Déjà vu

[written for the St. Mark’s UMC Newsletter, February, 2020 edition]

Here we go again. Fair warning … this one’s gonna be long.

The specially called General Conference 2019 (GC19) was billed as the GC where the United Methodist Church would finally resolve its longstanding impasse regarding homosexual practice. After bickering since 1972, we were poised to put this argument behind us with one final decision and finally move on. We held the conference. We had the vote. We’re still not moving on.

Since the end of GC19, caucus groups have all schemed and put together new plans to propose. But one thing has legitimately changed: the caucus groups started working together to formulate plans for a future engaged in less vitriol and violation. Two bishops (one liberal, one conservative) developed a proposal to ‘sort of’ split the denomination to create some space between the two differing theologies. Although the Bard-Jones Plan had promise, it doesn’t appear like it will go anywhere because other plans developed with wider participation.

Indiana’s own Rev. Darren Cushman Wood hosted meetings in Indianapolis that involved prominent thinkers on both sides of the divide and brought forth a plan to legitimately split, yet maintain a loose connection (called “The Indianapolis Plan”).

But the one that is most surprising is a plan that started with a few bishops from Central Conferences (non-USA) gathering UNlike-minded leaders from all of the warring caucus groups. Eventually, they developed a connection with a non-United Methodist (he’s Jewish) mediation attorney who comes with high credentials. Kenneth Feinberg has managed several high-profile temporary charities including the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. He also agreed to work pro bono (without any fee)!

Under Feinberg’s mediation, the group of high-ranking leaders of the various groups (who had never really negotiated before in good will) were able to hammer out an agreement that every one involved supported and pledged to support to the exclusion of any plan that contradicts this one! This is not just baby steps forward. Such an agreement is ‘going to the moon and back’ forward movement.

Now that the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” (we’ll just call it “The Protocol”) has been published, everyone with a social media account has a loud opinion about it. Some are in full support. Some are in full opposition. A large number, however, seem to be supporting although disappointed in some part or another.

The details of the plan aren’t really important at this point. The Protocol still has to be:

  • written in legislative form (legalese),
  • approved by a specially called Annual Conference (it doesn’t matter which one…just one has to approve it for General Conference 2020 to be able to consider it),
  • hopefully given an evaluation by the Judicial Council,
  • and then debated and ultimately passed by a group that doesn’t usually pass anything without amending first.

So details aren’t where I want to spend my time.

I’ve said before that I believe the UMC is already divided, we just haven’t decided where all the pieces will fall yet. This proposal would result in a formal division in the UMC. That’s very dramatic, so I want to tell you that I am in the camp supporting although disappointed in some part or another. Here’s why…

With a division/separation/split/whatever term, there is a lot of fear. We’re afraid this will cause pain and people will leave. From where I sit, we’re already experiencing pain, and people have been leaving for 50 years. Not all of them were leaving because of this impasse, but in recent years many of them have. We’ve been seeking a plan to ‘ease the bleeding’ instead of trying to stop it, and the Church has nearly ‘bled-out’ from this. This plan certainly would bring about massive bleeding at the onset … but it shows the potential to end the bleeding eventually. What we’ve been doing doesn’t have any end point.

Pointedly, people on the right have opposed (largely) because they feel they’ve won all of the previous votes so it seems illogical that people on the right should be the ones to leave, as the Protocol lays out. As logical as that may seem, those on the left (including some bishops) have stated (and demonstrated) that they will not leave and they will not obey the Book of Discipline as it currently stands. That means a future together is absolutely destined to be characterized by chaos and rebellion.

People on the left have expressed opposition because they don’t think people should be allowed to leave without some sort of financial punishment. (Our church property all has a ‘trust clause’, which means the property is “held in trust” by the local congregation. The Annual Conference actually owns all real property.) So, many on the left believe there should be no relief of the Trust Clause for churches wanted to leave the denomination.

There are many issues that have some level of angst for each ‘side’, but those are the big ones. To both parties I say, do you want to tie everything up in lawsuits for 20 years (or more)? Historically, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Lutherans (ELCA) have all paved that road for us. They bickered over this issue. They held onto the Trust Clause, and when churches fled to more theologically homogenous pastures, the denomination sued them on their way out (or vice versa many cases). Some of those lawsuits are still making their way through the courts, and those denominations were MUCH smaller than the United Methodist Church.

The astronomical price tag for fighting and defending those lawsuits pales in comparison to the public relations costs involved in churches suing churches and dragging lots of mud as they go! If you’re shocked by the news of a potential split, imagine nightly news reports of another church suing or being sued by the Annual Conference for their property.

Until GC19, the local church could have been blissfully unaware that any of this was going on (if they chose to be unaware and their pastor allowed them to remain so). The decisions at GC19 finally acknowledged in wide, public circles what was already happening, and the local church was brought into the fray. So here we sit in the middle of a fight we didn’t pick, and I suspect we’ll eventually have to make a choice of one sort or another. This is extremely disheartening news for many people in the pews. But I am not surprised in the least.

I have said openly since 2012 that the UMC was headed for a split. That means I’ve had 8 years to process my grief, so I understand the shock many have been feeling since GC19, and now that a split appears imminent. I’ve been forthright about my position on the topics at hand. I’ve shared my understanding of the biblical position, and where I think each position has failed. But I also recognize that my role as pastor is not relegated to one side of an issue or another (unless that issue is Jesus – I’M ALL IN ON THAT ONE!). I have tried to lead as a pastor for everyone. Although I recognize a time may be coming where some may not abide the decisions before us, I want you to know I am still your pastor if you’ll allow me to be. Even if we disagree, I want more Jesus for you and will do what I can to help you get more of him!

That means, I will gladly sit down and talk with you (call or email to get on my calendar) about the plans being proposed; my reading of them; even what I think about their strengths and weaknesses. I would be glad to sit and discuss my position on human sexuality; sin and not-sin; and church politics.

Most people would prefer a nice answer tied up in a bow that they can either swallow or spit out. I cannot provide that. And if I could, I would be hesitant to provide it anyway. Every person needs to know the stakes and the propositions for themselves so they can “chew on it” a bit before they swallow or spit.

So I can inform. I can guide. I can even commiserate (co : together – miserate : misery). But I won’t give you a simple answer because I don’t believe one exists. Once GC20 passes something we’ll know more about the implications and how St. Mark’s may choose to proceed.

Either way, United Methodist or not, St. Mark’s (whatever “brand”) Church exists to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and that will remain Priority #1. We see a future that we believe God has provided, and we will pursue that vision with abandon until it becomes reality.

We envision a Christ-centered community of prayer and fellowship,
reaching out with the hope and love of God.

[This statement is St. Mark’s Vision.]

That means there’s plenty of work to keep us busy for the next hundred years or so. Stay informed, but don’t let anyone take you off-track from disciple making. Let’s “pray, fellowship, and reach out” our way through this and see what God does with us.

I serve at the pleasure of the King of Kings.

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