Okay, so I’ve wanted to write on this subject for a while now, but I didn’t feel like I had enough skin in the game to earn that right. I’m still not sure that I do, but I feel compelled to speak anyways. My wife (Sara) and I have been visiting a United Methodist Church on and off for the last year. As some of you know from previous articles, I stepped down from ministry in the Churches of Christ a little over a year ago for a sabbatical and to continue my education. Since then, we have been in a church limbo, if you will. We have gone back and forth between the CofC I preached for, a UMC, and other worship and service opportunities.
We have totaled six months with the UMC congregation, with four of those months consecutively leading up until now. We have been in a constant study concerning the doctrines and issues relevant to the UMC. And we have been in consistent conversations with a UMC pastor for almost two years regarding the UMC’s most pressing concerns. So, while we are not people who know all the “ins and outs” of the UMC, and while we did not grow up there, we are not completely ignorant either. When we research, we research hard! Still, we placed membership with a UMC and then, not much later, our new congregation disaffiliated from the denomination.
What’s the Issue?
Well, in the North Alabama Conference of the UMC, a third of the congregations have disaffiliated from the denomination. I don’t know the numbers for our specific area, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that 70% of congregations have disaffiliated. Some of those congregations will go independent, which means they will be self-governed. Some of those congregations will become part of the Free Methodist Church denomination. Others will become part of the new Global Methodist Church denomination. There are pastors who disagree one way or another with their congregations who have left or have been told to leave.
Why are these Congregations Disaffiliating?
It really depends on who you ask, their bias, and their perspective. Some say it is because the UMC will likely take out language in their literature that is explicitly against affirming interpretations of LGBTQ relationships (specifically regarding people who want to be ordained as pastors in the UMC). They choose to disaffiliate because they do not see room for grace regarding an affirming position on LGBTQ issues. Therefore, they leave a join another denomination within Methodism, or they remain independent.
Others might be a little more tolerant than that but still choose to leave because they think that the LGBTQ issues are just a symptom of the disease. They fear that taking out the language mentioned above is a slippery slope. However, they also point to other events/beliefs that are allegedly being “pushed” by the leadership in the UMC and say that it is not going to stop with taking the language out. It will get much worse. So, they left to become part of another denomination within Methodism, or they remained independent.
Others may or may not agree with the two paragraphs above, but they do agree that there is a systemic issue with the leadership on many grounds, not just LGBTQ issues. Therefore, they wish to be in an environment where they believe there is more trust and less “overreaching” by bishops. So, they left to become part of another denomination within Methodism, or they remained independent.
Some people who stayed did so because they are LGBTQ-affirming. Others wanted to stay because, regardless of their beliefs on LGBTQ issues, they were in love with their heritage in the UMC. Still, others wanted to stay simply because, regardless of denomination affiliation and regardless of interpretation concerning LGBTQ issues, they say disaffiliation is unnecessary division. Finally, others wanted to stay because they saw any other option as just as likely to have the same issues. And certainly, to be fair, there is likely nuance and overlap between all of these options for people who stayed or didn’t stay.
Global Methodist Church- Critics of the new GMC are saying that it is going to have the same bureaucracy as the UMC. It doesn’t really fix the issue; it just prolongs it. The LGBTQ issue will come up to a head again within the next 15 years, and they will be forced to die as a denomination or seek to show the same grace regarding other interpretations of the LGBTQ issue as they show other people, congregations, and denominations with their issues of disagreement. Also, many churches that have disaffiliated are not impressed with their experience with the attitudes of some of GMC leaders. To be fair, I have heard some GMC leaders demonstrate healthy leadership behaviors. But, from my perspective, I can definitely understand where the critics are coming from. Also, some believe that there is a slippery slope with the GMC on the role of women in the church because the cultural argument for a generous interpretation of LGBTQ issues is the same type of cultural argument for women in pastoral leadership.
Free Methodist Church- This denomination is better on the bureaucratic side because there are fewer bishops. And, in theory, the bishops they have are good about trusting the authority and discernment of the local pastors at each congregation. That said, they are explicitly against any form of pro-LGBTQ interpretations of Scripture. Those who are not impressed with the government and/or the attitude of the GMC might prefer the Free Methodist Church.
Independent Church- For some, being an autonomous congregation seems to make more sense because they can keep all of the government within the local congregation, they can start over, they can have more freedom to try new things, and they can have the freedom to handle “hot-button-issues” (like different interpretations regarding LGBTQ relationships) in the local church family. However, the support (financially, spiritually, etc.) that comes with being a part of a denomination is not an option when a church is independent.
Remaining UMC- Most UMC congregations have chosen to remain. Granted, a certain percentage are likely waiting it out to see if the “slippery slope” arguments that others have made hold any water. But most will likely stay. As for the people in areas where their local UMC has chosen to disaffiliate, the UMC is already working to plant new churches with the “displaced” congregants who wanted to stay in a UMC. As I said before, people wanted to stay for different reasons.
So, What’s My Take?
I can’t pretend to understand how people feel or why they make the decisions they make. I doubt I know how I feel about most things or why I make the decisions I make. Many of the people in the middle of all of this grew up UMC and are heartbroken, regardless of which “side” they are on. How am I supposed to fully comprehend that? I am trying to be sympathetic about that.
That said, I’m affirming of LGBTQ relationships, and I’ve never been a huge fan of denominations in general. If I had my way, every congregation would be independent. But more than the desire for congregational autonomy, I desire for there never to be unnecessary division. From what I can tell from conversations I’ve had and the research I’ve done over the past two years, *most* of the “slippery slope” arguments made against the UMC are false, exaggerated, and/or relatively rare exceptions.
Furthermore, there is no legitimate reason to assume that congregations will be forced to have an official “affirming” position of LGBTQ interpretation. It is likely that the UMC will have no official stance on the subject and leave the interpretations to the bishops, pastors, and local congregants. There will be some congregations and some congregants, and some pastors that lean one way or another, but the general outlook will be that there are legitimate reasons to hold different views of interpretation on the subject.
I can no longer be a part of a congregation that doesn’t leave room for different interpretations of this issue. I think we can have both conclusions represented in the same congregation and still come down to the same conclusion regarding how we treat people. Like I said earlier, Sara and I are in limbo right now. If it were up to us, we would be pastoring a Disciple of Christ (Christian Church) or an independent church right now or going to the congregation I last ministered as a member, or going to an affirming UMC. But none of those are really an option right now. All I know is that my heart breaks for the church right now. Not just the UMC. But just when I lose all hope, I see people show incredible love and support in supernatural ways. I dare say God is still at work in all of our messes! – Jesse