United Methodism has been through a long, bleak season; when will the news cycles start getting brighter?
The Bleak Midwinter
I lit a candle in my home for the first time in a long while. I’ve had a cold this week and wasn’t able to smell much, so candles didn’t make much sense. But when I lit one today after that season passed, the warmth and aroma drew me out of the muted celluloid existence.
For Christians this week, the Longest Night service is much the same. Set at the winter solstice (December 21st), the “Blue Christmas” service offers space for those for whom the holidays are not happy, either every year or especially this year. My local church began their lay-led service with these words:
Where do we find ourselves as we gather this night? It seems in the midst of what Joanna Macy calls “The Great Unraveling.” We have emerged from the pandemic (remember that?) only to find ourselves in a downward slide into authoritarianism across the globe. The fires of structural racism are perhaps quelled for the moment, while the fires of climate crisis continue to build toward conflagration faster than any of us expected. All of this, a backdrop for our own personal losses and griefs, which feel perhaps sharper and deeper because of this profoundly unsettling context…
We continue to live in difficult days, and it is hard to know how to respond. So we start by doing what humans have always done to make it through the deepening darkness: we gather together, we light a fire, we share our fear and pain, and we share our love and hope.
The Longest Night allows us space and community to reflect on the bleakness of the season, in the hope that huddled together we’ll be better off when the warmth of the changing season hits our face again.
The UMC’s Longest Night
It has felt like an extended Longest Night for The United Methodist Church.
For much of the news cycles of 2021-2023, the focus has not been on United Methodism’s structural successes, their enduring presence through UMCOR global relief efforts, the successful rebranding of United Women in Faith, the Archives and History’s General Secretary sharing a John Wesley Bobblehead with the Pope, the generous giving trends that defied expectations, and the daily beautiful stories of local ministries and missions.
Rather, the manufactured focus has been on the disaffiliation separatists that has splintered off ~29% of the churches in America (well short of the 40% the organizers projected, but still higher than the optimists hoped). Yes, there are heartfelt stories of loss like my friend and former colleague who left United Methodism in Oklahoma, but they are drowned out by the crowing by the renewal groups responsible for the mechanics of the separatist movement and the shameless disinformation campaigns that fooled dozens of churches into leaving prematurely.
So we find ourselves, again, stuck in the Longest Night that seems keep going past December 21st. Two forces are working together to extend this season:
- secular society licking their lips at religion’s demise, and
- fervently anti-queer forces seeking to keep United Methodism in the bleakness.
The latter can accomplish this through defeating legislative efforts to revitalize the UMC at our General Conference at the end of April 2024.
But those forces aren’t in charge of the seasons, and they aren’t where we place our hope for United Methodism. Our hope is placed on God through Jesus Christ, and the seasons are about to turn.
Addition by Subtraction
I know you are used to me giving stats and figures and analysis, but the research will only be finalized when 2023 ends and the disaffiliation door closes. It’s coming.
But the basic good news is that, for the first time since the 1960s, we have broad regional alignment across United Methodism. Those who saw United Methodism as something it wasn’t meant to be (a congregational viciously anti-queer church where white men could command without accountability) have largely exited from the echelons of power. The new leaders have brought in unexpected people, a full-throated progressive and centrist slate of bishops, and broader regional alignment of who United Methodism is meant to be for their context…which doesn’t mean replicating what the Southern Baptists are doing anymore.
United Methodists know in their local church that “church math” has often been addition (of new people and places) by subtraction (of the unrepentant toxic members). We’ll have to see if that works on the conference level, but reports from strongly-affected conferences have been encouraging amidst the difficulties.
Keeping us in the Trenches
The question remains whether that broad alignment in the USA will translate to inclusive and missional legislative goals at the worldwide General Conference 2024, where the burden for some efforts is 67% of the vote. With the exit of most disaffiliating persons from leadership, and the replacement of them by inclusive and centrist voices, we’ve already seen by the roster of progressive bishops elected that this group has voting power for new things. There’s a lot of excitement and organizing behind the scenes, but we are in a new place and no one knows exactly what will happen at the end of April 2024, whether the local and regional alignment on mission will translate to a structure suitable for a worldwide church.
Make no mistake: even though the disaffiliation movement have squandered their decades-long majority to create their own denomination, they still want to keep us in the bleak. Groups inside the UMC continue to coordinate with groups outside the UMC to stop any inclusive and missional changes to our governance and to enshrine congregationalism forever, to keep us in the Longest Night and subject to the paralyzing fears of further disaffiliations. It has been their playbook for decades to withhold apportionments even when they were in the majority because fear kept the systems in line.
We don’t know yet if the new United Methodism will be able to recognize this fear and deny its power, trusting instead in the movement of the Holy Spirit to take us where we don’t know to go.
Doing More with Less…and More
Psalm 115:12 reminds us that God will bless “the lesser with the great” and size is not indicative of the approval of the Holy Spirit. This is good news for United Methodism because the largest regions of our denomination have been hit the hardest by disaffiliations, and the finance and enthusiasm gap has been uneven.
Wespath recently released that some conferences have lost more than 50% of their churches (NW Texas, Texas, North Alabama, and South Georgia). Even conferences that lost far fewer numbers of churches may have lost large churches that carry the lion’s share of annual apportionments (ie. Mississippi rocketed over 50% lost apportionments in this final round). The disaffiliation payouts will sustain for a year or two—if managed wisely—for some conferences, but most conferences were controlled by disaffiliating forces anyway and secured favorable exits to pay only pennies on the dollar.
It is here that I hope formerly massive conferences are looking to smaller conferences for how to sustain themselves. I’m in a small conference in the northwest, and we do amazing ministry with much, much less conference staff and resources. While we have our faults and failures, the ones we have are needed and must be effective, and unlike the Southern conferences, a conference position is not a cushy post for white men coasting to retirement age, paid for by everyone’s apportionment dollars.
Small conferences and smaller General Agencies/Commissions have managed to do more with less for decades, so there are lessons there. But this is also a season for new investments that are now supportable due to stronger alignment, and the smallest conferences and agencies may actually need to increase their budget to be brought up to a new parity. It will be a new experience for large conferences and large Agencies that have budgets cut and hard decisions ahead, but United Methodism has endured and thrived for generations, and will continue to do so, by the Holy Spirit.
A Church Without Fear
The Longest Night is about fear. It’s about making space for that fear and pain that comes from fear. Once the day has passed, that fear hasn’t gone, but it is transformed in community.
A documentary coming out later this year will include one of the first United Methodist churches that joined the Reconciling Ministries movement. The story I heard during the filming was the church held their vote amidst very loud dissenters who said they would leave and take their money with them if the church became inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons. The church voted to join, and those members walked out the door. In that moment of visible disaffiliation, raw and personal, the lay leader stood up and said (paraphrased from memory)
“Our fear has been that we would lose members if we became inclusive. We have lost them. We have experienced exactly what we feared. Now, we can be a church without fear because that fear is in the past and we can move forward in hope.
My hope for United Methodism is that we recognize and sit with that fear, but we turn our attention and hope not to what we have lost, but to how to integrate that sense of loss with a newfound sense of regional alignment and purpose that snatches new life from the death flails of the interregnum, and that fear can be in the past and we move forward with hope.
When is the defining moment with the bleakness ending and the bright coming? I’m not sure. But I’m hopeful the days get increasingly brighter going forward.
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