In the previous post I started to trace the history of our UMC conflict going back to roughly 1972. I concluded that, especially at General Conference, we can see an evolution of tactics from progressive leaders who are trying to elevate their minority view of sex/marriage over the much larger traditional majority of the church. Last time I touched on the initial “Disruption” phase of that strategy. Now we continue with the second phase.
Phase Two: Division (2008 – 2019)
Although liberal leaders have continued to employ disruption in the church, by 2008 progressive activists added a new primary weapon to their arsenal. If they’d learned that spitting and shouting at people wasn’t going to change any minds, then now they would try to force deep structural change on the denomination. How do you do that when you simply don’t have the numbers or the support? You break your opposition apart into more manageable sizes. That’s why, at the General Conference in Fort Worth, their specific goal was to find a way to splinter the UMC into different regions.
That year, 32 constitutional amendments were proposed to allow each geographic area of the church to come up with its own version of beliefs. They called it a local option, claiming it was a way for everyone to live and let live. One progressive leader infamously described it to an African delegate this way: “Your culture approves of polygamy, but the UMC currently won’t allow it. If you pass these amendments, you can have all the wives you want.” Not only was she being incredibly demeaning, but what she really hoped was that disenfranchising African delegates would finally pave the way for gay marriage in the United States. I’m not sure how this can be considered a “progressive” attitude – isolating other people…reducing the influence of our global brothers/sisters…eliminating diversity through regional silos. It’s not very “open minds, open hearts, open doors,” is it? But it was, and is, the win-at-all-costs attitude of our liberal American church leaders. Not so much “live and let live” as “divide and conquer.”
If that wasn’t immoral enough already, there was another critical element to the progressive pitch: each separate region would decide its own beliefs, but the whole denomination would still share all funding. In other words, the rapidly-shrinking liberal portions of the American church would still get propped up by traditionalists’ money, but they wouldn’t have to bother with any accountability from these same traditionalists. They’d get to do whatever they want, including their ongoing commitment to obliterate our traditional beliefs, and expect us to pay them to do it. It’s almost comical that this is the approach of the same folk who often cry out slogans like, “Build bridges, not walls!” They were (and still are) actively trying to construct barriers between American conservatives and global Methodists just to try to gain control. And, just like in the image above, their walls make sure to leave gaps wide enough for us to still hand over our tithes and offerings.
You’d think progressive leaders would have the self-awareness to recognize the blatant toxicity baked into their own plan. Unfortunately, no. They worked feverishly to try to pass these amendments before most delegates realized the implications, and a few were actually approved by General Conference. Thankfully, however, constitutional changes must also be ratified by Annual Conferences. And, once people discovered the ulterior progressive motives behind the amendments, Methodists around the world soundly defeated them.
In Tampa Bay in 2012, the same theme continued. This time, liberal Bishops even added a strange new wrinkle: lobbying the UMC to create a special “set-aside” Bishop. They claimed it would be some kind of super-bishop with authority to keep rogue bishops in line and to hold the denomination together. But, to wise ears, it sounded an awful lot like establishing a Methodist “Pope” with unchecked power. Why on earth would progressive leaders, of all people, be interested in transforming us into some kind of church monarchy? Because the special Bishop would reflect the overwhelmingly progressive Bishops as a whole, and this new UMC Emperor could influence the denomination according to their liberal agenda.
Once again, thank the Lord, conservative delegates discerned what was afoot and the plan went nowhere. But this portion of the conflict proved that progressive leaders were even willing to alter the fundamental nature of the UMC to get what they wanted. Traditionalist leaders at that time began to encourage progressives that they might just be better off finding a denomination of their own. There were initial murmurings that conservative leaders were willing to make an easy pathway for progressive pastors/congregations to exit the UMC in order to start something new. After all, if none of us was changing the other’s mind, and if liberal Methodist leaders were just looking for a chance to be free to let their flag fly, why shouldn’t they take the chance to get out from under the yoke of traditional Christian teaching?
There are lots of reasons why I believe progressive Bishops and pastors didn’t, and still don’t, choose to start something of their own. That’s probably a long post for another day. But, in the meantime, progressive leaders decided instead to double down on Disruption and Division, which came even further into focus starting in 2016.
At the 2016 General Conference in Portland, both progressives and conservatives seemed to arrive with a sense of urgency. Liberal leadership was sounding the alarm bell that this might be their last chance to change the course of the UMC. Conservative leadership was looking for ways to tighten accountability because, since GC 2012, progressives had spent another four years blatantly breaking our covenant. This time, things got contentious even before the Conference really got going. See, every GC is planned and prepared by a small group of leaders called the Commission on the General Conference (remember them, they come into the story again later). This Commission is another group that’s notorious for being more progressive than not. And, in Portland, the Commission proposed something called Rule 44. This rule would’ve taken the unprecedented step of dividing the whole body of delegates into very small groups for “conversations” about legislation. Then the conclusions from these small groups would be mishmashed into legislation by a Facilitation Group of only six people.
The glaring bias was that the Commission (left-leaning) would’ve had a great deal of influence over the makeup/leadership of each small group (thus also left-leaning). And then the Council of Bishops (uber-left-leaning) would’ve picked the six Facilitators (thus also uber-left-leaning) to shape the whole process. Unsurprisingly, conservative delegates smelled a rat. Rule 44 appeared to be an obvious ploy (1) to waste several critical days on a convoluted process, and/or (2) to elevate the minority’s power over the larger group. It was a sign that progressive leaders already knew that they didn’t have enough support to pass legislation through a fair process.
Thank goodness Rule 44 was ultimately defeated. But it went on the record as yet another deceitful progressive attempt at gate-keeping and game-playing.
Faithfulness by Committee
With Rule 44 out of the way, the first week of GC began properly with the handling of petitions by Legislative Committees. Historically, this is when progressives see some small signs of hope during a General Conference. After all, left-leaning delegates always intentionally flood the Committees that deal with social issues in hopes of advancing liberal views. The effect, for years, was that progressive petitions, like those in support of same-sex marriage, could sometimes be approved by a one-sided Committee. Granted, these petitions never went anywhere after that, since the larger body of delegates always shot them down. But the first week of GC tended to provide a slight morale boost for progressives.
In Portland, however, the work of the Committees brought them absolutely zero positive outlook. In every Committee, progressive proposals were completely squashed at every turn. Traditionalists were sharp and articulate. Liberal petitions weren’t going to see the light of day. And guess which group was most skillful at ferreting out and disarming the political schemes and doublespeak of liberal leaders? Global delegates, mostly from Africa.
It was beautiful – it was powerful – to watch. Plenty of these delegates had never before set foot in the United States or attended General Conference. For many, English was a second (or third or fourth) language. Some had to rely on live translation spoken through their headsets in order to participate. Yet still, these delegates saw right through every political deception and obliterated any scheme to alter our doctrine of sex/marriage. Multiple international delegates said to me something like this: “Your ancestors sent the Gospel of Jesus to our land, so that our people could hear it for the first time. Now God brings us here to your land with the same Gospel, so that some of you can remember it again.” They were right. For the last few hundred years, Methodist missionaries went faithfully to places like Africa and Eastern Europe and the Philippines. They gave their lives to share the faith. Plenty of them never got to see that the Lord would provide such a bountiful harvest of disciples. And I bet none of them foresaw that God would one day use these same disciples to preserve the soul of the United Methodist Church. It was glorious to watch.
And it looked like GC 2016 was headed toward a conservative slam dunk. I hoped that steps would finally be taken to deter liberal covenant-breaking. Maybe General Conference could lead a massive renewal in our broken Methodist seminaries? Perhaps the bloated and partisan General Boards and Agencies could be re-envisioned. The harmful behavior of our Bishops and other leaders might face actual accountability. Could this be the beginning of a much-needed renovation, to revive our institutional bureaucracy into a Spiritual movement again? The possibilities were wide open as we turned toward the second week of Conferencing, when the whole body of delegates would begin to vote on decisive action.
But that’s when the ship unexpectedly hit the sand. At full speed.
Secret Meetings, Unholy Outcomes
Apparently, at the end of that first week of GC, progressive leaders saw their predicament and went into a full panic to prevent a worst-case scenario. A word began to be whispered far and wide that liberal leaders were calling for an off-the-books negotiation session – they were ready to admit that a church split was upon us, and it was finally time to talk about how to do it. The clandestine conversation allegedly involved a handful of Bishops, Adam Hamilton (progressive “celebrity-pastor”), and conservative leaders like Rob Renfroe (Texas megachurch pastor). They supposedly reached a simple agreement: since neither side is willing to budge on sex/marriage, let’s make a way for conservatives and liberals to part ways in peace. The stipulation was that conservatives would postpone any action in Portland related to human sexuality. There would be no tightening of accountability but only because, per this mutual compromise, we would all let each other go in peace.
And that’s exactly what shaped the outcome of General Conference in 2016. A portion of Traditional delegates joined progressives in voting to ignore the conservative work of the Legislative Committees. They approved an end to any discussion of sexuality-related topics, and progressives called for our Bishops to lead us toward resolving the denominational divide. The result was creating a “Commission on a Way Forward” meant to study our UMC options for a church split, while calling for a special session of General Conference to be held in 2019. This special GC would allow for some initial decision-making so that the next regularly-scheduled GC in 2020 could then finalize things.
Some of that sounded good in theory, but many of us still thought that this small group of conservative leaders – those who had participated in the closed-door deal-making – had chosen really poorly. They were putting a lot of trust in progressive leaders to act with honor, something that was noticeably absent during the previous several decades of church conflict. They were undermining the good work of the 2016 General Conference, both the time and cost already invested in it. And they were squandering the immediate chance for traditionalist Methodists to steer the denomination more firmly in the direction of the bulk of its faithful lay people.
To their credit, I imagine some of these church leaders, like me, were already tired of the recurring headlines – that some pastor in some UMC across the country had said or done something ridiculous (with no repercussions). I’m sure they were burnt out on financially sustaining some of the more broken wings of the denomination. I’m sure they were weary of having the same old arguments, and fighting the same old fight, while progressive leaders gradually eroded the denomination out from under all of us.
Unfortunately, their impatience was a tool in the hands of dishonest liberal leadership. Since then, sadly enough, we’ve learned even more about how naive it was to think that progressive activists would be faithful to their promises.
Fool Me Twice…
After all, as soon as everyone left Portland, progressive leaders wasted no time demonstrating their total lack of integrity. Less than two months later, in July, we saw probably their most egregious and blatantly harmful move yet: the Western Jurisdiction went out of its way to elect Karen Oliveto, an openly-partnered lesbian, as a Bishop. Most people didn’t know how it was possible given our official doctrine. The UMC Judicial Council agreed that it was a violation of church law. But the Western Jurisdiction disregarded the ruling, and ultimately no one seemed to know what could be done about it. After all, when an entire Jurisdiction drinks the same kool-aid, apparently the UMC has almost no accountability from region to region. The Council of Bishops was glaringly silent (or even appeared supportive of the Western Jurisdiction’s action), and for many Methodists this was the beginning of a full-blown de facto split in our church.
After that, our Bishops also quickly injected their left-leaning bias into the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF). Of its 32 members, eight of those chosen were Bishops themselves, 13 were clergy, and 11 were lay people – its makeup was the exact opposite of fair representation. At a quick glance, the group also leaned about 85% progressive and 15% traditional. The Commission knew that there were three options in front of them: a traditional path, a progressive path, and a hybrid model. But they initially didn’t even bother fleshing out a traditional plan. From the start, the group threw all of its influence – including a full-blown marketing campaign – behind the progressive option. This option was ironically labeled the “One Church Plan” even though, at its core, it was just another version of the previous liberal scheme to splinter the church into regions in order to disenfranchise global Methodists and isolate American conservatives. So, the Commission was yet another sample of biased partisanship.
In response to these developments, traditionalist leaders took the step of starting an organization designed to provide support, information, and guidance to conservative Methodists around the world: the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). It began to envision a future Methodist Church that, once the dust of separation settled, could continue upholding a traditional view of sex/marriage but otherwise function a lot like the UMC always has. I’m sure I’ll talk more about the WCA in a future post. But, in the meantime, all of these ingredients became the backdrop for the special session of General Conference: liberal leaders playing the same old games of distraction and division; and conservative leaders beginning to notice that something had to give, sooner than later.
When the 2019 GC gathered in St. Louis, progressive leaders attempted in every possible way to ram the One Church Plan through. They were repeatedly thwarted and, thankfully, the Traditional Plan was the only one with significant enough support to be narrowly adopted. This plan provided some meager increase in accountability, as well as some new processes for churches to depart from the UMC, but because of the short window of the conference and liberal delay tactics, little else was accomplished. Traditionalist Methodists walked away only semi-satisfied with the result. But progressive leaders immediately lamented and ridiculed the outcome. It was the height of melodrama. Even though absolutely nothing changed in our long-standing church doctrine, and it still aligned with a great majority of Methodists, progressive propaganda painted the results in St. Louis like the UMC was beginning some new dark chapter of fundamentalism.
The purpose was to call for progressive Bishops and clergy to step up their activism, and that’s exactly what they did.
In the ensuing months, several groups formed with the intent to ratchet up their efforts at leveraging progressive position and power to sway the denomination. One of these, called UMCNext, emerged with the most traction. Based in part out of Adam Hamilton’s Methodist megachurch in Kansas, it employed professional political consultants, widespread training events, communications coaching, and more, to quickly build out a network of progressive clergy in every Annual Conference. The goal was simple: to consolidate behind the most progressive candidates so that the delegates to the 2020 General Conference might be as liberal as possible.
In a flurry of activity, teams of progressive leaders met to pre-select their nominees. They made extensive deals behind closed doors, including wide-ranging promises to various caucus groups, in order to form a voting bloc. And, ultimately, when most Annual Conferences met, the delegates were elected in precisely their preferred order. It occurred even here in South Carolina, as I’ve described elsewhere. Afterwards, progressives celebrated with pre-planned press releases claiming that “a glorious new movement of the Holy Spirit was happening in the UMC.” But to anyone who knew anything at all, it was painfully clear that this was really the political work of pastors and other leaders who were going all-in on the partisan kool-aid. If it was a movement, then to me it was a lot more like the bowel kind – completely manmade and full of…well…you know. I don’t mean to insult or demean my good friends and colleagues who were/are involved with UMCNext (truly!), and I know that each one has their own well-intentioned reasons for taking the stands that they do. But it was insulting to hear the canned talking-points which vainly glorified what was a simple matter of human political machinations. And, more importantly, they were choosing a harmful disregard for the well-thought and sincerely-held beliefs of a large bulk of South Carolina’s lay people.
Thank the Lord, this political effort appeared to fall just short. After doing the overall math, we realized that traditional-minded Methodists still held a majority of delegates to the 2020 General Conference. Margins were slim, and a lot would rest on being sure that every single conservative was present and accounted for at the next gathering in Minneapolis. But with the changing growth patterns in the UMC, no amount of plotting and planning would ever get progressives this close to a majority again. The progressive goal of division would never be fulfilled, and it was high time for both sides to recognize they should do what the “Commission On A Way Forward” (and the secret Portland meeting) originally intended – make a way for Methodists to go their separate ways without inflicting any more harm on each other.
But, little did we yet know as we headed toward 2020 that new circumstances were going to revive the liberal push for division while also ushering in the third and final (and current) stage of our church conflict: Demolition.