating for heterosexual persons in sexual relationships outside of marriage to be permitted to be pastors. Even that has likely changed in the American church, but not in the UMC official beliefs.
Maintaining the status quo means the General Conferences of the foreseeable future are only going to strengthen the consequences for disobedience to our agreed upon teachings, including the centrality of historical Biblical teachings such as the virgin birth, Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the view of historic Christianity affirming God’s plan for biological male/female monogamous marriages. This is because those who believe our current teaching is Biblical are an expanding majority in the worldwide UMC and are supportive of the current teachings of the church. On the other hand, there is a vast swath of the American church (certainly not all of any category including pastors, UMC leaders, and/or bishops) that disagrees with the official stance on various issues and believe that our current teaching is discriminatory and hurtful. Those who agree with the current beliefs find it logical for those who cannot abide by the teachings to depart the UMC to join or begin a new/another denomination. But the progressive American United Methodists have drawn the line in the sand. With few exceptions, they are not leaving the UMC. Instead, with their frustration building with each passing conference, they believe disobedience is required to fight what they view as injustices, particularly to the LGBTQ community. This began to impact the church in irreversible ways in 2016 when, against our rules, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC elected a married gay bishop. The UMC Judicial Council (our version of the US Supreme Court) ruled that was in violation of our agreed upon rules. Like the Supreme Court, those making the ruling were not in charge of enforcement of their ruling. The other bishops in the Western Jurisdiction are the ones in charge of the enforcement. Rather than abide by the Judicial Council decision, they instead disregarded the ruling. There is nothing anyone can do. Little by little, the flood gates have been opening and more and more gay pastors are being sent on to become pastors in the UMC. While all pastors have taken a vow to uphold church teaching, the bishops are given the responsibility of enforcing our doctrine and holding those in violation accountable. The rest of the church can only watch as the official church teachings and Judicial Council rulings are ignored and disregarded by many bishops and boards.
Most parties had hoped the 2020 General Conference would bring a solution as the traditionalists were willing to leave the denomination since the progressives were not. A compromise had been reached by an unofficial diverse group working with Kenneth Feinberg, the mediator who had been the Special Master of the U.S. government’s September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. He volunteered his time to help us come to the agreement. Most believed the proposal to allow the parting of the traditionalists would be passed and an amicable separation would occur in 2020. Had the conference been held and the agreement passed, the traditional denomination would have received $25 Million to begin their denomination and churches would have received the UMC’s blessing to leave with their church property. Enter Covid. Now, after three cancelled General Conferences, we have learned the next General Conference will not be held until 2024. Unwilling to wait two more years, the leaders of the traditionalists who organized seven years ago and have been waiting patiently for a peaceful resolution, even encouraging traditional churches to wait, finally announced they were launching the new Global Methodist Church on May 1.
This brings us up to date on the crisis in a nutshell. The headlines in the media the last few days read, “Conservative group to split off from UMC over LGBTQ rights.” If you have read this far, I hope I have adequately, and as briefly as possible, helped you to understand this is not true. The denomination is in turmoil and the splintering off is taking place because of the anarchy, the lack of obedience and accountability to our rules. As many attempt to remain faithful to UMC doctrine, others feel justified in disobedience to our agreed upon teaching. This will undoubtedly go on for at least two more years. Kicking the conference can down the road may or may not lead to a mass exodus of either traditional or progressive UMC churches. Obviously, if nothing changes the odds very good that it will be difficult for the American progressives to pass their agenda in 2024. And if nothing changes and the traditionalist voices take the day, we have already seen how little that means. However, there seems to be significant interest in the Global Methodist Church. The bishops have even asked for a ruling as to whether an entire annual conference can leave without General Conference approval. There is only one reason to ask for this ruling – there must be rumblings. The disaffiliation of many traditionalists to the GMC, to another denomination, or to become independent would naturally increase the odds of the progressive agenda finally passing UMC General Conference.
All churches, traditional and progressive, have a difficult choice to make. One option is to hang in there two more years and see what happens, continuing in the status quo, financing the UMC, and either tolerating disobedience or cheering it. Another option is for churches to work within the current framework to seek their bishop’s and conference’s blessing to buy their way out of the UMC. This is necessary for multiple reasons, including benefits owed to pastors from 35 years ago (that the money is not there for) and the UMC Trust Clause which says that the church belongs not to the local congregation, but to the UMC as a whole. The buyout would pay the local church share of what the older pastors are owed, and would give the local church the deed transferring ownership to each local congregation, free to follow their own callings and chart their own futures.
As I said when I began, this barely scratches the surface on what you need to know. I have written this to inform/remind you of some basics and to point out that Wesley Chapel Short Gap has a rapidly approaching choice coming over the horizon. Wesley Chapel is not being caught unaware. Our church has had a lay leadership group meeting for about a year that has been following this closely and will be able to help advise the congregation. Please be in prayer about the future of the UMC, the GMC, and Wesley Chapel Short Gap.