Why I'm Not Afraid of the 'Gracious Exit'

May 31st, 2018

The following article addresses specific challenges facing The United Methodist Church. For more articles, excerpts, and videos on this topic, visit our Faultlines pageFaultlines is a collection of resources intended to inform conversations around human sexuality within the United Methodist Church as the denomination prepares for the 2019 General Conference.

One of the reasons I ended up becoming a United Methodist minister is that I'm not all that great at math. I can add and subtract well enough. It's just that in the 8th grade when I hit algebra and they started introducing letters into the numbers, everything kind of went downhill. My lack of math prowess was one of many clear indicators that God wasn't calling me into civil engineering as a vocation. Ministry seemed like a much more viable option.

But you don't have to be an actuary to understand United Methodist math. Barring an appeal from the most trusted and respected American United Methodist in all of Africa (thank you George Howard), the era of Book of Discipline "fuzzy enforcement" would have been over. Parts of the A&W Plan, which is essentially the new "Accountability Option", were speeding toward consideration on the floor of General Conference, while the previous forms of the "Local Option" and the more-complicated-than-algebra "Autonomous-Affiliated-Jurisdictional-Or-Whatever-It-Is Option" languished in committee. Only George's motion, which swung enough African delegation votes after Adam Hamilton's motion failed, stopped that train from reaching the station.

Which brings me back to the subject of United Methodist math.

In 2019, virtually the same delegations from all the various conferences from around the world will convene in St. Louis to take up what George Howard's motion delayed for three years. At that gathering the same three options — accountability, local, and the other one — will finally come up for vote. Only this time, the progressive wing of the denomination is more defiant and the conservative wing is more organized and determined.

The math will be the same.

When the WCA first started, and the news that it essentially had incorporated itself in such a way that it could be a new denomination in all fifty states, I'd have bet the conservative wing of the church was leaving. Why deal with two entire jurisdictions who were simply not going to enforce the Book of Discipline, and force you to exit each clergy member one trial at a time? Why tussle with the entrenched institutionalists who sat on the various boards and worked on the staffs of the various General Church agencies? Why try to face down bishops, the majority of whom are ready for some sort of compromise to move forward? I personally thought the WCA was angling to negotiate a "Gracious Exit" requiring an "exit fee" to protect the fiscal health of Wespath, and go start a new thing.

But the closer we get to St. Louis next February, I'm not so sure. The conservative caucuses haven't indicated that they're up for anything other that total victory when it comes to matter of the Discipline and the future of the UMC. In fact, given a favorable Judicial Council, and estimates like this one where only a small percentage of the denomination are projected to leave if the Accountability Option were passed, I'm gathering that there's a heated discussion going on inside the WCA about whether to leave or stay.

As a committed centrist who has been working toward a compromise where all people would be welcome in The United Methodist Church, I've dealt enough with various members of WCA leadership to know that there will be no compromise. This is a matter of principle upon which they will not budge. No scenario that would permit an ordained gay and lesbian clergy or an elected lesbian bishop to be in any way affiliated with them will be entertained. 

Down the road, these same leaders I fear will become as hard-core about other issues as they are about LGBTQ exclusion. For those who stand for any "leftist" sounding cause (Health care reform? Gender equality? Compassionate immigration reform? Reasonable gun control?) or continue to call those to accountability for rejecting infant baptism, confirmation, and female clergy leadership, I have a hard time believing that eventually a target isn't going to be on your back, too. If the denomination starts heading "right," my centrist colleagues agree that LGBTQ exclusion isn't where things will end.

It won't be enough if you've already affirmed the Book of Discipline and sought to uphold it. New litmus tests like the affirmation of the Nicene Creed (which hasn't been an issue in 1600 years) will be established to enforce a more literal view of scripture designed to align us with other evangelicals and the neo-con agenda in Washington. Online sermons, I'm certain, will be reviewed, with anything deemed objectionable on the table for possible charges. Given the continued rhetoric, I expect the worst if the math from 2016 holds in 2019, and the road to 2020 leads toward greater restriction.

For these reasons, and others, I support the "Gracious Exit" for any congregation or clergy who will not be able in good conscience to abide by the changes coming in our Book of Discipline. While there are currently no "winners or losers," and the future remains unwritten, this would ensure the most practical and equitable criteria for any interested church or clergy members to follow.

To go further, I'd invite members of the WCA to a theologically inclusive table to discuss a "Gracious Exit" that would be fair and equitable to all. I'm sure the prospect of a world where a "Local Option" has won the day is as unappealing to you as the previous scenario is to me. Quite honestly, after years of fighting I just want to see our churches go forward as healthy as they can be, positioned to do the ministry of Jesus Christ to the best of their ability. If there truly is no middle way, I'd like us to be gracious as we take steps forward into the future.

While I will continue to pray for a unified United Methodist Church, I'm not going to ignore the math. Either way, — United Methodist or whatever is on the other side of it — I'll work toward a denomination that puts the local church first and aims to make disciples of Jesus Christ equipped to change the world for the better. That's my prayer for all, whether walking together or on separate paths, that we keep making the journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven, following Jesus.

"Why I'm Not Afraid of the 'Gracious Exit'" originally appeared on From Bryan's Office... Reprinted with permission.

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