What I Saw (and Felt) at UMCNext

I was one of the participants from the Indiana Annual Conference at UMCNext. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the gathering. Only time will tell whether it was a step forward or a side step.

The following are my impressions of what happened and what it might mean as we move toward General Conference.

Let me own my bias: I support plans for the creation of a new denomination that would have a concordat with a traditionalist United Methodist Church or the dissolution of the United Methodist Church into two or three new denominations. I do not support the strategy of staying in the United Methodist Church to force traditionalists to leave through acts of resistance.

THE MEETING

The gathering began in the sanctuary with lengthy introductions by Adam Hamilton and members of the convening team. They acknowledged that no single goal or strategy would come out of this event. Following them was an array of individuals who gave testimonies about the matrix of heterosexism, sexism, and racism before we shared communion. In a word, “Justice” was the theme of the gathering.

For the next day and a half, we were assigned to tables with individuals from different annual conferences. For me, the best part of the meeting was the depth of reflection at our tables. The most frustrating part of the meeting was that we did not have enough time to go further with those conversations.

We affirmed that racism must be dealt with as an essential part of a vision for the future. Too much time was spent talking about different forms of resistance. And typical for United Methodists, there was too much wordsmithing about values instead of strategizing about practical matters.

The heart of the meeting was the consideration of three broad strategies: (1) dissolve the denomination and organize three new denominations; (2) leave and reaffiliate as a new denomination; (3) stay in and resist until traditionalists leave. Members of the convening team gave lengthy introductions to each proposal, outline the pros and cons. I felt that there was a negative bias in the overview of option two. Then the tables discussed them, and we took straw polls.

Each option polled about the same—roughly 60 percent liked each one enough to want to do more work on them. Because the first two options are similar, it boils down to a choice of whether to stay or leave. When that question was posed, the straw poll showed that 57 percent favored some form of leaving or dissolving the denomination.

Wednesday morning, we sat with our annual conference groups. At the Indiana table, there were honest, hard conversations about the struggles, past and present, of being centrist and progressive in our highly conservative conference.

Reflecting the wishes of the body, the convening team announced that we will take a two-pronged approach: Pursue plans for dissolution and resist the Traditional Plan. The convening team summarized four guiding principles. They are fine, but they imply that the only thing we will do is stay in and resist. There was no mention of a two-prong strategy in the written press release. In his clearest statement, Hamilton summarized his position: “Church of the Resurrection is staying to resist as long as possible” for the sake of those churches who are unable or not ready to leave at this time.

There was an inevitable and productive messiness to our time together. Hamilton and the convening team did a yeoman’s job of organizing the diverse group. However, I think they are dominated by a bias toward the option of staying and resisting.

3 CRUCIAL QUESTIONS

The tensions and ambiguities in the gathering point to three crucial questions about tactics, strategy, and vision.

The Tactical Question—How effective is resistance? Acts of resistance are designed to appeal to potential supporters and to shame opponents, but they can quickly backfire if they portray the protestor as obstinate. Sanctions—such as withholding apportionments—are effective if they are targeted and substantial, but usually need a long period of time to build up an accumulative effect. Also, acts of resistance must have a targeted focus. A shotgun approach makes the protestors feel good but never work.

Effectiveness is linked to a goal, but there is a spectrum of four goals coming out of UMCNext: resistance for uniting a centrist-progressive coalition; resistance for persuading undecided congregations and pastors; resistance for leveraging a deal with traditionalists; resistance for changing the denomination. The effectiveness of resistance diminishes quickly as you move across that spectrum.

The Strategic QuestionAt what point does the strategy of resistance work against the strategy of envisioning new denominations? This gets at the reason for resistance. If it is to stay in and take over, then it is directly at odds with the creation of a new denomination. Right now, because the alliance between centrists and progressives is founded on their shared opposition to the Traditional Plan, this contradiction is not felt. But at some point, these two divergent goals will work against each other and the strategy of resistance will interfere with the strategy of visioning.

This issue could resolve itself if a vision of a new denomination is attractive to moderate churches, which would resolve Hamilton’s concern. Ironically, the longer the centrists focus on resistance, the less time we have to create an alternative that will attract undecided congregations. The deadline for General Conference petitions is looming, and the window of opportunity for negotiating a gracious exit is closing. The strategy of stay and resist is a gamble that could lose badly.  

The Visionary Question—What kind of spiritual disposition is needed to receive God’s vision? The gathering concluded with a reaffirmation of baptism and the first baptismal question symbolized the mood of resistance in the meeting: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”  This is necessary because the traditionalists advocate a theology of death based on a gendered righteousness. But it only expresses what we are against, not what we are for.

What we need to emphasize going forward is love. If Christ is our center, then love will be our way and love enables us to receive God’s vision for a new denomination. The love of Jesus Christ is the only foundation for a new denomination. It is what will make such a vision attractive to undecided congregations.

This is not to say that we should stop emphasizing justice. As Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” But love is more than resistance, it leads us to liberation in Jesus Christ. This is what Our Movement Forward aspires to in their statement “Loved and Liberated.”

At the same time, Christ enables us to love our enemies. Only by loving them do we keep from carrying the dysfunctions of the United Methodist Church into a new denomination. This is why Kent Millard, President of United Theological Seminary, makes the case for separation.

Love gets us to the other baptismal question: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races”—and orientations and genders.

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Notes for a New Methodism

Rev. Darren Cushman Wood is the senior minister of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana and is an elder and full member of the Indiana Annual Conference. He is a graduate of the University of Evansville and Union Theological Seminary (New York). Darren was a delegate to the 2004 & 2008 General Conferences and a delegate to the 2000 & 2016 Jurisdictional Conferences. He is the author of "The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops" and "Blue Collar Jesus: How Christianity Supports Workers' Rights."

17 thoughts on “What I Saw (and Felt) at UMCNext”

  1. At what point does the strategy of resistance work against the strategy of envisioning new denominations? ”
    We / centrist- progressives need to stop hounding and pressuring those who disagree with us in this broken marriage. Detaching and letting go of a relationship takes courage and strength. Someone said, “Letting go isn’t the end of the world; it’s the beginning of a new life.” My heart resonate with the words from Ted Grimsrud a Mennonite pastor he writes, “Jesus did not save me from sorrow or intervene to fix my problems. Jesus did not lift me out of history into a place of tranquility and bliss. What Jesus did do is enter into my circumstances, remind me of the path of love as the path to sustenance, walk with me in my sorrow, loneliness, and confusion.” Jesus will not abandon us if we divorce. ( probably not happy) But he understands our human condition; He is empathetic to our pain.
    You write,” I support plans for the creation of a new denomination that would have a concordat with a traditionalist United Methodist Church or the dissolution of the United Methodist Church into two or three new denominations.” As a fellow Hoosier, I wholeheartedly agree with you…

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    1. Keep in mind, I am a progressive who does not believe that same sex/gender acts of intimacy are sinful. So by “theology of death” I mean that the traditionalist stance contributes to the alienation and shaming of LGBTQ persons. This is a spiritual death because it is a theology that drives a wedge between the individual and their relationship with God, leaving the individual in a perpetual state of shame. It is a psychological death because of the great harm it does to the individual’s emotional well-being. And, especially, it leads to physical death because of the direct relationship between the high rates of LGBTQ teen suicide and the religious messages of shaming and rejection they have been subjected to. My church serves such individuals and I see a repeated pattern linking their suicide attempts with the traditionalist message they have heard and internalized as they tried to be “Christians”. What I mean by “gendered righteousness” is that I believe that the traditionalist theology implies that one must be heterosexual or celibate in order to receive and retain God’s righteousness (i.e. justification and sanctification). Instead, I believe that if we are saved by grace alone then our righteousness is not based on our sexual orientation or gender identity but based only on what Christ did on the Cross. I believe that what traditionalists are promoting is akin to the believers in Acts who said that one must be circumcised (i.e. have Jewish identity) in order to receive the salvation of Jesus Christ. I read Acts 10 as paradigmatic for my understanding of the current debate. But again, I am making a very very big assumption that you may or may not agree with: homosexual behavior is not sin per se. Instead, I believe that, like heterosexual behavior, it may or may not be sinful depending on how it is practiced. If such behavior is exploitative, manipulative, selfish, etc. then there is sin in sexual behavior. Or, to put it this way: All that matters is that you love and trust Jesus and you bear the fruit of the Spirit. Sorry for the long reply–you asked a good question!

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  2. I believe there are many centrists and traditionalists who would desire a blessed separation. I cheer for your statement. But you also nailed it – the bias of Hamilton and company, along with our CoBs who know there are more traditonal ACs than there are traditionalist Bishops (or even moderate Bishops for that matter. ) Our seminaries have continued to produce moderate and progressive clergy for our more conservative churches. (and isn’t that a whole other conversation – the will and empowerment of our laity.) So without the support of Adam Hamilton or our CoBs, who will convene a meeting of the minds of those along our theological spectrum who want to find a blessed way to divide – as the clooc ticks toward GC2020? As you so well shared, the egg baskets coming out of UMC Next, have the high potential for cracking. Our denom is already in decline in the US. More conflict and resistance will only hasten our death. I choose gracious divorce over death.

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  3. Indeed, well said and a solidly framed opportunity for the only way forward. As a “traditionalist” (and I do wish there was another term for us), it is pleasant to hear kind, but truthful words from the centrist/progressive side. The likes of Tom Berlin’s words still burns my heart–even though I forgave him for his ugly remarks–it took me a couple of days to release that wound. I do pray that common sense will rule next year and the UMC will dissolve and in its place, new expressions of the Kingdom of God.

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  4. I appreciate this critique of resistance. I do wish, however, that you had acknowledged the decades of faithful resistance that have gotten us to this point. By acknowledging that, you could have expanded your critique by asking, “What makes people who haven’t resisted in the past ready to lead a resistance into the future?” I was deeply disappointed when I learned that Adam Hamilton has never done a same-gender wedding and prohibits COR staff from doing them. That is not the face of the resistance.

    Tyler Schwaller on UM-Forward has a great post about this.

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  5. Dear Darren, Thank you for a very thoughtful and helpful post. I appreciate your insight that we actually need (this is my language, not yours) a well-considered action plan rather than more rallies.

    Unless we have a concrete, actionable plan,I foresee, in my fevered imagination, an unintentional dissolution of the United Methodist Church: Likely scenarios such as :

    1) Many congregations will slip away from the connection because church members will lose interest in supporting an ever more dysfunctional system. There won’t be enough money in an annual conference to contest the Trust Clause or to bring charges against pastors. Conferences will have no real choice but to let them go.

    2) Many congregations will give up and disaffiliate in everything but name. That is, evermore congregations will cease paying mission shares or will drastically reduce their payout. Conferences will then have to cut staff and programming in the face of rapidly declining revenues–which of course is already happening. For example, my Conference has cut 4 DS positions in three years and my guess is that more will be cut in the next few years.

    3) The divide over this issue and others is deepening with no real hope of resolution. The rancor and mutual vilification between the sides is at a fever pitch. It will only get worse. Churches will intentionally and with great fanfare leave the denomination thus harming the witness of those who remain.

    All this to say, I agree with you in that we need some orderly, intentional strategy to move forward whether it be three new denominations or the orderly dissolution of the UMC. One way or another, great change that will do great harm to our witness will happen if we do not act with great intention and discernment.

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  6. Why do we need another denomination? Why don’t the traditionalist just go worship with the Southern Baptists? There are plenty of conservative churches they could attend. They do not have to destroy the UMC!

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    1. Could one not as well ask why progressives don’t just leave and join the Episcopalians? If one finds it a good thing that the UMC has become more of a global church, and our global brothers and sisters are predominantly traditionalist on the subject issues, isn’t it presumptuous (privilege, American exceptionalism, and such epithets come to ming) to assume the new cultural norm in the U.S. is the aberration? I think it is progressives who are destroying the traditional (only 2,000 years of tradition) church.

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    2. And, of course, Traditionalists wonder why Progressives don’t simply leave and join one of the denominations that already hold doctrine consistent with their positions. After all, “They don’t have to destroy the UMC!”

      What makes you think your position is correct to the exclusion of others? I heard one Traditionalist ask, “Why do I have to give up the church that I love so that they (the progressives) can have the church that they love?”. Good question for either side of this ugly controversy.

      My greatest disappointment is that pastors, ds, and bishops treat so cavalierly their covenant sworn before God, the annual conferences and the greater UMC to uphold the laws of the church. I’m wondering when lying to God and the people of the UMC became acceptable to our leadership. If, in good conscience, an elder or bishop can’t uphold their covenant, they should resign and find a denomination that fits their doctrine. To me, that’s the only honorable and credible thing to do.

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    3. Said another way, “Why do we need another denomination? Why don’t the progressives just go worship with the Episcopalians? There are plenty of progressive churches they could attend. They do not have to destroy the UMC!”. Neither way is particularly helpful.

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