The denomination’s Judicial Council, meeting last month, ruled that several parts of the Traditional Plan violated the church’s constitution. However, the Rev. Keith Boyette, the association’s president, said the plan will be brought into conformity with Judicial Council Decision 1366.
The association also supported a proposed gracious exit that would allow congregations and institutions wanting to leave the denomination to leave with all their property and assets following the adjournment of the Feb. 23-26 called General Conference.
I see many United Methodists on social media celebrating. It would seem the one-two punch of a “breakaway” conference and their supported Traditionalist Plan being declared mostly unconstitutional has moderates and progressives declaring victory and ready to ride into General Conference 2019 confident in the One Church Plan for unity.
This post will hopefully remove that complacency. Much to the dismay of many of their fans, the Wesleyan Covenant Association is not trying to leave and start a movement anew. It is a scheme to leverage money and people to take over The United Methodist Church.
Money bigger than Numbers
According to their own reporting, the Wesleyan Covenant Association claims a membership of 125,000 people found in 1,500 churches. To many that is a small number. But the number bears an outsized influence on bishops and annual conference leadership when they fear each member might take their church with them to a new denomination.
For example, let’s consider the WCA Leadership Council and presume they reflect their congregations enough to bring their churches with them to a new denomination. The combined property and assets of the WCA Leadership Council’s local churches is valued at ~$230million dollars (after subtracting their debts), and their combined apportionment is just over $4,000,000 dollars (of which $389,000 was not paid, almost 10% of the apportionment illegally kept from the denomination’s shared missions and ministry). That’s a sizable chunk, but moderate in scope compared to the Top 100 megachurches that pay an average of $1million each in apportionments.
To be willing to shamelessly (whoops, I meant unashamedly) withhold money from the UMC is evidenced by the location of the Conference. They held this conference at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church, which withheld their apportionments for years and which thumbed their nose at the episcopacy to find their new senior pastor. The message is clear: be prepared for this same type of violations of the Discipline on a wide scale in 2019 (and indeed I am hearing reports of churches withholding apportionments for 2018 as well). So even if they don’t leave the denomination, withholding apportionments is a time-worn practice of this type of church.
The WCA is wielding influence beyond their numbers because the Institution knows their members could translate into real dollars taken from shared ministry and missions.
Removing Barriers to Exit
While many annual conferences are doing risk analyses of scenarios where their largest churches leave, for the delegates, it does not matter if the WCA can wreck United Methodism (by taking their money from The UMC). It only matters that they are ready to.
Whenever a church leaves, they are truly on their own. One story that was shared recently was that a church that left one of the Texas conferences fired their own breakaway pastor within the first 2 years. Going alone had a negative effect on the pastor’s tenure and the church’s desire to retain them. Losing access to appointable clergy has a negative effect, no matter how many qualified non-denominational pastors would be available.
Instead, with the WCA, now there is a network to join. A network that (if Asbury UMC in Tulsa, Oklahoma, joins them) will already have a seminary housed in one of their churches (and the WCA council has a ton of Asbury grads on it already). And various other benefits of being part of a separatist association.
So in a sense, the WCA has solved one of the problems of leaving the UMC: there’s already a container for smaller churches to join, not just megas like Orchards in Tupelo that can sustain themselves. By continually removing the barrier to exit, the institutions increasingly have to sustain themselves without these churches. The formation of a fully-formed denomination ready to go weighs heavily on the GC delegates.
But The Prize is still obtainable.
It sounds like with their preferrred plan severely limited, and with the money and the momentum to leave, one could assume the goal is a new breakaway denomination and United Methodists should just let them leave.
That is the worst assumption one can make going into General Conference 2019.
The goal of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, as far as United Methodism goes, is to make the denomination so intolerable to progressives and moderates that we leave the denomination. That’s the purpose behind the Traditionalist Plan, submitted by one of the WCA Leadership Council members, as we’ve previously reported.
The goal is accomplished by using the above threats of loss of income (the cost of which may be too much for entire conferences to bear), alongside a threat of loss of influence in Africa (though I haven’t seen many African churches turn down relationship with American churches, as many LGBTQ-friendly ones have deep relationships) to encourage the Denomination choose to kick out the other side. They ask delegates whether their gay nephew is really worth losing all the Traditionalist money.
The prize is ownership of United Methodism, which despite its myriad problems is still an unfathomably valuable institution. United Methodism owns an incredible amount of real estate, hospitals, academic institutions, churches, offices, conference centers, retreats, camps, nonprofit and for-profit entities, and the incredible controlled wealth of the United Methodist Foundations. Not to mention WesPath. By purging progressives and moderates, they will lose some churches and conference centers and perhaps entire Annual Conferences, but they will retain ownership of all of the rest.
The time is now for such a takeover. President Trump has initiated a backlash against LGBTQ people that will be reflected in the General Conference delegations, reversing years of hearts changed towards inclusion as now delegates can be “unashamed” in their opposition to LGBTQ people. And with all our resources on a single vote rather than spread out over many interests, the stakes are high indeed.
Not a Movement. Insurance in case the threat loses.
All of the above should add up for you as it has for me: The WCA is not a movement of churches to form a new denomination, ready to leave. All these efforts are a huge insurance policy in case they fall short in taking over United Methodism and casting the progressives and moderates to the outer darkness.
I believe the vast majority of the 125,000 members are hoping for a new denomination and do this work diligently. For sure. But the leadership, molded through decades of efforts through the Good News underground magazine, the IRD’s Fox News-style reporting, and overall opposition to bishops, are utilizing these numbers and momentum to leverage their preferred future for United Methodism.
The amount of work and efforts by the WCA will not be wasted either way, but the GC delegates should not be fooled as to their purpose. And I’m sure a lot of WCA adherents will be disappointed if they prevail in 2019 and then they are stick in a church that is more of the same. A “Confidence” game indeed.
If you care about a future with hope, do not sit back and rest.
- The Traditionalist Plan is very much a threat to a United Methodist Church for 2019.
- The Wesleyan Covenant Association is very loudly opposed to any step towards inclusion in 2019.
- The long arc of over 60 years (and 30 ones as the majority voice) of anti-institutional work has come to a final moment of fruition, and it isn’t just to get out of Dodge.
This is not over. Big Tent Methodism will not prevail on the wind of its own sails. And now delegates have cover from the WCA and the US President to be “unashamed” of their opposition to LGBTQ people that they previous hemmed and hawed about. Every delegate and every conversation matters to overcome this powerful group’s money and fearmongering.
The future is yours.
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