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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