Better Questions? (Reflections on our Financial Crisis and the Recent Webinar for Delegates)

Over the weekend, our delegation attended the webinar for all U.S. delegates to the GC/JC Conferences.  Here are some personal observations and lots of questions…  

The Zoom gathering started well.  We were invited to reimagine our future and to discern how we can best live into our commitments and values.  From there we moved to our primary agenda, which was to deal with a looming financial crisis, and specifically the episcopal fund (the fund used to support our bishops and provide them with resources to lead the church). We also considered how this fund impacts many other dimensions of our shared ministry.

With many graphs and statistics, we were shown that what we are doing is unsustainable.  The list of reasons is long and includes demographic shifts (ie.,aging membership), a pandemic, and theological tensions.  As one bishop put it – in a wonderfully understated way – “while we can’t predict the future, it seems unlikely that this will improve.”  

Concerning the Episcopal Fund, all recommendations called for a reduction in the number of bishops.  The recommendation from our own Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee called for a reduction of two bishops in our Jurisdiction.  This would result in Arkansas and Louisiana becoming one episcopal area (meaning that we would share a bishop).  Several other options were given, with all of them revolving around the question of “how many” positions should be eliminated. To further magnify the crisis, these proposals were called “interim” moves, suggesting that more reductions would be needed in the future.

This led me to ask this question in the Q and A: “Given the need to reimagine the future, and deal with a reality that is unsustainable, could we consider a reduction in compensation for bishops, aligning salaries to values of justice, equity, servant leadership, etc?  And as a witness.” 

There were many similar questions, and this idea became a major point of conversation.  In my breakout room, for example, we wondered if these recommendations were not a “bandaid” reaction. We discussed the need to view this need through a theological lens rather than solely as an economic problem. What if we started with our calling to cultivate social structures that are consistent with the gospel and focused on the kind of witness we are called to give the world?

In the larger Q andA times, there were some attempts to answer the question.  At one point it was said that this approach was not considered because GCFA sets salaries and that such a recommendation was beyond the authority of those involved in making these recommendations.  At another point, it was said that the possibility of reducing salaries was considered, but it was decided to revisit this if the collection rate of apportionments fell to 65%.  In these responses, it did seem that economic paradigms continued to overwhelm any theological considerations. I admit that continuing this discussion is “opening a can of worms.” Perhaps that explains our hesitation to explore the issues.

Is it time for this proverbial “can” to be opened?  Irrespective of how many bishops are needed, (and I am not necessarily arguing for more) what kind of leadership do we need and how should we pay for it? How could we use this crisis to cultivate more just, equitable, and loving systems – and not just for bishops?  If the General Conference cannot do this, could a system be developed where pastoral leaders could voluntarily enter into a covenant together?  What might this look like?  

For one more thought. Some wondered, during this gathering, why we were putting so much energy into this when there were bigger concerns.  As I heard, it was like pouring energy into policy issues – like how to report online attendance – when a struggle for the survival of the denomination is at hand (It was also noted that we see this dynamic as a nation as well). So, this leads to one more set of questions for me: How might we align this financial crisis to our hope to create a church that truly makes room for all?  How might we put this concern into the larger context and use it to bring health to the whole body?  How might we turn this crisis into an opportunity for increased faithfulness and fruitfulness?  May this be our aim.  

Caught Sleeping (as we wait for General Conference)

Here are some quick responses if you ever get caught sleeping on the job. “They told me this might happen after I gave blood this morning.” Or, “I wasn’t sleeping; I was meditating on our mission statement and envisioning new possibilities for implementation.”  Or my favorite, “In Jesus name, Amen.”

After devoting attention elsewhere in the midst of a pandemic, I have recently been reawakened by renewed conversations about the future of the UMC.  I’ve also discovered that some have been wide awake all along.  This week, I watched a presentation by Tom Lambrecht, from the WCA, that was very similar to a presentation given in Arkansas last year.  In this one, however, there were more details about the start of a new denomination, with or without the approval of the next General Conference, and included strategies to invite whole annual conferences to join.  Can you imagine that coming up at Annual Conference? 

The narrative is alarming – and wakeup worthy.  In this narrative, matters of sexuality are only the “presenting issue.” The real issue is that too many no longer see the bible as God’s self-revelation but see it as “a record of human encounters with God,” as “helpful but not authoritative.” With each step, we are warned against those who see the quadrilateral as “four equal sources of authority.” We hear of those who do not want to limit marriage to two people, ignoring the fact that the plan mentioned uses the word monogamy repeatedly. Adam Hamilton is misrepresented as an example of one who “knows good Christians who are gay” and thus “elevates experience over scripture.”  The conclusion is this: the faithful simply cannot stay in a church where so many “discount biblical teaching in favor of human experience and give priority to cultural values over scripture.”

As I listened, I wondered who was being talked about. The people I know, who are being lumped into this category, would agree that scripture is primary and authoritative.  Their convictions are deeply rooted in scripture, believing that faithfulness calls us to move beyond proof-texting and invites us to follow the method of interpretation that Jesus used when he summarized all the law and the prophets through the lens of love.  It is attention to scripture that motivates a desire to make room for all, including those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives.  It is a deeply rooted faith in Jesus Christ that leads many to seek unity in love rather than uniformity by law.  And in the light of the “presenting issue,” and the harmful rhetoric around it, many feel an explicit need to affirm our LGBTQ+ siblings and to honor the gifts they bring. In this light, there is a need to promote a sexual ethic rooted in the life-giving values of the gospel rather than judging people by how they personally identify themselves.

To characterize these commitments as giving priority to cultural values over scripture is unfair and hurtful.   At best, this characterization involves the fallacy of hasty generalization or the taking of an isolated or extreme example and using it to cover others; at worst it is an intentional lie to vilify and mislead!  Of course, if schism is the goal then looking for good in the other is probably not a good idea.  With this goal, we may not want to start with common ground.

Friends, the alarm is going off. At one of these meetings in Arkansas, available on the WCA Facebook page, a pastor said that the most important vote of our lifetime is coming, that small churches will be the key to success, and that funds are available to help pay expenses to help delegates get to Annual Conference when the time comes.  Do we need to wake up?  Do we need to resume the work of cultivating a different narrative? The option may be waking up and finding ourselves in a new denomination.