I’m challenging Methodism (to what end)?

August 4th, 2021
Available at Cokesbury

I believe that being the church is about pursuing the commonwealth of God, the reign of heaven, for all the people of God. This harmony is the concord envisioned in bountiful living for creation. This harmony is the result of the divine vision for creation, even for the universe.

Conjured up for the express intent of economically abusing Black people and other people of color, the notion of race stands in contradiction to this vision. This false idea infects humanity, perverting Whites to believe that, solely by skin color, they are seen as superior while others are diminished. More specifically, racism gives birth to the ideas infecting White supremacy, and for the exclusive purpose of greed and insistent inferiority for anyone not racialized as White.

Infested with this untruth, Methodism often stands outside of its stated mission. Rather than making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, White supremacy/racism disfigures any ambition the church has toward the God-ordained vision of commonwealth. In so doing, the Black United Methodist Church has found itself in a place of shrinking presence, influence, and witness.

Shall this continue? In a time rife with anxiety over the future, we submit an interesting query: What does it mean to identify as Black and United Methodist? As the pandemic of White supremacy/racism fails to relent—failure not endemic to Methodism alone—shall such identification be foolish and fruitless? Surrounded by this contagion, will The United Methodist Church show appreciation for diversity, rather than contempt?

Black and Methodist: What is the priority?

To be Black and Methodist: is it possible? Absolutely. From the inception of Methodism on these shores, William B. Mc- Clain makes it clear: an American Methodist Church never existed without Black people. It is a profound truth. Blackness and Methodism do exist in tandem.

While matriculating at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), I entertained the idea of changing denominational affiliation; yet, I saw no essential reason to change. In fact, it was there that I found more reason to remain United Methodist. ITC was and is an ecclesial tapestry. It structured a splendid diversity that encouraged admiration of my own traditions as well as appreciation for the customs of others. The wonder of the varied church traditions there wooed me: Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, Presbyterian. This ecumenical mix was steeped in dedication to serve the freedom of God’s Black people. I felt beckoned, even called, to enjoy and relish the curiosities and marvels of Black religious diversity. My particular Methodist tradition added to the exquisiteness of the experience.

Now, while United Methodism and Blackness indeed can and should exist together, certain clarifications and distinctions are essential in this regard. On the one hand, my Blackness is my God-given gift. Descending from Africans, from the survivors of a sin-sick and criminal enslavement, honors me in ways I cannot express. The terrorism they overcame for me to be here both repulses and enthuses (en/theo) me. I’m grateful to God for my Blackness.

I’m both agonized and disgusted by the inhumanity of a nation that claimed religious freedom but never defined it as it became . . . a faith in greed, blood-thirst, and immorality. The country announced, even touted, liberty for religious sects. What it demonstrated was freedom for land and labor theft shrouded in religious language and rituals. Entire nations were traumatized so that the United States of America could exist.

By surviving this criminal abuse, my ancestors esteemed me incredibly. That they endured and maintained both joy and love stirs me in overwhelming ways: how to stand for justice and remain in relationship, how to love daily when surrounded by threat, how to keep a mission focus when the racial tempests howl continually. I come from this godly heritage. Contentment and worth saturate me as I consider it. I glory in it. I revel in it. God granted me the privilege, priceless and invaluable, of Blackness. I was born in this.

Following Jesus in the Methodist tradition, on the other hand, is my human choice. This is not something bequeathed by descent. I was not created to this faith or to this denomination. The divine gift of free will dictated that I could leave it, ignore it, deny it, or even decry it. There is no actual manner in which, truly, I must follow Jesus. This is absolutely true: I didn’t have to be Methodist.

See, as a child, most of my playmates and peers were Baptist. Some friends were Church of God in Christ (we called them holiness). Some called themselves Pentecostal. And it seemed to me that their worship experiences were more expressive, their music was more exciting, and their congregations seemed to be more fun. Because of these things, I saw each of these as a possibility for being what I then called a Christian.

But choice enabled me to see some things that were valued in my home. While worship wasn’t the most expressive, my Methodist church was the first in my day to open a facility so that young people could dance and have social functions. My Methodist church was hardly alone, but it certainly was a leading church in the state of West Virginia as it struggled with guaranteeing full citizenship rights for Black people. I knew education was a Methodist value and that this denomination did much to train young people as thinkers. I understood Methodists as advocates, as critical actors in the world. These impressed me as a boy.

My grandmother, providentially, assured this. Truelove Jearlyn Ferguson Thompson, my “Mama True,” took me to the John Stewart Methodist Church. She escorted me into its worship, its activism. She never discussed it; she baptized me in it. The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) met to strategize at John Stewart Methodist Church. Pastor C. Anderson Davis served as state NAACP president. The Women’s Society of Christian Service—rooted in dignity and equality under God—found me sitting in their local church. I learned Methodism’s Works of Piety much later; my grandmother immersed me into its social justice, the Works of Mercy. Steeped in Methodism, I chose such as part of my heritage. I didn’t own it, and it didn’t own me. It was my adult choice, not a religious inheritance. And in the main, I have not regretted it.

Curiously, my home church, upon desegregation in 1968, took on a White pastor. He was a fine fellow. He believed in Black causes, offered new ministry ideas, and was received admirably by the people of the church. This, the second-largest Black Methodist church in West Virginia, a church pastored—two appointments prior—by a civil rights pastor, was immediately desegregated. Not one of the top-ten White Methodist churches received a Black pastor.

It is out of this experience that I yet believed United Methodism was aspirational, divinely ambitious. This church witnessed to the diversity, to the “multi” world to which I saw commitment and which I experienced. God brings people, all people, together in this gospel. I experienced the viability and possibility of all God’s people being together and living justice, living love. I learned that in The Methodist Church and the subsequent United Methodist Church.

As a Black man who chose to be Methodist, this aspiration provoked me to remain with the traditions of my ancestors. They journeyed to and through events and eras, through hatred and biases, to call forth a better church. With Blackness bequeathed as holy, and selecting Methodism because of its promises, they showed faithfulness to the commonwealth of God. Because of their heroism I stayed. But reflection causes fresh interrogation: did the church really want them? Black and Methodist: does the church really want me?

Systemic Results

W. Edwards Deming is thought to have said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” [1] That is to say, when we see the outcomes of any structure or system, we view what they were made to produce. For good or ill, for benefit or harm, what an organization or technique provides is what it is built to deliver. This is a sobering truth, one that needs to be identified and addressed in any organization. This especially speaks to the church: a system is perfectly designed for the results it gets.

Society transformed by religion, world-changing faith, characterized the Methodism I saw on a local level. And this was the history of Methodism. Richard Allen said, “The Methodists were the first people that brought glad tidings to the colored people. I feel thankful I ever heard a Methodist preach.”[2] The system produced people who, empowered and emboldened by the spirit, inspired work toward love and justice. Black people gravitated to this message, especially as Methodism opposed the terror of enslavement, the trauma of White supremacy/racism. Methodists demanded no ownership of people, no payment to buy people except to free them. They insisted adherence. No options here. This was obligatory. Black people gladly joined Methodism because Methodism, in divine obedience, avowed the humanity of Black people.

But throughout the nation, Black humanity was obliterated. Financial profits, governmental policies, and the sin of greed joined to create racist attitudes and customs. People racialized as White developed processes and structures to repudiate the humanity of Brown and Black people. They especially decided that people racialized as Black would be slaves, creatures of bondage and servitude, whose unpaid labor would enrich the treasure chests of Whites.

The Methodist Church ultimately capitulated. When a Southern bishop inherited enslaved persons, The Methodist Episcopal Church split over the Southern desire to maintain slavery. Meanwhile, the Northern Methodists continued their de facto segregation, the norms of division that caused Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to leave the St. George Church in Philadelphia. The 1939 merger of Methodist communions hinged, in large measure, on assuring a system for segregating Black people from Whites. People worshipped in their own buildings, preached to their own hue, and held denominational responsibility only among their own “people.” For good measure, the amalgamated church legislated geographic jurisdictions for Whites. They simultaneously decreed the Central Jurisdiction for Black people, assuring that, in this new Methodism, people stayed with their own “kind,” operated out of their own customs, and remained a reflection of the segregated society. In other words, the church mimicked three sinister racial values of the nation: racialized status based on color, separation to preserve power and mores, and finally a patriotic kinship.

This church segregation law derived from the nation’s laws. The United States developed Black Codes, Jim Crow and Pig Laws to keep Black people subdued. Subordination and lowliness were tools used specifically to discourage and hinder any notion of equality and humanity. These regulations legally defined Black second-class citizenship, status, and category. The church, refusing to lead by precept or example, proved its own devaluing of humanity by building a set of parallel laws. Rather than showing moral and spiritual leadership, Methodism went along.

Still, at its apex, the Central Jurisdiction found vitality. Clergy and local churches adapted their ministries to accept and overcome the challenge of segregation. While growing and building, the jurisdiction developed ministerial viability despite choosing to remain connected to a church that treated them as lesser. Their clergy were denominationally trained and effective. Their laity knew the church, practiced its faith, and made for important ministry. They sought to both prove their humanity and, nobly, to show the system its sins against them. These persons stayed, aspiring to the hopes of the gospel shown at the beginnings of Methodism.

But what does it mean to prove humanity in the church? When the church holds as sacred Scripture texts birthed in the crucible of oppression, when overcoming the history of exile and occupation is basic to the biblical story, what explanation can there be for ecclesial organizing that subjects an entire people to proving their worth? With oppression as mandated by church policy, these noble Black people embraced the task of meriting humanity. They decided to use the Central Jurisdiction as a means to assist in this quest.

But be clear: the Central Jurisdiction was never meant to assist. Black people decided to make it beneficial. They stayed in a church-mandated jurisdictional structure as second-tier members. The Central Jurisdiction was church promulgated malevolence, a racially driven insult purported as divine decree. Jurisdictions existed and still exist, fundamentally, to separate people and ensure a certain White way of life. Electing clergy and lay church leaders, loyal to the biased and regional practices of particular regions, undergirds this system. Thus, when the Central Jurisdiction ended, the others continued, adding Black people, only and entirely, because policy desegregation was occurring across the nation. (Note: Montgomery, Nashville, Selma, and Birmingham civil rights campaigns all led to desegregating practices prior to the Methodist desegregation.)

So then, what did this 1968 merger mean for The United Methodist Black Church? If the Central Jurisdiction was not meant to assist Black people, what did merger mean? Well, some anecdotal numbers speak to it. Florida has one Black church with two hundred worshippers and has no United Methodist Black presence in Orlando, one of its largest and most populous cities. Los Angeles has one Black church with more than two hundred in worship. Among others, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Newark (NJ), Detroit (proper), Cleveland, and Cincinnati (OH) can all boast that they are not the homes of one United Methodist Black church with two hundred or more in worship.112 The presence of United Methodist Black laity is not close to what it could or should be for effective witness in the world. The occurrence of United Methodist Black clergy in either large or sparsely populated communities borders on invisibility. There is at least one annual conference, home to a major urban center, which purportedly hasn’t ordained a Black man in over ten years. What does this mean for an effective laity witness? How can this be true? A system is designed for the results it gets.

What Is the Structural Challenge?

Purportedly designed after the United States arrangement of checks and balances, the United Methodist polity is, in fact, more hierarchical than is openly discussed. The annual conference is documented as the basic body (unit of ministry) of the church. It is the place of clergy membership, fellowship, and appointment; however, annual conferences meet only yearly. Annual meetings curtail generative power and, because of such, lend much less capacity to counteract autocracy. What have annual conference meetings meant for Black churches? What policies and procedures, what programs and opportunities have been sustained to build Black churches, to generate Black clergy?

As a legal body constructed to interpret church discipline, the Judicial Council meets semiannually. It stands in a critical place to countermand both legislative and executive works that stand outside the covenant understandings of the church; however, with more than one hundred annual conferences the world over, it is at least a challenge to address the issues and concerns that may need to come before the court. By sheer numbers, the judiciary cannot offer requisite checks and balances. How has the Judicial Council been able to aid the Black church?

Beyond decisions that assist in keeping harm from coming to individual Black people (the case of Bishop Earl Bledsoe as the most stunning and important instance in my memory), how has this entity aided the Black church? With these questions as to the lack of equalized governance, it stands to reason that the executive/episcopal branch of the church reigns over the church. Yes, it reigns. We can call it governing or administering if we wish. If we like, we can elevate theoretical ideas of checks and balances. They do seem well enough balanced on paper. If we choose, we can speak to representative government, a democracy where the churches and clergy do have vote and voice. Indeed I can say, without hesitation, that I have witnessed much grace and kindness from bishops. I have seen such and have benefited from it. I’m grateful.

I have also seen viciousness. I know of vengeful actions from that office, of denying conference entities to exercise proper powers, appointments, hearings, and opportunities. Programs found extra push, while others were denied or destroyed, solely because a bishop said so. Explanations from laity mattered not. Rationale from clerics made no difference. Ugliness went (and can still go) unchecked and unobstructed, as if these were and are the episcopal prerogative.

Much, if not all this, can happen by virtue of appointment making, the all but unlimited authority to assign and deploy clergy. Bishops can literally decide conference direction, area emphasis, and resource allocation all by the fact of appointive power. In this system, bishops can dictate results because they can appoint clergy. The impact is monumental to laity and local churches. When laity are spiritually guided and empowered on the local level, God uses them to bring spiritual and substantive transformation wherever they are. Such laity exert impact on local communities, districts, and annual conferences. Simply by either ignoring their giftedness or moving their pastors or sometimes both, the executive can significantly impair their Methodist witness.

So it is that by organizational performance of the church— the actual execution of its ministry—the discussion of checks and balances rings hollow. They exist by document. The church is ruled by oligarchy, and the oligarchy stands because of:

  1. the aforementioned limits on checks and balances;
  2. the mandated, elected position of “bishop for life”; or
  3. a clergy system that can be traced through the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches into the Caesar-led structure of the Roman Empire.

The executive branch of the church, led by the episcopacy and often through varied allied agencies, functions with an enormous amount of almost unbridled, vested, and consigned power.

Before this critique is dismissed as an attack on the system I spent the previous thirty-five years in, understand that attack is not my quest. Instead, I’m inviting The United Methodist Church, through which I have given my life as a follower of Jesus, to acknowledge and confess what its structures mean and have meant for the Black church. Repentance can only come from that which is recognized and admitted. For Black people, this church has not been the benevolent presence it often seeks to declare. I offer this not so much as an indictment as a disclosure, more a revealing than a condemnation. The results remain sure. They can hardly be ignored. Many, if not most, of the following actions employed by The UMC are to the detriment of its witness among United Methodists. Hardly exhaustive, among the results are these:

  1. stripping Black clergy talent from Black local churches by offering higher salaries in connectional positions beyond the local church;
  2. contributing to the vanishing presence of Methodists in predominantly Black populated cities and towns;
  3. reducing available clergy to serve in local churches;
  4. assigning apportionments to churches at the same percentages when every index shows Black income and wealth significantly less than that of Whites;
  5. selling properties of White churches to Black churches that become nightmarish to sustain;
  6. selling Black-built properties after their closing with proceeds placed in annual conference coffers, never attending to how those proceeds might be used for ministry among those whose people built the Black churches;
  7. decrying, demeaning, or ending Black church assistance programs because they were declared “ineffective” by entities who created problems at the program’s inception;
  8. rendering invisible or silencing Black people when elected as directors to general church boards and agencies;
  9. failing to relate the gospel to the situations of young, Black people, causing Black youth and young adults to become “refugees” to other denominations and churches;
  10. making token clergy appointments or laity assignments where Black people are to be seen, not heard;
  11. forcing early retirements for clergy who have been told there is “no place” for them in the appointive process.

Much of this was predicted at the completed merger in 1972. Black Methodists for Church Renewal, upon its inception, predicted and challenged the church not to move in these ways. Many things could have been shifted, altered, changed or put aside. They were not.

Instead, the denomination clung assiduously to systemic patriotism, a dedication to the structures and processes of United Methodism as conceived. Following the process became a mantra, following without inspection, without consideration of the impact to the Black church. As such, the system’s consequences for the Black church have been barely noted, much less examined or critiqued. The results have been unfavorable at best; unkind at worst.

What Are We Going to Do Now?

To be sure, this is no call for the abolition of United Methodism. I’m one who is not in favor of schism, of divorce. I know, from personal experience, the anguish and hurt of splitting. While it can be necessary, there is never anything easy in it. Even in abusive relationships, leaving can be almost impossible.

For Black people, this relationship has been offensive at best, unhealthy at worst. Whatever the intent, the results make the detrimental impact abundantly clear. This is because there has never been a clear call to systemic change that would be in the best interests of the Black church. There has never been a movement that sought to change the effects on the Black church by making the needed systemic changes. Rather than just leave, immediately, there can indeed be change in results. In order to do that, there must be change in the system.

A change in results requires an admission that the present outcomes do not meet missional needs; that is to say, we ought not expect changed outcomes while employing the same system. It cannot be overstated: A system is perfectly designed for the results it gets. United Methodist Black church results, in the main, have not been good. Its population has been overlooked. Its gifts to the church have been manipulated.

What shall we do? First, we must decide to extinguish the lie of race by challenging the sin of White supremacy/racism. Difference is not a synonym for deficient. Living into God’s vision requires that the church eliminate this stain on its soul. Second, we must be honest that this system gets what it is designed for: a denomination that structurally reduces Black presence. This can be reversed but only intentional systemic changes will reverse this decline. Third, and foremost, we must clarify our position regarding the mission of the church. Is our mission really to make disciples of Jesus Christ? White supremacy has stifled the witness far too long; that happens because the church has been formed that way. A system is perfectly designed for the results it gets. To enjoy the precious reality of God’s diversity, we must alter our system, realizing no structure can be more sacrosanct than the mission of the church and the reign of God.

No reason exists to believe that White supremacy/racism will soon be removed from society. Its inexorable presence and wicked potency feel never-ending. This disease is here to stay, impairing both the church and the nation in death-dealing ways. Still, the faith we claim declares it can be overcome. It can at least be quarantined— rendered impotent—if not totally eradicated by the power of the Holy Spirit and the diligence of the church.

So then, what does it mean to identify as Black and United Methodist? Is such identification ridiculous and futile? It has not been nor does it have to be now. The results do make it clear: for such identification to have significance to the mission, the system needs to change.

[1] Attributed to Deming but probably altered by Paul Batalden.

[2] Jennifer Woodruff Tait, “ ‘My Chains Fell Off.’ Francis Asbury and Richard Allen,” Christian History Magazine, 114, 21.

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