Bishops Push Back Against Recruitment Tactics

Bishops Push Back Against Recruitment Tactics


By Heather Hahn | UM News

Bishops process into worship at the 2019 special session of the General Conference held in St. Louis. Amid increasing church disaffiliations, bishops are speaking out to address misinformation they say is being spread about The United Methodist Church’s future. File photo by Paul Jeffrey, UM News.
Bishops process into worship at the 2019 special session of the General Conference held in St. Louis. Amid increasing church disaffiliations, bishops are speaking out to address misinformation they say is being spread about The United Methodist Church’s future. File photo by Paul Jeffrey, UM News.

Key points:

United Methodist bishops are pushing back against recruitment tactics being used by some supporters of a new traditionalist breakaway denomination. 

Meanwhile, the bishops also express a commitment to ensuring The United Methodist Church will be a denomination where people across the theological spectrum — traditionalists, moderates, progressives as well as people who reject such labels — all feel they have a home.

“I firmly believe a future UMC needs traditional orthodox members as well as progressive members and everyone in between,” said Bishop David Graves in an email to the Alabama-West Florida Conference. “A church cannot effectively reach the least, the lost and the lonely if it is of one mind on every topic.”

Graves, who also leads the South Georgia Conference, and other bishops are speaking out in statements, videos and town halls across their conferences as an increasing number of congregations and clergy are weighing whether to stay in the United Methodist fellowship or go.

The bishops share a common message: As churches prayerfully discern where God is calling them, they need to have accurate information. 

However, bishops say, that’s not always what churches are getting from some recruiting for the Global Methodist Church, a new traditionalist denomination organized by the Wesleyan Covenant Association that began operations in May.

“These actions, friends, harm The United Methodist Church, your individual church, the United Methodist witness, and frankly the witness of Christians all over the world,” said Louisiana Conference Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey in a video shared with the conference. She is the immediate past president of the Council of Bishops.

Specifically, she and other bishops denounce any claims that United Methodists will abandon core Christian doctrines such as the Holy Trinity, the bodily resurrection of Christ and the primacy of the Bible. These doctrines are found in the denomination’s Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, and as Harvey puts it, they form “the cornerstone of our faith.” 

Harvey also said it is “100% false” that traditionalist United Methodists will no longer have a home in the denomination. “The contributions of traditionalists have been part of our rich history and will continue to shape our future history,” she said. 

East Ohio Conference Bishop Tracy C. Malone, in her own video, said some in the Wesleyan Covenant Association are among those spreading the misinformation.

“I encourage you to use extreme caution in engaging information from the WCA and attending any of their recruitment meetings,” she said.

Malone, who is Council of Bishops president-designate, added that it is especially important now, “that we each commit ourselves to embodying John Wesley’s rule of life: Do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.”

The Rev. Jay Therrell, Wesleyan Covenant Association president who is now an elder in the Global Methodist Church, told UM News he knows of no one in the leadership of the WCA or the new denomination that has said the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church have changed or will change. 

“That said, I find the doctrinal standards of The UMC to be like seat belts. You must use them for them to work,” he said. “Certainly, there are many examples with The United Methodist Church of senior leaders choosing to violate the Book of Discipline,” the denomination’s law book.

The United Methodist Church is seeing a splintering after decades of intensifying debate, not over basic Christian tenets found in the Apostles’ Creed but over the status of LGBTQ people in the life of the church. 

Matters came to a head at the 2019 General Conference. That year, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, by a 438-384 vote, increased enforcement mechanisms for the Discipline’s bans against same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. But instead of resolving the debate, the strengthened church bans saw increased defiance. 

Frustrated by a lack of enforcement on the LGBTQ-related restrictions in multiple conferences and the continued denominational fight, many traditionalist leaders felt separation from The United Methodist Church would be the best course. The May 2020 General Conference was poised to vote on a denominational separation plan that would enable traditionalist churches to leave with church property and United Methodist funds to form their own denomination. 

But earlier this year, the commission that plans General Conference — citing long waits for U.S. visas because of COVID-19 — postponed the assembly a third time to 2024. Wesleyan Covenant Association organizers of the new traditionalist denomination went ahead and launched the Global Methodist Church. 

Since then, the Wesleyan Covenant Association and other like-minded advocacy groups have been trying to recruit United Methodist churches to the new denomination. Sixteen annual conferences — church regional bodies —  have scheduled special sessions this year to vote on resolutions for church disaffiliations. 

A United Methodist News review of U.S. annual conference reports, publicly available journals and the special sessions held so far shows that conferences have ratified about 680 church disaffiliations since 2019 — only about 2.3% of the more than 30,000 United Methodist churches in the U.S. More congregations are in various stages working toward withdrawal. 

The General Council on Finance and Administration also has begun reporting church disaffiliations, but the finance agency's tally of 385 lags behind UM News’ data because it must wait for annual conferences to submit official disaffiliation reports. 

Not all disaffiliating churches are joining the Global Methodist Church. Some have opted to go independent or join another denomination in the Methodist movement. But the new denomination reports that it is off to a good start. 

However, Therrell has begun urging the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s constituents to take more direct action against The United Methodist Church.

He urged churches to escrow and withhold apportionments — shares of giving that support ministry beyond the local church — from annual conferences he argued make it too hard for churches to disaffiliate.

Therrell also called on constituents to file complaints against bishops and other conference leaders they believe are not upholding the denomination’s bans on same-sex weddings and noncelibate gay clergy. A number of bishops have agreed to hold complaints related to homosexuality in abeyance while the denomination’s transition shakes itself out.

New York Conference Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, the current Council of Bishops president, began the pushback to the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s tactics during the bishops’ online August meeting. He decried “a constant barrage of negative rhetoric that is filled with falsehood and inaccuracies.”

Since their August meeting, other bishops issued their own statements. In addition to Graves, Harvey and Malone, others speaking out include Bishops Julius C. Trimble of IndianaDavid Bard of Michigan and MinnesotaGary Mueller of Arkansas and Grant Hagiya of the California-Pacific and Desert Southwest conferences.

In each statement, bishops address misinformation as well as proclaim their vision for a big-tent United Methodist Church. 

“Millions of moderates and traditionalists around the globe and in the United States actually are choosing to remain in The United Methodist Church,” wrote Arkansas’ Mueller in his vision of a “ReStart for The United Methodist Church.”

“The choice by traditionalists and moderates to stay should not be a surprise since they have been shaped and formed by United Methodist DNA.”

African bishops have gone further, releasing a statement on Sept. 8 that repudiates the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the like-minded Africa Initiative — groups they previously saw as allies on matters of human sexuality and the Bible.

“We will not tolerate anyone giving false information about The United Methodist Church in our areas,” the bishops’ statement said. All but one of the active bishops in Africa attached their name to the statement. 

The various bishops who have issued statements often don’t see eye-to-eye on matters related to biblical interpretation and homosexuality. But they share a commitment to The United Methodist Church. 

“The United Methodist church has a BRIGHT FUTURE, for God is at work in ways seen and unseen across our connection,” said Graves in a statement about why he loves being a United Methodist

“God is using United Methodist churches to proclaim the gospel, feed the hungry, comfort the broken, and resist the evils of this world. God has called us, God has equipped us, and God will carry us forward to reach new people and new generations for Jesus Christ.”

Church Court Makes Impact

The Judicial Council decision ruling out Paragraph 2548.2 as an exit path for churches has implications for congregations considering leaving The United Methodist Church. The church court ruling also could have an effect if churches head to civil courts. Graphic by Laurens Glass, UM News. 

As the bishops met in August, The United Methodist Church’s top court issued a landmark ruling that could have implications for lawsuits over church property in U.S. civil courts.

In Decision 1449, the Judicial Council ruled out the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2548.2 as a pathway for congregations to disaffiliate. Instead, the church court pointed to another disciplinary provision — Paragraph 2553 — as the way for congregations to leave with both members and property. 

The 2019 special General Conference — the same assembly that reinforced the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriage and noncelibate gay ordination —enacted Paragraph 2553 with the express purpose of “Disaffiliation of Local Churches Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.”...
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Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News.