At recent annual conference sessions across the USA, several of our denomination’s most overwhelmingly liberal-dominated conferences, have officially begun exploring the possibility of splitting off from the United Methodist Church to form a new liberal denomination.
Some are now actively investigating the necessary steps in church and civil law for their annual conference to potentially leave our denomination. One is intentionally following the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s own contingency plans to have a place to go in the worst-case scenario. Another has declared our current denominational arrangement to be “no longer sustainable.” And an official brochure from Karen Oliveto’s team makes clear the Mountain Sky Conference leadership’s intention to become their own denomination if they don’t get their way at the 2020 General Conference.
These actions come explicitly in reaction to the specially called 2019 General Conference’s adoption of the Traditional Plan. That plan maintains our denomination’s longstanding bans on same-sex union services and “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy while strengthening enforcement mechanisms for these and other church standards. This new church law does not, as some have falsely claimed, “kick out” anyone simply for having liberal theological views.
Now from coast to coast, at least ten of our most liberal-dominated conferences have voted to adopt motions that at least explore the possibilities for “a new expression of Methodism.” Per official statistics, these ten conferences are home to over half a million United Methodists.
The New England Conference denounced the Traditional Plan while also creating a task force “to examine whether and how United Methodists of New England might align with, create, or form a new church body in the Methodist tradition (independently or in collaboration with others).”
Interestingly, activist Will Green and others presented another resolution, RS-19-217, which would have made New England “Boycott General Conference 2020 … by refusing to send delegates to General Conference 2020,” as this amounts to “participating in a system that rejects the gospel of Jesus Christ, rejects the spirit of a Wesleyan social witness and rejects a commonly held understanding of basic decency that affirms discrimination is wrong.” The bishop ruled that resolution out of order, preventing a vote but allowing discussion.
The Minnesota Conference overwhelmingly adopted a resolution which described itself as offering that conference “the beginnings of an articulated vision with which to move into the next vibrant expression of Methodism,” with more LGBTQ-affirming values. The Conference Board of Trustees also reported that it is now “looking into the legalities of how” the entire Minnesota Conference may potentially “make a graceful exit from The United Methodist Church,” “if our annual conference chose to do that,” while making qualifications about how nothing is decided yet and they are simply exploring options at this point.
Northern Illinois has also long been one of United Methodism’s most radicalized areas. The conference’s prominently LGBTQ-affirming former bishop, Joe Sprague, also infamously denied such key doctrines as the physical resurrection of Christ. Now this conference has has adopted Resolution #700.01, submitted by their area Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) chapter and others, to denounce the UMC’s traditionalist standards and fund their own “task force to explore a way forward for the Northern Illinois Conference including the possibility of new Methodist expression.”
Much of this language is vague and tentative, stopping short of full commitment. But it nonetheless breaks new barriers by openly talking about the possible creation of one of more new liberal Methodist denominations.
Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck recently offered a bit more clarity, describing their “exploring a way forward” as seeking “to find a workable plan going forward for those of us who cannot remain in The United Methodist Church under the Traditional Plan” (emphasis added) and including “consulting with lawyers.” The bishop’s making clear that this is about people being unwilling to remain in a denomination that maintains our traditional standards, her personally identifying with this faction (“those of us”), and her naming such prominent leaders as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary President Lallene Rector to this task force are all rather significant.
Of the seven annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction, five (the Oregon-Idaho, California-Pacific, California-Nevada, Desert-Southwest, and Mountain Sky Conferences) all adopted similarly — and in some places identically — worded resolutions asking the Western Jurisdiction’s bishops to convene a specially called session of the Western Jurisdictional Conference to consider how to best pursue their vision of church and to explore separation from the UMC. All five conferences “urge[d] immediate action so that the beginnings of a Jurisdictional plan can be in place prior to the 2020 General Conference.”
There were several other relevant actions taken by Western conferences, in addition to liberal pronouncements and defiance of the UMC’s standards.
The California-Nevada Conference created a new Structural Change Task Force “to work in partnership with a similar Task Force established by the Western Jurisdiction Leadership Team in the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference” and explore future options ranging from reviving failed proposals to create a new U.S.-only central conference (to curtail the influence of those peskily traditionalist non-American United Methodists), to adopting something like the Connectional Conference Plan, to “[e]xploring an amicable separation.”
The California-Pacific Conference overwhelmingly adopted Resolution 19-06, which not only “disavows” the Traditional Plan, but also goes much further by committing to “listen for God’s voice to courageously create a bold, new fully inclusive form of Methodism for the 21st Century and beyond – for the current denominational structure of The United Methodist Church is no longer sustainable or workable in our understanding of Christ’s command to love God and love our neighbor (Mark 12:30-31)” (emphasis added). Interestingly, a remarkable resolution, worth reading in full, called on “the 2020 General Conference to make the discussion of ‘amicable separation’ the primary agenda,” was supported by a strong majority in legislative section before that conference ultimately referred it to their elected delegates.
Perhaps no conference has gone further than the Mountain Sky Conference, encompassing several Rocky Mountain states. It is presently led by openly partnered lesbian activist Dr. Karen Oliveto, whose legitimacy in the office of bishop remains contested.
A majority (reportedly a 2-1 margin) supported a specific plan to completely dissolve our denomination and let each annual conference decide its own fate. While the vote fell short of the 80 percent that annual conference rules apparently require for endorsement, this has now put this idea on the table and made clear that this is what the majority of Oliveto’s conference wants. In the ordination service, Oliveto herself remarked that new clergy there were being “commissioned and ordained into what might be the last class of The United Methodist Church.”
Mountain Sky United Methodists also adopted a resolution authorizing a team “to develop options for moving forward, including but not limited to (1) partnering with other like-minded bodies, (2) developing legislation for General Conference 2020, and (3) separation from The United Methodist Church, which embraces the Traditional Plan” (emphasis added).
There has been some confusion and conflicting understandings within that conference of how much of a commitment to a particular direction this resolution was really making. But Dr. Oliveto and her cabinet are plowing ahead. They have now produced a brochure (see the first side and the second side) now being shared with that area’s clergy. The conference leadership offers the judgments that “General Conference has proven to be incapable of leading a 21st century, global church” and that “The Council of Bishops is structured in such a way that it cannot effectively lead the church.” They conclude, “If GC2020 continues the pattern of GC2019, we intend to create a new Methodist connection,” (emphasis original) in which the annual conference would basically become its own denomination and form “new relationships” with others. Oliveto and her team set a goal of 97 percent of the conference’s clergy and 378 churches signing on to create this “new connection.”
As for the other two Western annual conferences, the Alaska Conference voted to petition the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on whether or not an annual conference has the power to unilaterally leave our denomination (and why would you ask that if you were not at least potentially interested in that option?) while the Pacific-Northwest Conference adopted several of its own resolutions.
UPDATE on Alaska: Official minutes from that conference’s recent session recorded a “Menti poll” in which only 10 percent of the laity but 50 percent of the clergy said that they were “in favor of the [Alaska Annual Conference] withdrawing from the denomination.” One key concern cited, which would be uniquely acute for Alaska’s status as a missionary conference, was “loss of funding, agencies.”
Some context for the latter conference’s discussion: the official conference news service paraphrased Katie Ladd, a self-described “out Queer United Methodist pastor” and chair of the Pacific-Northwest Conference Order of Elders, as saying that “our denomination is in de facto schism,” and while “[i]t’s difficult to know where the lines of division will fall, … in the not-too-distant future there will be at least two Methodisms.”
One of that conference’s adopted resolutions committed the conference to “carefully consider options moving forward including the possibility of severance from the existing structure.” Another creates a task force “to boldly plan for the future, including the exploration of possible futures outside the current denomination.” Another creates a separate Study Committee to “have the authority to develop a plan of exit of the entire annual conference from The United Methodist Church,” with a key goal of “maximizing the retention of the annual conference’s financial, property, and other resources,” and raising the possibility that a specially called annual conference session may potentially be called before the 2020 General Conference “if a vote to disaffiliate is optimal” in such timing. This last resolution, says that leaving the UMC “would be an option of last resort,” to be considered “only if” the General Conference either (1) removes the conference’s bishop, (2) moves to dissolve the Western Jurisdiction, or (3) prevents Pacific-Northwest officials from “protecting” its clergy from being held accountable to traditional biblical standards on marriage and sex.
Another adopted resolution creates a separate “Exploratory Task Force” charged with birthing an incorporated “separate, independent, non-profit, legal entity by October 15, 2019” for the sake of “building a coalition of Methodists that affirm the values of the Simple Plan” and potentially incubating a “new form of Methodism.” This last effort was explicitly described as being modeled after how the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) created a legally incorporated non-profit entity that “has the legal standing to hold a new denomination” if the WCA constituency saw a need for that.
Facing the prospect of the 2019 General Conference liberalizing our denomination’s standards to the point that many traditionalist believers would feel they could not remain United Methodist, liberal United Methodist leaders were harshly unloving, saying such things as “If they want to leave, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Now that some liberal United Methodists are talking about leaving, I have been deeply disappointed to see some traditionalist United Methodists on social media stoop to similar rhetoric.
Please, for the love of God (literally!), let’s not do this to each other. This sort of rhetoric is harsh, unloving, graceless, and a terrible witness to a watching world. Yes, I realize that a lot of it is driven by the pain of traditionalist United Methodists who have suffered a lot of mistreatment at the hands of liberal United Methodist activists in areas where that faction has become dominant. But two wrongs do not make a right.
Katie Ladd is right. Whether we like it or not, we are in a de facto schism, which is merely awaiting some sort of more formal recognition. With no common commitment to an orthodox faith in Jesus Christ, to Scriptural authority, and to keeping our covenant commitments, we cannot have a sustainable basis for unity.
The half-million United Methodists in these ten conferences include numerous traditionalist believers. And the dominant factions of these ten conferences have plenty of sympathizers elsewhere, as seen, for example, in the main liberal caucus within the Baltimore-Washington Conference recently proposing that that annual conference leave United Methodism to join with the Western Jurisdiction. Such complications are not insurmountable, but they pose enough challenges that no one can be sure of the exact form that the coming separation will take.
This will be difficult for all of us, and much prayer is needed.
Mountain Sky Brochure: