Preparing for the Days Ahead
The United Methodist Church remains in a time of uncertainty, and yet the picture is coming into sharper focus. The Commission on a Way Forward has finished its work. The majority of the Council of Bishops (COB) has determined it will recommend a previously failed “local option” plan to the special 2019 General Conference. Shortly, the Judicial Council will announce if plans other than COB majority’s preferred option can also come before the conference. And in July, the specific details of the COB’s plans and others will be available for all United Methodists to review.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association highly recommends that pastors and laity become informed as possible about where the UM Church is potentially headed and how the various plans could impact their local churches. To that end we will run a series of articles that will help resource pastors and congregations for the weeks and months ahead.
We could think of no better way to begin that series than by reprising the Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter’s “Have the Talk.” It is addressed to pastors, but it is good for laity to read as well, especially for those that might need to prod their pastor to have the talk.
Have the Talk
I get it. Delaying local church discussions on the divisions threatening the UMC is an attractive option. The presenting issues are matters over which every local church has at least some internal disagreement. Why swat a hornet’s nest? There are plenty of other things to talk about. We have a whole world to reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ… and there are budgets to keep, forms to file, funerals to conduct, meetings to attend, and events to plan. Also, we are all currently in a denomination-wide holding pattern. This is the eye of the hurricane between General Conferences 2016 and 2019. Outside of prayer, there is not much we can do to affect the high-level negotiations currently taking place. Why talk now when we will know more later?
I have been married long enough to testify that big discussions are best held before they have to be. By the time you have to talk, you are in the rushed pace of time lines established by others. For this reason, I believe the current lull is the ideal and necessary time to bring people up to speed on what has happened, what is happening, and the various visions for what might happen next. It is time to have the talk.
Not every talk is a good or helpful one. Tone matters. Some need to learn that there are ways to engage concerned laity that do not involve torches and pitchforks, recriminations or fear. Format matters. Don’t assume that the pulpit is the best place for sharing information. Most people in the pews on Sunday don’t need or want to know everything that is going on. Folks have different views on human sexuality. Almost no one wants to be part of a group fussing over this. Taking disagreements to the pulpit can often throw gasoline on the fire. Our goal is to shed light, not add heat. We will be the better for sparing the general church population the details of denominational infighting.
I recommend your Sunday morning communication be quite limited, brief, and focused on prayer. Our beloved denomination is currently in serious discussions about how to move forward together given some deep and serious divides. The Commission on a Way Forward has done its work. Our Council of Bishops is preparing to put a plan before the whole church. We of course need to be in prayer as the process continues to unfold between now and called General Conference in St. Louis, February 23-26, 2019. But, also keep people informed. Provide links to articles where people who want to know more can find information and analysis.
Sermons on the topic of human sexuality can sometimes be appropriate. In thirty years of ministry, I have only preached one sermon on the topic of homosexuality. People were asking and changes in our culture demanded it. I made the message part of a message series on “burning issues.” I sat on a stool on floor level rather than preaching from the pulpit. We went through every text in the Bible about homosexuality. I preached the message to gay and straight, young and old. I am glad I did it. I posted a full transcript of this message on my blog and refer people to it when asked my opinion. Not every pastor should do it like I did. I would, however, recommend a thorough treatment of the topic of the New Testament vision for marriage in every United Methodist pulpit. A biblical view of marriage will challenge many norms of the larger culture in which we live.
Deeper conversations need to happen with church leaders and decision makers. I made it a point to have discussions with my church council and these conversations led to our church joining the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Some pastors are holding evening forums where all those interested can come for information and context.
In all conversations, be careful not to disparage the denomination. Our amazing connection is a treasure to be preserved not a problem to be eliminated. The positions and standards of the UMC are biblical, compassionate, and in keeping with two thousand years of Christian teaching. Don’t demonize. When talking about people who disagree with you, assign them the best possible motives. State their arguments as well as you would your own. There are ways to draw necessary contrast without making our brothers and sisters in Christ out to be the enemy. We battle not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12).
I am praying for you as you decide what to say to the people in your spiritual care. Like all congregations, the one I serve is not completely of one mind. This is not a time for silence but a time for leadership. As you well know, God has not called us to popularity but to faithfulness. The groups I have spoken to have communicated overwhelming appreciation that their pastor shared with them the challenges we now face. The truth graciously stated is winsome and compelling. While the days ahead will not be easy, I encourage you to remember Joshua 1:9… Be strong and courageous. Now is the time to have the talk.
By Chris Ritter
The Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter is the Directing Pastor of a multi-site ministry in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference that includes Geneseo First United Methodist Church and Cambridge UMC.