I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. — Psalm 38:8
Church politics, like all politics, creates noble achievements and underhanded dealings. As the year draws to a close, United Methodists find themselves coping with their leaders bending — and breaking — the rules as the 12-million-member worldwide denomination splinters.
With the politics of disaffiliation becoming more widely known, they’re perceived by observers to straddle a thorny fence of money-motivated appeasement to the dismay of both those staying and those leaving.
Those leaving often cite “failure to enforce United Methodist Book of Discipline” — the denomination’s rule book — as a prime reason for departure. Yet that standard only seems to apply to offenses related to The United Methodist Church’s stances that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” rather than myriad other violations.
Take, for instance, a curious juxtaposition in the Dallas-based North Texas Annual Conference.
In October, Gregory S. Neal wed his fiancé, Kade Rogers, at 200-member Lakewood United Methodist Church in Dallas where Neal serves as pastor. In so doing, Neal broke three United Methodist rules: “coming out” as a gay man who is ordained, legally marrying his same-gender partner, and holding their marriage ceremony in a United Methodist church. Since that fateful ceremony Oct. 1, Neal has been suspended from ministry — a punishment deemed excessive at this time when South Central Jurisdiction delegates centrists and progressives recently voted overwhelmingly to urge their regional conferences to refrain from pursuing complaints against those who transgress anti-LGBTQ laws while the UMC’s future remains murky.
Around the same time, Arthur Jones, senior pastor of 6,500-member St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, a city north of Dallas, announced his church’s leadership decided to leave the UMC without following the exit plan enacted by the denomination’s General Conference. (The General Conference, a legislative body like the U.S. Congress, creates the Book of Discipline). Jones and his lay leadership contend they can leave without following the rules set up for United Methodist property, amending their articles of incorporation and bylaws to remove references to the Book of Discipline and the trust clause, a covenant which states that all United Methodist property isn’t owned by the local church, but held in trust for the denomination.
If St. Andrew succeeds in its legal fiction, Jones et al will have violated church law and deprived the North Texas Conference of thousands of dollars in mission revenue being required of departing congregations in other U.S. regions.
In November, North Texas Bishop Michael McKee took an unusual step of issuing a letter essentially telling all United Methodists to stop public criticism of the St. Andrew case, claiming commentaries were hindering confidential negotiations around the megachurch’s departure. His letter didn’t stop private discussions, although public criticism about Arthur Jones has subsided.
Yet unlike Neal, Jones remains in his pulpit even though a formal church complaint has been lodged against him and the conference board of ordained ministry has recommended his suspension to Bishop McKee, according to knowledgeable sources. Jones’ action sparked such outrage among his clergy colleagues that two of them — Stan Copeland of Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas and Billy Echols-Richter of Grace Avenue UMC in Frisco, north of Dallas — posted YouTube videos publicly chastising Jones and St. Andrew (likely sparking Bishop McKee’s letter).
Jones happens to be the son of dissident Bishop Scott J. Jones of Houston, who himself is being scrutinized by the South Central Jurisdiction for encouraging hundreds of Texas congregations to depart the UMC. The senior Jones’ activities were specifically cited by Copeland in a jurisdictional conference motion to investigate United Methodist leaders who have actively promoted disaffiliation. Conference delegates approved Copeland’s proposal and the jurisdiction’s bishops received Copeland’s motion but haven’t acted upon it. Bishop Jones is due to retire Dec. 31, as is Bishop McKee, his South Central episcopal colleague.
Conflicts in conferences beyond North Texas reflect similar turmoil. In Florida and Western North Carolina conferences, groups of churches have filed lawsuits to leave the UMC as a way to circumvent the prescribed exit process that traditionalists themselves enacted in 2019, the last time General Conference met.
At that international meeting in St. Louis, Mo., traditionalists voted in a “disaffiliation” plan, known as Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline, expecting that progressive United Methodists objecting to the tightened anti-LGBTQ rules would rush to the exits. Instead, United Methodists in three-fourths of U.S. conferences decided they didn’t want to be the kind of mean-spirited denomination created by the newly tightened rules with their draconian punishments. In rebellion, conferences elected slates of new progressive and centrist delegates to General Conference with a clear mandate to overturn the anti-LGBTQ bans at the 2020 session.
Then came the global coronavirus pandemic, and General Conference was postponed three times. After the third postponement, traditionalists founded the Global Methodist Church in May this year, posting its “Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline” online with even stricter rules requiring adherence to GMC tenets.
Over the summer, hundreds of local congregations held disaffiliation votes, with church members whipped to an escape frenzy by misinformation, such as allegations that the UMC was preparing to abandon its core doctrines about Jesus Christ. (Those doctrines are enshrined in the UMC’s constitution, which is virtually impossible to change). Yet none of the pastors and lay leaders who have openly spread such lies have been charged with any of the serious offenses listed in the Discipline, including bearing false witness.
Unfortunately for those who have voted to leave, the traditionalist Wesleyan Covenant Association, progenitor of the Global Methodist Church, seems in as much disarray as the denomination its adherents are striving to leave.
Billed as a session on how to leave the UMC even after unsuccessful congregational votes, an online town hall meeting Dec. 8 proved fruitless, as this writer observed the encounter. Bob Kaylor, chair of the WCA Pathways committee, clarified the meeting’s purpose as “gathering research” on questions from church leaders, while WCA President Jay Therrell urged participants to send their questions privately by email and telephone call. Attendees were referred to the WCA and GMC websites for details regarding concerns such as what will happen to the livelihoods and pensions of pastors who leave the UMC for the GMC.
“Both the WCA’s global council and the GMC leadership page feature United Methodist clergy and laity who have yet to renounce their UMC affiliation as required by church law.”
Curiously, both the WCA’s global council and the GMC leadership page feature United Methodist clergy and laity who have yet to renounce their UMC affiliation as required by church law. In cowboy parlance, they’re still drinking from the same water trough they’re busting up, but UMC leadership seems loath to rein them in.
Back in the UMC, some annual conferences are resorting to looting their financial reserves to help disaffiliating congregations pay their exit fees and shifting dates to lessen the exit costs. Under Paragraph 2553, exit fees are supposed to cover two years’ worth of contributions to churchwide ministries plus two years of remittances for clergy pensions. Even for the smallest congregations, those fees can total thousands of dollars, requiring buckets of ready cash that few churches have in their bank accounts. Abridging the standards also skirts Discipline guidelines regarding their collection, which is intended to return to annual conferences the costs of starting churches. Those start-up monies accrue from the annual “dues” known as apportionments. Again, failure to enforce the adopted standards has engendered resentment among rank-and-file laypeople whose hard-earned offerings created the funds originally.
Beyond the bread-and-butter issues facing both loyalist and dissident United Methodists lies the question that, for many, has become paramount: Where is justice in the political machinations now afoot?
Where is justice for pastor Gregory Neal, whose only “crime” was to exercise his legal right to marry the person he loves?
Where is justice for congregations who have followed the UMC’s departure rules when confronted with the blatant defiance of Arthur Jones and St. Andrew UMC? Where is justice for disaffiliating congregations who were promised they would benefit — or at least not be harmed — by leaving United Methodism for the fledgling Global Methodist Church, only to find its organizers floundering in a sea of unmet details while the head of the newly formed church hobnobs with international evangelicals in New York City?
Where is justice for those members whose beloved church homes have been ripped away by suspect votes to depart the UMC? Where is justice for all United Methodists who have been faithful to the UMC for half a century, when their conference leaders are so fearful of lawsuits that they spend the money from offerings to enable congregations to leave? Has justice proved too expensive to be pursued?
“Has justice proved too expensive to be pursued?”
Against this backdrop, United Methodists joined Christians around the world Dec. 11 to celebrate the third Sunday of Advent, which focuses on Mary’s acquiescence to be the vessel of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. In her joy, Mary sings a hymn of praise that has become known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), proclaiming:
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary’s song proclaims God’s justice, in which the deprivation and oppression caused by human systems such as The United Methodist Church will be overturned. Amid the wreckage of the UMC’s splintering during 2022, that justice seems to be as far in the future as ever.
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.