On the final afternoon of the United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis, the Traditional Plan having just secured passage with a comfortable majority of votes, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor.
They fell on their knees and wept, praying in protest and lament.
Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration.
It reminded me of how scripture reports the dedication of the Second Temple in the Old Testament. Some of the exiles, having returned home to a razed nation, celebrated the new temple. Others, scripture notes, knew this new temple was a bullshit knockoff and wept. Of course the chief difference between the Book of Ezra and General Conference is that in the former’s case the disparity in emotions was not produced by one party doing willful damage to the other party.
If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity, it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box in the former home of the St. Louis Rams— this doesn’t mean, however, that it’s incompatible with United Methodism as we’ve selected to order the life of our institution.
The fallout from General Conference obscures a basic fact of organizations and leadership.
That is, every system gets exactly the results it is designed to produce.
That the decision-making mechanism known as General Conference produced such an acrimonious, callous, and (for the life of the local church) disruptive result should not be viewed as an aberation but as the expected outcome of the system as we United Methodists have arranged it since 1968.
What’s lamentable, in my view, is that the passage of the Traditional Plan has now tricked many centrist and liberal Methodists into believing that what ails United Methodism now is our denomination’s position on human sexuality.
Finally, at long last, Methodists on the left and the right poles are unaminous. Just as conservatives have long attributed Methodism’s decline to its liberal social agenda, now liberal and even moderate Methodists think our chief problem is that our denomination has the wrong stand on sexuality. An enormous amount, if not most, of our energy as centrist and liberal Methodists will now be channeled into correcting that stand rather than addressing the system which produced such a destructive, adversarial 50/50 vote.
Those who believe that all would be well in United Methodism had the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan passed are living in a fantasy.
To be sure, the passage of the Traditional Plan has given many local churches like my own little choice but to articulate an open and inclusive position towards those LGBTQ Christians in our congregations and communities, yet what’s even more regrettable in my view is that the United Methodist Church long has victimized LGBTQ Christians (and is now scapegoating conservative African Christians) to the end of ignoring the larger illness that ails us as a denomination. A shrinking tribe finds more issues over which to fight, and United Methodism has been in decline since its inception. We’d be unwise to assume that’s anomaly. Again, it’s leadership 101. Every system gets the results it’s designed to achieve.
The problem in United Methodism is not sexuality but the structure of United Methodism itself.
In nearly 20 years I have served a variety of congregations in Virginia and New Jersey, large and small, rural and metro, blue and red. In none of those settings has human sexuality been an issue. In all of those settings, the congregations, in fits and starts, showed the ability to negotiate with grace the inclusion and welcome of the LGBTQ folks in their midst. As I’ve told my present congregation, despite its marketing posture the Traditional Plan is inherently not conservative in that it has now foisted a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to a problem most localities were finding ways to solve on their own as congregations.
This is ironic given that the first Methodists to push back on the disempowering, upside-down structure of the UMC were American conservatives in the 1990s.
The damage done by the Traditional Plan is but the clearest and most recent evidence, I believe, that the structure of the United Methodist Church is designed to serve the structure of the United Methodist Church and not the people of the United Methodist Church.
The structure of the United Methodist Church itself is incompatible with the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel in word, wine, bread, and deed.
And this is not a new or novel observation (though the nature of an appointive, itinerant system makes clergy and congregants reticent to voice it). The famed Methodist theologian, Albert Outler, the dude who literally coined the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” argued as early as 1968:
the structure of the newly united UMC would arrest the growth of the Methodist movement, dissipate its evangelical power, create an isolated bureaucracy, and alienate and disempower local congregations.
As Will Willimon paraphrases Outler’s prophetic caution:
“Starting in 1968, distrust of the local congregation was sewn into the ethos of the denomination by the Book of Discipline.”
This distrust of the local congregation transformed what had been a Wesleyan movement into a United Methodist institution and flipped connectionalism on its head. Where connectionalism once named the very practical ways congregations pursued our common Gospel mission, now it names our organizational identity (“UMCOR does great stuff!”). As a consequence, fidelity to the organization is how we define what it means to be a faithful United Methodist; such that, pledging allegiance to itinerancy is required for ordination candidates but clear, compelling Gospel proclamation is incidental. The new structure of the UMC, Outler argued, replaced the local congregation as the primary unit of the Methodist movement. Beginning in 1968, the latent governing assumption of the UMC was that the General Church, with its bloated bureaucracy and agencies, was the “real” church whose work the local congregations were responsible to fund. This assumption was echoed doubly by the way in which the UMC then replicated the General Church structure in redundant forms at the Annual Conference and District levels. It’s seen in a detail as innocuous seeming as the red and green ink in which congregations are marked out in the conference magazine according to the level of its apportionment payments.
The General Conference decision in St. Louis is symptomatic of a larger, older illness; namely, that the structure of the United Methodist Church is not designed nor has it ever been designed to serve the people of the local church.
And now that structure has done damage to the people of the local church in ways that continue to unwind in our communties.
As many United Methodist pastors and parishioners are now discerning ways to be inclusive of LGBTQ families, just as many should be discussing how to turn the structure itself on its head and make the UMC more compatible with the mission and ministry of the local church.
One such way forward— make apportionments voluntary.
Starve the beast.
General Conference cost the UMC approximately $4,000,000.00. Next year’s 2020 GC will cost at least double that amount— why should faithful United Methodists continue to contribute to an organizational system that so clearly does not have the best interests of their local congregations in mind? Even the “good” mission and service work done by the larger UMC is work that many local congregations have no hands-on, organic relationship with other than as a donor— that donor relationship is how the General Board of Global Mission wants the relationship. And that’s the problem. In every congregation in which I’ve served, the mission and service work that parishioners are most impacted by and about which they are most passionate are the local service projects and the mission work they themselves have selected to engage hands-on. Even the more meritorious work of the larger denomination (mission) is not immune from Albert Outler’s original critique that it comes at the expense of the local church’s empowerment and fruitfulness.
The quickest way for local churches to do something about a structure that is not designed with them in mind is to stop paying for that structure.
Despite how it will be received, this is not to commit a Wesleyan heresy.
Apportionments only began in the Methodist Church in 1918 (curiously, around the same time the income tax was instituted) as John Wesley’s movement was beginning to mirror corporate America with its aspirations of becoming a national bureaucracy.
Funded by apportionments, institutional creep followed until what had been voluntary became mandatory 62 years later when the 1980 Book of Discipline removed the right of local churches to vote upon the apportionments levied on them.
Today, in my current appointment— as in my previous appointment— apportionments total nearly 1/4 of the church’s operating budget.
Just a matter of practicality—General Conference has now created a PR problem for many churches in their localties that apportionment dollars would be better spent addressing. Here in my neck of the woods, $250K can undo a lot of PR damage.
Will Willimon says the dominant ethos of the Book of Discipline since 1968 is “You can’t trust local congregations” and that the involuntary nature of apportionments is the best example of that assumption. After GC2019 in St. Louis, in which the leaders of the UMC went into a destructive, 50/50 vote that no competent pastor would even allow to happen in his or her congregation, it’s pretty clear (indeed maybe it’s the only assertion liberal and conservative Methodists could agree upon) that “you can’t trust the General Church.”
If mandatory apportionments were the mechanism which reflected the former ethos, perhaps voluntary apportionments are the mechanism to assert the current reality of the United Methodist Church.