Recently, the liberal Mainstream UMC caucus group sent a fundraising email with blatant misrepresentations of the truth, which was quickly re-posted by the liberal UM Insight website. Part 1 of our response set the record on what really happened with the establishment and implementation of United Methodist Discipline Paragraph 2553, the main avenue through which congregations have recently been allowed to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. Part 2 below explains how Mainstream UMC has further misrepresented the truth about the options before United Methodists in 2024, and also responds to this group mass emailing General Conference delegates, doubling down on their misinformation.
Recently, the Mainstream UMC caucus (amplified by the progressive-leaning “UM Insight” website) misrepresented the truth by portraying the terms and subsequent implementation of Discipline Paragraph 2553, through which congregations have recently disaffiliated from our denomination, as supposedly exclusively authored by “traditionalists” and particularly “[t]he current and former members of Good News and the WCA.” Even a former Mainstream UMC Advisory Board member from the Western Jurisdiction publicly protested that the caucus’s claims went “way too far.” I set the record straight, with careful documentation.
Then, Mainstream UMC sent another email to General Conference delegates, authored by Mainstream UMC Advisory Board Vice President David Livingston of the Great Plains Conference. However, this response did not really refute any of the key facts I documented, but pivoted to personal attacks, subjecting myself and others to very selective double standards that I don’t see this caucus using with its own allies.
I remain part of the denomination I first joined as a teenager, and continue, with God’s help, seeking to live out my membership vows with integrity. I still care deeply about how we move into the future. Bishops continue saying that the United Methodist Church remains enough of a “big tent” to welcome theological traditionalists like me. I stay for the sake of fellow United Methodists who are feeling marginalized and trapped, and have begged me to stay and advocate for their sake.
I could respond in more detail to the ad hominem. But beyond noting that accusations from Mainstream UMC or UM Insight should be taken with healthy skepticism, it is more constructive to focus on more substantive matters.
As we consider how exactly we want United Methodists to move forward in 2024, we should do so based on clear facts. And much else in both Mainstream UMC’s October 12 email to delegates, authored by Mark Holland, and in the caucus’s November 8 email about me was misleading.
So what’s the truth?
- Blocking further disaffiliation opportunities would not “move past this fighting.”
Actually, quite the opposite is true.
Mainstream UMC has already made clear that for its boundaries of with whom they are willing to share a denomination, “we cannot affiliate with those” who support the values underlying the Traditional Plan supported by the majority of delegates at the last General Conference.
At my own 2022 North Central Jurisdictional Conference, many delegates applauded a speaker’s declaration that LGBTQ+ full inclusion “is a matter of justice” and “it is not possible for a church to be not of one mind on an issue of justice, and to continue on thinking otherwise is to delay justice” (see 1:59:11).
But when 2024 begins, there will remain many United Methodists who support the values of the Traditional Plan, who will never change their minds. Their consciences will not allow them to support denominational leaders taking the UMC in a new direction, or to fully accept the spiritual authority of transgendered or non-celibate gay bishops, superintendents, or pastors. Many United Methodists in the constituency of evangelical caucuses have been coerced into remaining, by the additional conference barriers noted earlier, while others chose to trust their bishops’ pleas to not leave until they “wait and see what the next General Conference decides.”
Heavy-handedly forcing all of these people to remain caged together as long as possible is precisely a recipe for bitter, extended conflict.
Other progressive leaders have made clear that they believe this would harm LGBTQ United Methodists, make the UMC less safe, and delay the UMC’s march towards justice.
Annual conferences who have already taken a “rip the band-aid off all at once” approach to disaffiliations, would probably be minimally impacted by any 2024 extension of United Methodist disaffiliation opportunities.
- For many United Methodists, it is simply not true that “Other paths for departure are available,” and that United Methodists “still can” use such alternatives to ¶2553 in 2024—unless General Conference provides such an opportunity.
While conceding that congregations outside of the U.S. have been barred from using Paragraph 2553, Mainstream UMC’s November email broadly denies that “it’s impossible for them to leave,” because there are a couple very limited places where “there have been disaffiliations outside of the U.S.”
We Americans must stop talking and thinking about Africans or United Methodists in central conferences as if they are all some undifferentiated monolith.
Just because a relatively small number of congregations in Bulgaria and Kenya were able to separate from the UMC, outside of normal processes, this does not at all mean that that would necessarily work elsewhere. Each country and conference faces different realities.
Mainstream UMC’s over-simplified rhetoric of “either it is impossible to leave the UMC, or it is not” refuses to acknowledge the basic fact that the circumstances in each conference are different.
Should the 2024 General Conference really deny United Methodists outside the United States ever having the same opportunity that privileged Americans have had to disaffiliate?
What about “other paths”?
The Discipline’s main (and for most situations, only) alternative for potentially allowing congregational departures is Paragraph 2549. But that requires declaring the local church closed, and, unlike ¶2553, gives the bishop as well as multiple others the power to unilaterally veto the whole process before it comes before the annual conference, even if everyone else wants to move forward (see ¶2549.2.b).
Thus, in most cases, for a congregation whose bishop OR District Superintendent OR entire conference cabinet (either one) does not act to offer a ¶2549-based separation option, then no clear “other path” is available to leave its annual conference, other than a hostile court battle—unless the 2024 United Methodist General Conference provides such an option.
Furthermore, in my tracking, less than 10 percent of U.S. annual conferences, together with their trustees, have adopted and published a consistent, localized ¶2549-based United Methodist disaffiliation policy to continue into or beyond 2024. And with conferences getting new bishops in September, none of these conference-specific policies are guaranteed to last long enough to give any congregation much time to non-hastily discern its future AFTER evaluating decisions of the 2024 United Methodist General Conference.
Elsewhere, some bishops and other relevant officials have already indicated their firm opposition to using such “other paths” to allow additional United Methodist disaffiliations in or after 2024.
Before ¶2553, active congregations interested in leaving were largely blocked. Yes, there were very occasional exceptions for extraordinary cases. But there are counter-examples of things getting ugly, such as a three-year battle resulting in an annual conference seizing possession of a church building and parsonage away from the sizable active membership, even though the conference had no plans to plant a new church there.
- It is bizarre to blame allowing congregations to leave for “creating lawsuits in our conferences.”
This season of separation has been challenging for everyone. But it would have been much more contentious without Paragraph 2553, when implemented fairly, offering a clear, workable option for congregations in which super-majorities feel the need to separate.
What drives lawsuits has not been letting congregations go. Rather, as seen in other denominations, lawsuits result when annual conference officials needlessly impose additional monetary and other barriers in attempt to either coerce congregations into staying or “punch down” to financially weaken departing congregations.
- Mainstream UMC attributes to the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and Good News new petitions to allow additional separations, and claims that these would “extend and reduce the terms for exit.”
They appear to be referring to two petitions actually submitted by the Africa Initiative. Neither Good News nor the Wesleyan Covenant Association nor IRD/UMAction have submitted our own separate petitions on these matters.
The Africa Initiative petition to make a one-time extension of ¶2553 for just another few years actually maintains the same basic framework of the primarily liberal-authored ¶2553 and does not fundamentally “reduce the terms for exit” in any of the four basic hurdles to disaffiliation of the current ¶2553 system summarized here.
Remember, Holland and Mainstream UMC themselves supported “reducing the terms for exit” from the current ¶2553, when they supported the “Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” (before they flipped to opposing it).
The basic question these Africa Initiative petitions pose for United Methodists in 2024: in light of our denomination’s changing values, when a strong super-majority of a congregation or non-American annual conference has over time discerned that they no longer want to be part of the UMC and support its leadership, do we really want to act in a paternalistic, colonialist manner to try to coerce them into remaining perpetually trapped?
How does this show the love of Christ to a watching world? Is such bullying of others really healthy for our own souls?
Beyond some tweaks to ensure basic transparency, the two biggest changes the Africa Initiative makes to the current ¶2553 are to merely restore this provision’s original intent, by making explicitly clear that (1) this option is for all United Methodists, not just Americans, and (2) annual conferences may not needlessly impose unlimited additional, punitive financial demands beyond those already required.
- What about “hold[ing] people hostage who want to leave”?
Most rank-and-file United Methodists probably don’t want this.
But what else do you call it when some annual conference officials impose extreme barriers (such as demanding payments of $60,000 per member) that they know effectively block congregations from leaving? Or lobbying delegates to prevent congregations who have never had a real chance to disaffiliate from ever being allowed to do so?
- Mainstream UMC and UM Insight wildly accuse IRD, WCA, and Good News of “disinformation,” “false information,” and having “trumped up all kinds of nonsense to get people to leave.”
And yet they are unable to support such a major accusation with a single documented example.
If Mainstream UMC’s misrepresentations documented here and earlier (and even earlier)—and its choices to leave such claims posted on the Mainstream UMC website even after being informed of the factual errors—do not qualify as “disinformation” or “false information,” then I am not sure what would.
Cynthia Astle makes her own unforced choices about what to repost on UM Insight. Years ago, she pointedly made clear her unwillingness to ever accept any guest column content from a particular traditionalist caucus—a refusal she had every right to make for her own website.
- Several of Mainstream UMC’s ad hominem attacks against less liberal United Methodists make little sense.
At a basic level, how is Mainstream UMC’s pattern of routinely insisting that those who disagree with their agendas must necessarily be driven by dastardly motives and bad character a helpful, gracious, Christ-honoring way to address disagreement within the church, particularly when such rhetoric comes from ordained pastors?
For many years, traditionalists have made clear that, from our deeply held perspective, we believe that proposals for regionalization and LGBTQ full inclusion are unwise and harmful. Continuing to advocate for our concerns and values in our own denomination, as long as it remains our denomination, is not a matter of traditionalists sadistically wanting “to harm our church on their way out the door” or “to cause more problems in 2024,” as Mainstream UMC claims. It is simply remaining consistent in supporting what we believe is best and opposing what we still believe would harm the church.
In any case, it makes no sense to both (1) insist on keeping traditionalists trapped in the UMC, and (2) complain when they continue influencing the UMC from within. You can’t have it both ways.
As for the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), its United Methodist work is through the UMAction program, which I direct, and which has long been accountable to its own Steering Committee and Advisory Board of faithful United Methodists. Before endorsing the Protocol (long after Mainstream UMC did), we strongly encouraged our constituency to stay in the UMC.
We have observed the objective reality of how, for better or for worse, American Protestantism is shifting towards non-denominationalism. But if I was really an “institutional nihilist” who was “committed to a post-denominational Christianity” and a “generic goal of institutional nihilism,” as Mainstream UMC claims, then I would not have been encouraging congregations, after they after they disaffiliate, to join another denomination, the Global Methodist Church.
Mainstream UMC’s repeatedly labeling any organized theologically traditionalist United Methodists as “far right” is just childish name-calling. And frankly, anyone who honestly thinks of IRD, WCA, or Good News as “far right” lives within an extraordinarily narrow ideological bubble.
Between these two fundraising emails, Mainstream UMC harshly attacks the character and alleged motives of other United Methodists, including by likening some to “a cancer” (literally de-humanizing!) and punching down to disparage “many” disaffiliation-seeking congregations as “simply opportunists.” In September and October, Mainstream UMC sent five emails, all republished on UM Insight, harshly disparaging the Global Methodist Church, Bishop Scott Jones, disaffiliated congregations, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, and IRD/UMAction—not in response to these targets saying anything about Mainstream UMC, but as Mainstream UMC choosing to throw the first punch.
How is any of this consistent with Mainstream UMC saying that “fighting is unhealthy” and that they “want the fighting to end?” Where is the logic in repeatedly expressing such harsh personal disdain for people while then trying to coerce them into remaining in the same denomination with you?
Theologically non-traditionalist United Methodists should consider how, as traditionalists’ influence slowly fades, how will you handle your own disagreements with each other? The more misinformation, name-calling, promise-breaking, and personal attacks from such self-described progressive and centrist sources you treat as acceptable today, the more this sets a pattern you can expect to hurt you in the future.
We don’t have to keep doing this.
What if we all tried laying down our swords to seek a way for different segments of our already divided denomination to move forward into our different preferred futures, without anyone holding anyone else hostage?
If 2024 United Methodist delegates are truly willing to thus try something different and “give peace a chance,” it does not have to be too hard.