Put down the fear-filled playbook

March 2nd, 2023

If it’s Monday, I must have an email from the Institute on Religion and Democracy bemoaning the conduct of United Methodist bishops. Indeed, I woke up this past Monday to see a lengthy lament, this time written by John Lomperis, complaining about episcopal leadership. Again. 

Here’s the formula for these repetitive writings, which are impressively disciplined:

  • It’s the continuing UMC and its leaders (read bishops) that are not upholding the rules of the Book of Discipline.
  • Therefore, churches that have a “correct” (read more traditional) understanding of scripture should be able to depart the denomination with the lowest of hurdles.
  • The rules Annual Conferences have put in place are onerous and unfair, (even though the rules were promulgated by supporters of the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference).
  • Conferences (again, read bishops) are insufficiently pastoral to congregations and individuals choosing to leave.
  • Bottom line: bishops and their conferences cannot be trusted. Or, as Mr. Lomperis wrote this week: “No matter how much they may claim to be your friend or offer to ‘help‘ in this present climate, you cannot expect them to be significantly helpful. The most you can expect is for them to not be hurtful.”

Staying on message is the hallmark of a well-run political campaign and often means ascribing motives and a lack of character to your opponents. Make no mistake, the most vocal proponents of disaffiliation are following a secular political campaign playbook. It is not rooted in scripture and it is increasingly devoid of basic respect and fair play. There is honor and credibility in fundamental disagreements. The same is sacrificed when means justify ends. Faithful people have reached different conclusions about Christian teaching and church governance for thousands of years. But villainizing others to gain the upper hand is dishonorable and wrong. I admire the restraint of our bishops in not responding to broadsides rooted in secular political strategy (coming from both the left and the right). 

What’s the playbook Mr. Lomperis and others are advancing? An effective first component is to instill fear. The most common fear is that a gay or lesbian person will be appointed as their pastor. But the likelihood an LGBTQIA pastor will be appointed to a church that doesn’t want one is effectively zero. (Sadly, even churches where a majority don’t want a woman or person of color have blocked their appointments.) This fear is baseless.

The next fear that’s cultivated is that a church will have to host gay weddings. Again, the chances of this occurring against the will of the church or their appointed pastor is slim. A third fear is that “if we don’t act now, we’ll be forced to stay or forfeit money and property.” There has long been and will continue to be a path to disaffiliation when the vast majority of a church have an abiding desire to leave the connection.

A common tactic of secular political campaigns is to extrapolate the views of a few as though they are the views of the many. Some churches in my conference have received imagery and quotes (often out of context) about bishops many states away, or some who retired years ago. When a pastor traveled to a neighboring United Methodist congregation to advocate for disaffiliation and was asked about the credibility of materials he was touting, he just shrugged his shoulders.

Another secular political trick is asserting that if those in power (read our elected bishops) don’t speak out about everything they disagree with, that means they agree with whatever someone claims. Let’s get real and be honest. Leaders can’t chase every rabbit or be distracted by outrageous claims. Leaders must lead. 

When someone says the terms of disaffiliation of an annual conference are unjust, isn’t it ironic that those rules are published and known, while the materials and training sessions of those advocating disaffiliation are not? Ahead of a disaffiliation vote some long-time members have been quoted the vows of membership as a test and urged to leave the church if they have searching questions about any of them. Is one expected to believe that such questions are being asked of every member? Cleansing voter rolls is yet another method used in contemporary US political campaigns to win.

There are many with sincere questions or outright disagreements about the inclusion of LGBTQIA persons in the life of the church. Some may want to disaffiliate from the UMC. But do any of us serve God by exchanging frank and respectful Christian dialogue for the polarizing tactics and aspirations torn from the pages of US political campaigns? John Lomperis’ lament rings hollow and it is ultimately misplaced.

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