Global UMC Funding, Part 1: How Liberal is American United Methodism?

John Lomperis on July 28, 2020

Despite delay, the United Methodist Church continues moving towards division into two main denominations, which has become a widely recognized need.

There has been much talk about theologically traditionalist leaders in our denomination’s non-U.S. central conferences feeling pressure to choose the liberalized “post-Separation UMC” (psUMC) after the separation, because it is supposedly in their financial interest to do so, even though in most cases this would be much less aligned with their faith values.

The liberal “Mainstream UMC” caucus has been distributing a misleading map of the USA boldly declaring that “78% of money for the Global UMC is coming from Annual Conferences that reject the Traditional Plan.” The Traditional Plan, enacted by the 2019 General Conference, maintained and strengthened our denomination’s longstanding prohibitions on same-sex wedding ceremonies or engaging in any sexual relations outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

Last March, a small group of liberal Americans, including a George Howard, senior executive of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), and Pastor Rachel Baughman of North Texas, traveled in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), meeting in different locations, as documented in various reports and photographs, with three of the four active bishops in the UMC’s Central Congo Central Conference (Bishops Mande Muyombo, Gabriel Unda, and Daniel Lunge), one or two retired Congolese bishops, “the leaders of the Central Congo Episcopal Area,” and other regional UMC leaders. Both Howard and Baughman have been leaders of the liberal, LGBTQ-affirming “Uniting Methodists” caucus. Planned stops in Zimbabwe and Mozambique were canceled due to COVID-19. Among other things, this trip reportedly involved spreading Mainstream UMC’s 78-percent claim. 

In response to an inquiry, Howard characterized the trip as “exploring a long-term partnership in the DRC” with the North Texas Conference, with this trip coming in response to an invitation from Bishop Muyombo to visit. Howard described their conversations as “positive and future oriented.” But when asked, he did not deny the report that they had spread Mainstream UMC’s 78-percent claim.

Such discussions of U.S. funding for global ministries involve major problems related to inequality and paternalism. Plenty of non-American United Methodists have made clear that their biblically grounded traditionalist theology is more important to them than American financial support. As the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, a prominent delegate from Liberia in West Africa, memorably declared last year, “the vast majority of African United Methodists will never, ever trade Jesus and the truth of the Bible for money.”

And to be clear: African church leaders must be able to make their own decisions, and have the right to talk to, explore partnerships with, and invite over whomever they want.

But when people insist on discussing such financial matters, we should at least get our facts straight.

The Mainstream UMC map and its recent spread among central conference leaders by liberal Americans raise three central questions:

When we carefully examine the data and often-unchallenged assumptions, we see that much of the liberal propaganda does not stand up to scrutiny.   

It also must be remembered that Mainstream UMC, the source of this 78 percent claim, has a long track record of misrepresentation. Examples are documented here

Let’s examine each of the above questions in order.

How Liberal is the UMC in the USA?

There is so much rhetoric inaccurately portraying American United Methodists as overwhelmingly—or even close to universally—liberal in our theological beliefs, especially in terms of moral approval of homosexual practice.

Undoubtedly, there is more liberalism in the USA than in most other regions of our global denomination.

But you can read here about how while some liberals have misrepresented polling data, the most recent scientific survey asking directly about homosexuality (in 2015) found that notable majorities of both pastors and laypeople in leadership roles in American United Methodism still supporting our denomination’s continued prohibition of “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.” Note that this survey was deliberately taken after the U.S. Supreme Court had redefined marriage for the wider American society to include same-sex couples.

Last year, United Methodist Communications (UMCom) released another study of American United Methodist’s beliefs (without directly addressing sexuality). It found that 44 percent of American United Methodists identify as their theology as conservative or traditionalist, 28 percent as moderate/centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive/liberal, with eight percent unsure. It found church attendance was significantly more frequent among conservatives/traditionalists. Chuck Niedringhaus, UMCom’s research director, further explained, “I don’t think you can add the moderates and progressives and say that’s where the church is,” because “Theologically, many (moderates) are more traditional.”

It is true that a majority of U.S. General Conference delegates lean liberal.

But looking exclusively at delegate elections, as the Mainstream UMC map apparently does, distorts the bigger picture. I have previously outlined how several factors – influences from liberal bishops, skewed representation, how substantial minorities are shut out, and the systematic over-representation of more liberal clergy – have helped skew American delegations more liberal. 

If the point is truly to understand where American money is coming from, then it would make much more sense to look only at lay delegates, who are more traditionalist. If Mainstream UMC and others spreading their map had done that, then some conferences that they now have shaded as green (as code for being “against the Traditional Plan”) would be changed to dark gray (code for “supporting the Traditional Plan”).

But no U.S. annual conference, and very few congregations, are monolithically “liberal” or “traditionalist.” In some of the most liberal-dominated annual conferences, some of their largest, congregations, who contribute a significant portion of apportionments, are traditionalist.

Furthermore, the Mainstream UMC map surprisingly classifies Louisiana and Indiana among conferences supposedly “against the Traditional Plan.” But last year, Louisiana rejected a resolution that would have “denounce[d] the passage of the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference….” As for my own Indiana Conference, at our 2019 session, after extensive debate, we voted by 63 percent to uphold our bishop in a parliamentary ruling against a motion to suspend enforcement of our denomination’s homosexuality-related moral standards for clergy. This was effectively a vote to say that we will uphold the Traditional Plan and related moral standards in the Discipline. We voted by narrower margins to reject petitions opposing the UMC Discipline’s ban “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy and its affirmation of marriage as a covenant “between a man and a woman.”

There may be similar discrepancies with Mainstream UMC’s classification of other conferences. But when someone makes strong statistical claims about U.S. annual conferences that allegedly “reject the Traditional Plan” and includes conferences that have actually most recently expressed support for the Traditional Plan’s underlying standards or refused to denounce the Traditional Plan, then that should tell you all you need to know about trusting such claims. 

Finally, the map is visually misleading. It shows several large, green-shaded conferences, suggesting overwhelming American liberalism. But geographic size has little relation to how many people or dollars a conference has. The liberal-dominated Western Jurisdiction is geographically huge – but its people account for an almost-negligible two percent of denominational membership, and contribute nothing to support central conference bishops.

Stay tuned tomorrow for an overview of the complex ways in which American dollars support the UMC outside of the United States, including the inaccuracy of focusing only on apportionments and how the historically most liberal American annual conferences are not financially supporting central conference bishops.

  1. Comment by Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary (ret. UM clergy) on July 28, 2020 at 11:06 am

    “The liberal ‘Mainstream UMC’ caucus has been distributing a misleading map of the USA boldly declaring that ‘78% of money for the Global UMC is coming from Annual Conferences that reject the Traditional Plan’.”

    What a shocking observation! Progressives spin the truth into a narrative that suits their agenda? (The less artful assertion is – Progressives lie.) But wait, this is the Christian religion, in general, we’re discussing here. “Lying” crosses the PC line, not to mention civility.

    The “Traditionalists” started losing this debate – as well as UMC unity – when they gave “Progressives” control of that narrative by assigning group labels. Everything since has been Midrash.

    When the “Progressives” lost the vote in 2019, they immediately morphed in a version of the arrogant, petulant, post-adolescent (regardless of age) “protesters” filling the streets of Seattle and Portland these days.

    Now we’re told “Progressives” have been “distributing a misleading map”!

    Who could have predicted that?

    The UMC split happened when Bishops stopped enforcing the Discipline.

    Credit the Turkish poet Rumi (1207-1273) as the likely source for originating the applicable expression in one of his poems: “Fish begin to stink at the head, not the tail.”

  2. Comment by Gary Bebop on July 28, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    Turmoil among United Methodists in Central Congo (as reported by Tom Lambrecht) suggests that managing global church has become a dubious mission. Even though he was arguing for a new Methodist expression, he exposed the weakness inherent in governing a global structure. Beyond the rosy forecasts of enthusiasts, what are the real prospects for a global WCA?

  3. Comment by Andrew Hughes on July 28, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    Deceptions are always eventually exposed by God. Be sure your sins will find you out.

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