WCA Leaving Regardless? It Seems Possible

StillUMI have not been very quiet about my issues with the Wesleyan Covenant Association ever since I realized their tactics. Recently, I met with someone who is high in the WCA leadership at the conference leadership and we had a nice long chat over coffee. I do appreciate his willingness to meet with me and I do believe he earnestly listened to my concerns. He was very sincere in his answers as well. I still felt uneasy about WCA after our meeting so I have maintained my distance.

Ever since Rev. Brian Collier was allowed to remain part of WCA’s leadership council in spite of WCA’s insistence that it existed to strengthen orthodox ministry within the United Methodist Church and in spite of the fact that Collier led his congregation (The Orchard) out of the United Methodist Church, I felt like some of my suspicions were correct. At the time, I felt that WCA was likely planning to form a new denomination and to leave the UMC at some point.

I hate to use the term “I told you so” but, well, I told you so.

Last night, Mainstream UMC released a letter, purported to have been sent out by the North Alabama chapter of WCA, detailing plans for WCA after the specially-called session of General Conference in a couple of weeks. It would seem that unless WCA gets their way – or even if they do get their way – they are planning to take their ball and go play in a yard that they will make. Also, as of this moment, no one from WCA or WCA itself has refuted the contents of this letter (if this happens, I will edit this post to indicate such).

WCA has set April 25-26  as the dates for the convening conference of the “Next Methodism.” Further, they have apparently had a team of leaders working together on how the denomination will be set up, core beliefs, etc. Many of these were adopted at WCA’s last gathering. So, what are the chances of WCA actually leaving? Per the letter:

If the One Church Plan is passed, there is a 100% probability of calling the convening conference. Our current evaluation is that the proponents of the One Church Plan do not have the necessary votes to enact that plan.

If the special General Conference adopts neither the One Church Plan nor the Modified Traditional Plan, or adopts a Traditional Plan with no enhanced accountability provisions, there is a 70% probability of calling the convening conference. Our current evaluation is that this is the most likely outcome for the special General Conference.

If the special General Conference adopts the Modified Traditional Plan with the enhanced accountability provisions, there still may be churches which are intent on departing from the United Methodist Church. The WCA will work with those churches to transition into a new Methodist movement. Those churches which indicate a desire to be part of something new will be invited to a convening conference. Other churches would be given the opportunity to move to what is new at a later time, if they decided that became advisable. Our current evaluation is that there is a higher probability of the Modified Traditional Plan being adopted than the One Church Plan being adopted.

So, basically, WCA – or at least a significant portion of their organization – will likely leave no matter what happens in Saint Louis. In other words, they have already broken covenant.

Now is not the time to be making plans for departure. WCA has maintained that they were only making “contingency plans” but this is far from a contingency. This is a certainty at this point. I further believe that once the rubber meets the road, WCA is not going to have as much support as they believe they will. I personally know several conservatives who will not be joining them. I know many congregations that hold orthodox beliefs that will not be joining them either. Of course, I could be wrong but I truly believe that that limb they’re going out on is going to be a little lonely. None the less, I do believe that a lot of clergy and laity are going to depart with them. May God be with them and with us. I will not, however, be joining them in WCA or whatever WCA becomes.

I, for one, believe in actually keeping covenant.

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On Blame and History

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818Yesterday, a sister in Christ and clergy colleague shared a link to a blog post regarding the upcoming Judicial Council decision regarding the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto at the last Western Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Oliveto’s election is being contested due to her being a married lesbian, which is against the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. The post was written by the Rev. Jeremy Smith, an Elder serving First UMC in Portland, Oregon. Rev. Smith has been an outspoken proponent of changing of the BoD‘s current language against the practice of homosexuality by clergy so I was not surprised by his expression of support for Bishop Oliveto. What I was surprised about was his attack on United Methodists from the south.

To take him at his word, Rev. Smith feels that southern UMs are to blame for all of the ills within the denomination.

I am a native Mississippian and I certainly acknowledge that the south is not without blame in a lot of incidents of intolerance, especially matters of racism and other discriminatory practices. I have been outspoken about such myself. Laying the blame for any of the ills within the United Methodist Church squarely at the feet of the faithful from the south is disgusting.

This assessment could not be farther from the truth.

Rev. Smith’s attempt to paint the south in such a poor light comes across as an ad hominem attack on the entirety of the southern US. His insinuation that the South Central Jurisdiction is a “jurisdiction behaving badly” by challenging the election of Bishop Oliveto is ridiculous. Our Discipline allows for declaratory decisions to be sought by bodies within the UMC and this is what is occurring. No, the SCJ can not interfere in the ordination of clergy elsewhere but the fact that Bishop Oliveto is now a bishop – and thus part of the Council of Bishops – means that she is now accountable to the entire UMC, not just her annual conference or jurisdiction. The SCJ were well within their rights to challenge this election for that very reason.

Regardless of how one feels of the current language regarding homosexual practice in the Book of Discipline, the fact remains that at least for the moment practicing homosexuals are not allowed to be ordained as clergy (Bishop Oliveto has repeatedly had charges filed against her under church law – even by people within her own jurisdiction – but I will not speculate as to why these charges have not been dealt with as they have been in other annual conferences and jurisdictions). There are avenues for changing church law but the Western Jurisdiction – which due to their relatively small membership do not have as many delegates as other jurisdictions at General Conference do – have instead chosen to buck the system. The message they have sent to the rest of the connection is, “We’re going to do what we want no matter what anyone else says.”

With that in mind, perhaps the SCJ is not the “jurisdiction behaving badly.” And if such is not a schismatic action, I do not know what is.

Rev. Smith may also do well to be reminded that the election of Bishop Oliveto occurred on the 18th ballot. The position that Bishop Oliveto now occupies was the only open office within the episcopacy in the Western Jurisdiction… and it took 18 ballots to elect her. Let that sink in. This tells me that the majority of the Western Jurisdiction is not of one mind on the homosexual issue, contrary to what Rev. Smith seems to feel.

Rev. Smith also points out that the south is ultimately responsible for the current jurisdictional structure of the church, and that the segregated Central Jurisdiction where African-American congregations, clergy, and other leadership were concentrated. Unfortunately, history proves that this is true and I agree with Rev. Smith when he states that this is an ugly stain on our church. With that said, I have more bad news for Rev. Smith: The northern Methodists agreed to this and went along with church-sanctioned segregation for nearly 30 years, in spite of the clear anti-racism and anti-slavery teachings of John Wesley.

Why did the north agree to segregation – simply to grow the Methodist Church? My own experience previously living in a non-southern state is one of even deeper segregation than I witnessed in modern Mississippi. I agree that racism is a blemish on our church’s history, but the blame is not solely on the south especially when it was the northern branch of the church who agreed to the Central Jurisdiction compromise.

Both groups are equally guilty of allowing it to happen.

Here’s a history lesson: The groundwork for the desolation of the Central Jurisdiction was laid by many Methodists, including clergy from the Mississippi Annual Conference. The Born of Conviction Statement was written and signed by clergy in Mississippi to decry segregation within the church and in schools. They faced much opposition and many had to leave Mississippi after the statement was published. Rev. Smith would argue that the election of Bishop Oliveto may be a similar action, but I do not agree with such thinking.

All of this to say: The southern jurisdictions are not the ones to blame for all of the issues within the United Methodist Church and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous. To paint southern Methodists in as poor a light as he has is just as ridiculous.

Let me be clear: I have nothing against Rev. Smith. His posts have generally been thought-provoking and I find myself agreeing with him on several issues. My issue here is Rev. Smith’s opinion that the southern UMs are the ones being the “sticks in the mud” as we say back home within the United Methodist Church. I can not agree with such thinking and find such thinking to be offensive on so many levels, not to mention untrue.

Thoughts?

In a State of Grief

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Credit: Rev. Giles Lindley

Yesterday as I was driving into Stanton to run some errands, I heard my phone chime with a message. When I reached my destination, I checked my phone before I went inside. It was a message from a friend and clergy colleague in the North Georgia Annual Conference with a link to the website of Getwell Road UMC in Southaven, Mississippi. Her message was, “Have you heard about this?” When I clicked the link, it was voting results of a congregational vote (the page has since been removed). The result of the vote, overwhelmingly, was that the congregation would seek to disassociate from the United Methodist Church.

I was floored.

Then resident bishop of the Mississippi Annual Conference, James Swanson, Sr., issued a statement confirming not only Getwell Road was exploring a disassociation but that The Orchard in Tupelo, Mississippi was also discerning leaving.

Lead Pastor of The Orchard, Rev. Brian Collier, stated that, “he doesn’t want to get involved in the debate. ”

The argument is going to be a long, drawn out one. And we think it’s an enormous distraction and we don’t be distracted. We want to get on with the ministry Jesus has called us to.

I think Rev. Collier and I would have to agree to disagree.

While wanting to concentrate on ministry without a “distraction” is commendable, I am disheartened that he and Rev. Bill Beavers (Getwell Road’s lead pastor) and their congregations have not given the Commission on a Way Forward time to complete their work. I believe that we should see the process through, wait for General Conference to decide what course of action the denomination will take, and then make decisions on whether to stay or go. I have heard rumors that other churches are also considering taking similar actions and this causes me even more disappointment. While I do not agree with unity for the sake of unity, I also don’t believe that the Body of Christ should be unnecessarily further divided.

Now is not the time to be making our exit.

I intend to remain a pastor in the United Methodist Church at least until this process is finished and wait for General Conference to make their decision. Then, and only then, will I further discern how I live out the calling that God has placed on me. Right now, I intend to continue to pray for the United Methodist Church, our congregations, and all who are involved in the decisions as we discern how we understand scripture and seek to live and minister together. I am watching, listening, praying, and waiting. To do anything else at this point, in my opinion, is not prudent.

I hope you will join me in praying for Getwell Road, The Orchard, their pastors, parishioners, and everyone within the Mississippi Annual Conference who are involved in these discussions. And pray that we exercise restraint and not jump to premature conclusions.

Now is not the time to abandon ship.

Not Calling for a Split

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m not a lifelong Methodist. I grew up in another denomination and at some point I began to question what I was being taught and what I had always believed. It was thanks to my wife that I joined the United Methodist Church and came to realize that what I had always felt in my soul was true about God and scripture most aligned with Wesleyan theology. Whether I realized it or not, I have always been Methodist even if it wasn’t in name. The Wesleyan-Arminian hermeneutic (I’m in seminary so I might as well use a fancy preachin’ word) is, in my opinion, the best way to articulate the gospel and to live it out.

The United Methodist Church was where I  began to learn the most about Christ and my identity in Him. Jessica and I were married in a UM church (Decatur United Methodist Church – Decatur, Mississippi). My first time to preach as a lay speaker was in a UM church (Richton United Methodist Church – Richton, Mississippi). I made the decision to answer the call to pastoral ministry in a UM church (Central United Methodist Church – Meridian, Mississippi). The people within the United Methodist Church are the ones who have affirmed that I have the gifts and graces necessary for pastoral ministry and who have invested in my seminary education (MEF). The United Methodist Church is where I have served as a pastor (Oak Grove United Methodist Church – Meridian, Mississippi), and where I am currently serving as a pastor (Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, Kentucky) while I attend Asbury Theological Seminary (not a UM seminary but they are an approved school and turn out a ton of UM clergy).

The United Methodist Church is where I hope to serve out the time of my ministry. Among the many reasons that I have an affinity for the UMC is the fact that there is so much diversity. The UMC is a global church with churches all over the world. While Africa tends to get a lot of the attention, the UMC also has presence and is seeing fruit in several countries in Europe and Asia. There are also many vital ministries that the UMC facilitates such as Imagine No Malaria, The United Methodist Committee on Relief, and countless others which are done at the Annual Conference and district level. There are many UM congregations which take outreach to their communities seriously and who spread the love of Christ both in preaching and in action.

And we do all of this in spite of our differences. We are diverse in our thoughts on all sorts of topics and even some nuances of theology. We are conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, and everything in between. We come from the entire spectrum of backgrounds and modes of living. We are a multitude of races, speak a multitude of languages, and, yes, some of us are LBGTQ. And yet, in spite of all of these differences which could divide us, we still typically find ways of working along and with one another. In any given congregation you will find people who fit any of these molds or even none of them. Regardless, the gospel is preached for all people to know that there is forgiveness, transformation, redemption, reconciliation and love available to one and all.

I’m not ready to give up on the United Methodist Church. I don’t believe that God is ready to give up on the UMC either. Unfortunately, a lot of people are. Just today I have seen two people – both of whom I respect greatly – publicly call for a split of the denomination over the human sexuality issue. I’m saddened by the fact that there are people who, in spite of the denomination having much to offer, wish to make the UMC a one issue church. Well meaning people who are entrenched in their positions are ready to give up, take their toys and go play in another yard. One of the biggest problems in this debate, in my opinion, is that people who are on the extremes of the debate are being heard while people in the center are being shouted down.

Several claim that the majority of people in the UMC are ready to split. I beg to differ.

I believe there are more people, like me, who are in the center than the people on the extreme ends realize. We are just not being heard. We try but people on the extreme left and right are much louder in spite of there likely not being as many on their respective sides as they think. People in the center are unfairly vilified as being wishy-washy, lukewarm or simply trying to preserve the institution. While I’m not sure that any of us have the answers as to what to do, we do believe that a way can be found for us to remain united in spite of our differences. We want the UMC to be about more than just one issue.

We want to build bridges, not blow them up.

In the Service of Word and Table as found in the United Methodist Hymnal and United Methodist Book of Worship, there is a line which reads, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” At chapel services at Asbury, the congregation says these words along with the celebrant (typically, only the celebrant says these words) and it’s something that I think I will start to have my own congregation say together as well. But as I ponder this in light of the ongoing debate on human sexuality in the UMC, I have to ask this question…

Do we really mean these words or are they just words on a page or on a screen?

Ponder that.

UMC General Conference: Rumors and Games

Yoda-QuotesI am not at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in Portland, Oregon but I have been watching through social media and the video stream when I’m able. It has been stressful to watch so much fighting among people who I greatly respect and even admire. Today has, by far, been the worse.

It all started during the night when rumors were released by the Love You Neighbor Coalition (LYNC – a group which advocates for LGBTQ inclusion) which claimed that the Council of Bishops were set to announce a plan for schism which would divide the UMC into liberal, progressive, and centrist factions. This afternoon the President of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough (pronounced “Oh”) addressed General Conference to deny these rumors and say that the rumors were the result of conversations that the Bishops have, indeed, had (from his tone, I speculate these conversations were no different than conversations many people within the UMC have been having) but that nothing pertaining to separation or schism was going to be presented or advocated by the Council of Bishops. In short, the rumors were pure bunk.

Assuming all of this is correct, I have to say that I feel that this was nothing but a publicity stunt perpetrated by LYNC. Personally I find such stunts pulled by any kind of special interest group of any kind to be sickening. These people have played and heightened the fears of many within and without the General Conference and I can not denounce their actions enough.

I don’t have time for games and neither should they.

I have no time or desire to play these games when we have a world with hurting people in it. We have people who desperately need the gospel and when I’m trying to figure out how best to reach out to them, I don’t have time for games. I don’t have time for games when I live and serve in a county with one of the highest rates of poverty and drug addiction in the state of Kentucky. I don’t have time for games when I have people within my congregation who I am trying to care for when they are sick, dying, or uncertain about their faith. I don’t have time for such games when there are people who have been harmed by the church and those within it who I am trying to show love to.

If you feel that you have time for such games, I encourage you to check yourself.

I am one of the people in the center of this debate where I believe we can find a way to coexist in spite of our differences. Unfortunately, people in the center are not being heard because those at the extreme ends of the homosexual issue insist on being heard because it’s “our way or no way.” My desire is for the table and those at it to be increased, not hindered in any way. I don’t have the answers but I hold to the hope that a way to coexist can be found. In Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt, F. Belton Joyner used the analogy of the church being intended to be a large bus with lots of people on it as opposed to a two-seater convertible with “just me and Jesus.” We need to strive to keep it that way.

Even if the bus is a double-decker, the point is we would still be on the same bus.

I have not been a Methodist all my life (my wife gets the blame or the credit for bringing me to the UMC); I grew up in a church within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which broke off from the PCUSA way back when. I’ve seen first hand the damage and the scars which are left from such splits. I constantly heard comments like, “those liberals are ruining that other church, I’m glad we left. We don’t want them here.” If the UMC splits and further fractures the body of Christ, such is what awaits us. I can not, in good conscience, support any talk of a split when I still feel that it can be avoided.

Let’s stop playing games, spreading silly rumors, and let’s stop the nastiness toward one another. Let’s work for unity and the good of the Body. Let’s be the church and stop the foolishness.

Submitted for what it’s worth,
Jonathan