The Rest of the Story

I remember riding in the car with my sister and my father as we returned from our paternal visitation time, slowly winding over those rural Alabama highways and creating, for my 8-year-old self, one of the most boring drives ever.  One of the highlights of that drive, though, as we began to get within radio range of civilization, was listening to Paul Harvey’s hypnotic storytelling of “the rest of the story.”  Sometimes, unfortunately, we would drive out of civilization again before Mr. Harvey finished telling us the ending, so I was left hanging with interest, but not all of the facts; with some but not all of the context of the story I had just listened to.  It was maddening!

Many of you have told me you’ve felt that same maddening confusion as you’ve read news stories about the future of the United Methodist Church.  So here, in the limited amount of space I have in this newsletter, I want to give you the rest of the story as much as I am able. Here are some assertions I’ve seen personally in articles that I would like to correct in order to give you a better appreciation for the truth behind what you may have read or listened to:

  • “United Methodists could split over LGBTQ Issues” (headline from Los Angeles Times)

True.  Before the current issue in the UMC, other tensions made similar “church split” headlines during

  • racial integration in the 1950-70s,
  • the ordination of women in the 1940s and 50s,
  • alcohol prohibition and divorce in the 1930s and 40s,
  • and a regional split over slavery in the 1840s, to name a few.

News outlets have run with some version of this present split headline since roughly the 1972 General Conference, when a denomination-wide statement was put into our Book of Discipline that declared homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Since this statement was approved, it has remained contested as different groups seek to change it in one direction or the other.  General Conference happens quadrennially and, after decades of arguing over this issue, there are many plans being presented at General Conference 2020 for dividing the denomination.  Which leads me to my next headline:

  • “United Methodist Church Announces Proposal to Split Over Gay Marriage.” (headline from NPR)

While this article is informative, here’s the rest of the story.  First of all, the UMC did not announce anything, much less something as dramatic as a split.  Instead, an unofficial, diverse group of leaders from across the worldwide UMC participated in a professionally mediated discussion on how we, as United Methodists, might resolve this long-standing and bitter battle over human sexuality.  They reached a decision together and then released their proposal to much publicity right after the new year began.  In this mediation group were leaders from across the globe and across the belief spectrum on this issue, reacting to the disunity that was more apparent than ever after the 2019 Special-called General Conference. 

The product of their mediation was a document called “A Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.”  This Protocol has not even been sent to General Conference to be considered, but once it arrives, it will be competing with the 4 other major proposals dealing with the unity of the UMC amidst our disagreement over human sexuality.  Like any proposal at General Conference (similar to our US Government), it passes through committee, then to the floor of the Conference, where it will be put on the agenda with the whole host of other issues to be considered and voted upon.  Once the voting begins, there is the possibility that the 2020 General Conference will not adopt any proposal, and General Conference will reconvene in 2024 to, no doubt, revisit this issue.

Also, I find the word “split” particularly misleading.  It gives the impression of simplicity that does not exist because of our structure as a denomination.  The UMC, unlike other denominations, cannot simply “split.”  We are a complex knot, a connection of local congregations, mission outposts, evangelism efforts, colleges & universities, grade schools, hospitals, seminaries, disaster relief missions, administrative offices, and international conferences.  Our system is a blend of top-down and grassroots, and there are very few decisions made that are not also conversations with another group in the UMC connection.  For instance, decisions made by General Conference do not take effect until the beginning of the following year.  If any changes need to be made to our UMC Constitution, they must be ratified by delegates in Annual Conferences around the globe after General Conference.  Many of these separation plans would probably need that level of ratification.  Are you dizzy yet?  In the UMC, we all work together, and that makes church life more complex than a headline might lead you to believe.

Your church council has been hard at work in the past months to develop a round-table approach to help us all stay united in Christ as these winds of change and disagreement sweep over our United Methodist family.  St. Paul’s is a very friendly church, but it has been my observation, over the past six and a half years as your pastor, that we usually prefer to avoid talking about tough issues with each other.  While this may let us get along with each other on the surface, it can also result in a shallow relationship that does not withstand external pressure.  Both myself and the Church Council want our church family, in all its diversity, to weather this current season of external pressure and be stronger as a result of it.  Remember those moments when you talked about tough issues with a friend or a spouse and found yourself much closer as a result?  Those are the kind of conversations that we are aiming for this Spring as our denomination heads toward another contentious meeting.  With deeper relationships and a stronger sense of love for our neighbors in the pew, we will be better models of Christ’s love to those who don’t know Him yet.  I believe St. Paul’s already has what it takes to be this kind of a church.  In fact, I’ve seen you do it and love each other like this many times!  So this Spring, let’s put that love into practice and become closer friends with each other, even as the rest of the world fights and fumes.

Our Florida Conference website (flumc.org) will feature resources and commentary by our Bishop to help make sense of these confusing times. In addition to praying for the General Conference delegates, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to primary-source material on this upcoming General Conference, to be held May 5-15 in Minneapolis.

  • Let me also recommend the website resourceumc.org, which has many articles and helps on General Conference, as well as some in-depth resources on the different separation plans up for consideration. On this site you can even watch a discussion with the panel who published “the Protocol,” as it’s being called, and I believe it will give you a greater sense of “the rest of the story” with General Conference 2020. 
  • The United Methodist News Service has a website at umnews.org, which often fills in the gaps that secular sources leave out when they report news.

In closing, let me assure you that Christianity has weathered these storms before, and will weather them again.  On Sunday, May 22nd, you will come back to worship here at St. Paul’s. The good news is; you will notice that we will still be worshiping our Lord Jesus Christ and ministry will continue here, regardless of how our General Conference votes.  In the middle of our culture of polarization, violence, and anxiety, it is important that the church be a place of unity, peace, and assurance that God is bigger than the issues we think divide us.  My prayer is that these round-table discussions provide understanding, clarity, and a safe place for difficult conversations during this confusing time.  I encourage you to participate in the Round Table discussions that are being planned.  In the meantime, I am here if you would like to discuss these issues further, and as always, I am honored to serve as your pastor during these important times for our UMC and our witness as disciples of Christ.