by Melissa Maher
“Are you willing to relocate?”
This question came as a surprise during the ordination process. As a candidate for elder in The UMC, I was expecting the usual theological questions. But am I willing to move? My response was, “Sure. If the bishop and leaders determine my gifts can be used elsewhere, I’m willing to itinerate. Just don’t make me do it on horseback.” Silence. It quickly became clear that inserting jokes during an ordination interview is not always welcomed.
My great-great grandfather was ordained a Methodist pastor in Texas in 1860. He pastored First German Methodist Church in Houston. This German-speaking congregation was comprised of first-generation immigrants who were learning to acclimate to Texas while the unity of the nation crumbled during the Civil War. Today this same church is named Bering Memorial United Methodist. It has continued the tradition of being a strong advocate for social justice, particularly during the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s.
As the local church changes, are we as United Methodists willing to relocate and find where God is stirring to bring about redemption and transformation of the individual and the city? And I mean relocate not just in the geographical sense but also in our way of embodying grace and teaching the Holy Scriptures.
I’ve been following the responses from colleagues and denominational leaders to the growing Uniting Methodists movement of 4,000 clergy and laity. Many are calling for more faithful exegesis, better questions addressing root concerns, and more imagination rather than old ideas presented in new packages. Each person is calling for clarity on the position of the Uniting Methodists. Are we in favor only of the local option, or is there another way? If the latter, do we have a suggestion for maintaining denominational unity?
In short, Uniting Methodists have hope in the enduring witness of our Wesleyan tradition and mission. We don’t all agree on the way forward, but we are committed to standing together in the center. David N. Field spoke at the November 2017 Uniting Methodists gathering. Field, originally from South Africa, reminded the group that as United Methodists we are a covenant people, a centered and cruciform community. We are in covenant with God and with one another as a global church. We are a community centered on Christ and the transforming grace of God. We are a cruciform community willing to be a prophetic witness of the downward journey of humility and service.
Over the last 20 years, I have spent time with United Methodist communities in Haiti, Mexico, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and Kenya. I’ve seen the vibrant witness of The UMC in response to earthquakes, crumbling economies, and rising Muslim influence. In each context, I recognized the Wesleyan influence of grace and sanctification. Each place was somewhere I could say with hope, “I would relocate here and serve The United Methodist Church.”
Wesley was itinerant with the world as his parish, an action of ecclesial disobedience to the Church of England. However, Wesley’s theology also “relocated” as the context of ministry changed and he grew in deeper faith and love with the Holy Scriptures. Just read a sermon pre-1738 and a sermon at the end of Wesley’s life. The covenant, centered, cruciform theology of sanctification is there—but nuances of local expression had developed.
My prayer is to find a way to bring a renewed witness and vibrancy to The United Methodist Church. We need to engage in a conversation about faithful Christian stewardship of sexuality and identity. We need to raise the bar for discipleship and lives that bear the fruit of the Spirit.
I have not taken a position on a plan because I believe in the prayer covenant we have made to support the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops. As the Commission and the COB meet over the next six months (see below for timeline), I’m standing firm to pray and continue to engage in conversation. I’m looking for a middle ground on which to stand, but all along my prayer remains: I’m willing to relocate in order to be faithful to the charge we have been given to steward God’s Bride.
Practically, what can you do?
- Understand where we are in the process. Read the updates from the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops.
- Be in conversation with your DS or bishop about the timeline of events for considering legislative changes at your annual conference. What are the deadlines? In the Texas Annual Conference, where I serve, petitions to 2018 Annual Conference are due by January 15, 2018.
- Engage in conversations with other clergy and laity in your congregation or conference about the vitality of our shared mission and the reality of our conflict. We cannot afford not to have hard conversations with one another.
- Reach out to someone in leadership of the various groups heavily engaged in the future of The UMC: the Commission on a Way Forward (all names are public) or leaders in any of the organized groups such as the WCA, RMN. or Uniting Methodists
- Talk with colleagues in other denominations (Episcopal or Presbyterian) who have weathered the storm of local churches voting. What was gained? What was lost?
2018 Anticipated Timeline
- November 2017—Three suggestions made by the Commission on a Way Forward to the Council of Bishops
- January 2018—Commission processes feedback from COB and provides updated report
- February 2018—COB meets to discuss updated report
- March 2018—Commission meets and finalizes a report to COB
- May 2018—COB finalizes report and recommendation
- May 2018—Commission meets for the last time after recommendation from COB
- June 2018—Secretary of the General Conference releases report to the whole church
The three options* outlined at the November 2017 Council of Bishops meeting gave a sneak peak at the course of the conversation. I’ll summarize them in my own words:
- Accountability (language of the Discipline remains the same; raise the bar on accountability)
- Contextual expressions (remove language in the Discipline and give annual conferences and local churches the option to proceed in the way most contextually appropriate—some can; none must)
- Wide table of connection (walk together loosely; develop new connections with oversight of the Council of Bishops)
* What was not outlined in these proposals was the legislative process of who votes and when. And there’s the problem. No one wants to vote!