Grace Community Church Family:
I grew up in a wonderful United Methodist Church (UMC). I met Christ through the ministry of that church. When I felt a call into ministry, it was into the UMC that I felt called. I was trained at a UM seminary and have spent 23 years as a pastor in the UM churches. In June of 2018, Susan and I left the Arkansas Annual Conference of United Methodist churches convinced that our time in the denomination was coming to a close. How did it come to this?
The crisis in the UM denomination is not new. The denomination has been declining in America and Europe for the last 50 years. Over five million American members have left the denomination. There is no sign that this trend is going to end.
There are a variety of factors that have led to the denomination’s decline, including:
- Mergers with other denominations in 1939 and 1968
- A commitment to theological pluralism from the 13 UM seminaries
- Changes in the culture
- A large and bloated institutional bureaucracy that is out of touch with the people in the pews
- Tremendous variety and disagreement between the different geographic areas where the UM church is found
- Structural limitations that prevent accountability for those who are disobedient to the church’s teaching and practice
- Disagreements around the authority of Scripture and the person and work of Jesus.
Theological Division Examples
Let me give you a few examples of the kind of theological pluralism that is causing friction and division in the church.
The Fountains UMC in Arizona states the following:
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who:
1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and the Unity of all life.
2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey. “
This is closer to Buddhism than it is to Christianity. The concept behind the connectional system that undergirds the UMC – from the way we structure our churches to the appointment of our pastors – is that there is a large degree of theological unity among churches. This is no longer true. When you go to a Walmart in any area of the country, you expect it to be a Walmart and not a Sushi bar. Because all Walmart’s have a common core, managers can be moved around from store to store. Customers can enter a Walmart with a clear idea of what to expect. When UM churches and UM pastors do not share a common theology and are not committed to common practices, the whole system breaks down.
These differences are not surprising when there is such great diversity of beliefs that are taught and practiced at our seminaries. When I went to seminary, I was there with a couple of witches and with people studying liberation theology, process theology and feminist theology,
This diversity in theology has also been generated by the UM publishing house (Cokesbury) that has promoted authors like Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong who said the following:
When one Episcopal bishop told me that he accepted the virgin birth story literally because ‘if God wanted to be born of a virgin, He could have arranged that’, or when another said, ‘If God created ex nihilo, the virgin birth would be a snap’, I thought to myself, ‘How will the church survive in this world with that lack of scholarship among its leaders?’ In those statements the bishops were asserting their belief in a God who was in fact a manipulative male person, who would set aside the processes of the world to
produce a miracle in order to bring His (sic) divine presence into a human enterprise called life, from which this God was clearly separated. They also revealed no knowledge whatsoever of the biblical studies that have, for at least a century, thrown new light on the interpretation of these birth narratives.
Many people say, ‘They could believe in miracles in olden times because they had a false conception of the universe. They thought the Earth is the largest thing in it and Man was the most important creature. It therefore seemed reasonable to suppose that the
Creator was specially interested in Man and might even interrupt the course of Nature for his benefit. But now we know the real immensity of the universe—now that we perceive our own planet and even the whole solar system to be only a speck—it becomes ludicrous to believe in them any longer. We have discovered our insignificance and can no longer suppose that God is so drastically concerned in our petty affairs.”
Teaching that denies the basics of the Christian faith is not limited to Episcopal bishops. As far back as 1999, United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague promoted to his clergy a book by Marcus Borg, a self described “panentheist” who asserted beliefs about Jesus as Messiah were invented by the early church. In 2002, Sprague spoke at the United Methodist Iliff Seminary in Denver, where he denied Christ’s virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and atoning death, asserting that Jesus was not born divine but became divine through the faithfulness of his earthly walk, with the implication that others could follow suit. To quote Bishop Sprague:
The theological myth of the virgin birth points to this wondrous mystery and ultimate truth. To treat this myth as a historic fact is to do an injustice to its intended purpose and to run the risk of idolatry itself (namely, treating a means to an end as an end in and of itself). Thus if the virgin birth did not occur in a historical sense, if Jesus was born to supernatural powers (as I do not believe he did) what sense can we make of the miraculous stories about him in the gospel accounts. Again, it is my intent to be candid and vulnerable in responding to these fundamental queries. God is not a supreme being out there in the beyond. Rather, the word “God” is the sound image we humans employ to point to the very essence of it all that is both in our midst and yet beyond the boundaries of time and existence.
In 2018, the bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference, Gary Mueller, reflected upon the division in the church during his state of the church address.
We are divided, confused, and without a clear future. We are continuing to decline despite massive amounts of $, time, education, and energy. We are focused upon survival rather than revival. We are struggling to embrace our very purpose. We have turned Jesus into an assumption or mascot for what we want to do anyway. We are complacent, comfortable, and carrying low expectations for the future. There is a great deal of hopelessness and despair.
Almost all UM congregations are experiencing decline with no indicator that things are going to turn around. Laity don’t trust clergy and clergy don’t trust laity. No one trusts the Council of Bishops.
2016 General Conference Division
All of the brokenness, division, and dysfunction was evident at the UMC General Conference in 2016. The church was being torn apart by the huge theological gap that was increasingly getting larger. The particular argument was around human sexuality. The UMC had confirmed that sexual activity was meant to be confined to the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. In spite of this teaching, many pastors, annual conferences, and bishops were teaching and practicing what was in conflict with the Book of Discipline of the UMC. When it became clear that the historic, biblical teaching of the church was going to be affirmed once again, those who were seeking change asked the Council of Bishops to come up with a way forward. Click here to find more details on 2016 General Conference.
The Way Forward
Since the bishops of the UMC are as divided theologically as the churches and pastors, they responded to the General Conference’s call for leadership by appointing a commission “to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. ” This process is a clear expression of seeking to maintain the institution rather than seeking faithfulness to God. The mission of the Way Forward commission was to find a way to keep everyone together, not to be faithful to God above all things.
The values the Way Forward Commission committed to and that are affirmed by the Council of Bishops were “unity, space, and contextuality.” Noticeably absent from these values were such things as things as holiness, biblical authority, faithfulness, obedience, and the mystery of God. In keeping with their mission to find a way to hold the church together regardless of cost, those appointed to the Way Forward Commission were not biblical scholars and theologians but representatives of the left, the right and the middle. The Way Forward Commission met and eventually recommended three different plans to the bishops.
2019 General Conference Voting
A special session of the UMC General Conference was held February 23 -26, 2019. At that conference, the General Conference delegates made the following decisions for the United Methodist Church:
- By a vote of 68.9% for and 31.1% against, delegates voted to approve creating safeguards around pensions thus insuring previously retired pastors in the UMC will continue to be taken care of regardless of what changes may come to the global UMC in the years to come.
- By a vote of 53.3% for and 46.7% against, delegates voted to approve the Traditional Plan upholding the church’s current stance on human sexuality and clergy ordination standards
- By a vote of 51.8% for and 48.2% against, delegates voted to approve what is commonly termed a gracious exit path. In a nutshell, this would enable churches, conferences, or jurisdictions that cannot in good conscience affirm the UMC’s position on these matters to have a process to leave the denomination with their property intact.
- By a vote of 45.4% for and 54.6% against, delegates voted to disapprove the One Church Plan which would have made changes to the church’s current stance on human sexuality and clergy ordination standards.
- By a vote of 50.1% for and 49.1% against, delegates voted to request the judicial council to issue a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the various provisions in the Traditional Plan (which aspects are constitutional and which are not.) By constitutional, they do not mean the U.S. Constitution but whether or not this plan is in line with the constitution of the United Methodist Church as expressed the church’s Book of Discipline. This will be taken up at the next judicial council meeting April 23 – 25.
A Wounded Denomination
What those numbers do not show is the dysfunction that occurred at this conference. Few who attended felt like it in any way represented the way the body of Christ should conduct itself. Personally, I was deeply saddened by what I witnessed. I have been a United Methodist all of my life and it is not easy to watch the crumbling of an institution that God has used in such powerful ways in the past. I would agree with the words of our Bishop, Gary Mueller, “It’s a new day, but the fact of the matter is the United Methodist Church is deeply wounded. This is the reality we face today. Not the reality of what we would like things to be, but the reality of the way they are.”
Bishop Will Willimon’s prayer reflected much of the spirit of the debate:
At some point I shifted my own prayers to, “Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.”
Yes, one of our bishops prayed that God would smite all those who disagreed with him. Far beyond the context of the specific issues that were being debated was the division, mistrust, anger – even demonization – that was evident at all levels in the church.
A No-Win Outcome
There were no winners. For four days our denomination live-streamed publicly our deep dysfunctions. The theological divisions within the denomination were evident. A vote of 53% vs. 47% does not express a win for our denomination. This was not a time of healing but a time of positions being hardened.
After three years of study and over five million dollars spent on arranging this conference, it saddens me to say that I do not believe that we have taken any steps toward resolution. I believe that a large part of what was passed will be declared unconstitutional and voided by the Judicial Council of the UMC. It is very likely that conference decisions will be found to be inconsistent with other parts of the church’s Book of Discipline. All of this will be argued again at the next General Conference in 2020. Many of those who were not able to pass the legislation they desired have already committed to acts of defiance and are preparing to fight again in 2020.
Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest UMC in the United States, stated:
US churches that disagree with this path backwards will not sit by quietly and watch as this takes effect. They will protest, live in disobedience to the Discipline, or leave, and the impact will be far greater than the leadership of the WCA (Wesleyan Covenant Association) ever imagined.
Concerns for the Future United Methodist Church
I do not see an end to the fighting. The future of the UMC is filled with disobedience to the doctrine and discipline of the UMC, church trials, demonization of those of opposing positions, and endless public battles that only damage our witness to Christ. Those called to lead the church, our bishops, are publicly at odds with one another. Some have openly said that they will not follow the decisions of the General Conference. The 2019 General Conference confirmed for the Church Council and me the direction God was calling us to go.
Although some had believed that there was a path forward for United Methodist denomination to stay together, few believe that today. As all sides within the denomination prepare for the next General Conference in 2020, there is a growing awareness that the United Methodist Church will not continue in its present form. After the 2019 General Conference, the bishop of the Arkansas Conference said:
“We are a divided church. That is the reality. We were probably divided anyway, but now we know for sure. That is a painful thing for us to face.”
What Holds UM together?
With all this conflict and division, what holds the UMC together? There are three primary things holding the denomination together.
- The Trust Clause: All property and assets of local UM churches belong not to the local church but to the Annual Conference. Churches that wish to leave the denomination must forfeit their buildings and assets to the annual conference or negotiate for a settlement that allows them to keep their buildings and assets.
- Clergy Benefits: Ordained elders in the UMC are guaranteed appointments. Once you are ordained, you are guaranteed an appointment to the local church until you reach mandatory retirement age.
- Property: The UMC owns a tremendous amount of property including buildings, camps, retreats, etc. Those who leave the UMC hand over a tremendous amount of property and assets to those who stay.
As your pastor, I no longer believe that it serves the best interest of our mission to be connected with the United Methodist Church. I do not say this lightly nor do I say it without great sadness. This is not about any single issue, but about the continued fighting, lawsuits, acts of disobedience, demonizing of those who disagree, and the harmful witness that has been and will be given in the future. While the denomination has been declining for the last 50 years in America with over 5 million American members having left the UMC, the crisis has reached a new level and our denomination is falling apart.
I believe the mission of the church is of more importance than the maintenance of the denominational institution. I have met twice with the bishop of Arkansas in the last month to express my concerns. He is aware of the conversations that we are having among our church leaders and our church as a whole. I am grateful for the spirit of love and understanding that our bishop has extended to me during these conversations. There has not been animosity but two brothers in Christ trying to find a best way forward in a tough environment.
Let me be clear: The division I am speaking about is not at our local church level. We are not divided. Even in our disagreements at our church, we have found ways to be loving and respectful of one another. This is about a desire to not be a part of the collateral damage that has occurred and will continue to occur at the denominational level.
In April, there will be a series of events in relation to our next steps, as noted below.
Those who regularly worship at Grace and consider this their church home will have the opportunity to express their desire for the future of Grace in the 4/28 vote. While our Church Council and our staff are completely united in our desire to disaffiliate from the denomination, this needs to be a church-wide decision.
What Will Change?
The question that I hear most from people is what will change. Let me first tell you what will not change. Our theology will not change. Our worship services will not change. Our staff will not change. Our welcome of all people will not change. Our roots in Wesleyan theology and our commitment to spread Scriptural holiness across the land will not change. Our willingness to band together with other churches to further the kingdom of God will not change. Our willingness to support great ministries around the world, regardless of denominational ties, will not change.
What changes will occur? We will no longer be associated with the crisis facing the United Methodist denomination. Rather than sending 10% of all money given to the church’s general fund to the denomination, we will instead decide for ourselves how best to use those dollars for ministry and mission. Rather than the bishop appointing the pastor for one year at a time, the church becomes responsible for hiring and retaining the pastor. Rather than being connected to other churches by legal documents and trust clauses, we would be connected to other churches because we shared a common mission and vision for ministry.
If you concerns or questions, I invite you to make an appointment to come and visit with me. I would love the opportunity to sit down with you face to face and share my heart and hear your concerns.
Yours in Christ, Jeff