A lot has happened in the ten days (has it really only been ten days?) since the 2019 United Methodist General Conference ended in St. Louis, Missouri. A Conference, called in the hope of finding a way forward for the UMC, one that might soften or remove entirely language speaking about “the practice of homosexuality,” ended with an even stricter policy than the ones approved in the 1970s and 1980s. The vote made clear that the coalition formed by the WCA and Good News leaders, though a minority in the US, has a strong majority of votes from Africa and Eurasia, and thus controls the General Conference.
The fallout was predictable and swift. LGBTQ persons in our churches, and their friends and family, felt shunned—hurt by their denomination—and many made plans to leave churches, particularly those churches that supported the new policy and vote. Even those in supportive congregations struggled with whether they should leave the denomination, despite the love they felt for their local church. Meanwhile, the presidents and boards of some United Methodist-related colleges and universities have begun to talk about disaffiliating with the UMC (they all have students, and many have faculty or staff who are part of the LGBTQ community). Pastors, lay people, and churches who had previously been quiet about inclusion and the Discipline’s incompatibility language, were moved to action by the hurt they saw inflicted on their members. Congregations who have never withheld apportionments began asking about doing so to register their disagreement with the decision of General Conference. Many pledged acts of dissent and disobedience to the Discipline. Seminary students and candidates for ministry have been contemplating ending their efforts to become future United Methodist pastors.
All of this has led thousands of local church leaders to ask if they have a future in the UMC. While these hoped for a Church that made room for conservatives, centrists, and progressives, while removing language and policies that were hurtful to gay and lesbian people, they left General Conference feeling pushed out of their own denomination. What are the options going forward for these pastors and churches?
Some are suggesting the best course of action is to remain and resist—to continue to be the kind of United Methodists we have always been, while making clear the congregation’s or pastor’s disagreement with the vote at GC2019. This will include, for many, disobedience to the Discipline. This plan would hope to put pressure on the system that would lead to change in 2020.
A second approach is to create a new structure for the denomination, along the lines of the Connectional Conference Plan. While I’m not as familiar with the final version of that plan, conversations about a new structure revolve around dividing the US church into two or three Central Conferences (United Methodists outside the US are divided into Central Conferences already). These US Central Conferences might be 1. A Traditional Incompatibilist Conference, 2. A Compatibilist Conference patterned along the lines of the One Church Plan, and 3. A Progressive Incompatibilists conference.
Like the current Central Conferences outside the US, these new US Central Conferences would have the ability to adapt the Discipline to their missional context. Churches coud move from one Conference to another over time. Under this plan most decisions would move from the General Conference to the Central Conference level, including decisions about apportionments/finances. A review of the Global Nature of the Church work from several years ago would be helpful here.
The third option is for compatibilist conservatives, centrists, and progressives to form a new United Methodist movement, one that has removed the incompatibility language from the Discipline.
Many in the denomination are beginning to imagine how a new United Methodism could be organized for more effective evangelism, mission, and ministry in the twenty-first century. A new Book of Discipline, one that retains the doctrinal standards, historical statements, and social principles (absent the language about homosexuality) but whose constitution and bylaws are rewritten for the 21st century, whose organization is streamlined, and which devotes more funds to mission and less to structure, are among the dreams I’ve heard articulated.
Currently, these three conversations, and many others, are happening among various caucuses, clusters of churches, and others. I’m involved in several of these conversations. Many of our bishops are engaging in the conversations as they seek to shepherd their annual conferences through these uncertain times.
Shortly after Easter leaders from these various groups will need to come together to determine if a new structure is viable, or if forming an entirely new United Methodism is the better option. Conversations are happening now to begin laying plans for such a meeting.
This fall, Church of the Resurrection plans to dedicate its annual Leadership Institute to a rally of interested leaders—bishops, denominational leaders, laity and pastors—with two days of worship, presentations, workshops, and in-depth conversations on the best way forward for centrist leaning conservatives, centrists, and progressives. Our hope is that this gathering will build support for one of these plans, but also help pastors and local church leaders to be able to discuss these plans with their congregations.
At the moment I feel hopeful that we will find a way forward for those who disagree with the decisions of the General Conference last week.
For those of you who have been hurt by the Church and who are thinking of leaving, I encourage you to stay as we work together for a better way forward for the United Methodist Church. If you leave, you take your voice and your witness with you, actually decreasing the likelihood of change. I’d offer the same encouragement to seminary students and candidates for ministry. We need you, and your voice is important. I’d also encourage boards and presidents of United Methodist-related colleges to hold off on disaffiliating. Between now and May 15, 2020, when the next General Conference ends, we will find a better way forward, and we need each of you—laity, clergy, students, and institutions—to help us to navigate that better way.
God has a way of working in the midst of our human conflicts and discord, and I believe that is precisely what is happening now in the UMC.