It’s time. Blow up the UMC. My own breaking point.

April 25th, 2017

I had planned a gentle, thoughtful post here. I have, after all, billed myself as the Thoughtful Pastor, although some certainly question the appropriateness of my claim.

My proposed starting place would include kind commentary on a recent Peggy Noonan column in the Wall Street Journal. I thought it was superb. However, the comments, probably the majority of them made by white, affluent men, vociferously disagreed. Many hurled insults at Noonan.

At that point, I saw a segue into the expected complex events of this week when the United Methodist Church's Judicial Council will meet to face the most momentous questions ever before them. Their answers (or non-answers, as that is an option for them) will determine the future of the UMC. Sam Hodges has written an excellent summary of the issues.

No matter what the judiciary decides, of course, a significant percentage of United Methodists will legitimately find fault with their decisions.

Now, at this point, I was going to launch into a philosophical rabbit hole about the current difficulties of finding shared understanding.

But then something else happened.

A couple of days ago, I posted on a UMC clergy Facebook page a blog piece written by a former pastor (not UM) with a transgender son. I’ve been following their journey for a while. The dad has written with great vulnerability about how his son’s reality has taught him what love is about.

I am now going to quote from the blog that this parent published from the fallout of my original post:

The person who shared my post in their group is a friend who supports me and my son. She is clergy. I suspect that she believed the reaction would be more warm. My assumption is that these are all UMC ministers, but I do not know if that is correct. Perhaps they allow non UMC and non Clergy to join. Anyway, let’s jump in. Shall we? Here are some quotes:

  • “These stories, though moving, do not change the situation. These complex issues are not determined by the measure of impact they may have on others.” -Alan Miller (Sr Pastor, Mt Pleasant United Methodist Church) 
  • “So..If my child is a murderer, and I continue to love him….We should change the Theological stance of the church…I love my son’s in spite of anything they have done…That is called being a good father…But it does not change God’s word…I know a bit extreme…But all I read was the story of a father who loves his son…No matter what’s lifestyle the son chose…Not. A Theological or Biblical discussion…But a father’s love…And a good reminder that even while we were yet sinners…God loves us…But we must accept His forgiveness…it is a real story of a father and his love of his son…he cares for him dearly, and a good father loves his son in spite of what he has done (thus the allusion to a murderer.) I highly admire this Father for showing his love for his son.”-Jimmy Boone (West Florida Conference, UMC) 
  • “The day we change our beliefs and principles because they all of a sudden pertain to people we love, we are doomed. How can they call it “harm” if God said it? Does God cause harm?”-Andreas Kjernald (Pastor at Mysen Metodiskirke, Norway) 
  • “Remember: When an ordained clergy person is teaching something contrary to Church teaching, they are by definition doing harm…So, yes, there is a tremendous amount of harm being done by folks in the UMC. But a good deal of it is coming from the progressive wing. I hope we ALL welcome all people, even if we can never affirm all behavioral choices.”-Keith Mcilwain (Pastor-UMC) 
  • “This is going to continue. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.”-William R Brown (First and Moore United Methodist Church of Parsons) *To be fair, this one was not in direct response to my article but in regard to this very debate regarding GLBTQIA acceptance.* 

These responses may be breaking point for me. A church based on a theology of grace operates with no more gracefulness than the nastiness of our current political discourse. We have debased ourselves.

I’m outside the bubble now — and it looks different out here.

I retired as an active clergy person just over three years ago. It was a painful, complex decision to take early retirement, and full of financial pitfalls.

But the unexpected result is that I no longer live in a Christian bubble. I especially don’t live in a Christian bubble defined by the United Methodist Church, a church I love and served with an enormous sense of privilege.

For years, I’ve known that the UMC has no future. I first became aware of our problematic continued existence when watching the 2012 General Conference. It became particularly clear by the Judicial Council decisions six months later. The 2016 GC, where I served as part of the United Methodist Reporter team, solidified it.

Now that I am more in the business world than the church world, I see many things differently now–but I still see with love for the UMC.

The problems are structural, not doctrinal, in nature

Most of the problems are actually structural. We argue over doctrine and sexuality but that’s the surface presentation of deeper malfunctions.

First, the whole idea of guaranteed appointment for clergy drags everyone down to the lowest level. Massive energy is wasted taking care of, moving and moving again, not just ineffective but just plain bad clergy people. No healthy organization does this.

Second, without guaranteed appointment, the whole system of itinerant clergy must end. The system can’t send clergy just anywhere, ripping them from spousal employment, disrupting their children’s education, and putting them in churches with a long history of decline without a guarantee. I’ll not bother to mention that the whole career ladder thing is profoundly unbiblical, rife with corruption and leads to massive breaches of trust among the clergy.

Third, the amount of money that is spent trying to prop up churches that have become totally inward-focused and refuse to grow borders on the obscene. As a gardener, this one thing I know: anything alive will expend most energy to reproduce itself and grow. A church that declines to remain in the growth and reproductive cycle needs to be ripped up, placed on the compost heap, and let its remains serve as fertilizer for healthy churches and new plantings.

Fourth, decision making that depends upon majority votes has no place in Christian organizations. Never forget that the majority supported the killing of Jesus. Popularity has never, ever made something right or holy. Just because a church is growing doesn’t mean God is blessing it. Weeds and cancers also grow rapidly.

When votes are close, and many crucial ones are, it leads to a distinct winners/losers feud. Furthermore, throughout most of human history, it is the voice of the minority that has spoken with the strongest prophetic voices. Our system efficiently silences the prophets among us who call us back to God and away from sin. clean or dirty, pure or impure Shall we just call some human beings mistakes? Really?

But fifth, and this one is the final death knell, a church that says it is based upon the grace of God but consistently heaps disdain and condemnation on those whose lives do not fit a purity code is a church that has no idea of how radical the message of Jesus actually was and still is. The roots of purity laws come from the Levitical/ancient Middle Eastern notion that everything was either pure or impure. I’ve written much about this over the years, but I think this post is the most important. It gives a simplified history of the purity code and asks us what we will do with the Intersexed who cannot fit under any circumstances. I have yet to see an answer.

But back to me for a moment: the hate-filled comments of my fellow clergy toward a young man who has finally found peace with himself has brought me to the breaking point. It’s indeed time to break up. The UMC must die to its prejudicial sin.

 Christy Thomas blogs at Patheos.

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