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.

_____

* 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.

This past Wednesday during Statesboro First United Methodist Church‘s Ash Wednesday service, Pastor Jimmy Cason read John Wesley’s 22 questions small group questions. These are historic questions Wesley would have his Holy Club (small group) members ask themselves everyday. The questions got a great response so I thought I would post them.

John Wesley’s Holy Club Questions

1.       Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
2.      Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
3.      Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
4.      Can I be trusted?
5.       Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
6.      Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
7.       Did the Bible live in me today?
8.      Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
9.      Am I enjoying prayer?
10.   When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
11.    Do I pray about the money I spend?
12.   Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
13.   Do I disobey God in anything?
14.   Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
15.    Am I defeated in any part of my life?
16.   Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
17.    How do I spend my spare time?
18.   Am I proud?
19.   Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
20.  Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
21.   Do I grumble or complain constantly?
22.  Is Christ real to me?