By Rev. Randall Robinson
Pastor, Danville: St. James UMC
Recently I attended a local church’s disaffiliation meeting, a step in their process to decide whether or not to remain within The United Methodist Church. At the invitation of the district superintendent, I was part of the team invited to witness this congregational meeting where a 9-member Discernment Team would recommend to the people that their congregation disaffiliate from our denomination. Two weeks earlier, they conducted a meeting called “Considering the UMC.” Sunday’s meeting was entitled “Considering Our Future.” Somewhat awkwardly, the team’s leader welcomed us, five “outsiders” representing the district, the conference, and The United Methodist Church. Obviously, we were carrying a great load!
The pastor opened the meeting by reflecting on Colossians 3:13-15, which begins, Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you… He noted that this process was “icky” and that he really didn’t want outsiders to see this “dark underbelly of the church.” I couldn’t have agreed more!
The Discernment Team then presented a statement outlining reasons why their local church should sever ties with The United Methodist Church. For a year and a half, they had studied the history of the bitter conflict bringing a denomination of 12 million members to the point where disaffiliation is permitted.
My understanding of the team’s conclusion can be summed up in a few words: disappointment with human failure. They appeared to be disappointed that various persons and groups within the denomination have violated clear mandates of The Book of Discipline. Why was I not surprised? I have been part of many groups whose perceived failures have been disappointing. Did that compel me to withdraw? Or could it be an invitation to remain and work for renewal and reform from within the structure?
Our district superintendent asked the five of us to be prepared to give a statement of support for The United Methodist Church, if called upon to do so. In that moment, I realized that my reasons were intensely personal and limited to my own conviction arising from membership and ordination vows. “Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church and support the church with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness?” Three times I have publicly answered these questions in the affirmative: upon membership (1967), ordination (1983), and appointment as superintendent (2003). These vows form a covenant between God, the church, and my own willing heart. I have renewed these vows time and time again. Because of my personal conviction regarding the nature of “covenant,” I cannot and will not revoke or renegotiate these vows. They create the strongest of bonds between the One, True and Living God and my essential being.
In the moment, however, this local church was not interested in my personal conviction regarding the nature of vows and covenant. In the face of what appeared to be a collective mind already made up, they needed even more compelling reasons to remain United Methodist.
Here’s what I believe the Holy Spirit began to whisper, gently, within the depths of my soul. “Has The United Methodist Church ever acted as an obstacle so that you could not fulfill Jesus’ greatest commandments of loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself?
My response: No! In fact, The United Methodist Church has taught and modeled for me the meaning of loving God and neighbor. My experience of Jesus’ greatest commandments has been enriched and deepened through my participation within The United Methodist Church. In more ways than I am able to count, The United Methodist Church has served to shape and form me as a disciple of Jesus Christ. At age 68, I continue on a discipleship pathway provided by The United Methodist Church: I pray. I worship. I give. I serve. I witness. By the grace of God, I am on a journey of Christian discipleship created and sustained by The United Methodist Church.
Do the human failings I perceive within the church compel me to disaffiliate? Of course not! Will another church do for me, with me, and through me what The United Methodist Church has done? Who knows? Am I willing to revoke my vows in order to experiment with another form of church? Absolutely not. Does my life-long membership and loyalty to The United Methodist Church blind me to its faults and failures?
Of course not, and as I survey the landscape of Christian denominations in the United States and around the world, I find no denomination free from shortcomings, faults, or failures. As we used to say around the bishop’s cabinet table in the press of appointment-making, “There are no perfect churches and there are no perfect pastors.” This is true of denominations as well.
Will we, disciples of Jesus Christ, be better, stronger, more effective in separate denominations than we are in one? Time will tell. Does our drive to divide The United Methodist Church answer Jesus’ prayer in John 17? Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Through our action of division and separation, do we make it possible for the earth’s people to know of God’s love for all in Christ? This action only serves to thwart, diminish, and harm our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
At this moment, I find great consolation by returning to our services of Baptismal Covenant and Holy Communion. When we receive the newly baptized, we renew our covenant with this:
We give thanks for all that God has already given you
and we welcome you in Christian love.
As members together with you in the body of Christ
and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church,
we renew our covenant faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church
by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness,
that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
In the Great Thanksgiving of Holy Communion we pray,
By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world,
until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.