Proposal has Majority, not Consensus

The United Methodist Council of Bishops capped an exhausting week of work by voting to submit all three recommendations from the Way Forward Commission to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 and supporting the One Church model.  King Solomon may have cried; they very nearly split the baby in half.

That said, I personally will give them an “A” for moving anything forward considering the yawning chasm separating different constituencies in the global church.  I appreciated how Bishop Ough addressed the issue of majority vs. consensus in the press conference.  He said, “Typically when I’ve worked with consensus, you arrive at a place where everybody says I can stand here, if you use that definition, it’s fair to say we don’t have consensus. But it is fair to say we have strong affirmation.”

What that means to me is there is no scenario where individuals, churches, maybe even annual conferences do not leave the connection.  Given that painful reality, a majority of Bishops agreed to the One Church Plan knowing it may cause a fracture in the denomination.  That is courageous leadership.  Weak leadership would have been, push all three forward to General Conference without a recommendation and essentially pass the buck.

I also think moving all three forward to General Conference may have simply been a collegial gesture among the Bishops as a show of respect for those who disagree.  No one told me that.  Mercy, no one told me anything!  I have never seen a group of Bishops so tight lipped in my life…especially after I mentioned my blog…

I generally support the concept of the One Church plan.  Naturally, like everyone, I want to see how many asterisks are in it before committing to it.  The question for all of us who are General Conference Delegates will be, Do we trust the two-year long discernment process of the Way Forward Commission and the Bishops?  Or, do we think we can grind out a tastier sausage on the floor of General Conference?  Having been to five General Conferences, I am skeptical of the latter.

Here are some news pieces from today:

Video of press conference.  I could not get WordPress to upload it, so I had to put it on my personal Facebook page.  If you are unable to view it, I will be glad to be your friend!  Even if it is just a superficial internet friend so you can see the video.  In other words, I will feel no obligation to post something on your birthday.  Nor, should you feel compelled to post on my birthday, but if you do, it is this Sunday!

https://www.facebook.com/mark.holland.9237

 

A good article about the process by Heather Hahn of UM News Service.

http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/bishops-propose-plan-for-way-forward

 

The Official Bishops’ Press Release.

http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/united-methodist-bishops-recommend-a-way-forward

Closing Meeting

The Bishops adjourned without a public report on the Way Forward.  Bishop Ough stated that they want the whole church to receive the report at the same time, which seems reasonable.  They finished up with  administrative reports.  Bishop Ough received a standing ovation from the entire Council for his leadership through the Way Forward process.

 They closed by inviting all the guests to join the Bishops at the tables for closing worship and communion.  We closed by singing One Bread, One Body.

There was a brief press conference that lasted 15 minutes.  I will post that video as soon as I figure it out…  Pray for me.  They said very little…hard to hold a press conference about a document you have not yet released.

They promise a press release this afternoon…though the time is not clear.  As soon as I get it, I will post it.  You might watch the United Methodist News Service as well.

 http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/united-methodist-news

 

Open Plenary Meeting

I attended the open plenary meeting this afternoon of the Council of Bishops.  They covered lots of reports, some with videos.  They talked a lot about the work of the church around the world.  They cast ballots to see which Bishop will give the Episcopal Address at General Conference 2020…who works on a sermon for 2 years?  I mean besides Adam?  They celebrated the 50th anniversary of the denomination, sang “Happy Birthday to Us,” and ate birthday cupcakes, half chocolate, half vanilla.

Interesting tell-tale:  Bishop Bickerton, New York Annual Conference gave a report on the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and said we are committing over $46 million to relief around the world.  Then he said, “This is the best reason I know to remain as one church!”  And all the Bishops broke into applause.  Hmmm…Does this mean they have approved the One Church model?  Is there a consensus?

Apparently the work is not done.  They are back in executive session tomorrow morning to finish the work.  Bishop Ough thinks this will be a short session, because they will follow that with more plenary meetings.  So at least MOST of the work appears to be done.  But every Bishop with whom I have spoken has been mum on what the product might be.

Final thoughts on the Plenary session:  It is every church meeting you have ever been to, ever.  Plus cupcakes.

Meeting with IRD

I met today with John Lomperis, he is the head of United Methodist Action.  John is a lay delegate from Indiana to General Conference.  This is the United Methodist branch on the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD).  This is what I would describe as a very conservative group that works in multiple denominations.  They are not a membership organization with either individuals or churches.  In their own words:

Mission

We are Christians working to reaffirm the church’s biblical and historical teachings, strengthen and reform its role in public life, protect religious freedom, and renew democracy at home and abroad.

Vision

To lead the fight rallying Christians to champion biblical, historic Christianity and its role in democratic society, and to defeat revisionist challenges.

You can read more at their website:  https://theird.org/

There are individuals who are on the board of IRD and the Confessing Movement and the Good News group.  There are currently not cross over members from the IRD with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, though John has signed onto the WCA and the groups share a common view of what might happen in the church.

The UM Action and the IRD are advocating for retaining all language in the Book of Discipline and would like to see the punishments increased to keep everyone faithful to what it says.  They do not want to see LGBTQ clergy affirmed, because that is “contrary to God’s will for their lives.”  They see the local option to be a non-starter.  They support Christ first and the denomination second.

I asked if he thought conservative churches would leave if the One Church option that allows contextualization passes General Conference.  He said he would be surprised if it passed, so if it did, he thought the different groups would need some time to absorb that and decide what to do.  We both agreed that our crystal balls for seeing the future are of no use.

John also had an interesting thought if the Bishops did not pass anything this week.  He thought it would be a blow to their credibility if they did not offer a direction.  He also said, that while he voted against my motion at General Conference 2016 to have the Bishops lead the discussion, that he thought it has gone well and may offer some resolution to the issues before us.

Four Thoughts on Transparency

Here are some interesting ideas for discussion:

Thought 1:

I have asked at least 6 Bishops if they plan to release the vote count of what they propose.  All have said, they did not know and have not decided that yet.  I think it is very important that we know the vote count.  If whatever comes forward is a 33-31 vote (out of 64 Bishops), that is a very thin margin to try and pass something at General Conference.  If it is 38-26, you have a 60%/40% split, a strong majority.  If it is 43+ to 21- then it is 2 to 1 or better and you start to get into a clear consensus.

A clear consensus or at least a strong majority will be a powerful voice at General Conference.  I have heard from several Bishops that they aspire to consensus, but it is very hard.  Agreed.  Finding consensus at General Conference will be even harder if we are not sure where the Bishops stand.

Thought 2:

I have asked the same 6 Bishops if they plan to release how each Bishop votes.  They have all said emphatically, No!  We do not do that, especially on controversial issues.  I wonder about that.  Who is being protected here?  From a transparency perspective, why would they not stand up individually and say, this is how I voted and why?  And, if they stand in the minority, will they support the majority position?

As a former elected official, every vote I took was public, controversial or not.  And, I had to stand on my record for re-election…which, as you may have heard, did not go well!  One could make an argument that the Bishops are elected officials…and all the US Bishops are in office for life.  Why is it a violation of “covenant” to say, “Here I stand?”  And if some Bishops reveal their votes and some do not, then we have redaction politics to figure out who is who.  This seems unnecessary.

Thought 3

The Bishops are planning on a “listening tour” of sorts this Fall in each of their conferences.  Are they going to lead these conversations and just present both sides without revealing their view?  And, why ask lay and clergy what they think if the Bishop will not reciprocate?  It seems odd.  Particularly if the plan they propose is to agree to disagree, they could model that.

Thought 4

Will the Bishops advocate for their position?  Will the Council of Bishops hire a team to go out and promote their position or will it simply be presented and the Bishops step back?  I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, if they like their plan they should sell it.  On the other hand, once they submit the petition, it becomes the property of the delegates of the General Conference.  The vote count will say more than any publicity.

What do you think?  Should we know the vote count?  What about who voted how?  I think this is an interesting topic.

Advocacy

Aside from the Bishops there have been a couple of groups who have come to listen and advocate.  One is the Uniting Methodists.  Another is the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus.  I have had a chance to speak to these two groups.  I have not seen anyone from the Wesleyan Covenant Association, so if you know of a representative here, let me know.  I would love to connect.

Interestingly, while all three of these groups have global connections, they are predominantly US groups.  There is not an organization of by and for the African Churches that are actively pushing a uniquely African perspective.  Of course, an African perspective would not be singular either, we would need a diversity of these global perspectives.  More on this later.

These three groups offer some very different options.  I think the best way to summarize is to use language from their official websites, which I can do for the WCA as well, even though I have not spoken to them.  But these statements summarize the challenges the Bishops are facing.

From the Wesleyan Covenant Association:

We believe it is imperative for the commission to propose a plan that calls for accountability and integrity to our covenant, and restores the good order of our church’s polity. If the commission determines no such a plan is possible, then we believe it should prepare a plan of separation that honors the consciences of all the people of the church and allows them to go forward in peace and good will. A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the “local option” around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.

To read more:  Wesleyan Covenant Association   https://wesleyancovenant.org

 

The Queer Clergy Caucus writes this:

In order to move forward in the mission of the church, we believe that the harmful language in
the Book of Discipline about LGBTQ identity and marriage must be removed. Though it is clear
that United Methodists are not of one mind regarding many issues, including human sexuality,
we have faith that we can find a way to live as one body. While removing the harmful language
in the Book of Discipline is an important step, it is only a step. In our hearts, we still long for the
day when the body of the church mirrors the Body of Christ, and is fully inclusive and affirming
of all God’s children.

To read more:  United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus  https://www.umqcc.org

 

The Uniting Methodists writes this:

The preliminary descriptions of the One Church model fulfill the mandate to enable the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible with as much contextual differentiation as possible and as much unity as possible. The framework honors local contexts that illumine for the church how best to fulfill the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in different places and cultures. It would not dictate how each annual conference must respond but provides space for communities to discern what is required in their contexts, allows for the exercise of Christian conscience in matters over which faithful people disagree, and provides congregations the latitude they need to fully express their love for Christ and participate together in ministry around the world.

Uniting Methodists:  http://unitingmethodists.com/

None of these groups believe in unity at any cost.  Though the UMQCC and Uniting Methodists are willing to live with differences, the WCA is not.  They clearly say any compromise of the existing language is cause for separation.  A key question is, Is a split inevitable?  If so, how do we best manage it?  One of the things that will be an interesting and vital part of the Bishops’ plan is whether or not “amicable separation” language is included and what will it say?  This is a question I am asking about as well.

First Day on the Ground

The meetings have adjourned for the evening.  No decisions and it sounds like it may take until Friday for the Council of Bishops to vote on the Way Forward.  There seems to be more fatigue than confidence at this point.  Logistically, I’m told, it would be virtually impossible to convene the Bishops again before July.  So Friday is it.

 More Timeline info:

 May 22-25      Judicial Council meets to determine if other petitions could be considered at the February 2019 Special Session of the General Conference.  I am not familiar with the arguments each way, so as I find them I will try and report what each side thinks.

 July 8              Deadline for petitions to be submitted for the February 2019 Special Session.  There is really no wiggle room in terms of the Bishops making a decision this week.

 Realistically, I think this is how legislation is made at every level.  It takes until the last minute to force everyone to the table and decide.  We see it in local, state, and federal government.  Right or wrong, the pressure cooker is usually required.

 Interesting, there are two groups actively lobbying against the one church model: one group from the left and one from the right.  I have scheduled time tomorrow to sit down and try and better understand each argument better before I write about them.

Council of Bishops

I am headed out on Tuesday May 1 to my first  Council of Bishops (COB) meeting in Chicago, Il.  Interestingly, most of the sessions are closed to the public as they are discussing The Way Forward proposal.  These are tense and anxious times in the United Methodist Church.  I am interested to see how the environment feels on site.

A brief timeline, if you are joining the conversation late (or if you are exhausted by the conversation and cannot remember what is happening!)

May 2016  General Conference voted (barely) to ask the Council of Bishops to come up with a plan for the church to move forward around the polarizing issues of human sexuality.  (Many agree that human sexuality is the face of many issues, but not the whole body of issues.)  The COB agreed to take up the task.

October 2016  The COB released the names of the 32 member Commission on a Way Forward.

January 2017 The Commission holds its first meeting.

January 2017 through March 2018 the Commission meets multiple times and issues periodic updates on their progress.

April/May 2018 The Commission is presenting their report to the COB and the bishops are voting on it.  You can read all the detail you would like through the links above.

I want to thank the Great Plains delegation for sponsoring my trip to the COB.  I promised a daily blog of the proceedings to try and give an on the ground feel and to provide as many helpful links and connections as possible.

If you have any comments, questions or issues you would like me to try and discover, please post them here on the blog or email me directly at mholland@greatplainsumc.org.

 

 

 

 

 

UMC Challenges: Geography, Finances, Theology

Introduction: The United Methodist Church is facing its greatest threat of division since prior to the US Civil War.  This is why I made the motion on the floor of the 2016 General Conference to ask the Bishops to lead the General Conference towards a new vision.  The Bishops are the right leaders to address a Way Forward and they have assembled a study group with a broad base of perspective that gives the church hope for the future.  I believe the Bishops understand that homosexuality is only the face of a whole body of issues in our church.  As they work with the study commission this year, I believe they need to address three fundamental issues:  1) The fallacy of the global church, 2) The financial imbalance of the church, 3) The theological disconnect of the church.

1)     The Fallacy of the Global Church:  The United Methodist Church is the single largest of the many denominations that make up the “Methodist” family around the world.   Yet, the UMC has 98% of its membership on only two continents: North America and Africa.  Further, the United Methodist Church represents only 40% of American and African Methodists and only about 30% of the Methodist family in the world.  The UMC still has small conferences in Europe and the Philippines.  But in terms of being a “global” church, the UMC has NO churches on most of the globe, including none in Canada, China—SE Asia, the India region, Korea, Mexico—Central America—Caribbean, or South America.  The chart below, created from the World Methodist Council Website tells the story of membership numbers:

Region Total Methodists “Other” Methodists* United Methodists**
Africa 13,759,455 9,568,347 4,191,108
Australia–Pacific Islands 1,591,337 1,445,695 145,642
Canada 608,243 608,243 0
China–SE Asia 99,808 99,808 0
Europe 399,637 335,982 63,655
India Region 6,173,000 6,173,000 0
Korea 1,586,063 1,586,063 0
Mexico–Cen. Am–Carrib. 176,320 176,320 0
South America 279,190 279,190 0
United States 15,042,337 7,362,487 7,679,850
Totals 39,715,390 27,635,135 12,080,255
*”Other” Methodists include a few “United Churches” like in Canada where a number of denominations are together.  “Other” also includes denominations like AME, CME, AMEZ.  For more detailed information, see the World Methodist Council Website:  http://worldmethodistcouncil.org/about/member-churches/statistical-information/

**As reported on the WMC website (above), varies from the updated 2016 GC numbers reported in the GC 2016 Advanced Daily Advocate p 30-34.  For updated UMC numbers: http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/general-conference/2016/documents/gc2016-advance-daily-christian-advocate-full-english.pdf

There is an interesting, and sometimes sorrowful, history as to why various churches in the United States and other parts of the world split off from the “mother ship” to become independent Methodists.  The how and why is beyond the scope of this article.  But the reality remains, the United Methodist Church is not really “global.”  The “Methodist” family is global, but most are not under the same Book of Discipline.

The challenge before the Council of Bishops is:  Why is it important that this current collection of US and African churches share a common Book of Discipline? Can we be brothers and sisters in Christ, even serve in “full communion,” without sharing the Book of Discipline?  And, if a global church is desirable (I think it is) why not engage the rest of Methodism around the world?  A denomination defined solely by national boundaries can lead to its own set of problems.

The General Conference has known for years that this global imbalance alone is creating a crisis.  In 2012, the General Conference called for a study on the “global nature of the church” to try to create a “global” Book of Discipline with a specific US only Book of Discipline to follow.  The 2016 General Conference approved the progress report and the dialogue is to move to the Annual Conferences the next four years.  The denomination as we know it may not even be intact in 2020 because of the three massive challenges facing our church.

2)     The Financial Imbalance of the Church:  The $151,000,000 annual budget of the “global” UMC is apportioned almost exclusively from the US churches.  The US represents 57% of the membership and 98% of the finances.  The US church has historically covered 100% until the 2016 General Conference approved receiving some apportionment from Africa beginning in January of 2017.  This will still represent less than 2% of the overall budget. For the sake of comparison, the often maligned Western Jurisdiction of the US church represents only 331,719 members but gives 6.55% of the budget.  This $9.9 million is more than all 5.2 million African members contribute to the budget combined.  No one disagrees that the US church should bear the majority of the funding, but a major imbalance has emerged between membership and finances.

If a US group of any size, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” splits off from the UMC, the remaining US constituents will bear an even greater financial imbalance with fewer than 50% of the votes at General Conference.  I predict that there is no constituency of the US church so faithful that it will give up control of the checkbook.  The African Bishops may have the most to lose in a split.  All bishops across the church receive their pay from the General Conference.  Decentralizing this could make a significant impact.  In addition, many of their ministries are heavily dependent on US money.  Finances won’t split the church, but finances will split with the church.

3)     The Theological Disconnect:  The United Methodist Church currently spans three distinct—and potentially irreconcilable—mission fields.  The descriptions below are intended to be general in nature, informative, and not pejorative.  These categories are not original but I have witnessed the reality of them from my own work across the church and in dialogue with pastors and lay persons from Africa and all over the US.  My intention is simply to characterize the thought chasm we face in the church.  I am open to learning a better way to describe the differing world views—but describe them we must if we are going to move forward as a church.

Much of the African Church is ministering in developing countries where many people live with a “pre-modern” world view.  African pastors have shared with me that they preach against witchcraft, sorcery, magic, and superstition.  They are working to bring communities into a “modern” world view of science (clean water and sanitation), medicine (vaccines and antibiotics), and education (theology and social science).  They operate in countries that are either non-democratic or emerging democracies.  The poverty and societal conditions are beyond the imagination of most Americans and the church is on the front lines building hospitals, schools, churches, and orphanages.  The Christian message is spreading fast and the churches are growing exponentially.  These churches tend to preserve a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Much of the US southern, suburban, and rural areas are operating in a fully “modern” worldview.  These are areas where the church is still central to community life and there is a strong intersection with patriotism and faith.  These areas tend to be more “conservative” and “evangelical” and integrate Christian beliefs with science, medicine, and education.  These are often the largest churches in the US with the most financial resources.  They have a strong missional sense, locally and globally.  These churches tend to preserve a strong Biblical identity.

Many of the US northern, western, and urban churches are operating in a “post-modern” worldview.  These churches tend to be more “liberal” and present in more diverse communities where one faith tradition is not as central to the whole.  Many believe that all major world religions have value from which we can learn.  These churches value the Bible and balance it heavily with Reason, Experience, and Tradition.  These churches are often focused on social justice and cultural change.  This group is leading the charge for full inclusion of LGBT persons into the life of the church.

The Bishops have to answer this question:  How do you hold together a church where some are incensed by any discussion of homosexuality and others are incensed by the lack of change?  The worlds in which we live, both physically and ideologically, are so different, is it possible—or even desirable—to live under a single Book of Discipline?

Conclusion:  I have great hope for the people called Methodists to continue to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ across the world.  I have little hope that the current structure of the United Methodist Church can endure the dramatic imbalances of geography, finances, and theology.  It is time for change.  And like it or not, change is coming.  Will the change come like a glass plate hitting the floor and shattering into a mess that can only be swept up and discarded?  Or will the change be a prayerful re-alignment of doctrine, people, and/or resources that allows the work of the Gospel to continue forward in our various contexts?  I pray for the latter.  Any call for “unity” that does not address these fundamental issues is a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal.

Realignments have happened many times among the Methodists around the world.  We are still brothers and sisters in Christ, we still have a common history, and we still have a common witness in the world.  If we are to remain one denomination, there will need to be significant latitude in the Book of Discipline to allow for effective local witness.  And, at the end of the day, sharing a common Book of Discipline is NOT the goal of the Gospel. The goal of the Gospel is to celebrate our faith in Jesus Christ.  Let’s stop fighting, gracefully realign the church, and get back to the work to which we are really called.