When Large Church Pastors take the #UMC hostage

moneyA 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:

  1. You are not the intended audience of the press release
  2. The content is not as important as the participants
  3. 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:

  1. Ben Gosden reframed a 2012 article that I contributed to here.
  2. 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.

Read more on Schism here.

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. David J Turner says

    I think you seriously underestimate two groups. Pastors who have been waiting for this type of leadership that will follow. I think you are going to be surprised by that group. The other is the number of laity that are ready to follow an orthodox Methodism. They tend to me much more conservative than their clergy. It has been true for years. And, the reason they are doing ‘it the Methodist way’ is because the other side stopped doing it the ‘Methodist way’. No one needs to be afraid, I agree with that. This is really ‘good news’, lol.

  2. says

    Thanks, Jeremy. I would agree with everything you say here. I would only add that it is not any better for whole conferences or jurisdictions to hold the UMC hostage than it is for a few large church pastors to do so.

    • says

      I’m curious at your comparison: What is being held hostage by the conferences/jurisdictions? And is it equivalent to defunding the mission and ministries of the entire church?

  3. John Saint says

    So let me see if I have this straight: this group of pastors are talking of schism because they believe some pastors are not being held accountable for “breaking the covenant,” they want the council of bishops to weigh in on the necessity of enforcing strict penalties on pastors who “break the covenant,” and part of their planned response is to withhold payment of apportioned funds — an act which unequivocally defies ¶ 340.2c2(e) of the 2012 BOD — thereby “breaking the covenant.” Do I have that right?

    • Kevin says

      Don’t worry John. They will be held strictly accountable for their BOD violations and covenant breaking. There is sure to be a just resolution with perhaps a conversation. All confidential of course to protect the parties privacy. That should make you feel better.

  4. Stephen says

    I absolutely agree Jeremy.

    We can’t have large church pastors take the umc hostage.

    We also can’t have elders who break covenant with one another and our agreed upon authority that the umc hostage.

    We also can’t have activist bishops who promise not to uphold the BoD (which they were installed to do) take the umc hostage.

    This is the issue in today’s umc. We have gotten to a point where none of it is enforceable. The umc has drifted into chaos. We don’t have a shared doctrine or a shared authority now the strain is being placed on a shared mission.

    • Billy Watson says

      I have to agree with Stephen. It is incredibly disingenuous of you, Jeremy, to speak of the actions of the right-wing of the connection as “not the Methodist way of doing things,” while remaining silent on the tactics of the left-wing. These large church pastors are no more or less holding the UMC hostage than are those who, for conscience’s sake, are breaking the Discipline they have covenanted to keep or those who refuse to enforce the Discipline they have sworn to uphold, or worse yet who enforce it in a manner that makes of it a mockery. To write inflammatory articles and blog posts such as this, which seek to lay the blame for the current state of affairs in the UMC on a single party, is a half-truth which amounts to nothing more than a biased lie. We all know that you are smarter than this, Jeremy. No one group is to blame for our current situation. Neither is it sufficient to point to false dichotomies which oversimplify the facts. Until we are willing to work, write, and dialogue at the true level of complexity our current reality demands, for which we will surely face the scorn of those content to dumb down the issues, we do nothing but contribute to the problem. You can do better than this, Jeremy. If not, perhaps you should rename your blog “Partisan Hacking Christianity?”

      • says

        Billy,

        1. In what ways are other churches harmed by another pastor doing a same-gender wedding in their own church? And if there is harm, is it more or less than churches that remove money for missions and ministry–even in your district and conference?

        2. There was no blame for the current state of affairs on anyone. The article was pointing out the common aspects of the primary instigators of this current article and to see if those aspects were interesting to others.

        3. I’ll take the rap for not offering a solution, though in many other areas solutions are offered. You can check out the Schism section here for a variety of “identification of problems” and “presentation of solutions.” I think there is a healthy balance.

        4. I’ll add your renaming to the stack of other suggestions. Thanks.

        • Billy Watson says

          Jeremy,

          1. Anything that diminishes the connection does harm to all of the connection. Breaking one’s ordination vows diminishes the connection. Refusing to enforce the Discipline diminishes the connection. Making a mockery of the Discipline in one’s enforcement diminishes the connection. Proactively proclaiming one’s intent to break the Discipline diminishes the connection. I understand there are a significant number of people who disagree strongly with the Discipline’s position with regards to the issue of homosexuality. As you said yourself, “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.” I understand many who oppose the Discipline on this issue feel they have exhausted all of these methods, and are therefore justified in their current actions. Nonetheless, these actions are, to borrow your phrase, “not a Methodist way of doing things.” I say all this with one caveat: None of this matters if the only real substance of our connection is financial. This seems to be the implication of your retort. If this is so, then it is a shallow connection indeed.

          2. You can’t accuse people of intimidating bishops, lying about statistics, and inciting fear, then claim that you are not casting blame. Stop equivocating.

          3. I’ll join you in owning up to my own lack of solutions. I just don’t think the path to solution is found in inflammatory rhetoric, whether it is left, right, or anywhere in between. Thanks for the link to the Schism section. I need to look deeper, but I must say my initial perusal of the posts collected there seems to support my suggestion for changing the name of this blog.

          4. You’re welcome. It’s copyrighted.

          • says

            Thanks for your response, Billy.

            1. Every United Methodist has a financial obligation to the shared aspects of mission and ministry. Every parishioner has a financial-or-equivalent obligation to support their local church’s shared aspects of mission and ministry. Finances are important but not holistic.

            Your list of “diminishings of the covenant” is commendable but but do those actions impact the Body of Christ in the same way as unilaterally defunding a shared mission and ministry? Will a food pantry close because a local clergy does a same-gender wedding or because a parishioner withholds their tithe? Will UMCOR (who saves lives and makes lives better) suffer more because of Bishop Talbert or because of one of the $900k/year in apportionments that is withheld from one of the churches above?

            Finances are important and it is for that reason that our apportionments are the “first missional consideration of the local church.” It’s a tithe: you don’t get to give it up because you are mad.

            2. Your original post focused on me casting blame on the conservatives for the state of the UMC. That was my read of your line:

            “To write inflammatory articles and blog posts such as this, which seek to lay the blame for the current state of affairs in the UMC on a single party, is a half-truth which amounts to nothing more than a biased lie.” ~ Billy Watson

            I responded that I was not blaming any one group for the state of discomfort within the UMC and was pointing out perceptions of one of the groups’ goals and objectives. To say any one group was to blame for the UMC’s state is ludicrous; but to point out perceptions is wholly appropriate when backed up by data.

        • theenemyhatesclarity says

          There are good and thought provoking articles on this site. I have appreciated reading them.

          Jeremy, you asked “in what ways are other churches harmed by another pastor doing a same-gender wedding in their own church?” I am a life-long Methodist. I still have my cradle certificate. I look for the little United Methodist sign in any town I drive through and I still get a thrill when I see a United Methodist church or that familiar cross and flame. When I hear of something good happening in a UM church, I inwardly cheer. When it’s the opposite, I grit my teeth.

          The United Methodist church is part of my identity, and since you and I are both United Methodists, we lend each other our good name. Accordingly, if someone does a same-gender wedding in a UM church, it implicitly carries my stamp of approval. As I believe that homosexual behavior is contrary to Scripture, I don’t want to be part of that ceremony directly or indirectly. I cannot approve what our Lord has said is wrong.

          Our church is mid-sized, 200-300 in attendance. We have a nice building, and pay our apportionments regularly. I have always thought that when my time comes, my casket would be wheeled down that aisle. I am no longer so sure.

          If a split comes, people will leave this congregation. (I might be one of them). They have been my friends for years, and it will break my heart. If our congregation is diminished by much, we will no longer be able to maintain either our building or all of the ministries we support. Nevertheless, I would rather worship in a basement than violate God’s will.

          If the Episcopalians choose that path, so be it. I am not an Episcopalian. If the UMC chooses it, I will no longer be a United Methodist.

          In Christ,

          The enemy hates clarity

  5. Kirby Holbrook says

    Once again, Local Pastors are left completely out of the conversation. In our area, LLP’s and lay servant pastors serve over 60% of our churches, and yet have little to no voice. We are made up of many highly educated professionals with a broad range of experience that might be helpful in reuniting our denomination, but we are thus far voices crying out in the wilderness. My fear is that if we do split, we will end up with two weaker groups, both of whom will still face most of the same challenges we face now. If we do not refocus on the cross and the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ and hold Him up first and foremost in ALL things, we are doomed to divide and shrink. If you’re interest is in politics, then run for office. If your interest is in making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then pray for each other and lift each other up regardless of the “pecking order” or man made rules. Praise God from whom All blessings flow!

    • says

      Kirby, I share your frustration at people being left out when the conversation focuses only on those who are loudest. I share your hope that we can make disciples and follow Christ first, not the tallest steeple in town.

  6. Ric Shewell says

    my favorite pastor, no. 2943:
    Rev Dr Cialis Cialis
    Cialis for women
    NY, AL
    Annual Conference: Cialis for women

  7. Billy Watson says

    Jeremy,

    I did not have the option to continue the thread, so I’ll pick it back up here.

    1. My direct answer to your question is, “Yes. To unilaterally break the covenant is to unilaterally break the covenant, whether with our finances our through our ‘prophetic actions.’ Both do great harm to the Body.” To say to one group, “If you don’t like our rules, just break them, and we’ll look the other way,” but to say to another, “If you don’t like the way our rules are being applied, too bad. Shut up and send your money,” is ridiculous. You act as if the money withheld from apportionments, if it comes to that, won’t be used for ministry. It will simply reach people through different avenues… perhaps even more efficient and effective ones at that. To see UMCOR diminished would be a sad thing. It is perhaps the best thing our connection does (some might say the only truly good thing). But I am sure the same needs will continue to be met through other avenues. You seem to have an inflated view of just how much the Holy Spirit depends on us.

    2. What you call “pointing out perceptions” sounds an awful lot like blaming to me. You say to-MAY-to, I say to-MAH-to.

    It is true our denomination is being pulled apart by the extremes. Perhaps the only thing that can be done to prevent that is holy conferencing. And by this I mean true holy conferencing, not conferencing-until-you-agree-with-my-side, which so often masquerades for the former in most Methodist circles. In the end, however, holy conferencing cannot take place within the maelstrom of partisan hacking we now have from all sides. Ultimately I fear it will be this that tears us apart.

  8. says

    As usual, I see a lot of talk about “breaking the covenant” and “diminishing the connection”. But, I have to ask, is any covenant or connection that pastors must break in order to serve all their parishioners really worth maintaining?

    • Billy Watson says

      It seems to me this is exactly the reasoning behind the conference call that is being so vilified in this post, JoelR. If we clearly can’t live together in the covenant we have established, perhaps it is time someone began thinking about how to address the farcical notion that we are “United” any longer? It is the covenant which unites us as United Methodists. If that has become meaningless, as you seem to suggest, then why are we continuing the charade? If the only thing left holding us together as a denomination is our finances, then our connection is, as I shared with Jeremy above, shallow indeed. I would urge caution on your part, however. In the story, when the boy pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, everyone came to their senses and saw things for what they were. In the real world, when you do that you are likely to be accused of holding a denomination hostage or something of the sort.

  9. Jack says

    Jeremy… It is great that there is opportunity for interested parties to express their heartfelt thoughts on a site like this. I confess that I did not know it existed until this morning(April 14). As I read the postings that you and others have put up, many thoughts have surfaced in my mind/heart. It was about 1999-2000, I was serving at a church camp and was in conversation with two other pastors. The topic was the differing opinions in our conference regarding the BoD phrase, “…is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In the course of the conversation, someone mentioned the possibility of a split in our denomination, and the ramifications of a split. We realized that not all splits are “cut from the same cloth”…in other words, not all splits are necessarily bad and not all are necessarily good. In very real ways, it is similar to a divorce…some divorces result in both parties moving on to fruitful and positive lives while others have very negative results…and still others result in one party having positive results and the other party having negative results.
    While there is no way to predict, with accuracy, what the future of our denomination would look like if a split occurred, one possible outcome is positive for both opponents and proponents of the BoD phrase mentioned above. The other two possible outcomes, I think, would be something less than what anyone would want.
    Regarding all the comments about “blaming” and “holding hostage” etc., in my heart of hearts it makes little significant difference how we view the tactics and politics of the differing sides…what is important is that everyone has the right and opportunity to search their own conscience and make a choice. In my experience over the last 24 years, both sides of this disagreement have used improper and un-Christian tactics to advance their position. It has become disgusting to see, hear , and read the tirades by both liberals and conservatives.
    I think that everyone, especially the “powers that be”, are so afraid of a split is because of the complexity of dividing up the assets(churches, property, etc.). Currently, churches are being “force fed” a particular position on this issue. Pastors on one side are being appointed to churches whose congregations are on the other side…liberals leave conservative churches and conservatives leave liberal churches…and they do not always find a compatible UMC to attend, and they begin attending another denomination/community church. When the make-up of a congregation is part conservative and part liberal, quite often difficulties arise and instead of doing missions and outreach, in-fighting takes place…a huge waste of time, talent and treasure!!!
    POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: 1. Wait until the next couple of generations die off and make changes to the BoD. 2. Admit that, currently and in the for-see-able future, there is no resolution and go ahead and take separate paths…and maybe both sides will grow and become more fruitful. 3. Continue arguing until people on both sides can’t take anymore and leave the denomination.

    In Christ,
    Jack

  10. Jim Frisbie says

    Jeremy
    Thanks for initiating this discussion. This is not the first time there has been talk of schim or congregations witholding money. In local churches where I have faced that discussion, I have pointed out that to do so is a violation of the BoD, and there is a trust clause in every deed of every church building.
    If a pastor or congregation wishes to leave the denomination they are free to go, but the buildings and assets remain with the denomination. That gets sticky, but those are the rules and the law.

    Usually that is the end of the discussion. We are not a confessing church with a list of doctrines which each member is required to sign, (though that seldome works anywhere….) but a democratic organization of faithful people seeking to serve God in the world.

    we need to realize that the core issue is not gay marriage or ordination, but our interpretation of scripture, and Biblical authority. The address of the controversy regarding homosexuality is only the access point of this larger issue. Unfortunately, a lot of people are caught in the cross fire of our struggle. We need to start paying attention to the “collateral damage” created by the lack of civility in our theo-wrestling…..

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