Most of the United Methodist Church annual conferences are over and the delegates are selected for the next General Conference in Minneapolis in 2020. The question is what does the result of the annual conferences mean for the local church. Is it time to consider leaving the United Methodist denomination? Many local churches have already decided the answer is an unfortunate “yes.”
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The Annual Conference
The United Methodists hold one big annual statewide, and in some cases region wide, gathering each year to tackle larger-level tasks: reports, resolutions, budget approval, fellowship, worship, and more. This meeting is called the Annual Conference. It’s made up of pastors alongside an equal number of lay delegates from local churches in each state or region. The delegates then choose an equal number of laity and pastors to attend the General Conference in 2020. Every four years, the Methodist hold a global gathering of clergy and lay delegates from each region, and it’s the only body that can change the official teaching of the denomination.
A special General Conference was called in 2019 to try to navigate the division within the denomination concerning many issues. The outcome was to uphold current teaching, along with some strengthened accountability measures through a vote of 52% to 48%.
Those opposed to the General Conference decision worked very hard at the Annual Conference level to secure their new delegates to attend the 2020 General Conference in an attempt to reverse the 2019 decision. To a large degree, the opponents to the 2019 decision were successful and increased their representation at the 2020 General Conference.
However, the increased number of delegates may not be enough to reverse the decision of 2019 given the increased number of international delegates who consistently vote to uphold the Book of Discipline. At this moment in time, it appears that the worldwide delegate counts indicate General Conference 2020 will consist of 52% to continue and strengthen the current doctrine and 48% opposed. Ironically, this is the same outcome of the 2019 General Conference.
The current numbers are fluid. While there are some commentators who believe that the current theology will stand, as seen in this article from Good News, and others who believe it will change, as seen in this article from HackingChristianity.net.
Impact of the Decisions of the Annual Conferences
The result of the decisions of the Annual Conference decisions is significant. The takeaways are as follows:
- Disconnect. There is an increased disconnect between laity and the institutional clergy. In the United States, the laity tended to vote at Annual Conferences to retain the current doctrine while those dependent on the institutional church voted to change doctrine. The voting demonstrated the growing gap between the local church and clergy. Further, the Bishops have once again sought to declare the Traditional Plan unconstitutional before the Judicial Council.Clearly, the interest of the institutional clergy is to maintain the institution at all cost. Clergy are not acting on behalf of the laity who, without their support, would not have a church to support.
- Discord. Despite the promise of the Bishops that the 2019 General Conference would settle the issues between the laity and the institutionalize, it has not done so. Surprised by the result of the 2019 General Conference, where the Bishops plan was fifth in voting for consideration and did not make it out of the legislative conference for discussion, most Bishops have simply ignored the 2019 General Conference decision and have acted putatively toward those who disagree with them. Laity are leaving the local churches in droves. The response by the institutional clergy is to merge with the Episcopal Church– another denomination who is slipping fast into oblivion.
- Disaffiliation. In general, the Bishops refused to adopt and follow the Taylor disaffiliation plan. Each Bishop has interpreted the plan differently. Some have indicated that they will use the standards as a “baseline” for leaving. Yet others will simply provide a “number” without any evidence of how their number to leave is calculated. For example, when challenged that pension plan that was reported to be fully funded the year prior and now reported to be $100 million underfunded, one Bishop advised a local church that he alone controlled the decision to leave and we were to simply “trust them.” The Taylor Plan has proved to be ineffective in leaving the denomination.
- Disfunction. Progressives will continue “poking the bull”in acts of defiance to engender enough anger to drive Traditionalists out, even as they continue to formulate a personal exit strategy. Likewise, the Traditionalist may win the battle at the 2020 General Conference, but have no real authority of to enforce the Book of Discipline.
Is it time to leave the Methodist denomination?
If you haven’t thought about any of this before, it’s time to start thinking and planning for leaving the denomination. Because, I promise, the time is coming and is now upon us when the Methodist denomination is not going to continue in its present form. There are too many people who are too firmly dedicated, understandably, to either maintaining current teaching or reversing course. There are too many people who cannot in good conscience abide by one direction, or the other. There are too many people hoping that the “other side” leaves so that they can have the assets of the denomination.
If you weren’t aware that there’s a struggle going on for the future of the UMC — or if you think it will never affect you personally, or your congregation — then know that it is already drastically affecting plenty of people in the United States. Regardless of the theology of the local church, each church that we talk with is united on one front: that is, the desire to leave the United Methodist Church. Disunity, disfunction, discord and disaffiliation will continue with no end in sight.
Are you tired of the fight?
I encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to step away from the side-lines and become as actively involved as you can. Many local churches are looking for a path out of the denomination. History tells us that hope is not a great strategy. Those seeking to preserve the institution have not, and will not, work in a fair and reasonable manner. That is why the local Church needs to take steps to preserve its property and ministry outside of the denominational process to maintain its ministry.
If your local church wants to leave the denomination, please contact me to discuss your path forward.