Discerning Our Future – UMC History

Discerning Our Future – UMC History

Today’s conversation is about the United Methodist Church, where we have been and where we are today. This is a very important conversation because our denomination has come to a crossroads and decisions need to be made. This is a difficult conversation to have, and there is absolutely nothing easy about this morning. But difficult conversations are necessary when we come to crossroads, like where we are today.

I’d like to start at the beginning of our denomination and give you a brief history lesson. Hopefully, this will help you to understand where we are. The Methodist movement began in the 1700’s as a spiritual renewal movement within the Church of England. John Wesley, known as the founder of the Methodist movement, was studying to become a priest in the Church of England when he realized that the church was missing something. He looked around and noticed that what he saw in the church didn’t line up with scripture. Church had become a just a religious practice, hierarchy, and bureaucracy, and most of the congregants didn’t seem to be living into a relationship with God.

When the church refused to hear Wesley’s concerns, he set off with his brother, Charles, and his friends to pursue God in a way that was more authentic and genuine. They formed societies (small groups) with the pursuit to spread scriptural holiness over the land. They wanted to spread not only who God is and how to be reconciled back to Him, but emphasizing how to actually live into that life, how to live into the holiness that God has called us into.

The societies would meet daily before class at the same time every day to study the scriptures in an upper room. They got mocked for their methodical behavior and were called Methodist, and the name stuck. Certainly, could have been a lot worse! But something you should know, is that John Wesley never intended to start a new denomination. Let’s take a look at what the word denomination actually means because you are going to hear that a lot today.

Denomination: A sub group within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity.

So they share the same name; we see that on the outside of our buildings
Tradition is the teachings; we all agree on the same church traditions
Identity is the way that we practice our faith; who we live into

So if you went into a different church of the same denominational name and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

But John Wesley never meant to start a new denomination with the Methodist movement. In fact, he was a priest in the Church of England until the day he died. However, the Methodist movement helped to contribute to a great awakening where churches came to life. And once the movement crossed the ocean to colonial America, it took on a life of its own, and became a separate denomination when England forbid that clergy could come over and serve the American colonies. So The Methodist Episcopal Church was born in 1784. (See chart)

In the nineteenth century, the growth of the Methodist Episcopal Church paralleled with another Christian movement in the United States, The Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). The EUB Church was born from a merger of The Evangelical Church and The United Brethren Church. Over time, the Methodist and the EUB churches recognized their similarities in doctrine, practice, and church organization. So in 1968, these churches became The United Methodist Church.

So there are a lot of different churches who carried the theology of Methodism, of John Wesley, to live into the holiness that God has called us into. You’ll also notice on the chart that it’s common to see the church split, but it’s rare that it comes back together. In this great coming together, we now have a bunch of different traditions who are all similar in their theology, but there are some differences. We’ve combined such a large group with good intentions, but remember the definition of denomination: to form one group of people who have a common name, tradition, and identity. That was the intension.

So all these churches come together, and at the same time in our country, we go through what was called the Sexual Revolution. The Sexual Revolution was a social movement that caused a dramatic shift in traditional ideas about sex and sexuality in the 1960’s into the 1970’s. This undid our country’s previous sexual ethics, which was the Christian belief that sex was reserved for marriage, between a man and a woman. This wasn’t just the church’s belief, but culture and society’s as well.

And after the 1960’s, this changed. The movement increased acceptance of sex outside of traditional, heterosexual relationships (primarily marriage). It normalized sex in media such as in films, magazines, and books. Public nudity, pornography, premarital sex, homosexuality, and the legalization of abortion all followed.

Sex went from being a part of marriage to our primary identity in culture. And it’s still that way today, so we are still in that conversation.

All of this came to the attention of the church as the new denomination was formed in 1968. Every four years, the UMC has what is called a General Conference, where all the United Methodist from around the world send delegates to meet in one spot where they all vote to decide what we believe as a denomination. The voting outcomes are never unanimous, but some things are more decisive than others. At the first General Conference in 1972, this subject took the main stage.
Since culture was moving in this conversation, the church said we need to define what we believe about this. There were already clergy who were living and identifying as homosexuals, and said what about us. Will we be excepted in full?

So they created language to say that the church believes that all people have sacred worth from God, are welcome in the fellowship of the church, and all are persons whose rights should be protected. And when that language came to the floor, they voted on it saying yes, but let’s add this as well… “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

This language has changed a bit, but that the main piece that this is incompatible with Christian teaching has remained in our church law. Our church law is recorded in what is called the Book of Discipline (BOD). We don’t hold it to the same esteem as we do scripture, but it’s a guiding document for our church to say how we will live out God’s mission together as a denomination.

And since 1972, every four years at General Conference there has been some level of discussion about how we handle homosexuality. As our culture got more and more progressive over the years accepting these sexual orientations, the church followed suit with more and more clergy and people of the church fighting for more inclusion pushing to say that, yes, we are all created in sacred worth, but human sexuality has nothing to do with that.

As a result, pastors were not practicing and following the denominational rules, so they kept having to add language to the BOD. So in 1984, the church continued to add language based on scripture, while trying to make it very clear that, “No persons who are practicing and self-avowed homosexuals are allowed to be clergy and no wedding of same sex people are to be performed by UMC Clergy or allowed to happen on UMC Property.”

The church has never been united on this stance, and it has only gotten more and more divided in the last 10 years. Conflict in the church reached a new level when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage throughout the United States in 2015.

At the 2016 General Conference, there were people again pushing for full inclusion of homosexuality. It was again not voted through, and it had come to such a divide that leaders behind the scenes from the progress side (liberals) and traditional side (conservatives) were coming together and saying we need to figure this thing out. They wanted to bring to the floor a plan of separation so that two new denominations could be formed and move into distinct and different views and practice that way. Remember denominations have a common name, tradition, and identity.

Word of that plan spread, and there were people who absolutely did not want to see the church split. So prior to that legislation being brought to the floor, others came to the floor and said, “Bishops we need your help. We can’t make sense of this anymore, so we need you to lead.” So the bishops were given permission to call a special General Conference in 2019 to deal specifically with just this issue of same sex marriage and homosexuality in the church. They formed a Commission (a group) to come up with three plans to present to the Special General Conference.

The plan the bishops like the best was called “The One Church Plan.’ It was an umbrella with three branches – Progressives (liberals), Centrist (those in the middle), and Traditionalist (conservatives).

As it got closer to the conference time, a second plan that the Commission came up with, but put on the back burner, began to become popular among the people. It was called the Traditional Plan. The Traditional Plan kept the church beliefs as it was (marriage between a man and a woman, no professing clergy or same sex marriages) and it held more accountability to everyone, but again it was initially left in the background by the Commission, but strong objections by African bishops caused the Council of Bishops to include it in their report to the 2019 Special General Conference.

However, still ‘The One Church Plan,’ with its endorsements by a majority of the Commission and Council of Bishops, was considered by many to be a slam dunk. But at the Special General Conference 2019, the Traditional Plan was actually favored above ‘The One Church Plan.’ So the enforcement and accountability pieces of the Traditional Plan was approved by a 54% margin. Meaning 48% wanted the church to approve homosexuality. That was a pretty close vote.

In the U.S., the UMC is broken down into five Jurisdictions. After each General Conference, Jurisdictional Conferences are held in each territory to elect new bishops and handle other jurisdictional matters. (See map)

Now based on outcomes after the 2016 General Conference, like several high-profile same-sex weddings being scheduled in the days leading up to the General Conference, and over 100 clergy confessing to be homosexual in a public statement just after the General Conference, it quickly became evident that the U.S. jurisdictions of the UMC were beyond reconciliation.

Even prior to the 2015’s new U.S. legalization of same sex marriages, two whole jurisdictional conferences had voted to act as if the Book of Discipline doesn’t say what it says about sex. For example, just after the 2016 General Conference, the Western Jurisdiction elected Karen Oliveto, a professing homosexual, as a bishop of the church, the highest elected position in the church. This sent shock waves throughout the denomination and all over the world because we have theology, rules and guidelines to abide by, but now we have practice of a completely different sort.

In the church, we have what is called the Judicial Council which acts like the Supreme Court of U.S. The Judicial Council ruled that Karen Oliveto’s status be reviewed in the Western Jurisdiction in accordance with the church’s teaching because this does not line up with the BOD. The Western Jurisdiction at that point said we don’t care. So there is no accountability. Each of these jurisdictions can operate separately from one another without the intervention of the others.

So since 2016, we’ve had a bishop leading in the UMC who is living a lifestyle against what our BOD teaches. And that kind of behavior has continued. In church language, this is called a schism, when you have an open practice that is defiant with our church teachings. So right now, within the UMC (and this is just in the U.S.), we have whole jurisdictions, local churches, clergy, and bishops practicing in a different way than what our church teaches.

Now we have this disunity, this confusion, and as far as denominations go we are no longer following the definition of a denomination – common name, tradition and identity.

So after the Special General Conference in 2019, an informal group of progressives, centrists, and traditionalists met to negotiate a separation plan that called upon traditionalists to leave the UMC in exchange for free exit with properties.

What happened was someone said we need to stop this; this is beyond ridiculous. In order to be able to continue our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and we need to quit spending countless hours and millions of dollars on this one topic that we will never agree on, we need to move forward. Someone had to take the step. All sides compromised and the group released a plan called, “A Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation through Separation” in December of 2019. The separation plan was to come before the regular session of General Conference in 2020.

However, we all know well what happened in 2020, a pandemic struck. General Conference was postponed until 2021, then until 2022, and then again until 2024. Behind the scenes, the Traditionalist continued to work on the shape of their new denomination. The new denomination would have term limits for bishops, elimination of guaranteed appointments for clergy, reduction of bureaucracy, and would simplify the overall church structure so there would be less administration and less costs, which means the new denomination’s share’s of ministry will be more than 50% less than they are now. The new denomination would also no longer have what’s called a Trust Clause on properties.

The Trust Clause was created by John Wesley and was meant hold local churches accountable to the larger Methodist Church’s teachings. As the early movement was planting churches, they didn’t want the pastor or church to just decide to break off for whatever reason and take the property. It made sense back then.

But that clause is still in effect today. So what that means is that any church property doesn’t actually belong to the local church. You may pay for it, but it doesn’t actually belong to you. It belongs to the Annual Conference. Inside the five jurisdictions are Annual Conferences where we, as the local church, send delegates to work on church matters each year.

So once the General Conference was postponed once again until 2024, the Traditionalist went ahead with plans to begin the traditional denomination called The Global Methodist Church, knowing that many were pretty upset about the delay when it clearly looked like we could have held the General Conference. Shortly after, most of the signers (all the progressives and all of the centrists) of “A Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation through Separation” decided to remove their names leaving this protocol now dead and gone. All that work gone.

Now that may feel like we are stuck and no one can leave, but what also came about at the 2019 Special General Conference for churches who could no longer agree with the UMC, was an exit plan. The thought was if you could not agree with the Traditional belief, you could leave. It came in the form of Paragraph 2553. It was passed and put into the BOD. Now the tables have turned quite a bit and the traditionalists are utilizing the plan.

Paragraph 2553 allows churches to exit if the church achieves a 2/3rd vote to leave, pays two years of their shares of ministry, along with unpaid pension liability, and the market value of their property. The hook is that this plan has an expiration date: December 31, 2023. That means if your church wants to exit the denomination, you actually have to have that completed by May of 2023 because that is when Annual Conference is held, and that’s where is it finalized.

Please allow me to remind you what a denomination is: A sub group within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity.

Denominations are created by man, and they are nothing new. Even within 20 years after Jesus’ life, you can already see division happening and followers arguing about what to believe. So yes, it is manmade and not how God meant it to be, but I don’t believe denominations are evil. Instead, they are our best understandings of how to live out scripture with others.

What we need to decide is what we believe to be truth. Scripture has been the baseline of our truth as Christians for two thousand years. Our culture has done a good job of trying to tell us it’s not truth any longer, however we know that scripture does not change.

And scripture is very clear on the issue of human sexuality. It is not silent and is not confusing. It’s fairly straight forward. All throughout the scriptures, marriage is described as between one man and one woman. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 all spell it out that homosexuality is a sin in God’s eyes.

Now I know that each of us know someone who has been swallowed up and caught in this sin. However, that does not mean that we love them any different. So many times, we hear that we are not loving those who choose this lifestyle. That is far from the truth. We just don’t agree with the actions. It’s no different than if an alcoholic or drug addict or liar or anyone disobeying God’s commands came in this door. Are we not all sinners? However, if we truly love the way Jesus loves, we love each other with all that we are and hold each other accountable.

It wasn’t until about 1960’s when the church began to debate on this subject, and when the culture made this topic a primary identity, that now we have a divide of theology in the Methodist Church. To say that we are in different theological positions as a denomination is an understatement.

You’ve heard the statement. “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” That’s not an inaccurate statement, a little simplified, but we are now fundamentally disagreeing about what sin is. Remember the definition of a denomination: One group of people who have a common name, tradition, and identity.

In the UMC, we are no longer agreeing about what sin is. We have undone ourselves as a denomination. We are no longer practicing with that common practice and identity. We may still have the same name, but that’s about it.

The issue of homosexuality is problematic in our denomination, but is not why the conflict is happening. The conflict is happening because we can’t agree on what truth is. We’re disagreeing about how to interpret scripture. It goes so much further than homosexuality. Bishops and clergy are questioning who Christ is, teaching that He is not divine, that He was merely a prophet. It just goes from one topic to the next to the next. What truth will we be debating about next?

So what does this mean for our church. Paragraph 2553 is the only option to exit the denomination with our property. And you may wonder, why can’t we just stay in the UMC and keep doing what we are doing? Well, that may work for a while. But many believe that after the 2024 General Conference, the UMC will not be what you remember it being, and same sex marriage and professing homosexuality clergy will pass, which will eventually affect what the local churches and pastors do on the local level.

So right now, we are working to educate everyone. I don’t want anyone to go through this season uninformed or not understanding what’s going on.

So after today’s talk with Chuck Sprenkle, the Leadership Team will discern and decide if we should take a church vote on disaffiliation (leaving the UMC). Before the vote, we will get the total costs of disaffiliation, come back together at a Church Conference and vote if we are feeling called by God to disaffiliate and then if we are feeling called to join the Global Methodist Church. Meanwhile, I will be offering other sessions for time to ask questions. I will also be sending out a link and have it in the bulletin of information videos covering all that’s going on. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8yiyTmwtUAwQEwHn7WMTTg

You should know that only people with a church membership will have a vote. Maybe you’ve been coming here for years and never thought about being a member. That’s fine, but you won’t have a vote in how this ends. You’ll have a voice, but not a vote. Nearly 70% need to say yes to disaffiliating for it to pass. So make sure you are plugged in and aware of what is happening.

If you want to have a conversation about how the Methodist church works, how the disaffiliation process works, what scripture says about homosexuality, please don’t hesitate to come to me.

I want to leave you today with a scripture from 2 Timothy 4:1-5. This is one of Paul’s last letters, and he writes this to Timothy. Already within just years of Jesus’ life, we are seeing people in disagreement about how to live into the life that Jesus has called. And Paul’s see the writing on the wall. He sees what’s coming.

2 Timothy 4:1-5
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

Nobody ever wanted this. Nobody wants to have this difficult conversation or be in this decisive place. But here we are. My encouragement to you is to be a person of the Word, seek out what God calls you to do, be gracious and loving with one another, but let us not be afraid of truth.

Because God is our ultimate rescue. It’s not going to come from the heart of us individually. The answer and guidance is going to come from the Divine.