There has been quite a stir caused by the recent, unanimous decision of the administrative council (i.e., laypeople in the congregation rather than the pastor) of one of our denomination’s largest congregations, Mt. Bethel UMC, to redirect its apportionments into an escrow fund.
With three campuses and nearly 10,000 members, this is one of our denomination’s largest congregations east of the Mississippi River. The evangelical mega-church was driven by the lack of response by our bishops to the wave of covenant-breaking besieging our denomination that continues to target United Methodism’s official adherence to biblical standards for sexual self-control.
To be clear, IRD/UMAction is not, at this time, urging others to follow Mt. Bethel UMC’s specific example, nor calling on others to take any specific action with regard to apportionments. We respect that there are a variety of perspectives among faithful, evangelical United Methodists on such questions. But I offer this article, and its forthcoming sequel, to help concerned observers understand some key issues at work.
First of all, this move will be seen by many as a last resort.
For decades, evangelical United Methodists have tried the route of respectful and civil dialogue. Over decades of such respectful conversation, we have sought to persuade theologically liberal United Methodists with appeals to Scripture, church tradition, reason, and Christian experience for why basic faithfulness demands that our church maintain traditional standards for sexual self-control. In doing so, we have bent over backwards – often to a fault – to graciously accommodate those who disagree with us, a sort of graciousness that theological liberals in the United Methodist Church or in “mainline” denominations are very rarely, if ever, willing to extend if and when the shoe is on the other foot. Meanwhile, precious few American bishops have had the courage to join us in publicly teaching and defending the church’s faith as it relates to marriage, beyond just sticking to politically “safer” lines about how they respect all viewpoints equally or how they vaguely take their vows to uphold the Discipline seriously.
But so many liberal United Methodists have made clear that they choose to be too stubbornly close-minded, and too self-assured of their own intellectual superiority to at least 99 percent of all followers of Christ who have ever lived, to allow themselves to be taught the church’s historic faith. In doing so, they have also made clear that they reject the basic authority of Scripture, that they feel no need to be bound by the 2,000-year-old consensus of the global body of Christ, and that they define reason and experience in such hopelessly emotional and subjective ways to be of little value. And as Amy DeLong’s notoriously strident Love Prevails group increasingly looks like the main face of liberal United Methodism – with the enthusiastic support and enabling of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the Reconciling Ministries Network, the Connectional Table, and sympathetic bishops – liberal United Methodist interest in being genuinely civil or respectful with those outside of their faction seems to wane daily.
We have tried working through the system of defending historic, biblical, United Methodist faith and values at General Conference. But as I showed in this 4-part series, our bishops bear far more responsibility than any other group for how the last General Conference became such an unproductive, dysfunctional mess, in which petitions many worked so hard on were never even given a chance for a vote (even when they were endorsed by their legislative committees), in which evangelical United Methodists were effectively punished for playing by the rules while Love Prevails and their allies were effectively rewarded for their rule-breaking and bullying.
And even after enacting and defending biblical policies at General Conference, our Council of Bishops is doing very little to publicly demand accountability from those in their number who are, in various ways, simply refusing to enforce biblical standards of General Conference with which they personally disagree.
We have tried working through the complaint process, which is really the only means in our system for bringing accountability to renegade clergy who stubbornly refuse to desist from abandoning their own ordination vows to uphold our biblical standards. And at least three bishops in three jurisdictions (Northeast, North Central, and Western) have, with no public rebuke from their colleagues, essentially hijacked the process by having their appointees ensure that clergy are allowed to violate with impunity our biblical covenant as it relates to marriage.
We have tried respectfully appealing to our bishops to collectively do their jobs of upholding our church’s doctrine and covenantal standards, as they vowed to God and to all other United Methodists to do at their ordination, and then again when they were consecrated as bishops. Original signers of last year’s “Unity and Integrity” statement included Renewal and Reform Coalition leaders, the Rev. Randy Mickler (Mt. Bethel UMC’s senior pastor), and leading pastors and theologians from across our denomination. But in terms of any sort of public and collective response (aside from private conversations), there was only a rather weak statement at the last Council of Bishops meeting. And the integrity and sincerity of even this weak response was immediately and very publicly called into question by Bishop Deborah Kiesey of Michigan.
Our polity indeed relies on congregations paying our apportionments. But as my friend, the Rev. Tom Lambrecht at Good News points out, “our polity is broken” when even a few clergy are given impunity in and even rewarded for ostentatiously violating key provisions of the very Book of Discipline that they vowed to uphold, when a bishop is effectively allowed to undermine ministry in another bishop’s area by doing a publicity-stunt same-sex union, when our bishops routinely allow outside protesters to forcibly take over church meetings and even presume to dictate the agenda for General Conference, when United Methodists who play by the rules spend many hours addressing and amending petitions that are then rudely denied even a hearing by the General Conference plenary, and when an entire jurisdiction votes to adopt a policy of disregarding our polity’s teaching affirming biblical standards for sexual self-control.
In short, Mt. Bethel’s protest can be seen as bringing attention to the ways in which our denominational covenant has been treated as if it no longer matters, in sincere hopes of us all working together to make it matter again.
It is very sad for our church when we have come to the point at which money seems to many to be the last remaining influence, more powerful than Scripture, our church’s historic and official doctrinal standards, or the integrity of our bishops’ and other clergy’s own ordination vows. But any honest review of recent history reveals that it is our Council of Bishops, not Mt. Bethel UMC, which bears great responsibility for things degenerating to this point.
Secondly, maintaining our bishops is a costly burden on our local churches, to the tune of over $90 million for the 2013-2016 quadrennium. Our churches do not directly pay for their own areas’ respective bishops, but rather pay into a global Episcopal Fund, from which American bishops now receive a salary of $145,665. According to globalrichlist.com, this puts them among the top one-tenth of one percent of the richest people in the world, without even considering their housing and other benefits. Certainly some bishops are working hard to faithfully lead their conferences, uphold our standards, and move us forward in disciple-making mission. And some bishops take a voluntary salary reduction.
But as reported on this website and elsewhere, some seem to treat their office as a platform to promote any personal theological or moral views they want, even when this means contradicting the historic, core doctrine they vowed to “preach and maintain,” undermining our biblical moral standards, and hurting our ability to be an evangelistically growing church – in other words, doing the complete opposite of what they vowed and the church trusted them to do.
For laypeople, especially in an American culture already distrustful of large, distant, and seemingly unaccountable bureaucracies, it can be a tough sell to say “you need to raise a chunk of money not for your local church’s mission and ministry that you actually see making a Kingdom difference, but rather so that some bishops many hundreds of miles away can enjoy no effective accountability in refusing to actually do their jobs, can be given a prominent platform to brazenly undermine our church’s faith, standards, and witness, and can enjoy lavish, unearned salaries for all of this.”
Thirdly, it is noteworthy that Mt. Bethel’s action was NOT simply to keep their apportionment dollars, in the sense of hoarding the money “for themselves” to spend on a new gym or ministry staff. Rather, as Good New reports, the congregations’ administrative council “voted to place its apportioned funds in an escrow account until the Council of Bishops (COB) fulfills the requests made in the ‘Integrity and Unity Statement.’”
“Escrowing” one’s assigned apportionments involves setting the designated amount of money aside, not spending it on anything else, and simply refraining from forwarding the payment on for a period of time. This is very different from simple nonpayment of apportionments, for which liberal United Methodists seem to get a free pass, as we will see in Part 2.
It is important for members of our denomination to take seriously ALL of our covenantal obligations to each other, but without falling into the institutionally idolatrous trap of treating money as more valuable or important that our biblical doctrine and mission.
I do believe that strong, bold, faithful, God-fearing, public leadership for restoring the covenant into which United Methodists are formally bound will emerge as we move forward. But as much as I would love to be proven wrong, it looks rather unlikely that such leadership will come from our bishops.