Saturday, May 4, 2024

Language Removal in The United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church’s postponed 2020 General Conference finally met and removed the language around the allowance of same-gender weddings and LGBTQ+ ordination.  It also removed the language citing that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching that’s been in the denomination’s Book of Discipline since 1972.

Reserve Lay Delegate Corey Shirey, Oklahoma
People who favor full-inclusion see this as a step in the right direction while those of a more traditionalist mindset may find themselves uneasy toward what the future may hold for their church.

What the General Conference did was move to a neutral position.  It is important to understand that removal does not equate approval from the standpoint of United Methodist polity or doctrine.  

This movement gives more autonomy and tries to recognize and honor differences throughout the various regions of the world where The United Methodist Church lives out its mission.  We’ve moved to a more libertarian understanding of human sexuality.

Ordination of clergy has always had its authority within the annual conference (geographic region under the authority of a bishop).  Clergy have their membership in the conference and not the local church.  Within the constitution of the Book of Discipline, paragraph 33 defines the annual conference as the basic body of the church.  This fits within our polity to grant individual conferences the authority to determine who they will or will not ordain.  The removal of the language places this authority back into the hands of the annual conference district committees on ordained ministry, conference boards of ordained ministry and the clergy executive sessions of our annual conferences. 

Those of a traditionalist mindset have often expressed that they are fearful of receiving a gay pastor.  When the cabinet seeks to appoint a pastor to a church, the superintendents look at the church’s profile which lines out their identity and is updated by the church annually.  We look at the staff parish relations (personnel) committee’s review of the pastor to see what kind of pastor they would like to receive at this point in time.  The superintendent often meets with this committee prior to setting the appointment to see what may have changed.   Through all of these channels, the local church expresses their preferences on a wide variety of options.  We have always taken into account theological preference.  The cabinet does its best not to appoint a conservative pastor to a progressive congregation or a progressive pastor to a conservative congregation.  We want the best fit possible in order to allow the congregational leadership to thrive without clashing with the pastor and for the pastor to avoid burnout from repeatedly stepping into trouble in a mismatched context.  We seek to do no harm to church or pastor.

Churches will continue to have the autonomy to decide wedding policies.  They will not get into trouble or be forced to conduct same-gender weddings by the state of from private individuals (separation of church and state).  The Judicial Council (the United Methodist equivalent of the Supreme Court) ruled earlier this week that the church may develop wedding policies that prohibit same-gender weddings in their sanctuaries.  However, one question I have asked churches is “When was the last time you had a wedding in your sanctuary?”  We find that most young people are preferring venues outside the church for their weddings these days and this may have more to do with the church’s no-alcohol policy than anything else.  I would caution churches on immediately jumping into a wedding policy just as I would caution a couple into jumping into marriage too suddenly.  It would be better for a church to do a study to see where they align across their membership if they haven’t already done so.  I never like to invite trouble unnecessarily.

This is not the first time in our history that the church has varied on biblical interpretation.  From our origins coming out of Judea, the early church had difficulty surrounding the issue of circumcision.  In Genesis 17:14,  God states rather clearly, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Paul reinterprets this as he begins to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to people outside the Jewish faith in the Mediterranean world.  He states in Romans chapter two, “Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the written code.”  He goes on to share in Galatians 5:6 to say, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

This was well-received by the multitudes as the church spread.  But it was received as heresy by many and Paul was beaten up and run out of multiple synagogues for preaching this message.  Some of the violence done to Paul was likely by Christians who believed in strictly following the law. 

And of course, Paul also states in 1 Corinthians 9 that he follows the law to reach those who claim it for their lives while also operating outside the law to reach those who are foreign to it.  He was all things to all people so that some might be saved.  The salvation we find in Christ Jesus was of higher priority than other scripture.

As United Methodists today, we understand that, like Paul, we seek to be contextual in our ministry.  The language surrounding our LGBTQ siblings has been controversial and been the cause of many an argument in the church.  While we don’t think the language removal will end debate, we do think that it might center our mission more around making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  I’ve often seen people on mission trips form solid friendships with those who vote very differently at the polls.  They rallied around helping others.  This sounds like faith working through love.

And while some believe that the church should speak more universally around LGBTQ+ issues, Wesleyans have always allowed people to think for themselves.  John Wesley states in his sermon, Catholic Spirit, “Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him..."  Wesley asks more famously within this sermon, "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?  May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?  Without all doubt, we may."

As we seek to continue as a denomination to love one another through our differences, I like to think about this as I would Thanksgiving dinner.  Most extended families do not all think alike or act alike.  There are some who come to Thanksgiving that you would likely seat at opposite ends of the table to preserve the peace.  There may, in fact, be people that you tend to avoid at these gatherings.  But most people would never deny them entrance to the family gathering.  Bonds of genetics and covenant and family history tie us together.  This may be a good metaphor for the body of Christ.  We may not all agree on a variety of things but in the church, we all declare that we bind ourselves under the lordship of Jesus Christ.  This lordship calls us to forgive and seek reconciliation.  It calls us to love – not out of feelings of closeness – but out of action that seeks to convey who God is to the world. 

The General Conference’s decisions line up with our belief in God’s prevenient grace.  God loves all people and wants them to know this.  We believe that the removal of the LGBTQ+ language furthers this love and allows contextualization over how the church lives out this love.   

For many in our church, this is a welcome change that allows them to live and serve in our church without being labeled as “unclean.”  For others, it is a challenge to their faith or their interpretation of scripture.  I would invite all of us to center ourselves around the faith of Jesus Christ who calls us to love God with all our being and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Jesus names this as primary even over other scriptures.  At times it is challenging.  But if we love through the challenge, we often find that blessing awaits on the other side. 

I pray this is so for our church.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Why Regionalization is Key to the Witness of The United Methodist Church

I’m proud of the witness of The United Methodist Church to the Wesleyan way of interpreting faith in Jesus Christ.  A part of this witness is to become more Christ-like or seek to live in partnership with sanctifying grace.  This often means that we must confess our sin or brokenness.  I would say that some of our current difficulty lies within some of our basic polity.

The United Methodist Church is a worldwide denomination whose origins from its Methodist Episcopal branch began side by side with the birth of the United States of America.  It is organized in structure in a very similar way to the United States government in that we have executive, legislative and judicial separation of powers.

Just as the country moved west following a self-styled manifest destiny, the Methodist movement led the way, its witness establishing churches in territories long before statehood.  Mission to other countries became a part of the movement just as it did in many other denominations.  In the beginnings, the focus may have seemed rather colonial to those we were seeking to reach.  We sent over white, American pastors to share the Good News with other countries and likely trod on local cultures and peoples with a thought more toward justifying grace than prevenient grace.  As we recaptured the sense that God was already at work in other areas through prevenient grace, our focus began to change to include indigenous people of the areas where we sought to plant churches.  We called local people of the countries we sought to be in relationship with into ministry alongside us.  Their witness proved to be more authentic to the people they lived alongside.  We began to see a Wesleyan Methodist movement take shape in ways that were diverse and beautiful even if somewhat different than what we experienced in the United States.

But we have retained a dominance over the denomination within the United States.  All of our General Conferences have been held in the United States.  The legislation starts in English and then is translated into other languages.  English is translated into other languages at General Conference but English is the dominant language.  While this may not seem like a big deal, it may be more important if you come from somewhere else.  At my first General Conference in Pittsburgh in 2004, I noticed signs that explained where to pick up your translators.  They were only in English.

In Tampa in 2012, I was seated at a table with delegates from Africa.  I was embarrassed at the amount of time we spent discussing pension benefits that would only apply to clergy from the United States.  It was apparent to me that this was a poor use of our stewardship as a global body.  And of course, our stewardship is a part of our witness.

The colonialism may seem subtle to us, but it is also set up in our polity. 

Within the Constitution of the Book of Discipline (the constitution being our founding structure that has a higher bar to change), paragraph eight begins our governance at the highest body which is the General Conference.  The very next paragraph states, “There shall be jurisdictional conferences for the Church in the United States of America, with such powers, duties, and privileges as are hereinafter set forth”. 

Paragraph ten then divides God’s church by stating, “There shall be central conferences for the Church outside the United States of America…”

It is fascinating that we seem to miss the sense of irony in these statements given the fact that earlier in paragraph five, we have a statement on racial justice.  It states specifically, “The United Methodist Church recognizes that the sin of racism has been destructive to its unity throughout its history. Racism continues to cause painful division and marginalization. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate racism, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large.” (emphasis mine).

The question we haven’t been asking (at least very loudly) up until now is why do we structure differently depending on if you live in the United States or not?

If our polity is a part of our witness (it is), fortunately, we quickly course correct.

Paragraph eleven then states that whether you are in a central or jurisdictional conference, all organize as annual conferences at a more localized level.  In fact, paragraph 33 exclaims that “The annual conference is the basic body in the Church…”  While our annual conferences may function more contextually, we hold the same basic structures that allow for voice, right to trial and vote for all of our clergy and laity. 

One could say that through the annual conferences, we already practice regionalization.

One of the major differences between the governance of a jurisdictional conference within the United States and a central conference outside of the United States is our sense of mission.   Because we have recognized the US dominance through how we have organized, we have made allowances for contextual ministry outside the United States.  In outlining the powers of a central conference, paragraph 543.7 allows for adaptation of the Book of Discipline within an area provided that it doesn’t violate the constitution of the Book of Discipline or the General Rules.  Jurisdictional conferences within the United States do not have this same adaptability primarily because the Book of Discipline has been so US-centric. 

When The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968, the United States was very Christo-centric at least from a standpoint of cultural self-identification (this is different from stating that Christian values were lived out on a wider scale).  There were not a lot of things happening outside church in our communities on Sundays and Wednesday evenings in those days.  It was advantageous to be even nominally Christian in American society.  The church and clergy experienced privileges that we no longer exercise.

In 2008, we added “witness” to our membership vows.  This is not because the church in Africa or the Philippines was doing such a good job with their witness that we thought it would be wise to emulate their practice (although this was true).  Rather, it was because we were seeing the shift in American culture and we recognized that American Christians needed to be reminded of their responsibility to witness to their faith once more.  We had grown complacent because we were used to people just showing up to church when we opened the doors on Sunday mornings.

Today, we recognize that the United States has become the mission field.  The UMC problem in the US is that the majority of young people here do not embrace Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  While we had been steadily seeing an erosion of faith in recent decades, the pandemic really moved this forward much more quickly than we had otherwise anticipated.  Our churches in the US are aging and most of them do not have multi-generational congregations.  This means that unless we begin to address our witness and reach the next generation, most of these local churches will have a short shelf-life.  It (almost) goes without saying that this will greatly impact our sustainability as a denomination.  This erodes the vital witness that we have to the world.

Regionalization within our denomination will allow for the same adaptability for the United States that is allowed around the globe.  It is needed for multiple reasons but I have pointed out two for our consideration that both impact our witness.  The primary reason is so that we will regain the integrity of our witness through our polity in that we will align ourselves as a global church with the same structure whether you live inside or outside the United States.  As the world has flattened through globalization, so must our structure.  This helps us to begin to end the vestiges of colonialism that remain a part of our identity through our polity.  This polity is currently not a part of our witness that I like to emphasize.

Young people serving young people is our witness
The secondary reason is that the United States as a mission field needs to also recruit indigenous clergy from our populations so that they may lead their communities.  While we still have work to do with all generations, the indigenous people we primarily need to reach are younger.  Regionalization sends the right witness to this generation by saying, “we believe that your context is important.  Who you are is important.  We believe that God loves you for who you are and is already at work in your life.  We would like to explore conversations to see how we might grow in spirit together and learn from one another.”

Christian witness within specific context is something we have done from our very beginnings.  The apostle Paul writing to the Church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 9 speaks of becoming a slave to the context to reach people for Christ.  He lived both inside and outside the law depending on the people he was seeking to reach.  He states in verses 22b-23, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I might become a partner in it.”

Within Jewish and Gentile culture in Paul’s day, there were very different ways of understanding the faith.  Some undoubtedly called him a sellout to the ideals of scripture.  He was injured many times over because of his stance.  For Paul, the defining factor that tied all of these varieties of Christian expression together was the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Paul understood this witness to supersede some of the most basic laws of identity so that the church could thrive.  It was primary to his understanding.  The church and its witness was regional in intent so that more people could recognize that God is "above all and in all and through all." (Ephesians 4:6).

My hope is that we will pass regionalization by the necessary 2/3 margin at General Conference and then we will ratify it at our annual conferences the next year.   And just as Paul’s leadership allowed the church to spread throughout the world by focusing on what is primary, I believe that this will allow the church today to more quickly speak to the world in ways that it can hear.   We still have something worthy of sharing: the love of Jesus Christ.  Let’s unleash our witness.

 

Photo taken by the author at the Oklahoma Conference Camp Spark,  June 25, 2019.

Quoted scripture from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Daily Devotion for Lent 2024, Wrap-up for Easter Sunday

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil, for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks."

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?  I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.  That one is like a man building a house who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it because it had been well built.  But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, it quickly collapsed, and great was the ruin of that house.”

                                                                    Luke 6:43-49 (NRSVue)

 

Can a leopard change its spots?  

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Can you make a silk purse out of a sow's ear?

These old adages allow us to stay set in our ways as if change were impossible.  They become easy excuses for us to hold onto when we know we need to make some fundamental shift in the way we are doing things.

Change is difficult.  I've heard it said that when people are told to alter their diets or they will surely eat themselves into the grave, the majority are unable to make a long-lasting adjustment.  So old habits do seem to die hard.  

It would take a miracle to change.

For Christians, we celebrate this miracle in the world through Easter.  The resurrection allows us to see others differently and it allows us to see ourselves in a new light.  It forgives the sins that lead to death and declares that they are not as powerful as we make them out to be.

Easter reveals that you are good fruit today and that we can throw yesterday's thorns in the trash.  

The important part of reading through the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain through Lent will come tomorrow.  How do we integrate these messages into our lives?

What does Easter mean on Monday?  or Tuesday?

Can we develop an Easter foundation for our house?

Jesus believes we can or he wouldn't have wasted his time preaching this message. 

We can turn a new leaf.

We can start from scratch.

We can wipe the slate clean.

But on Easter, we recognize that we don't have to do this of our own accord.  Life and light have won over death and darkness.  That is enough for me and for you.

Prayer for the day: Loving God, we give thanks for the teachings of Jesus that give us life.  When we see them in light of the resurrection, they begin to take a new shape for us.  Help us to live out these sermons of resurrection in the everyday.  May we be more like the saints Jesus declares us to be.  And may our foundation in Christ never waver.  We pray these things in the name of the risen Lord.  Amen.


Photo by Claudio via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license. 

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.