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Schism Inevitable, UM Leaders Agree, But Disbandment Denomination?


 

Excerpts from this series of articles:

The Future of Denominationalism:  Part I

It's Time to Disband the United Methodist Church
Why a Denomination Must Lose Its Life in Order to Save It

by John Robert McFarland, a retired [liberal] UM minister and author.  He lives in Sterling, Illinois johnmc@essex1.com

It is time for The United Methodist Church (UMC) to disband.  It should do this to be a faithful servant of Christ, to set its spiritual human, and material resources free to serve Christ in the only place that matters:  the world for which Christ died.

The UMC is in turmoil and conflict.  That is neither unusual nor a reason in itself to disband.  Recently, however, some UMC leaders and members (perhaps many) have concluded that the conflict has reached a tipping point.  The conflict, they say, does not lead to a stronger church; indeed, it saps energy from mission and ministry.

The proposed solution is to divide into two denominations, one "conservative" and one "liberal," with "a fair distribution of the resources."  The question, however, is not whether the UMC should be two denominations.  The question is whether the UMC should be even one church, whether it should continue to exist at all.  The answer is "No."

The way the UMC deals with its conflict presents a negative witness.  Once God called Methodism into being to witness to Christ.  God is now calling the UMC to disband, also in order to witness to Christ; to save its life by losing it.

I am not anti-church, not against ecclesiastical buildings or organizations.  Churches exist because God wills them.  God calls churches into being at particular points in history to serve God in specific ways.

It rarely occurs to us, however, that God also calls churches to service by telling them to cease existence so that something better qualified to serve God can take their place.  Churches are not called to continue forever just because God called them into existence once upon a time.

There was a time when the UMC made unique contributions to the church and world and in so doing made a positive witness for Christ.  That time is no more.

Signs of the end

1.  Witness:  The way we deal with conflict is a negative witness to Christ.  A major portion of UMC resources, both official and unofficial, is expended in a struggle for control at the denominational, annual conference and local levels. . . . those who prevail . . . will only be proven more politically astute, or ruthless, or both.  We take existence so much for grated that we think control is an issue.  It is not.  It is a smoke screen.  The real issue is whether the UMC should exist at all.

2.  Existence:  A church's struggle for continued existence is a sign that it should no longer exist.  When a church spends any time at all saying, "We need to attract young people to ensure our survival" rather than "We need to attract young people to ensure their salvation," it is a sign that the church's time is over.

3.  Identity:  We do not have a unique identity.  There is nothing distinctive about our worship, theology or organization -- nothing that other churches and organizations cannot do, indeed, are not already doing.

It [disbandment] CAN be done

Buildings can be sold or given away to good organizations that are doing work God wants done.  Institutions, like colleges and child care entitles, are all independent or run on government money, anyway.

There are, of course, individual UM congregations that are successful.  The disbanding of the UMC will not necessarily affect these congregations.  Their success is not tied to being part of the UMC.  Congregations that want to continue will do so; no congregation really needs a denomination.  Most congregations today prefer independence, and the entrepreneurial churches are the ones that seem to do "best" in today's society.

Advocates of UMC denominational structure point to five values they think are important but are actually no longer relevant:

1.  Leadership Continuity -- We are proud that our appointive system means that no church is ever without a pastor.  That, however, is a mixed blessing.  The automatic presence of a new pastor the day after the old one doesn't automatically make for a good pastor-parish relationship.

2.  Particularized Leadership For Purpose Of Mission -- The claim . . . that the bishop and his/her cabinet can assess the needs of all the churches and match those with the gifts of all the pastors . . . never worked perfectly, but it used to work fairly well.  Times have changed.  Everyone knows the appointive system isn't anymore.  Bishops don't appoint; they facilitate.  The cabinet works as a personnel committee.

3.  Pastoral Security -- The appointive system . . . protects boring and ineffective pastors as well as prophetic ones . . . In return for going where one is sent, each pastor is guaranteed s/he will be sent somewhere.  But the purpose of the church is not to provide a sinecure for the pastor.

4.  Mission Participation -- . . . are the UM missionaries and mission institutions . . . any different from the personnel and organizations of independent mission agencies?  Apportionments do not provide mission nearly as much as they provide contention. . . . apportionments are seen as taxes.  Connectionalism no longer makes that connection.

5.  Institutional Initiation -- There was a time when that function of the UMC was very important.  That time is no more.  How long has it been since we started a new institution?  There will be no new UMC colleges, no new child or elder care agencies.  Even the ones we have are increasingly distant from the church.  They are all quasi-government agencies.  They could not operate without government money.  How could we start a new institution when we're barely able to start a new congregation once in a while?  New congregations spring up all the time without denominational backing, however.  It almost appears that denominations are a hindrance to founding new congregations because folks within denominations who might have the will and oomph to start new churches wait around for the denomination to do it.

Conclusion

The writing on the wall says that the only way the UMC can save its life is by losing it.  It's clear that God is not telling us to spend our resources trying to survive, or to control the denomination, or to keep others from control, or by dividing the denomination "with a fair distribution of resources."  The only fair distribution of a church's resources is the total distribution of those resources in the service of Christ.  The alternative to survival and control and division is to make the witness of losing our life in order to save it.


Responses


Evangelical Leader in Academia Agrees UMC is a Failed Institution, but the UMC Must Survive Regardless

Yet Another Suicide Mission

by William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, SMU wabraham@mail.smu.edu

McFarland is right that unresolved conflict is a negative witness, that we are amnesiac about our unique heritage, . . . that the appointive system has its vices, that we do not have the backbone to start, say a new university, and so on.  But . . .

I read McFarland's call as symptomatic of a death wish in certain quarters.  Many folk are beaten, fed up and alienated.  They bet the bank on the wrong horses in the sixties, and they are now left penniless and in despair.

This is not the time for some panicky act of division.  The real issue [at GC2004] on the "conservative" side was less a division than a generous exit strategy for those opposed to church law and doctrine that was brilliantly exploited by their opponents.  [The conservatives] now see clearly that renewal and division are incompatible:  you cannot renew a church you are leaving.  [The conservatives] are in it for the long haul.

McFarland is right that we are at another critical moment in our history.  We have collapsed from within into caucuses and renewal groups; our ecumenical hopes have been dashed; leadership has become terrified of charges of racism and sexism; our mission work abroad has forfeited its trust; we are laden down with bureaucracies; we have lost our center of gravity; a mischievous conspiracy theory about the conservative side of the church invented by folk who should know better stalks the land; trust is in short supply; bishops are sources of disunity rather than unity; division remains a real possibility.

Our sense of identity as a denomination has been destroyed by forces from within and without.  Our ecumenical fantasies have teamed up with internal fragmentation to bring us to the brink of death.

However, the other half of the story is that the caucuses and renewal groups had important wrongs to put right.  Our decline has awakened us to the crucial importance of making disciples.  Our spiritual poverty has driven us to beg, borrow and steal in the arena of spiritual formation.  Evangelicals have begun to take their place at the table.

We need to stop whining and apologizing for our existence.  It is time to move forward and find our voice as a serious Christian denomination, as a communion within Christianity.


UMC Pro-homosexual Lobby's Never-ending Focused Agenda

Is the Cost of Unity Too High?

by Cathy Knight, Executive Director of [Greg Dell's pro-homosexual] Church Within a Church based in Chicago, Illinois Cknight72@aol.com

I can agree that the church is making a negative witness, but for more personal reasons than Mr. McFarland states.  The UMC is emotionally and spiritually hurting people.

The conflict that exists in the UMC is taking on an increasingly bitter, sharp and divisive tone.

Choosing a denominational theme -- "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" -- while we legislate against our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers who are called to and qualified for ordained ministry is a cost too high for me.  Limiting effective pastoral practices while legislating reactionary morality, creedalism and literalism is the present and future of The United Methodist Church.  These costs highlight the divide between those satisfied to stay in our church and those running from it.


UM College Prof Plea:  Can't we all Just Get Along?

We're Not There Yet

by Stephen Rankin, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Campus Minister at Southwestern College, Winfield, Kansas srankin@sckans.edu

On the whole, I think Mr. McFarland's diagnosis is sound.  His prescription (to dismantle the church) is a bit premature.

. . . where I disagree:  Mr. McFarland generalizes over much in a couple of important ways.  For example, he's right to say that a significant number of United Methodist institutions (such as college) are increasingly distant from the church.  He's wrong to say that they are "quasi-government agencies."  I teach at a church-related college and . . . we are by no means a quasi-government agency (even if our students receive government-funded grants).

My own problem with [a suggestion to divide into two denominations -- one liberal and one conservative,] comes when it gets right down to deciding where I would fit.  I'm considered a conservative by some of my peers . . . Yet, [liberals and I] disagree on only a few points, none of which produce any desire to separate.

If we can, let's stay together.  If we can't, then let's do what Mr. McFarland suggests.  I don't think we're there yet.

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