Like scores of other United Methodist pastors, I wrote the following letter to my congregation on my way back from General Conference in St. Louis. I thought it might be helpful to share it here as well.
If before this week you had been paying only minimal attention to matters in the larger United Methodist Church, then you’re likely well-aware that something happened this week. Many of you have forwarded me articles from the NY Times, NPR, Washington Post, et al about the General Conference here in St. Louis. Even more of you have reached out to me over email and text to express confusion, saddness, and anger. Some of you have conveyed that you’ve either decided or are considering leaving the United Methodist Church. Some staff even have acknowledged that this makes them reassess their work relationship to the UMC.
Ask our last bishop, I’ve never been a company man. I don’t intend to start now.
So before I communicate anything else about General Conference’s decisions and what they mean for Annandale UMC, let me clear: we’ll still be having church come Sunday morning; that is, what happened here in St. Louis in no way changes the ministry of Annandale UMC. What Annandale UMC did last week to proclaim the Gospel of grace in our context is what Annandale UMC will be doing next week to proclaim that same message. And I believe— to the point where I’d get another job were it not so— that the Gospel of grace is unintelligible apart from the good news that all are welcomed by Christ and, by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, all are incorporated into Christ.
I often joke that the Church would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I’m not in a joking mood today, but I’ll double-down on my point. It makes absolutely no Gospel sense to me to divide the Church according to who’s in and who’s out when Paul tells us in Romans that by our baptisms we’re all already in Christ. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation when Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that not one of us is righteous. We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our holy-living or right-believing. Paul tells us in Romans that for all of us righteousness is not achieved but received— through our baptisms. We have been have been gifted with an alien righteousness— Christ’s own righteousness. It’s been given to us not through the Law but through Grace. And Grace is always an undeserved gift because Grace grants what you could never earn. What makes us a “child of God” is not anything inherent to us by birth nor anything we accrue in life; what makes us a ‘child of God” is our adoption by Christ through his death for us.
I wish more Christians would actually read Romans because it’s there God gives us the most inclusive of all doctrines:
“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”
As I repeat all the time to you on Sundays: Christ came not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or salvage the salvageable. Christ came to raise those who are dead in their trespasses. God’s Grace isn’t cheap; it isn’t even expensive.
It turns out that it’s costly when we forget that Grace is free. Indeed I fear our Gospel amnesia has broken the United Methodist Church.
These past few days have only confirmed for me how easily we end up with a toxic form of Christianity when we fail to make this distinction between Law and Grace.
What I witnessed at General Conference in the tit-for-tat of weaponized parliamentary procedure was a whole lot of people preaching the Law at one another, liberals and conservatives alike. The Law of Inclusivity vs. The Law of Biblical Authority with all the unsurprising talking points and proof texts marshalled to their sides. All this Law-laying left no room for Grace. Without Grace, there can be no charity, and without charity compassion remains only a concept.
I realize all this sounds overly theological compared to what you’ll read in the Atlantic or USA Today this week, but theology matters— especially now.
What I witnessed from the press box in St. Louis is a theological failure. Over the last four days, 864 delegates have argued (in often unholy and callous tones) about what constitutes a “lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not only is this unfortunate, it’s unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because the Gospel truth is right there in Romans as plain as the nose on your face:
We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching.
So, before I get into the weeds of what the hell happened I want you to know that you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re LGBTQ, you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. Notice, I said still. The unfortunate part of this decision is that it fails to appreciate how local churches already have, in fits and starts, figured out ways to be inclusive. Speaking of inclusivity, if you’re an outright, unapologetic homophobe you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church, too. If you’re somewhere between those poles still working out your own convictions on this question, you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re conservative, you’re welcome. If you’re liberal, you’re welcome. We’ll take you if you’re too skinny, if you thought Green Book actually deserved Best Picture, and even if you post annoying status updates whenever you’re exercising at the gym.
If all Christ requires of you is your need, then we as a church need nothing from you in order for you to participate fully in the Body of Christ.
While we’re on it, recent events have made it so I can longer be coy in my own beliefs: I believe marriage and ordination are very clearly vocations through which we live out our baptism. The liturgy makes that point crystal clear. And most Methodists get baptized long before they’ve figured out their sexuality— so if you’re LGBTQ and feel God is calling you to one of those vocations, I want you to know that you’re welcome here with me to discern God’s call upon your life. It’s been my experience that Jesus, in his great humor, persists in calling queer people and I’m enough of a biblical literalist to think we ought not tempt God by thinking we can put up barriers to God’s work in the world.
No matter what a handful of bureaucrats and lobbyists in St. Louis insist, I say all of you are welcome here because the Gospel says the basis for your inclusion is not your goodness but your ungodliness. All you need for admission is your sin and I’ve been your pastor long enough to know that you all, gay and straight, have got that covered.
Take a deep breath because I’m about to pivot to Church business, and the business of the denomination couldn’t be further from the Gospel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as you’ve no doubt read in the papers or heard at your kid’s bustop, 438 delegates to 384 (53% to 47%) voted to adopt the Traditionalist Plan. As a pastor, I would never allow such a close, divisive vote to happen in our congregation but that’s exactly what happened here because both sides in the UMC have been playing this brinksmanship, winner-take-all game since before I became a Christian. The General Conference also considered several and approved one plan that would allow for churches to exit from the United Methodist Church with their assets and property.
After the vote, many wept and gathered to pray in the center of the floor in protest. Meanwhile, another group— only an arm’s distance away— sang, clapped, and danced in celebration. The mutual hostility and callousness were bracing.
If you don’t believe in original sin and low anthropology, this would have convinced you.
The Traditionalist Plan not only keeps our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language about homosexuality, it aims to ramp up enforcement of it, expediting the punishment of pastors, bishops, and congregations who marry or ordain LGBTQ Christians. Covering the General Conference as press for my podcast, I can tell you how I was surprised by the sheer number of gay clergy and gay clergy couples in attendance. In other words, parts of the United Methodist Church have found ways, despite the Book of Discipline’s restrictive language, to marry and ordain LGBTQ people. The One Church Plan would’ve protected this reality while respecting traditional norms in other contexts and cultures of the global Church. The Traditionalist Plan does more than maintain the Book of Discipline; it eliminates what has become a norm in many parts of the Church in America.
This is what my friend Bishop Will Willimon (who is nobody’s idea of a progressive) meant when he said to the Washington Post:
“This is not a victory of “tradition,” but another lurch toward punitive, exclusionary practice.”
The finance department of the denomination, for example, had cautioned the delegates before this week’s General Conference that the Traditionalist Plan was the one option before them that would break the UMC’s pension system because the new degree of loyalty to the Book of Discipline it will demand from churches and pastors likely will mean an exodus of centrist and progressive pastors and churches from the denomination.
Just last night, Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest church in the UMC, announced that he’d be convening a gathering of like-minded pastors and lay people after Easter to begin discussions about a new form of Methodism in America. Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC is preparing to leave the denomination. The New England Conference has already announced it will not abide the decision. I realize all this could sound alarming, but I think I owe it to you to tell you what I know. Pending a Judicial Council review of parts of it, the Traditionalist Plan will go into effect in January 2020. If the Judicial Council overtuns the Traditionalist Plan, a real possibility, then it is probable that the traditionalist wing of the denomination (the global, but not American, majority of the denomination, keep in mind) will exit with their property and assets. General Conference was already scheduled to meet this time next year so the fight will continue. However, because of the rate of growth in the global church, the traditionalist delegation will only be greater moving forward.
How Methodists have structured ourselves as a denomination for these past decades is clearly broken— that may be the only observation on which the General Conference delegates would concur and would require no translator. And it was no small part of the sadness I heard from older pastors. Of course, we’ve only structured our Church this way for a relatively short amount of time and, truthfully, United Methodists have never really been all that united. As Will Willimon put it:
“what’s passed for church unity for the last 40 years in the Methodist Church is a kind of bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: That’s a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church.”
Any honest United Methodist pastor or parishioner who’s not been in a coma during our institutional gatherings already knew the way things have been cannot be for much longer. The status quo needed disruption. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, by giving the United Methodist Church this disruption, has actually blessed it.
What’s the way forward now that the Way Forward has brought us here?
All this House of Cards-like ecclessial maneuvering gives you, Annandale UMC, three possible responses. There’s probably more, but three sounds biblical.
1. You can celebrate the passing of the Traditionalist Plan.
2. You can watch for the Judicial Council’s ruling on its constitutionality while aligning with like-minded congregations to amend it, undo it, or resist it.
3. You can discern if you want to stay within the United Methodist Church. I’ll get in trouble for acknowledging number three but I’ve told you I believe in transparency, and the reality is other churches will be talking about it so you may as well know it’s on the table.
The survey about the Way Forward I asked you to complete in the fall tells me that most of you don’t have the stomach for number three. Likewise, it tells me that even the traditionalists among you aren’t going to much like the tone of the Traditionalist Plan. That puts most of you somewhere in the neighborhood of number two.
This isn’t a conversation a pastor with six months in a congregation would ever want to have with a new church, but I believe I would be a bad leader if I pretended like everything was fine and was going to be fine.
The United Methodist Church is going to be different, no matter what happens.
I don’t invite conflict into my life, but I’m not afraid of it. Moving forward, we’re going to need to have conversations about this as a congregation, and we need to be honest that not everyone will like that we’re having the conversation. Some may not like where it goes. And that’s okay— after all, what got us into this mess was the expectation for uniformity of belief. What’s not okay, from a leadership perspective, is to wait passively for events to unfold and roll like a tsunami against your church.
However you feel about #1-#3 above, no matter if you would’ve voted at General Conference for the Traditionalist Plan or the One Church Plan, here’s what we should all be able to agree upon. The headlines in the news outlets coming out of General Conference have portrayed the UMC as a prejudiced, bigoted, and homophobic institution. Many in our community won’t take the time to learn the ins-and-outs of our polity to understand how and why the vote went as it did. They likely won’t even read the story. They’ve just seen the headlines shared across social media.
Like it or not, we’re now going to have a perception problem, made all the more tragic because it’s a perception I do not think corresponds to the character of our faith community.
Whatever is the way forward, I believe it begins with us, both individually and as a congregation, being the local PR in Annandale for the United Methodist Church. We need to find ways to communicate clearly and tangibly the good news:
God’s Grace does not require us to have a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching. We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching.
After this week and its unhelpful media blitz, I think that work of welcome should probably start with the LGBTQ folks in our pews. If you’re reading this, I want you to know that God’s Grace is for sinners, which makes you every bit as welcome as me*.
*Actually, I’m clergy. Next to lawyers, we’re always the bad guys in Jesus’ stories. So you’re probably more deserving to be here than me.