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Large United Methodist church in Georgia 'redirects' funds from churchwide causes

by Alice Smith* March 25, 1998

MARIETTA, Ga. (UMNS) -– The Board of Stewards of the 5,200-member First United Methodist Church here voted March 22 to "redirect" funds expected from the congregation for churchwide causes.

At the same time, the board voted to pay about 75 percent of funds apportioned to the congregation for North Georgia Conference and jurisdictional ministries.

The total amount being re-channeled is $58,427, compared to $177,518 that will be forwarded as requested. The only two churchwide apportionments that will be paid by the Marietta congregation are the Black College Fund, which supports the 11 historically black colleges related to the denomination, and a fund that supports a new Africa University in Zimbabwe.

Churchwide apportionments rejected are the Episcopal Fund, which support the expenses of bishops; General Administration Fund, which provides for expenses of the General Conference, Judicial Council, and special commissions and committees established by the General Conference; World Service Fund, which supports the work of churchwide boards and agencies; Ministerial Education Fund, which supports seminary education; and the Interdenominational Fund, which supports the work of ecumenical agencies such as the World and National Councils of Churches.

Of the funds that would have gone to these causes, $25,000 is going to the Wesley Foundation at the University of Georgia; $25,000 is going to a camp redevelopment in the conference; and $6,427 is going to a boys' home in the Marietta District.

The board said it took the action because of the "lack of doctrinal integrity" of United Methodism at the denominational level as detailed in a 75-page book prepared by a specially appointed task force in the congregation.

Those concerns relate to statements and actions by certain bishops, seminary professors, and staff members of general boards and agencies, said the Rev. Charles Sineath, senior pastor at the church for 21 years.

North Georgia Bishop G. Lindsey Davis called the book "biased" and "full of half-truths."

"What they have is not the whole story," the bishop said. "There's a vast volume of material that talks about the positive things these agencies and commissions are doing. None of that material was shared. To be balanced, one needs to share both sides of the issue."

The Rev. Jamie Jenkins, superintendent of the Atlanta-Marietta District who presided over the stewards' meeting, said he was disappointed.

"Obviously I'd rather have seen them continue to support the connection fully as they have in the past and find other ways to impact areas of concern," he said.

Although Sineath "fully endorses" the Marietta decision, he expressed regret that the "good things being done" by churchwide agencies would not be funded by his church.

"We're just trying to make a statement of heartbreak about certain things happening on the general church level," he said. "There was no joy on the part of anyone that we had to take these steps. . . . But we felt like that's the best way to draw attention to the things we believe are contradictory to the Scriptures and our own Articles of Religion in the Book of Discipline."

Bucky Smith, chairperson of the board, said there were strong opinions in the church on both sides of the issue, but the meeting itself was a civil and reasoned debate.

"Our church has a long, proud tradition . . . of being a church that always pays its apportionments. To all of a sudden be asked not to pay all of them is not something people take lightly."

The vote, taken by secret ballot, was 142 for withholding most churchwide apportionments and 58 against. About 100 members of the church who are not on the board were also present.

"That's a strong vote," Sineath said, "but there was no sense of joy, gloating. . . . I would call it an act of conscience where others will call it denominational disloyalty. . . . We see it as denominational loyalty, tough love. That's why we were very clear we wanted all $235,000 to go to official United Methodist ministries."

Still, he said, there was hurt all around.

"The 58 were hurt because we made the decision we did. The 142 were hurt because the issues were such we felt compelled by conscience to make that decision."

Davis described the action as a violation of the covenantal, missional commitments a United Methodist congregation makes to the denomination.

"We work in a web of intricate connections, and part of our understanding of what it means to be a community of faith is to be involved in that kind of connection. To go off on your own, so to speak, flies in the face of our polity, discipline and order."

He also said he did not believe the Marietta church action will have the intended impact in the denomination and that the "long-range impact of this decision, within the Marietta congregation itself, has not been fully explored or understood."

Smith observed that the church tried other channels to make its dissatisfaction with the denomination known. "This is a way, maybe not the only way, to gain their attention and let them know of our dissatisfaction with what's going on."

In addition to being part of several "renewal" movements within the denomination, the report notes that the Marietta church initiated petitions on doctrinal integrity and the centrality of Christ that were adopted by the North Georgia Conference in 1995 but rejected by the 1996 General Conference.

In its report, the task force lists a number of incidents where it feels the doctrinal and spiritual integrity of the church has been violated and offers verses from Scripture and excerpts from the Book of Discipline to support its viewpoint.

Some criticism revolves around homosexual issues in the denomination, such as the acquittal of the Rev. Jimmy Creech in Nebraska on charges that he violated the discipline of the church by performing a same-sex ceremony; a statement by 15 bishops at the 1996 General Conference that they disagreed with the church's "proscriptions" on homosexuality; and the Reconciling Congregations Program that supports the full participation of gays and lesbians in the denomination.

Many of the other concerns relate to women's issues -– the teaching of "radical" feminist theology at United Methodist-related seminaries and the writings by some women theologians; a "Re-Imagining Conference" in 1993; and some actions and publications of the Women's Division, the parent body of United Methodist Women.

"This report," the introduction says, "may seem to include a disproportionate number of references to women, but it is because of the pervasive influence that radical feminist theology has on United Methodism."

Perhaps the most attention in the report relates to the ecumenically-sponsored Re-Imagining Conference, which critics charge was so radical that Sophia was worshipped as a deity.

Both Davis and Jenkins expressed the hope that other churches unhappy with the denomination will, first, seek to educate themselves fully on the matters and, second, work within the system to change things.

Jenkins suggested congregations use their resources -—once obligations are met -– in a "positive way . . .to educate yourselves, to enter dialogue with those people (with whom you have disagreement). Have Randy Nugent, staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries come down and have a serious face-to-face conversation."

One of the strengths of the denomination, Jenkins pointed out, is "our ability to stand together even when we don't always stand in the same place. . . . I hope this direction (of First Church Marietta) is a short-term thing and . . . we'll find a way to correct this action while at the same time not ignoring issues of concern."

"We're not turning one another loose," Davis said. "I will continue to be their bishop and work with them to seek reconciliation and God's peace. We're going to remain in Christian conversation on these issues."

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*Smith is the executive director of the Georgia United Methodist Communications Council.

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