December 3, 2014

Withholding Salaries of Dissident United Methodist Bishops?

Recently Christianity Today reported on the Ritter Plan, originated by an Illinois pastor, to divide U.S. United Methodism into two ideological jurisdictions, one orthodox and the other LGBTQ affirming, in place of the current five regional jurisdictions. The story quotes several evangelical friends who support it, and includes my quote opposing it.

Asbury Seminary’s Ben Witherington, one of United Methodism’s most renowned theologians, has critiqued the Ritter Plan here, saying: “If we want to further diminish the integrity and influence of our church in our American society, then this is a good way to assure that will happen.”

The plan’s desire to end United Methodism’s conflict on theology and sexual ethics is understandable. But the actual impact likely would be the opposite. A battle so far largely contained at the quadrennial General Conference would exponentially metastasize as all annual conferences and eventually over 30,000 local churches would effectively have to debate and choose sides, in congregational battles that could persist for years, often in litigation.

Likely liberal activists could not abide a jurisdiction that practices “discrimination,” so their protests would continue. Meanwhile, some conservatives would battle on for a complete schism. There’s also the theological problem of officially sanctioning a church zone created specifically to affirm unbiblical behavior. Isn’t Christ Lord of the whole church?

The issue of creating two ideological zones is largely politically moot anyway. As a constitutional change, requiring a two thirds majority at General Conference followed by two thirds of all votes at subsequent annual conferences globally, its passage is nearly impossible.

Recently the author of the Ritter Plan blogged that his proposal’s passage is indeed unlikely. He’s offered another idea that seems more politically attainable. The salaries of bishops refusing to uphold church law would be reduced or withheld. He cites the current withholding of two African bishops’ salaries for financial irregularities. There’s other precedent. General church agencies are prohibited from pro-homosexuality advocacy. The church’s financial oversight agency, which oversees funding of church agencies, is empowered to enforce this ban.

This idea is not constitutional so would need only a majority vote at General Conference. I suspect some critics would claim it’s unconstitutional by subjecting the executive branch of the church to more direct control by the legislative. But the legislative does have power of the purse.

Of course this Ritter Plan II is not a panacea. Some dissident bishops might seek political martyrdom by forgoing their salary, with liberal activists raising money to subsidize their defiance.

But Rev. Ritter merits kudos for thinking creatively and striving for realism. We need more such thinking. There are no quick fixes for United Methodism’s divisions. The way forward, no matter the path, will entail many incremental fixes over the course of years and decades. Per Rev. Ritter: “We may need to lace our shoes for a longer, more difficult path.”

Here’s another idea. Should bishops who preside over continuously fast declining conferences also have their pay reduced accordingly? (In many cases these bishops are the same bishops declining to fully uphold church law on sexual ethics.). This concept is probably not politically likely, but it could be helpfully provocative and highlight our church’s tragic 50 year continuous U.S. membership decline.


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5 Responses to Withholding Salaries of Dissident United Methodist Bishops?

  1. Chris Ritter says:

    Thanks for the post. As the author of the Jurisdictional Solution, I continue to believe it is the best way forward for our church. Because the plan is fair, it has gained support from enough sectors of our church to realistically achieve ratification. I disagree with your statement that 30,000 churches would have to vote on homosexuality. Only those churches that might wish to dissent from their annual conference would have to vote at a church conference. Conferences with a high degree of unity would experience little disruption. Orthodox churches are now trapped in conferences where they feel stifled. I also have endorsements from Reconciling churches that feel “stuck” in a conservative conference. A traditionalist jurisdiction can address decline through their theological lens. They also will find entire new territories open to evangelism. Details of the plan can be found at http://www.jurisdictionalsolution.org

  2. John S. says:

    Docking the pay of Bishops of failing conferences-declining numbers- continues the trap most churches have fallen into. The church is measured by bottoms in the pew and the bottom line of the financial report. IF that is the church it deserves to fail.

  3. eric pone says:

    I feel that the both approaches and your arguments basically say to moderate and liberal christians go somewhere else. Go start a separate communion. I think long term that may be the best approach and more liberal congregations in the North, East, and Western US should prayerfully consider this before 2016 to force the issue. Therefore the question becomes how will the UMC survive long term when it is confined to small rural, Southern, and African Congregations? Because that is what will happen and is happening right now. The UMC will cease to exist in the North, East, and Western US.(Save a few churches in rural areas. Conservative Methodism has lost the cities) Maybe this is the right thing to happen. The UMC has its roots in the South and the country and that appears to be where the church is still stable. Long term though moderates and liberals will simply continue to leave and congregations will fold. A few will stay and fight. Maybe 10 years at best. As a conservative I fully expect to eventually leave the UMC due to there being no churches to attend nearby.

  4. eric pone says:

    The Docking of pay to uncooperative Bishops is a play right out of the GOP handbook. I don’t feel comfy using such tactics to force the issue. It sounds great but yes it will force liberals to fund their own Bishops and by default you create the split you seek to avoid in the first place. It also potentially creates the very two tier system you seek to avoid. You just get lucky in that you still get to maintain the giving units.

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