By Paul Black
Many churches in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference are having discussions related to their future in The United Methodist Church. Such discernment should rise to the level of Holy Conferencing and should begin with both individual and corporate prayer.
One of the fallacies being perpetuated is that every congregation must go through this process and vote. Every church is not required to vote on disaffiliation. One can continue doing ministry without a vote if you want to stay United Methodist.
People of good faith can go through discernment and arrive at different conclusions. This does not mean that one is correct, and the other is wrong. It means God’s future may be different for different people and circumstances.
Statements such as, “People who want to leave The UMC do not believe the Bible/People who want to stay in The UMC do not believe the Bible” do nothing to foster good will and breaks down community.
The United Methodist denomination is focused on scripture: the word becoming flesh and living among us (John 1:14). One person’s opinions differing from another’s does not support either of these claims about a person’s scriptural beliefs. These claims might be better interpreted to say that there are varying opinions within the body of Christ, but broad claims such as these are not based in fact and cannot be applied to large groups of people.
For more information on The UMC’s position on scripture, see Articles V and VI in the Articles of Religion and Article IV in the Confession of Faith.
While much of the discussion on this issue has been to those who want to depart The United Methodist Church, I would like to take a moment to let those who may have a differing view, that you are an essential part of any discussion in your church and it is important that your voice is heard and considered in any decision made.
Following personal prayer, the first step is to examine the discernment process document developed by our conference. You can find it at: https://www.igrc.org/igrc-process-on-disaffiliation Click on the blue link at the top of the page to download the document. This provides a step-by-step procedure which churches must follow.
As with any process, there are vested interests that abound. Pastors, as leaders of the congregation, often guide processes as do lay leadership from the church. A pastor has taken vows of ordination or is licensed have vowed to uphold the polity of The United Methodist Church.
But pastors are also under appointment or assignment and sometimes, those issues end up clouding the landscape especially when they become a part of the church’s exit strategy and take a bigger role than providing information. In essence, it is as if the church or pastor is trying to make the appointment for themselves. This is not United Methodist polity.
Retired and active UM clergy cannot serve as clergy in a disaffiliated church, while maintaining membership in the UMC. To serve a disaffiliated church, UM clergy must withdraw to unite with another denomination (per paragraph 360.1 of the Book of Discipline), surrender their conference membership, and be credentialed through an entity other than the UMC.
Persons that do not want their church to disaffiliate need to speak up, knowing that the Bishop and the District Superintendent will be listening for their voices. There is a provision through the United Methodist Trust Clause that would allow the Church and all assets to remain open and intact as a United Methodist Church if there are enough folks wanting to remain United Methodist. This is NOT based on a voting percentage but is based on a condition of sustainability. In other words, they CANNOT BE VOTED OUT WITHOUT HAVING A POWERFUL VOICE REGARDING THE CHURCH’S FUTURE. If there is sufficient enough people that want to remain, the church, can be kept open.
Be aware if only one side is presented to the congregation prior to a vote. Those who employ this strategy often times will shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, everyone knows what The United Methodist Church is about already. The only thing we need to consider is whether a new denomination or going independent is for us.” A strong and thorough process would include information sharing for a variety of sources. Contact your District Superintendent to make sure that all voices are heard in the discernment. They can provide resource persons that can provide interpretation and assist with providing necessary balance to make an informed decision.
Also beware of those who predict what the future of United Methodism will be and what actions General Conference may or may not take in 2024 and beyond. As a four-time delegate to General Conference, such speculation is often mis-informed and does not square with what ends up happening. Presentations to the congregation and its members should talk about their particular viewpoint of what they are “for” and not a time of critique nor a time to bash other opposing viewpoints. Undercutting and fear mongering can be powerful tools in debate, but they do not have a place in discernment that is respectful and focused on complex issues.
Understand that your local church leadership may take a straw vote as a way to gauge the strength of interest toward a discernment process. But absent of a resolution of disaffiliation presented as a church conference in which the professing membership has been duly notified, disaffiliation cannot occur. Votes of disaffiliation require two-third majority to pass and at a church conference – which allows all professing members a vote. The district superintendent is the presiding officer and a final disaffiliation vote will include a financial settlement agreed upon by teams from the conference and the local church.
Charge conferences are held each year to conduct church business including the election of officers are limited in who may vote.
As a member, you can request of the district superintendent that charge conferences be a church conference. The district superintendent may call a church at his/her discretion or following a written request by the pastor, church council or 10 percent of the professing members of a local church (¶248, Book of Discipline, 2016).
It should be noted that election of officers are held annually when the Committee on Lay Leadership (formally the Nominations Committee) presents a slate of officers to the charge/church conference. If the gathering is done at a church conference, nominations can be provided from the floor by any professing member (¶249, Book of Discipline, 2016).
If opportunities are not provided for the sharing of information on diverse viewpoints, take the time to gather small groups for prayer and your own research. Mobilization at the grass roots level can have great results if people are informed and respectful in the process. Several of the websites located on this page can be a reference to you.
But also visit the website of the Global Methodist Church (https://www.globalmethodist.org) and its partners, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (www.wesleyancovenant.org); Good News (https://goodnewsmag.org/); the Confessing Movement ( https://www.facebook.com/ConfessingMovement/) and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (https://theird.org/).
In your research, note how much time is spent on what different groups that both espouse remaining and departing on things they are against and the amount of resources are spent on things that they support. Tearing down the other guy doesn’t necessarily mean you win, although our American political processes seem to think so. And we tend to model what we see rather than seeing ourselves as counter-cultural or those that seek to witness to a better way.
Finally, if your church chooses to disaffiliate and you wish to remain United Methodist, contact your District Superintendent and ask to be put on a general church membership roll until you find a new church home. One condition Bishop Beard and the Cabinet has placed on any disaffiliation plan is that the departing church care for members that will not be making the journey with them.
If the church where you hold membership is disaffiliating and you haven’t found a new place to call “home,” we invite you to move your membership to the Illinois Great Rivers Conference general church membership roll. This is a place to hold your membership “in the meantime”. You can complete the form at: https://igrc-reg.brtapp.com/IGRCGeneralRoll. The conference will receive your church membership and notify your current church.
One of the myths that was floated by a disaffiliated IGRC church and its leadership to sell disaffiliation was that persons who wished to remain United Methodist could still be United Methodist (their membership status wouldn’t change) and part of the departing church. This is not true. Membership in The United Methodist Church ceases for every member of a disaffiliating church at the time of severance. A member, however, may transfer the membership or you can ask to be put on a general church roll until you make your choice of a new church home.
The District Superintendent is the point person, who may be able to assist you in connecting with a nearby congregation or may assist a group of persons in forming a new expression of ministry in your community.
United Methodists: you do have much to say about your future. Make sure that if these conversations occur in your church, that your voice is heard in the discussion.
(Paul Black is the IGRC Director of Communication Ministries and a four-time delegate to General Conference. He currently co-chairs the IGRC Delegation).