While it feels like a good idea to withhold a church tithe to the denomination out of protest, the collateral damage is too much to make it a reasonable tactic for reasonable United Methodists.
By the numbers…
Like clockwork after any movement towards LGBT Inclusion in the United Methodist Church, it begins again (first noted by Joel):
One of the largest congregations in The United Methodist Church withheld over $200,000 of its apportionments in 2014 in response to what it believes to be “wholly unsatisfactory” inaction on the part of the Council of Bishops to recent controversies within the denomination. The congregation will make no further payments in 2015 without the explicit approval of the church’s administrative council.
Mt. Bethel UM Church, located in Marietta, Georgia, is the largest UM congregation east of the Mississippi River and is part of the North Georgia Annual Conference.
First, Good News needs to update their numbers or get better maps. Mt. Bethel is the sixth largest east of the Mississippi, after Ginghamsburg (Ohio), Community Granger (Indiana), Frazer Memorial (Alabama/Florida), St. Luke’s (Indiana), and Cokesbury (Holston). It’s the 14th largest United Methodist Church in America.
Second, more to the point, it is the largest UMC in the North Georgia Conference. Mt. Bethel’s apportionment in 2013 was $480,000.00. Their apportionment amounts to 2% of the entire apportionment of the North Georgia Conference (the largest regional conference in the United Methodist Church with 930 churches).
All these numbers sound intimidating–and to some, they are. But to those with an awareness of history, this is not a new action and such actions have had limited ethical acceptance–and for good reason.
Not a new idea…
It is important to first note that the idea of withholding the church tithe is not a new thing. It is a regular tactic of those opposed to LGBT Inclusion in the UMC to withhold or threaten to withhold Apportionments. (see previous post)
- In 1969, the United Methodist student magazine motive published an article on LGBT issues. Local churches withheld their apportionments in protest (or threatened to withhold) and eventually motive magazine was removed from the GBHEM and made into an independent entity. It lasted two more issues and then folded.
- In 1979, five Nashville-area churches withheld their apportionments in protest of the GBOD’s “Sexuality Forums” which included videos on LGBT issues. The forums were then dissolved at the 1980 General Conference.
- In 1990, Bethany UMC in Eastern PA conference withheld its apportionments in protest of a abortion-related issue, donating that money instead to a pregnancy crisis center for one or two years.
- In 1998, First UMC in Marietta, Georgia (HMMM…), at the insistence of the IRD’s UMAction rightwing advocacy, decided to withhold its apportionments to the general church agencies (ie. General Administration, World Service Fund, MEF, etc) in response to the Jimmy Creech trial and its own “special task force” in its church that researched and cataloged all the doctrinal breaches of the meta-church leadership (I would LOVE to get ahold of that “75 page document”).
- They resumed their apportionments that same year after further review of the finances of the General Agencies and the news report includes a comment that “UMAction had their facts incorrect.” Now THAT’s a news flash! Ha!
- In 2004, St. Peters UMC in the North Carolina conference sent a letter to their new bishop threatening to withhold apportionments due to sexuality disagreements.
- In 2011, as a response to the clergy who pledged to offer same-sex marriages, the authors of the FaithfulUMC petition repeatedly threatened that if the Bishops did not condemn those clergy that the denominations’ largest churches will begin withholding apportionments.
- In 2014, the only named schismatics over LGBT inclusion were from the largest churches, constituting $4,200,000.00 in apportionments.
Historically, usually in response to sexuality initiatives in the UMC, particular churches or groups of churches withhold or threaten to withhold apportionments based on their outrage at what their moneys seem to support.
One final note on this history is that this is at least the second time that Mt. Bethel UMC Marietta has chosen this path, and it is interesting that they have had the same pastor since at least the 1998 decision. They have had the same pastor for over 17 years: little wonder they want to be more congregational than connectional.
…and a bad one.
Withholding church tithes is a big topic here at Hacking Christianity. We’ve taken to task the large churches that seek buyout power, we’ve taken to task progressives who see this as a tactic for divestment, and we’ve done the only major opposition research on the Langford proposal to defund the General Agencies. Click those links for the full arguments.
But the overriding argument is this: withholding a church tithe is NOT a line-item veto. While withholding a payment is at least arguable if you are just withholding from that one 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 withholding a congregation’s ability to pay apportionments hurts real people. There’s just too much collateral damage to good ministries and works to defund the UMC in this way.
Indeed, as Teddy Ray comments on the Good News article:
Because most of their apportionments are used within conference, they’ll hurt their own conference (who tend to be on the same side of the issue) much more than they’ll hurt the GC (where the decisions they’re upset about are being made)…If a full congregation is so unhappy with the UMC that they refuse to keep their part of the covenant, it’s time for them to hand over their property and stop being UMC.
The United Methodist Church is a shared life together: our resources benefit causes we agree with and causes we disagree with. Folks have to ask themselves if the collateral hurt is worth protesting a particular hurt.
In conclusion, there’s a ton of Methodist ways to express disapproval. We can express our disagreement through conversations, through prayer, through speaking out against individual official UMC actions, electing people to positions of power to influence policy, writing petitions to General Conference, being elected to serve those meta-church agencies, refusing a bishops’ re-appointment, writing petitions and getting signatories…hey, we are a Methodist church and there’s a method to do almost anything, including express dissent. But withholding of apportionments–refusal to pay a tithe as a church–is not a Methodist way of doing things.
Jeremy, perhaps you are partially right about at least this….”If a full congregation is so unhappy with the UMC that they refuse to keep their part of the covenant, it’s time for them to hand over their property and stop being UMC.” I do think it is time for progressives to decide when it’s time to leave the UMC over the LGBTQ issue. Of course the global church and leadership get to keep the property. Sort of an ‘all our fault divorce if you will’. Yes, we can leave but we get to take nothing with us. Of course depending on just how abusive the relationship is this may be your only choice. Our Bishop continues incite discord with his comments and practices. All in a position of power and using the book of discipline and his cherry picked passages to justify his words and actions. He states we can disagree (oh thanks so much for that) but of course he holds on to the status quo. I can no longer consider myself to be a “United Methodist” but like the spouse that goes back for more abuse I continue to attend my local congregation. At some point it is too painful to continue. I’m just about there…
The pain IS too much. Leaving is painful and costly, but trying to live within a system that is engaged in a perpetual war is not healthy either. I honestly WISH a clear split would occur so I could become part of a congregation that has some integrity. May God lead us in the path of righteousness, for His name’s sake.
I wonder if this is tied to the planning of the supposed 80+ pastors/theologians who were pitching for separation of the UMC in the springtime? I am not sure, but it seems possible.
That Article Link
Rev. Smith, you said: “In conclusion, there’s a ton of Methodist ways to express disapproval. We can express our disagreement through conversations, through prayer, through speaking out against individual official UMC actions, electing people to positions of power to influence policy, writing petitions to General Conference, being elected to serve those meta-church agencies, refusing a bishops’ re-appointment, writing petitions and getting signatories…hey, we are a Methodist church and there’s a method to do almost anything, including express dissent. But withholding of apportionments–refusal to pay a tithe as a church–is not a Methodist way of doing things.”
Even though I suspect we differ theologically, as a cradle Methodist I agree completely with what you have said. However, those seeking a change in the Discipline as to homosexual marriage have not limited themselves to “conversations…prayer…writing petitions….” etc. They have tried those things and have been unsuccessful. So they have moved on to announcing they will not follow the Discipline, breaking the Discipline, and disrupting meetings and General Conferences. Surely these aren’t the “Methodist way of doing things,” either.
So it strikes me as disingenuous to attack the withholding of apportionments when progressive pastors, annual conferences and an entire jurisdiction violate or promise to violate the Discipline, and disrupt church meetings, all without significant push back from other progressives that “that is not the Methodist way of doing things.”
Russell Earl Kelly
OT tithes were over 23%. OT tithes were always only FOOD from inside God’s HOLY land of Israel. OT tithes first went to the servants of the priests and priests only received 1%. OT tithe-recdipients could not own property; do you? The UMC doesn’t even believe Leviticus was written by Moses or was pre-exile; how can it teach tithing from a fictitious tradition?
Russell, the Old Testament vision of tithes you are referring came from a community that didn’t use a market economy like we do now. It also presupposes a single temple where all worship happens. Does the Jewish population now tithe in food and do rabbis make no money and own no property? No. That would be ridiculous. A market economy functions differently. Since the Priests of the temple would have lodging provided for them, and would be fed by the offerings and tithes of the people they were taken care of. Now, our offerings are monetary as that’s the economy we live in. They are given to the church, not to the pastor, and the church uses that money to do ministry and pay the pastor so that they can survive. Although, UM pastors are given housing allowances or a parsonage to live in. In the latter case, they do not own the property, but the church does, in a similar fashion the the Priests of the Old Testament you are referring to.
Ultimately, the modern world is not the same as the ancient world, and that isn’t a sentence one should have to ever say. You cannot equate the two, and our modern day tithes are an attempt to hold onto part of what the early church did by sharing all that they had as a community so that none were left wanting. Churches that withhold these offerings are easily likened to Ananias and Sapphira, although they aren’t lying about their withholding money, but take pride in it. I’m not sure what is worse, not trusting God and the community enough to give, or being prideful about the pain you cause by withholding. I lean toward the latter being worse.
I agree with the point here: local churches DON’T only hurt themselves. They hurt the kids who live in Conference-supported children’s homes, the college students that grow through campus ministry, the teens who say yes to a call to ministry at camp, those who are only understood at a Redemption Church, and so forth.
It’s almost a hostage-taking tactic:
YOU care about THEM.
I’m unhappy with YOU.
I’ll punish THEM.
YOU have the power to save THEM.
The question is, what are their demands? MBUMC won’t make payments until their Ad Council is ready, but what is their true desire? Is The Council of Bishops their only intended audience or is MBUMC’s goal to embolden other local churches?
It’s not entirely ethical, but I think people/churches on both sides of the LBGTQ issue have engaged in overtly threatening dialogue and behavior. Withholding funds, performing ceremonies–both are a way to take action, to do SOMETHING when it feels like NOTHING ELSE is working.
This reminds me of a suicide bomber who was asked why he was going to go through with a planned attack even though he didn’t actually want himself or others to die. His answer, “it’s the only way they will listen.”
Jeremy, I wish all those methodical and, what could be equated to nonviolent, means of protest and engagement would work. But as I look around the UMC, I see angst, impatience, genuine pain, lots of fear. I see desperation. And well, we all know what they say about desperate times…
From the point of view of those who are tired of using all the “methodist’ means to change the policy to be more welcoming of LBGTQ persons and clergy, why do we want to support organizations within the UMC teaching and forming our young people through church camp, children’s homes, or guiding toward ministry? We have serious concerns about the well being of those young people and the messages they are confronting in those institutions our funds support.
To think that progressives might view withholding dollars as unethical is laughable. We do not need lectures on polity what we need is compliance with our discipline. Failure to do so is what is splitting us apart. Withholding dollars is to be expected in a bifurcated church. Why should people send money to covenant breakers? I certainly do not want to send my dollars to be used by people who are calling me a heterosexualist homophobe.
I wonder if we can make a requirement that any delegates to General Conference must be from or serve a congregation that has fully paid it’s apportionments over the previous four-year period.
Considering that the Western Jurisdiction pays the lowest percentage of its apportionments of any jurisdiction, there might not be many Western Jurisdiction members eligible to serve under that proposal.
Jeremy, it’s hard to see the point of this blog unless you just needed to vent. If it was supposed to bring the two factions closer together, or even promote honest discussion, the snarkiness and cynicism would have been dialed way back. There are some problems in the logic as several of the examples you cite demonstrate that withholding tithes DID have the desired effect (albeit temporary). You seem incapable of comprehending that perhaps a group of our own denomination, with the purest of intentions, might be able to articulate 75 pages worth of ways it sees the church drifting away from its doctrine. If the church were doing something you considered morally wrong, would you sit quietly and methodically? For how long? At some point, if you are writing the checks, aren’t you responsible?
Jeremy, you might want to check your facts. First UMC and Mt. Bethel UMC in Marietta are actually two different congregations. First UMC experienced a church split in the aftermath of their 1998 decision and is pastored by someone totally different from the pastor who is at Mt. Bethel. There is no link between the two. FWIW, the decision by Mt. Bethel was not prompted or encouraged by any group outside the congregation. It was a decision made by the lay leaders of the church.
Tom, thanks for your comment.
I did get the church connection mixed up, but both churches withheld apportionments in the same time frame. The second link has the following quote related to Mt. Bethel (pastored by Mickler) in 1998:
So this is the second time that Mt. Bethel UMC Marietta has withheld apportionments and held them in escrow, in protest over LGBT inclusive efforts.
Regarding this being Mt. Bethel’s second time of withholding apportionments, I would point out that both times, it was by an overwhelming majority vote of the administrative council, not a decision that was led by the pastor.
Regarding whether Mt. Bethel is the largest church east of the Mississippi (as they claim on their website, from which the Good News claim was taken), it depends whether you are counting membership or attendance. In attendance, according to the 2013 numbers, they are #6, as you say. In membership, however, they are larger than all of those other five churches. The only church larger than Mt. Bethel in membership is Ben Hill (also in Atlanta area), but according to the 2013 numbers, Ben Hill’s attendance was only 801. (Not sure what to make of a 10,000 member church with an attendance of 800. Was it a mistake in data entry?)
The larger question is not whether Mt. Bethel is #1, #2, or #6. The point is that this is one of the largest and most influential churches east of the Mississippi. For such a church to make this move shows that there is a significant problem with denominational accountability.
We can spout theology and polity all day long (and I will on my blog), but at the end of the day, the laity who live in the real world have decided that this lack of accountability is not how a denomination ought to be run. No business would allow its senior executives to not only publicly disagree with company policy but flagrantly violate it (and still keep their jobs). To many laity, what is happening in the UM Church today doesn’t make sense. They will not indefinitely continue to pay for something that is consistently going contrary to their values.
Considering that a large number of Western Jurisdiction churches pay more to The Advance than their shortfall for apportionment payments, where is the outrage there???
In the FWIW category — in the bashing of the Western Jurisdiction in general, the Rocky Mountain Conference in specific has paid for multiple years in the high 90% range, and paid 100% in 2014, and we will pay 100% in 2015. It is our long term plan, now that we are at 100%, to meet that.
Tom: FWIW, there are many examples across the UMC where way too many congregations have very high membership numbers (in response to your Ben Hill UMC remarks) and much more modest attendance. In too many conferences, Oklahoma is the poster child, seats at GC are far more important than a true “House of Representatives” that GC is. I understand the origin of membership being the trump statistic here. Not much we can do about it.
Dr. Randy Mickler
First, Mt. Bethel is putting into escrow all of its apportionments, awaiting some evidence of accountability from the denomination. Secondly, your “facts” are incorrect in every statistic!
Mt. Bethel UMC
Thoughts? Sure. I’m not a fan of withholding apportionments in that it tends to punish the people who don’t make the decisions. However I also understand the frustration, which you conveniently ignore, with leadership that refuses to lead or call the church to accountability. Beucase that’s the problem. If you want the church to be accountable in withholding apportion to then it needs to be a church that holds up its covenant and calls people to follow it. Because ignoring sin also isn’t the Wesleyan way. Nor is refusing to be accountable to the Body of a hurst and saying, effectively, we do what we want. That’s also not the Wesleyan way. To say that we need to be Wesleyan and pay apportionments but ignore the clergy that refuse to live by our Disicpine is, frankly hypocritical.
Hi Brian, if you want the church to be accountable, send delegates to Annual Conference who will vote for accountability measures you support. Elect bishops. Nominate people to conference committees. There’s a hundred Methodist ways to express frustration or call for accountability–but withholding church tithes is not one of them.
The UMC stopped being the UMC when it stopped following the Book of Discipline. If our leadership can pick and choose when and if to enforce the Discipline based on their own personal believes our future does not look good.
I am reading this not so much thinking as an entire congregation, but as an individual struggling with whether my gift to my church is ultimately going to being used to support a decision that I find in direct conflict with my beliefs. It’s not unlike having union dues taken from your paycheck and used to support candidates or organizations that you do not believe in. I would never stop tithing, but I would consider redirecting the percentage of funds that would go to the UMC hierarchy to another charitable organization that was being better stewards of the money.