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.