A N.E.W. Way to Begin

March 10th, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

The television show “Columbo" always began with a crime being committed. Most detective dramas begin with a crime, but Columbo created a unique twist in this genre. What set Columbo apart wasn’t that it began with a crime, it was that viewers knew the who, what, where, why, and how of the crime.

The mystery, then, wasn’t who killed the butler in the pantry with a candlestick; rather, it was how Columbo would figure everything out. Columbo, even though he seemed inept and disheveled was, in actuality, an unassuming savant who knew there would be, “Just one more thing” before all the pieces fell into place.

When it comes to the future of The United Methodist Church, many of us are beginning with an end in mind. We know how we want our future to be resolved, and yet, we’re still not sure how we’re going to figure everything out. Unlike Columbo, the future of our denomination isn't concerned with just one more thing, we’re concerned with everything. What does the future of our church mean for our boards and agencies? How will our witness be strengthened or weakened? What about our extension ministries? What does a dissolved or segmented United Methodism mean for clergy accountability, for appointments, for the United Methodist presence in small towns and rural communities that rely on equitable compensation to have a pastor?

Even though we think we know where things are heading, it feels as if we are fumbling into our future. At this point in the life of our church, I, like many of you, feel as disheveled as Columbo’s beige trench coat. Not only are we wrestling with feelings of uncertainty, we’re afraid. Our fears are being felt and expressed in a multitude of different ways. Some of us fear that our church is not moving fast enough toward perfection in love. We fear that since our church is not reaching out to or welcoming all of God’s children, we are not living into the love that God has for us and needs us to share. Others fear that our accommodation for the world will bring about God’s rejection – we are afraid that God’s ways are being forgotten, and with that, God may forget us. Others still are afraid that the church we have devoted ourselves to will only continue to drift into obscurity because we cannot think alike and we refuse to love alike.

At a denominational level, the continued questions, the never-ending flow of just one more thing to complicate how we get from here to there makes us worry about the future; it makes us wonder if we could delay the inevitable by creating another study or commission to give responsibility to and place blame upon, instead of taking either for ourselves.

Too often our denominational meetings become as vindictive as a Facebook comments section, and yet, even as we drift further apart, we think that we can argue one another into submission. If that doesn’t work, we’ll use Robert’s Rules of Order to get our way  or at least make sure they don’t get their way. The arguments, procedures, policies, and commissions have led us nowhere.

If the Special Session of the General Conference proved anything, it proved that the Discipline will no longer hold us together. The passage of the Modified Traditional Plan was to be a step too far, not only for progressives and moderates but many conservatives as well. For the first time, our beloved church wasn’t simply known for calling some of our kin incompatible, we were known for being vindictive in our exclusion. After all, why would we want to have a conversation about sexual ethics for all when we can ignore the majority and demean a minority? It’s almost as if we were looking at a speck in the eyes of our neighbors while ignoring the log in our own.

At a time such as this, we all know that the status quo is no longer sustainable. Carl Sagan wrote, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”[1] Our current struggle is, to say the least, vast. We are a global denomination that, even in the midst of our chaos, is making a vital difference in communities all over the world. For as much as we get wrong, we have, together as United Methodists, helped to make things on earth a bit more like they are in heaven because our faith and tradition has always been grounded and rooted in God’s love.

It is with this love in mind that I, sadly, have to say no matter what way forward we take, no matter how loving it may seem, our way forward will do harm. Our three simple rules may guide us, but as we seek to do good, we must remember that we will do harm.

So we have to ask ourselves of the plans before us: What plan does the least harm and preserves the most love?

The New Expressions Worldwide (N.E.W.) Plan begins by offering a new paragraph to the book of discipline between existing paragraphs ¶125 and ¶126. The N.E.W. Plan takes an honest look at the differences that exist in our denomination and states:

The present conflict over “homosexuality” is rooted in deep disagreement over Christology (understanding of the person and ministry of the resurrected Christ Jesus of Nazareth), biblical interpretation (understanding of the role of holy Scripture), ecclesiology (understanding of how church is organized), and social ethics (understanding of the church’s role in society). Rather than continuing the conflict, which does significant harm to the vitality of the denomination and local congregations, The United Methodist Church lays itself aside. True to the covenant prayer of the Wesleys, we yield our allegiance to a single denomination for the sake of faithful employment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and reimagine our future ministries and missions. Inspired by the early church, particularly the Council of Jerusalem, we choose to part ways, commending each other’s ministry to the grace of God (Acts 15).

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The N.E.W. Plan outlines the beginnings of four new denominations that would continue the best parts of our shared heritage while freeing us to live into the fullness of our differences. While being four distinct Wesleyan denominations, these expressions of what was The United Methodist Church may be in full communion with one another as well as part of the global Wesleyan Communion.

A plan of separation would be presented to a special General Conference, occurring before 2024. This special General Conference would dissolve The United Methodist Church and attend to the practical, legal, and financial considerations that must be taken care of as we support one another in finding our ways forward.

To separate and dissolve our denomination in a just and equitable way, a transitional council would distribute the assets of our general church. The composition of the transitional council will be made of equal representation from each new branch of our family tree. Each of the denominations will name five individuals, including at least two laity. The President of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church will also be a member of the Transitional Council.

To ensure that our general church assets witness to the most love and the least harm, they will be divided equitably and transparently with restorative justice and reparations in mind. The Transitional Council would remain accountable to each of the four denominations and would be in communication with the Council of Bishops, the General Council on Finance and Administration, Wespath, the Connectional Table, the General Commission on Religion and Race, and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. This communication would take place, at a minimum, through monthly briefings.

I support the N.E.W. Plan because it witnesses to the best of us while liberating each of our congregations to do the work that God has called us to.

Not too long ago, in a meeting of the pastors of large United Methodist Congregations in Iowa, a self-identified conservative evangelical said that a future for our church that would keep our denomination together — by allowing some, while not forcing others, to bless weddings of LGBTQIA persons and would also allow some, but not force others, to accept LGBTQIA persons as their pastors — was not a church they could see themselves in. They went on to say that most of the new growth and membership of their congregation has come from conservative evangelicals leaving other Methodist churches. The converse can be said of the reconciling congregation that I am the pastor of.

In that meeting, I realized that when we lose the ability to compromise, especially when the proposed compromise means that some don’t have to enact any change or compromise, we have lost the ability to be one denomination.

As a progressive, white, straight, cisgender man, and second-generation United Methodist Pastor, I have only ever known the support and care of The United Methodist Church. Even colleagues that have disagreed with me have supported my ministry and acted as my mentors and friends. At previous appointments, in congregations that were not reconciling, I found ways to work with members I deeply disagreed with because no matter what we disagreed about, we agreed that the hungry needed to be fed, the lonely needed to be welcomed, and the community needed to know and experience the good news of Jesus Christ. I have been so supported in my journey and ministry that in my current appointment, a member remembers when I was before the District Committee on Ordained Ministry and told them that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a pastor, but I wanted to stay on the Elder track and figure things out. A calling that I wasn't yet convicted to was the call that I was nurtured and supported into with grace and patience.

I have only ever known the support and the care of our denomination. My experience of the United Methodist Church, even in disagreements, was centered in grace, so I wanted to believe that the One Church Plan wasn’t just possible but that it was United Methodist to the core. But I was wrong, and I lament my support of a plan that would have allowed for the continued discrimination of our LGBTQIA kin.

As we think about our future and what it looks like for us to be in ministry with and without one another, some plans use the analogy of living in the same home but in different rooms. Other plans make it seem as if we might be living in different homes but remain a part of the same neighborhood. And yet, if someone in my neighborhood was being abused, I would want to seek liberation and justice for them, just as if something in my own home were unsafe, I would seek safety for myself and others.

The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation, like the N.E.W. Plan, recognizes the inevitability of our denominational divorce. Together, we must find a way to move forward, realizing that we will do harm, while, above all, seeking to do good as we witness to the justice, love, and grace of God. The signers of the Protocol, while well intentioned and faithful, do not represent the breadth and depth of our diversity. Knowing who was at the table, we should not be surprised that that those not invited and included are offered crumbs. Fair representation, democratic conferencing, and transparency is lacking in the Protocol. And yet, perhaps the greatest gift of the Protocol is the blunt honesty that acknowledges we cannot continue our current course. If you like the ideas of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation, you should take a look at the published legislation proposed in the N.E.W. Plan.

Imagine what we will accomplish when we take our energies away from our disagreements about the future of our denomination and turn them towards the passions of our local congregations and extension ministries. Maybe, just maybe, we will finally live fully into our mission without excuse. By finding our New Expressions Worldwide, we will be freeing one another to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

[1] Carl Sagan, Contact (Simon and Schuster, 1985).

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