In the aftermath of the 2019 Special General Conference, people across The United Methodist Church have wondered, “What now?” The General Conference decided. Some vehemently disagreed. Statements of defiance were issued. Acts of resistance continue to occur. And new groups have emerged (e.g., UM Next and UM Forward). Looming on the horizon is the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many believe a parting of ways is the only viable way forward.
In this environment, a group of diverse leaders from across the UM Church recently gathered in Indianapolis to explore whether a different and more hopeful narrative might emerge. Assembled by the Rev. Dr. Kent Millard, president of United Theological Seminary, the Rev. Darren Cushman-Wood, senior pastor of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, and myself, the dialogue’s purpose was to determine whether those from different perspectives could create a mutually agreed upon plan of separation.
The Indianapolis Group acknowledged the 2019 Special General Conference demonstrated that differences in the UM Church are irreconcilable, that no pathway exists to bridge those differences, and therefore, the group should work for a plan of separation. Most of all, the participants sought to find a way to avoid further harm to the people of the UM Church, to the church universal, and to those with whom we strive to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This week, these leaders released a draft of Basic Provisions of an Indianapolis Plan. Inviting us to move away from the vitriol and caustic atmosphere that has marked conversation in the UM Church, this group of leaders asks us to move into a new season where for the sake of Christ, we strive to bless one another, even as we send one another into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness to Christ. The solution is not found in further rounds of power politics, but in our finding a way to create space for God to do new things in our fractured body.
The plan envisions the UM Church birthing two or three new churches or expressions that would operate independently of each other but share a common Methodist heritage. These new expressions would be freed to present their respective witnesses for Christ unhindered by the conflict of the past 50 years.
The group is committed to using the plan’s basic provisions to craft legislation for the 2020 General Conference. It intends to file the legislation by the September 18 deadline for submitting petitions.
The Indianapolis Plan’s goal is to eliminate rhetoric of winners and losers, or of one group staying in the UM Church and another leaving. While contemplating a parting through the birthing of new expressions, the plan does not call for the dissolution of the UM Church. It also does not require constitutional changes for its implementation.
The plan proposes the UM Church birth at least two new expressions that would be separate from one another – a traditionalist one committed to the UM Church’s current statements regarding its sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards, and a centrist (and progressive) one committed to making substantial changes in those statements. Additional expressions, perhaps a progressive one, could be birthed at the same time. Each expression would continue to be global in nature, and would develop their own doctrines, ethical standards, polities, and administrative and financial bodies. Persons from across the UM Church agree the current conflict is but a presenting issue of much deeper conflicts. Each expression would resolve those deeper conflicts according to its respective understanding of and vision for its expression.
In an effort to minimize the necessity of contentious votes being taken in local congregations, the plan would have annual conferences make initial decisions about affiliations with the new expressions. A local church would only vote if it disagreed with the decision made by its annual conference.
Importantly, a local church’s property and assets would be unaffected by its decision to align with one of the expressions. A local church’s continuing liability for pension payments would transfer into the new expression with which the church aligns. Thus, there would be minimal cost associated with a local church aligning with a particular expression.
Significantly, annual conferences and local churches could begin functioning on an interim basis in the new expressions as early as August 1, 2020, providing immediate relief from the present conflict.
Provisions are also made for the continued operation of the UM Church’s boards and agencies without requiring the new expressions to fund or use their services. Each of the new expressions would continue funding for Central Conference ministries in Africa, Europe and Eurasia, and the Philippines through 2024. This transitional period would allow the new churches a period of transition and stabilization and continued partnerships in these regions.
The 2020 General Conference would provide a process and principles for distributing general church assets of the UM Church once the new expressions were established. An arbitration board would determine the distribution of those assets.
The Indianapolis Plan is not a proposal from any specific group. Significant work is ongoing to ensure the plan’s basic provisions would be implemented generously and equitably among the new expressions.
The 2020 General Conference rapidly approaches, and surely no one wants a repeat of St. Louis, Missouri, in Minneapolis. Finding an outcome that resolves the conflict while honoring those who hold diametrically opposing positions is not easy. The Indianapolis Plan is one attempt to offer a hopeful option for the future.
The participants in the Indianapolis dialogue dare to believe God will provide a way for us to move into a hopeful future devoid of the internal focus and conflict which has dominated our life together.
By Keith Boyette
August 14, 2019
The Rev. Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.