Eliminate the Jurisdictions! Harmful consequences of historic moral compromise.

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to the health of current U.S. United Methodism is the existence of the Jurisdictions.  Created as a part of a moral compromise that institutionalized racism into the very structure of the new Methodist Church, the jurisdictions have done far more to reinforce our divisions than to serve the Church with any kind of middle-management of oversight.

Two of the most critical effects of the establishment of the jurisdictions were:

  1. To reinforce and institutionalize the cultural divisions of the U.S. within the united Church;
  2. Place significant limits on the abilities of the bishops to serve as general superintendents of the whole Church.

We are suffering mightily from these two consequences.

Allow me, a bit of history…

The jurisdictions were created in 1939 as a part of the reunification of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. The new so-called denomination (see previous post!) was called The Methodist Church. It existed until 1968. Jurisdictions simply allowed the new Church to perpetuate the North-South cultural and geographical divide that had developed during the early days of Methodism prior to the schism of 1844 – that had, in fact, existed to some degree even prior to the Revolutionary War.

Prior to the reunification of 1939, the three denominations overlapped each other geographically, primarily in the South and West. The MEC had viewed the southern regions of the country as fair missionary territory and established both black and white congregations in the MECS regions. The MECS overlapped the MEC in missional outreach in the west. The MPC, a much smaller denomination, was sprinkled throughout the country allowing local conferences and congregations far more autonomy regarding issues of social justice. (Indeed, one of the rationales for the reunification was to stop this “ungodly competition for souls” between the three denominations!)

So, first, the establishment of the geographical jurisdictions (Southeastern, South Central, Northeastern, North Central, and Western) mimicked the institutional divisions of the MEC and MECS, along the same basic lines of the pre-Civil War North, South, and western frontier, reinforcing the historical divisions rather than doing the very difficult work of addressing how the new Church might become a force for breaking them down.  This basically meant that unless one was engaged in the work of the general church – general agencies and general conferences – North and South still did not have much to do with each other, aside from having to figure out how to compete for membership or merge as churches of the former denominations now located just blocks from each other (especially in the South.) In my home conference, those difficult mergers were still taking place in the 1970’s and 80’s; some that should have taken place, never did resulting in struggling, dying churches.)

Secondly, the establishment of a segregated Central Jurisdiction consisting only of churches of persons of African descent, is a sinful stain on our history. Some will argue that this was the only way the reunification could happen. But, this argument then begs the question, was the drive for “unity” worth such a compromise? When researching the various motives for the reunification, I dare say, NO!  (I will speak to those motives in a forthcoming blog on what stands behind our various mission statements throughout our history.) 

One of the perceptions that our official histories tend to de-emphasize is that during this era, we remained engaged in missional outreach and the establishment of churches of other ethnicities and races, especially Asian in the west, Hispanic in the west and southwest, Northern European language groups in the north, and Native American in the mid-west and west. Much of this cross-racial and ethnic ministry had begun in the mid to late 1800’s!

These groups were, however, much smaller in population, lighter in skin tone, and had technically speaking, not been legally enslaved, so they were less threatening to the white mega-majority. While they were often victims of economic and cultural enslavement and genocide, sometimes at the hands of Methodists (check out the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado), they could be segregated into “missionary conferences” and racially or ethnically based districts within conferences.

The Central Jurisdiction corralled only persons of African descent within a single, national jurisdiction that overlaid the five geographical jurisdictions, mimicking the cultural and legal racial segregation of the Jim Crow era. Did our ancestors of this era have a choice, given the realities of the day? Of course, they did. And many spoke out against it, including the historic women’s organizations (forerunners of our United Methodist Women) in the MEC and MECS.

Several MEC annual conferences (e.g. the current New York Conference) refused to segregate their African-American churches into the Central Jurisdiction. Others began working toward integration during the existence of the Central Jurisdiction. But, for the most part, the Central Jurisdiction was not dismantled until the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. And the EUB made the dismantling a condition of the merger.

And another related faulty decision…

Another decision of the 1939 reunification was to relocate the election of bishops to the Jurisdictional Conferences. Originally elected, since Asbury’s election in 1784, at the General Conference, bishops were elected as general superintendents on behalf of the whole Church. Since 1939 we have elected bishops from the jurisdiction to serve within the jurisdiction in a region called the “episcopal area” that may or may not include more than one annual conference.

This shifted our form of episcopacy from a general superintendency of the whole Church to something closer to a diocesan form of superintendency. The only locations in the system where bishops serve as a general superintendents is within the Council of Bishops, when they serve as presidents of the general agencies or on boards of trustees of national organizations, or when they serve a special function on behalf of the Council as a representative to a national or global body.

This action limited the voice, scope of leadership, and the authority of our episcopacy in ways unimagined at the time. Throughout the years, I have heard arguments for both greater limitations on the powers and terms of bishops (when folks don’t like how the Council has led) and criticisms that the bishops don’t lead enough! From my analysis, the degree of leadership many have wanted from the whole Council is what bishops are able to offer within their own episcopal areas (assuming the conferences will accept their leadership,) but without a request or direction from the General Conference, as happened at this past 2016 General Conference, the hands of the Council of Bishops are tied. The Council can offer pastoral letters and issue statements all day long, they can voice suggestions and offer plans for change, but they cannot offer assertive leadership as a Council.

So, how have we been so harmed?

As the U.S. has moved into a post-modern, 21st century reality, the jurisdictions have prevented the important cross-fertilization of ideas and building of relationships across self-inflicted and increasingly abstract boundaries.  Those cultural boundaries of a century ago are breaking down far more quickly than we can keep up with. For example, we in the Southeastern Jurisdiction are far from monolithically conservative; and clearly, the Western Jurisdiction contains some conservative churches of its own. We badly hurt each other and the Church – United Methodist and Universal –  when we buy into jurisdictional stereotypes based on extremely limited information about and contact with each other that takes place only at General Conference!

At a time when we could use strong leadership from the Council of Bishops, a group of elected and consecrated leaders who keep before them a picture of the whole Church in all of the places in the world we are called to serve, their expertise is ignored, their hands are tied, and their voices are silenced. One question today is, given that bishops no longer serve across the U.S., could they even speak in a united way about some issues because they think of themselves less often as general superintendents than they do as representatives from their episcopal areas and jurisdictions!

So, it is time to eliminate the jurisdictions and reclaim some historic practices in a new structure – perhaps, but maybe something better than a U.S. central conference – that would allow for the cross-fertilization of relationships and ideas as we deconstruct old and increasingly meaningless boundaries, and provide for the re-establishment of the general superintendency of our bishops.

An Analysis of the “Nashville Statement”: Definitely Fundamentalist – Probably not Evangelical – Certainly not Methodist.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in his podcast of August 30th explained the Nashville Statement as an effort to establish “biblical clarity” in an era of growing confusion about what the Bible says about “God’s design” for human sexuality. He also stated among other comments, that contemporary changes in the culture are “subverting” human beings, blurring their distinction from other creatures. (http://www.albertmohler.com/category/podcast/the-briefing/)

In the preamble, the writers speak twice of the way in which the world seems bent on ruin, and they seek to offer a contrasting “clean, counter-cultural witness.” The ruination of the culture of the world, of Jesus’ “way of life” grounded in their very narrow description of human sexuality is their stake in the ground. The myopic, self-absorbed language here emerges in the first sentence of the third paragraph. “We are persuaded that faithfulness in our generations means declaring once again the true story of the world and of our place in it…” Whose place? Their place. A group of 148 “initial signatories,” the vast majority of whom were white men, Southern Baptist leaders of SBC seminaries, large churches, and the SBC convention. A core group are members of Trump’s Religious Advisory Board. I counted 13 women and 10 men of color on the list.

Let’s take a closer look at this statement and see what is really going on here. If you haven’t read it, you need to in order to follow my comments about the statement. Just google “Nashville Statement” and it and all sorts of commentaries will pop up.

Definitely Fundamentalists, Hardly Evangelicals

The very first statement of this group of self-identified “evangelical Christians” seeks to speak on behalf of, and indeed, define “evangelical” as those who believe what the statement communicates. Let us be clear. The group clearly co-opts the term. This statement functions as an expression of fundamentalist Christianity. Not all Christians are fundamentalists. Not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. But fundamentalism, by definition, assumes that to be Christian, one must be a fundamentalist. My argument is supported by several dynamics that we find in the statement. But first, let’s identify what the Fundamentalist movement was/is and key characteristics of classic Fundamentalism relevant to this statement and my argument.

The Fundamentalist movement began in the late 1800’s and gained strength in the early 20th century as a rejection of modernism– directions in Christianity that utilized practices of Biblical criticism in Bible Study and were often committed to issues of social justice. Historic moments in the Fundamentalist movement include the printing of the pamphlet series, The Fundamentals, (1910-1915) and the Scopes Trial (1925). Interchangeably called “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists,” for several decades, the movement split between evangelicals (e.g. Billy Graham) and fundamentalists ( John R. Rice, Jerry Falwell) in the 1950’s. Fundamentalist beliefs relevant to our discussion today include:

  1. The doctrine of inerrancy and the literal reading of the Bible, especially with regard to scientific evidence countered by their doctrine of Creationism.
  2. Separation of the community from others with whom they disagree on doctrines and practices.

Not all evangelicals hold to these doctrines.

Selective Biblical Proof Texting – of “God’s Design” and “Eunuchs”

First, we find fundamentalist arguments in the language of “God’s design.” This phrase is contemporary fundamentalist lingo for Creationism, a doctrine grounded in a literal, inerrant reading of the first chapters of Genesis. Included in God’s design is, therefore, the creation of human beings as male and female. The authors are quick to point out that Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, but never extend the logic further and note that this would then mean that God is both male and female. They don’t extend the logic, because they can’t – or their whole system starts to fall apart. And of course, God, as Creator and Lord (3rd paragraph), is always referred to as “he”.

Second, a fundamentalist characteristic of the statement is found in Article 6 – the horrific selective, proof-texting and misuse of the Matthew 19.12 passage “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” The authors use it as an acknowledgement by Jesus that persons born with a “physical disorder of sex development” actually exist.  BUT, go back and read the entire 19th chapter. When we do, we find that the reference to eunuchs is Jesus’ conclusion to the discussion on human choice to marry, to divorce, and whether or not one can handle a call to celibacy in the face of the pending near arrival of the Reign of God.

A Wesleyan-Methodist Response:

John Wesley, in his “Address to the Clergy” composed in 1756, asserted that ministers, along with many other gifts, ought to have: “a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness” … “a competent share of the meaning of Scripture” that included knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew, the meaning of the literal words of the Bible, and an ability to engage in what we now call textual criticism:

No less necessary is a knowledge of the Scriptures, which teach us how to teach others; yea, a knowledge of all the Scriptures; seeing scripture interprets scripture; one part fixing the sense of another. So that, whether it be true or not, that every good textuary is a good Divine, it is certain none can be a good Divine who is not a good textuary. None else can be mighty in the Scriptures; able both to instruct and to stop the mouths of gainsayers. …  Should he not likewise be able to deduce the proper corollaries, speculative and practical, from each text; to solve the difficulties which arise, and answer the objections which are or may be raised against it; and to make a suitable application of all to the consciences of his hearers…*

But also expedient to “good textuary” work was a knowledge of “profane history, of ancient customs, of chronology and geography, for (one) that would thoroughly understand the Scriptures… Some knowledge of the sciences also, …

For what is this, if rightly understood, but the art of good sense of apprehending, things clearly, judging truly, and reasoning conclusively. What is it, viewed in another light, but the art of learning and teaching; whether by convincing or persuading. What is there, then, in the whole compass of science, to be desired in comparison of it. (And) some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic, (metaphysics,) (Wesley’s parentheses) (and) … Should not a Minister be acquainted too with at least the general grounds of natural philosophy? Is not this a great help to the accurate understanding several passages of Scripture? Assisted by this, he may himself comprehend, and on proper occasions explain to others, how the invisible things of God are seen from the creation of the world….*

Wesley was a son of the Enlightenment as well as the deeply passionate founder of the Methodist movement. He read and studied the classics and history; he knew the medical sciences to the extent they existed in his day – and wrote about it. He did not do his thinking in an intellectual vacuum. The Enlightenment was the kick off for the modernist era that fundamentalists are so vituperatively against. The anti-historical, anti-scientific, anti-psychological, anti-everything modernist bias in Fundamentalism was not Wesley’s way.

And just as the selective proof-texting method of fundamentalism is exemplified in this statement, I imagine that when it comes to embracing selectively today’s science that does work for them – like the development of pharmaceuticals and medical procedures that work to preserve their biological functioning – they are apt to accept and are probably quite able to pay for them.

Theology – The Nature of God

Another fundamentalist element of the statement is found in the distinct absence of a Trinitarian view of the nature of God. What we find here is, God as Creator and Lord and Jesus as Lord and Savior. But, their interconnectedness is hard to identify. And, more significantly, there is no mention of the existence, presence, and work of the Holy Spirit. The mere existence of the Holy Spirit, much less even a nod to the possibility that the Holy Spirit is God acting in our present life and world, beckoning and moving us closer to God’s self, threatens the main point of the statement – that it is all about what God did during those seven days of creation, between then and just after the Fall, and all that we need and can know about God is in the Bible.

Did the Holy Spirit not exist at creation? If that’s the case did Jesus not exist at creation? If not, when does God become Trinity? Then what do you say about John 1? To acknowledge that the Holy Spirit as a part of who God has always been, might have been present in creation then, and may be at work in the world now, and much less even may be inspiring a new understanding of the Bible, again, breaks down their entire system. This is not only an absence of a key tenet of Christianity; it is idolatry of the Bible. The Bible becomes the only way we can know God, which of course means, “he” who controls the interpretation of the Bible, controls that understanding of Jesus’ “way of life” in the world.

A Wesley-Methodist Response

A belief in the Trinity, “God in Three Persons,” as three in one and one in three, is a non-negotiable tenet of Wesley and Methodism. Period. Not God with three personalities; not God who acts in three different ways; but that paradoxical reality of one in three and three in one since before the beginning of time. I refer you to Sermon 55 of Wesley’s sermons composed in 1775.

Hence, we cannot but infer, that there are ten thousand mistakes which may consist with real religion; with regard to which every candid, considerate man will think and let think. But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.”

The way the statement reads with its absence of the Holy Spirit is akin to the Arianist views that were established as heresy in the late 3rd century and supposedly settled at Nicaea. Simply put, you can’t speak of or ignore one person of God as though it is disconnected from the others and has no bearing on the presence and work of the other two.

Theology – the Nature of the Church

Yet, another fundamentalist thread in the statement is found in the authors’ views of the nature of the Church. In the preamble, there is a tension between wanting to be the “called out, counter-cultural” voice in the world – standing against the “secular spirit of the age” that is the cause of the pending ruination of the world and wanting to be the way of the world. “The secular spirit of our age” is set up as “the greatest challenge” to the Christian church. And when tied together with Article 10 those of us who claim to be Christian and are either allies of or are LBGTQ+ Christians, are not real Christians.

So, there is no indication that the Christian church as the one, holy, apostolic, universal Church exists. The true Christian church exists only where this particular approach to biblical interpretation is upheld. This is a direct expression of the fundamentalist understanding of “first degree separation” – the refusal to associate with groups that believe in doctrines and social mores that are different from their own – and second degree separation – the refusal to associate with groups that do not practice first degree separation.

A Wesleyan-Methodist Response

I refer you to Wesley’s Sermon 74, based on Ephesians 4. 1-6.

Here, then, is a clear unexceptionable answer to that question, “What is the Church” The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world as to entitle them to the preceding character; as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”

15. That part of this great body, of the universal Church, which inhabits any one kingdom or nation, we may properly term a National Church; as, the Church of France, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland. A smaller part of the universal Church are the Christians that inhabit one city or town; as the Church of Ephesus, and the rest of the seven Churches mentioned in the Revelation. Two or three Christian believers united together are a Church in the narrowest sense of the word. Such was the Church in the house of Philemon, and that in the house of Nymphas, mentioned Col. 4:15. A particular Church may, therefore, consist of any number of members, whether two or three, or two or three millions. But still, whether they be larger or smaller, the same idea is to be preserved. They are one body, and have one Spirit, one Lord, one hope, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

Theology – the Nature of Human Relationships

Finally, deeply buried but driven within the need (a) to belabor binary descriptions of male and female throughout the statement, (b) to state what for most of us is the obvious in Article 3 – that as persons, (both but distinctly) male and female (Article 6 notwithstanding), persons are equal before God and equal in dignity and worth, and (c) to communicate subliminally in the statement’s limited use of feminine pronouns for only the Church, we find a “separate but equal” agenda that points to and reinforces views of a radical distinction between gender roles in the household, in the work place, and in the church. Janet Fishburn in her book Confronting the Idolatry of the Family: A New Vision for the Household of God speaks brilliantly about the conflation of this emphasis on “the family pew” and ministry in the church and its negative impact on several decades of families, especially those formed in the 1970’s to the present.

Even the remote possibility that persons with an understanding and/or experience of non-binary sexual orientation and gender identity might reside with acceptance within God’s plan for humanity and the world, screws up the neatly constructed 20th century system of the nuclear family, the concept of which did not even exist until the late stages of the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England (curiously, the same era in which Dispensationalism was first proposed) and was embedded in U.S. culture after World War II. This notion of the nuclear family still does not exist in many other parts of the world!

So not only does the statement reflect an idolatry of the family, it reflects an idolatry of maleness.  If God is “he” and is progenitor of all that is, and Eve was created for Adam, (despite that testy mention of her being created in God’s image as well!) then, of course, straight men are the only human beings with the ability to stand in the pulpit and reflect the image of God outward to other straight men and women.

A Wesleyan-Methodist Response

I wish I had reference to a sermon or address by John Wesley for this one. I don’t.  And the point is not just about whether or not women should be ordained. But the ordination of women is the essential role that breaks through every established radically binary practice of a community that may remain. It is so controversial in many communities because, once again, that stake in the ground begins to splinter away. Do you see how it is all woven together?

What we do have is a long history of continuous improvement regarding the distinguishing roles that women have played both in Wesley’s life and in Methodism. But let’s look at Wesley’s practice. Wesley grew in his understanding of God’s call in the lives of women, giving them the opportunity to lead classes and bands in the earlier years of the movement, and in 1761 actually licensed Sarah Crosby, in 1771 endorsed Mary Bosanquet, and in 1787 Sarah Mallett entered the travelling preaching ministry. After Wesley, Methodists tended to reflect the views of the culture in which they lived. In Methodism’s earliest years and first century in the U.S., women were instrumental in leading class meetings and bands, engendering tract and mission societies, starting Sunday Schools, and funding the Church’s outreach. Gradually, women were granted entry as stewards and lay members of our conferences (the late 1800’s-1918). And, while a few women were given local preaching licenses in the late 1800’s and even ordained, specifically in the Methodist Protestant Church, full clergy rights were finally granted to women only in 1956 in The Methodist Church.

Wesley believed that the calling of God to preach was an “extraordinary call.” As he aged, he both witnessed and affirmed the set apart ministry of women with his words and actions. It just took Methodism a long time to catch up to John Wesley.

SO, for the authors and signers of the statement, the direction toward understanding and affirming the existence of non-binary sexuality as normal for some and the need for gender transition by others is the next step in not only challenging their “way of life”; it challenges their personal, social, and institutional power.  They are the ones, who ironically, held power in U.S. society for decades and want to protect their way of life through the misrepresentation of what the whole Bible says. They are speaking out because they are losing power in the dirty, mainstream culture that they controlled for decades.

So, for Methodists, let’s also be clear. We may have divided views about binary sexual identity. We may be engaged in struggle – both personal and institutional – about the future directions of The United Methodist Church. We may be evangelical, progressive, a member of the muddled middle or just confused. But we are NOT fundamentalists who are staking our entire doctrine on the first three chapters of Genesis. Selah.

*Wesley Works, Thomas Jackson edt. Vol. 10, 1872, 482-483.

United Methodists in the Face of Disaster: My Personal Testimony

I have wept and prayed on behalf of the Houston region as it has suffered through the ravages of Hurricane Harvey. I pray today as south Louisiana prepares for another episode of flooding due to the combination of rising Gulf of Mexico water levels and heavy rains.  I am donating to United Methodist Committee on Relief through my local church, Glenn Memorial UMC. I encourage us all to continue weeping, praying, and giving in support of these who are suffering so badly.

One of the ironies of the timing of Hurricane Harvey is that it arrived the same week as the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew to south Dade County, Florida (August 23, 1991.)  At the time, I was privileged to serve as the urban ministries director for the Miami District, which included both Dade and Monroe counties (from south of Ft. Lauderdale to Key West). Because of this position I was assigned to be the coordinator of the Hurricane Andrew United Methodist disaster response.  A job that in hindsight was a turning point for my life and ministry.

It took me two short years to burn out, but the work continued for at least another five, led by one of the most talented women I have ever known, a former US2 (now called “young adult mission intern”) Lynette Fields, who continues to lead the Church in many amazing ways in the Florida Conference.

Then one year after my appointment as the Director of Connectional Ministries for the conference in 2003, the Florida Conference experienced the crisscrossing of four hurricanes through primarily the central part of our area within a period of three months.

Those of us who have had this experience of either or both living through a disaster and leading the recovery process in conjunction with the incredible support of United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) are immediately keyed in – emotionally and spiritually – to the struggles of other areas. No matter how much healing work one has done, you always remember. However, just because we have been through one or even several disasters, does not make us an authority on all disasters.

Why am I an advocate for support to UMCOR?

Hurricanes Hugo (South Carolina, 1989) and Andrew (South Florida, 1992) were major teaching moments for UMCOR. Prior to these two storms there was no such thing as computerized support for long-term recovery work in disaster. And, if my memory serves me correctly, they were both the largest disasters in scope up until that time. They had to learn quickly about the diversity of our communities, worked with us to develop systems, and engaged in a process of improvement throughout the seven years of recovery in our area. One of the admirable characteristics about UMCOR is that they are always learning from one disaster to the next, how to improve our Church’s response in an affected area.

UMCOR insists that the local region effected by disaster “own” their disaster. They do not sweep in and take over relief and recovery efforts. While they do not “take over” disasters, they are on the ground as soon as they are invited by the conference to come. They assist the local leaders, from the bishop to the local churches, with shaping a response that will remain in a region long after other organizations that sweep in, capture media headlines, and often add insult to injury and damage, are long gone.

UMCOR helps rebuild communities. When United Methodists are involved in relief through UMCOR, we do not discriminate against non-Christians, undocumented persons, persons of color. All are deserving of support. The recovery programs seek to assist those with the least amount of resources – many who will lose their jobs because of the disaster, who have lost their homes and had no insurance, persons who will have to relocate – based on the combination of federal and state aid for which they may or may not be eligible. They work to maximize the best combination of resources available to people in great need.

Trained UMCOR resource leaders help local churches and leaders in disaster areas understand the stresses they are taking on themselves as they play a critical spiritual role in helping their communities rebuild.  The dual roles of survivor and community leader as relief and recovery proceed are paradoxical and tough to hold together. Leaders, lay and clergy alike, have to figure out how to care for themselves and their families.

You can trust the UMCOR policy that when you donate to a specific disaster, 100% of your donation will go to that region. Some will be used for immediate relief, but much will be used for the long-term recovery work of helping people rebuild their lives. Funds donated to the Hurricane Andrew disaster helped sustain that work for seven years, until it was completed. United Methodist recovery work was one of the very last organizations to leave the south Dade region.

What can the Houston region anticipate?

Disasters have been studied and analyzed, and responses to them have been professionalized over the past thirty years.

There are five stages to disaster response: The first is mitigation (attempts to prevent serious damage, death, and harm.) The second is preparation (all that nagging we get about whether or not we have our own emergency preparedness kits at home, local agency work and practice, evacuation procedures in anticipation of the disaster, and conference disaster preparedness training.) Then comes the disaster. Following the disaster there is the immediate stage of rescue – Houston is still in that stage in the flooded regions. Then, overlapping to some degree is the stage of relief – the distribution of ice, water, food, provision of safety, getting utilities back up and running, getting people back in homes or relocated to safe housing. And then comes recovery.

There are two extremely frustrating things about the recovery stage. First, it takes a long time. With Hurricane Andrew, rescue took seven days, relief took over a month, and the recovery took seven years. And second, while folks think of recovery as a return to what they thought of as “normal” prior to the disaster, it is really movement toward a “new normal.” After a family has “lost everything,” they don’t return to the old normal – ever. Another irony that is impossible to imagine given the images we see of disasters, is that often, that new normal can be better than the old. But that is something that must be discovered in the process of recovery; it is not what one preaches this coming Sunday or even in a month or two.

United Methodists in south Dade county, including several thousand volunteers from other parts of the country, left the disaster region better than it had been before Hurricane Andrew hit in terms of both rebuilt, structurally sound houses and rebuilt, recreated, and newly empowered communities of faith, such as the Branches ministry in Florida City (branchesfl.org/) that continues to be led by Kim King Torres, who was hired to staff a part of the disaster recovery ministry, and never left. Branches has become a regular site for young adult mission interns from the General Board of Global Ministries and has been a huge influence on the lives of children in Florida City who were even born when Andrew destroyed the community that was there.

So, I end with the reminder for us all about the Chinese word for “crisis” that combines the two symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” This is not a cliché in disaster.

And I also end with this word of faith and its relationship to hope. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  This is not a cliché either, my friends. On September 1, 1992, I wasn’t feeling very faithful or hopeful. I was totally overwhelmed by and grieving for the scope of the destruction, the role for which I had been tapped, and the day to day struggle to still work without power to my home, with a freezer full of rotten food, and with a child whose school had yet to reopen.

But without the faith of the extended United Methodist connection that sustained us in those early days through UMCOR and the long-term ministry it helped us create, the UMC connection played a huge role in the rebuilding of south Dade County and that is lived out in incredibly positive ways to this day.

That is a word of assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things yet to be seen, in the face of yet another disaster.

If you want to know how UMCOR works, this is a great primer.

Methodism: Leaving the Struggle Behind

So, Why ARENT we a denomination? Let’s define the term. When I teach my UM polity courses at Candler, a denomination is defined as “a religious organization with congregations that:

a) agree on an essential defining set of beliefs and practices,

b) share a single administration and legal hierarchy,

c) hold a membership that is based on voluntary participation,

d) is a national body that identifies with a national culture,

e) has a developed sense of national/international mission.

Based on this definition, we stopped being a denomination when in 1939, the following rules and structures were put into place, and the Church defined its purpose for the reunification of the three parent denominations in a very provocative way.

In 1939 central conferences were given the freedom to contextualize the Book of Discipline, changing significant parts that were either irrelevant or too complex or were in conflict with the

civil laws of the country. Rules about ordination, marriage ceremonies, structures, and conference procedures could all be defined differently. Hence, the end of b). Not only were they given the freedom to make such changes, the reasons for making such changes had everything to do with making changes so that the way Methodism functioned was both relevant and in accordance with local traditions and local law – that is to say, contextualization. Hence, the end of d).

Currently, because of the inability and high costs of translating the Discipline into the 60 plus languages that many United Methodists currently speak, Disciplines are not even available, much less understood by local UM clergy and laity. For example, the most recent Russian language version of the UM Discipline is a Eurasia central conference edition from 2004. The composers of the 1939 Book of Discipline – the first of the new Methodist Church could not anticipate, much less plan ahead for the need for contextualization within the US Methodist Church.

In addition, in 1939, the General Conference allowed central conferences to elect their own bishops, and established its own Committee on Central Conferences that met, once a quadrennium at the General Conference, basically allowing central conferences to function on their own without oversight.

Another reason we stopped being a denomination, was the establishment of the jurisdictions in the United States. The establishment of the geographical and racially segregated jurisdictions both protected the geographical regions from having to create and agree to “an essential defining set of beliefs,”[deterioration of a)] and established regional service by bishops that insured that the north would never be served by a bishop from the south and vice versa [deterioration of b)]. The establishment of the Central Jurisdiction as a racially segregated institutional structure, postponed any potential for the church to be a leading witness in the Civil Rights movement, because we spent our time arguing about whether to eliminate the structure itself at the six general conferences from 1940 to 1964. Thus, we suffered from the ongoing deterioration of a national Methodist identity and a shared sense of culture within the US [d)]. The jurisdictions kept us close, but not so close that we would have to deal with major differences in views especially about issues of justice.

The final point of my argument reason is found in the rationale for the reunification of 1939 itself. Until the mid 1930’s, the MEC and MECS engaged in conversations about reunification, and could not reach agreement on how to make it happen. But by the mid 1930’s times in the US had changed. A new rationale had emerged among US Methodists giving them reason to make major moral compromises and form a new, BIG church. And it is found in the final sentences of the Historical Statement of the 1939 Discipline.

And the sole object of the rules, regulations, and usages of The Methodist Church is that it may fulfill in all places and years its original divine commission as a leader in evangelism, in reforms, and in fraternal relations with all branches of the one Church of

Christ, with which it gladly confesses its partnership in the spiritual conquest of the world. (My italics)

So, the stated, documented purpose of the merger was to become the biggest “denomination” in the US, enabling us to engage in partnerships, facilitated by the imperialistic coat tails of the growing cultural hegemony of the US in other parts of the world and become spiritual conquistadores of the modern era. This was the 20th century version of the colonialist mission society of the 19th century, seeking to not only convert and save souls but to also become a means of exporting US political and cultural values. With this kind of international expansion as our motivation for existence, the Methodist Church was no longer a denomination.

So, this analysis begs the question, then what are we? Should we be a loose confederation of national denominations? Can we be more of a Communion, along the lines of the Anglican-Episcopalians? Does the Pan-Methodist Commission help with an image for gathering at the same table? The NCC or WCC?

Quite frankly, I believe we can we come up with some sort of creative hybrid that suits the complexity of the 21st century world. I really do think we can. But, we have to pay attention to the potential for unintended consequences of our decisions. And we have to keep praying for and listening to the Commission on a Way Forward reports and praying for the 2019 and 2020 General Conferences. They are going to be doozies!

Methodism: The Denomination Struggle is Real

Pre-imminent American Methodist historian, Dr. Russell E. Richey, concludes a somewhat obscure article, in an overlooked volume of a series on Ecclesiology with the question, “Is a church with a third of its membership outside North America a denomination? Does it consider itself one? What is it?” This question was also raised at the Colloquy sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in March, 2017, raised by another venerable retired Methodist theologian, Dr. Charles M. Wood.

So, the question gets raised, but nobody answers the question. Here we go. NO, The United Methodist Church is not a denomination. And it has not been since the reunification of 1939. Quit calling it one.

When three predecessor Methodist denominations reunified to become a very large church – “the Methodist Church” – in 1939, we stopped being a denomination. In 1939 the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church reunified after major splits prior to the Civil War to become the largest protestant Church in the US. It was not the reunification itself that shifted our organization and identity toward something else. It was the purpose for the reunification and new rules that were created at the time that caused the change from being a trio of related denominations to becoming an international Church. The problem is, at the time, we kept defining ourselves and functioning as though we were a denomination.

On the surface, this question may sound incredibly mundane and even irrelevant. It is far from either. This question has a huge bearing on three HUGE intertwined, current struggles in The United Methodist Church. And the struggle is real.

Struggle #1: The first is the struggle to figure out whether – or not – we are (or I would argue, a “world-wide church”. This is, of course, the trajectory of a huge amount of work taking place in the UMC. There is an embedded assumption that, indeed, this must be a good thing, because of course, bigger is always better; and it is, of course, an expression of our ongoing success as descendants faithful to Wesley’s mandate to save souls and develop strong disciples who seek holiness and engage in practices that have an impact on the injustices of society. But, why have we never even questioned the assumption that this truly is the most faithful structural, institutional direction the UMC can take? I would argue as a Polity specialist, that the most vexing part of trying to figure out how to do this is our ongoing attempts to transplant a denominational identity onto international settings of Methodism.

Struggle #2: The second is the theological struggle coined as “our different understandings of the authority of Scripture.” I would argue that it also has as much to do with how we choose to relate to new knowledge offered by ongoing discoveries in the Sciences. Wesley himself, in his, ‘An Address to the Clergy” advocated strongly that his preachers could not interpret Scripture effectively without knowledge of the original Greek and Hebrew, of “profane history,” the second part of logic which he called “metaphysics, “the “Sciences” and “natural philosophy.”

Our ability – or inability – to hold Scripture and the natural and social sciences in a creative informative tension results in strained arguments about the significance and use of the Quadrilateral and an unwillingness by some Methodists to come to terms with the essential importance of contextualization of the Gospel. We have descend into processes of knee-jerk, selective literalism to defend some positions and then graciously turn to historical and textual criticism, when it conveniently supports others.

The truth is we have no consensus on what “the authority of Scripture” means, much less, on how we apply it to the issues to which we are the most committed. Why? Because the US Methodist Church denied the reality of the decline of Christendom in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, and we held on to the assumption, that as a denomination our Book of Discipline could manage a tacit consensus among a huge group of very, very different United Methodists, even as we were moving toward a merger with yet another stream of similar but also, very different Methodism – the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Struggle #3: The third, and the most visible and contentious presenting issue is the highly conflictive debate about homosexuality. The issue on to which most of us have hooked our proverbial wagons – all aimed in different directions – is critically important – but it is NOT the main issue. We are, quite frankly, arguing about sex, when the issues behind that argument are deeply institutional and political. So, if we don’t figure out what we are and how we can function as siblings in Christ in an institutional framework that makes sense for the 21st century, then just be on the lookout for the next issue that is going to come along that will tear us apart again.

So the struggle is real. We are on the struggle bus. What do we do about it? How can we stay Methodists if we were never really a denomination to begin with? Tomorrow I answer those questions and illume a way forward.

Reacting to Charlottesville: What Would John Wesley Do?

The Power and Accountability of our Baptismal Vows:

First Steps Toward Learning to Resist Evil, Injustice, and Oppression

While I did not have to preach on Sunday, August 14th, I did follow those of you who are former students and colleagues as you struggled with making changes to your sermons when the lectionary text – the story of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water – or your sermon series had to be interrupted because the message just wasn’t going to work. Bishops issued challenging statements and offered solace to clergy and members of their conferences; Bishop Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, issued a strong and compelling statement on behalf of the council to the whole church.  The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society issued a strong letter calling on the attorney general and fellow United Methodist, Jeff Sessions to honor his baptismal vows and use his office to address issues of racial equity and injustice. The General Commission on Religion and Race issued an eloquent statement that identified the deeper issues of hatred and bigotry that are buried within the protests against the removal of the monuments.

And throughout this past week, the sermon postings, and facebook messages continued the conversation.   

We were reminded of our Social Principles and its definition of racism [¶162. A)] as references upon which your clarion calls for United Methodists were based. The words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were quoted. But our baptismal vows were raised over and over again as the basis for United Methodist response.

  • Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin? 
  • Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? 

The most compelling thing about the use of our Baptismal vows in this set of circumstances is that when we were baptized or when we renew our baptismal vows, we answer this question before we claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior! This commitment comes before we stake our claim on Jesus! This is not a commitment that grows out of a long journey of discipleship that seeks perfection in love.  This commitment to repent and resist is a response to God’s prevenient grace and our awareness and acceptance of his justifying grace in our lives.

So we are called to resistance – whether we think we are ready or not! Our commitment to Jesus Christ is dependent on it – our commitment to Jesus Christ requires it, prior to publically making the claim that Jesus is Savior and Lord.

So, of course we were all called by our United Methodist leaders and pastors to resist – to speak out and stand up against the evil, injustice, and oppression we witnessed in the messages of the white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and KKK members who marched.

Many United Methodists did stand and protest against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. United Methodist clergy wore vestments and stood along the curbs; at least one church was ground zero for medical care. I am sure that others were involved that I don’t know about. I am very thankful to you and grateful to God for your witness and ongoing testimony.

Many Methodists, clergy and lay in Boston, just this past weekend showed up and marched – several thousand more than the several hundred participants in the “freedom of speech” rally.

Marching is one form of standing up, of showing up – to resist, to speak truth to power, to let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.” And no, I am not taking Matthew 5.37 out of context, for when we march we are doing the opposite of swearing falsely. We are proclaiming with both body and voice what we believe about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is important to know that Methodists have engaged in outspoken protest off and on for two hundred years in the US. US Methodists led abolitionist rallies in the North prior to the Civil War. Methodists led and marched in the temperance rallies and marches (the original purpose of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN, for example).  Methodists marched in the women’s suffrage marches and in the labor marches of the early 1900’s. Methodist clergy families in the south had crosses burned on their lawns for speaking up and for standing up during Civil Rights movement. Many marched in the anti-death penalty marches of the 1970’s. And many Methodists have been involved in contemporary marches and rallies regarding LGBTQ, immigration, and women’s concerns.

Rallies and marches are not new to Methodism. And there will be more times when some of us are called to the streets to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no”.

And I am one who has been compelled to march on occasion.  But, I will also be the first to say that marching is something I do as much for me, whether it be catharsis or self-expression, as it is for standing up with others, with one united voice, in resistance or in support of something.

I encourage you to prayerfully consider whether you might be called to stand up and show up in this way. Be sure that you have prayed and studied our Social Principles about non-violence and civil disobedience, and know your limits.  But resistance involves far more than taking off a day or a weekend to engage in public proclamation.

And some of us are not called to marching, and some of us can’t march or go to rallies.

While I surely endorse participating in marches, we as Methodists don’t get off that easily.

I have a very Methodist suggestion for next steps, especially if you have not ever sensed before that your journey of faithful discipleship has involved resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression. What I offer here is a simple Wesleyan process of discernment about how to become involved. And I encourage you to do this with a small group of others – a prayer group, a covenant group, yes, a lot like a Wesleyan class meeting.

Using Wesley’s “General Rules” (¶104 BOD) – do no harm; do good; and practice the means of grace – begin a process of serious introspection about the ways in which you do harm, do good, and be able to be sustained through the means of grace as you address your own internal issues and opportunities for transforming the world by standing up against racism, bigotry, and privilege*.

Why the “General Rules”? These were Wesley’s guides for people joined together in class meetings who were earnestly pursuing their salvation. They could not yet answer that next question about Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord with a full, earnest, and joyful heart. They were mostly seeking assurance of their salvation while they were engaged in the class meetings. These were not yet, well-practiced, deeply faithful, sanctified and perfected Christians. They needed a guiding form to their practice of prayerful introspection.

“Do no harm.” Ask each other, “How have I done harm by not resisting evil, injustice, and oppression?” “When have I done harm by ignoring or overlooking a situation in which bigotry, injustice, or oppression was experienced?” “How have I done harm by not even realizing what I was seeing?” “When have I done harm by writing off the meaning of privilege* in our society?” “How have I hurt another as I misused or ignored my own power – either unintentionally or even on purpose – when engaging with or being in relationship with others?”

“Why does ‘this form’ of evil, injustice, and oppression call out to me for action when ‘that other one’ does not?” “What gets triggered in my soul when this kind of issue breaks open in our society?” 

“Do good.” Ask each other: “How and where do I start to “do good?” “How do I learn to see and respond to the everyday, but no less important experiences of racist and bigoted (sometimes conscious, sometimes clueless) encounters that take place every day?” “How may I become intentional about initiating thoughtful and respectful engagement with others who are different from me?” “What do I need to become more centered, more courageous, more open to listening to the different journeys of others and holding others accountable for their behavior?” And then begin to do them.

“Practice the Means of Grace.” Ask each other: “Do we take seriously the Prayer of Confession in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper?” If you are a pastor, ask yourself, “How do I shortchange my congregation when I eliminate the Prayer of Confession from the liturgy?” Question what does the Open Table really stand for in our church? How often do we offer a renewal of our Baptismal vows? How often might we fast and pray as we reflect on these issues? When can my congregation begin conversations and share public worship with congregations? Where do we find guidance for deep searching of the Scriptures and Bible Study on these matters?

The General Rules provide a basis for strengthening the vitality of our piety through a social (communal) commitment to holiness, so that we can be wholly, fully present, and prepared to stand up against evil, injustice, and oppression in our every-day lives, in our communities, and in the world. This is NOT too grandiose a statement for United Methodists. Through the freedom and power that Jesus Christ gives us, we are called, unabashedly to resist. So now, it is time, as the Church, to do it.

BN: The Southern Poverty Law Center has a great space on their website for identifying how we can stand up and against bigotry in our day to day encounters with others. Go here:


* Brene Brown in her “Fb live” presentation of August 14th (10:50am) defines privilege succinctly as “unearned rights” that are accrued to persons because of particular characteristics. Used in this conversation, it has nothing to do with how hard a person has had to work – or not – to achieve success or meet one’s goals in life.

Reading Between the Lines: Commission on a Way Forward and Why I am Hopeful.

The United Methodist Church is engaged in a two and a half year process of discernment about what we are called to be and how we are called to witness to the love of Jesus Christ as a 21st century Church. Accelerating toward both the 2019 and 2020 general conferences, many views are going to find their way into the public sphere. As a practitioner, researcher, and professor of United Methodist Polity, it is time to ad my voice to the “multilogue” about the future of the UMC. Because I believe that the seeds of what we are now reaping were planted deeply in Methodist soil decades, even a century and a half ago, my views are rooted in historic decisions and assumptions that need to be heard and understood. But I am also a sociologist and ethicist by training, and so, some of what I will share will reflect directly on current events.

I happen to be one who deeply appreciates the care and seriousness with which the Commission on a Way Forward is doing its work. Formed by the Council of Bishops its most recent report demonstrates how it has embraced its mandate to seek a way forward out of the impasse that has plagued The United Methodist Church over issues related to homosexuality and our consequent questions that emerged about unity and the possibility of schism.


Why does the Commission on the Way Forward Matter?

It matters because in the past, “schism” has resulted not just from deeply held differences about major compelling issues, but because the leaders of denomination(s) did not have the innate skills or structure to even imagine the idea of a Commission. The schism of 1828-1830 the split the Methodist Protestant Church from the Methodist Episcopal Church resulted from the expulsion of dissident leaders and the enactment of legislation that basically no clergy could “spread dissension” among the body. The 1844 schism that resulted in the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the remaining Methodist Episcopal Church, came at the end of a six week long general conference that not only ended with the Bishop Andrew could own slaves and remain a bishop, but began with an appeal of a Maryland clergyman who would not free his slaves in a state where manumission was legal.

That the General Conference of 2016 even had the spiritual, emotional, and legislative where-with-all to ask the Council of Bishops to propose a means by which we could try and navigate a way forward, was in my mind, a God-inspired step toward resolution of our impasse.

Do I wish the Commission would “hurry up”? Sure. Do I wish they could share more information? Sure. Do I wish I could be an observer to their closed meetings? Sure. But do I trust them to carry out their mission and present the UMC with a workable way forward for most of us? ABSOLUTELY!

The Commission defined its mission to “bring together persons deeply committed to the future(s) of The United Methodist Church (UMC), with an openness to developing new relationships with each other and exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions.” 

Its stated vision is to “design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.”

I strongly encourage everyone to go to the following webpage to access the Commission’s latest report following their fourth of nine meetings, released on July 26, 2017: See the report here .

Let’s look closer.

My first impression is that they have clearly embraced the importance of contextualization.

Check out the stated “Goals for the Final Report.” While already a part of its vision statement, the goals statement uses phrases that have never been applied to Methodism in the past: “dynamic, flexible, and contextual connection,” “separate and common ministry,” “enable(ing) people with contradictory convictions to flourish,” “multiple versions of the Book of Discipline,” and “global connection in loosely configured structure.” 

After almost eight decades of ever-evolving, increasingly strangling structures and procedures reached through contentious debate in the general conferences of both the UMC and its predecessor, the Methodist Church (MC), this is a welcome and refreshing picture.  So also, pay attention to how these goals are framed. First, we find a statement of what must be the basis for unity: shared “values of unity and mission” and a “common theological center.” And then, the goals that focus on establishing a means for enabling contextualization are framed by two additional cryptic goals. The first is “a new church that doesn’t look like the current church.” Holy cow! A new way of being church in the 21st century! I hope we are so brave. Then, at the end, is the zinger, “allowance for those who don’t adopt the new structure.” Could it be that we find a gracious way of helping folks exit who can’t get on board with the new plan?

What is so hopeful about this?

As a practitioner and professor, which means I am both a lover and hater of UM polity my observation has been that our procedures and structures became the key tools for competing groups to attempt to wrest control of the mission and vision of the Church from those who had won control in the previous conference. Our system for changing the rules through the General Conference became more and more dysfunctional the larger, more complex, and more diverse the MC and UMC became.

This means that procedures and structures reinforced our divisions because we had in some way to strive for unanimity among everyone from all parts of the international church. The 2016 General Conference finally, finally held the mirror up to the Church and as painful as it was, helped us to see that we simply could not go on, the way we have always gone on before.

What is implied in these goals is the development of processes and structure that allow for decision-making about issues that we have normally reserved for the general conference to take place at more local levels.

This is the principle of subsidiarity applied to our polity. This kind of de-centralization would make room for what the Commission calls “differences in practices and non-essentials for the sake of contextual mission” and it is a radical shift from “the way we have always done it before.”

A second point that gives me hope is that through the Colloquy, in which I was a participant, members of the commission have truly listened to what we participants researched and shared.

For anyone who is interested, these papers will be made public toward the end of the year. But, one of the things that the Colloquy offered was a removal of the snapshot lens with which we were all focusing on the issue of human sexuality and place it in within the Ken Burn’s like mini-series of the complicated divisions and mergers of Methodism and the secular realities – that is to say, the contextual realities  that prompted them. I would like to offer a “thanks for listening” to the Commission for that.

A third point that gives me hope is that woven throughout is the implication that there is a difference between schism and grace-full, orchestrated and well-organized distancing. The game is no longer “all or nothing” is it “both-and.”

The truth is, we all need breathing room. No one has to threaten leaving anymore, because the plan will open the door for you to go. I’m at peace with that now more than ever before.