In the United Methodist Church, there’s always been some power struggles between Bishops (who have power over states/regions in the UMC) and large churches in their area. What is different today is that these large churches are organizing, targeting, and pressuring Bishops who are not even in their regions.
Continuing from yesterday’s conversation, why are these churches extending their power conflict from the local disagreements to challenge bishops who are not part of their direct administrative relationship?
While there are many factors–some more charitable than others–there’s one that hasn’t been articulated as much, and I know readers come to the Hacking Christianity community for those novel approaches.
We look to an unlikely source. Dr. Tom Oden (one of the intellectual forces behind the conservative Confessing Movement) wrote in his 2006 book Turning Around the Mainline a criticism of the Episcopal Church and he made a seemingly Freudian slip:
Their wealth tempts them to presume they still have legitimate control and buyout power over the organizational apparatus of the entire Anglican Communion. (page 86)
Buyout power is relatively understandable when it is a direct relationship: when a megachurch pays a huge apportionment, they expect some privileges from the presiding authorities. We’ve written before about a megachurch in Oklahoma that changes the number of appointed positions (that is, Bishop-selected) rather than hired positions (church-selected) based on whether they like their bishops. That’s a direct power struggle that is understandable (though difficult) in our United Methodist system.
…over distant people?
However, the struggle has mutated into the current situation whereby large church pastors are targeting bishops in regions other than their own in the name of the clergy covenant.
- They are writing against Bishop Talbert who officiated a same-gender wedding.
- They are writing against Bishop Hagiya who resolved two charges against clergy in the PNW.
- They are writing against Bishop McLee who dismissed the charges against Ogletree and Tweedy.
- They are writing against Bishop Carcano who offered asylum to reinstated clergyperson Rev. Frank Schaefer.
Given that all of these bishops are in the West and North and the supermajority of the complainants are in the South, you see my concern about distance. And while one could point out that the Bishops that are receiving the most grief are all ethnic minorities, I’m sure that has nothing to do with it.
This new tendency to target bishops who are distantly removed from the large church’s area is a direct result of that action supported by one large church pastor from Texas in 2008.
- By increasing the number of churches each Bishop is over, the cordial relationship with large church pastors becomes more distant and power variables increase.
- By increasing the distance between clergy, the covenant becomes a list of commandments rather than a relationship.
While one can certainly point fingers at the Biblical Obedience movement for forcing action and reaction from the Bishops, the stage was set by the support of a large church pastor in Texas who was mad at a region that was not his own and decided to use his position to act on it…and it all went downhill from there.
It’s important to trace the lines here for United Methodists because, like the Texas pastor in 2008, a little leverage can go a long way in the UMC.
In short, large churches engaged in a power struggle with their bishops is nothing new. What is different today is that it isn’t large churches that are struggling against their own bishops. It is large churches railing together against Bishops who are not even in their jurisdiction (and thus have no administrative effect on their operations) while wielding threats to withhold incredible amounts of money from the United Methodist Church.
But more importantly, the temptation of buyout power of large church pastors is incredibly seductive. I honestly fear this group of pastors has overreached, and in doing so, they threaten the UMC’s financial position and our clergy covenant moreso than any progressive pastor marrying two dudes could ever do. We need to pray for and encourage our Bishops to stand strong against these incredible forces and find a way for us to live together as a unity in diversity.
- Should the biggest contributors to our United Methodist financial system focus beyond their accountability structure on bishops elected by other jurisdictions?
- Have pastors who have done same-gender weddings done as much damage to the UMC as $12 million potentially taken from its ministry and missions?
Thanks for your thoughts and I hope you enjoyed this series.