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Arthur Collins is a retired elder in the Indiana Annual Conference. He has an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary and a PhD from Indiana State University. In addition to blogging about the state of The UMC, he writes a lot about church history — especially the English church tradition, language, and Scouting ministry. He plays several instruments badly, can cook like nobody’s business, and has been married for 45 years to a very patient woman. This article originally appeared on his personal blog. Reposted with permission.
It saddens me to see my traditionalist friends tearing each other over the Protocol for separation which will be presented to General Conference in May. I understand both sides.
Those who say, “those guys don’t speak for me!” and who are vowing to stay and stand for the truth, no matter what, have a point. We trads won the last time, and we have every prospect of winning this time. So why leave now? Some are not opposed to leaving, per se, but they feel we got swindled in the negotiations. They, too, have a point. But here’s the thing: for some people, it will never be time to make a deal; for others, no deal will ever be what they think we deserve.
But somebody’s leaving, and that will change the dynamic; indeed, people are heading for the exits already. Once a sufficient number of trads leave, the UMC will flip and the American progs will create the denomination they want (despite the howls of the Africans). And yes, I understand that creating the WCA started an impetus toward leaving that has acquired its own logic and urgency simply by virtue of its being. We started the WCA when we feared we would lose; we needed a lifeboat. Then, we won, but using the WCA as a vehicle for church reform proceeded along with the development of the WCA as a lifeboat ready to depart.
In the end, the American church will flip to meet the progs’ demands. Many trads will leave; whether their leaving enables the centerprog takeover or results from it is irrelevant at this point. The only question remaining is, What will you do when the great and evil day comes upon us?
There will be buyer’s remorse on both sides. For there will be congregations and clergy who stay in the Rump church, thinking either to fight on or that they can continue as always, untouched by the conflict. Some of them will discover, too late, that they should have seized the opportunity to leave when they had it. And there will be congregations and clergy who join the trads’ Remnant church who will be disappointed that this or that thing they always wanted won’t be on offer there, either. There will be congregations, both Rump and Remnant, which will die because they lose sufficient people in the realignment to sustain themselves. And there will be lots of individuals who get hurt by it all, and who just quit going to church entirely. Finally, there will be a time of confusion as congregations and clergy realign themselves; some churches may go without regular pastors for a while; some clergy may not find the positions or compensation they’re used to for a while.
These are all costs of any separation, on any terms. They have to be balanced against the costs of staying together in an increasingly dysfunctional denomination.
As for me, my decision was made over forty years ago. When I first came into the UM ministry, I realized that there were serious differences in doctrine (both metaphysical and moral) among us. But the UMC officially endorsed my commitments, so I was able to grant others the right to disagree, but not disobey. And my ministry followed its course all the way through to retirement. But way back when, in order to get along and not argue all the time, I had drawn up a (very) short list of essentials and said, “If we ever go there, I can’t stay.” And regardless of whether we adopt the protocol or not, it looks like enough trads are leaving that we will, in fact, “go there.” And I cannot remain a contributing part of a denomination that deserts its fundamental commitments that way.
But if I must go, then two things are required of me. First, I will not be Lot’s wife. I will direct my gaze forward, not back, to build for the future. Complaints about the past, fighting old battles, and harboring grudges toward “those people” are going to be simply a waste of energy. If and when I move to a new trad denom, my attitude toward the Rump I leave behind will be: Not my circus; not my monkeys; not anymore. Similarly, I will exercise charity toward those on “my side” who have chosen differently from me.
The other thing required of me is service. Once the ship goes down (or the mutineers cast the loyalists adrift, pick your metaphor), the first duty of the loyal officers will be to care for the passengers and crew in those lifeboats. So, I will do whatever I must, as an elder of the church, to care for those caught up in the chaos. That may mean that I return to the pastorate for a while (though I think it likely that I won’t need to, as there may be more clergy looking for positions than are available). I might serve as a presiding elder until the new denomination gets its feet under it. I certainly am interested in seeing the Scouting ministry of the new denomination set up the right way. And my personal ministry to other refugees (clergy and lay) will, I think, be important. Call and ordination are for the whole of one’s life, not just one’s working career, and I will fulfill my ministry however it pleases God to use me.
Meanwhile, we must not give way to our fears. I had a counselor colleague years ago who would quote Job: That which I have greatly feared has come upon me. He meant by that that those who obsess over their fears often unconsciously do things which make their worst fears come to pass: a self-fulfilling prophecy. For those of us who face these times, the First Song of Isaiah must be our watchword:
Surely, it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid,
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,
And he will be my Savior.