Debates about UMC futures have been intensified by the sharply polarized and conflicted Special Session of General Conference in February 2019, and subsequent responses by many annual conferences.
Along with statements of concern and preferences from bishops in Africa and the Philippines, and proposals offered by church leaders across the connection, multiple comprehensive plans and hundreds of legislative petitions have been generated for consideration by the General Conference in May 2020.
Over the next weeks, Uniting Methodists will offer information and commentary to assist in understanding what is being proposed, the rationale underlying different plans and petitions, and suggestions for ways forward that are faithful and hopeful.
In this communication, we offer a look at a range of possible outcomes given ongoing discussions, recent developments, and proposals. Our desire is to paint as accurate and candid a picture as possible of potential consequences given the swirling claims and conflicting objectives that we must navigate together in the coming weeks.
We invite you to augment, edit, and argue with these descriptions as we engage with each other to better understand possible actions and their implications—and consider which futures we will work to secure.
Following is a list detailing some of the outcomes we currently see as Possible Futures for United Methodism:
- As a result of actions at the 2020 General Conference, The UMC is reformed into two, three, or four expressions that each develop independent governance systems, disciplines, structures, etc. (The Next Generation UMC Plan, the Indianapolis Plan, and the UMFORWARD’s N.E.W. Plan all provide for establishing two or more new entities.)
- The UMC is reformed into two, three, or four expressions that all exist under one canopy (similar to a cooperative, non-binding World Methodist Council-type federation), each with their own governance systems, disciplines, structures, etc., and sharing some common general agency relationships to enhance joint mission and services. (Some provisions for shared services are found in both the Next Generation UMC Plan and the Indianapolis Plan.)
- The provisions of what came to the 2019 Special Session as the Traditional Plan are largely affirmed and enhanced at the 2020 General Conference, and a period of organizational change affecting the general agencies and other aspects of programming and administration begins.
- The UMC is essentially held intact as it is, along with a moratorium on trials and imposing mandatory penalties for clergy officiating at gay and lesbian weddings or clergy who are married to a same-gender partner. In addition, constitutional amendments are affirmed to establish the U.S. as a regional conference (similar to a central conference) and to provide for each region to act semi-independently on matters concerning ordination, same-gender marriage, and other matters. Further, the General Conference approves a process and financial terms for the gracious exit of congregations and clergy who wish to align with alternative expressions of Methodism. (Many of these provisions are imbedded in elements of The Next Generation UMC Plan.)
- The fate of The UMC is unclear because an unplanned combination of uncoordinated legislation is adopted at the 2020 General Conference, some of which appears to be contradictory, potentially unconstitutional, and approved by thin vote margins. Many find themselves dispirited and confused about UMC futures as the general church is in a state of gridlock without consensus about critical issues, policies, and practices.
The next list offersa number of the Potential Consequences from the 2020 General Conference depending on what plans and legislative petitions prevail.
- We’ll enter a period of uncertainty and disruption no matter which legislative decisions are made. There will be practical issues (such as managing transitions from one to several denominations or expressions); work to revise and adopt policies and practices according to the prevailing views of the people or representatives of each new entity; legal details and possible disputes; and changes in personal, covenantal, and professional relationships. Living with and working through unfolding ambiguities and disagreements will be an ongoing and multi-year process. Relationships across major geographical regions will be more tenuous and require even greater intentionality and concerted effort to sustain trust and collaboration.
- There is increased fragmentation and alienation within the UMC system depending on the outcomes and how various cohorts are affected or perceive the legislative actions (or inaction) of the 2020 General Conference. The probability of amplified acts of resistance or decisions to behave in an independent or contrarian manner on the part of clergy, laity, local churches, or annual conferences may increase—with each action generating reactions that then multiply the disruptive consequences.
- If decisions are made that require the auditing, division, and distribution of assets, there will be clear challenges in adopting methodologies that all parties agree are accurate, fair, and practical. If a division of assets requires discontinuing a ministry (board or agency) or selling off capital assets (property), the disruption will be even greater.
- We’ll enter a renaissance period for a renewing UMC marked by fresh thinking, greater innovation, and widespread experimentation as United Methodists live with Christian hope and enhanced clarity about what is essential and non-essential in our corporate witness. We see greater flexibility and contextual approaches for self-governance and deeper passion about engaging in shared mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
What is missing from either list? What needs to be added and what might be described differently or with greater nuance or clarity?
Our aim is to encourage as many as will to take part in prayerful discernment and rigorous study as we work together animated by a vision of The United Methodist Church as a body of faithful disciples, united in our commitment to the primacy of Scripture, the historic affirmations of the Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition, and making room for all by allowing faithful expressions of Christian conscience. This includes acknowledging and facing differences around Church teachings and practices with regard to justice for and full inclusion of LGBTQ persons.
We must proceed with a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges and God’s vision. There are important decisions ahead about how we order United Methodist life and ministry. We encourage you to be an active participant in that journey and under the direction of the Spirit, to help guide the Church to do no harm, do all the good we can, and stay in love with God.