About That Pension Proposal at the Special General Conference

There are many essays people draw our attention to that just cause us to roll our eyes and move on. Initially, the Rev. Lloyd Nyarota’s recent commentary posted  at United Methodist Insight fell into that category. Nyarota, a United Methodist pastor serving a United Church of Canada congregation in the province of Alberta, Canada, has demonstrated a knack for writing speculative and innuendo laced pieces not worth responding to for two simple reasons. One, anything we write rebutting his claims is unlikely to dissuade those already deeply suspicious of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. And two, our members and friends recognize his stew for what it is, so there is no need to get defensive.

But on a second read, Nyarota does raise a niggling matter that has been hanging over the 2019 Special General Conference since it adjourned: was the whole controversy over sexual ethics, marriage and ordination just a cover for making sure clergy in the US have their pensions guaranteed?

In a passionate floor speech near the end of the conference, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest UM Church in the U.S., implied pensions were indeed first and foremost in many delegates’ minds. And after the close of the conference so much animosity and cynicism had been sown that some United Methodists were inclined to think, “Wow, we purportedly convened a special conference to resolve our debate over our sexual ethics, marriage, and ordination only to discover – right out of the gate – what the majority of delegates care most about is money.”

While Nyarota spins this narrative into a melodramatic conspiracy (more on this in a moment), some United Methodists were genuinely puzzled or even embarrassed as to why 64 percent of their delegates prioritized a pension proposal above everything else the conference was so obviously convened to address. Was money first and foremost in their minds? Actually no.

The pension proposal received the highest priority for three reasons. First, Wespath, one of the most trusted, non-controversial, and apolitical entities in the UM Church (yes, we know, a minority does not like how they invest some pension funds), submitted the proposal, not Reconciling Ministries Network, not Good News, not Mainstream UMC, and not the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Second, United Methodists of good will, be they progressives, centrists or traditionalists, believe the church should fulfill its pension obligations, essentially promises made to clergy and laity who have served the church. And finally, the delegates could vote to prioritize as many or as few proposals as they wanted; they were not restricted to just one. And since the pension proposal was uncontroversial no one should be surprised nearly two-thirds of the delegates prioritized it; it was an easy check.

Nyarota, however, is not buying this mundane explanation. Instead, he would have us believe “Americans [according to him both U.S. progressives and conservatives were in on the conspiracy] pressed African delegates to make sure they prioritized security of [Americans’] pensions” above all else. This is a doozy. Perhaps Nyarota has not noticed, but progressives and conservatives have not worked well together of late. It is possible, we suppose, our friends at Good News and UMAction clandestinely joined up with the Methodist Federation for Social Action and Mainstream UMC to hatch this conspiracy, but count us dubious – very dubious.

Actually, the advocacy groups – right, left, and center – spent little or no effort promoting the pension proposal. They did not because they assumed it would pass. And so it did with relatively little debate.

Nyarota, however, has latched onto a conspiracy he is convinced the majority of African delegates missed because they could not resist the purported blandishments of U.S. conservatives. He writes, “How the Africans accepted the idea that securing the American clergy pensions was a higher priority than dealing with United Methodist unity baffles me.” Maybe it is baffling because it is preposterous.

No one knows for sure whether any African voted to prioritize Wespath’s pension proposal so Nyarota is simply engaging in speculation that fits his conspiracy theory. (If somehow he does know how they voted, then we would have a real conspiracy on our hands.) Our guess is that most of the 36 percent of delegates who voted not to prioritize the pension proposal were Africans, Europeans and Filipinos; who would blame them?

Sadly, Nyarota’s conspiracy engages in all the other speculation and innuendo about vote buying and the ulterior motives of this or that organization at the special conference. Near the end of his article he offers up a salacious quote he ascribes to an unnamed source about an unnamed person (if memory serves, the Bible calls this gossip). A friend, he writes, “reported the remarks of a WCA leader who serves as pastor at one of the big churches in Houston, Texas: ‘After these votes, we are going to drop the Africans like a bad habit.’” Hmm?

We of course respect the right of people to spin conspiracy theories, but often reality is more interesting and inspiring. After the special General Conference, it was U.S. centrists and progressives who seemed eager to sever ties with Africans. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, on the other hand, actually sought to strengthen the already warm relationships it has with United Methodists in Africa, and in Eastern Europe, the Philippines and Eurasia. It has created a fund to support ministries adversely impacted by centrists and progressives who have decided to cut financial support to these regions. It hopes to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for its Central Conference Ministry Fund (to make a gift, please click HERE).

In response to Nyarota’s article, The Rev. Forbes Matonga, a General Conference delegate from Zimbabwe and a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Council, recently posted on Facebook his own explanation for why many African delegates voted the way they did at the special General Conference, “We refused to abandon the teaching of our Lord and Savior Jesus and the Church Fathers who taught us that marriage is between one man and one woman…. To suggest we were manipulated by some other people is insulting to our intelligence.”

To be sure, Matonga’s explanation is not as provocative as Nyarota’s conspiracy theory, but it does have something else going for it: the ring of truth.

Again, Nyarota is free to spin his conspiracy theories, and United Methodist Insight has every right to post his un-sourced and innuendo-laced stories, but some old fashioned journalistic research and fact-checking by both parties would make for better and more interesting commentary.

By Walter Fenton

June 25, 2019


The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.