Remembering Our Higher Calling (as we move towards GC2020 and probable division)

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Below is a letter sent to my congregation.  It is an invitation to embrace a higher calling at the local level in the midst of probable division at the general church level.  It’s the same message I keep sharing – although not without fear and trembling.  In this letter I do not get into my personal advocacy as much as I have in other writings. Here I want to be clear about the call to respect and honor others, even as we advocate.   I especially commend the paragraph on the need to dial back the labeling…

Dear FUMC Family,

The United Methodist Church is about to split! You may have heard this on the news recently. I can tell you that there is some truth to this rumor.  A leading proposal for the next General Conference calls for an amicable separation and the creation of two “expressions of methodism” – the United Methodist Church which will continue to be a “big tent” church that strives to welcome all into the love of Christ, and a new denomination for those who want more uniformity of opinion around certain issues.  This possible division is driven, for the most part, by different perspectives on same-sex marriage and matters of ordination.   As a delegate to the upcoming General Conference, involved in many of these conversations, I have recently come to the conclusion that some kind of division seems likely at the general and global level.  But here is my word to you as a congregation – THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO HAPPEN HERE! Please receive my reasoning with prayerful attention.

Yes, there are “irreconcilable differences” among us.  This is the term often used, especially by those who want to form a new denomination.  I do not believe, however, that such differences should lead to division, especially at the local level, where our unity is found in the call to love one another rather than in uniformity of opinion.  Our congregation is full of “irreconcilable differences.” There are major differences among us on many issues — who should be president, access to health care, the distribution of wealth, and more.  Concerning congregational life, there are big differences between a preference for hymns or praise songs, written or extemporaneous prayers, screens or no screens. Very often such perspectives are seen as integral to faith and essential for faithfulness.  And yet, we still come together at a common table. We have this intuitive sense that we are connected by a higher calling, found in scripture and given by the Holy Spirit.

The Apostle Paul expresses this higher calling very clearly. He begs us to fulfill our calling from God – to bear one another in love, with all humility, patience, and kindness, being eager to maintain the unity of spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3). In light of this calling, differences of perspective and interpretation can be seen as a great blessing.  Our diversity enables us to practice the virtues of love.  It would be way too easy if all we had to do was love those who thought like us (See Matt 5:43-47).

This calling comes with expectations for how we live together in community. There is no place, for example, for pushing personal agenda or insisting on our own way – except that we will honor different perspectives and approaches to ministry, in a spirit of patience and kindness.  We can insist on that! (See I Cor 13:4-7). This calling requires us to focus our attention on cultivating safe sanctuaries where all can discover who they are in relationship with God. This calling invites much humility when it comes to our understanding of personal journeys and identity, while at the same time, offering resources to help all grow in faithfulness and love.

Dear FUMC Family, as we begin a new year together, I ask you to affirm your commitment to this higher calling – to keep our eyes on the ball, so to speak.  Our community and the world need this witness.  To retreat into like-minded camps that promote division, polarization, and extremism does not glorify God. For this to happen in the church is truly following the ways of the world.  We have the chance to be a part of something so much bigger – something holy.  We have the opportunity to be a church that offers a life of faithfulness and love to all.

To fulfill this calling, we need to dial back the labeling of ourselves and others – traditionalist, conservative, liberal, progressive, centrist.   While these qualifiers have a place, it is not good to define human beings (including ourselves) in one-dimensional terms.  We are more than that!  People who want “progress” in terms of inclusion, may be very traditional when it comes to their affinity for liturgy and creeds.  They may want this “progress” because of their understanding of the living tradition of the church.  People who love what is contemporary may also be very interested in affirming what they see as traditional values that are life-giving and needed for communities to thrive.  People in the middle may not need to be defined as “wishy washy” or uncommitted; it takes great spiritual strength to balance grace and holiness, head and heart, as well as traditional and progressive expressions of faithfulness.  To fulfill our calling, we must focus on honoring and respecting one another, more than labeling and judging.  We can also learn from one another! Again, let us not give in to the ways of the world.

We are starting the year 2020. As a congregation, we are using this number 2020 to talk about God’s vision for us.  We want to see ourselves more clearly the way God sees us.  At one level, we can think of all the people in the scriptures who were being told that they were not of the same value as others – foreigners, fishermen, tax collectors, women, children, gentiles – and Jesus includes them and called them into the kingdom of heaven where we learn to treat others as beloved children of God..  He invited them to see themselves in a new light – in the light of God’s love and God’s calling.  May we be the church that shares this word – “You are valued.” “You are a blessing to the world.” “You have a calling to fulfill.”

Whatever happens at General Conference in May, know this: Ministry will continue in and through our community of faith.  For the immediate months following General Conference, we are already planning mission trips, youth trips, summer adventure camp, WOW Camp, Music Camp, Summer Feeding Ministry, and Summer Alternative Worship experiences – and that’s just in the couple of months after General Conference.  We all get to be a part of it.

In this letter I have wanted to inform you, but hopefully not scare you away.  In fact, my hope is the opposite of that. May all the struggles and tensions in our church and in our culture lead us not into a spirit of fear and despair, but into a desire to fulfill the calling God has placed upon us.  May we indeed bear one another in love and express our eagerness to maintain unity in spirit.  The larger church and the world need this witness.  I wholeheartedly believe that God is calling us to lead the way in this community.   May Love Grow Here!!!

Blessings,

Pastor Michael

Passing on the Pressure (Initial Reflections on the Protocol from a Delegate Perspective)

cic-universal2The pressure is on!  As a delegate, it was clear that we were the target audience of the first live-streamed presentation from the group giving us the Protocol, aired yesterday. Scattered throughout the conversation were statements about this now being placed in our hands. There were pleas to join the movement.  It was repeatedly emphasized that this protocol received unanimous affirmation after an intense mediation process. Everyone at the table was willing to compromise for the sake of good-will, peace, and the hope of moving forward.  Much motivation came from the shared assumption that the alternative would be much worse. In fact, the word “catastrophic” was used at least twice for what would happen if this does not pass.   So once again, the pressure is on.

Instead of reporting on what individuals said, I will focus on the different perspectives – the traditional, the progressive, the centrist, and central conferences.  (I use these terms with some reluctance, for I do not believe it is good to define others by a single word or story.  For example, it is very possible to want “progress” for those being harmed around current policies and to be immersed in the traditions of the church through creeds, hymns, liturgy, and prayers. It is possible to value inclusiveness and respect for the faith journey of others and see this as mandated from the living tradition of the church).

With that qualification, representatives of a traditional perspective, from the confessing movement and the WCA, led with calls for “amicable separation” because of “irreconcilable differences” around issues of human sexuality.  Since progressives/centrists were not willing to leave, even after repeated unsuccessful attempts to change the BOD, traditionalists have made the decision to actively move towards the formation of a new denomination. They affirmed the need to “set the church free from the conflict.” As stated, in the interests of good-will, peace, and moving forward, these representatives were willing to make significant compromises around voting thresholds and financial support.   In answering a question, this group would not likely leave the General Conference immediately for a Convening Conference of the new denomination, but they did believe this will happen soon – in 2020.  They made it clear that they would actively seek to persuade others to join the movement.

For Progressives, this protocol “changes the landscape for those who have been deeply harmed.” The discriminatory language that has caused so much harm would be removed.  This is an answer to the longing of many hearts.  At the same time, there is a place for caution.  The Traditional Plan that was passed in 2019 has become the source of much fear and hurt. Continued vigilance is needed.  Many, but not all, will resolve to stay in the Post-Separation UMC.

For Centrists, and many who would use the word progressive, this protocol affords the opportunity to rediscover the blessings of being a “big tent” church, where different perspectives are honored, where unity is sought, not in a uniformity of law, but in our call to love one another, with all patience, kindness, humility, without arrogance or insisting on our own way.  Unity is found in this core scriptural calling (Eph 4:1-3; I Cor 13:1-8).  It was stated that 85% of all United Methodists across the spectrum – traditionalists, conservatives, progressives, and centrists – communicate that they can exist in a church where there is diversity of interpretation.  This diversity can be seen as a blessing and even essential to the fulfillment of our calling. It was stated that centrists are united around a desire to welcome all and to remove the discriminatory language that uses outdated and harmful language to single out one group of people, and to access their status in the church by this single criterion rather than by calling, character, faithfulness and fruitfulness.  From this perspective, humility demands that we focus on being welcoming of all who want to know Christ and grow in the virtues of faith and love.  Realistically, this post-separation United Methodist Church would be smaller – but hopefully not for long.  It was expressed that this will be an opportunity for growth, to be more nimble and responsive to the mission field, and to respond in new ways to the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

This centrist stance would be the default perspective for the post-separation United Methodist Church. No vote would be required to remain within this expression of faith.  If a vote was taken, the threshold for an Annual Conference would be 57%.  This percentage was the result of compromise.  The traditionalists lobbied for a simple majority, with others asking for two-thirds.  Central Conferences would require a 2/3 vote to leave the UMC.  Local Congregations could choose to leave the UMC. If this vote is taken, it would be by a Church Conference where every member can vote, as opposed to a charge conference where elected leaders vote.  We probably need to be ready for attempts to change these thresholds.

It was very clear that those representing Central Conferences were supportive. A Bishop from Africa said that African support would be 100%.  A similar statement was made from the Bishop of the Philippines.   Representatives from Central Conferences also support the continuation of the United Methodist Church, saying that dissolution would have catastrophic effects on ministry and mission.  There was also support for the idea of regional conferences as being essential to making this work, given freedom for ministry and decisions within various cultures and contexts.   If support indeed comes at these high levels from Central Conferences, then it does appear that this Protocol will be a first step for how we move forward in mission and ministry.

In conclusion, we were asked to not let perfect get in the way of good.  We are asked to understand the need for a small representative group to initiate the process and how it is now time for others to come to the table.  We were asked to pray.  As was stated, with prayer all things are possible and without prayer nothing is possible (Wesley).  Testimonies were given for how prayer opened the way several times in the midst of this mediation.  That is a good word.

Immersed in prayer and in politics together, it is time to turn our attention to the future, to begin to develop a vision for what is possible for the post-separation UMC.  We must give a compelling reason for committing to this “big tent” church.  Without this vision, permission is implicitly given to withdraw into comfortable and like-minded camps.  The pressure is on for delegates to initiate by inviting others of all perspectives to develop a vision and strategy for a faithful and fruitful post-separation UMC.  May God be with us all.