Do We Need a Catholic Order of Methodists?

Would you burn down your house because the furnace needed repairs?  Obviously not.  But the current disagreement, discussion, and proposed remedies over the issue of human sexuality within The United Methodist Church seems to be following that line of logic.  When applied anywhere else, it seems obvious.  If your engine is misfiring, you don’t rebuild the transmission.  If your bicycle has a flat tire, you don’t disassemble it and sell its parts.   Unfortunately, that seems to be how most everyone has been approaching the disagreement within our church.

But maybe there’s another solution that doesn’t involve burning down the house.

Let me explain.

The way that I see it, there are two principal disagreements within the church regarding human sexuality.  First, those persons who feel that sex outside of a monogamous, heterosexual relationship is sinful believe that they cannot, in good conscience, formalize or bless such a relationship.  And second, those same persons have difficulty belonging to a church that would ordain pastors and bishops who are in such relationships. 

Oddly, while both are disagreements over the role and membership of clergy, the solutions being proposed to the next General Conference in 2020 is to split up the church by forcing the laity to vote.  But if we are having a disagreement over the role and membership of the clergy, why isn’t anyone offering a solution that divides the clergy instead of dividing the laity?

Although this may seem strange, I think we might find a solution in the Catholic Church.  While my knowledge of the intricacies of the Catholic Church is admittedly weak, I know that within that structure there are at least three different orders who, to me, seem to be orders of priests and not laity, Dominicans, Jesuits, and Benedictines.  Without worrying about how these orders work within the Catholic system, this division, I think, points to a solution for United Methodists.

Rather than dividing churches and laity over a disagreement over the role of the clergy, why not simply divide the clergy?  I think a division of clergy solves our immediate problem, without dividing the laity or the church, better than the solutions that I’ve seen proposed to date. 

Here’s what I’m suggesting:  Under the existing United Methodist structure, we create a new order of clergy, the name doesn’t matter.  But those clergy that choose to belong to the new order, in line with their conscience, would be prohibited from performing LGBT weddings or officiating in the ordination of such persons.  Local churches, under such a system, would not choose whether to leave the denomination, but would vote, as a congregation, on two things.  First, would that congregation accept a pastor that only belonged to the new order, would they only accept a pastor that did not belong to the order, or would they accept a pastor from either the order.  Second, the church would vote whether they would be willing to allow same sex unions to be conducted in their building.  Churches could, therefore, accept a pastor from the new order while still allowing same sex marriages to be officiated in their church if there were an officiant (not the church pastor) willing to do so.

While there would be some significant logistical issues with such a system, rather than forcing local churches to vote on its denominational affiliation, bishops (and their cabinets) would be responsible to match churches with pastors (much as they already do) with some, admittedly, new and complicating differentiation.  Two obvious consequences would be that it would complicate the appointment process, and that it would likely necessitate the elimination of guaranteed appointment for ordained elders.  The second simply because, in many cases, there would be a significant disparity between the number of available clergy (of one type or the other) and the number of churches willing to accept them.

The advantage of such a system, of course, is that while the clergy would be divided, the church would remain whole.

Maybe we can take a hint from the Catholic Church.

Why burn down the house if you can fix the furnace?

 

 

 

 


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Cutting the Baby in Half

solomon

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.

Youth Questions: Why Doesn’t the Methodist Church Modernize its Thinking?


 Question: Why Doesn’t the Methodist Church Modernize its Thinking?

 

    I’m not exactly sure what the questioner had in mind when they wrote this, but the short answer is that we do, regularly, change the way that our church works.  The longer answer will take a little while.
    First, there are some things that we can’t change.  If we believe that the Bible is true and was given to us by God, then we must be formed and shaped by what it says and it is not for us to rewrite the Bible so that it says what we think it should.
    Second, as United Methodists, our organization, structure and doctrine all flow out of “The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.”  It is not the Bishops who speak for us, nor the Council of Bishops (we don’t have a Pope), but the Book of Discipline.  This book is revised every four years during our General Conference.  The General Conference is a democratic body of delegates who are elected by each geographical area (called Annual Conferences) and each area sends a delegation based on the number of church members in that area, much like we, in the United States, elect members to the House of Representatives.  Because The United Methodist Church is a global church, representatives come from around the globe from every continent except Antarctica.
    Almost everything is up for grabs when the General Conference meets.  Nearly every page of the Book of Discipline may be amended or even completely replaced with only a small section that is unchanging.  In the beginning of the Discipline is a set of Restrictive Rules that specify those sections that cannot be amended.  These sections include the fundamental doctrine of our church that defines who we are, our basic confession of faith, a few rules regarding bishops, the right of clergy to trial by committee, and how we are able to spend the money earned by through publishing.  In all, from a book with nearly 900 pages, less than twenty are unchanging.  The rest are available for revision every four years.
    Who can suggest or propose a change?  You can.  Any member, or clergyperson, from any United Methodist Church, can write a proposal to the General Conference to amend or replace any section of the Discipline.  And to be sure that your opinion matters, the Discipline requires that the General Conference consider every single proposal that is submitted.  Many of these will be similar or propose changes to the same sections, and these will be read, and incorporated into a single proposal by working groups of conference delegates.  Every delegate belongs to one of these working groups and each group is responsible for a working out the proposed changes to a particular section.  Once the working groups are done, these proposals go before the entire General Conference for a vote.  The exception to this are those changes that are editorial or are so totally uncontroversial, that no one feels the need to vote on them, these are passed, as a group, by the consent of the conference.  But if any delegate feels that any particular proposal should be voted on individually, they can ask that that proposal be moved off of the “consent calendar” and brought to the floor for a vote.
    So, while we maintain core beliefs that are unchanging, there is much of our “thinking” that is being “modernized” on a regular basis.  Among these things that are being revised is the Social Principles, which is a separate publication from the Book of Discipline, but which contains the official position of the church on social issues from abortion and adoption, to the rights of women and youth and everything in between.  It is here, in the Social Principles, that you will find the official church position on divorce, the death penalty, population control, racial and ethnic rights, collective bargaining, sustainable agriculture and a great many other things.
    Keep in mind that The United Methodist Church is a church made up of individuals that are very different, who come from very different places and different cultures.  Our church has members from nearly every political affiliation you can imagine and we don’t always agree.  Although I admit that politics are sometimes played in the writing of changes to the Discipline and the Social Principles, I appreciate that we are trying to do theology together.
    We are not a North American church that is writing “rules” that must be followed by people thousands of miles away, but we are one, global, church that is trying to discern, together, what God is saying, and where he is leading us.
That process can be a little messy, but we are working it out, together.
 Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

 


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Who Watches the Supplies? – A Football Meditation


    In the books of first and second Samuel we read the story of King David.  Many of us have heard stories about David, but there is at least one that we don’t often remember.  In 1 Samuel 30, we find David and 600 men who had just returned from fighting alongside Achish the king of the Philistines.  As they return home they discover that the Amalekites had raided their town, captured their wives (including two of David’s wives), their children, their livestock, as well as anything of value.  After consulting with their priest to find the will of God, David pursues the Amalekite raiding party.
    As they hurry to catch up to the raiders however, David finds that two hundred of his men are too exhausted to continue and so he leaves them behind with all their gear, supplies and what is left of their town.  David and the four hundred remaining men pursue the Amalekite raiding party and find them celebrating over all the loot that they had plundered.  David and his men attack and fight with the Amalekites from dusk that day, until the end of the following day, defeat them, and recapture every single animal, personal belonging, wife and family member.
    But when they return to their camp, the troublemakers began to stir things up.  They argued with David that the two hundred men who were left behind should not receive any of the plunder because they didn’t fight to get it.  They argued that these men should get their families back, but receive no share of the loot and plunder that they had taken from the Amalekites.
    David fights back.  David makes an argument that is important to every single one of us and one that is important to each of you on the football field.  David said:
“No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the Lord has given us. He has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiding party that came against us. 24 Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.” 25 David made this a statute and ordinance for Israel from that day to this.
    It is important to remember that when you win, it isn’t just the superstars and the heroes that win the game.  Every member of your team had a part, Every coach, every water boy, every trainer, every teacher you ever had who helped you to earn the grades you needed to play ball, it took the guy on the sidelines who sprained his ankle before the season started, every football booster, every friend who gave you a ride home from practice, every relative, every parent, and every brother or sister that comes to watch you play.  As David said, these are the people who “watch the supplies” for you. 
    When you win, it isn’t just because of the guy who threw the touchdown pass, or who caught the interception, or who made the big tackle.  Your victory didn’t come because of the superstars; it took every single one of you. 
And that includes the people who just watch the supplies.

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We *Are* Making a Difference


    I have friends who like to say that the world would be better off without the church.  Today, 2,400,000 Africans would disagree with them.  If it had not been for the United Methodist Church (and her partners) many of those 2.4 million people, most of them children…

…would be dead.
    In 2010, children in sub-Saharan Africa were dying from malaria at a rate of one every 30 seconds.  Today that rate has dropped to one every 60 seconds.  The difference?  Our church’s campaign to eliminate malaria.  In 2008, we had “Nothing but Nets” which partnered with the NBA as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Then in 2010 this effort became “Imagine No Malaria.”  Imagine No Malaria still has the support of the Gates Foundation but also the World Health Organization, The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the United Nations Foundation.  Since 2008, The United Methodist Church has raised $40 million dollars toward our goal of $75 million.  Together, we have distributed 1.2 million insecticide treated bed nets and trained 5400 community health workers to distribute bed nets, train families in their use, and track usage rates.  The results are obvious.  In the last three years we have reduced the childhood death rate (from malaria) by half.
    Why us?  Why is the church important if the NBA, Bill Gates, the UN, and these other big names are already involved?  Is it just because eleven million United Methodists can raise money?  That is undeniably a part of it, but helping the poor has been a part of our United Methodist DNA from the very beginning.  For 200 years we have built and maintained hospitals and schools all across the continent of Africa.  When this project was conceived, everyone knew that while Americans can often be generous, and some are great at publicity, someone had to be the “boots on the ground.”  United Methodists were already there, all across the continent of Africa.  Over two centuries we have built relationships with governments, leaders and decision makers in many of those nations and we established a reputation as being genuinely interested in the welfare of their people, as well as trustworthy.
    Of course, we can’t rest yet.  The job isn’t done.  We haven’t reached our goals and one child every sixty seconds is still way too many.  The goal of Imagine No Malaria is the total elimination and eradication of malaria from the face of the earth.  That’s a long way off, but we’re headed in the right direction.
    I don’t pretend that United Methodists have a monopoly on compassion.  Clearly our story is just one of many.  Imagine No Malaria is just one way, that one church, is making a difference.  And so, to all those who think we would be better off without the church, I say this:
The people of Africa would like to disagree with you…
…because today their children are not dead.