Toxic Tribalism In the UMC

It began innocently enough. I responded to a tweet about how fears that a traditionalist viewpoint does not equate to a desire to do away with the ordination of women and that claims to the contrary are fear mongering. I decided to respond. Below is the original tweet followed by mine:

You can read the rest of the tweets that ensued if you are so inclined but what ensued was a nearly day-long Twitter back and forth between me and some others who were not originally involved in the conversation but chose to chime in. The result was largely attacks against my integrity and one tweeter even went so far as to question my faith and further attack me personally. As you can see – and verify on my Twitter account – my response was not in reference to any leader within any of the traditionalist renewal movements (WCA, IRD, et. al.), yet it was assumed that these people were who I was talking about. I was not. As I later made clear, this was based on conversations that I have had with people over the course of several years in several settings. These conversations happened with both lay and clergy persons within the United Methodist Church.

It was demanded of me to name names. I refused because, frankly, it’s none of anyone’s business. What’s more, I’m not going to inject people by name into such a conversation when they have no means by which to defend themselves (many of these people are not on social media as far as I know). Because I would name “name just one” as one person tweeted at me, I was called everything from a gossip to a liar, all because I refused to “out” people who held these views. As I made clear multiple times (which seemed to go unnoticed), my tweet was a general statement intended to express that there are people within the UMC who are against women being ordained into pastoral ministry. While I have no knowledge of anyone currently in a leadership position within the major traditionalist renewal movements holding these views (women are involved in leadership, a point that I have never challenged because, websites, etc.), such people can conceivably have high influence over those who do have leadership titles, or can conceivably gain those positions for themselves. My point was to be on guard and not blindly think that such people don’t exist and would not push their views if given the opportunity. Nothing more, nothing less.

And I was ridiculed for it.

I can handle anyone disagreeing with me. Anyone is welcome to at any time. What I will not tolerate is being disrespected or personally attacked in the course of that disagreement. What happened today was proof that civil discourse has gone the way of the dodo and has given me cause to consider whether or not I will be as quick to weigh in on these subjects. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s worth the uptick in my blood pressure. And as I told someone offline just today: I have to wonder if this topic is even one worth spending so much energy on, if that hill is really worth dying on.

But what I believe today has further shown me is a reminder of the toxic tribalism that exists in the human sexuality debate in the United Methodist Church. I have further been reminded of the danger of one finding themselves in an echo chamber. I have noted people on both extremes of the human sexuality debate being stuck in these chambers, unable to fathom an argument that is contrary to theirs. They refuse to hear it and engage in ugly forms of debate when they are challenged. Moderates like me – someone who dares to hope that we can find a way to continue to coexist in spite of our differences – often find ourselves stuck in the middle because we refuse to place ourselves in these chambers. We see both sides, we engage with both sides (or, we try to). And more often than not, assumptions are made about our intentions or we are reminded for the millionth time that we need to pick a side.

If we hope to be the kingdom on earth, we have got to figure out a way to engage in dialogue without resulting to attacks on a person’s character and even their faith. It’s unchristlike to engage in such tactics. If you want to know why many people are starting to think that the church can’t be trusted, look no further than Twitter. We have all got to go to the table, engage with one another. In order to do that, we must leave our echo chambers, disband the tribes, and commune. Is there a time to go our separate ways? Perhaps. But we need not engage in behavior that is inconsistent with that of a disciple int he process.

Meanwhile, I cling to Christ. I further cling to the hope offered by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the church at Galatia:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. Galatians 3:26-29 NLT

It’s time for us to start acting like it. I’m looking at you, fellow United Methodists.

Mental Illness Comes to Church

adult dark depressed face
Photo by Pixabay on

It’s a typical Sunday morning and the people are filing into the worship space at First Church in Some Town, Some State. The music flows, prayers are lifted up, and the Holy Spirit is very much present. The pastor comes up and delivers a well written and well prepared sermon and even throws in some humor to help drive the point home. Perhaps the people look upon the pastor and think that this is a person who has it all together, someone who doesn’t have many problems. Perhaps people in the congregation who are so inclined follow the pastor on social media and enjoy the engagement the pastor provides, the inspirational quotes, and the humorous posts they share. The pastor regularly makes posts about fun things they have done with their family, community events they have attended, church events put on, and such. In the pictures, the pastor is always smiling. Their words are always positive, uplifting, and give not one indication that anything is wrong in their lives. The pastor has it all together, they are among God’s favorites, and there is nothing bad going on.

Or is there?

Just from looking at your pastor, you may not know that they have some internal battles going on, battles that they have faced for up to their entire life. Specifically, they may have an invisible illness that seeks to destroy them, a disease that is raging in their brain and spreads to the entire body. If we knew that this person who did not look sick but actually had a disease such as cancer, we would be quick to encourage them in their treatment. But when the disease is not cancer but some type of mental illness, the reaction is often not as supportive. Many try to hide their struggles and live as normal of a life as possible. With the wonderful medications we have available today, counseling, and other means of psychological assistance most of the time people who struggle are able to live normally. But sometimes, the struggle gets harder. The patient – especially people who are in positions of ministry – dare not cry out for fear of being judged unfit for their position or as somehow not Christian enough. So, they struggle as quietly as possible until one day they get tired of the voices in their head telling them they are worthless, unloved, and a bad pastor. The person becomes so desperate to end this pain and – in their minds – improve the lives of those around them that they consider ending it all by killing themselves. And sometimes, they succumb to this disease and go through it.

This even happens to pastors such as Rev. Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in Chino, CA.

Rev. Stoecklein took his own life last weekend. The Instagram post from Inland Hills Church began to go viral and eventually made its way to my timeline. As I read it, I felt a lot of emotions. Mainly, I felt sadness for the congregation, his wife and children who must now deal with this tragedy, pick up the pieces, and move forward. The second place emotion was fear. Rev. Stoecklein’s suicide hit home for me because, like him, I’m one of the 1 in 6 Americans who struggle with mental illness. For both of us, this illness take on the forms of depression and anxiety, disorders I have struggled with for over a decade.

Why did I feel fear? Because this could have easily have been me.

To be clear, I have never been suicidal and I at least would like to think that if I found myself in that position I would have the wherewithal to cry out for help. Having said that, one thing I have learned from both firsthand experience and from seeing others struggle is that mental illness can make one do strange things. I have had days where I could not get out of bed to even brush my teeth because my mental illness had zapped every bit of motivation from my body. These bad days are rare; most days you would not have any idea that I have mental illness. Most days, I appear perfectly normal (well, normal for me).

Mental illnesses such as depression are real diseases, as real as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. It’s well beyond time that the stigma that exists about mental illness be ended, to have real and honest conversations about mental illness. People like me who struggle are not crazy. We are sick. We need help. We need love.

It’s time for the church to step up and give love and acceptance to people who struggle instead of judgement. Platitudes such as “You just need to pray more” or “You’re not sick, the devil is trying to steal your joy,” while well intended, are unhelpful and are actually harmful. Collectively, the church recognizes that diseases are real and generally encourage the faithful to seek treatment. But when it comes to mental health, this has not been the case. The church has generally preached that mental illness is purely a manifestation of a poor spiritual condition rather than a brain disorder. This, also, is harmful and toxic. This kind of thinking has caused more spiritual harm than almost anything else. To think that someone is depressed or having anxiety due to being in sin is a ridiculous notion and a gross misinterpretation of scripture. It’s not enough to just want to “pray it away.” In scripture, prayer is always followed by action. We have to act. We can no longer ignore mental illness and pawn it off as someone’s sin or stress.

The church must be a safe place for all of God’s beloved.

I am one of the 1 in 6. So was Rev. Stoecklein. I don’t know all of the details of his situation and it’s none of my business. But I would hope that he was surrounded by love, prayer, and was at least attempting to seek help. The harsh reality is, sometimes the voices telling a depressed person that they are worthless win. Let’s do what we can to be louder than the voices.

We do this with love.

Why the One Church Proposal is Bad for the United Methodist Church

tug-o-warAs we awaited the final report to be published from the Commission on a Way Forward, I resolved to not pledge support to any of the proposals until I had an opportunity to read the reports for myself. With all of the rumors and speculation about what the plans will and won’t do swirling around on social media and elsewhere, I found this difficult to do but I held on to this because I feel that the future of the United Methodist Church is too important to base opinions on some tweets or the views of bloggers (which may be a bit ironic seeing as I am a blogger). So, I continued to wait. Finally, my and everyone else’s patience paid off.

I have had an opportunity to review all of the proposals. I have to admit, I have a hard time supporting any of them. For example: The “traditionalist plan” is not specific enough for me. With the accountability models proposed, I can see a lot of potential for abuse and for witch hunts to ensue. This is not something I can support. I can see a day where clergy are called to the carpet and questioned for basically anything that could even be potentially considered support for homosexual marriage and ordination.

I don’t want a bunch of wannabe Delores Umbridge-types running the church.

The proposal I have the most issues with is the One Church Plan. This may be surprising to read since I consider myself a moderate and One Church has been touted as the proposal that moderates can get on board with. In a nutshell, One Church provides for a local option. Annual conferences and congregations would be able to decide for themselves whether or not they will allow homosexual marriage and homosexual clergy. This is a terrible idea and a proposal that needs to be soundly defeated.

Here are the reasons why I believe One Church is bad for the UMC.

  • One Church would change the polity of the UMC. The United Methodist Church has a connectional and episcopal polity. In a nutshell, this means we have a body – General Conference – that decides matters such as doctrine and theology and sets the official positions of the church. The Bishops oversee the congregations within their assigned annual conferences, appoint pastors, and so on. Congregations are not allowed to decide their doctrine and annual conferences are not allowed to decide which clergy they will and will not accept. This authority rests solely with General Conference. One Church would change this by giving congregations and annual conferences the ability to decide their doctrinal positions on homosexuality for themselves. This may sound like a good compromise but this is a Pandora’s box that should not be opened. If a congregation or annual conference is able to make decisions on human sexuality for themselves, what’s stopping them from deciding that they will not ordain female clergy? What about going against infant baptism? The polity of the United Methodist Church is not congregational. These matters are not for congregations and annual conferences to decide.
  • The United Methodist Church will only be more divided. Congregations that decide they can not abide by the doctrine decided by their annual conference will be given a way to leave the denomination or affiliate with another annual conference of their choice. This will only sew the seeds for further discord and schism within the United Methodist Church. The issue of human sexuality has been very polarizing and tribalism is very strong within the church. We see this with caucus groups such as the Reconciling Ministries Network and Wesleyan Covenant Association and all of the fighting that members of these and other groups have engaged in. One Church will do nothing to support unity and will instead increase division within the United Methodist Church.

Make no mistake: The future of the United Methodist Church is very much hanging in the balance and General Conference 2019 will be a pivotal time for the church. One Church is not going to solve all of the problems and will only increase them. One Church is not “a moderate’s dream come true” as someone stated on Twitter. One Church will only increase the division and tribalism that we are seeing.

But let’s be real: Regardless of which proposal is passed – or if none are passed (yes, that is possible) – we have only seen the beginning of the drama. Congregations and clergy are going to leave the church no matter what. The only question is which ones. I predict that ten years from now we will still be fighting over property and pensions from those who do leave. I have no idea what the “ideal” solution will be but one thing I know is that One Church is not it.

God help us.