The Error of Divesting from the UMC, Progressive Edition

Creative Commons Share: Flickr

Creative Commons Share: Flickr

Over a year ago, this blog did the unique work of addressing the Langford Proposal, which was a call for mostly conservative reform-minded congregations to divest from the United Methodist Church’s global ministry areas and re-allocate that money to local ministry areas. We posted five blog posts opposing it, including a rebuttal from Rev. Langford himself.

Now, a year later, it’s time to turn our focus to the progressive side of things as at least two groups have proposed similar divestment strategies. Even if, as a progressive, I agree with the ultimate goals of these groups, I cannot support this tactic within the United Methodist Church.

I locate my privilege in being a white heterosexual ordained clergyperson in a progressive conference in this way: while there may well be a situation where this is a regrettable but acceptable choice, I think the tactic is misplaced from the overall strategy.

Divesting from the Global UMC has too much collateral damage.

At the local church level, some progressive churches are beginning to withhold their annual church tithe (an apportionment) that is sent to the global UMC.

First UMC in Oneonta, New York, recently resolved to stop giving their apportionments (church tithe) to the United Methodist Church. Quote:

First United Methodist Church of Oneonta, New York will withhold 40% of its remaining apportionment from the Upper New York An­nual Conference in 2014 and will [withhold] 100% of its apportionment beginning in 2015…This practice will continue until the United Methodist Church removes the discriminatory language from the Book of Discipline and grants LGBT people all rights and privileges accorded to heterosexual people, specifically ordination and marriage.

There’s a long history of this defunding tacticIn fact, withholding or threatening to withhold apportionments is a regular tactic of those opposed to sexuality minorities in the UMC, such as the precursors to the Confessing Movement, Good News, and the IRD. For progressives to choose this tactic is to give legitimacy to the traditionalists who by policy or by neglect choose this approach, especially the IRD. As a friend on Facebook wrote:

“Withholding apportionments is the tactic of choice by those who have OPPOSED inclusion (first racial, then gender, now LGBT)  for over 50 years. The tactic doesn’t get “baptized” by being used by those who ADVOCATE inclusion.”

Further, divestment in this way is NOT a line-item veto. While defunding because of value reasons is at least arguable if you are just defunding that cause, the way how the UMC is set up is that our ministries are bundled together. Read here for at least six different ways how reducing a congregation’s ability to pay apportionments hurts real people, including likely some LGBT people as well. There’s just too much collateral damage to good ministries and works to defund the UMC in this way.

The United Methodist Church is a shared life together: our resources benefit causes we agree with and causes we disagree with. By withholding apportionments, we are hurting people who are not responsible for our discriminatory polity. By not withholding, we are perpetuating a polity that discriminates against LGBT people–this is TRUE–but folks have to ask themselves if the collateral hurt is worth protesting a different hurt.

Divesting from a local progressive UMC hurts the movement

Second, some individuals are being encouraged to withhold their tithe and support from their local congregation.

Love Prevails is a group who advocates the strategy of “disclose(t), divest, and disrupt” to advocate for change in the UMC’s policies against the full inclusion of LGBT folks. In their “Tools to Divest” recommendation, they write:

  • Stop or reduce your financial giving to the [local] UMC. Let church leadership know that you have stopped or reduced your financial giving to the church because you are no longer willing to support and institution that categorically discriminates against LGBTQ people.
  • Give financial support to organizations who are working for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church: Love Prevails, the Reconciling Ministries Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

Again, this is a misplaced tactic. A local congregation only sends between 8-20% of its budget to beyond the local church. The rest of the money pays for the children’s minister, for the nursery worker, for the outreach, for the mission, for the soup kitchen or homeless shelter in the basement. It pays clergy salaries and compensation. If your church is doing good work, then divesting from the local church mostly hurts those ministries, not the global UMC discrimination.

Even worse, this approach neglects to mention that there are LGBT-friendly churches who do not need to be divested from. When the national church fails you, you support the local loyal opposition, not hamstring them by withholding funds. If the Western Jurisdiction in particular wants to neutralize the argument that “progressive churches are bleeding members and money” then those members need to support their local congregations, not divest from them.

Further, directing donations to an advocacy organization is not a tithe. Apportionments are a church tithe in that we give up control over the money to do what the local church cannot do alone. The same with a tithe to a local church: we give up control over the money we give (unless we are entrusted to serve on the Finance/SPRC/Trustees committees) as a reflection of our discipleship. To differentiate:

  • To not take a yearly offering to United Methodist Men because of their exclusionary advocacy is appropriate divestment.
  • To take your local church tithe and to redirect it towards advocacy programs is not appropriate and causes the local mission and ministry to suffer as collateral damage.

If you appreciate the local ministry and mission of a local progressive church, or even your region, then you need to support it, not divest from it.

Discernment needed to better effect systemic change

In short, progressives have two unique lenses that occasionally need adjustment.

  • Progressives always have to ask how they are supporting the empire and propping up the system’s policies of exclusion. Progressives have to use all the tools in their toolkit to put pressure on the UMC to change, and these days, to share the pain of exclusion at every opportunity. I have no doubt that with discernment, there can be places where divestment is an appropriate strategy: however, it is not one to be called for across-the-board.
  • Progressives always have to ask how they are encouraging local agency and collective action. For churches and individuals that feel defeated after 42 years of advocacy on the topic of LGBT full inclusion, I understand how progressives want to help empower agency at the local level when it comes to money. I understand how just as capitalism is scared of the collective that democratic church power structures are scared of collective action–financial or otherwise.

These two lenses make the progressive viewpoint more holistic than other viewpoints, and that means they need to continually be self-corrected to make sure they are making the right strategic and tactical choices.

Thus, it is from being aware of the strategy and the tactics that I believe to divest from the UMC has more collateral damage than I believe is helpful. The withholding of gifts of money and of presence causes more harm in the long run as it hamstrings (1) the ability of the local progressive church to be a positive presence to LGBT folks in the community and (2) the collective groups of progressives to be viable alternatives to the majority position. I don’t claim to be infallible and I recognize my privilege, but I believe any divestment movement (from traditionalist or progressive wings) must be shown it is not the morally upright line-item veto that it is being painted to be before other groups and churches consider it.

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. says

    It is nice to have a (usually) reasonable progressive call the more unreasonable elements to ask, Jeremy – and I appreciate your honesty and consistency in opposing this tactic regardless of who is doing it. Thanks.

    One thing, though: the name is Love Bullies, not Love Prevails. :)

    • Audrey says

      Drew, I just need you to know that it really hurts for you to call Love Prevails “bullies”. Several of their leaders are personal friends of mine. I do (very much) disagree with (some of) their tactics, but I have also sat and heard their stories of pain, abuse and decades of silencing and oppression. What you see as “bullying,” I believe is an expression of desperate pain and despair.

      I usually very much appreciate your comments regardless of (dis)agreement. Please don’t become a troll. Your comment straddles the line of that kind of hateful, dismissive behavior.

      • says

        Audrey, it is commonly recognized that most bullies – from the school yard to the board room – are often acting out of significant personal pain. I would in no way deny such experiences are prevalent among those of Love Prevails, but that does not change the description of their behavior as bullying.

  2. Karl Kroger says

    Excellent piece Jeremy. Thanks for the important example of not having double standards. I’d hope your sensitivity and nuance would prevent the more aggressive groups from decrying your critique, but I guess we’ll see.

    I’m curious what more can be done to diminish the destructive influence of far left and far right divestment tactics?

    Drew, I know you’ve got a smiley face on the alternative name of Love Prevails, but to me, such renaming is right out of IRD’s playbook.

    • says

      Karl, that’s fair enough. I lampoon the IRD plenty, much more so than the far left, but at least the IRD doesn’t prevent the church’s leadership from doing their jobs.

      • says

        I would contest the claim that the IRD hasn’t interfered in church leadership doing their jobs. Harassment of bishops, intimidation of leaders, secretly recording meetings, and journalistic integrity have had paralyzing effectson processes and job performance. The continued finger-pointing of the IRD at Love Prevails is ironic given their history of similar offenses.

        • says

          I was thinking more of disrupting particular meetings, i.e. Connectional Table, but yes that point is well made. They are both the tea parties of their respective wings, at any rate.

          • Gary Bebop says

            IRD is not planning disruptive tactics at General Conference 2016 in Portland. That plot is being incubated elsewhere. It’s a red herring to suggest a moral equivalency between vigorous advocacy and space-violating acts of bullying and intimidation. Disingenuous arguments and analogs need to be called out.

          • says

            The IRD planned and distributed cell phones to african delegates who were texted how to vote (without opting out). If that’s not disrupting a spirit of conferencing, I don’t know what is.

            The IRD bullied their way into women’s and LGBT conferences and then secretly recorded them.

            Your claims of disingenuity (sp?) needs to be called out as ignorant of the history of the IRD and a lack of interest in finding out the truth.

  3. says

    “The United Methodist Church is a shared life together”, good or bad. That is what you sign on for when you become a UM. Period. I served a church in Louisiana that had to cut their apportionment spending for a real reason – a natural disaster named Katrina. However, after realizing that the recovery of their own church was because of other people paying their apportionment (including themselves), they scraped it together and finished paying their tab by the end of the year – by the grace of God. Real ministry is hurt, globally, when apportionments are withheld. I don’t stop paying my tithe if I don’t like how things are going either – giving is about being faithful.

  4. says

    I generally agree, but would be interested in your thoughts on this: one congregation that I have heard discussing this proposed withholding apportionment monies and instead giving directly to the church agencies and ministry that would be supported with apportionment *except* for bodies involved with trials. So the apportionment money would be given directly to boards and agencies, to conference campus ministry, to conference deaf ministry, etc. The goal being to get as close to a line item veto as possible. Because while I agree with your arguments, I do also think that conferences are immorally spending money on politically motivated trials rather than on mission needs. Doesn’t such financial misbehavior beg for a financial response?

  5. says

    1) Your point, “our ministries are bundled together”, is the turning point here. Overt discrimination against one group and automatic exclusion of gifts for ordained ministry touches every other part of our common work. When all other means have been tried and failed for generations, divestment is one of the last tools available. To be used early and often as you note about Good News, etc. is qualitatively different than reluctantly part of a campaign of awareness raising.

    2) The church has divested itself of qualified leaders and through its funding ban has divested itself of a sex education for fear it would advocate for LGBTQ realities. These official divestments are OK but financial divestment in opposition to these divestments is not?

    3) Please identify an arena of community decision-making that does not have collateral damage. We are always dealing with judgment calls, hopefully with a longer than shorter view.

    4) As I read the Love Prevails rationale, there is no claim of “moral uprightness” but a recognition of the realities in the lives of some to decide where their resources might apply pressure for change and where a shift in investments will bring a more effective return in removing a wound from our bundled ministries.

  6. Mary Lou Taylor says

    Jeremy, I am one of those United Methodists who have divested. I have quit my church and stopped my tithe, with many prayers and many tears. Let me tell you why.

    First, I am a lifelong Methodist, a former chair of our church council, missions committee, environmental committee, choir, etc, etc. My family has been Methodist for generations. So it was not without a great deal of consideration and pain that I came to this conclusion.

    However, I have watched our church harm many of my friends and loved ones by telling them that though God loves them, their very being makes them “incompatible with Christian teaching.” I have seen many people, gay and straight, leave the church because they can’t bear the discrimination. I have seen our churches lose the gifts and talents of LGBTQ people who are called to ministry. The discrimination has only increased over the past 42 years, despite the best efforts of those who believe the “incompatibility” clause is un-Christian and unjustified.

    I would not live in a country that sanctioned segregation. I would not worship in a denomination that would bar African Americans or women from ministry. How could I continue to worship in my own beloved church that continues to discriminate against LGBTQ Christians?

    I will not divest from praying for the United Methodist Church, and I will not divest my gifts and talents from the quest for equality for LGBTQ people within our denomination. I pray for and work for the day when I can return to the church of my birth. But it will not be as long as the church continues to do this harm.

  7. Julie Todd says

    A few thoughts and questions:

    “…while there may well be a situation where this is a regrettable but acceptable choice, I think the tactic is misplaced from the overall strategy.”

    Questions: What overall strategy? Whose overall strategy? A misplaced strategy to do what? If you mean the strategy of the broader movement for LGBTQ inclusion, please describe that strategy so that I can better understand your statement. If you are referring to Love Prevails’ overall strategy, then the tactic of divestment is only a part of the overall strategy: Disclose. Divest. Disrupt. Highlighting the divestment tactic without describing the broader LP strategy or describing our direct actions within the denomination limits the portrayal of the group’s overall work.

    As you suggest, individuals, congregations and groups have the right to self-determine appropriate divestment based on their conscience and discernment of resistance to oppression. This is what Love Prevails’ placement, not misplacement, of this tactic is meant to promote. People need to be able to think broadly about a multitude of actions they can take to resist the status quo of exclusion. People see divestment as an all-or-nothing tool, or “a morally upright line-item veto.” Divestment is actually a very creative means with all kinds of possibilities for implementation. A conversation about divestment itself (in a family, in a congregation) is a wonderful discernment tool. Is divestment a good option for action? If not, what is? These are more helpful ways of thinking about divestment than marginalizing it as misplaced.

    The language of “collateral damage” is definitely hard to swallow. In your analysis, the damage to LGBTQ folks of forced divestment appears less important than the damage to the church of strategic and creative divestment. Institutional maintenance at all costs, I’m afraid that’s what I hear.

    Just because conservative factions in the denomination have suggested and used the tactic of divestment doesn’t make it a bad tactic. It has been an effective tactic of social change struggles throughout history. Individuals have been divesting from the denomination because of our exclusionary policies for decades. The minute divestment becomes a strategy, all of a sudden, it’s a bad idea, ill-conceived, misplaced. Institutions and systems of injustice are perfectly happy to absorb individual acts of divestment. What they dread is collective withdrawal.

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