The “None-Church Plan” of the UMC

I was invited this past weekend to a meeting that alleged that it was a gathering of theologically diverse opinions on the practice of homosexuality in relation to The United Methodist Church. We made declarations that the press would not be invited and that our discussions would be kept private. I even turned down an interview by the United Methodist News Service though someone had evidently already ratted me out as holding a certain opinion. It should have been little surprise that yesterday I saw a news article that had a multitude of folks from the same meeting sharing their opinions, all of which were different than mine.

I find it very disingenuous when progressives invite a few token traditionalists to their meeting. I was not going to fall into the trap of being provoked to speak up in opposition. That would have only led to more demonization of the traditional perspective and victimization of those on the left whom I genuinely count as persons of sacred worth and many as friends. Those who really know me are certain of my integrity and love for the UMC. The final straw came out yesterday evening when I was informed that some people who went from the meeting in Nashville to the Uniting Methodists meeting in Dallas reported that the Nashville meeting was unanimous in its support of the One Church Model.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Bear in mind that this was decidedly a progressive group. When asked to vote by secret ballot 10 persons said they were 100% all-in in One Church Plan (OCP) support; 26 voted that they would support it, but it’s not perfect; 15 voted “Yes, with reservations;” 3 said “Yes, only if changes are made;” and 2, including me, voted “I’m not in favor.” A progressive bishop presented his pitch for the OCP and said that there were problems with the OCP, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditionalist Plan., but when pressed by questions about what he liked about each, he could not name anything he liked about any plan except the OCP. He couldn’t name anything wrong with it either.

What does this narrative say about so-called unanimity and the hard-press sell by members of the Council of Bishops? First, there was no unanimity. There were people on the left and the right who oppose the OCP because it is either seen as a further slap in the face to progressives who want more extensive full inclusion of gays and their allies, or it was a slap in traditionalist’s faces because it is ruinous to our ecclesiology and Biblical hermeneutic. Only 10 people out of 55 were “all-in.”

So we have bishops who are disregarding the promises made in the Council to stay out of the fray of support or non-support. It seems that the only bishops holding to their promises are the conservative ones. The bishop who spoke to us also gave some telling numbers of the vote on the plans at the Council of Bishops (COB). He stated that 58% of the COB wanted to support just one plan, not three. When that was decided he said 60% voted for the One Church Plan. I thank God for the 40% especially since I thought via news media or word of mouth that the number of progressives was much higher. Then he reported that after the OCP was made the main plan, 90% of the COB wanted the OCP plus the other two plans presented. The obvious conclusion is that there is not unanimity in the COB.

I do worry, however, that whomever decides the presiding bishops for the Special Session of General Conference can find someone genuinely unbiased enough to adequately preside. I hate to think such a thought, but given the propaganda machine out of the COB for the One Church Plan, it makes me wonder. The bishop that presented to us in Nashville even suggested strategies to get the One Church Plan passed. I am grateful that the Judicial Council basically forced the COB to refer the whole matter back to the Commission on a Way Forward instead of it coming straight from the COB. There is no way by Judicial Council precedent that the COB could refer anything straight to the General Conference without violating the “separation of powers” that exists in our ecclesiology.

The subject of ecclesiology and the One Church Plan weigh heavily on my opposition to it. We are a connectional polity. That’s our means of governance. Local churches don’t call their preachers because we are a “sent ministry.” So stay awake when progressives want to say that yielding on the issue of homosexual practice won’t hurt us because it didn’t hurt the Presbyterians, Lutherans, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and Cooperative Baptists. Well, we do things differently than all of those. Every one of them in some fashion or another call their own pastor. That’s not who we are. If the One Church Plan passes then we will run down the road toward congregationalism where every church decides who they want for their clergy. Who will lose? My daughter, who is a UM Elder, for one. Churches that still want the proverbial white male in their 30’s with 3 children with an impossible 30 years of experience are often unwilling to have a female pastor or person of color even if they are much more qualified. Congregationalism will destroy our unique “sent ministry.” By the way, the Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans, PCUSA Presbyterians, and all the rest who have loosened their stance on homosexuality have lost an average 30% of their membership in just a few years. So much for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ.

So the One Church Plan sends us down an awful precipice where everyone decides their own prerogative on same sex behaviors and marriage and would necessitate local church votes, annual conference votes, and individual clergy decisions on whether they can perform same-sex unions, allow their churches to do the same, and if bishops can’t in good conscience ordain, commission, or license someone who is self-avowed and practicing then another bishop who is willing to do it must be brought in. This all smacks of confusion and not connectionalism. For all you Judicial Council readers like me, look at Judicial Decision 544 which says this as it pertains to same sex unions and behaviors in relation to our ecclesiology, clergy standards and appointments:

“Although the paragraph under consideration relates to homosexuality, the question presently before the Judicial Council is not restricted to that particular issue. The matter before this body is one of the connectional system within The United Methodist Church and the relationship of the ministry to both the General and Annual Conferences. The Constitution, Par. 15, gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36, to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement.”

Every African and whomever else has been falsely promised that this One Church Plan won’t affect them needs to know that it does! We are not a diocesan polity where each area does its own thing. Do you want to be part of a denomination where Christian faithfulness, money, resources, and reputation are linked to that which God, the overwhelming majority of Christendom and the General Conference have declared incompatible with Christian teaching?

Our connectional polity brands how we’re different from other denominations, and why we need more uniformity in our minimum credentialing standards. How in the world will bishops and cabinets decide which clergy fit with which church if the standards are all over the place? The One Church Plan is the most deceitful title of any plan I know. Instead of unity of the church, it fragments it even more. Rather than promoting unity, it reduces The United Methodist Church to a shell of what we’re meant to be in making disciples.

Certainly, there are many things incompatible with Christian teaching, and I often feel the dishonesty and pain of singling out just one thing. I am sorry for my sisters and brothers who have experienced harm over this issue. However, I have been harmed, too. The whole denomination has been harmed by the religious terrorists that have co-opted sessions of General Conference, the Connectional Table, and lots of other church venues with their protests. We have been sidetracked, distracted, and harmed as a denomination. One leader this past weekend offered a telling statement, “Everyone’s truth is the truth.” No, it isn’t. Jesus said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.” The bishop presenting the OCP this weekend said the Traditional Plan is “un-Biblical” even though it represents the orthodox Christian plan of the worldwide church.

And, God did have something to say about marriage, as evidenced in the complementarity of Genesis 1 and Romans 1. God wants us male and female in relationship because that partnership best defines the Biblical plan for human interaction. Jesus said in Matthew 19:5-6 and Mark 10:7-9, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The same words are repeated in Genesis 2:24! The issue, therefore, of homosexual practice is a bell-weather issue about the authority of Scripture, the nature of humankind, the doctrine of sin, and much more. If everyone’s truth is the truth then why did Jesus need to die on a cross? On women’s leadership in the church and on questions of race there is clear evidence in Scripture that supports women’s ordination and the fact that God calls people of every nation and race. In the case of homosexual practice, the Bible consistently denies its validity. As Wesleyans we believe in Sanctifying Grace; i.e., that God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

So, I’m not giving up on the UMC, but we need to be ready for 2019’s Special Session of General Conference. Traditional delegates from the US, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines must not compromise and pass the so-called One Church Plan. Enough is enough! The “progressive” tactic isn’t new. This will be my 7th General Conference. I’ve seen this all before. For instance, the 32 constitutional amendments of 2008 were an attempt to separate us into theologically diverse regions and those amendments overwhelmingly failed. The Connectional Table’s Local Option Plan didn’t even make it out of committee in 2016. By a mere 23 vote margin the Commission on a Way Forward was created and it has been dominated by bishops under a cloud of secrecy.

The preferred One Church Plan is not a way forward. It will do more harm than good. With thanks to the faithful members of Commission and the 40% of the bishops who value our ecclesiology and the Gospel over expediency and yielding to culture, I have to still say without any equivocation: “Vote the One Church Plan down!” It is really the “None Church Plan.”

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Scripture, Me and the UMC

The interpretation of Scripture is at the heart of many of our societal and denominational woes. As much as I enjoyed A.J. Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically, and its experiment of Jacobs trying to follow the Bible verbatim with resulting hilarity at times, I am disturbed by our culture and church’s extremely low view of Scripture. With as much information as we possess, we are terribly ignorant of God’s Word.

I even need a fresh start. We all do, so I’m going to buy a new Bible. Thirteen years ago I bought 3 identical Bibles so that they could be interchangeable with the same translation, format, print size and font. I wish that I had bought 5 or more. It’s time to replace these tattered and well-worn treasures with my illegibly scribbled notes obscuring the printed words. I hit Amazon a few minutes ago to see if I could purchase my favorite and was shocked at the prices.

My Bible of preference is published by Oxford University Press, New International Version, single-column, and no red letters for the words of Jesus. The words of Jesus are important, but if we believe, like Paul, (2 Timothy 3:16) that ALL Scripture is God-breathed and inspired then I don’t want to have red-letter highlights that distract me from the whole message.

Speaking of The Message, the Bible paraphrase by Eugene Peterson, it is easy to understand its popularity. It sounds cool, hip, up-to-date, but I prefer a translation over someone else’s paraphrase any day. There’s a big difference between interpretation and translation. I had 2 semesters of classical Greek at USC, 3 more years of NT Greek in seminary, plus 3 years of Hebrew. I like languages, have a knack for them. In college, I minored in French and took two semesters of German so I could pass the German Reading Test to get into grad school. French and German haven’t been that practical, although I pull out my French Bible once and awhile. Spanish would have been much better! Greek and Hebrew have been invaluable!

A good translation, therefore, is important to me. None are perfect. All have some bias, but they at least address the latest textual and linguistic discoveries when offering us a fresh translation. Some are downright unbearable to me. I was asked a few years ago to review the CEB (Common English Bible). That didn’t go well. I couldn’t get over their switch of Jesus being called the “Son of Man” to “The Human One.” The Human One – give me a break! The New Revised Standard Version is good, albeit, more politically correct in places as it stretches the meaning of the actual Greek or Hebrew. Just an opinion. The New International Version does a better job of translation and doesn’t shy away from textual variants when it offers, for instance, that the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT, might have a different word in a certain text.

One of my personal tests of a translation’s quality is to look up certain texts. A key one is Revelation 2:23b, “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds…” which actually in Greek is Νεφροὺς καὶ καρδίας, “kidneys and hearts.” In the King James Version it reads “reins and hearts.” When I think of reins, I think of reins on a horse, when the word actually means “kidneys” as in renal failure. The actual meaning in Greek thinking is that your soft parts á la kidneys/belly is the seat of emotions as in “belly laugh,” “butterflies in one’s stomach,” or “punched in the gut” with a sudden death. The heart was thought of as doing our thinking. So the text should appropriately be translated, “I am he who searches your thinking and your feeling…” Therefore, I may not like the KJV’s rendition of Revelation 2:23 and its use of “reins,” but I do like the King James’ poetic rendition of the 23rd Psalm.

Why is any of this important? The subject of Holy Writ, the Bible, Scripture, and inspiration versus infallibility is terribly important these days as people of every denomination determine their position on hot-button issues. What does the Scripture say about homosexuality? What do “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai” really mean? Did Jesus talk about same-sex marriage? Are same-sex relationships condoned or condemned in Scripture? Bottom line, how far does our Biblical hermeneutics (methods of literary interpretation) allow us to pull a Thomas Jeffersonian Jesus Seminar-like cut and paste of what God’s Word contains? Is the Bible God’s Word or just contains the words of God?

Adam Hamilton, well-respected UM pastor and author, does not impress me with his attitude toward Scripture. I appreciate him, but his notion that there are “three buckets of Scripture” is past the point of orthodoxy in my opinion. His book Making Sense of Scripture contends that one bucket of Scripture contains “Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.” Bucket two, he says, contains, “Scripture that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.” He describes his last bucket as containing, “Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

That statement is beyond my personal ability to comprehend so I am not going to waste my words undoing his undermining of the Word. Rather, I will take heart in what the UMC’s Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith say. Article V of the “Articles of Religion” says that “Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not required…” Article IV of the Confession of Faith says similarly, “The Holy Bible… reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for salvation.” Further it is the “true rule and guide for faith and practice…”

I think that these statements of the UMC promote a high view of Scripture that does not leave room for separate buckets that diminish the ability of the Bible to speak accurately and completely to both salvation and current issues. To use Hamilton’s words that there are, “Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God,” is very contrary to Scripture’s own self-declaration and to the God who inspired it all.

Anyway, I’m going to read on and pray for the Holy Spirit to open my mind and heart (thinking and feeling), to God’s message to me today. I need it, and I don’t need a personal veto to muddy the water! There’s enough there that I fully understand to keep me from tripping over the parts that I can’t.

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Family Systems and the UMC

Family Systems Theory is fascinating, especially when I think of our United Methodist denominational situation. A couple brings in a 14 year old to see the counselor because the teenager is thought to be the family’s problem. The counselor knows that the teenager is the “identified patient,” and everyone in the whole system has issues. It’s just like a mobile over a baby’s crib when one piece is hanging lower than the others and out of sync. It’s not just a problem with one piece. The whole mobile is unbalanced.

The counselor defocuses attention from the identified patient and looks at the whole family system. In detective-like probing, the counselor determines who is the strongest person in the system and coaches, twins, or otherwise nudges that person to change. When that happens, the inter-locking triangles that have been targeting the teenager as the system’s “dumping ground” begin to fall, tension is defused, and the system resets.

In the UMC, we’re organized as a triangle with General Conference, The Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. A triangle might be the most stable structure on the planet á la the Pyramids, but triangulation can cause terrible problems in families and organizations. There’s usually an issue about which two corners of the triangle don’t agree, but they’re afraid of speaking directly to each.  They don’t want to risk total ruin of their relationship so they pull in a third corner and both other corners try to get that corner to pick their side of the argument. The third corner, either due to the way the organization/family/denomination is formed and/or due to well-meaning but harmful co-dependency, seeks to alleviate the stress exhibited by the other two corners and ends up being the relief valve and victim of the other two corners’ tension. They become the dumping ground, and pulled both ways.

In the UMC, we spread the stress around all three corners and swap off dumping grounds pretty fluidly. At first I thought the Judicial Council was absolutely wrong in deferring the decisions about Karen Oliveto, but now I think it is actually healthy. Family System theorists suggest that, in order for us to get out of being the dumping ground in a triangle, we need to do two things: defect in place which means to stay in relationship with the other two corners of the triangle, but not become too enmeshed or helpful; and have a non-anxious presence that self-differentiates without taking on the tension and dysfunction of the unbalanced system.

This sounds like what the Judicial Council is doing. The whole denomination has a choice to add fuel to the fire or let the process work. The Judicial Council has stated that they see the Oliveto case as hugely important. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops asked that they expedite their ruling and give less than the usual time for briefs, pro and con, to be filed. Now instead of dealing with it on their October docket, it will be addressed next May. Instead of criticizing, I think this is great leadership.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman who wrote the seminal work on Family Systems theory, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, also wrote a telling book about what we are witnessing both in the Judicial Council’s deferral and the creation of the Council of Bishop’s “A Way Forward Commission.” His book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, actually defends what some, including me, have called “kicking the can down the road.” According to Family Systems Theory, the Judicial Council and the COB have given us appropriate and helpful time to pause, reflect, have non-anxious presence, and defect in place. The question is, “Will we?”

The cycle of ecclesial attacks and reprisals need to end so that we can have a denominational reset. Our local churches and clergy, plus general agencies and bishops need calm so that the best clear thinking will prevail. Let’s let go of the tension and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. There’s a better chance that we will end up where we need to be if we lay down our swords. This will not sit well with people in two corners of the triangle (Progressive or Conservative), but we all need to chill out, take a breath and quit being distracted away from our primary mission to make disciples.

I’m not saying that we should be false prophets who proclaim peace when there is none, but let’s preach Jesus Christ as Lord while this is all sorted out. I’m sure there will be people, including me, who will still discuss, attend events, strategize, and ponder next steps, but we need to let the tension in the system escape, not by scape-goating, but by valuing one another for the common good. What difference does it make if I’m right if the cycle of tumult continues?

A wise man once said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” The following Jewish folktale reminds me that if peace is to be experienced, someone must stop the cycle of anger and retribution:

“The otter rushed in to see the king crying, ‘My lord, you are a man who loves justice and rules fairly. You have established peace among all your creatures, and yet there is no peace.’ ‘Who has broken the peace?’ asked the king. ‘The Weasel!’ cried the Otter. ‘I dove into the water to hunt food for my children, leaving them in the care of the Weasel. While I was gone my children were killed. An eye for an eye, the Good Book says. I demand vengeance!’

The king sent for the Weasel who soon appeared before him. ‘You have been charged with the death of the Otter’s children. How do you plead?’ demanded the King. ‘Alas, my lord,’ wept the Weasel, ‘I am responsible for the death of the Otter’s children, though it was clearly an accident. As I heard the Woodpecker sound the danger alarm, I rushed to defend our land. In doing so I trampled the Otter’s children by accident.’ The king summoned the Woodpecker. ‘Is it true that you sounded the alarm with your mighty beak?’ inquired the king. ‘It is true, my lord,’ replied the Woodpecker. ‘I began the alarm when I spied the Scorpion sharpening his dagger.’

When the Scorpion appeared before the king, he was asked if he indeed had sharpened his dagger. ‘You understand that sharpening your dagger is an act of war?’ declared the king. ‘I understand,’ said the Scorpion, ‘but I prepared only because I observed the Turtle polishing its armor.’ In his defense the Turtle said, ‘I would not have polished my armor had I not seen the Crab preparing his sword.’ The Crab declared, ‘I saw the Lobster swinging its javelin.’

When the Lobster appeared before the king, he explained, ‘I began to swing my javelin when I saw the Otter swimming toward my children, ready to devour them.’ Turning to the Otter, the king announced, ‘You, not the Weasel, are the guilty party. The blood of your children is upon your own head. Whoever sows death shall reap it.’”

Are we willing to defect in place, have non-anxious presence, self-differentiate, and have enough patience to act as good leaders? I hope so. Our Wesleyan witness and the blessing of God is depending on us to get this right. If we were right yesterday, we will be right tomorrow, but the Gospel’s work today needs us to clear-headed and full of the Holy Spirit. We must all stop our vicious cycle of infighting for the sake of Christ and a lost and hurting world.

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Expanded Prayers for the UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s Clergy Session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference. Read the specifics of Judicial Decision 1321!

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women, a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference actions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case by setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of the Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC and is the voice of General Conference.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue. Our most urgent prayer in the timeline is to pray fervently for the Judicial Council.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

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The Un-tied Methodist Church

As most of you know, I wasn’t elected Bishop last week, and to let everyone know – I’m fine. I might not carry a shepherd’s crook like a Bishop does, but will always seek to carry a shepherd’s heart. I am so happy to remain as pastor of St. John’s, Aiken. What a wonderful church! Our future is bright as a congregation, and I am happy to still be on the journey with you.

The future is not so bright for our denomination. I love the United Methodist Church, too much to “go quietly into the night.” I’m talking about events in the Western Jurisdiction with its election of a person who self-proclaims that she is living in a relationship that’s not in agreement with our beliefs. I find this both schismatic and sad. Any hope of a special called session of General Conference to hear the findings of a Council of Bishops’ Study Commission about the complexities of balancing the practice of homosexuality with Scripture have been circumvented, if not completely derailed. While I was in Portland for this year’s General Conference, a person who is married to her partner, said to me, “We don’t have the votes to overturn the Book of Discipline, but we’re going to burn the house down as we leave.” Wow!

Though it is just as chargeable an offense to withhold apportionments as it is to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual, we’re at a tipping point when the actions of the Western Jurisdiction and the promoters of this way of thinking don’t care anymore. There are people whose ways of interpreting the Bible can justify anything, both left and right. I would rather be on the side of 95% of Christendom on this issue than not. We are a house divided. Some contend that they are doing God’s will, that they are keeping a higher covenant than ones made at their ordination. In my understanding, a covenant is a covenant, none higher or lower than another. We are at a place I hoped that I would never see, but I knew a day of reckoning would come.

We are paying for our past sins. When the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, The Methodist Episcopal Church (North), and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited in 1939 we built in a regionalism born of racism. We created the Central Jurisdiction to segregate African-Americans, and we created 5 other jurisdictions with semi-autonomous powers in matters like the election of bishops. The election of bishops had heretofore been under the purview of the General Conference. In 1939 we created a regionalistic protection against adverse influence by other jurisdictions. This was the last gasp of the “Lost Cause” of the South. We didn’t want those “_______ Yankees” telling us who to get along with or elect.

Now it’s appropriately coming back to haunt us. There are constitutional protections that allow each jurisdiction to elect whom it will, and Boards of Ordained Ministry, that are solely nominated by their respective bishops, as to whom they declare fit for ministry, subject to approval from the Clergy Session. The Western Jurisdiction has proven how far this built-in permissiveness can be manipulated. The “United” in Methodism has now become “untied.” It’s all in where one places the “i.”

I want us to remain a “we,” and constitutionally we are if we believe that the power of the General Conference supersedes all other lesser bodies, and has sole authority over all matters that are distinctively connectional (Par. 16). Therefore, I urge the Council of Bishops to act quickly and ask for a special session of General Conference to try and prevent schism. More than that, we must affirm Biblical obedience before it’s too late to escape the eternal consequences of our disobedience.

The Judicial Council must not wait until its fall docket to adjudicate the request for a declaratory decision by the South Central Jurisdiction on the election of self-avowed and practicing lesbian, Karen Oliveto, as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction. We either have a covenant, a Book of Discipline, or we don’t. There are those who sincerely feel that this action by the Western Jurisdiction and similar actions by others are God’s will and celebrate. They lump together Martin Luther’s disobedience to the Roman Catholic Church, John Wesley’s to the Anglican Church, and our own reversals of thoughts about women clergy and civil rights for people of color, but forget the non-violent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. By breaking covenant they have done harm to the whole United Methodist Connection. Violence and “burning the house down” is the way of the world, not Christ. Isn’t this really about a higher matter than winners and losers? Isn’t it really about our understanding of Scripture. Everyone gets to have an opinion, but not God, and I’m tired of it. I’ve read all the positions, heard it all, and I’m sick of the polarization and duplicitous actions that have moved us from being a “purple” denomination, and made us a polarized “red” and “blue” one.

I am not worried about St. John’s UMC. I am worried about The United Methodist Church as a whole. A true story keeps banging in my brain. When South Carolina still flew the Confederate flag over our Statehouse, there were many of us who were ashamed. My wife and I were two of those people. Somehow everyone didn’t get the message about our personal feelings on the subject, got confused, or whatever, and an individual gave us a framed print of the Statehouse dome with the US flag, the SC flag, and the Confederate flag still flying. Cindy took it back to the gift shop and said she wanted to return it. The lady there said they didn’t give refunds. Cindy replied, “I’m not asking for a refund. I just want to get rid of it.” The lady responded, “But you’re a Southerner. This is your heritage.” Cindy prophetically replied, “This is NOT my heritage. This is my history. History is something we’re supposed to learn from. Heritage is something you want to pass on to your children.”

For too long the history of 1939 and its regionalistic racism and barriers have held us in bondage to the past, and we haven’t learned from it. Our Wesleyan heritage of grace and holiness hasn’t been passed on well enough. Some would say that this is the fault of our seminaries and publishing house. I grew up in the wake of the “God is Dead” existentialist neo-orthodox anything goes era. Those days are back again, under a new guise, and it’s killing us.

We must now choose both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, not separating right belief from right action. We must value all humans, but not yield to the temptation to say that everything is good. God said everything was good before Adam and Eve’s Fall, not afterward. God has been trying to undo the consequences of sin ever since, supremely through Jesus.

Therefore, our divisive structures must be destroyed. We must be united in our covenant, or let those who want to disobey leave in peace. Having a single US conference doesn’t help at all. It trounces Wesley’s tenet that the world is our parish. In our global UMC, it would also tell the world that we believe western liberalism and its values are the 21st century’s version of colonialism. We must have a common Book of Discipline and form a “more perfect union” by letting go of a sinful history and forging a new way based on a common heritage. We must bow before Jesus and pledge allegiance to Him, humble ourselves, and repent. Let us learn from history and pass our Godly heritage on to our children, before it’s too late!

p12-UMResources-ChurchLaw

Guaranteed Appointments, Itinerancy, and Being Sent for Jesus

It’s Annual Conference time for most of us. Ministers are moving and churches are receiving new clergypersons. It’s a time fraught with anxiety. Clergy ask, “Will my children like the new place? Will my spouse find a good job? Will my call be fulfilled here or squelched?” Churches wonder such things, too. Will they like their new pastor, how many changes will there be in the order of service, and will the sermons and pastoral care be good? It’s a scary time in an itinerant system. However, John Wesley said, “Itinerancy was the apostolic plan for evangelization.” He thought literal movement of preachers helped Methodism stay a vital spiritual movement. Here’s the current rub: We expect elders to itinerate and whole families to pick up and move, but now we’re not going to promise a place to serve. At first glance this doesn’t seem fair, but we are all concerned about denominational decline and wonder if higher accountability will increase clergy and church fruitfulness. Tongue-in-cheek, it has struck me that we might have a better chance at revival if we left the preachers where they are and moved all the people. Just a thought, ha!

Regardless, General Conference 2012’s action to delete “guaranteed appointments” has made our whole system more anxious. My prediction is that the Judicial Council will rule the legislation unconstitutional because it allows each Annual Conference to be the arbiter of what the word “Ineffective” or “Effective” means. That strikes me as an abrogation of the GC’s authority “over all matters distinctively connectional… and to define the powers and duties of elders” (Par. 16, 2008 BOD). Sure, the Annual Conference is constitutionally the “fundamental” (Par. 11) and “basic” (Par. 33) body of the United Methodist Church, but the Annual Conference cannot subtract from the basic ministerial credentialing standards of the Book of Discipline: BOD Par. 304.5 and Judicial Decision 536 (www.umc.org). It seems to me that each Annual Conference’s interpretation and definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness” allows the Annual Conference to trump the powers reserved to the General Conference and lessen common standards of effectiveness.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for clergy excellence and an easier way to deal with clergy deemed unappointable, but I also remember being on the sexuality subcommittee at the 1996 General Conference where we had to define what “self-avowed practicing homosexual” meant. Committees on Investigation in Annual Conferences could not make their own interpretation or verify complaints until the GC defined the actual meaning of the phrase. We’re in a similar situation here. In a connectional church with transfers of clergy from here to yon, there needs be one definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness.” I wonder if that’s even possible given the subjectivity involved. As a District Superintendent I have to ponder the objectivity or subjectivity of negative letters and phone calls on a daily basis and respond accordingly. It’s no small task!

Ministry is no small task! It’s a high calling to be in ministry. We have the extraordinary blessing of being incarnational with people in their most significant life events. Of course there’s the challenge of being on call 24/7, but I have heard very few complaints from clergy who are sincerely answering God’s call. One issue, however, that I have heard about is housing. Most of our clergy still live in church-provided parsonages. The parsonage system for United Methodist clergy is intended to facilitate the movement of ministers from church to church without being encumbered by the distractions of buying, selling, or owning a house. It’s a fine system unless you have no clue where you’re going to live when you retire.

I’ve been thinking about ministry a lot lately. Only the Good Lord knows what will happen to us in the Bishop Election Process in July. Then there’s our daughter Narcie who is about to start her next appointment as a United Methodist elder in the Wesley Foundation Director position at the University of Florida in Gainesville. On top of that, Josh, our middle child, is about to receive his second appointment as an elder. He’s projected to be a new Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC. For the last 5 years he’s been the pastor of a two-point charge. He graduated from Clemson in engineering, and I was selfishly hoping his success in that field would help finance our retirement home. Now he and his family are trying to figure out where they will live because Shandon provides a housing allowance. It appears that itinerancy and a whole lot of moving may be in our personal forecast in the next several months. The operative word for all UM clergy is “may.”

Ministry is a strange life. It’s a wonderful life. After living in parsonages for 32 years, teaching United Methodist polity for a decade at Candler, and a DS for the last 6, I have found myself evaluating our way of being church. We are an Episcopal (Episkopos is Greek for “Bishop”) system of government tempered by conferences. In other words, we have Bishops that appoint ministers to their various fields of service, yet it is General Conference that authorizes Bishops for the task. Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry recommend persons to be licensed, commissioned, or ordained and the Clergy Session votes approval or not, then the Bishop acts. Both have to be in concert with one another. We conference all the way up from the local Charge Conference, District Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, to global church at General Conference. Then we receive and accept the clergy appointments made by the episcopacy. At the most local level, the 11-person Staff-Parish Relations Committee, once a year, advises the Bishop as to whether or not they think it’s time for a new clergyperson to come to their church, and once a year, pastors state whether or not they want to move.

Notice this is all advisory. The church may have its desires and agenda, but it’s also only advisory. Also note that clergy don’t get to say whether or not they’re willing to move. Willingness to move was assumed for me when I was ordained elder 32 years ago. I dare say that the same is pretty much true for anyone called to be a deacon or a local pastor. It’s part and parcel of being in ministry. Therefore, we take our appointments, yours and mine, “without reserve,” as our Book of Discipline puts it (Par. 333.1). We are a “sent” system, not a “call” system. Our system offers a means by which clergy and churches are matched and ministry is enhanced. If either the clergy or the congregation has any reservations or veto power then the whole system breaks down. So a lot of faith is necessary in this enterprise, not to mention, a lot of leadership and discipleship.

It’s a mark of our discipleship, whether we’re clergy or not, to go where we’re sent for Jesus everyday. By the way, if you ever wondered why some ministers wear a stole and others don’t, it’s all about whether they have been ordained. Ordination places one under the orders of God and the Bishop to go where they’re sent, like the reins on a horse. This whole discussion begs the question, “What would our discipleship look like if we all took our orders seriously, if God held the reins of our entire lives?” Brendan Manning gets at a good answer in his book, The Signature of Jesus, “Discipleship means living one day at a time as though Jesus were near: near in time, near in place, the witness of our motives, our speech, our behavior. As indeed he is.”

My prayer is that we will do everything possible to live into God’s preferred direction today – whether as clergy or laity. This will yield fruit for the Kingdom and give evidence of our faithful discipleship. In my mind, that’s effective itinerancy and might just enhance this “apostolic plan of evangelization!”

Truth or Consequences in the Church

I was driving into work this morning with a lot on my mind. A lot of my thinking was about this Friday’s deadline. Advisory Response Forms are due. They indicate what pastors and churches might be experiencing a move this year. This is that time of year when clergy and S/PPRC’s advise the Bishop and DS’ if they want a change in pastors or parishes. Everybody’s anxiety is way up and not in good ways. Some folks are freaking out because they don’t want their clergyperson to leave. Others are thinking they can’t leave soon enough and that goes for both laity and clergy. I have even mused over how interesting it would be if we moved all the church members and kept the clergy where they are! Would that be the best Call to Action ever? If Wesley believed itinerancy was “God’s apostolic plan of evangelization,” then wholesale itinerancy with the laity just might help us as a denomination! Ha, but interesting at least. Anyway, appointment-making season in the UMC is a time of high stress. One of my primary tasks is not to get reactive, and, as you can tell, I’m feeling it today.

 I did try to exhibit a non-anxious presence last Sunday. I worshipped in one of the Columbia District UMC’s, met with a Staff-Parish Committee having some issues with a clergyperson, and then led training for all clergy and their Staff-Parish Committees late into the afternoon. As usual there were people who came with semi-hidden agendas. This time of year makes it quite apparent that the good will of Christmas is long gone and United Methodists are feeling the nervous stirring of pastoral change. It would all go so much better if preacher and people would just be honest with each other along the way. Too often I’ve seen both sides skate over shortcomings until they hit a critical mass of general dissatisfaction from which there is no turning back. It is absolutely uncanny that December 1 was the deadline for pastoral evaluations and most all of them were absolutely glowing. Could things have changed that much in two months?

There are no perfect pastors and no perfect churches. If that were so we wouldn’t need Jesus, would we? A District Superintendent’s responsibilities are complicated and complex, a mixture of pastoral care and supervisory oversight. A huge challenge for all of us is how to create Christian community by speaking the truth in love. I find it quite ironic that we care enough to tell a perfect stranger who has miffed us exactly what we think and don’t do the same as Christians. There’s something wrong with that!

Sure, we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but we have to care enough to confront. My Dad had a great saying. He would say, “Son, Sometimes you have to hit the nail on the head, but be careful not to split the wood!” That’s our challenge isn’t it? We need to tell it like it is, but in a way that is helpful, not hurtful. I am challenged today to get this right for the Kingdom’s sake. I am praying fervently that the right clergy will be sent to the right churches. If I don’t have people tell me honestly what their needs are, whether they’re church members or pastors, then it isn’t going to happen. Consultation has to be honest and helpful!

The United Methodist Church – God’s Music Box

Epiphany season is the sacred season of miracles, the extension of grace beyond the confines of Judaism, and the celebration of God’s presence among all peoples. When we say that someone has had an epiphany we know that it means that they have had an “Aha!” moment. When was your latest epiphany? For a lot of us epiphanies have been few or non-existent in the year 2011 and we can’t wait to turn the page on a rough year.

Generalized fear and malaise has created what friend Dr. Tom Frank calls a “rhetoric of crisis” in our denomination. Sadly, this kind of panic is crossing all cultures, faiths, and political persuasions. Just this afternoon, no doubt to capitalize on the Mayan 2012 “End-of-the-World” predictions, the movie “Deep Impact” came on TV. At least there was some good theology with a spaceship named “Messiah” and people chosen to stay for 2 years underground in the “Ark.”

Unfortunately, fear mongering and empty promises are daily fare for folks in the church and culture. Just have a listen to political candidates. Who wins in the Iowa Caucus will probably be the one who panics people the most and at the same time offers the best panacea. Cough syrup for someone dying of lung cancer doesn’t get it done. The medicine has to match the malady, and that’s the problem with crying “Wolf!” without credibility and/or a proper solution.

With General Conference looming there are lots of people doing the “Iowa Thing,” as I’ll call it, in the church – bemoaning the future of the United Methodist Church while offering answers we already know are only half-measures. Removing “continued availability of appointment” AKA “Guaranteed Appointment” from the Book of Discipline may seem like an answer for underperforming clergy and the churches that have suffered through them, but what about how that changes our theology of prophetic proclamation. There surely need to be easier and quicker exit strategies for people whose gifts and graces are wanting or waning. However, I’m reminded of Edwin Friedman’s seminal work, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

The title says it all, doesn’t it? Quick fixes demand later fixes to correct unintended consequences.  I am not one to want to do the usual thing and set up another study committee to report to the next General Conference, but can’t we at least put theology before the financial cart concerning some issues? In the IOT/CT restructuring legislation, for instance, the qualifications of the 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry that will control the work of all the agencies of the UMC and nearly $2 Billion in assets says nothing at all about years of service to the church or theological background – only a litany of business skill sets.

Others whom I greatly respect have predicted a “death tsunami” that will exacerbate our rapid decline in church membership. Out of fear and/or faithfulness there are well-meaning people in the UMC who have called for such radical changes in the ways that we do ministry via itinerancy, connectional ministries, and ordination that our theological identity could be  muddied beyond recognition. This might be a good thing though.

We’re used to things being muddy in our Via Media (“Middle Way”) conjunctive faith history a la Dr. James Fowler and his Stages of Faith. So why not put ordination first and full conference membership last as the legislation asks? It will help our relationships with other Christian bodies, so it’s said. Ah! But there’s the rub: We’ve already failed at that since we can’t produce any proof of apostolic succession in UM ordinations anyway!

We were meant to be a movement not a domesticated legitimized institution, but I’ll keep listening, learning, and hoping that I’ll soon have an epiphany at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Tampa. I need more information. My mind isn’t made up on so many things. Do I panic or reach out to new possibilities with hope? I’m being pulled to and fro by the dissonant tunes of those who cannot separate doctrine from theology, the essential from the non-essential.

I can’t help but think of Friedrich Nietzsche, great doubter of the 19th century. He once wrote a letter to a friend disparaging dull and dead Christians: “If these Christians want me to believe in their god, they’ll have to sing better songs, they’ll have to look more like people who have been saved, and they’ll have to wear on their faces the joy of the beatitudes. I could only believe in a god who dances.”

What Nietzsche and maybe even more United Methodists have failed to realize is that God likes to dance. Better than that, Epiphany season is a reminder to those of us who are dull of mind and feet that God wishes to dance with us, especially as the discordant sounds of church squabbles rise! This is mostly metaphorical, to be sure, but the sheer truth is that God wants to dance a jig with us as partners, confused though we are. The key is that God has to lead so the cacophony turns into a symphony!

I sure can’t lead when it comes to music. I’ve never been very talented musically. Music enthralls me. It helps me worship. It inspires adoration. The problem is that I can hardly carry a tune. When I was preaching on TV for the 9 years prior to becoming a District Superintendent the folks in the video booth learned to turn off my microphone if there was any way my singing could be heard. I love to sing, loudly and with feeling, and it sounds fine to me, but others say it’s more like a joyful noise. Maybe more like a joyful train wreck, with wheels screeching.

The closest that I’ve been to good music is listening to good choirs, contemporary Christian musicians and bands, “Celtic Woman” on PBS, and the occasional live concert. As I was growing up we had an old Polyphon, a German music box that played large 19 inch diameter metal discs. You might say that it was the precursor to the record player or the juke box since it had a slot for a large cent on both sides of the wooden case. We would put on our favorite disc (mine was entitled, “The March of the Cameron Men”), and let the big sound of the music box fill the house.  It was marvelous.

As we approach a New Year, Epiphany season, and General Conference, I think God wants us to fill our lives just like the sound of that music box filled our house. God wants each of us to carry the sound of God’s love song to the world. That marvel would surpass any off-beat notes and screeches that you or I can make and whatever comes of what happens at General Conference. That sound will be music to the ears of a world that thinks we’re irrelevant. Don’t we believe that the church is of God and will endure to the end of the age? It might end up with a different name than the one we’re used to or have myriad theologies yet timeless doctrines. No matter what, this Epiphany season I want God’s music to flow from me, into me, and beyond me to the entire world so that “Aha!” moments might abound to the glory of God – dissonance turned to harmony.

I don’t want to let embarrassment or confusion stop me from dancing. I, therefore, need to get over my fearful “rhetoric of crisis” driven music-aversion and timidity, and just let it rip! There’s a heartbreaking scene in the film “Shall We Dance?” where a dance instructor working with a beginning student berates him in front of the class: “Stop. Control yourself. Stop slobbering like that. Your hands are dripping wet. You’re making me sick. There’s no way you’re becoming my partner.” The man is humiliated but courage rises enough so that he looks up to speak: “Do I really make you sick? Am I really that disgusting? Do I really look that bad?”

How would you feel if your dance instructor/partner looked at you with disgust? It might make you want to give it all up, but here’s the good news of Jesus’ Epiphany for us in 2012: God delights in dancing and singing with us, regardless of either our great skills or pronounced inabilities. The joy in the exercise isn’t in the precision of our steps or voices. It’s not in the exhilaration of being swept away by the moves or the music. The joy of the dance is in the delight of our partner’s eyes and our Partner is God. Epiphany season is a chance for you to sense the smiling eyes of God on your life. “Join in the tune. Dance with me,” says our God! Is this a positive way to envision what seems herky-jerky in our attempt to dance with God and each other in “Holy Conferencing” at General Conference? I pray so!

Polyphon Music Box

Women Clergy and “Stained Glass Ceiling”

I have been traveling for the last 3 months to all the churches in the Columbia district presiding over charge conferences. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, I continue to hear gender bias and the dreaded phrase, “Some of our people won’t accept a woman as their pastor.” The church has long caused clergywomen to hit the “stained glass ceiling” of serving smaller parishes with lower salaries. As a justice issue, we should all agree that equal work should result in equal pay. I have two children who are Elders in the United Methodist Church, one daughter and one son. Narcie and Josh are both unique and are great! Of course, I’m prejudiced, but let me tell you as objectively as I can that both are better preachers and leaders, pastors and teachers than a lot of the clergy that I know. My daughter should not get short shrift because of her gender! She is excellent and she’s working harder than most male clergy AND she has the prolonged anxiety of a brain tumor on top of everything else. When people talk about women clergy in a disparaging way I want to say, “Give me a break!”

The church hasn’t always been this way about women’s leadership in Chirstianity. In the early church, women earned positions of prominence. During Jesus’ life it was primarily the largesse of working or wealthy women that provided the support that Jesus and the disciples needed (Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:2-3). Women were the first to hear the news of the resurrection. Women were there at the prayer session in the Upper Room that led to the birth of the church at Pentecost. Phoebe was a Deacon in the church at Cenchrea that Paul greeted in Romans 16:1 and the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist prophesied/preached (Acts 21:8). And where would the church be without Mary, the mother of Christ? Paul sums up the equality of Christian community in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It was also Paul who reminded St. Timothy of the source of his faith, “which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice,” and, how “from infancy you have known the holy scriptures (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15).”

Therefore, if women were so indispensable at the beginning of the church, how can we imagine women being left out today? Unfortunately, the early church acceptance of women dissipated all too rapidly into an enculturated male-dominated entity. We have sadly experienced 2000 years of allowing the secular world shape the sacred. This is all the more reason to celebrate, rather than disparage the influence of women in the church. If it weren’t for the faith of my mother, grandmother, wonderful female Sunday School teachers and mentors (I never had a male teacher in grade school or at church), my faith would have either been nonexistent or desperately inadequate. Women are the core-supporters of many churches. United Methodist Women are invaluable as leaders in ministry and mission. I thank God for what they do in the Columbia District, the Annual Conference, and General church!

We need more women leaders (men, too, for that matter). Thank goodness the United Methodist Church has long supported the call of women into ordained ministry. Still, however, clergywomen are a minority and there are those who wish to keep it that way. Here’s my response to churches that don’t want a female pastor, “Get over it!”

Gender issues and discrimination should be a dead issue in every profession. We have made great strides, but there is room for growth. In 1888 there were only 5 laywomen and no clergywomen at the United Methodist General Conference. After approximately 90 years of almost no representation, in 1976 there were 10 clergywomen and 290 laywomen out of 1000 delegates at General Conference. In 1992, it was 81 clergywomen and 303 laywomen out of 1000. In 1996, it was 107 and 328 respectively. In 2000 the numbers were 112 clergywomen and 212 laywomen. In 2008, of the 996 delegates, 148 were clergywomen and 220 were laywomen. Forty percent of the total delegates were female.

The church certainly has more than 40% women despite the number of those elected. It seems that the gospel hasn’t caught up with us yet in the church. The secular world has laws and changing attitudes in its favor, but we have something even greater – God’s Spirit! The Church should be the leader, as it was in the beginning, in women’s rights!

United Methodist Pope and Problems of Consolidation

There has been much fanfare about the restructuring plan for the UMC that will be presented to the 2012 General Conference. I just had a conversation with someone who recently came back from a meeting with a general agency of the church where the plan was explained. We had a wonderful conversation about the history of the UMC and our polity as it relates to the proposed legislation.

I have to admit that I am personally involved in this process as both a member of the Connectional Table that approved the proposed new structure and as a member of the Legislative Writing Team that has composed it. Although I disagree with key sections I have been faithful in my responsibility to write good legislation with the hope that holy conferencing and the wisdom of General Conference 2012 will correct the troublesome parts.

A primary concern for me is that we are allowing a business model to dictate ecclesiology. I know we’re in terrible economic times but that doesn’t give us license to overturn our polity for the sake of saving money. Actually I think the money-saving is a smoke-screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops. Our polity is based on the separation of powers. Our two constitutional powers in the UMC are episcopacy and conferences. They must be held in perpetual tension and balance. Judicial Decisions as well as the 2008 Book of Discipline are clear in this matter. For instance, Judicial Decisions 689 and 1156 are important citations. There are more!

The Constitution clearly states that “The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church and shall have reserved to it the right to vote… on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members.” (Par. 36) The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. While the boundaries can become hazy in any particular situation, the preservation of the separation of powers must be observed.  (Judicial Decision 689, rendered in 1993)

The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. (Judicial Decision 1156, rendered in 2010)

In addition, Par. 140 of the 2008 Book of Discipline states, “Under the constitution and disciplinary procedures set forth in this Book of Discipline, “The United Methodist Church” as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office or location.” Par. 2509 of the same BOD says that we are a non-jural entity, that we cannot be sued as a denominational whole because we do not exist as a denomination! Rather, our polity has affirmed since our very existence that we are a movement, a group of separately incorporated mission outposts for the Kingdom of God!

Unfortunately, the IOT/CT proposals for restructuring will set up a 15-member CENTER for Connectional Mission and Ministry and have a set-aside Bishop as one of its members and perhaps its chair. This certainly overturns Par. 140 of the BOD by creating both an office/location and an officer! Another frightening thought is that this CENTER’s only oversight will come from a 45-member group (The General Council for Oversight and Strategy) that will meet just once a year. Its chair will be the same set-aside bishop who will either lead or be a member of the CENTER for Connectional Ministry and Mission. For legal and fiduciary protection this is a wrong-headed idea. Legal counsel has already observed that having a denominational CENTER and OFFICER leaves the denomination open for wholesale litigation possibilities. This is a streamlined business model to be sure and saves a ton of money by reducing the costs of separate boards and agencies having to send 565 people to meetings but the cost to our historic polity, balance of powers, and core value of diversity will be greater than any savings.

A 15-member CENTER can hardly be inclusive of all the voices of the UMC. If the purpose of the legislation is to make the denomination more nimble and connect it more closely with annual conferences and local churches then this widens the chasm in my opinion. Voices will not be at the table and will not be heard! Having a quasi-pope from the Council of Bishops may make business sense, but it violates our historic separation of powers. We are a spiritual movement that needs bishops who will be leaders but not with one set-aside bishop. We need ALL the bishops to be set-aside IN THEIR ANNUAL CONFERENCES! We all know how little time bishops actually spend time in their annual conferences. Where are the teaching days? Where is the personal contact and interaction across annual conferences and in local churches? If we want local churches to be mission outposts then bishops must see their primary duty as being in their episcopal areas. How about a promise not to spend more than 21 days outside the annual conference? How about a promise to spend teaching days with laity and clergy in every district at least twice a year? How about a promise to spend time in each district staying in homes getting to know people and scheduling time with every clergyperson in each district over a quadrennium or maybe even twice every four years? How about a promise to be in each charge over a quadrennium? All these things and more come to my mind as a way for United Methodism to regain some of its relevance. It will be possible through personal connections! Personal connections make United Methodist Connectionalism work!

The proposal coming to GC 2012 is out of touch with 21st century flat-world thinking, and bishops and leadership have to be in touch to be relevant! There are cost-savings with the proposal but more centralization into smaller less diverse entities does not offer the hope for change that I’m looking for. It changes us from a spiritual movement into a more bureaucratic quagmire than we already are. I say free  up our bishops to lead on the local level. Don’t vote for a constitutional change that would allow one of them to be set-aside for quasi-pope duty. Don’t vote to abrogate the power of General Conference to set budgets and let the Council of Bishops be able to do it between sessions of the GC. Would you want your pastor to have the authority to change your local church’s budget? Heaven’s “NO!” Our connectionalism works best when the distance between leadership and people is bridged not widened. Connectionalism works best and is more theologically sound when it is horizontal not top down. We have tried top-down and it doesn’t work. I know that I can’t say everything that I need to say in this space, but I wanted to put some food for thought on the table as people are gearing up for next year. May God be with us as we discern together!