You have probably heard that at least two of our larger churches in our area, Dyersburg FUMC and Collierville UMC, had votes regarding disaffiliation. They are notably on our minds because former pastors of our church serve at both of those churches. Neither church met the threshold for disaffiliation (which is a vote 2/3’rds or greater of professing members), but the votes were very close.
I know this raises questions. The biggest question: “Why does it take 2/3rd’s? Why not a simple majority?”
The answer is both simple AND complex. The simple answer is because the provision for disaffiliating from the UMC is done via ¶2553.3 of the Book of Discipline, which is worded:
3. Decision Making Process - The church conference shall be conducted in accordance with ¶ 248 and shall be held within one hundred twenty (120) days after the district superintendent calls for the church conference. In addition to the provisions of ¶ 246.8, special attention shall be made to give broad notice to the full professing membership of the local church regarding the time and place of a church conference called for this purpose and to use all means necessary, including electronic communication where possible, to communicate. The decision to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.
The complex answer: This legislation wasn’t crafted by an institutionalist, progressive United Methodist. It was submitted at the 2019 Called General Conference, without amendment, by a traditional, orthodox United Methodist pastor – the Rev. Beth Ann Cook, who wanted to find a gracious exit provision for anyone who felt that they needed to leave the UMC because of the disagreement in theology over human sexuality. She admitted that it wasn’t perfect, but (in her words): “I’ve worked long and hard trying to help us treat one another well in our disagreement. I want all my time and effort and sacrifice to mean something. Passing ¶2553 was us at our best.” I agreed – and as a former General Conference delegate, I voted for it.
I say this for two reasons: (1) This wasn’t a move by the “status quo” or institutional UMC folks, and (2) this was the very hard work of a faithful disciple trying to honor everyone in a very divisive atmosphere. I know the Rev. Cook personally, and while we don’t agree on all things, I would never question her heart or her faith. She is a woman after God’s own heart.
A majority vote might be appropriate for a national election, but rarely good for a local church. As much as we might try for it not to be about winners and losers… it turns into that. Few churches would take a 51%-49% vote as definitive for a building project, so it stands to reason that something as crucial as leaving a denomination or severing a congregation should be a resounding majority and discerning of God’s will.
We in Jackson have already endured the pain of watching a few churches disaffiliate. Some of those folks have come to our church to find a church home, and that could happen again. Here is what I would hope for us as a church:
1. That we welcome anyone into our fellowship with open arms, with no expectations that they “become members.” Some people will just need a safe place to be without strings attached. We should always be a safe place.
2. That we attach no stigma or judgment on those who wish to go a separate way. While God would prefer us to live in unity, sometimes the differences are just too great. Separations happen. We also know that in the end, God unites us… even Paul and Barnabas, who were both successful in their ministry despite their differences.
Here is the reality, from my point of view and my experience in the political side of the United Methodist Church: You can certainly find extreme positions on both sides of the church, but they are largely the exception rather than the rule.
1. It will be many years (at least 8-12) before any substantive changes could be made to the Book of Discipline, for the simple reason that Africa – very traditionalist in nature - is now the largest voting block (i.e., majority) in the UMC. For changes to be made will take a process of regionalizing the denomination that simply cannot (and will not) happen overnight.
2. Contrary to what you might have been told, most United Methodists (not all) are in general agreement when it comes to doctrine regarding the Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Humanity and Divinity of Christ, etc. Are there exceptions? Of course. There always will be. They tend to be the exception, rather than the rule.
3. If same-sex marriages and a more generous understanding of marriage was approved one day, how likely would a church get an LGBTQ+ pastor that doesn’t want one? VERY UNLIKELY. Why? Bishops and district superintendents don’t like to set up pastors or congregations to fail. Some churches still aren’t ready for a female senior pastor… and both the UMC and the newly formed GMC are fully supportive of women in ministry. (That’s worth pondering in and of itself)
I remain a United Methodist pastor – unapologetically and enthusiastically – as I believe it is the best expression of faith in Jesus Christ. If I thought otherwise, I would surrender my ordination credentials or retire and get out of the way. I can do no other.
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