Seven weeks ago today, the Special Session of the General Conference came to an end. For persons hoping the Conference would vote to make the United Methodist Church a more welcoming place for LGBTQ persons and their families, the conference was painful. Even those who supported the Traditional Plan that was approved privately noted, “It doesn’t feel like a victory.”
In the seven weeks since General Conference nearly every committed United Methodist has been asking, What’s next for the UMC? (or, said another way, Where do we go from here?). The bishops, renewal movements, and various caucuses, are all asking the question. Annual Conferences, Jurisdictional Conferences, Central Conferences are in conversations about it. Seminarians, faculty, young clergy, and Boards of Ordained Ministry are discussing it. Pastors are having this conversation with their members. I’ve been in dozens of these conversations in the last seven weeks, as I’m sure you have as well.
In the last month a group of centrists convened two meetings with centrist and progressive leaders to discuss the question. The aim was to take the pulse of a representative sample of leaders who see themselves as compatibilists, to see if there was any emerging consensus about what happens next.
We held two, six-hour conversations—one in Dallas and one in Atlanta. About 70 people participated. They included traditionalist and progressives, evangelicals and liberals, pastors of small churches and pastors of some of our largest churches, members of the LGBT community, people of color. They came from different places, but what united them was their opposition to the decisions made at General Conference. I’d like to attempt to summarize the consensus from these conversations.
We began by recognizing that the Judicial Council of the UMC will be meeting later this month, and it is possible they will strike down portions of the Traditional Plan. That would mean that the Good News/Confessing Movement/Wesleyan Covenant Association (GN/CM/WCA) coalition would likely rework these portions and bring the plan back to a vote next May. In addition, there are concerted efforts underway to elect delegates to next year’s General Conference that would seek to replace the Traditional Plan (though there will be 20 additional delegates from Africa next May, which makes the vote that much more challenging). One thing is clear, the intensity of the conflict next May will not diminish.
As the groups began to discuss what happens if the Traditional Plan is retained at the next General Conference, participants seemed to gravitate to two different paths forward: 1. Leave to form a new United Methodism, or 2. Stay, resist, give the GN/CM/WCA the gracious exit they’ve been looking for in hopes that they will leave, and then reform the United Methodist Church for mission and ministry for the 21st century.
The first path, creating a new UMC, would need to be done in concert with the GN/CM/WCA coalition and the Central Conferences, through some kind of dissolution of the UMC and the creation of two or three new Methodist bodies in its place. Annual conferences might decide which of the Methodist bodies they would associate with, and churches wishing to associate with the other Methodist body would vote to join another annual conference.
There was some genuine excitement about the possibility of reinventing United Methodism for the 21st century, retaining the Doctrinal Standards, the Theological Task and the Social Principles (while removing the incompatibility language), holding together the evangelical and social gospel, the Wesleyan emphasis on grace and sanctification, and a passionate pursuit of both evangelism and social justice. There was also excitement on the part of the bishops and others to reduce the rules of the Discipline and, instead, to place the primary emphasis of the Discipline on supporting and encouraging mission and ministry.
Others recognized that building support for, and actually dissolving the UMC to launch a new Methodism could take years to pull off, that it could have a negative impact on some of the institutions of the church, and on many churches, who are themselves divided. Instead of this approach, they recognized that the GN/CM/WCA coalition had been preparing a plan to leave the denomination for several years, and that some of their leaders and churches had been wanting to leave the UMC far longer than that. Why not offer them the gracious exit that they have sought, and bless them as they go to form the Wesleyan body they’d been hoping to form?
About half the participants in our conversations felt that this was the best course of action recognizing that there are more than 20,000 compatibilist United Methodist churches in the US, very few of whom have ever considered leaving the UMC, compared with less than 10,000 incompatibilist churches of the GN/CM/WCA coalition who had been planning to leave (if recent polls are indicators, the numbers might be closer to 26,000 compatibilist churches to 6,000 incompatibilist churches).
Rather than preparing to leave, this group spoke of a strategy of remaining and resisting in order to reform the UMC along the lines the first group proposed. They noted that already a grass roots movement is emerging across the US and in other parts of the world aimed at resisting the Traditional Plan as unjust. Thousands of pastors and laity have already signed on, and they’ve just gotten started. There was talk about various strategies for resistance and remaining in the church while being the more gracious and welcoming church they envision for the next Methodism.
These two, six-hour meetings ended with an agreement to convene a much larger conversation about what’s next for the UMC to help shape and create the next Methodism—a Methodism defined by Wesleyan theology, a missional focus, evangelism and social justice, and being a church that fully welcomes LGBTQ persons and their families and friends in the life of the church.
This next conversation will be held at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection May 20-22, 2019 (beginning early afternoon on Monday the 20th and concluding before lunch on Wednesday the 22nd). Ten persons from each of the 54 US annual conferences will be invited to participate, along with the active US bishops who are able to join us, as well as the general secretaries of the church.
Participants will join in round table discussions with a diverse group of other denominational leaders, both laity and clergy, praying, discussing, and discerning the answer to the question, “What is next for the UMC?” Each participant is expected to return to their annual conference to organize conversations and support there.
If you are interested in submitting your name, or the name of someone else, to be considered for one of these ten spots, click here and fill out the nomination form. Nominations are due by Monday, April 22 at 5 p.m. Invitations will be e-mailed by April 26. If we have more than ten nominees from an annual conference, and you are not selected, your name will be given to the organizing team in your annual conference so that you can give leadership there. Participants will be selected with an eye to diversity, recognized leadership in the annual conference and the ability to help organize those in your annual conference.
I was asked today about the spirit in the room in both Dallas and Atlanta and in the conversations since. My answer: Hopeful. There was genuine excitement about what could be next for the UMC. Looking back on GC 2019, I can’t help but think of the surprising ways that God works, including through our human conflicts. It may be that the only thing that could get us unstuck, was what happened at the 2019 General Conference.