Nine years ago in one of the most-commented articles ever, this blog articulated “Methodism 2.0” which predicted what would lead to transformation in The United Methodist Church.
Nine years ago, my spouse and I both had the same model of iPhone but it had one difference: I had completed an upgrade of the iOS operating system, while she was sticking with the old version. We both had the same hardware but were running different software. Incidentally, this continues throughout our marriage as I am an early adopter and she resists changing an operating system she is comfortable with.
This image was a vivid metaphor for The United Methodist Church at the time. In 2012, after the launch of the Biblical Obedience movement by Bishop Melvin Talbert, segments of United Methodism had begun to practice what I then called “Methodism 2.0“: an upgrade to our 1.0 ecclesial operating system that practiced the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons. The Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Talbert’s jurisdiction, was the early adopter of this upgrade, providing a majority of the safe places for LGBTQ+ inclusion.
It wasn’t pretty or consistent and it was fraught with hazards of being early adopters, but like the early Methodism movement, Methodism 2.0 thrived and multiplied. Soon, more bishops and annual conferences joined the Western Jurisdiction in no longer prosecuting LGBTQ+ inclusive actions and persons. As 1 Thessalonians reminds us, we were given not only a belief but also the Holy Spirit and the power to share the conviction we had–and we were called to share the joy of life together under Methodism 2.0.
So, how did the upgrade go? And how did it contribute to the current reality with the splintering of the denomination and the rise of separatist movements?
Let’s find out.
First, we need to re-examine the theory behind why Methodism 2.0 would succeed where previous attempts failed.
In Brafman/Beckstrom’s 2006 book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, they trace the pattern of the interactions between centralized (spider) organizations and decentralized (starfish) organizations. Wait…why are they named like that again?
- Spiders have a head that makes all the decisions. If you chop off the head of a spider, it will die.
- Starfish have no head: the central nervous system is spread throughout the body, and it responds appropriately. Indeed, if you cut off a limb, it will regrow. If you chop it in half…both will regrow, and then you’ll have two of them!
Brafman/Beckstrom saw value in both types of organizations but ultimately said that starfish organizations are more adaptable to the world around them because the change comes from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down.
In the United Methodist Church in 2012, we saw the failure of top-down change. General Conference did not succeed where we had hoped. The Reformers failed to reform through the PlanUMC. The progressives failed to change the UMC’s stance on LGBTQ+ inclusion and other social issues. 2012 was a frustrating year as we dealt with a spider operating system in the UMC, controlled by Traditionalists and conflict-averse Centrists.
It is my contention that starting in 2012, we saw the beginnings (or to some, the culminations) of the successes of bottom-up change, similar to other social movements for racial and gender equality. A radical shift from a spiderlike UMC to a starfishlike UMC began taking place as entire segments of the denomination removed the barriers to the Holy Spirit and lived as if full inclusion had already happened.
From 2012 to 2019, Traditionalists invested heavily in Methodism 1.0 (the spider structure) and basically ran the denomination. Their General Conference dominance continued as they passed their preferred legislation at General Conference 2016 and 2019. They claimed to have a Judicial Council majority since 2016. Bishops and general agency staff were largely cowed by their power. The Wesleyan Covenant Association began in 2016, providing new energy to the renewal groups. Traditionalists were the train operators of United Methodism.
But now we see that Methodism 2.0 (the starfish movement) outlasted the spider. The then-head of the Wesleyan Covenant Association shared as much in a 2020 quote:
“Progressives and Centrists were making it clear that they were not prepared to voluntarily leave the church, and they would persist in their advocacy for their deeply held beliefs. Traditionalists could do the same. But that would destine us to continue to repeat the same destructive cycle…In order to restore the good order of the church, constitutional amendments would be required to require adherence to the church’s Discipline. But the percentages required to achieve that are not achievable presently and likely not into the distant future.”Rev. Keith Boyette
In short, traditionalists required a super-majority to finally excise progressives from United Methodism, which they didn’t have. And progressives needed a majority to excise the sin of antigay polity from United Methodism, which they didn’t have. So, stalemate.
Using the metaphor above, the Traditionalist caucus group leadership invested everything in a spider church and got only a stalemate with the once-ridiculed starfish movement in return for their failed strategy. They couldn’t chop off the head, no matter how much they twisted Wesleyan Accountability to become weaponized against people.
Incredibly, it would be the Traditionalist caucus group leadership themselves that would squander their position atop the spider web and lose all their political power within three short years.
- The blowback to the draconian future sought by the 2019 General Conference woke up most of the centrists to end their uneasy alliance with traditionalists and led to a progressive wave of delegates. For the first time since 1988, traditionalists would not be a majority of American delegates to the General Conference, the next one in May 2024.
- Then traditionalists launched the Global Methodist Church as a separatist movement, and that attack on the institution squandered their credibility with the Judicial Council. They have lost every single court case that would benefit them since its launch (1, 2, 3, etc).
- Bishops in the Southeast, formerly a bastion of Traditionalist strength, stood against the Traditionalist excesses (heck, even African bishops did too!), and as of January 1st 2023, there are no virulently anti-gay active bishops left in the United States, replaced by the most diverse and progressive episcopal class in memory.
- Finally, with 2000+ churches disaffiliating and exiting Traditionalist people power from United Methodism, traditionalists no longer have an outright majority in many annual conferences they did a few short years ago.
It’s incredible to see the collapse that came from the 2019 General Conference pyrrhic victory of the passage of the Traditional Plan. While it is a failure of caucus group leadership, it was predicted by their embrace of a spider approach and is only surprising how quickly it happened.
All the while, the starfish Methodism 2.0 would continue to spread and reach the rest of the denomination. Every single jurisdiction passed a statement supporting LGBTQ+ inclusion. The Council of Bishops (in some ways) agreed to hold local complaints about LGBTQ+ inclusion in abeyance (which admittedly continued to cause harm and recently exited a Texas pastor from active ministry). The bishops could even enact LGBTQ+ inclusion by themselves–let’s hope they do.
There’s far more to do and I’m so thankful for the starfishlike Reconciling Ministries Network which continues to create safe places for people and bring people together to transform the church.
The losses of people and property from United Methodism in 2022 have hurt and caused much heartache. We are fragmented and hurt and in disarray, but I contend we have been renewed from the ground up by Methodism 2.0.
In many formative ways, no longer are we a top-down church, but we are a movement again that responds to mission fields that require LGBTQ+ inclusion and adaptive leadership. We have institutions that have solidified the gains of the movement and come to a better balance between institutional advancement and local church support. We will continue to be the largest denomination that ordains women and have had many moments of reckoning with our racist origins and present actions.
I think United Methodism will always be a spiderlike organization, but the energy to transform it now has a starfish apparatus in place to turn us away from the worst excesses and entrapments on the horizon. It will continue to be rocky as we transition budgets and our common work to the new reality (and the last ebbing wave of disaffiliations will be this year in 2023), but I think the future is going to be mostly about spider v. starfish power in United Methodism, and how we can best accomplish our mission together through empowering regional ministry closer to our mission fields.
Ultimately, the UMC in the United States has decided its path forward as inclusive Methodism 2.0, and 2023 should be the year we begin to transition away from worrying about who is leaving and focusing on the new folks we can welcome into our mission: to transform the world through growing disciples of Jesus Christ.
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Grateful for your hopeful perspective and analysis of the denominational dynamics.
I am wondering about whether lament and grief have been given enough space.
I am planting a new inclusive and affirming umc in a community that has experienced disaffiliation. There is still a pretty intense teeter totter of hurting and hoping, grief and grace – and sometimes it’s all the feelings simultaneously. Some folks are still so confused, and even surprised that they feel like the spiritual, theological, communal rugs have all been pulled out from under them. So I wonder if one of the first graces of what you labeled 2.0 can be an ongoing safe space for lament, grief and grace and hope. I wonder if folks may find that kind authenticity and vulnerability to be refreshing and reconciling?
I don’t have the answers and I am looking for both balance and a bold way forward. I’m just wondering and planning, still hurting and still hoping. And trusting.
Grateful for your words.
So insightful. Thank you Jeremy. Sara, your comment about grief, i believe, is right on target for many who are having friends forsake them and church homes taken away from them. Those remaining, especially big tent centrists, may feel like the spouse who tried hard to make the marriage work while the spouse just says its my way or the highway, take it or leave it. Thats really painful, especially when you end up the jilted spouse sitting on the street with your suitcase. I feel like that’s where a lot of people are finding themselves right now. Grief. Pain. Loss. Rejection. Anger. Disorientation. Hopefully, they are able to find a place of understanding and refuge as they process it all.
Sara, I agree with your comment about “whether lament and grief have been given enough space.”
I am not Wise in the Ways of UMC polity (I actually bailed on the opportunity to take the class about that a few years ago, because it wasn’t obvious whether I’d be UMC for long enough to matter), but I do know, from the viewpoint of a North Texas Conference reconciling congregation, that the process has been like a cheese grater for that congregation, as we have watched LGBTQIA+ folkx, including but not limited to couples and families, detach themselves from the spider, because they just can’t take it any more,. My wife withdrew her membership in 2014, so I know it’s not JUST LGBTQIA+ folkx who have left.
From my point of view, the only good thing that has happened during the spider versus starfish recent past, is that a lot of Methodists I know from my previous, non-reconciling congregation are now aware of “their uneasy alliance with traditionalists”.
They’re good people, and many of them have reacted with horror to the 2019 draconian future. They are reacting exactly as you said about your own congregation – “There is still a pretty intense teeter totter of hurting and hoping, grief and grace – and sometimes it’s all the feelings simultaneously. Some folks are still so confused, and even surprised that they feel like the spiritual, theological, communal rugs have all been pulled out from under them.”
The number of people who seem honestly surprised about the struggles at General Conference after at least a decade seems a testimony to how many clergy and annual conference delegates decided that “what happens at General Conference, stays at General Conference”, and have been silent about the threat to UMC, to their annual conferences, to their congregations, and to their members.
I stayed, because I want to be part of what happens when we all understand what’s at stake for all of us.
Jeremy has insightfully articulated the error made by the far right as it adopted bullying and manipulative politics to force its interpretations on everyone who disagreed. Progressives have adopted starfish organizational practices mostly out of necessity due to their fundamental discomfort with bullying tactics. The UMC going forward desperately needs to adopt (even where constitutional amendments will be required) a structure that is much more starfishy than what we have now. Otherwise, we will just be setting ourselves up for another structural crisis a couple generations down to road.
While I agree with you that full inclusion of all people is critical to the future of the Church, we have to be more than just pro full-inclusion. What will our Gospel be to the world in the future? How will the local church change given the challenges and how will we resource them going forward? There are a lot of unknowns in the Starfish model that need to be addressed.
I think the UMC should simplify its Global Discipline and allow Jurisdictions and national conferences to make their own social priorities. The Bible has four gospel traditions that are distinct and the Churches Paul supported were all radically different from each other. The thing that held all of these diverse communities together? Christ. We need to get back to putting our focus here and not on culture wars.
All this being said, I intend on staying home in the UMC.
The Christmas Covenant proposal is exactly what you propose. So it is in the works.
First, “Methodism 2.0” did not “outlast” the spider. The spider’s DNA doomed it to incapacity. It simply did not have the ability to ward off the viral attack and now survives thus enfeebled. So, while “successful” (another pyrrhic victory perhaps), “Methodism 2.0” has destroyed “United” Methodism as a denomination, replacing it with what? A loosely affiliated confederation of churches united only by the common works they do/choose to participate in? The #BeUMC’ers and others say we still have doctrinal standards etc. that we stand on since they “can’t” be changed. But so what? The starfish model says just live like they don’t apply. The spider has no sting. Methodism 2.0 has thus planted the seeds of perpetual anarchy. Oh, there’s joy now around “LGBTQ+ inclusion” but just wait. How can it be otherwise? You note “United Methodism will always be a spiderlike organization, but the energy to transform it now has a starfish apparatus in place.” By that logic insurrectionists of whatever flavor should be the ones celebrating. Haven’t gotten your way yet, don’t worry, just stay and follow the “starfish” playbook. Why not? You say that the future will be about “spider v. starfish power” so let loose the dogs of war. “Methodism 2.0” illuminated the spider’s inherent weaknesses, so let’s finish it off. In the current case (human sexuality) where the threshold to disaffiliate is not met (member % or $$) a majority remain who can/should follow the starfish playbook and continue as if nothing has changed. Going forward what’s next? Don’t like “it” (whatever “United” Methodism decides “it” is) just ignore it. How will “Methodism 2.0” react? I think we all know the answer: the starfish will act like a spider. I think it’s time for all those unable to disaffiliate to stay put, become starfish, and continue the fight.
The UMC 2.0 is following the Episcopal Church, PCUSA, and ELCA into oblivion but with enough delay to see it happen to the others. Those so inclined should celebrate now over the rubble while they can. The Episcopal Church saw the same celebrations about 30 years ago. So long and thanks for all the fish.
Exactly. The proof is in the numbers: https://youtu.be/YrcQNzr36KU
Why people continue following this delusional, demonic, modern day prophet of Baal & Molech masquerading as a follower of Christ is beyond baffling!
You out Jeremied Jeremy. Well done.
John D Copenhaver
Thanks, Jeremy, you give me hope! Let’s hope there is no retreat on full inclusion. We need the energy, witness, and courage that LGBTQ+ folks bring to the table.
Well said, Jeremy – I’ve been searching for a way to explain this all to my non-Methodist friends!
Love it. Thank you, Bishop Talbert. Thank you RMN, thank you, Jeremy. Exciting times for our denomination. Feeling so hopeful. I had the privilege of meeting and hearing Bishop Talbert read his “Biblical Obedience” declaration. Thank you for writing this piece!
Interesting read Jeremy. I do know that in my conference which is the often demonized Texas AC, many churches who have either gone independent or joined the GMC, feel free to move forward without the shackles of the leadership that is present in the UMC. I am not saying that is the correct move, just expressing what my friends and colleagues have told me.
So, I wonder if the pivoting to the GMC might also be a movement from the bottom up as you say. By far the majority of churches making this change were small county churches or in cities that are relatively small. It will be interesting to see how it all works out. I will simply pray that Kingdom Building will grow even though the differences are many between the two groups.
It is hard. There is anger and grief. Yet, this elder in the Texas Conference also senses a renewal underway. I just happen to appreciate the work of both groups without casting judgment on either.
This right here. The guise of anti-LGBTQ+ inclusion is a mask for decentralization of the UMC’s leadership. Disenfranchised, long-time members of the local church have felt that the leadership has left them behind. In some ways, they have. The power to get the money and votes needed for disaffiliation has always been on this, and other contributing factors such as social progressivism and perceived movements towards universalism by bishops, seminary professors and local pastors. This isn’t just one thing.
Linda A Richard
Jeremy it is obvious that you are in the Western Jurisdiction. Let me assure you that things look very different in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference. While we elected progressive Delegates to the 2020 General Conference, the fact that that group has yet to meet dampens their effectiveness. Your Conference and Oregon Idaho have had no disaffiliations. We have a lot of conservative Congregations at least exploring that possibility. And several of our largest Congregations have either already disaffiliated or are moving in that direction. Our Bishop couldn’t be more gracious to folks on both sides: but he will uphold the prohibitions of the 2026-19 BOD. I do not see Methodism 2.0 here. We may be a 1.5, but far from a 2.0. And the shortage of clergy makes appointments really difficult. If the church my husband serves goes disaffiliation, he will retire and they will be short one more. All of this is to say for many of us Methodism in 2023 looks very different than it does in the PNW Conference.
thank you for the information
Jeremy, thank you for your writing. I’ve appreciated it very much, this one in particular. I have been an advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people for over 45 years. I’ve been so hopeful so many times and so devastated when the hope didn’t materialize, and in fact was (seemingly) gleefully dashed time and time again. It has been hard to stay UM during these years. I was so excited to hear the proclamation of the 2000 Western Jurisdiction Conference in Casper that we drove up there from Denver just to be with these folks who were proclaiming their commitment to living inclusion. And this was after the awful 2000 GC in Cleveland where we were called names on the Conference floor. Anyway, thank you for your writing. I grieve the UMs who won’t be in relationship with us LGBTQ+ Christians because of their misunderstanding of the Gospel and other scripture, to say nothing of the new understandings of science about sexuality and gender. I do think we’ll figure out a way over the next years to be a more diverse church worldwide and still do the Gospel in a hurting world. Blessings, Ben