At the United Methodist Church’s General Conferences, petitions submitted by denomination-wide agencies tend to enjoy automatic respect, and are generally passed overwhelmingly, with a rather small number of high-profile exceptions.
So it was rather striking when a rather large percentage of the petitions submitted to last year’s General Conference by the UMC’s Connectional Table (CT) were rejected rather decisively, not even making it out of committee. And the rejected CT petitions were not limited to the several it submitted to remove UMC teachings and policies disapproving of homosexual practice.
One would think that commitment to Christian humility and listening to those who were previously disregarded would naturally lead such a group to treat this unusual rejection as a wake-up call showing the need for some self-reflection and really listening to, including, and mending fences with those the CT has alienated. This should not be too much to ask of the Connectional Table, composed as it is of representatives of most major power structures in our denomination, from general agencies to the Council of Bishops to the twelve broad geographic regions into which the UMC is divided around the globe.
Or an alternative response would be to double down in rushing forward the same ideologically narrow agendas of some liberal Americans and Europeans that have already hurt the Table’s credibility in the eyes of so much in our global church.
So far in the 2016-2020 quadrennium, I have seen no sign of the former, but rather major indications of the latter. This is particularly true in terms of liberal agendas on matters like marginalizing African United Methodists and social issues.
(I recognize that there are several good and faithful individual members of the Connectional Table. This article’s focus is on what has happened so far within that group as a whole.)
For the last decade, a central cause of liberal United Methodists has been panicking over the growing membership and consequent influence of our denomination in Africa, and using a lot of urgent but vague rhetoric about how we “have to” do something to dramatically restructure our denomination to prevent largely theologically orthodox General Conference delegates from other countries from having any further say in certain large areas of our denomination’s governance in the USA.
Proponents of such “Global Segregation Plans” are generally very evasive about what exactly are these “US issues” that should supposedly be decided without global input. When pressed, it seems that what advocates mainly have in mind are (1) letting U.S. United Methodists change the rules to have more liberal official policies on homosexual practice, and (2) issuing a range of pronouncements on political controversies shaped according to the partisan political allegiances of liberal American United Methodists. Furthermore, making American United Methodism somewhat autonomous could also have major long-term direct and indirect effects on such matters as the spiritual climate of denominational agencies (which are all headquartered in the USA) and accountability for the U.S. seminaries that train UMC leaders from around the world.
On all of these issues, the majority of those in the growing African and Asian portion of our denomination often have values very contrary to those of liberal Americans and Western Europeans. So it is no accident that many of the latter are eager to limit or silence the voices of the former.
The Connectional Table (CT) submitted a petition to the last General Conference claiming an urgent need to answer the question of which structure should decide a range of issues (which was never actually specified!) that are supposedly only of concern to Americans. This petition would have asked the CT to study this issue, convene a task force, and bring a recommendation to the next General Conference.
That petition did not even make it out of committee. It was rejected overwhelmingly, with over three-fourths of delegates voting against it. A huge super-majority of the delegates most directly addressing this petition did not trust the CT to even study the issue in the way they proposed, and/or saw no need to have any group other than our global General Conferences decide the issues.
Yet despite this clear rejection at General Conference, the CT has chosen to waste little time since then in pursuing this same agenda, anyway.
The CT has created its own new “advisory group” to basically “study” the same question asked in the CT’s rejected petition.
In fact, the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) explicitly reported that under the leadership of Judi Kenaston, this group has already committed itself to refusing to accept the answer that we should not create a new US-only structure to diminish the influence of the global church in denominational affairs. Even though annual conferences around the world overwhelmingly rejected creating such a US-only central conference in 2009 (with a whopping 95 percent of Africans voting “NO”) and similar proposals died in committee at the last two General Conferences.
Instead, UMNS reports that Kenaston’s group is considering either creating a new “Standing Committee on U.S. Matters” or a US-only central conference. Both of these were already proposed to the last General Conference, and decisively rejected in sub-committee or committee.
But it seems that some in the CT are determined to keep asking the question and refusing to listen to General Conference delegates’ answers.
I have previously reported on how as chair of the Commission on the General Conference from 2012-2016, this same Judi Kenaston was not shy about using her position to promote her strong liberal biases in some key ways.
As the saying goes, personnel is policy. Having someone like Ms. Kenaston lead the group addressing such questions is a very loud signal about the policy biases of those pulling the strings within the CT.
Another personnel-is-policy matter was the announcement earlier this month of the CT’s new lead staffer, the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai.
Rev. Bigham-Tsai is especially closely associated with the very trends that recently caused the CT to sacrifice so much trust.
In the 2012-2016 quadrennium, under the leadership of Bishop Bruce Ough, the CT rudely disregarded the concerns of orthodox United Methodists in the USA and Africa, went to extreme lengths to openly pander to unofficial liberal caucus activists, heavy-handedly structured conversations to marginalize the concerns of traditionalists, and pursued extremely misleading marketing of its liberalizing agenda on sexuality.
The CT has in the past year had plenty of opportunity to express some interest in mending fences and acknowledging how trust was squandered by its mistakes of the last quadrennium. But instead, this new choice sends a very opposite message.
It is not slander to note the objective record of how Bigham-Tsai hails from the most leftist wing of the UMC, being outspokenly liberal on homosexuality and abortion, and associating herself with the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA). MFSA is a caucus that seeks to use the name and resources of the UMC to pursue far-left, partisan political agendas, and whose promotion of LGBTQ liberationist causes comes from a wider permissive framework of MFSA’s open support for pre-marital sex.
I was in a meeting last year in which Bigham-Tsai was asked directly, in a relevant context, if she personally believed in the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ (a core Christian truth which former Chicago UMC Bishop Joseph Sprague has publicly denied). This is a far more fundamental theological concern than any other specific issue mentioned in this article.
I still remember vividly how she gave this long, meandering response that seemed to take rather awkward pains to avoid giving a clear, direct answer. If the CT’s new Chief Connectional Ministries Officer really believes in the bodily resurrection of Christ, she had a wide-open opportunity to simply say so. But she would not simply say so.
I also remember her response including a rather bizarre claim that “if you believe differently” then that “doesn’t mean you’re wrong.”
But if one person denies that the resurrection of Jesus historically happened and another believes it did, they cannot both be right. Bigham-Tsai’s answer indicates that she apparently does not regard this question as too central or important an issue. On the other hand, Paul was clear that if Christ’s resurrection did not really happen, then our entire faith is “futile.”
Furthermore, Bigham-Tsai was at the center of the CT’s recent focus on seeking to liberalize our homosexuality standards. She chaired the CT’s writing team for developing the petitions to the last General Conference to basically liberalize our denomination’s teachings against homosexual practice, and relevant standards for marriage and ordination, along the same substantial lines as what the liberal caucuses have advocated for years. And then Bigham-Tsai and other advocates of the CT’s plan engaged in a rather extreme degree of dishonest marketing by describing as a “compromise” or a “Third Way” what was actually a plan to give liberal caucuses the main things they had been asking for, and impose on the UMC even more liberal policies than those that infamously split the Episcopal Church, by requiring openly homosexually active ministers and blessings of same-sex unions in EVERY United Methodist annual conference.
It is also worth briefly reviewing how the CT’s refocusing its energies on the LGBTQ cause came about. Among liberal United Methodists, there are some who favor liberalizing our standards on sexual morality, but who would rather focus on more important agendas (like making disciples of Jesus) and who believe that process matters, and so are not willing to break basic lines of ethics, even if this could help advance causes that they favor. There are others who see their preferred agendas on homosexuality as THE top priority, and who believe that this cause is so urgent that it must be advanced by any means necessary.
The CT’s recent effort, which Bigham-Tsai played a key role in leading, represented a triumph of the latter over the former.
Under the leadership of Bishop Bruce Ough in the last quadrennium, activists from Amy DeLong’s “Love Prevails” group (which others have nicknamed “Love Bullies”) were allowed to loudly disrupt and even take over CT business meetings. At one point, I observed one holding a sign declaring that “MY #1 AGENDA” was liberalizing the UMC Book of Discipline on homosexuality. Rather than treat such behavior as inappropriate, Bishop Ough made a point of publicly thanking Love Prevails for their disruption and agreeing to fundamentally re-arrange the CT’s schedule to extensively discuss the activists concerns.
The first of several panel discussions included two panelists who forcefully promoted Love Prevails’ cause and one orthodox professor who rather mildly hinted towards a more traditionalist position. The latter guest of the CT’s was then left alone to be angrily confronted by Amy DeLong during a break. Love Prevails then went to the microphone and protested the airing of even such an imbalanced range of view as “violence” and demanded that the CT do more to pander to them. Several liberal CT members then rushed forward to make and support a motion to formally commit the CT to endorsing the core agenda of Love Prevails and promoting it at the 2016 General Conference.
Even the normally reticent Bishop James Swanson of Mississippi was provoked to warn against rushing forward with such a divisive agenda, sharing that this motion was breaking his heart and concluding, “If you want to be in a hurry to win at all costs, then you go ahead.”
The liberal majority on the CT showed little interest in respecting or hearing the concerns of Bishop Swanson or other traditionalist CT members. They heavy-handedly rushed the motion forward without hearing from a single United Methodist from Africa, despite that continent being home to some 40 percent of our denomination. Bigham-Tsai chaired the team to implement the details of the commitment the CT made in this way.
If the current leadership of the CT thought that any of the above was a bad way to do things, then one would not expect them to choose someone as deeply at the center of this as Bigham-Tsai to be the new Chief Connectional Ministries Officer.
And speaking of heavy-handed, I observed Bigham-Tsai’s style of leadership rather closely while watching the sub-committee she chaired at the 2012 General Conference. She made very clear her biases in support of abortion and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), even to the point of giving the sub-committee the extremely non-neutral subject name of “reproductive rights” (a euphemistic slogan used by abortion-rights advocates to negatively frame pro-lifers as being against people’s rights). Of the four General Conferences I have attended, I have never seen any chair be as blatantly heavy-handed as Bigham-Tsai was in abusing her position to bully, intimidate, and filibuster delegates from even having a chance to discuss some petitions that would have added some even very mildly pro-life nuances to the positions taken on abortion in the UMC Social Principles and Book of Resolutions.
The choice of Bigham-Tsai as the CT’s lead staffer is also head-scratching for anyone concerned with our church’s ongoing decline in the United States.
She is not someone with a record of consistently growing churches. Of the two congregations where she has pastored, her most recent suffered notable membership and attendance decline under her 2011-2013 leadership, while her prior congregation was basically flat in membership and attendance between her ordination in 2009 and her transfer in 2011 (although the statistics for that church when she was appointed there in 2006 through her 2009 ordination are a bit more complex).
As Lansing District Superintendent for the West Michigan Conference, her district’s congregations lost 19 percent of their members and 13 percent of their worship attendance from 2013-2016. Those are rather huge drops for a mere three years!
While there is plenty of decline elsewhere in American United Methodism, during these three years, Bigham-Tsai’s district lost by far a greater percentage of its lay members (nearly one in five!) than any other district in her conference. For comparison, in the overlapping three-year period of 2013-2016, combined clergy and lay membership for American United Methodism (a slightly different measure than only lay membership) declined by 4.5 percent.
Last quadrennium, I asked why the CT seemed so focused on pandering to liberal caucus activists rather than listening more to effective, faithful pastors of growing congregations.
With this recent choice by the CT, this concern has gotten only greater.
If the CT’s new chair, Bishop Christian Alsted of the UMC’s Nordic and Baltic Area in Northern Europe, and/or other CT’s leadership, are interested in making any moves to show their desire to move in a different direction, turn away from the CT’s recent mistakes, and rebuild trust, I would love to see that and would be happy to report it.
But these early signs do not help inspire confidence in this group.