By Walter Fenton
Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash
Local United Methodist churches have plenty of challenges to contend with right now. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic many are finding ways to reopen sanctuaries so members can worship God together while still allowing for social distancing. Where possible, pastors and lay ministers are venturing back into nursing homes and assisted living facilities to physically visit and share holy communion with members who have been isolated for months. Other local churches have opened or re-opened food banks to help people in need. And still others are venturing beyond the walls of the church to work for justice, reconciliation, and peace in their communities. All of these are rightfully top priority concerns.
Many United Methodists are also aware that in less than a year the church’s General Conference is likely to adopt the implementing legislation proposed in the “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” The Protocol calls for dividing the church into two or perhaps three new denominations, and that division would require many UM congregations to make one of the most important decisions they have ever had to make on behalf of their local churches. While most United Methodists are aware of this reality, some are only vaguely aware of it, and others are just now learning about it.
Not surprisingly, many have questions about the impending separation. Questions range from, “Why do many United Methodists, whether they be centrists, progressives, or traditionalists, believe separation is necessary?” to “How would the separation unfold?” and on to “How should a local church go about informing its members about the separation and preparing them to make a defining decision for its future?”
Over the next 12 months the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) will endeavor to answer these and many other questions. It is well aware laity and pastors are often so consumed with pressing matters close to home (e.g., raising funds for a new roof, launching a new children’s ministry program, or hiring a youth director) that it is easy to miss general church developments that directly impact them. So the association will use its weekly Outlook articles to share general information and point readers to more detailed resources. On almost a monthly basis its president, the Rev. Keith Boyette, will host WCA Viewpoint, a program solely dedicated to answering questions and helping local churches prepare for separation and transition. Also, while the WCA’s Holy Conversations Podcast will continue to address a wide variety of topics, it too will share critical information. Both of these programs will be archived and made available on the WCA’s website so people who miss episodes can watch and listen to them later. And finally, the over 50 WCA regional chapters will regularly hold virtual, and when possible, in-person meetings where people can ask questions, learn about recent developments, and network with other local churches in their areas. The WCA’s goal is to share information as widely and across as many formats as possible so local churches are fully informed about decisions before them.
Since its inception in October 2016, the WCA believed a separation of the UM Church was a distinct possibility. In late 2018, and shortly before a specially convened General Conference that many hoped would resolve the denomination’s long and bitter dispute, the WCA began laying the groundwork for a new, global Methodist church in the event a definitive resolution was not reached. While much work remains to be done, a broad range of traditionalists are confident they will be prepared to launch a new church next year that thousands of local congregations around the world will want to join. The WCA, along with organizations like the Confessing Movement, Good News, UMAction and other traditionalist voices, will share more information about this new church in the coming months.
The WCA’s message will be primarily for traditionalist to traditionalist-centrist local UM churches. It fully expects centrist and progressive advocacy groups to engage with centrist and progressive congregations about the impending UM Church’s separation and the inevitable transitional issues. The WCA respects their right to do so, and it has no intention of commenting on or critiquing their visions for new Methodist denominations. We encourage local UM church leaders, particularly those relatively unfamiliar with the impasse that has brought the church to separation, to visit websites like Mainstream UMC, Reconciling Ministries Network, UM-Forward, and UMC Next where they can learn about centrist and progressive proposals for future churches.
For our part, we believe traditionalist to traditionalist-centrist local UM churches fall along a continuum of being fully informed about what is before them to not knowing much at all about the changes that are sure to come. Given the importance of the necessary decisions local churches will need to make, the WCA is committed to speaking to as broad an audience as possible, and so run the risk of being redundant. We want to help as many local churches as possible navigate their way through a turbulent, but also a liberating transition.
To that end, we encourage congregations to purchase and leadership teams and small groups to study the book A Firm Foundation and its companion DVD. Produced in 2017, this resource will help local church members understand the basic issues at stake as they prepare to make a decision regarding their church’s future. Also, we recommend Are We Really Better Together?, a book that helps congregants see that divisions in the UM Church run deeper than just the long dispute over its sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards (a note of disclosure, the writer of this article co-authored the book with the Rev. Rob Renfroe). And for all of our members and friends, now is the time to strongly encourage fellow church members to sign-up for the WCA’s Outlook, to scour the association’s website for critical information and documents, and to become a WCA member, both individually and as a church.
Local churches are key to fulfilling three of the church’s greatest aims: to corporately worship and praise God through the celebration of the sacraments and the hearing of God’s word; to make disciples of Jesus Christ; and to serve in the world seeking God’s justice, mercy, and peace for all people. Countless dedicated and faithful members have given their time, talent, and resources to their local church. They have been baptized there, married there, and in many instances buried there. Now is the time for local church members to become fully informed and engaged in the great decisions before them for the sake of the local church.
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.