The United Methodist Church might decide this week whether to adapt to the challenge of the pandemic age…or to pay off those who are holding it hostage and hobbling the UMC’s ministries to care for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Panic on Full Display
Since the decision in the Spring of 2020 to delay the General Conference to the Fall of 2021, the United Methodist Church has been largely quiet on potential division.
But in the last few weeks, the online rhetoric and the arguments have surged, threatening both The United Methodist Church’s future and its members’ personal health.
- The Institute on Religion and Democracy threatens all-out war on clergy through a sustained prosecution complex, stating that “if General Conference was again delayed, this would remove the most pressing reasons for restraint in filing complaints.” (content warning: the IRD is vehemently anti-gay in its other articles, so we typically don’t link to it. Here’s that link, fair warning!)
- The Good News Movement threatens to derail any regionalism efforts of The United Methodist Church, claiming that traditionalists can “block” any regionalism efforts if the Protocol is not passed (or even if it is…).
- A Coalition of Traditionalists has called for the passage of the Protocol, including some bishops that have previously endorsed it. Here’s the link–oddly, they use one of my personal photos without credit as their lead photo. Hahaha!
- The Wesleyan Covenant Association President Rev. Keith Boyette suggests the UMC can redirect PPP loan money to the WCA, instead of its purpose to protect people’s employment so they can protect their families from COVID.
- WCA Board member Rev. Dr. Christopher Ritter suggests General Conference should be held in person in smaller, distributed locations so that only a few dozen folks at a time are sacrificed to COVID exposure instead of several thousand. So charitable!
Global and regional bodies are used to getting a trickle of these crank letters all the time. But why all these letters in such a short amount of time, fixated on the same outcome?
The stakes of this week
It doesn’t take much to figure out the reason: this week potentially is a decisive one for The United Methodist Church, and $25 million dollars is at stake.
- Saturday, February 13th, 2021, delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences heard a proposal for a reduction in the number of bishops. You can read the coverage here.
- Thursday, February 18th, 2021, the Council of Bishops meets to make decisions about recommendations for the future of The United Methodist Church, including potentially calling special sessions of General and Jurisdictional Conference to deal only with elections or specific topics.
- Saturday, February 20th, 2021, the General Commission on the General Conference meets to debate the tech teams’ recommendations on virtual conferencing, perhaps making a decision.
So you can see why the Traditionalists have upped their rhetoric and their threats: that’s a lot of high-level meetings at one time, with $25 million dollars on the line. So that explains why they are writing so much.
Why are non-Traditionalists quiet?
I was concerned at the one-sidedness of these commentaries because usually progressive and centrist folks, at least leading up to and since the 2019 General Conference, are good at providing their own commentaries. It’s hard to find many commentaries online, especially during a critical week.
But a review of the past year shows that, aside from the typical Traditionalist caucus group employee screed (like Fox News, they need to manufacture outrage to solicit donations, after all), the United Methodist Church has turned its resources towards pandemic relief efforts: caring for individual health through our extensive efforts in health care, caring for churches that struggle with going online through general agency and independent commission assistance, and let the Disciplinary processes of the church deal with the denominational issues.
The Progressives, Centrists, Conservatives and rank-and-file Traditionalists, local churches and general agencies/commissions are not quiet–they are busy doing the work of the church! Our energy shifted towards saving lives and saving churches and continuing parachurch ministries. Not a bad thing to be busy doing!
Significantly, the dominant efforts for a more just unity with The United Methodist Church have come from the Central Conferences, who stand to lose far more than USA-based Traditionalists from denominational division. The Christmas Covenant is compatible with the Protocol, though it stands alone without needing it, and the Africa Voice for Unity has come out in opposition to the needless division of The UMC via the Protocol.
The rest of United Methodism is busy fighting a pandemic. While the Wesleyan Covenant Association leadership fixates on division, the UMC is fixated on coping and healing and saving lives.
The Traditionalist Opposition to COVID Relief
While the reasons to do COVID-19 relief are honorable and faithful, because the church in history has found its footing and renewal in such times of crisis, such success is a threat to those who do not want the UMC to continue with strength. A healthy United Methodist Church that offers direct services to Pandemic victims and helpful care to its membership is a threat to the Wesleyan Covenant Association and their dream of a new denomination.
In 2004, the Good News Movement’s strategy document “Options for the future” discouraged Traditionalists from leaving The United Methodist Church until it had been significantly weakened or diminished, quote:
[Leaving The UMC] also leaves the United Methodist denomination somewhat intact, with the accumulation of resources to potentially continue for decades on a progressively revisionist track.” page 8
So it’s baked into their strategy that The United Methodist Church must be a burned-out husk before they will leave, unable to provide Pandemic Relief.
That means breaking general agency responses by defunding them (via CT & GCFA reducing apportionment collections even though the money came in 2020 anyway, causing some agencies to reduce staff by 30%, some of which were fighting the other pandemic of racism) and supporting the reduction of bishops (which they’ve supported for years before COVID) which reduces our ability to respond to COVID-19 (some bishops have made COVID-19 relief one of their mission goals, like the Greater Northwest).
It’s sick, isn’t it? But it helps to see clearly why the rhetoric and the proposals that lead to harm are front and center now.
The endgame that the WCA and Traditionalists are in panic mode for is a short virtual General Conference to pass the Protocol alone, under the auspices of that we need to “move on.” That’s an endgame supported by a cross-section of progressives, conservatives, liberationists, and traditionalists alike, so it has perhaps the broadest ideological support, though how that translates into actual numbers in the two decision-making bodies is unknown.
However, it isn’t the endgame that is equitable. The endgame that I wonder might be more helpful is as follows:
- The United Methodist Church finds the Protocol’s $25 million dollars (which originally was going to be taken from the General Agencies that are doing this relief work) and gives it to Pandemic Relief and BIPOC ministries/anti-racism efforts inside or outside the church, putting our money where the pandemics are. That gets rid of the temptation from the Protocol and the reason for the WCA to remain United Methodist, and saves lives rather than serve as a handout to caucus groups that are experiencing reduced funding. And it serves as a reminder that the tithes and gifts of United Methodists for decades should be used for saving lives, not ransom money. It can be given away without waiting for General Conference.
- Traditionalist and Liberationist wings each get $1 million dollars to offer their perspective in new denominations, providing seed money for them to exit. That’s reasonable and gracious. Many traditionalist individual churches have already banked years of withheld apportionments, so they can supplement that seed money of their own free will.
- Bishops reduce by one per jurisdiction to better adjust to the church of tomorrow without losing ability to govern like the Council of Bishop’s shock proposal would do, giving us time to do the discernment work to see what leadership we need. We would elect the same number (10) that are mandatory retiring in 2024, so if further reductions are needed, we have fresh, empowered leadership to guide us for that reduction to the same goal of -15, rather than being down 25 bishops in 3 years.
The whole world is focused on the pandemic while the WCA and Traditionalists are focused on getting baaaaank for their decades of divisive work. If the results of the coming days are in-line with what the WCA is calling for, then we know who really runs The United Methodist Church without accountability: the folks who shamelessly want to get their money at all costs, even denying COVID-19 relief that threatens their own rank-and-file membership.
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