Why is Methodism Splitting?

September 1, 2022

In 2022 thousands of United Methodists representing hundreds of churches have left their denomination and overseas the entire Bulgaria-Romania annual conference has departed and joined the newly formed Global Methodists Church. Still, if you were to ask the general church attender if my preceding sentence were true, they would probably say it was false.

There are many understandable reasons to not pay attention to what is happening at the denominational level. Yet, if you have not been paying attention you might be shocked about what is happening. Outside of Mark Tooley’s paywall blocked opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, and David Watson’s recent Firebrand article, I am not sure if I know of a succinct and clear summary.

Recently, I have had several people reaching out to me asking, “What has happened?” Here is my attempt to adding some clarity to the situation.

#1 We have had a breakdown in our ability to govern ourselves. 

You will hear that the realignment has to do with human sexuality and this is absolutely a presenting symptom. However, the governance of the church is the main underlying issue. We have had debates about the issue on human sexuality since the formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968. Yet, what we never had was a broken covenant to the extent we do now.

Tim Keller talked about this in his interview with New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof has this to say about essential Christian beliefs having boundaries:

If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.

Tim Keller

While Keller was talking about wider basic Christianity, the same applies to any denomination.

Scott Kisker in Firebrand Magazine elaborates on church order when discussing how Methodism is broken:

The issues around sexuality are serious. They are serious because no reasonable reading of the prophetic material in canonical Scripture can successfully tease out God’s demands for sexuality from God’s demands for economic justice, treatment of the alien, or idolatry. They are of a piece. But even bracketing sex for the moment, order has become chaos. And the question that hangs is whether, without order (as without word or sacrament) there is even a church.  

Scott Kisker in Firebrand Magazine

There needs to be agreed upon boundaries. While the United Methodist Church has these agreed upon in doctrine at the General Conference level, the practice of this doctrine and implementation has not remained consistent and led to trust issues.

#2a Trust Issues with Leadership. 

I first heard this principle from Andy Stanley: In the absence of information you have to decide to fill it with trust or suspicion. For years we have had trust broken among United Methodists. I can remember watching the 2019 general conference and hearing that if the church upheld their historic teaching it would be a virus on the denomination. At an annual conference session this summer, during a laity address, the lay leader called those in their conference wanting to uphold church order “gestapo.” Then the conference still published the video that remains up today. As someone whose family fought the axis powers in WWII this seems mildly inappropriate.

In the Florida Annual conference trust was broken with the board of ordained ministry when the board tried to provisionally commission people who did not meet the agreed upon conditions in the Book of Discipline. Charges have now been filed against the bishop and the board of ordained ministry.

There are even trust issues about when a General Conference could enact change. As one document encouraging United Methodists to abide because, “Nothing in the Discipline can change until January 1, 2025, when any actions of the 2024 General Conference take effect.” Yet, the United Methodist Church website points a caveat that the author original author omitted*, “…unless specified to take effect at the close of General Conference…”

For churches wanting to leave (more on the process below) this puts enormous pressure on them when pastors are not giving clarity. As progressive UM pastor Rev. Jeremy Smith says.

Given that votes must be taken at annual conferences, local churches that want to disaffiliate will need to start the process this year (2022), and meet the 2023 annual conference deadlines.

Rev. Jeremy Smith

Even for conferences trying to extend the terms of paragraph 2553 (see more below) it’s unlikely they would be able to see a possible 2024 general conference and have time to meet deadlines before their 2024 local annual conference.

The third postponement of the 2020 General Conference session was another moment of suspicion and frustration for many. It even caused one member on the committee for General Conference to resign. There is understandable suspicion if there will even be a 2024 general conference. Confusion abounds about the date for the conference and if it would be a conference with the 2020 delegations or if a new delegation is elected that would reflect the continued U.S. decline and non-Western growth that tends to be theologically conservative.

The episcopal elections in November of 2022 have caused trust issues. This is in contradiction to our rule that episcopal elections can not happen except following a session of general conference. There is some concern that no conservative friendly bishops will be elected. Rev. Jeremy Smith says that, “the electors of those bishops will be members of the 2019 progressive and centrist wave.”

#2b Trust Issues about Property

Did you know your local United Methodist Church does not own its own property or bank accounts. All property is held in trust to the United Methodist Church. One article says this:

…means that if, at any point, it becomes clear the holder can no longer or chooses no longer to function as part of The United Methodist Church, it forfeits all rights to continue to hold the property, and the property itself and all other assets transfer to the denomination.

https://www.umc.org/en/content/ask-the-umc-what-is-the-united-methodist-trust-clause

That means even though you have taken care of, built up, and managed the property you do not own it. While I believe this was wise at one point, it has prevented churches from leaving who are better aligned in another denomination. It also has made it extremely expensive to leave if you have to pay for the property you already paid for. Imagine taking out a thirty year mortgage then at the end of the mortgage you have to pay the same value in cash or you lose the property.

However, for the first time there is a provision, in paragraph 2553, that allows for a very short window to leave. Most annual conferences have a process that allows a congregation to leave through 2023 based on decisions made at the special session of the 2019 general conference at a fraction of the cost.

Therefore, hundreds of congregations have decided to leave in 2022 with hundreds and possible thousands in 2023.

I respect local churches’ decisions. I know several communities in my area that can and should have packed post-separation UM churches and other expressions of methodism. My hope is that churches make decisions based on facts, conviction, and clarity on who God is calling them to be.

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* I had the opportunity to hear an early draft of this article and pointed out contradiction to one of the co-authors. I also had an email exchange showing them how this contradicted with the UMC website linked above.

Is it Really a Divorce?

August 22, 2022

Recently, a well known retired bishop, who has a talent for spicy writing, published an article lamenting a “divorce” in a protestant mainline denomination. In fact, divorce was used over 9 times in the article.

I understand when denominations break apart it can be very difficult. Individuals and churches have to make difficult decisions for many nuanced and individual reasons. Everyone is free to and has their own autonomy to label these seasons in ways they see fit.

However, I would caution on using the most inflammatory language you can think of to describe the situations. As a child of divorce, I find it to be a wildly inaccurate description of what is happening. When two people enter into the covenant of marriage they are making a lifelong commitment.

In the protestant church (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and more) realignment is a predictable and expected event to happen.

Heartbreaking? Yes, of course it is!

I just hope we can make this season more civil by toning down the language where we can. Let’s elevate the conversation and add value to the discussion!

To My SGAUMC Friends,

One of my guilty pleasures is watching a show called Pro Football Talk with Chris Simms and Mike Florio. One of the topics they debate is if a football player deserves to be in the National Football League Hall of Fame. A criteria they use is by asking the question, “Can you tell the story of the NFL without talking about this player?”

This past summer, while twelve months into my appointment, my church voted to leave the United Methodist Church (UMC). In August, the South Georgia Annual Conference approved the church leaving. Also, in August I notified my District Superintendent I would be staying with my local church.

For a variety of nuanced reasons I decided to leave my theological home that has supported, nurtured, and fed me. However, I am not leaving in anger, bitterness, or animosity. I am leaving with a tremendous spirit of gratitude. 

While you can easily tell the story of the UMC and the South Georgia Conference of the UMC and not mention me one time, there is no way to tell my story without explaining the rich ways the Triune God has blessed me through the people, ministries and churches of this conference. 

At Cordele First UMC I was baptized as a child, confirmed as a middle schooler, and had a “strange warming of my heart” while in high school during a testimony from University of Georgia Wesley Foundation student testimony. In college, I grew as a student at the Georgia Southern University Wesley Foundation. I met my wife at Pittman Park UMC. As a director of youth ministry at Statesboro FUMC I felt a call to pastoral ministry and married my wife. Both my children have been baptized at the Hagan UMC. While serving Twin City UMC I was commissioned a provisional elder.

While I am optimistic of the good things God has in store for the future, I will not move forward without looking back and marveling at the ways God’s love, mercy, and grace have blessed me through the UMC and particularly the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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Friends, while I do not mention my future plans here, I do plan to play a role in the future church I join. I understand this can lead to mixed emotions. If you see me posting and writing about a future of Methodism that is different from the path I was on, I understand how this can make you upset. Please know I understand if you need to take a break from following me on social media. I still plan to partner with UMC ministries in the future. If there is an appropriate way I can serve alongside you in the future, I eagerly look forward to it.