When two women argued over the custody of a baby, King Solomon famously threatened to cut the baby in two and give half of the corpse to each woman. In that story, the biological mother of the living baby offers to give the baby away if only the king will spare its life. In this way, the true parent was revealed, custody was granted, and the baby’s life was saved. But as I watch the ongoing dispute within the United Methodist Church, it seems that factions on both sides seem ready to cut the baby (church) in half.
While many seem to think that cutting the baby in half will simply result in two (or more) smaller babies, I suspect that the result of dividing the church will be more akin to the result of cutting a living baby in pieces. That opinion won’t make me popular but let me explain my thinking.
As I watched the balloting to elect delegates from our East Ohio Conference for the upcoming United Methodist General Conference in 2020, I was struck by how evenly we were divided. Both laity and clergy were so nearly divided, that it was difficult for us to find the required majority in order to elect our delegation. In the end, the clergy ballot slightly favored the progressive delegates while the laity ballot favored conservative delegates. The tension felt during that balloting reminded me that the division within our denomination, at least in the United States, is not a division between states, but is a division that flows deeply through the Annual Conferences, districts, and into each local church. And that is why I wonder, as we prepare for the 2020 General Conference, if we are watching the death of the United Methodist Church.
First, I want to be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that one faction will “win” or “lose” the right to call themselves United Methodist. Although that scenario seems likely, what I mean, is that no matter who “wins” or who “loses” the church will, quite likely, cease to exist, at least in its present form, because the actions of the General Conference will almost certainly set off an unavoidable cascade of unintended consequences. While it is possible for a solution to arise that avoids the end of our denomination, this outcome, as much as it worries me, is what I see as the likely result.
From the reports that I have seen, several proposals will be presented at General Conference to broker the disagreements within the denomination over issues of sexuality, specifically, the ordination of LGBTQ+ persons. All these proposals, in one form or another, ultimately ask Annual Conferences, districts, and/or local churches to vote on which new denomination they wish to belong. In a perfect world, the church would then divide 50/50, or 60/40, and two, or three, new denominations would be born out of the ashes of the old one.
But we don’t live in a perfect world.
Real life is messier than that, and this division will be no exception.
In conferences like East Ohio, a 50/50 split will mean that our entire organizational structure will collapse. We will no longer have enough churches in each of the new denominational conferences to sustain a conference office or the people that staff it. We hope that new conferences will arise within the new denominations, perhaps representing a larger geographic area, that will employ similar staffs and provide similar services.
And that might be a reasonable expectation… if we weren’t so deeply divided.
Because the membership of each local church is often just as divided as our Annual Conference, any “vote” by the local church to join one of the new denominations means that the membership will not be 100 percent in favor of any of the options. That, in turn, means that some percentage of the membership will be unhappy with the results of the vote. What happens to a congregation that is divided 50/50? Or even 60/40? Or, for that matter, 80/20? By requiring a congregational vote of any kind, we are requiring that churches deliberately declare that some of their friends are unwelcome. Intentional or not, that in turn will mean that within nearly every local church, some percentage of the membership will feel disaffected, choose to leave the church, or more likely, simply choose to stop attending.
And that, is the death of the church.
I have heard it said, and I have witnessed in my own career, that many small membership churches are only “four funerals away” from closing their doors. Meaning, if four regular donors suddenly stopped giving, because they died, or because of a denominational rift, those churches would no longer have enough funds to maintain their ministry. But almost no church could afford to lose 50 percent of its members, and few, without an endowment, could lose 20 percent (or even 10) without becoming financially insolvent.
Maybe other Annual Conferences more uniformly favor one side, or the other, and maybe other local churches are not as divided as the ones with which I am familiar. But what I anticipate, is that asking/requiring local churches to “vote” to join a new denomination, or choose between two denominational options, will not “split” the United Methodist Church, it will destroy it.
Granted, it probably won’t happen overnight. But where we are currently closing four or five churches in our Annual Conference each year, I expect that number to be far greater, perhaps by an order of magnitude. We might start by splitting 50/50, or 60/40, or even 80/20, but what will we do if, within five years (or even ten) of our split, fifty, or even eighty, percent of the divided churches are closed? Not only will the services of our Annual Conference offices be compromised, but nearly all the General Conference offices, and their services, will similarly become unsupportable.
It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know it isn’t going to end well, and you know there is nothing you can do to stop it. But you can’t look away.
Still, once convened, General Conference can reject all these proposals and propose something entirely different. And of course, we worship a God of miracles and anything can happen.
I hope that I’m wrong.
But I don’t think I am.
We seem to be prepared to cut the baby in half. Just as they would be for a biological baby, the results, I think, are predictably bad.
Just how bad, remains to be seen.