When it comes to the schism conversation in the United Methodist Church, we are being played and we need to stop playing the game.
Earlier this week, the Good News website ran a story about the previously mentioned FaithfulUMC 60 pastors who are seeking schism in the United Methodist Church. They are now 80 pastors including some theologians. They even included a black pastor as opposed to the solid whiteout of the previous press release. Well done.
But the content of their letter and the accompanying press release are less important than three other factors:
- The timing and depiction of large church pastors put pressure on the Bishops through celebrity and economics in order to keep them reacting from institutional fear rather than leading through the middle way.
- The continued presentation of anonymous support and leadership evokes fear.
- To paint the conflict as “us and them” and begin to shame people who “wound Orthodoxy” by not choosing a side.
The Power of Spectacle
I read Chris Hedges book The Empire of Illusion years ago, but I’ve returned to it in recent weeks as this schism spectacle drags on:
In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave…their gaze confined to the cave wall, believing that the flickering shadows are reality…Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. (Hedges, 14)
Like pro wrestling and big worship services, large church pastors are masters of spectacle. They know how to draw attention and do things that are a combination of intrigue and values-posturing. To state repeatedly that schism has already happened and we need to do this now now NOW uses emotion that large-church pastors and crafters of emotionally-manipulative mass services are masters of.
If the reality is that most of Methodism doesn’t want schism (and even The Watson couldn’t muster more than 44% of his tilted readership to claim it), then these large church pastors are using three emotional techniques to build up this spectacle as bigger than it actually is.
#1: A Sense of False Urgency
Why this week? Last week, the Council of Bishops met and there was no reporting of forceful action against any Bishop which had stopped trials or any meaningful direction other than the release of a book talking about the issue of covenant. Since they failed to act or publicly flog the right people, the schismatics acted to remind them of who they think really has the power in the UMC.
The press release is offered immediately after the CoB meeting so there’s the maximum amount of time apart from prayer and camaraderie and sense of isolation from the daily drumbeat of schismatic forces.
Remember that the focus of these releases is not primarily the public: it is the Bishops. The Bishops are the only ones with the actual power to stop the large church pastors. If they are paralyzed by fear or institutional preservation, then they cannot wield that power and the big guys win. By heightening the schism direction to ludicrous speed, the schismatics are attempting to manipulate the Bishops.
#2: Fear of Impending Doom
As well as urgency, the use of particular names brings up money money MONEY. Since we identified 9 of them last time, here’s what we had to say about their financial clout:
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.
Remember like we said: you are not the target of these emotional manipulations: the Bishops are. Including these large church pastors was a brilliant way to remind them of the loss of money if these large church pastors separate. It’s a common tactic of Good News to hold money and people hostage which is why I find it odd that even Good News is not claiming direct support of schism yet.
And now including the chair of the Georgia Foundation? Brilliant. When I saw him, even I had a bit of fear and asked “Could a Foundation take the money from the Annual Conference?” They obviously can’t–but the facts are not the goal: fear is.
#3: Fear of Anonymous Waves
While the named pastors are fear-inducing, refusing to name the rest of the schismatics is a manipulative move as well.
The reality is that the named pastors are essentially triaged: they have already forsaken the connectional UMC. The nine identified pastors 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. 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.
But including 70ish unnamed pastors makes the schismatics seem more impressive than they likely are.
There’s two primary reasons for hiding a membership list: fear of retribution or using anonymity as intimidation. Like any movement, they seek to hide their membership so they are not pressured until they are further in the process. Or if the process doesn’t get a foothold, then their constituency is not lost. If they really believed in being forthright about their process and people, they would release the names.
Mark my words: their conference in July will be in a secret location.
Closing: Repetition of a false reality
In [the world of illusion], all that matters is the consistency of our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison on incessant repetition…and within these narrow parameters, all complex through, ambiguity, and self-criticism vanish. (Hedges, 49)
The schismatics 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. Despite what John Wesley says, to preserve Methodism we must render it asunder.
The more of us that grant the schismatics a free platform and reward their work in the shadows is to commit the error of any anonymous letter to a church office complaining: if you reward the anonymous writer, you get more anonymous letters posturing without accountability. Let’s do what any reasonable pastor in a local church would do: ignore them until they name themselves and present their ideas for conversation.
There’s Methodist ways to express discontent: anonymity and fear-mongering aren’t them.
Because of their emotional manipulations, until the schismatics name themselves, present their ideas for public debate, and step into the sunlight, we should stop giving them oxygen, start praying with and engaging our Bishops, and continue focusing on making disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world.