Friday, December 30, 2022

The Future of Denominational Identity for Schismatic United Methodists

Midjourney AI 2022
This past October (2022), I blogged about why I think it is that evangelical denominations with virtually identical belief systems don't merge. To me, it comes down to power. I have used this as a way of understanding the birth of the Global Methodist Church (GMC) as an alternative for evangelical ministers and parishes of the United Methodist Church (UMC). In general terms, I still believe I'm right about that. However, there is a case to be made for departing UMC churches not all going to existing denominations. Let's consider this in two parts: denominational culture and pastoral care.

In an article dated December 9, 2022, Thomas Lambrecht explored a few options for churches leaving the UMC. For the sake of the discussion he highlighted some top existing contenders from within the conservative Wesleyan sphere: Free Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Church, and the Congregational Methodist Church. 

Lambrecht notes that while the Free Methodist Church is allowing UMC congregations that join them to retain their property without a trust clause, all future property acquired will be subject to one. The Church of the Nazarene and the Wesleyan Church both require a trust clause, and the Congregational Methodist Church does not. This is important because it's the trust clause causing all the difficulties for parishes to leave the UMC, as all property owned by a local UMC congregation is legally held 'in trust' for the purposes of United Methodism. Therefore, while all the members of a parish could disaffiliate and leave, the property would still belong to the denomination. Thus, a way has had to be made for parishes to leave and retain their property, after meeting certain conditions. UMC congregations joining the Church of the Nazarene or the Wesleyan Church would immediately be subject to the same condition with their new denomination, something they might reasonably be hesitant to accept. 

More importantly in practical terms, if the GMC were not an option, and the bulk of departing parishes were to join existing Wesleyan denominations, these could easily be overwhelmed.

Size considerations and unique denominational distinctions were important factors in the need to start the Global Methodist Church. If all the disaffiliating United Methodists decided to join one of the existing Methodist denominations, it would be very difficult. 400,000 United Methodists joining the Nazarenes would create a church of 1.037 million in the U.S., of which 39 percent would be former United Methodists. If they joined the Wesleyan Church, there would be 634,000 members, of which 63 percent would be former United Methodists. We would dwarf the Free Methodists or Congregational Methodists.

It is unlikely any of those denominations would welcome that many new members from another denomination. The impact would be devastating on the culture of the receiving denomination. It would be like having a congregation of 100 members experience 65 or more new members joining it all at once. Those new members would want to have a significant voice in how the church is organized and run, which could cause resentment by the existing members and would unquestionably change the character of the congregation. Avoiding this awkwardness was one of the primary drivers in the need to start the GMC. (Lambrecht 2022)

When two denominations merge it is only to be expected that the culture will change in some ways. That's part of the understanding going into it, and often a cause of concern for some involved. When the American Unitarian Association  (AUA) and the Universalist Church of America (UCA) consolidated in the mid-20th century, there were plenty of Universalists raising alarms about how their identity would get lost in the resulting denomination. After all, the UCA was much smaller than the AUA. In the long run their concerns have probably been proven true in some cultural sense, although the Universalist heritage in the UUA is often lifted up in the sermons and RE lessons I've heard. 

What's under consideration here, though, is not so much a merger as a migration. Indeed, if that many form UMC people and parishes were to join a much smaller denomination, the existing culture would be challenged and long-term member churches would likely feel outvoted. It could be a formula for disaster. 

Under the heading of 'pastoral care' there is something else to consider. I've listened to podcast interviews of UMC evangelicals preparing to leave, either for the GMC, another denomination, or into some nondenominational standing. One thing I've picked up on among the ministers is a deep concern for the well-being of the departing churches and their members. In all the controversy it's possible for ecclesial politics to dominate so much that pastoral matters are neglected. What I've heard, especially from GMC-aligned ministers, is how efforts are being made to minister to each of their churches, bringing everyone along. Of course this only makes sense from a practical standpoint, as they need every congregation they can get. The revenue model depends on it. 

At the same time, I have no reason to doubt the honorable intent of the GMC-aligned ministers to take care of the people for which they feel responsible. In a migration to another denomination this might not be so much the case, as the receiving denomination wouldn't have as deep an understanding of what people and churches have gone through along the way. It will not be business as usual for the departing UMC parishes for some time, and they will require attention to stabilize and proceed effectively.

All of the above I've written from a fairly sympathetic standpoint, but don't let that fool you. Ultimately the real reason for the split, despite the spin being placed on it by the schismatics, is the matter of fully included lgbtq+ folks in the life of the church, including in weddings and ordination. Departing churches and ministers are opting for exclusion, and wherever they go will be fostering environments hostile to people who do not conform to their notion of 'godly' human sexuality and gender identity. They will christen and confirm children, some of which will discover with time that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or in some other way not in line with the 'traditional' ideas about human sexuality espoused by their churches. They will be made to feel less-than, told that they are 'broken,' and left with the option of leaving or trying to deny who they are. 

I do not truly wish the GMC or any alternative or future manifestation of evangelical Methodism well. I hope that, instead, they come to realize their error or simply fizzle out into nothing.