Is there hope for a United Methodist Church?

May 12th, 2017

News flash! The orthodox wing of the United Methodist Church is not going away. In fact, it’ll likely get stronger. Likewise, the progressive wing of the United Methodist Church is not going away. It too will get stronger.

That leaves us with a dilemma: How to go forward when we have two very strong, and somewhat opposing points of view? Especially when it comes to human sexuality and biblical hermeneutics.

Here’s what else is not going away: a fair number of United Methodist people who identify as LGBTQ, and their supporters.

What’s a denomination to do? If we want schism we’re set up perfectly for it. After all, we seem to have irreconcilable differences. If we want unity, not so much. Neither side is going away and neither side is backing down. All of us want to be heard and respected. Now what?

May I suggest a really good fight? Before you hit “delete,” allow me a moment to elaborate.

Patrick Lencioni in his bestseller, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, lays out the pitfalls of not engaging in constructive conflict: meetings are unproductive, a team doesn’t commit to the decisions it makes, no one holds each other accountable and desired results do not materialize.

For 45 years, United Methodist General Conferences have been unproductive in resolving our differences of opinion on human sexuality. About 40% have favored full LGBT inclusion in the life and leadership of the church; 60% have been against. Even though we make doctrinal decisions on human sexuality via the Book of Discipline, we lack commitment to carry them out. Once back home, people perceive the movement of the Holy Spirit in very different ways. And act accordingly. Many conferences ordain gay people. The Western Jurisdiction was swayed by the Holy Spirit in the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto. The truth is we have varying commitments. We can’t hold one another accountable to a vision we don’t share.

Even so, we’ve tried to enforce accountability through the Book of Discipline. We’ve tried it through church trials. These have only increased the rift, and the resolve.

In the midst of if all is this persistent fact: We don’t have the real results we desire — an overall increase in the number of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Even with all the resources at our disposal, our numbers show that we’re not gaining ground. U.S. churches have been shrinking for decades. If it wasn’t for our expansion into Asia and Africa, our denomination would be significantly smaller.

The history of how we got here is long and arduous. But here’s where we’re at: The Judicial Council both ruled that the consecration of the first openly gay, partnered bishop stands, and that in the future, more attention must be paid to the sexual orientation and practice of would-be clergy. At the same time, the bishops of the UMC have commissioned a Way Forward for the entire denomination.

After 45 years, a lot of folks would be okay with schism. But here’s the thing. It would be like most other church splits: two very different stories of what happened, lingering hurt, blame and resentment. Yes, there would be freedom; there would also be regret.

That’s why I’m suggesting a really good fight. The Commission on the Way Forward could accomplish this. I’m talking robust conflict, vigorous debate. Mind you, not the kind of fight we have at General Conference every four years. Keep the legislators away. No secretive filings with the Judicial Council allowed. Instead, let’s have an old fashioned, no holds barred sharing of ideas, concerns, fears and worries of all sides. This needs to include orthodox and progressive, gay and straight, perhaps even Christian and non-Christian folks. Include biblical scholars who deeply understand the text and context of our sacred texts, and the times we live in. Let’s get all the consequences and implications laid out on the table. People won’t buy in if they don’t get to weigh in. But if they do feel heard, they’ll be much more likely to commit to future decisions even if their ideas didn’t win out. Here’s what constructive conflict could do for us:

  • Air the real fears people have. 
  • Surface all the consequences and implications of our potential decisions. 
  • Cause us to feel and think outside the box. 
  • Co-create something no one has thought of yet. 

But before we have a fight like this, here are the ground rules I suggest:

  • Establish trust by sharing stories.
  • No personal attacks. 
  • No assuming the worst about each other. 
  • Be vulnerable with one another. 

Patrick Lencioni says “vulnerability based trust” (not predictive trust) is the foundation for cohesiveness. It’s the willingness to say I’m sorry, I don’t know, I was wrong, I’m in over my head or I’m not sure. It comes from knowing each other at a deep level. From sharing and listening deeply, without fear of censure or retribution. It requires real courage.

One ground rule for the rest of us: Give them latitude and freedom to come up with solutions that are very different than what we might have imagined.

Is there a future for a united Methodist Church? Only if we remember that we’re not stuck. Jesus gave us permission to decide how things will be: Whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. In other words, we get to decide how to interpret and apply Scripture. As long as we’re aligned with each other, heaven will align with us.

Trust is essential to conflict. Good constructive conflict is essential to commitment. Commitment is essential to holding one another accountable to shared decisions. And accountability is the only way that people will strive together for the results they profess. You want results? It all starts with conflict grounded in trust.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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