Steps to Unity?


By Roger Ross
It’s a wicked problem. For nearly five decades, the United Methodist Church in the U.S. has been in decline. At the same time, the Church has been entrenched in ongoing, divisive battles over issues of human sexuality. The combination of these two long-running dilemmas has created a deep sense that we are stuck in a downward spiral. Out of desperation, the General Conference body voted on May 17 to request the Council of Bishops to propose a new way forward.

On Wednesday morning, May 18, the President of the Council of Bishops, Bruce Ough, brought a non-binding proposal to the body for consideration. The proposal’s major concern was the unity of the church. Unity is a key theme in Scripture and crucial for the life and health of any faith community. Perhaps that’s why it was the focus of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17.

The proposal suggests four steps: 1) pray for unity and discernment for our future, 2) defer all votes on human sexuality at the 2016 General Conference, 3) refer the entire subject of human sexuality to a special Commission named by the Council of Bishops, and 4) charge the Commission to prepare a recommendation for unity that could be brought before a two-to-three day called session of General Conference before the 2020 General Conference.
After a partial version of the proposal was voted down, the entire document was placed before the body, and it passed 428 to 405. The full version of the Bishops’ proposal can be found here.

Here are some positives of the proposal:

  • The new approach has the potential to break the increasingly entrenched and painful stalemate in our Church by giving us new options to consider.
  • If a called General Conference occurs in 2018 or 2019, we can put a laser-like focus on this one issue of unity in the church and not be distracted by loads of other legislation.
  • The current stances in our Book of Discipline remain the same, and the delegates do not have to vote on highly contentious issues of human sexuality for the remainder of the 2016 Conference. Setting aside these issues may result in fewer pain-filled demonstrations.
Here are some potential negatives:
  • There are virtually no specifics about the special Commission, other than it will be named by the Council of Bishops. We don’t know how many people will be on it, how they will be selected, who will lead the meetings, what will be their “clear objectives and outcomes,” what their specific timeline is to complete their undefined objective, how much it will cost, or how it will be paid for, to name a few.
  • There is no specific timeline for a called General Conference. The document first mentions “2018 or 2019,” but later says, “Should they (the Commission) complete their work in time for a called General Conference, then we (the Council of Bishops) will call a two-to-three day gathering before the 2020 General Conference.” The document does not address who will serve as delegates to this possible called General Conference, where it will be held, or how the expense will be covered. Even a two-day conference with 864 delegates from around the world will cost millions of dollars. To give some perspective, our aging and shrinking U.S. church means the delegates will be asked on Thursday to approve a General Church budget for the next four years that is lower than the budget approved in 2012. The 2012 budget was lower than the one approved in 2008.
For such an ill-defined group and process, the scope of their task is enormous. They are “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.” Wow. If approved by a General Conference, the work of this non-elected Commission will shape the Church for generations to come.

In over 30 years as a pastor in this great Church, I have never seen any United Methodist body write such a BIG blank check for an initiative with so few details and no track record of success. After all, we’re Methodists. We got that name for a reason. I’ve seen more details outlined for a Confirmation retreat. But method was no hindrance to us on this vote. To literally bet the farm on such a sketchy process shows just how desperate we are to do something, anything to get out of the pain of decline and division we have felt for so long. I pray that it works.