It Doesn’t Work: United Methodist Church since 2020
Written by Aaron Vriesman
LGBTQ ideology has divided one church after another: Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Mennonite Church USA, United Methodist Church, Church of the Brethren, Reformed Church in America.
In this series, we will look at some of their stories. Each one shows how legitimizing alternative sexualities in the church is a mix of oil and water. It simply does not work. Another case in point: The United Methodist Church since 2020.
The prior post on the United Methodist Church (UMC) stopped at the beginning of 2020. Finally, after 40 years of bitter fighting, the UMC realized that staying united over sexuality differences is untenable. On January 3, 2020 a UMC mediation team unveiled, “A Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.” As Bishop Thomas Bickerton said, “It became clear that the line in the sand had turned into a canyon. The impasse is such that we have come to the realization that we just can’t stay that way any longer.”
The saga did not end there. Not only did the Covid-19 shutdowns throw a monkey wrench into the UMC process, but many bishops and UMC leaders refused to honor the decisions of the General Conference. Delegates at the 2019 General Conference had voted down the “One Church Plan” proposed by the Council of Bishops that called for a local option on sexuality and marriage. Instead, the 2019 General Conference voted for the “Traditional Plan.” The UMC highest authority decided to maintain the current position, stating that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” Additionally, clergy accountability to this stance would increase. Liberal bishops who would look the other way when a complaint was raised about a minister would now be bound to follow new procedures that must include the one filing a complaint. Ministers solemnizing same-sex unions would now have mandatory penalties.
Promises to disobey the new rules were immediate: “Our work is to live like that Book of Discipline no longer exists and to be the church,” said Rev. David Meredith. “Let us not step back from challenging, resisting, everything — ignoring the book so that we can simply be beloved children of God and the beloved people of God.”
It was obvious that those holding to LGBTQ ideology were not going to cooperate. The proposed “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” needed to be ratified at the 2020 General Conference in May. It was not to be. Covid-19 put an end to the May 2020 finish line of resolving the long conflict. The General Conference was postponed to 2021. In January of 2021, the General Conference was postponed again to 2022.
Meanwhile, UMCs on both sides of the debate continued to leave.
Bering Memorial UMC of Houston voted to leave in April 2021. “We need to be a truly safe place for people so they can come and know that they don’t have to hide or look at themselves as a second-tiered citizen, if you will, but that they are not only tolerated and accepted, but actually celebrated,” Rev. Diane McGehee said. “We’re leaving with grace and forgiveness, but it’s not amicable. This congregation has been deeply harmed. The LGBTQ community is being deeply harmed,” McGehee said.
In the same conference, Grace Fellowship Church in Katy, Texas, voted to leave for the conservative Free Methodist Church, saying that its members wanted to “remove ourselves from the dysfunctional fighting going on in the United Methodist Church.”
On November 29, 2020, UMC progressives announced Liberation Methodist Connexion (LMX) as “a grassroots denomination of former, current, and non-Methodist faith leaders working on the unfolding of the kin-dom of God,” welcoming all “gender expressions and sexual identity,” “religious or non-religious backgrounds,” “races and ethnicities,” “size,” and “monogamous and non-monogamous.” Rev. Althea Spencer-Miller said, “The timeline of the Holy Spirit is driving our decision to launch the LMX at this moment, and we are following her call.”
On March 1, 2021, the Global Methodist Church was announced. It would be a conservative alternative to the UMC that will not recognize same-sex marriage and would begin operations after the General Conference approves a formal separation policy.
As the General Conference remained in limbo, evidence of theological sickness continued.
In 2021, the US House of Representatives opened with a prayer by UMC pastor and representative Emanuel Cleaver, ending with, “We ask it in the name of the monotheistic God, Brahma, and ‘god’ known by many names by many different faiths. Amen and awoman.”
In April of 2021, Hope UMC in Bloomington, Illinois celebrated Drag Sunday after Hope Church’s director of operations was unanimously certified for ordination. Isaac Simmons — who goes by Ms. Penny Cost in drag — was the first openly gay man certified in the conference and the first drag queen in the denomination. The “love and grace” he saw at the foundation of Hope Church and the UMC appealed to him. So does the fact he believes that when the denomination “came out on the wrong side of history,” it then “worked to repair it and to change and to prevent it from happening in the future.”
Kicking the Can Again Sounds Like a Good Idea
Then, something happened that would turn up the heat on an already tense situation. On March 3, 2022, the General Conference was delayed for the third time, moving the meeting to sometime in 2024. Organizers said the decision to delay was due to the pandemic, but the decision was a disappointment to many. Churches wanted to leave under the proposed separation plan, still waiting for ratification by the General Conference.
“The only problem with that is everything,” wrote Jacob Lupfer. “For almost the entirety of its existence, the denomination has debated the place of LGBTQ laity and clergy in the life and ministry of the church to the satisfaction of almost no one. In recent years, it became clear to leaders on both sides, if not to the broad Methodist middle, that they should part ways. Every major faction of the church agrees on the need for schism. The status quo is untenable, as collectively United Methodists are hurting and, often without wanting to, are hurting one another. Conservatives are certain that the progressives are being unfaithful to Scripture. Progressives are just as certain that conservatives are actively harming LGBTQ people.”
The same day that the General Conference was postponed to 2024, the Transitional Leadership Council announced it will launch the Global Methodist Church ahead of schedule on May 1, 2022.
“With the latest delay, however, conservatives decided to make their move,” continued Jacob Lupfer. “Doing so could further jeopardize the hoped-for compromise announced in 2020 called the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, which the long-awaited conference was to ratify. … Even with the Protocol, this was going to be painful in many cases. Without the Protocol, disaffiliation will be chaotic, unruly and litigious. There was, under the Protocol, at least a method to the madness. With this latest postponement and its attendant chaos, United Methodists will surely see madness in their method.”
The affirming group, Reconciling Ministries Network, said the delay will “only prolong the road to justice for our LGBTQ+ kin and to parity in the global Church.”
Orthodox commentator John Lomperis was livid about the delay: “To be clear, this was an extraordinarily cynical, credibility-shattering decision, driven by a political pressure campaign from institutionalist bishops, caucus activists, and denominational agency officials. This dramatically escalates a pattern of certain United Methodist leaders disregarding such values as following proper procedure and treating others as they would like to be treated, in order to dramatically filibuster our denomination’s processes and shut down vital United Methodist business.”
Council of Bishops president Thomas Bickerton described the launch of the Global Methodist movement as a “sad and sobering reality.” He urged the UMC, even as it suffers defections, to think of May 1 as its launch day as well. “We are the United Methodist Church not interested in continuing sexism, racism, homophobia, irrelevancy and decline,” he said. “What we are interested in is a discovery of what God has in mind for us on the horizon as the next expression of who we are as United Methodists.”
The UMC was going to be entirely redefined by the exodus of orthodox believers into the Global Methodist Church.
Conflict into Civil War
On May 1, 2022, the Global Methodist Church officially launched “without fanfare, but full of hope, faith, and perseverance,” according to Keith Boyette, chair of the GMC Transitional Leadership Council.
An avalanche of departures would begin and messy conflicts would erupt. 105 congregations left the Indiana Conference. 249 congregations (one third) departed the North Carolina Conference. The North Alabama Conference dismissed 198 congregations. The 14,200-member Woodlands Methodist Church in Woodlands, Texas, voted to leave the Texas Annual Conference. A total of 1,825 congregations would disaffiliate in 2022 alone.
In November, the UMC finance agency would shrink the budget by 38% to $373.7m, its lowest level since 1984.
Already on May 3, 107 congregations in Florida (20% of the whole conference) announced their plan to transfer. In July, they would file suit against the UMC Florida Annual Conference over how much they must pay to retain their property.
On May 10, the UMC Judicial Council ruled that regional “annual conferences” cannot leave in their entirety. Northwest Texas and South Georgia had resolutions on their summer agendas to do just that and Bulgaria-Romania Conference had already voted to leave.
On June 2, 70 congregations of the North Georgia Conference announced disaffiliation. In December, North Georgia Conference announced a “pause” on disaffiliations because "many local churches have been misled about the disaffiliation process and have been presented with information about the process" and about the UMC leadership "that is factually incorrect and defamatory." In March of 2023, 186 congregations filed a lawsuit against the conference, and in May a judge ruled that congregations have a “right to start the process by requesting a vote.”
The Virginia Conference voted to block one of its congregations from disaffiliating and the Arkansas Conference did the same to three congregations. All four cases showcased conference animosity that resulted in damaged local ministries for hollow victories.
In August, the Wesleyan Covenant Association called conservatives to withhold apportionments from 19 of the 53 annual conferences that are making disaffiliation difficult.
The Fifth Avenue UMC of Wilmington was going to hold a congregational meeting to vote on disaffiliation from the North Carolina Conference. When Bishop Connie Mitchell Shelton arrived at the meeting, the authority announced that Fifth Avenue church would be closed, to the shock and dismay of the members. They were "led to believe the informational session Sunday evening had been scheduled by the District Superintendent as part of an authorized disaffiliation process. Instead, the members were informed that the local church was closed, effectively ending Fifth Avenue's opportunity to disaffiliate," noted the church's statement. "Fifth Avenue never asked for, agreed to or wanted the closure, nor were its members ever given a chance to participate in the decision to close the church down."
While some of the separations were amicable, many others were not. The UMC seemed to be deteriorating from conflict into civil war.
With such turmoil, is it any wonder UMC pastors have deteriorating mental health symptoms, increasingly having trouble sleeping, feeling depressed and isolated, obese, and worried about money?
As the UMC disintegrated, the theological integrity continued to wane.
When Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned Roe v Wade on June 24, 2022, the UMC General Board of Church and Society, the public policy office of statement quoted UMC Social Principles that “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases, we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.” It then said, “We grieve and lament today’s decision,” the GBCS statement reads. “Today The United States Supreme Court decision denied the value and dignity of women to access the fundamental right to the supportive care and services they deserve.”
Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai was elected bishop of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference on November 2, 2022. She refused to say if she believes in Christ’s physical resurrection.
Finally, the dates of the next General Conference were announced. It would be held April 23-May 3, 2024 in Charlotte, North Carolina. But on the very same day, the Western Jurisdiction elected an openly gay bishop, against the existing rules from the Book of Discipline, which prohibited “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from the bishopric. This was the second time an openly homosexual person was elected bishop. Karen Oliveto of the UMC’s Mountain Sky region was elected bishop in 2016. Orthodox analyst John Lomperis said, “Bishops are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of upholding and enforcing our church’s doctrinal and moral standards. When the bishops are so openly breaking these standards, then this is a true ‘inmates running the asylum’ situation.”
Order out of Disorder
With bishops themselves skirting the Book of Discipline, the UMC order and structure increasingly became meaningless. In a test case of theological liberalism, the LMX announced on December 18, 2021 that no progress had been made to organize a separate denomination. Only one year later, organizers ran into “internal distrust,” members failing to attend meetings, failure to reach consensus, and no new collaborators. “Common ground was easier to find when we were focused on critiquing old institutions,” said LMX’s (only) blog post. Originally listing 40 collaborators, they now listed less than 20. Lead collaborator Rev. Alex da Silva Souto had since taken a call to a Unitarian Universalist church, saying he spent “nine years trying to change the discriminatory, and segregationist rules and practices of the religious organization that ordained me, but I realized that the organization was more interested in the preservation of their institution than prioritizing the practice of justice, peace, and love for all sentient beings.”
Theological liberalism needs power to challenge, structures to topple and ancient boundary stones to move. Producing power structures with boundaries is not their forte. Theologically liberal denominations are either loosely organized and congregational, or they have organizational structures inherited from an earlier era. It takes a special kind of leadership to bring order out of disorder and solidarity out of rebellion.
On November 7, 2022, Texas megachurch White’s Chapel voted overwhelmingly to leave the “broken institution” of the UMC. Opting against joining the Global Methodist Church, they decided to start a whole new group. Called the Methodist Collegiate Church, they reject “extreme positions,” according to the Rev. Larry Duggins, chancellor. “We are very deliberately building congregations that have different points of view, and are willing to talk to each other about it.” Apparently, some still have not learned the UMC lessons of its history.
It wouldn’t end there.
Early September of 2023, the UMC Africa Initiative released a communication that it is opting for disaffiliation because the church has become “ungovernable.” Their statement was convicting:
“…the church has proved ungovernable by the actions of several politically influential and economically affluent liberal and progressive leaders within the church, including some bishops. … The acts of lawlessness, as describes in the book of Judges, would only increase within global UMC. As the Scripture points out, ‘In those days, Israel had no king, and everyone did as he saw fit’ (Judges 17:6, NIV) … The continued violation of church laws by the economically powerful and politically influential liberal and progressive leaders, coupled with the acquiescence of some of their progressive counterparts in Africa are sufficient proofs that remaining together as one church, following 2024 General Conference is inconceivable and impossible. … We are cognizant of the fact that, liberal and progressive bishops and influential leaders of boards and agencies of the UMC do not have to visit or live in Africa to impose their agenda in some annual conferences here. As long as their demands can be carried out by some of their counterparts who rely upon them for financial resources for salaries and other material resources to function, they believe they can fulfill their goals. This is neo-colonialism, and we reject it.”
Many more congregations want to leave the deteriorating UMC but face loads of red tape and a hefty price tag. Requiring a church to pay “$60,000 per member – an amount they could neither raise nor borrow” is essentially keeping a congregation from leaving. The Northern Illinois Conference demanded half a million dollars more than the standard cost from disproportionately ethnic congregations wanting to leave.
When the Fire Burns Itself Out
Once the fire burns out and the smoke clears, the UMC will be a vicious place for anyone with orthodox views on marriage and sexuality. A trans speaker at a local jurisdictional UMC meeting: “If you want us to feel safe in church, it is up to you all as allies to stand up to our abusers and push for the changes that will rid faith communities of the social, legal, and political stigmas that withhold liberation from queer people.” The speaker drew applause by declaring that fully affirming secular LGBTQ+ liberationist ideology is an urgent matter of justice, and “It is not possible for the church to not be of one mind on a matter of justice.” The speaker called for the UMC to “repent” and seek forgiveness from LGBTQ+ activists for the denomination having not embraced secular LGBTQ+ liberationist ideology earlier.
The history of the UMC is a case study in why the opposing views on marriage and sexuality cannot work together. As this speaker said, this matter of justice is where the church must be of one mind. The topic is deeply personal to many people.
Bishop Karen Oliveto of the UMC’s Mountain Sky region — who in 2016 became the UMC’s first openly lesbian bishop — said it is “extremely wounding to LGBTQ persons that our very personhood is being used as a wedge to disrupt unity in the church.” She expressed hope that UMC churches "will be safe places for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The future of the UMC is going to be aggressively open and affirming. Any effort to make the opposing views work together was never going to succeed.
It doesn’t work. It won’t work. It can't work.
UMC minister Valerie Rosenquist put it this way: “We cannot advise people who are being abused to stay with those who are abusing them, in hopes that someday the harm will end. ‘Blest be the Tie That Binds,’ we sing. I believe the tie has bound us too long to injustice, too long to the expectation that with just a little more time, those who advocate for discrimination and exclusion would come around and we would somehow all agree to just get along. I understand that this call for more time comes at an unconscionable cost to our queer siblings and allies, and ultimately to all of us as we value unity over justice.”
When progressives refused to adhere to the UMC highest authority, it was evident that the UMC was going to fracture. But when Covid-19 kept the separation plan from being approved, the conflict festered. Postponing the needed General Conference for the third time brought divisions to a boiling point. The separations were messy and hostile. Not following the Book of Discipline for years by ordaining out and proud LGBTQ to ministry culminated in the mess of the Book of Discipline becoming increasingly irrelevant. Even those who wanted to make it work with two views on sexuality departed because the UMC had become “broken.”
Sadly, the UMC will emerge as a shell of its former self, hostile to the views they formerly tried so hard to uphold. It doesn’t work.