December 19, 2017

Is New Liberal Caucus Supported by Official UMC Money?

Is a new divisive liberal caucus group being supported in any way by official money of the whole church?  I have recently sought to find answers, which has proven to be a bit complex.

It has generally been unusual for denominational agency CEOs, bishops, and/or their representatives to openly lead unofficial caucus groups within the United Methodist Church.

After all, these people are supposed to be leaders of and for the WHOLE church, not just one narrow faction. And most of them are entrusted as stewards of apportionment money congregations are forced to send their way.

So it was striking to see how several representatives of parts of our denomination’s official hierarchy are among the team leading a new liberal factional caucus, which is rather misleadingly calling itself “Uniting Methodists.”

Seeing so many using their official denominational leadership roles to promote this caucus raises questions about the extent to which they may also be using our denomination’s official coffers to help fund this cause.

I have already written on how this new caucus is basically a coalition of activists affiliated with other liberal caucuses like RMN now seeking to rebrand themselves as “centrists” (without any moderation of their views) along with like-minded leaders from our denomination’s hierarchy and formerly evangelical celebrity pastor Adam Hamilton with some of his disciples.

My recent article series highlighted the objective record of this group’s leaders’ permissiveness on sexual morality, their going much further by openly supporting reckless betrayals of our denomination’s covenantal standards, their attacks on more foundational Christian doctrine on matters like the full divinity of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture, often extreme and consistently far-left agendas on other issues in the UMC (such as abortion, the Arab-Israeli conflict, politicizing the church, and marginalizing African United Methodists), and their complicity in loveless marginalization of traditionalist Christian believers.

I also outlined how despite this group’s eagerly seeking to appear to be “centrist” and interested in bridge-building, a closer look shows them effectively working to divide the UMC and exclude millions who don’t fit into their narrow American liberal ideology.

UMAction Steering Committee member Sara Anderson shared a factual report as well as some personal reflections on her experience attending this group’s launch meeting last month.

But my focus here is how several individuals are publicly listed as members of this new liberal caucus’s “leadership team” while they are at the same time employed in official UMC leadership roles at the annual conference or denomination-wide level.

This particularly applies to George Howard (a high ranking staffer in the cabinet of the General Board of Global Ministries), Brian Milford (President and CEO of the United Methodist Publishing House), Candace Lewis (a district superintendent in the Florida Conference, whose Bishop Ken Carter is both the new president of the Council of Bishops and co-moderator of its Commission on a Way Forward), Lynn Taylor (Director of Missional Alignment for the Memphis and Tennessee Annual Conferences), Lonnie Chafin (the longtime treasurer of the Northern Illinois Conference), and Melissa Drake (a district “Field Outreach Minister” employed by the Iowa Conference).

I respectfully reached out with similar ON-the-record questions to determine some basic facts about any official denominational money being used to support these individuals’ involvement in “Uniting Methodists,” either directly (through actually sending money to the caucus) or indirectly (through paid staff time or travel support).

I also invited responses to United Methodists who feel that even apart from money, it is inappropriate for such individuals to use their positions of leadership for the whole church “to promote one particular caucus group over others, particularly when this caucus group promotes an agenda on sexual morality that has repeatedly proven to split denominations and which has been consistently rejected by large majorities at General Conference.”

There were a range of responses, which I will list below.

I received confirmation that my inquiries had been received by Melissa Drake and the assistant to her boss, Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller. But I have received no response from either the Rev. Drake or Bishop Haller.

The briefest actual response was from Lonnie Chafin, who simply told me “I do not wish to make a statement at this time, except to say the Northern Illinois Conference has not sent a donation to Uniting Methodists.”

This did not answer my question about if Chafin was using any conference funds to cover the costs of his travel to “Uniting Methodists” events, and if his leadership of this group was strictly volunteer or if instead any of his work for it gets counted as “staff time,” for which annual conference apportionments pay his salary.

The first of these harkens back to how about a decade ago there was much controversy around another liberal caucus’s event called “Hearts on Fire,” in which a few liberal bishops (including Chafin’s boss, Sally Dyck) participated. I recall there being a memo about how bishops could not use certain apportionment funds to cover their travel costs for this event, given restrictions in the Discipline against using apportionment funds to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”

Similar principles would apply in this case.

However, when I sent Mr. Chafin a follow-up e-mail once again asking about the possibility of such indirect funding, he replied with a refusal to answer. When I tried asking the same questions to Chafin’s boss, who conference employees like Chafin can be reasonably perceived as representing, I soon received confirmation that Chicago Area Bishop Sally Dyck, along with her two assistants to whom I had sent carbon copies, had all opened my email. But the bishop has not responded.

If neither Bishop Haller nor Bishop Dyck nor either of their deputies publicly leading “Uniting Methodists” were using conference funds to support this new caucus in such ways, why would they not simply say so?

On the other hand, if they were using the apportioned money they demand from congregation’s offering plates to support this liberal caucus in such ways, but are eager to hide this fact from the Iowa and Northern Illinois congregations paying their bills…

With regard to Lynn Taylor, Bishop Bill McAlilly initially sent me a lengthier statement in response to my inquiries:

“In response to your questions I will offer the following thoughts.

“The Memphis and Tennessee Conferences are comprised of approximately 1,000 churches with clergy and laity who have very diverse views across the spectrum on the future of The United Methodist Church.  My goal is that these churches be focused on the mission of the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences — which is to discover, equip, connect and sent lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that offer Jesus Christ to a hurting world, one neighborhood at a time.  I am confident that our churches are focused on this mission, but am equally aware that among committed believers, there may still be broad differences of opinion on various issues.  For example, some of the members of churches within our Conference have joined Wesleyan Covenant Association, some are supporters of Good News, some are members of reconciling congregations, and some have chosen to support the Uniting Methodist Movement.  There are many other organizations – both formal and informal – around which devoted Christians have gathered to give prayerful consideration to the difficult issues that face our denomination.  

“I am aware of Mrs. Taylor’s decision to volunteer with the Uniting Methodists movement as well as others within our Conferences.  Likewise, I am aware of people connected in our conferences who have spoken at Wesleyan Covenant Association gatherings.  None of our clergy or laity are official representatives of the Nashville Episcopal Area with any of these groups where they may lend their individual support. 

“I do not think it is helpful or productive to engage in an ongoing debate about whether I should interfere with Mrs. Taylor’s personal decision to support a particular organization.  My hope is that the Commission on the Way Forward will be able to offer a plan that will be acceptable to a large majority of clergy and laity who want to stay united and focus on making disciples for the transformation of the world.  That likely will require all of us to offer grace to each other when we have differing views.  I ask that you be in prayer for the Commission and each of these groups as we move toward this crucial time in the life our denomination.” 

I appreciate some of what the bishop said. But observing that some United Methodists in his area support other caucuses blurs the key distinction of his having a high-level conference staffer publicly serving on the national leadership team for a liberal caucus, with apparently no similarly prominent of his staffers involved in leading any traditionalist caucus.

And his acknowledging that some congregations he oversees have declared themselves “reconciling congregations” formally affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) raises questions of the extent to which Bishop McAlilly is doing his job of enforcing church law, which has for years forbidden congregations from doing this.

It IS notable that Bishop McAlilly frames Taylor’s caucus work as a “volunteer” effort somehow not officially representing the bishop’s office. And in some follow-up correspondence, the bishop offered this further clarification:

I do not review every expenditure from both conferences and I am not personally aware of either conference having made contributions to the WCA, Reconciling Ministries or the Uniting Methodists.

Mrs. Taylor has not been reimbursed for any travel costs related to Uniting Methodists by either conference.

But Bishop McAlilly has received and yet as of this writing (over a week since my last inquiry) has not responded to my respectfully asking for a clearer factual statement about whether or not Taylor has been allowed to use any of her conference-apportionment-funded staff time for her “Uniting Methodists” work, and if he or Taylor has instructed any subordinate Tennessee or Memphis Conference employees to assist with the latter’s “Uniting Methodists” work.

If the answer to both was a simple, categorical “NO,” then it is hard to imagine why Bishop McAlilly would not simply say so.

In contrast, I did receive much clearer confirmation and assurances that that the Rev. Candace Lewis’s involvement in “Uniting Methodists” is strictly separate from her official duties, and that no Florida conference funds or staff time are being used to support “Uniting Methodists” or any other caucus group.

In response to my asking similar questions of the GBGM’s George Howard, he told me that no GBGM funds were being used to directly fund this caucus. Furthermore, he told me, “I let the [GBGM] cabinet know what I was doing and they said that Global Ministries would not cover expenses related to my participation or those of any other staff member who may wish to be involved in the Uniting Methodist Movement. It is strictly volunteer time on my part and I have informed West Ohio leadership of my involvement.”  He elaborated that “It was decided not to send any staff to attend the Uniting Methodist Movement gatherings….”

When I invited Mr. Howard to respond to concerns about his personal promotion of such a caucus group when he has been entrusted with leadership of an agency of the whole denomination, here was his reply to me: “I was elected to the 2016 General Conference from West Ohio and continue to serve in that capacity until a new delegation is elected for the 2020 General Conference. As a delegate it is my responsibility to engage with the legislation just as it is yours as a delegate from Indiana.”

While other concerns remain, I am grateful for at least the leaders of GBGM and the Florida Annual Conference having an expressed commitment to not use apportioned funds to promote this divisively liberal caucus, whatever their personal sympathies.

The United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH) actually receives no direct apportionment funding from the church. But it is still an official agency of the WHOLE denomination, and so I asked similar questions to UMPH President and CEO Brian Milford. With him, I specifically observed how originally, “the official email address for this caucus was run by Abingdon Press (a part of UMPH), and that the email address for submissions to this caucus’s video project was to the marketing department of the agency entrusted to your stewardship.”

In his response, Milford did not dispute my observations. But he did confirm that at least a small number of UMPH staffers, besides just himself, have been actively working to help set up this caucus.

Readers may form their own judgments based on reading Milford’s entire response below:

In response to your questions, I agree that we are experiencing a time of heightened controversy around matters of import to The United Methodist Church and beyond. Striving for Christian unity is a central theme amply addressed in the Bible, in our tradition, and explicitly called for in The Book of Discipline

Our aim at UMPH is to foster constructive Christian formation, conversation, and ministry guided by the Holy Spirit and bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

No direct funds have been donated by UMPH to the initial call for conversation, “To Serve the Present Age” event, or subsequent activities. The few staff members who have contributed to related efforts do so on a strictly voluntary basis and such contributions are not a part of anyone’s assignment or used in any performance evaluations.  

Reasonable people hold differing views on any number of important and sometimes disputed subjects, including the current controversies around human sexuality, church teachings, and practices. UMPH is scrupulous in our publishing program to honor those differences by fairly representing contrary points of view.

My personal support for the Uniting Methodists effort grows out of my conviction about the ultimate importance of living constructively in unity amidst our diversity; and my involvement is as an individual, a United Methodist elder in full connection appointed to a specific ministry setting and role. I am committed in my belief that God is doing a new thing in our midst and that we come to understand the truth of the gospel in relationship with others, even those with whom we disagree.


4 Responses to Is New Liberal Caucus Supported by Official UMC Money?

  1. Dan says:

    Lucy (with football) = UMC hierarchy and associated “centrist” caucuses
    Charlie Brown = Orthodox UMC members and associated advocacy groups

    Or as more commonly stated “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” This “living into the tension” thing is so tendentious and utterly predictable by our beloved “centrists.”

  2. L Jost says:

    Have you asked the same questions of the right leaning group that has organized more fully?

    • John Lomperis says:

      Thanks for the question, L Jost. I am not quite sure what you mean. But with that caveat, I would say that:
      1. I am not aware of any similarly placed denominational agency staffer who has been similarly involved in any orthodox renewal caucus.
      2. There is no moral equivalence, but a world of a difference, between groups like “Uniting Methodists” that vigorously oppose the UMC’s core, official doctrine, and others organized to defend it.
      3. I would respectfully observe that anyone who thinks that “right leaning groups” have somehow been more organized than liberal activists has not been paying close enough attention to the last 50 years of UMC history.

  3. Cathy Byrd says:

    We are now designating our giving only to fubctions, ministries, and missions of our local UMC. No funding to agencies, seminaries, individuals, and groups responsible for taking the UMC down a path I will not follow.

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