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“What’s NEXT?” by Jeff Greenway

“What’s NEXT?” by Jeff Greenway

As a person who was baptized, saved, discipled, called, married and ordained under the ministry of The United Methodist Church, the events of the last couple of years have given me pause to wonder “What’s NEXT?” for our denominational Connection.

The years leading up to the 2016 General Conference were marked with the usual posturing of folks who wanted to change The United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality.  However, this time, the posturing was accompanied by various acts of ecclesial disobedience including:  the performance of a second same-sex marriage by Bishop Melvin Talbert, statements supporting disobedience to the Book of Discipline or actual actions of disobedience by individual clergy and a number of Boards of Ordained Ministry and annual conferences, and the public wedding of a gay clergy person to his partner the weekend before General Conference—an event intentionally designed to create a crisis as the General Conference convened.

The tenor of conversation leading to the 2016 General Conference in Portland was different than prior gatherings of the body.  The “loyal opposition” was more strident and committed to forcing change than ever before.  However, the votes on the rules of organization, election of the Judicial Council and University Senate, and actions of the legislative committees during the first week of the General Conference, made it increasingly clear that the General Conference—the only body with the authority to speak for the global denomination—was moving toward our more traditional, orthodox foundations.  Billy Abraham wrote an insightful piece at that time stating that we were witnessing the “birth pangs of United Methodism as a unique, global, orthodox denomination.”  You can read the article here.

Those advocating for more progressive change did not have the votes to achieve their goals despite intensified protests, posturing, and numerous parliamentary tactics used to delay or deflect a vote on matters related to human sexuality.  However, through political maneuvering that would take too much time to explain, the General Conference asked the Council of Bishops to provide leadership in helping us find a way forward.  You can read about the development of the Bishop’s Way Forward, the formation of its called Commission and the Commission’s charge here.

So “What’s NEXT?”  Like many United Methodists, I naively thought that those who had been advocating for change would cease continued acts of ecclesial disobedience, and allow the Commission to form and do its work and bring forward a proposal for our future.  However, those advocating for change have practiced a “scorched earth strategy” since the end of General Conferences.  In the three months since May:

  • Several annual Conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministries have joined the ranks of those who will no longer regard the practice of homosexuality as a disqualifier for candidacy, licensing or ordination as a clergyperson within The United Methodist Church.
  • The New York Annual Conference commissioned (or ordained) and assigned three openly gay clergy at its June session.
  • Several more clergy have “come out” during public worship services.
  • The Western Jurisdiction has elected, consecrated and assigned Dr. Karen Oliveto as our denomination’s first, openly gay, partnered bishop.  (Dr. Oliveto’s election has been appealed to the Judicial Council which has decided not to hear the case until its regular meeting in the Spring of 2017.)

In the midst of this unprecedented period of ecclesial disobedience, many faithful United Methodists have joined together to form the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The WCA is an alliance of local United Methodist churches, clergy and laity committed to advancing vibrant, scriptural Christianity within Methodism.   We are coming together to support, network, and encourage one another as the future of The United Methodist Church comes into clearer focus.  You can read more about the Wesleyan Covenant Association here.

Some have jumped to the conclusion that the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association is an effort to force schism and start a new denomination. I can understand why some might think so; these are confusing times and many forces are at play as United Methodists attempt to shape what is to come.  Just to set the record straight, the only acts to force schism and launch a new denomination are decisions by annual conferences and individuals to jettison our standards regarding marriage and ordination and the Western Jurisdiction’s decision to consecrate Dr. Oliveto.

At the same time, I can say unequivocally, the intent of the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association is not to form a new denomination or to promote schism, but rather to acknowledge that we are already living in a church in the midst of schism.  In times of denominational rebellion, the WCA is an association of churches and leaders who are committed to live and practice what we say we believe.

So—“What’s NEXT?”  Neither the composition of nor the proposals that will come from the Bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward are yet known, but many believe significant change will be recommended.  The following reflects my best thinking at this time about the possible outcomes of the Bishop’s Commission.

Option 1—The Commission could affirm our long-standing, carefully-nuanced, grace-filled position on human sexuality.  I believe that as an act of grace, we should allow those who dissent to take their pensions and properties with them to join with or form another expression of Methodism.  This option affirms the historic and ecumenical teaching of the Church.  It keeps our denomination in relationship with the overwhelming majority of the global Church while giving those who dissent the opportunity to live with integrity.  It is my personal hope that this is the direction the Commission will take.

This option would be the easiest to enact and initiate legislatively.  However, it will only work if the General Conference adopts legislation which will both: bring real accountability and sanction for those who will not keep the Discipline—and also provide a reasonable path for dissenting pastors and congregations to exit the denomination.  This option could result in significant initial loss.  The Western Jurisdiction, large portions of the Northeast and Northcentral Jurisdictions, and pockets of pastors and congregations across the Connection would leave the denomination for a more progressive expression of Methodism—and the remaining United Methodist Church would streamline itself, focus on church planting and mission, and experience renewal.

The majority of the bishops do not wish for this option because of their commitment to the “unity” of the church—whatever that means now.  However, in the long run, this is our best option.  It needs to be done gracefully, but firmly and faithfully.

Option 2—The Commission could recommend a more progressive position on human sexuality—and give those who find themselves in disagreement the opportunity to take their pension and property, and leave the denomination to join or form another.  This option requires evangelical/orthodox United Methodists to voluntarily give up their majority at the General Conference and organically separate ourselves from our African brothers and sisters.   It also costs the abandoning of many joint assets to the centrists and progressives.

This is a highly unlikely scenario because whatever the Commission brings forward will need to be approved by the General Conference which, given its past, present and future configurations of being more and more moderately evangelical/orthodox in belief and practice, is unlikely to approve any plan that moves the denomination in that direction.

Option 3—The Commission could recommend that local congregations and annual conferences be given the option to decide what their position is on human sexuality.  This proposal would resurrect the so-called “Local Option” approach which was advocated by Adam Hamilton last year.  You can read about here.  This plan was soundly critiqued in the months leading up to General Conference.  You can read a summary of those critiques here and here.  The “local option” failed to get enough support at General Conference to be a serious option.

This model will have some appeal because it can be easy to enact and initiate legislatively.  However, I believe it has the most difficult consequences for evangelical/orthodox persons across the connection.  This model expects most churches and pastors to take the route of apathy and avoidance.  Most local congregations and pastors will not deal with this issue until it becomes a local question. As a former District Superintendent, I cannot fathom the complexity this would add to an already complex appointment-making process.

Option 4—The Commission could recommend some form of “United Methodist Communion”—with two or three different expressions.  This was called for by Adam Hamilton while speaking to seminary students during a morning session on the second week of the 2016 General Conference.  You can view his statement here.  This is a dramatic departure from his previous backing of the “local option,” perhaps reflecting that he saw the reality that evangelical/orthodox United Methodists were winning the day in Portland, and the intractable differences that exist in the church related to living faithfully while in ministry with and to persons with same sex orientation and attraction.

This option will give the appearance of some form of “unity” around things we consistently celebrate—like UMCOR and Imagine No Malaria—while attempting to acknowledge that our differences are irreconcilable in the subject matter of the Commission.

Those who call themselves “centrists” will likely endorse this option—because it gives them the sense of holding something together in the middle.  One can even see the Council of Bishops posturing itself to try to hold the center position.  One thing has become increasingly clear in the last year—there is no longer a “middle.”  The progressives have determined which direction they are going to go on this issue and others.  This will be evident if a separation is negotiated.  The evangelical/orthodox have clearly stated where they are going to go on this issue and others.  This, too, will be evident if a separation is negotiated.  Those who call themselves “centrists” have also decided which direction they are going on this issue and others.  They will simply take a bit longer to get there—but without the evangelical/orthodox majority at General Conference and in the other systems and structures—they will move to the left much faster than they ever thought possible.

However, to negotiate a Hamilton plan of separation into two or three new denominations, with the possibility that certain services could be shared by all of them (such as pensions, publishing, etc.), will be a herculean task.  It will involve significant legal fees and be very difficult since the Discipline is in essence a contract between thousands of independent corporations.  We would probably need some kind of jurisdictional type of solution or joint corporations with a General Church only engaged in pension and publishing matters to accomplish this.  It will be very difficult, but it would not be impossible.

Closing comments:  Let me be clear—human sexuality is not the cause of our differences—it is the presenting symptom.  The real causes of our division are related to the nature, role and authority of Scripture—the nature of salvation—and the work of sanctification in the life and conduct of a follower of Jesus.  We are miles apart in these basic beliefs and it makes our covenantal relationship untenable.  We use the same language, sometimes quote the same scriptures or Wesley sermons, but we are speaking about entirely different expressions of faith.

Whether it is one of these options, or another the Commission will be discover in its process, I hope they will not waste this crisis.  For more than twelve years, many persons have called and worked for a “right sizing” of our denominational systems and structures.  For example, the Call to Action Report of the 2012 General Conference stated that we do not need thirteen General Boards and Agencies to do what 4 or 5 well-organized and well-lead Boards could do.  As a matter of integrity and justice, we have to deal with the evidence of residual institutional racism that exists in our present jurisdictional system, and find ways to hold our Bishops accountable.  Any proposal that does not address these and other obvious deficiencies in the top-heavy, top-down corporate leadership of our denomination will be providing a disservice to those who will come after us in the future.

For years, I have said that there are three things that hold The United Methodist Church together:  pensions, property, and institutions.  I wish that they were scripture, Jesus and mission, but this is not the case.

So…what is a United Methodist to do?  Let me share four suggestions:

1)      Stay faithful.  Now is not the time to withdraw from our denomination.  I know that many are tired, but the news is not as bleak as some would have us believe.  My experience is that God is always at work in the messes of life—and that is no different for the church.  So, I am leading the congregation I serve to fulfill our mission and I encourage you to do the same.  We are about to break ground on a 30,000 square foot Family Life Center as an act of faith in the future—and will be paying our apportionments.  I encourage you to stay faithful.

2)      Pray for the Commission.  I have been thinking about the enormity of their task.  Never have so many expected so much from so few in our denominational history.  It is a given that they will not meet everyone’s expectations and desires—at least in their own strength.  What we desperately need is for the Holy Spirit to show up in a Book of Acts kind of way.  Pray for the Council of Bishops as they decide the membership.  Pray for the Commission as they do their work.  Pray that we might all be surprised by the movement of the Spirit, and be able to celebrate what comes next whether we are one church—or not.  Pray.

3)      Connect with others.  Lock arms together with like-minded, warm-hearted folks as we live into the next.  I have always described myself as an evangelical moderate.  The events of the last four years have strengthened my resolve more than ever that the core beliefs and values of the UMC are being expressed by the very folks who are forming the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The WCA is committed to preserving the core of what we believe and practice as United Methodists. It is a movement of like-minded—warm-hearted—Jesus loving—Spirit-filled—Wesleyan—evangelical—orthodox—covenant keeping Christians who are connected together in mission.  I encourage you to check out the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and if you are able to join us in Chicago on October 7.  You can find out all you need and register here.   I hope to see you there.  Get connected.

4)      Don’t become mean-spirited.  I have grieved what once was.  I have friends who deeply disagree with me about the issues that divide us. I always have.  I likely always will.  I don’t disparage their positions.  They have a right to hold them.  I simply do not agree with them.  I have come to the place where I think it is counter-productive to the Kingdom for us to continue fighting about this every four years.  They are not my enemies, but I cannot in good conscience see a way that we can hold together when we are no longer keeping our vows and covenants.  Being led by our strongest convictions never permits us to become mean-spirited. In all things, we are to love one another.

I really do not know what’s NEXT—but I do know that change is coming and the church that nurtured me will likely not look the same as we move to the future.  I believe the Kingdom will be better served in the future if we can find a way to stop fighting about this every four years and devote ourselves to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  God, help us find a way.