United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 7: The Other Plans

At long last here is my final post commenting on The United Methodist Church's upcoming (in just 3 weeks!) General Conference and the options before it.  In previous posts I've summarized the current situation in the world-wide United Methodist Church as well as several possible paths for a "way forward."  I've shared material from both supporters and opponents of the "One Church Plan" ("local option" for sexual morality and the definition of marriage), and explained in detail my own concerns about this plan, which are serious indeed.

As I've been discussing this issue with laity in my local congregation, I've come to realize that, should any of the 3 options that have been sent to General Conference pass, a decision would have to be made at the local level.

Under the One Church plan, for example, local churches would have to decide whether or not to host same-gender wedding ceremonies in their church-houses.

Now I want to look at bit more at the other two plans that were crafted by the Commission on a Way Forward for the General Conference to consider.

1) The Traditional Plan.

The Traditional Plan is by far the simplest to execute because it makes no changes to church teaching, nor requires any constitutional amendments.  This alone is a huge selling point.  Beyond that, I believe that it is also the most likely to preserve the largest degree of institutional unity within the denomination simply because it maintains the current teaching.  If people found our teachings on sexual morality absolutely intolerable, then presumably they would not have joined our churches or received ordination to join the ranks of our clergy.  While a great many conservatives, evangelicals, and traditionalists have signaled that they would leave the denomination if the teachings are changed in a more liberal direction, it seems likely that most of our progressives and liberals will remain within the denomination if the current teaching is retained, since (for the most part) they have already been able to live with that teaching for years.

What will the traditional plan change?

The main thrust of the Traditional plan is to increase accountability for those clergy and bishops who refuse to live in accordance with Church law, despite their own freely-accepted ordination vows to uphold the same.  This failure to, as our Lord says, "let our yes be yes" has caused a crisis of trust in the leadership and is a major reason we have come to the very brink of schism.  The Traditional plan aims to put in place serious consequences for clergy and bishops who break their vows.

I fully support the increased accountability in this area.  My concern (shared with many liberals, I would expect) is that we become too overzealous and heavy-handed in a rigid enforcement of doctrine.  That outcome seems relatively unlikely in a denomination that prides itself on a "theology of grace," but I have heard one or two of our more conservative colleagues make comments about "running the liberals out" and I think that is an attitude contrary to the spirit of Christ's teachings (remember the parable of the wheat and the tares?).  Rather our aim should be, in my view, to simply and clearly hold everyone accountable to the same standards that they originally signed up for.  There can be no "purifying" of the church (church history is full of disastrous attempts in that direction), nor any peering into men's souls to hold them accountable for their feelings (which are prone to change over time in any of us) but simply a commitment to uphold the rules and apply a consistent standard for all who freely choose to become clergy.

I've heard some people saying that the Traditional plan would require clergy and bishops to certify, in writing, that they believe in the church's teachings.  This seems to be based upon misinformation.  I have spoken with one of the drafters of the plan, and he assures me that it does not focus on inward beliefs but simply on outward adherence to the standards set forth in the Book of Discipline, which should be no great problem, since we have already agreed to that in our ordination vows.

My other main concern about the Traditional plan is that only about half of it has been declared to be "constitutional" under the UMC's constitution by the Judicial Council.  Some aspects of the plan were declared unconstitutional and had to be dropped or reworked, so that what is really coming before General Conference is a modified Traditionalist plan.  It could be that the changes that have been made by the crafters of the plan still fail to pass constitutional muster, in which case General Conference will have passed only a 'partial Traditional plan' or 'Traditional plan lite' which may prove ineffectual in addressing our problems.

What would the local church have to decide under this plan?

One aspect of the Traditional plan that intrigues me is the "gracious exit clause" which would allow congregations who are willing to agree to certain stipulations to leave the denomination and keep their property.  Currently if congregations cut ties with the denomination the property reverts to the Annual Conference.

So, if the Traditional plan passes congregations would need to decide whether to stay within the UMC or to leave (though presumably, unlike the other plans, it is safe to say that there would be a firm "default" position, namely, staying in the UMC).  The gracious exit clause is fiercely opposed by the bishops who (rightly) see that larger churches (including many of our evangelical churches) are both greater contributors to and also less dependent upon the denominational institutions than smaller churches.  These larger churches could more easily leave and become self-sufficient but what would become of the churches that remained?  Would they find the weight of the denomination's institutions far too heavy to maintain?

Yet the argument for a gracious exit clause is simple: congregations can leave anyways, and churches that feel betrayed, rejected, or embarrassed by their denomination, churches that no longer have a heart to support the institutions should not be 'held hostage' in a denomination for which they no longer have any love.  What good is having that sort of 'unity' anyway?  Just to squeeze money out of people?  Another argument is one of simple fairness and justice: if the local congregation members paid for the property and maintained it, is it really fair that the fruits of their own labor be taken from them if they dis-associate from a denomination that (they believe) no longer represents them?

My view is that even a Traditional plan Lite would still be a good option.

2) Connectional Conference Plan

The final plan being recommended for the consideration of the General Conference is the Connectional Conference plan.  This plan is the most cumbersome to enact and, for that reason, has been dismissed by many people I've spoken with as a non-starter.  Though in more recent weeks I have seen some delegates pledging to support it.  There are several things about this plan that interest me.

Strictly on a political and institutional level, the Connectional Conference Plan is the truest "compromise" between Traditionalists and Liberals.  If the Connectional Conference Plan passes then nobody "wins," and I can see a certain appeal about that, perhaps as a way to try to "bear with one another in Christ."

Because the Connectional Conference plan actually segregates conservative clergy and bishops in one conference away from liberal clergy and bishops in another (and centrists or "unsure" in a third), it actually eliminates the problem (or perceived problem) of clergy being 'punished' for their convictions by bishops or cabinets who hold an opposing view, which I do not believe that the One Church plan can really guard against, despite its best efforts.

I also suspect that the Connectional Conference plan is actually a plan that most of our committed liberals and perhaps even most of our committed conservatives could "live with" if enacted, though I expect neither would be enthusiastic about it.  I am quite confident that it could at least keep more people within the "big tent" of the denomination than the One Church plan.

At least in the short term.

One main question about the Connectional Conference plan is whether it would in fact be a stepping stone along the path to full schism.  Would the (now segregated) liberal and conservative "conferences" have less and less to do with each other, functioning as 'de facto' separate denominations until, at some point in the future, they cut what few tenuous ties remain?  That seems quite plausible to me.

Now there are plenty of people who say that a full split is inevitable (or indeed, has already, in fact, begun), so perhaps enacting the Connectional Conference plan would be a way to manage that split in a careful and gracious way.

There are some other concerns about this plan:
One is that it would be expensive because it would duplicate some offices and institutions 3 times over (where currently there is one, there might be three), which means fewer United Methodists contributing to support each church institution, thus raising the cost.  This seems a realistic possibility, though I'm not sure exactly which offices or institutions would supposedly be duplicated.

Another real concern is how the Connectional Conference Plan would work "on the ground."  I heard a colleague joke a few years ago that if a conservative jurisdiction and a liberal jurisdiction were created, and clergy and churches given the choice which to join, most all of our ordained clergy would join the liberal jurisdiction and most all of our churches would join the conservative one.  While certainly an exaggeration, his joke has some truth to it, and raises in general the question of uneven distribution of clergy who need jobs versus churches who need pastors.  Would pastors and congregations decide which jurisdiction to join in coordination with one another?  This surely will raise new challenges that would need to be addressed.

Again the local church is forced to make a decision:

Like under the One Church plan the Connectional Conference plan would ultimately force each congregation to "choose a side" which could potentially devastate the unity of the local congregations.  Unlike under the One Church Plan, however, once the choice had been made there is very little possibility that a new pastor with the opposite view would be appointed who wanted to revisit the decision.  This is a major improvement, in my view, from the One Church Plan.

Yet the Connectional Conference Plan also has the same theological problems as the One Church plan: The United Methodist Church would claim to be one church (sort of) with one message, yet teachings regarding the definition of marriage, which behaviors are sinful, and what God's will is for your sexuality would be officially contradictory from one United Methodist Church to another.
That problem would, I think, "feel" more distant, however because all Methodists (conservative and liberal alike) could say to themselves, "At least in my Conference everyone teaches the truth (as I understand it)."

But it would be a compromise, and one wonders if a compromise is tenable in the long run for people (both traditional and progressive) who understand themselves as trying to follow a Lord who chose to be crucified rather than compromise with falsehood.

This plan may be a bit of a 'shot in the dark' to preserve institutional unity, but (for all its serious flaws) I think I would personally be willing to at least give it a try, that way at least we will not have run hastily into schism, and will have actually been willing to make sacrifices (on both sides) to preserve unity.

I realize that I have left out a great deal and glossed over many details in this discussion: Time constraints have prevented me from going into more detail about either of these plans.  I am happy to have finished, and 7 posts seems a nice number.

What will happen?  God only knows.  Maybe some of you have some insight.  I'm praying.

I invite you to pray for United Methodists.  Pray for the delegates to the upcoming General Conference.  Pray that whatever decision is made that we will treat one another with Christian love, even if (as will likely happen) many feel that they can no longer be a part of the denomination depending upon the decision that is reached.
I am praying for spiritual unity, for fidelity to the Bible and the classic Christian faith, and a spirit of charity under the Lordship of Jesus.
And, quite frankly, I'm praying that there will be a way forward for me in my vocation and for my family that does not involve the loss of my employment, my pension, and the roof over our heads.  It is a stressful time for United Methodist clergy and we could use prayers too.

But I believe that in the long run 'the Lord does provide' (Gen. 22:14) and can even use this particular season of uncertainty to sharpen within us the spirit of holiness and conform us more fully to the image of his beloved Son, our Lord and our Savior (Rom. 8:29).

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