A group of 60 unnamed conservative pastors on a conference call released a statement calling for study of schism. Here’s what they are “planning”:
The group said that they were forming a smaller working group to bring suggestions to the larger group for responses, including suggestions of withholding funding from the church, advocacy with the Council of Bishops for greater enforcement of the Book of Discipline, and the possibility of creating a proposal for the division of the United Methodist Church into two denominations.
Now, those big bold words sure sound scary. But there are three red herrings in the conference call that I don’t want the savvy readers of Hacking Christianity to get swayed by:
- You are not the intended audience of the press release
- The content is not as important as the participants
- Their influence is more niche than the numbers have you think
Their Audience isn’t you.
There have been two separate letters sent before this one: One in 2011 and another in 2012. So this isn’t a new thing for this group that we’ll call FaithfulUMC, based on their original two letters. They write letters and get lots of people to sign onto them to exert pressure on a particular group of people who are most likely to be swayed by public opinion. Thus, you have no reason to feel any fear over the letter because you were not the intended audience.
The audience of this letter, like the two before it, is the Council of Bishops. The CoB meets twice a year, and one of those times is a smaller group: only the active bishops are meeting in the first part of May 2014. Little wonder that the FaithfulUMC crowd this time around has targeted the once a year meeting when the pesky retired-and-less-intimidated bishops aren’t around to interfere.
You were not the intended audience. The Bishops are. So don’t worry, let them handle it.
9 is more than 60
What may matter to you more was the content of their discussion. The fact that they were discussing withholding finances and “dividing churches” would be troubling. But again, you were not the audience. If the audience was the Bishops, then the content was not as important as who was making the comments.
Three of the four people mentioned in the conference call were also the original signatories to the FaithfulUMC Letter in 2011 and all four were signatories to the July 2012 letter regarding Bishop Talbert. I contacted the United Methodist Reporter to obtain a list of the people on the conference call. The staff at UMR said that while they didn’t have the names, the leaders had shared that 13 out of the Top 30 UMC churches were represented. Since I have that list of Top 100 UMCs, matching up the signatories to the previous 2012 letter was easy. I identified 8 out of the 13, and added on another one of the Top 100 that I know was on the call based on a Twitter conversation.
Why would I do that? I have no interest in “outing” the people on the call or hearing their own rationales for participating. But the fact that 60 were unnamed and only four were named meant that they were named for a particular reason. I would claim the reason for the secrecy is economic intimidation.
Altogether, these 9 white men (3 from Texas, 2 from North Georgia, 2 from Western North Carolina, 1 Oklahoman, 1 Floridian) are at churches that pay a total of $4,217,547 in apportionments. That’s an incredible amount of cash but you need to categorize them to see the whole story. While in four of the conferences that amounts to 2-6% of their entire apportionment budget, the three churches in the Texas Annual Conference contribute 26.6% of their entire apportionments budget.
Their names and churches speak louder to Bishops, and one Texas Bishop in particular. So the average Methodist isn’t the intended audience and intimidation is the reason why they chose the three southern white men to be quoted in the press release, keeping the rest of them shrouded in mystery.
Three buckets, not Two
Finally, the FaithfulUMC crowd seems to believe that by being the loudest they can convince the world that Methodism really has everyone in two different camps and it’s time to split.
First, they inflated their numbers to the average person. If you go to their 2011 Petition, it claims to have 15,210 signatories. That’s a whole lot of Methodists, though far less than the 1987 Houston Declaration which got 60,000 signatures BEFORE the Internet (fail!). But even that 15,210 is misleading. Starting on entry #2770, the rest is all spam. All. Spam. So in reality, only 2,770 pastors supported the petition.
Second, the pastors are not as connectional as you might think because they’ve had congregationalist appointments at their churches. Taking the 9 pastors as a case study: they have an average tenure at their church of 18 years, including one pastor who has been at his church for 32 years. They do not represent connectional Methodism so much as congregational Methodism. And while if a split happens, those churches that are more congregational would likely split as well, they do not represent the churches that have a vested interest in connectionalism like the vast majority of the UMC.
In reality, there are forces that want schism on the progressive and traditionalist sides, but there’s a large amount of Methodists who want to be United together in shared mission and connectional hope. It is unfortunate that the loudest voices against a future connected also seem to be the ones that have churches that are closest to being congregationalist anyway.
Fear not: There is Hope.
As I always say, there are a ton of Methodist ways of expressing disapproval in the church: through conversations, through prayer, through speaking out against official UMC actions, electing people to positions of power to influence policy, writing petitions to General Conference, being elected to serve those meta-church agencies, refusing a bishops’ re-appointment, writing petitions and getting signatories…there’s a method to do almost anything, including express dissent. Our large church pastors threatening to withhold apportionments and remove congregations from United Methodism is not a Methodist way of doing things.
My prayers, along with yours, should be with the Bishops and the close accountability partners of these churches and pastors who might believe their buyout power of money and people can influence the future to their best advantage of their congregation instead of the connection.
But there is hope. The hope is in our young clergy who see 30-40 years of service to our great Church ahead of them and don’t want reactionary tendencies to rule the day. Here’s a few links of note that I found encouraging:
- Ben Gosden reframed a 2012 article that I contributed to here.
- Drew McIntyre, who often confounds me, nonetheless has a powerful prayer against Schism
May we read news in coming days with more knowledge of what they mean rather than what they market.