United Methodists should look closely at the recent histories of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The PCUSA and ELCA in 2010 and 2009, respectively, adopted new policies that liberalized their teachings on human sexuality and opened ordination for openly partnered gay clergy. These two mainline denominations went through remarkably similar processes as the United Methodist Church has with the Commission on a Way Forward, and ended up passing plans fairly similar to the “One Church Plan.”
As a result, both churches have shrunk dramatically, weakened their missional outreach, and hurt many of their people, laity and clergy alike. I conducted interviews with lay and clergy leaders who were present in these two denominations when they changed their standards, and their answers paint a vivid picture of what the OCP would bring for United Methodists.
“Local Options” Hurt Congregations and Are Not Honored
Pete Larson, a former PCUSA pastor, personally understands the disorder that plans sold as local options create for churches. “‘Local option’ sounds good, like it’s a way of keeping the peace, of avoiding conflict,” he told me. “But two things – If there’s no standard, we’re back to the Old Testament of Judges, where everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Secondly, he said that “local option opens the door to anarchy. What if someone from my presbytery ordains someone who is in a same-sex relationship and they go to another one?”
Such an issue would be even more likely and problematic in the UMC, where bishops would have the freedom to mismatch conservative congregations with liberal pastors through the appointment process. Without a definitive church teaching and rule, “it just kicks the can down the road.” Rev. Larson added: “Anybody who thinks this is a way we’re all going to live in peace is deluded. You can see this is going to intensify things. And it makes it harder and harder for evangelicals to stay.”
Jim Rizer, another former PCUSA pastor, spoke from experience and said confidently that churches cannot avoid having difficult conversations and votes when plans like the OCP are implemented. “The reality is if you participate in the connectionalism of the larger church, if you participate in larger church mission, if you participate in larger church funding, you have to have that conversation.” Even United Methodists in conservative annual conferences will have to address the wider church’s decisions sooner rather than later, as those in conservative PCUSA presbyteries found out. Larson later added that “some congregations desire to just put their head in the sand and ‘just be the local church,’ but they were just delaying the inevitable conversation”
Sue Mattingly, a former lay leader in the PCUSA, who is now in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), shared with me that having these conversations is much harder than most people expect, including herself. “People like to think they can just have this conversation,” she told me, “I started out pretty naïve about that [myself], I grew up with gay relatives.” Expectations for emotional but manageable and productive conversations were rarely met. “I thought I could have the conversations and that ended up not even being true,” because conversations within her home congregation and local bodies of her presbytery were “instantly personal.”
Paull Spring was bishop of the Northwest Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA when that denomination changed its teachings and policies on sexuality. He also saw churches struggle to respond. Even after many years of debate in the ELCA leading up to 2009, “the lay people in particular were unprepared for the debate. The pastors a bit too.” He added: “I was shocked by the lack of awareness of the ethical implications [among the pastors]. Unprepared to handle this struggle in their own congregations.” He pastored a congregation in State College, Pa., and said the weeks and months that followed for his congregants, split conservative and progressive, were “very, very painful.” The people that were hurt the most were lifelong members, the most active leaders, and people that had fellow members, now at odds, as family.
Denominational Struggles Increase for Traditional Churches
Donna Smith, a former ELCA pastor now serving in the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) saw a one-sided narrative from denominational leaders that was very similar to what is going on presently in the UMC. She a served six-year term on a division for ministry board, the group that oversees ordination standards, among other things. She saw leaders around her treat liberalizing on sexuality as the only acceptable path forward. As the ELCA conducted studies and prepared for their eventual vote, “it became clear the hierarchy, the church office people, saw these changes as a foregone conclusion.” Rather unsurprisingly, “they couldn’t find anything scripturally that would justify making this major change, but they went ahead and did it anyway.” Instead, a primary question in the minds of denominational leaders was, “How are we going to get the people in the pews to come along?” Traditional, orthodox Lutherans like herself were encouraged to “catch up with the rest of the world,” and she felt that these other leaders were “waiting to bully us into it.”
Jim Rizer found great conflict with his presbytery once he and a majority of his congregation decided to leave the PCUSA. He thought that between him and his brothers and sisters in Christ in the denominational offices “that there would be a good spirit and pragmatism would carry. That wasn’t the case at all.” Instead, he was met with “an institutional desperation” throughout the process of leaving. He shared that his local presbytery came in to do a review of his church’s finances, and declared that there was mismanagement. The presbytery’s goal, at his congregation and others, was to undermine the local church’s history and find mismanagement “so they can make a case to replace the clergy and lay leaders,” essentially kidnapping the church through a change in leadership.
The Michigan pastor, now thankful to be in the EPC where there is unity on fundamentals, also shared how brutal of a time many PCUSA pastors had. The unamicable way the PCUSA treated people was widespread, and some pastors felt a “PTSD kind of fatigue and wounding through the process…. I know a few pastors who basically were accused of misleadership and were taken up on church trials, cross examined extensively, to get them removed on the sole reason that their congregation wanted to leave the denomination.”
Once the ELCA voted to change their standards, traditional beliefs and practices on marriage and sexuality were simply not honored as had been promised. Bishop Spring put it this way: “One of the promises made was that congregations and synods could dissent, through something called bound conscience,” but “that has rarely been honored or respected by the ELCA.” The
Dr. Amy Schifrin, President of the North American Lutheran Seminary (of the NALC) and former ELCA pastor, described the lack of good faith in respecting the four different approaches to same-sex relationships the church clearly laid out in its 2010 resolution: “I think there was a lot of dishonesty. The ELCA had this four position thing, that any of the four would be acceptable, and it appeared to me obviously a ruse. And it’s obvious now that the church doesn’t want people to hold these four positions” (see p.20 of linked social statement). The recognition of traditional beliefs on human sexuality was “just a smokescreen,” as denominational leaders only promoted LGBTQ affirmation in churchwide gatherings and youth camps, as well as increasingly antagonized traditional Lutherans in local boards and committees.
These personal stories are just a few of so many that demonstrate what would happen to the United Methodists Church across the connection should the “One Church Plan” pass. We must all remember that these debates and votes on doctrine and teaching have real, tangible impacts on every person in the denomination. In the coming week, delegates gathered in St. Louis for the specially called General Conference have an opportunity to take the UMC down a similar road as the PCUSA and ELCA, or to forge a different path and future for itself.