Beyond the finances of the deal, the forsaking of the UMC by a former UM Church in Pennsylvania betrays a more insidious form of connection-breaking than any LGBT-inclusive action could do.
Beyond the Finances…
All over the United Methodist news in the past week has been Wesley Church’s severing of its ties to the United Methodist Church. A medium-sized but growing congregation in Quarryville, Pennsylvania, bought their $5m property for $100,000 from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, which seems unjust.
Rev. Jay Voorhees at The United Methodist Reporter got closer than most to the actual finances of the deal:
“We were looking at a situation where we could litigate to hold on to a building we would owe a significant sum of money on,” Shoemaker said, “but we had no belief that we could pay the debt.”…Eventually, after many conversations, the Wesley Church agreed to pay $100,000 to the EPAC as compensation for the equity in the building. Additionally the church paid off an earlier commitment to a capital campaign, as well as their apportionments up to the date of the final contract ending the relationship between the church and the UMC…
Once the agreement was complete, the EPAC issued a quit claim deed to the Wesley Church and relinquished their trust relationship, giving the building and all responsibility for the debt to the newly constituted Wesley Church.
…to the Methodist Drift
However, it’s clear that this church ceased being United Methodist long ago, at least in teaching and preaching. A pastor on the 5,000-strong UM Clergy Facebook group analyzed their website and bylaws and summarized:
It is clear that, theologically, they are not — and probably, for a long time, have not been — “Methodist.” Now, granted, there’s a great degree of theological and spiritual diversity in what qualifies as “Methodist” … I’m not talking about basic evangelicalism articulated in a Wesleyan-Methodist vocabulary. This church is espousing a theology that, at least in multiple critical areas, is entirely outside the spectrum of Methodist thought.
Allow me to illustrate with several specific examples from their statement of faith as found in their By-Laws…The word “grace” is found only once in the entire document, there is not even a vague hint of the Wesleyan “Order of Salvation,” nor are there any of the other distinctively Wesleyan-Arminian Theological emphases. BUT, there IS an affirmation of the Calvinist doctrines of Divine Sovereignty along with the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints (aka Eternal Security or “Once Saved Always Saved”). They appear to have entirely jettisoned our Sacramental Theology in favor of believers-only Baptism by immersion-only, and a works-obedience understanding of Communion. In other words, Means of Grace Theology appears to have been entirely replaced by Zwinglian (“ordinance”) Theology…
This kind of theological ethos doesn’t come into existence overnight … quite the contrary, my suspicion is that this reflects what this church has been teaching and preaching for a very long time. In other words, they haven’t been a United Methodist Church in terms of faith or practice for many years. The issue of gay marriage is just a “convenient excuse” to justify their exit from a denomination where they, theologically, clearly don’t belong.
The thing is…this type of drift away is easily seen. It’s seen in the sermons and sacramental actions, on the website and on the archived videos. Additionally, discomfort or anger at the denomination’s dealings with LGBT inclusion would have been evident at any district event (did they go to those?) or to visitors or to simply social media. In the end, once a Wesleyan perspective is replaced by a Calvinist one from the pulpit, and in this case from a local pastor who was not in the accountable ordination process, it’s usually only fixed with a change in pastorate–which didn’t happen here due to its numerical growth.
So why didn’t anyone see this coming? Why were we unable to hold this church accountable before it was too late?
Broken Covenants > Broken Connection?
The problem is the United Methodist system is set up to focus on covenant-breakers more than connection-breakers.
Eastern Pennsylvania has been the locus of several instances of anti-LGBT actions in the past decade. When Bishop Peter Weaver was their bishop, he allowed charges against Beth Stroud. Current Bishop Peggy Johnson allowed charges against Frank Schaefer and only dismissed the charges against some mass-wedding participants after the trauma of that trial. Clearly, Eastern PA has no problem spending time going after clergy who they see as breaking the covenant.
So why was little to no involvement had in this form of breaking the connection? Perhaps because these are not event-based evaluations. There’s no big event like a wedding or a revelation of orientation. It takes attentiveness to the little things. It takes knowing the churches and watching them over the 6-8 years of an average superintendency term. Only when they get too big to fail do they undertake anti-connectional events. We’ve seen before that many of the Top 100 UMCs are seemingly anti-connectional in many ways, including one of the largest who withholds apportionments and seeks to choose their new Senior Pastor.
It’s not hard to see that the United Methodist system is set up to prosecute individuals more than hold entire churches accountable. And those who benefit from this setup get the UMC to focus on a shiny object of LGBT inclusion while entire churches slip between the UMC’s fingers.
More Attention, not More Prosecution
At the end of the UMR article, we get this revealing nugget from an Annual Conference official:
Shoemaker said that one learning from this situation is the need for District Superintendents to be more directly involved at an earlier stage so that congregations don’t drift away before it is too late. “We were engaged in an 11th hour effort with Wesley Church,” he said, “and by then it was too late to help keep them in the UMC. Maybe would should have been in conversation earlier.”
Our paring-down of the church’s bureaucracy has increased the superintendency load. This past year, Oklahoma went from 13 districts to 8–several districts went from 40 churches to 65 churches each! In 2012, each jurisdiction was legislated to go down by one bishop–some bishops now have 2-3 annual conferences to watch over! Little wonder that larger churches see a win-win by reducing oversight from DSes and reducing their apportionment costs at the same time–and they have the voting power to accomplish it.
Middle management sucks. But it’s needed. When we remove the ability to watch over one another in love from those charged with it, then the whole system suffers. The more stressed the middle is, the more they rely on quantitative data rather than qualitative. If the numbers for a church look good, they probably don’t need more attention. For every District Superintendent who looks at a church’s metrics and says “hey, they are growing, numbers are up, this church is fine,” they’ll hopefully now think of Wesley Church. And then wonder why the UM system isn’t set up to give them the resourcing in oversight and accountability that they need.
Indeed, it’s actually what Wisconsin discovered after the Amy DeLong trial was that we were not practicing the covenant. The practice of covenanting together has fallen by the wayside ever since the teenage years of Methodism. The loss of the class meetings and other regular accountability groups meant that accountability became assent to a list of commandments rather than a practice of living together. Unless the pastors of the largest churches that lean towards congregationalism are willing to be in regular practices with the pastors of the smallest of churches that rely on connectionalism, then their use of the covenant-as-punishment ought not be upheld. By fixing how we connect with each other, we’ll solve how to better covenant with each other–and keep more churches UM in the process.
A practiced covenant will lead to more connection, more connectionalism, and more communal understandings of covenant. And that’s better for the entire UMC whether one venerates the Covenant or the Connection more than the other.
Wesley Church has shown an increase in quantity does not necessarily equal an increase in Methodist integrity. As the UMC grapples with covenants and connections, my hope is that we see that the murky middle of the superintendency is important for maintaining covenants and connections–and they should have more resources (with accountability) to deal with the vagabond churches that try to bully and bribe their way out of United Methodism–or worse, to rule it.
Good work, Jeremy. There are definitely issues here, and we ought to be sensitive to calling them out both in the case of Wesley Church and wherever else they might arise.
I don’t think that most of the statement of faith is beyond the Wesleyan pale, but two places definitely cross the UM line. This is old EUB country, and a resurgence of Believer’s baptism isn’t out of step with the environment (or even UM history here)–this would fit in the practice of the Wesleyan Church, would be acceptable among Nazarenes, and while referencing the baptism of believers doesn’t specifically reject infant baptism, so isn’t as extreme as the latter issue. The sentence in the section on salvation indicating perseverance of the saints does cross a line, but the insistence on assurance of salvation is deeply rooted in Methodism, as well as the insistence that salvation is offered to all. Given the weak theological formulation, this might be less dramatically different than it appears (regardless, that’s a problem).
The statement seems woefully incomplete around communion, but I didn’t read anything necessarily Zwinglian there (just far too little of any theology).
Regardless, the DCOM and the DS should have picked up on these things years ago and worked to correct them.
I’ve been a superintendent going on 5 years now. There are at least a couple of factors, because I’ve had a situation like this before.
1. Definitely, a superintendent needs to be involved and know what’s going on in a church, besides showing up once a year for a charge conference. I go to worship services, church council meetings, etc. Is the workload heavy? Yes it is. But I feel like I’m compensated adequately to do such. That builds trust. But there is a greater problem that often leads to situations like this…
2. Church treasurers and finance committees are very resistant to allow the pastor full disclosure about their cash flow; in short, they don’t think the pastor should know who gives what. So when a church gets into a financial mess, the pastor is often the last person to know… and the DS for sure won’t know. Finances are a spiritual matter, and pastors are professional enough not to treat those who give more “better” than those who give less or not at all. And if a church is in trouble, either from fewer resources and/or indebtedness that has become unmanageable, sometimes it’s only known to the pastor when it’s too late to do anything about it. There are several churches in the district I serve, of all sizes, that are one or two funerals away from having to make drastic changes in budget and staffing, and the only person who may know that is the church treasurer.
Point 2 is relevant to this topic because many churches keep the pastor “out of the loop” on other issues as well, because of an inherent lack of trust. That lack of trust certain can extend to the district, and to the conference. Many large churches say, “The United Methodist Church needs us more than we need them” – because over time there has been (1) a loss of feeling of Connectionism, and (2) at least in some jurisdiction, General Agencies have (1) pushed political agendas that are at variance with local churches, and (2) not done a very good job in making their case for their existence in such churches – many who have paid their apportionments faithfully for over 100 years.
So while it’s certainly beholden for pastors and superintendents to keep churches accountable, it’s also equally difficult when these folks aren’t privy to such.
The other thing that needs to happen is that we need to beef up dCOM’s and courses of study for local pastors, because we are going to see more and more of them. Seminary education is becoming a financial impossibility for many, and many folks who start out part-time as pastors are incredibly effective as pastors because of their particular skill set and/or work ethic… as a result, they grow churches in both number and in discipleship.
Bishops and superintendents are given the responsibility to help churches be connectional. But they’re not always given the authority to do so. Lack of relationships from both sides is to blame, and people are more and more suspect of institutions than ever before. Trust is sorely lacking these days of both covenant and Connection.
Thomas in GA
As a former PL I can see that you have noticed the ministries of our called “lower tier” clergy. You also know churches, especially smaller churches. Thanks for your observation.
In my AC the DSs have up to 100 churches each and there is still discussion of merging districts. The Bishop has changed the DS priority away from the local churches to focus on the larger institution. I fear the lack of interaction way allow for a continued degradation of the connection. Especially in the smaller membership churches.
Wesley Chuch didn’t buy their property for $100,000. They’re paying a $5,000,000 mortgage. If the annual conference used the trust clause to take the property, the other churches in the conference would be on the hook for the $5M, and faced with a church plant in a facility many times too large. The $100,000 bought out the trust clause.
The rest of the analysis is spot on.
What you call anti-LGBT actions I would call upholding the discipline. This breakaway church did not get away with anything financially. They still have a sizeable mortgage. The district got $100,000. The church got independence and the district got cash. Looks like a win win.
Unless you’re growing up at Wesley Church and discover your an LGBT person. I imagine that church, without any diverse voices now, would be very difficult for LGBT youth. Praying.
It also sets a dangerous precedent, never or rarely done before in The UMC, of allowing a local church to leave the connection completely (Quite a different matter than a united or federated church.)
You are right on target. The most important function in the church today (beyond the local church pastor) is the district superintendent. This role is where the real pastoral and supervisory responsibilities for clergy should be expressed. However, this role has morphed into an administrative function, as you correctly analyze. The result is that we are loading up DSs with too many charges. They cannot know 60 churches in their district, nor mentor, coach and otherwise relate to their clergy in the way you discuss–that is, to nurture the connection and guide them if needed. We are leaving this to chance, or neglecting it altogether. And the result is what you assess–a broken connectional system. In the past, this was our strength. Today, it appears we are prepared to cast it overboard. In the process we lose our identity. Wesleyan theology is not Calvinist. But our laxness in Boards of Ordained Ministry in not making this clear to clergy candidates, our apparent laxness in theological education, and our tendency to accept clergy from Calvinist traditions without nurturing them in Wesleyan theology, results in a theological contradiction that we seem to tolerate until something breaks down, as in this case.
In an earlier article about this I read that there were 600 members. But the vote to break away was 411 to 6. That tells me that minority voices weren’t very welcome at that meeting.
I am not a Methodist, but find this interesting. Our own church (congregationalist governance) has membership meetings and it’s sometimes difficult to get a quorum. This many people voting is a large turnout, considering how many people on the rolls are not really involved in their church. I assume from the vote that the membership had already sorted itself out into people who liked the church’s direction and those who didn’t (who probably went elsewhere). It looks like this course was overwhelmingly supported by the members, and I think as the UMC goes in the direction of the Episcopal Church, there will be more of these situations.
The Episcopalian hierarchy generally plays hardball with dissident churches that want to dissociate themselves from the leftist path the hierarchy wants to take, but it appears to be a situation there of continuing to grasp for the worldly assets of a rotting corpse of a church that long ago left the faith rather than Christian stewardship. As an observer, I hope the UMC isn’t heading down that same road, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
I think you have touched on something that has been a problem for a long time. I have never known any churches that have been truly held accountable for violating the connection, when they treated pastors horribly. And too often when the pastor went to the DS for help they get told to go back and work to get the “Matriarchs” or “Patriarchs” on their side even when the churches were expressing attitudes that were contrary to the Discipline of the United Methodist Church and quite frankly bore no resemblance to anything Christian from a gospel perspective.
You make it sound like it is a spectrum with “connection” on one end and “covenant” at the other. I disagree. One can easily be concerned about the issues you raised about connection and still have a concern about covenant with individual clergy.
Abandoning UM teaching – whether by going to believer-only baptism or affirming homosexual behavioral choices – is something we simply can’t allow. If Wesley church couldn’t live within our covenant, it was fine to let them go. We certainly need more accountability.
“behavioral choices”, goodness gracious!
The Western Jurisdiction has the lowest percentage of paying their apportionments of any of the jurisdictions. Where is the connectionalism there? They pay enough to the Advance to pay their apportionments but choose not to.
Jeremy’s diatribe as usual misses essential facts. In this case a growing rural congregation has a capital project to expand and reach more people for the Lord. How many churches in the Western Jurisdiction have a record of growth anywhere near Wesley’s? The Eastern PA Annual Conference chose not to follow the example of The Episcopal Church and discerned a graceful way to allow the church to separate while taking care of the financial interests of the Conference. Otherwise, they would have had a virtually empty building that had a $4 million mortgage. The Episcopal Church has spent over $40 million to own a bunch of empty buildings.
It is very interesting also to hear the doctrinal concerns about Wesley while Jeremy is always willing to offer succor to those who question the basic doctrines of Christianity. But, that is another example of being tolerant of everyone who already agrees with you.
Jeremy has already debunked your first statement about the Western Jurisdiction:
I think your other points go back to the “if you Progressives only returned to ‘biblical orthodoxy’ then your churches would grow” logic, a very non-humble and untrue statement. The PNW and NE areas are doing some incredible and creative church planting in post-Christendom areas– all with one hand tied behind their backs (being unable to fully minister to LGBT persons, inclusion of LGBT persons a particularly big deal in those areas).
It wasn’t debunked. Jeremy just came up with other spin to distract from the actual facts.
Jeremy, you raise some good points. The DS is one of the primary connection points in our system, and we have mis-prioritized the tasks of the DS.
Someone above said this is an unprecedented situation (in terms of a local church leaving the UMC). However, multiple bishops have attested that this happens routinely in many of our annual conferences. However, it is usually small, rural churches that leave. They have no “value” to the institution, so they are released with little or no payment expected. The annual conference doesn’t want to be saddled with a bunch of empty buildings to maintain.
Also, I think Creed’s point was that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. One cannot decry the fact that some UM pastors have fallen into Calvinism (ignoring for the moment that many early British Methodists were Calvinists, like George Whitefield), but fail to decry the fact that other UM pastors have fallen into universalism or denial of other articles of faith like the deity of Christ or his resurrection (see Bishop Sprague). Many boards of ordained ministry have drawn the circle of United Methodist doctrine so wide that there are no longer any meaningful boundaries. I have seen more evangelicals excluded by district and conference boards of ordained ministry because of their theology than persons who deny elements of our doctrinal standards.
Why have over 400 local churches been allowed to become Reconciling Congregations, in violation of Judicial Council rulings and contrary to United Methodist teaching and policy? Could one not say that this “justif[ies] their exit from a denomination where they, theologically, clearly don’t belong”? Drift is happening on the right and left theologically. If we’re going to call for accountability for one end of the spectrum, we should call for it on the other end, as well.
BTW, I’m in favor of that type of accountability across the board.
As United methodists, we can’t afford to blow up the church over a single issue!
Both sides are making me sad and sick . Seriously , this matter will take care of itself in a few short years. Gay marriage has already been decided by the Supreme Court and everyone under thirty believes gays are equal to straights.
Soon the dinosaurs will be dead . But will there be a church to go to if we blow it up? Patience and prayer is what is needed . Keep working on your co workers and neighbors and persons in the pew next to you .One at a time.That is what is working .
Carol – the problem with your statement is that the Bible clearly and unequivocally states that sin is sin! It doesn’t matter if that sin regards two heterosexual persons living together before marriage, or if it’s two members of the same gender in a sexual relationship. My Bible calls it sin! I am in my 40s and consider myself a conservative evangelical Methodist Christian.
What will happen in all likelihood is that the conservatives will break away and form their own denomination, while the liberals will do their own thing. That leaves moderate UMCers to figure out which way the wind blows. The Bible says luke warm Christians have no place in the kingdom of God. We must choose today who we will serve! The UMC is rapidly heading down a slippery slope of apostasy and becoming irrelevant in today’s culture. The social gospel dreck being preached from many a pulpit today isn’t cutting the theological mustard. The main point of the gospel message is telling others about Christ and winning others to Him. Helping the less fortunate is a natural byproduct of our Christian lifestyle, but should never be the sole emphasis and purpose of why a church exists. To do otherwise, makes them a mere social service agency. If so, then what’s the purpose in having the church be in existence?