This month began with more secular news coverage of a United Methodist minister facing charges for openly violating our church’s official affirmation of biblical standards for sexual self-control.
This time, the double-speaking clergyman of the hour is Rev. Stephen Heiss in the Upper New York Conference.
The story has all the elements of what is now becoming a familiar script. Blustery rhetoric about how embracing secular Western culture’s sexual values is an urgent matter of justice that trumps two millennia of consistent historic Christian teaching, the clearly expressed, democratically confirmed stance of the United Methodist Church, and the minister’s purely voluntary agreement to covenant with fellow United Methodists to uphold this standard. Heartstring-targeting mention of a gay relative of the minister. The prominent involvement of a congregation illegally affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). The minister demanding to continue enjoying all the benefits of being a United Methodist minister while unilaterally selecting key job obligations to not fulfill. RMN rallying shows of support for the renegade clergy. The area bishop issuing a bland statement saying that he is bound to follow church law, that he cannot comment on the specifics of such a “personnel matter,” and asking everyone to be nice. The apparently publicity-eager clergy talking to the media and defiantly vowing to continue violating the connectional covenant that previously “united” them with United Methodism.
Heiss is facing charges for having, according to his own publicity-seeking bragging, officiated at “several” same-sex union services, in knowing violation of the church laws he vowed to uphold.
Heiss threw down the gauntlet in an open letter to his bishop, Mark Webb, published on RMN’s blog in May. In the rather bombastically worded letter, Heiss boasted of his previous violations of church law, announced that he had specific plans to official at another homosexual union service “in the near future,” attacked the character of supporters of biblical, United Methodist teaching, and bizarrely invoked biblical language about the joy of following God’s commandments (John 15:11) to describe the joy of lesbianism. The letter’s extended apologetic offers up the laziest sorts of progressive misrepresentations of the Bible whose attractiveness seems aimed solely at the sorts of nominally churched liberals whose biblical knowledge is limited to vaguely recalling that there were 12 commandments and 10 apostles.
According to records from the Upper New York Annual Conference, between 2009 and 2012 (the last year for which full records are readily available) the congregation Heiss has pastored since 2000 has plummeted in attendance by a whopping 28 percent (from 104 to 75). While Heiss was driving off over a quarter of the church’s people in just three years, the congregation only contributed slightly more than half of its assigned fair share of denominational apportionments. During part of this period, Heiss also pastored an even smaller, also RMN-affiliated congregation, leading it from previously paying a token amount of less than one percent of its assigned apportionments to paying no apportionments at all.
Meanwhile, the relevance of Heiss’s dying congregation is exaggerated by it boasting of having a number of members that is over ten times the size of the number of people who actually show up for worship. Such an extreme degree of dishonest membership inflation is ridiculous even by United Methodist standards.
It may be that a main factor keeping Heiss in the UMC rather than perhaps a more theologically appropriate body, like the Unitarian Universalist Association or the UCC (either of which would be surely glad to receive him), is that the UMC structure somewhat uniquely allows him to affiliate with a movement which rejects our denomination’s core doctrine, address his bishop in a childishly disrespectful way, be a demonstrably ineffective, church-killing pastor, neglect his connectional obligations to the wider denomination, and still enjoy the benefit of a guaranteed job security for the rest of his career.
Both sides will watch to see what happens next with Heiss’s case. For a required supervisory response, Bishop Webb met with Heiss on August 1 and reportedly made Heiss an offer, which he refused, to drop the charges in exchange for Heiss’s apologizing for his violations and agreeing to cease and desist from future such covenant-breaking.
In any case, Heiss and his reportedly supportive (but rapidly dying) congregation ironically make for good poster children of the nationwide “civil disobedience” campaign in which they are among the several willing pawns: Loud, heterodox voices whose adolescent, covenant-breaking publicity stunts and exaggerated suggestions of a grassroots support base are on a collision course with the fact that their main contribution to the United Methodist Church is keeping up our denominational statistics of losing people and finances.