When we returned from our stint in West Africa with the General Board of Global Ministries, I spent the first six months traveling up, down and across Indiana reporting the accomplishments of and raising additional money for Operation Classroom which was then a unique partnership between the Indiana annual conferences and the Liberia and Sierra Leone Annual Conferences focusing on their high schools. Then I was appointed to a two-point charge. One small church was in a small town that had two four-way stops. The other was a typical white frame church in the rural area – so rural it was a mile off the highway.
From the beginning of my ministry I have believed my primary responsibility as a pastor was to lead people into relationships with Jesus Christ and his church. So I set to work on this in both churches. By the end of the first year both churches had seen increased membership and worship attendance, including 10 new members of the white frame country church – a 25% increase in worship attendance for that little church.
By the end of the second year, all 10 had effectively been run off. Fortunately I was able to convince most of them to transfer their membership to the other church which embraced them quickly and completely. The others were lost to The United Methodist Church, if not the organized body of Christ in general.
In a subsequent conversation with my predecessor at the two churches, he recounted how the Lay Leader of the white frame country church had once told him, “I don’t see why we need new members. It’s kinda’ nice knowing who’s gonna’ be here on Sunday morning.”
That information had not been contained in the profile submitted to the district superintendent and shared with me during the appointment process or by my predecessor during the turnover time. It might have been helpful, but it certainly was enlightening even later.
The culture within that congregation was “we know each other, we like who we are, do not ask us to think about the future beyond our own funeral.” Regrettably, too many United Methodist congregations have developed that sort of culture.
Which, in my opinion, led to the result of the just-concluded Called General Conference in St. Louis.
It is interesting that self-described evangelicals in North American United Methodism have found shared interests with United Methodists in Africa and, perhaps the Philippines, to form a voting bloc that controls the denomination, at least for now. The latter parts of the denomination are vibrant, growing, excited and demographically young. The evangelical renewal movement in the UMC is controlled by old white men and the occasional woman. They are not really concerned about the future of the church. They just want things to stay the same if they cannot roll back the clock. They know each other, they like who they are and they absolutely do not want to think about the future.
What they won’t admit is that their own children and grandchildren have left The United Methodist Church and they are not coming back. They will surround themselves with people just like them and not worry about encouraging new and different folks to enter into a relationship with Jesus and live it out with and through their church.
Which brings us back to the Special General Conference. At this point I cannot say what has been accomplished or not. The majority barely adopted a draconian plan for the denomination that contained several provisions that had been ruled unconstitutional prior to the vote and there is a further constitutional challenge that will be heard in April. It may well be that I was prophetic when I voiced my prediction that we would spend millions of dollars and countless amounts of time, energy and emotion and end up with no substantive change.
While the delegates may not have made real changes to the Book of Discipline, they did change one thing. The evangelical right-wing has set an expiration date for The United Methodist Church. The evangelical right has told people in North America under 40 years of age that they are neither welcome nor needed, whether clergy or lay. They will, of course, deny this and point to and parade their young evangelicals as poster children for the righteousness and hope for their cause and it is always inaccurate to stereotype generations, but the actions as well as the words of the evangelicals and their international allies will put a permanent stain on the UMC as anti-LGBT with hard hearts, closed minds and guarded doors that will not wash or wear off. In another generation or two, many of the churches North American evangelicals think they are protecting and preserving will be closed because the old guard has died off and no younger families joined.
The North American evangelicals will deny this, but they have already lost the perception battle. Their words that they “see” the progressives ring hollow. Their words and the words of their African allies that they “love their LGBT brothers and sisters” and “hate the sin, but love the sinner” are trite and tried untruths. They will continue to strain their bowels over the LGBT speck in others’ eyes, but ignore the huge log of divorce, remarriage and adultery in their own. The movement will continue because it is funded by some very wealthy people and ideologically simpatico foundations, but a lot of “its” congregations will be forced to discontinue.
I titled this piece intentionally because I have come to deeply regret what I did in the past to bring us to the present. I am sorry I was ever part of the evangelical right wing in Indiana, national and global Methodism. I firmly believed I was right at the time (see my previous blogs), but now I realize I played a small role in creating a church that drives people away instead of welcoming them in.
I don’t know what my metanoia will bring, but I have some ideas. Though I had planned to never attend another annual conference session, I will be there this June when delegates will be elected for the 2020 General Conference and I am willing to do everything I can to see that younger, more open and inclusive clergy and lay delegates are elected in Indiana. I helped evangelicals organize politically in the 1990’s and early years of this century and am willing to use those skills and instincts on the other side. Maybe I’ll officiate same-sex weddings to spare colleagues who are still in active ministry from having to face the Inquisition. Since I’m no longer getting paid and am on Medicare, I can afford a suspension of pay and benefits. Or maybe I’ll polish up my courtroom skills from back in the day and be the worst nightmare for church trial prosecutors as a defense counsel for colleagues who choose to disobey an unjust and unChristian system.
General Conference 2019 had the opportunity to look the present reality and the future possibilities squarely in the eye and either allow churches, pastors and annual conferences to do ministry as they believe the Holy Spirit is leading them with regard to LGBT people or admit we cannot do this, will never agree and civilly end The United Methodist Church and form two or more new denominations. They failed to do so. While progressives and moderates bear some of the responsibility for this, I place most of the onus on the North American evangelical right and their African allies.
So, if you’re like me to any degree, lick your wounds, gird your loins. The struggle continues.
17 thoughts on “I Am Sorry”
Thank you, Mark for your witness and words here. This is a difficult time for our denomination. I like you, am unwilling to give up the fight just yet; so, who knows, I may need a good colleague to defend me at a trial. I pray for the day when big-tent Methodism is known less by the circus it has become, but rather by the great diversity that gathers therein. That’s the Church I vow to build up; that’s the vision Scripture holds before us; and, I think it is just the Church the world needs now.
Thanks Mark, so glad you have found your family roots, and returned to the more open gracious spirit that I knew in your father.
You should be a real asset to the next generation of more progressive United Methodists. My prayers and spirit is with you,
Thank you Mark. Your words are timely and profound. Thank you for speaking truth. We will continue to preach.
Respect, Brother. Can I help you organize?
I’m proud of you, Mark. One of God’s great gifts to us is the ability to change. Blessings, Bert
Mark, thank you for your analysis of the current reality in the UMC we both love. I am deeply saddened by what appears to be the result of the GC action. I am grateful for your challenge and hope in your commentary. Perhaps it is timely that the Curmudgeon is resurrected as a voice of hope. I long for the time when we were known for our Wesleyan message of God’s Grace for all. I join you in committment to continue to work for embodiing God’s grace for our LBGQ brothers and sisters. Let’s once again become a people known for proclaiming the full grace of God for all people rather then become known for what we are against.
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My beloved church failed me, failed us all. After the numbing shock has worn off, I have to decide how to be the change I want to see in the world. (Ghandi)
Mark, this is one of the most profound witnesses I have ever read. Thank you for your wisdom and insight. As always, I appreciate your clarity and intellect. I look forward to standing with you as we work for justice.
What Todd said…
Mark, I really do appreciate this post. I don’t remember having that conversation when you followed me into your first appointment. I do remember having a conversation with you as we left the auditorium at IU when the confessing movement introduced the list of candidates to be elected for the first time and filled the whole delegation. I remember you saying to me, “I’ll never do anything to hurt the denomination.” I remember replying to you, “You just did.” I have been angry about that for a long time although I don’t think of it often. I’m giving up that anger right now. This is a time for forgiveness. Thank you for this piece. I’m sorry I’ve been angry at you for so long.
I am one of those “kids & grandkids” you reference who have left the UMC. And my husband is too. Despite our being born & baptized & growing up in the methodist church (my husband’s great grandfather was a circuit rider!), despite our meeting & being married in the methodist church, and despite baptizing both our small children there, we now attend a Presbyterian church. The last time we were in a methodist church, it was to be the attendents in a gay wedding. That gay couple, who ushered and led the youth group every Sunday, have now left the UMC as well. Another close friend from that same church was a gifted musician, who sang in the choir & protested the anti-gay policies years ago at annual conference; he’s left too. Almost all the close friends we had at church, starting out in our late 20’s/30’s have now left the church. Most say it’s because of the backward prejudice against GLBTQ. It is sad for the church, but we all don’t just evaporate…we have taken our time and talent elsewhere, in my case to a Presbyterian church. In my sister’s family’s case, to a Unitarian church. With my brother & his family, they now go to a Buddhist temple. Our gay friends just simply quit trying to find a church that welcomed and accepted them. And my musician friend claims the “streets of NYC” as his church sanctuary now…a statement Wesley himself might have made.
Sad, and words are hard to come by right now. Not true for many others who are heaping their sadness into verbal attacks against the “RIGHT WING” to the extent that they are obviously going to hell for their efforts to understand the Biblical directives which have been “church law” for hundreds of years. I realize our culture has changed and we (all of us) work hard to justify our sins. Our worst enemy is lack of empathy and our selfish nature. “Love one another” has come to mean, “love your sinful nature and accept others who love theirs.” We’re all in this together and need to stop all the hate mongering…. PLEASE!!!
I became Presbyterian when I was not treated in a xn manner when I divorced a minister who liked men who never ever came out. My dad was a UMC minister for 40 yrs and even in my personnel situation he would have defended the LGBTQ to be welcomed and serve as UMC minister and/or member.
Thanks for the word of grace. Grace a word many of us have lost a sense of the wonder and the power when extended and received.
We miss you Mark. I think you have almost completely mischarateurized Orthodox Christians or as you say evangelicals. I don’t think you were fair in your characterization of what happened at General Conference. I think a more accurate description is found here.
You do have me wondering about what conditions could have taken place to cause you to make such a 180 degree reversal in your thinking? In my quick reading I picked up concern for the future population of the United Methodist Church. I did not pick anything up about a new understanding of Scriptural teaching.
You are still loved and appreciated and missed. May God have mercy on us all. May the war come to an end soon so that all may have peace.
Thank you, Wade. It was good to hear from you and I deeply appreciate your well-written and reasoned blog post. My 180-degree change you identified did not occur overnight, but rather over a couple of decades. If you have not done so, I invite you to read my previous posts. That may provide you some insight into why and how I came to be where I am personally and pastorally.
Thanks Mark. Will do. Blessings be upon you old friend.