By Keith Boyette
On May 5, the day The United Methodist Church’s General Conference was set to convene, UM advocacy groups, representative of each of the theological streams in the church, released comments on the significance of its postponement. Each of the groups (Mainstream UMC, Reconciling Ministries Network, UMForward, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association) remain united in preparing for the separation of the UM Church. Support for adoption of the legislation implementing the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation remains strong. So, while delayed, separation likely will occur when the General Conference is ultimately held.
For now, United Methodists are rightly focused on serving our neighbors in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many traditionalists wonder how will we transition to a new Methodist church when the time comes? This article addresses what a group of leaders are doing to facilitate such a transition. Their goal is help local churches and clergy move from one place to the next with as little disruption as possible. To be sure, like most transitions, we will face challenges, but thoughtful preparation can mitigate a number of the impediments when moving from the old to the new.
We are all aware of the “chicken and egg conundrum.” As persons inquire about a new church, they often express two hopes. First, they express the hope for certainty. They want to know what the answers will be to a number of very specific, detailed questions about life in a new church. Second, they justifiably want to ensure they will have meaningful input into shaping it, including defining the answers to their very specific, detailed questions. Obviously, both hopes cannot be realized simultaneously – one must come before the other.
To respond to this conundrum, traditionalist leaders (bishops from every region of the UM Church, advocacy group representatives, and other leaders not aligned with advocacy groups) gathered in Atlanta, Georgia in early March. After three fruitful days of meetings, the 28-member group issued the Atlanta Statement. The statement shares a unified vision for a new traditionalist, global Methodist church; it is available in English, French, Kiswahili, Korean, Lingala, Portuguese, and Spanish.
The leaders gathered in Atlanta endorsed the creation of a transitional process for the season between the adoption of the Protocol legislation at the 2021 General Conference and a convening conference for the new Methodist church. This transitional process enables us to solve the “chicken and egg conundrum.” Under it, the new church will be legally formed immediately upon adoption of the protocol legislation, allowing local churches and clergy to join it, while still allowing time to appropriately plan for a convening conference where global delegates deliberate and approve the new church’s core statements of faith and its governing structure.
Conferences, congregations, and clergy will immediately be able to join the new church in its transitional form. Those who align with it will do so under a transitional “Book of Discipline” which will govern the church from its inception through its convening conference. The transitional “Book of Discipline” will answer the specific, detailed questions people have about the form and shape of a church in transition.
To facilitate this process, the leaders gathered in Atlanta created a Transitional Leadership Council. The Council will give shape to the transitional church during the period preceding its legal formation and commencement of operations, and it will oversee the operations of the transitional church through a convening conference. The leaders in Atlanta made clear that the Council’s role will in no way inhibit the ability of the convening conference to define the new global Methodist church. Its sole purpose is to facilitate as seamless a transition as possible until the new church’s convening conference. At that conference duly elected delegates from around the world will give definitive shape to a new global Methodist church.
The Transitional Leadership Council has been meeting on a weekly basis since its formation. It is composed of three retired bishops; men and women from Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States; persons of varying ethnicities including African-American, Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic; and laity and clergy. Initially, the Council is focusing on adopting a transitional “Book of Discipline.”
The WCA remains committed to the proposals made in its draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline” (accessed here and here) and will present them for consideration at the convening conference. However, the transitional “Book of Discipline” is meant to be a document that simply gets traditionalists from the close of the UM Church’s 2021 General Conference to their own convening conference. At an appropriate time, the entirety of the transitional “Book of Discipline” will be made public so conferences, congregations, and clergy can make informed decisions about what they are joining during the transitional period.
The Transitional Leadership Council will also be responsible for the following during the transitional period: vetting of clergy transferring into the transitional church; assisting central and annual conferences who vote to align with it; gathering local churches who vote to align with it apart from their annual conferences into provisional districts and conferences; overseeing the clergy deployment process; giving guidance and oversight to the planting of new local churches; and generally administering the day-to-day operations of the church during the transition period.
Traditionalists all across the connection are excited about a new Methodist movement, and of course, they are also disappointed they must wait a little longer for it. And yet in God’s good time, it will come.
As we continue to prepare for the future let us remain focused on our primary mission: to be passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ; to offer Christ to our neighbors; to disciple, equip, and deploy fully devoted followers of Jesus; and to minister to the very real needs in our mission fields as we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and a host of other challenges.
As God assured the Hebrew people on their journey to a new place, so he assures us, “I will perform miracles that have never been performed anywhere in all the earth or in any nation” (Exodus 34.10). Let us be about being the people of God with confident hope of the future Jesus has purchased for us.
Keith Boyette is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.