I have written and rewritten this several times. I still am not sure if it is what is meant to be, but it is what has come out. This is not what I started out to write at all, but as I started typing, what was on my heart changed. So this is about the United Methodist Church and the issues going on of course, but I have come to a very different place than most of “my tribe” in my thoughts. I wasn’t fibbing when I said I was feeling feisty, so you have been warned.
Churches and their congregations are leaving the United Methodist church. Some have chosen to leave for a new Methodist expression called the Global Methodist Church, others to different denominations, some to being independent. This is simply the reality of the current situation. In many Annual Conferences, this process is being followed as laid out in church law without any additions. In those Annual Conferences, there is relative peace. In the annual conference I just moved from, West Ohio, there is relative peace. In other annual conferences however, this is not the case. In the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, negotiation to leave the denomination starts at 50%. I encourage you to read the linked statement which explains this is the starting point, but not a flat demand, and that no church has had to pay the 50% amount. While this is still an added cost, it appears that it is not completely unreasonable. Other annual conferences, such as the Florida Annual Conference, have added insurance provisions that are either impossible, or financially crippling, to disaffiliate. In the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, you will not know the final cost of disaffiliation until you vote to disaffiliate as the conference trustees have no set process for this to occur. All in all, a total of 19 annual conferences are adding extra costs to disaffiliate.
Assuming motives is always a dangerous thing. It is made worse in this instance because we fundamentally do not trust each other any longer. This is yet another reason why we need to live in different houses of course, but I digress. The blame however lies squarely on the shoulders of our Bishops. Under the UMC structure, Bishops have power, but no accountability and if history has taught us anything, that is always a bad combination. In each of the annual conferences, the Bishops have the ability to influence, and in many cases bring about, the circumstances they wish regarding disaffiliation. Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, for example, could easily influence the conference trustees to not require a church pay 50% of its assessed value, and it is difficult to see that as anything other than an attempted cash grab by the conference that would cripple most local churches. I can see nothing in these sorts of conditions that are gracious in any way, let alone that help to facilitate making disciples by any congregation. Is it any wonder why people have negative feelings about this? Is it any wonder that legal filings have occurred destroying whatever was left of our social witness of the Kingdom of God on Earth? All of this was preventable. Unfortunately, it was not prevented.
In response to this, the Wesleyan Covenant Association has called upon laity in the 19 annual conferences to instruct their church council to immediately begin withholding apportionment payments in escrow, and asking laity in other annual conferences to consider doing so as well. (Today, I announce the WCA is calling on theologically conservative laity in local churches to lead their church councils to immediately begin withholding all apportionment payments and escrow them. We are making this call to laity in 19 annual conferences that are adding onerous and punitive requirements to disaffiliation provisions under paragraph 2553 of The Book of Discipline…For laity and local churches in the remaining 34 annual conferences, we realize that some of you will want to stand in solidarity with your sisters and brothers being mistreated. For you, we call on you to consider withholding and escrowing your episcopal fund apportionment which goes directly to paying bishops’ salaries and expenses.”) I do not now, nor have I ever, supporting withholding apportionment payments. I am no fan of our Council of Bishops, and frankly think that most of them are Bishops in title, but heathens, as John Wesley defined the word, in practice. I also believe that the UMC is hopelessly top heavy with an inflated bureaucracy that takes up entirely too much of it’s available assets. All of that said, we should not use money as an attempt to get a preferred outcome, even when the treatment is unfair. Here is the thing though, I don’t care how unfair it is, and neither should you.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the WCA, or any other Methodist para-church group, but it is fair to say that I am closely theologically aligned with them. In essence, they are my “tribe”. It is because of this that the call to withhold money deeply grieves me. I can certainly understand why it is happening. I can understand the tactic, and if all this was just property disputes, it would make a lot of sense. That is not what this should be. If some annual conferences want buildings, dear Lord let them have them. Shake off the dust and walk away. Remove your membership, petition for a pastor from the GMC, and rent a store front. Adopt a cell model and meet in home church living rooms and replicate until you almost force the GMC to send you a pastor. Move to a different Wesleyan denomination if need be. This is not who the people called Methodist are supposed to be. I know that facilities are useful. I know that many people have fond memories, sometimes generational memories, in churches. I know that it might be a little bit scary. Let me try to appeal to you to remember who you are though.
The Spirit that lives in me, and you, and in all who call upon the name of The Lord to be saved, is the same Spirit at Pentecost where thousands were added to the faith and The Lord added more to their number daily. They didn’t have a dedicated building. We have hundreds of buildings and forget adding thousands, we are losing people. The sacrament of the Eucharist is available to us anywhere there is a pastor to bless it. So is the sacrament of Baptism. We do not need holy ground because the Spirit that lives in us combined with the imparted righteousness of Christ makes each place our feet fall holy ground because we are standing there. We do not need to worry about influence because we have the power of prayer to petition the Creator of the universe to step into the world and affect it. Prayer is our ultimate power. Have we forgotten that? We are grafted on to the line, brothers and sisters to Christ, coheirs in the Kingdom Eternal, and royal priests, so why are we quibbling over money and buildings? We serve the creator God who would cause even the rocks to cry out if we remained silent and we think that He will not provide what is necessary for us to do the works of ministry? As I have written this over and over again, I have become convicted that this is the truth: in each and every church that we are fighting over, and in each and every congregation that chooses to use money as leverage, The Adversary dances in the sanctuary and Jesus, as He did over Jerusalem, weeps.
How the UMC Bishops have behaved is largely shameful. How the annual conferences add on what I can only see as punitive measures to disaffiliation is shameful. How many of us have been characterized is shameful. How we have characterized others often is too. What need do we have to argue over buildings or money however? Saint Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, from prison yet they deal with some of the most liberating promises and topics in all of scripture, yet we are fighting over buildings and money as if it had something to do with the Kingdom of God? I appeal to you as a demonstration of humility and also as a sign of the faith of God’s provision to end the lawsuits, end the calls to withhold money, end the senseless fighting that need not be and step out in faith trusting that God’s provision will be enough, that no building is necessary for The Kingdom, and that no court battle will bring glory to God.
John Wesley once was refused the pulpit at Epworth, but his father had been buried outside the church and Wesley had a right to that grave, so instead of lamenting where he could not preach, he stood on his father’s grave and began to preach there. Let us not care for what pulpits are denied us and instead follow the example of our founder and preach on grave sites, in the fields, and in the open air if need be. My brothers and sisters I appeal to you to remember where it is we are all from and the rich spiritual and theological heritage we have in our Wesleyan tradition, especially remembering it does not require a building, especially one that we must fight over. My favorite Wesley quote is: “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergymen or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.” Notice he didn’t say he needed buildings. So the question is not do we have a building, but do we have one hundred preachers. If the answer is yes, we have more than we need, and if it is no, a building can’t help us. Let’s shake the gates of hell and forget the gates of the UMC. Let those who have ears, hear.