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.
Large Churches v. Bishops: A case study
Bishop Grant Hagiya of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area recently wrote about one of the critical mistakes that the church had made–and it may not be the one that you think of first:
As our United Methodist Church downsizes, one of the critical mistakes, in my judgment, was the removal of one Bishop in each of the Jurisdictional Areas. Actually, this General Conference action was motived politically more than economically or strategically. The Commission to study the Episcopacy in 2004 discussed the idea, but did not bring it forth in legislation, and it seemed that General Conference was not going to act on it.
If the people who studied it most closely thought it was a bad idea, then why did it happen?
Near the end of General Conference, a large church pastor from Texas made the motion to move to one less Bishop for each jurisdiction, and it did pass and was to be enacted two quadrennium from that point. That large church pastor confirmed that he made the motion in order to punish the Western Jurisdiction for costing the general church more money than it brought in. However, this action affected the whole church, and we Bishops that have had to take on huge territories and numbers all believe it was a foolish action.
So in 2004, one large church pastor targeted the Bishops in another jurisdiction, but actually caused incredible strain and difficulty to the entirety of the United Methodist Church.Edit: In the comments, Beth Ann Cook refutes the origin of the motion mentioned above. The correction doesn’t challenge the integrity of the line of conversation but does offer helpful information.
History Repeats Itself
Sadly, 2004 is not the first time this happened: large churches have been using their money and people as levers to cause change for the United Methodist Church since 1969. While one might think that large churches would be sharing practices that made them successful (and the best of them do), a history of the dark side of these levers can be read here: “Holding the UMC Hostage.”
Briefly, when churches came together in the past to criticize the church’s leadership, they would generally advocate for change without pressuring the church about withholding money specifically. None of the previous big-name documents (like the 1987 Houston Declaration, 1997 More Excellent Way, 1999 response to the Sacramento 68, or the 2002 Renaissance Affirmation) advocate withholding of funds or schism.
The dramatic shift happened in 2011 when FaithfulUMC was created, gathering signatures to call on the Bishops to speak clearly on the repercussions for the clergy who had pledged to perform same-gender weddings. They sent a second letter in 2012. While that’s an appropriate expression of their opinion, the clergy letter included a troubling section regarding withholding apportionments (read it here: “FaithfulUMC: Holding the UMC Hostage?“). The 2011 petition eventually got 2,770 signatures, which was numerically a massive fail as the Houston Declaration–which was written before the Internet–got 30,000 actual signatures back in 1987. Update: Thomas Lambrecht says the number was actually 16,500 before spammers took over the FaithfulUMC website.
In early 2014, the same group became the Schismatic 60 who came out with a press release advocating for schism. As HackingChristianity articulated at the time, the focus and the timing of the spectacle of that letter was aimed squarely on the Bishops, due to the group hiding the numbers and naming only those pastors whose churches gave around $4.2million in apportionments. A second press release a month later increased to 80 unnamed Schismatics and used spectacle to manipulate the Bishops again, including adding a Foundation director (a money manager for an entire region of the UMC) to their named list. We pledged to ignore them until they named themselves.
Schism…or another letter…
It’s now late in 2014, and the Schismatics have demurred down to another letter written by their renamed group “Methodist Crossroads.” As expected, this is the same group as FaithfulUMC in 2011 and the same list of large church pastors (minus a few large church pastors as they saw what the 2011 group became) and retired culture warriors. I haven’t the time to do the math this time for the first 100 signatories, but there’s many large church pastors in that list. The content is similar to previous letters.
Why did the Schismatics backed down from their plan to advocate schism?
- Perhaps they see the Bill Arnold/David Watson plan as their ticket out of the UMC with their $12million in apportionments which they can quietly support without the fuss and drama.
- Or they are waiting until after the General Conference elections in Spring 2015 as they know any overt schismatics won’t be easily elected.
We’ll just have to wait and see.
Part Two forthcoming…
TL;DR: In summary, this is the same group of people that have been doing this action since 2011. Each time, their targets are the Bishops. Each time, their numbers increase only incrementally. Each time, they get louder and more press-savvy. I pray for cooler heads to prevail.
It’s important to trace the lines here for United Methodists because, like the Texas pastor in 2004, a little leverage can go a long way in the UMC. We’ll finish this line of inquiry in Part 2 tomorrow, but in the meantime, your thoughts?
- When you see large church pastors putting pressure on Bishops, how does that make you feel or think?
- What effect–if any–do the actions of bishops and areas far geographically removed from these large church pastors actually have on their ministry and mission?
Thanks for your comments!