February 12, 2021
By Keith Boyette
Life is complicated. A pandemic makes life more complicated. Ministry is hard. Ministry during a pandemic is harder. Decision-making is often difficult. Decision-making during a pandemic is even more difficult. The United Methodist Church is confronting this reality just as countless other communities are when established practices have been altered to account for coronavirus realities. Leaders are challenged to be adaptive and resilient in such environments.
Repercussions for the UM Church have included a postponed General Conference, economic challenges amid budgetary uncertainties, and delayed action on countless legislative matters. Navigating these conditions have proved stressful for UM Church leaders at every level.
Last year the Commission on General Conference (COGC) worked hard to successfully reschedule the postponed General Conference for August 29 to September 7, 2021. Now it is again faced with an important decision on whether General Conference can proceed on those dates. It will meet on February 20 and it is widely expected it will announce whether or not an in person General Conference will be held this year.
Whatever decision the COGC makes, there will be heightened uncertainty and anxiety across the UM Church. A significant contributor to that uncertainty and anxiety is the inability of the UM Church to resolve the irreconcilable conflict arising from disagreement on the definition of marriage, its ordination standards, and its teachings on sexual ethics. Persons on every side of the conflict want a decision that will enable them to move forward in mission and ministry. Few advocate for perpetuating the endless argument that has increasingly dominated our life together. The inability to choose a different way forward – a more God-honoring way – is damaging our witness, mission, and ministry. There is a longing for the church to recognize the integrity of both the persons and the positions of those who hold differing commitments in this conflict. After decades of fruitless debate, people want to part ways in an amicable and orderly fashion so they can engage in effective and fruitful ministry. There is no need to return to vitriolic General Conferences where we do great harm to the church’s mission and witness only to learn what we all already know – we have irreconcilable differences on core issues.
Adopting the implementing legislation for the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is the most promising way forward. Sixteen leaders, representing centrists, progressives, traditionalists, and bishops, were invited to participate in crafting the Protocol by the late bishop of Sierra Leone, John Yambasu. These leaders were ably facilitated by Kenneth Feinberg, a world-renowned conflict resolution expert, who generously donated his services despite the fact that he is not United Methodist. The leaders, who have often been at odds with one another, labored through multiple, all-day meetings over five months. After significant compromises from all sides, they arrived at a unanimous agreement on the Protocol. Implementing legislation was drafted, and then multiple annual conferences voted to put it before the General Conference delegates for their approval.
Once the Protocol legislation is adopted, those who hold diametrically opposing positions on the contentious matters before us will be able to go their separate ways, blessing one another in their parting. The UM Church would be the first denomination to have navigated the conflict and amicably resolved it, exhibiting to a watching world how Christians can resolve disputes in life-affirming and life-giving ways. I firmly believe we were poised to move ahead when the coronavirus pandemic intervened; I still trust we will peacefully end our conflict.
Now it is time for us to make a decision. Already there are signs of a return to the bitter arguments publicly aired at the 2019 special General Conference. As United Methodists, we certainly know how to do conflict. The question before us is whether we will now exhibit a spirit of peace as we part from one another.
Our lives have changed in dramatic ways since the pandemic; some of those changes will be permanent. Now is the time for UM Church leaders to find creative ways to move forward so our General Conference delegates can do the critical work we have entrusted to them.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.