Hopes and Fears for The United Methodist Church and Its People

As delegates from around the world gather for the special General Conference, The United Methodist Church is in a state of crisis. In fact, the church is confronting at least two major crises.

Many people are aware of the long debate over the church’s sexual ethics that has brought it to the brink of a major break-up. Too few, however, are familiar with how rapidly average worship attendance is falling in the U.S., and how dramatically that rate of decline is driving down funding for the global church.

From 2016 to 2017 average worship attendance in the U.S. fell by a staggering 3.8 percent, easily breaking the previous record of 3.3 percent set just the year before. For the first time in its 50 year history, the UM Church in the U.S. saw its average worship attendance fall by more than 100,000 people in just one year.

Not surprisingly, plummeting worship attendance has forced the denomination’s financial planners to recommend alarming cuts to the general church’s budget. The church’s finance agency is calling for an 18 percent reduction in the general church’s operating budget (actually 25 percent when adjusted for inflation). If adopted, it would require staff reductions and the outright elimination of some general church programs.

For the U.S., the impact of falling worship attendance and budget cuts ripple out across the denomination. They lead to local church closures, the elimination of districts within annual conferences, and even the dissolution of annual conferences. The local churches that manage to remain open (over 75 percent of the approximately 32,000 local UM churches average less than 100 in worship attendance, and over half of them average less than 50) are forced to trim budgets, and eventually many can no longer afford the salary and benefits package for a full time clergy member. This in turn creates uncertainty for those considering a call to ministry. They justifiably ask themselves, “Will there be a local UM church that can offer me a sustainable salary, healthcare and pension contributions?” Which of course then impacts enrollment at the denomination’s official seminaries, many of which are already facing financial challenges of their own.

In short, the divisive debate over the church’s sexual ethics only exacerbates the crisis of falling worship attendance and its financial ramifications.

Hopes

Despite these serious crises, we believe there are genuine reasons to remain hopeful.

We rejoice that internationally the church continues to grow, particularly in Africa and the Philippines, and even in parts of Europe and Russia where local UM churches remain tenacious despite challenging circumstances. In fact, the growth in international membership, particularly in Africa, has more than offset major losses in the U.S.

The faithfulness, enthusiasm and creativity of younger clergy and lay people in America also give us hope. Some are putting their own twists on old Methodist strategies in order to share the Gospel with the unchurched. And for the sake of deep discipleship formation they follow-up on this outreach with creative variations on the Wesleys’ “bands” and “classes.” Other young clergy courageously accept appointments in blighted urban areas or in sparsely populated rural locations. And still others volunteer for the daunting, but rewarding task of planting new churches in new places.

And of course there are thousands of local churches in the U.S. and across the connection that continue to thrive and grow. They boldly and winsomely proclaim the Gospel in word and deed. They are finding the joy of daily obedience to Christ and the happiness that comes from serving others no matter how challenging and heartbreaking it can be. Indeed, many confess to the necessity of having their hearts broken as they reach out to the lonely, the marginalized, and even the embittered. These churches are also dedicated to creating robust and serious faith formation opportunities for children, teenagers and adults, and they experience the joy of their efforts as they see neighborhoods and cities transformed by Christ working through their people.

Despite challenges and inevitable set backs, in the long term we are confident the people called Methodist could become a healthy, vital, and flourishing branch of the church catholic. However, becoming so will require the restoration of good order and accountability to our covenant. Perpetual internal strife over core convictions and blatant defiance of the will of our General Conference have given rise to a distracted, dysfunctional and declining church.

While there always has been and always should be a wide playing field for theological and ethical debate and discernment, no church can seriously move forward with deep disagreements over its anthropology, its core ethical teachings, its understanding of the authority and interpretation of Scripture, and the power of Christ’s cross to transform human behavior and practices. It also cannot move forward when some of its members adopt a strategy of ecclesial defiance and subversion as a means for achieving its ends. And such a church will surely face ruin if the shepherds tasked with guarding the church fail to do so.

Again, we find many reasons to be hopeful and confident, but restoring unity and good order is essential. And time is of the essence.

Fears

Just as our hopes are genuine, so are our fears.

The majority of our U.S. bishops, we believe, are championing a plan for our church that will lead to division and irreversible decline. The One Church Plan is a timid, tepid and latitudinarian proposal that manages to both defy Christian teaching in all times and places, and treat LGBTQ+ people as pieces in a chess match.

The equivocating language in the plan would allow some pastors to celebrate same-sex marriages, while also allowing others to continue teaching such marriages are not in conformity with Christian discipleship.

It would allow some annual conferences to celebrate the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, but allow other conferences to continue refusing such ordinations based on Scripture and two thousand years of Christian teaching.

It would allow some local churches to teach their teenagers that queerness in its various forms is to be embraced and celebrated, while allowing others to continue teaching God made humankind male and female, and called us to find fulfillment in singleness and chastity or in the fidelity of a heterosexual monogamous marriage.

Given the above, it appears to us the One Church Plan is driven more by expediency and the preservation of institutional unity, than any serious concern for teachings grounded in Scripture and two thousand years of church tradition.

On the one hand, the One Church Plan meets the LGBTQ+ community’s cries for justice by creating a blinkered “separate-but-equal” church. One can hear the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. calling its proponents to account, “Have the courage of your convictions! If you truly believe people are being treated unjustly, then do not settle for justice in some places, and not in others. And if, as a leader, you cannot make up your mind on the pressing issue of your day, then have the integrity to step aside.” It is extremely odd for our bishops to propose a plan that would tell same-sex couples, “We are comfortable with some people celebrating your marriages, and yes, we’re also good with allowing others to maintain your marriages are not in conformity with Christian teaching.”

On the other hand, these bishops are also prepared to liberalize our sexual ethics and redefine marriage as between two adults, even though the church catholic now, and for two thousands years, has taught otherwise. They are willing, again, for the sake of expediency and a vain hope for comity, to tell millions of United Methodists who continue to side with the church catholic, “You can continue to hold your views, but we’re for a plan diametrically opposed to them. We’re for plan that at best relativizes your beliefs, and at worst completely ignores them. We want to institutionalize a new sexual ethic and definition of marriage. However, if you can find enough people who share your culturally dated ideas, then we’re fine with your discriminating against LGBTQ+ people. And by the way, if your local church tries to leave the denomination because of our muddled ethics, some of us will attempt to enforce our church’s trust clause in an effort to seize the property and assets of your place of worship.”

With all due respect, we think the One Church Plan is driven by institutional expediency, is muddled both ethically and theologically, and we fear its passage will divide the church, and lead to its ultimate demise.

We are firmly in favor of the Modified Traditional Plan. It reaffirms teachings rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition. It offers gracious ways for clergy and bishops, and local congregations, annual conferences, and even jurisdictions to leave the church with pensions intact and property and assets secured. And finally, it creates new means for maintaining the good order of the church should those means be necessary. Unlike the One Church Plan, it has a far better chance of preserving unity, restoring good order, and setting the church on a path to restoration and reinvigoration.

Having said that, we are concerned for sisters and brothers in those annual conferences where bishops have either turned a blind-eye to ecclesial defiance or actually abetted it. We sympathize with pastors and laity who, with justification, worry that when the next act of defiance occurs, their bishop will be no more inclined to use new accountability standards than they were the old ones. Some United Methodists rightfully believe that when ecclesial defiance is coupled with delaying tactics, then justice is denied, values are mocked, and cynicism fostered. We understand, therefore, why some pastors and local church leaders are dubious about even the Modified Traditional Plan. As has been well known for some years now, our U.S. bishops are operating with a significant trust deficit. They will earn the respect of pastors and lay leaders if they fulfill the will of the General Conference, but if they continue to defy it, then the patience of the church’s clergy and people will run out and they will look elsewhere for leadership.

Finally, we fear the special General Conference will either descend into chaotic defiance or become so dysfunctional it fails to reach any decision. We know some will accuse us of fear mongering for saying so, but we have been to enough General Conferences to know that either possibility is well within the realm of reality. Should either possibility come to pass, the sense of despondency and failure will so permeate the church that many United Methodists will justifiably explore other options.

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Contrary to the claims of some, the Wesleyan Covenant Association was not created to foster division in the church; division existed long before we arrived on the scene. Nor is the association a cabal of clever clergy and laity that has managed to hoodwink hundreds of thousand of United Methodists; that is not only silly, even worse, it is demeaning. No, the Wesleyan Covenant Association was created to keep like-minded local churches connected and within the UM Church as the Commission on a Way Forward did its work and we all awaited the results of the special General Conference.

But of course we have not stood idly by in the interim. We have prayed for the Commission and for our bishops, and we have prepared for what we believe are the most likely outcomes of the special General Conference. And like everyone interested in the health and vitality of not only the UM Church, but the church catholic, we have clearly stated those positions we believe are essential.

Without rancor we adopted the Chicago Statement in October 2016 that included the following:

We believe it is imperative for the commission to propose a plan that calls for accountability and integrity to our covenant, and restores the good order of our church’s polity. If the commission determines no such a plan is possible, then we believe it should prepare a plan of separation that honors the consciences of all the people of the church and allows them to go forward in peace and good will. A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the “local option” around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association wants what is best for United Methodist laity and clergy, and we are convinced a speedy resolution of our present crisis is now essential and imperative for the church’s future viability.

We, and the thousands who have joined us over the last 28 months, stand by those words on the eve of the special General Conference. We pray for all the delegates as they enter their critical time of discernment.