Ending the Cycle of Conflict in the United Methodist Church

A draining cycle of conflict now grips the United Methodist Church. This past February that conflict was exposed in all its raw pain at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference. As time distances us from the emotion of St. Louis perhaps we can see something more than accusations, recrimination, and claims of harm on all sides. Hopefully we can acknowledge that our conflict arises from the deeply held, yet contradictory, convictions of many people — all who claim the name of Jesus Christ. We may then be able to acknowledge that the potential separation we have feared and worked to avoid may be the best and only true resolution in our current circumstances.

How Our Conflict Has Grown

The conflict which brought us to this moment has been with us since the inception of the UMC. It has grown over nearly fifty years in the soil of doctrinal and theological pluralism. The founders hoped that this soil would nourish diverse understandings of Christian (Wesleyan) faith which could grow harmoniously together in a large greenhouse (or as is popular to say, a “big tent”). United Methodism has produced many fruitful missions and ministries across the globe, yet the vision of our founders has not been realized. Nearly fifty years after the merger which created the UMC, we find ourselves entangled in a messy and increasingly untillable garden. The plants seem to require different soil balance and environmental conditions for continued growth together.   This tangled garden has grown from the interaction of different and conflicting convictions about the nature of revelation and Biblical authority, as well as the authority and interpretation of Scripture. These varying convictions result in understandings of the nature and mission of the church and what constitutes faithful ministry which are not well aligned. Out of this context our conflict over same-sex relationships has become the immediate cause which is bringing the UMC to the brink of division. The roots of our conflict grow in deep soil. Human sexuality is only one of the potential areas of conflict found in our large green house.[i]

United Methodists have labored diligently to find a way forward. We have studied, appointed special commissions, debated, dialogued, strategized for legislative solutions, and engaged three proposed ways forward at a multi-million dollar special General Conference. For twelve consecutive General Conferences and at the most recent Special Session, we have considered our response to LGBTQAI persons. Repeatedly, we have affirmed the basic response laid out in 1972.  We have prayed and plead for unity. Yet, unity now appears more distant than ever.

The Time Has Come for Separation

The time has come for United Methodist leaders across the theological spectrum to come together for honest and honorable conversation about how to accomplish an “amicable separation” in the United Methodist Church.

I am certainly not the first person to suggest that a separation provides the best direction for our denomination. Nor is “amicable separation” the only metaphor suggested. Many have spoken of “divorce.” Others label a potential division as “schism.” I have appreciated Bob Phillips’ suggestion of “mitosis” or cell division as a metaphor. We can view our current moment as an opportunity to engage in the kind of normal cell division which produces growth. Two or more Wesleyan bodies emerging from the United Methodist Church offers the opportunity for us to end the cycle of conflict, set each other free to minister respectively out of our deep convictions, and empower two or more bodies each of which are united by their doctrinal, theological and practical commitments.

The term “amicable separation” does address our need with clear and direct language. Many traditionalists, like myself, are determined to maintain the current language in our Discipline relative to same-sex marriage and ordination. We don’t like the idea of complaints, charges and church trials, but are willing to pursue them to bring accountability to our covenant community. Many progressives and centrists have made clear they will not uphold the Discipline relative to same-sex relationships — even if this  includes active disobedience and the risk of lost credentials. As one who supported the traditional plan, I believe this active disobedience breaks our covenant and creates chaos in the church. As Billy Abraham has written, “the United Methodist Church has become ungovernable.” If there is to be an end to the cycle of conflict, separation is required.

How we arrive at separation will greatly impact the possibility of future relationships. One possibility is that either traditionalists or progressives/centrists finally conclude “enough is enough” and depart leaving the UMC to the opposing side. Such an approach creates and magnifies “winners” and “losers.” As witnessed by other mainline denominations which have experienced division, such a division will likely result in years of litigation and millions of dollars in legal costs expended over property matters. Continuing the conflict until one side or the other prevails and the opposing side leaves will continue to drain resources from mission, further damage already strained relationships, and further expose United Methodism to negative press. Scripture encourages us to live at peace: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)  “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)

An “amicable” separation requires a solution which, in the face of the deep pain experienced by persons on all sides of the conflict and the inevitable grief of dividing the church which has nurtured us, offers hope for a better future for all.

The Scripture and Separation

The Scripture has much to say about conflict and unity in the church. Scripture also offers a couple examples of how conflict was avoided or resolved. One is found in the account of Abram and Lot standing near Bethel looking over the land. Abram knew that the land could not support them both, so he offered Lot a way forward.

Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred.  Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left. (Genesis 13:8-9)  Abram’s willingness to bless Lot on his way forestalled what he recognized would be the probability of continued conflict.

Even more pertinent to our moment is the conflict between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). Preparing for mission, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark. Paul was opposed because John Mark had deserted them on a previous mission. A sharp disagreement arose between them. It was a question of how mission would be carried forward and how personnel would be deployed. Paul took Silas. Barnabas took John Mark. The community commended them to the grace of the Lord. We often assume that Paul, Barnabas and John Mark remained in conflict which was never resolved. Yet, later from prison Paul writes to Timothy and asks him to send Mark to him because he is useful to Paul in ministry (II Timothy 4:11). Paul’s and Timothy’s readiness to go their ways actually seems to have multiplied their ministry and laid the foundation for a renewed unity in the future.

An amicable separation could include clear institutional separation into two or more new Methodist denominations, continued shared connection/cooperation through retention of a few of our agencies (e.g. Wespath, Archives and History, UMCOR), careful consideration of the needs and desires of Central Conferences so as not to destroy the global mission we have partnered in creating, and just and equitable division of remaining assets. Implementing amicable separation will be difficult. Each of the matters mentioned here involve complex issues which can be approached in a number of ways. However, we need to remember that our current conflict has proven intractable. No resolution will be easy or painless, but neither will it be unreachable.

A Hope for General Conference 2020

The 2020 General Conference convenes in approximately thirteen months. Traditionalists will work to strengthen accountability by enacting the portions of the Traditional Plan not passed in St. Louis. Progressives and Centrists will come determined to undo the results of the 2019 gathering. The cycle of conflict will not only continue; it will be magnified with more hurt all around, renewed vitriolic speech, additional recriminations and accusations, and continued defaming of the United Methodist Church in the press.

We can avoid this eventuality. United Methodist leaders across the theological spectrum can gather together and begin now to develop a well-defined process that leads to the birth of two or more new expressions of Wesleyan Christian faith. They could prepare the necessary legislation in advance and offer it to the church with one voice. They could ask the 2020 General Conference to make the discussion of amicable separation the primary agenda. The question is not IF these things can be done. The question is whether we will continue the cycle of conflict or seek to bless one another as we each respond to our understanding of God’s leading in our lives and ministry.

If we do the latter … we will be the first mainline denomination to find our way through these divisive matters without long, expensive legal battles … we will offer the world an alternative narrative about how Christians solve intractable differences of conscience … we will depart in relative peace and leave the door open for what God’s Spirit may bring in the future … we will offer God’s peace and God’s blessing to one another.

In preparation for the 2019 General Conference we heard a repeated refrain from our episcopal leaders and others across the church. That refrain was for us to open ourselves to the moving of the Holy Spirit. Implicit in that plea seemed to be the assumption that if we did open ourselves and were obedient to the Holy Spirit the institutional unity of the UMC would be preserved. But, what if the Holy Spirit is seeking to lead in a new  direction. Could it be that God is preparing to birth a new or renewed Methodism? I believe that is entirely possible.

[i] For helpful analyses of the breadth and depth of our conflict see the following articles. For the perspective of a more progressive writer see “Humpty Dumpty Can’t Be Put Back Together Again: Why the United Methodist Church Must Split”  by O. Wesley Allen, Jr. (http://hackingchristianity.net/2019/03/guest-post-why-the-united-methodist-church-must-split.html). For the perspective of a more traditionalist writer see the lengthy but insightful article by William Abraham, “Mountains Are There to Be Climbed: The Next United Methodism” (https://peopleneedjesus.net/2019/03/17/abraham-mountains-are-there-to-be-climbed-the-next-united-methodism/).

18 thoughts on “Ending the Cycle of Conflict in the United Methodist Church

  1. A very thorough, thoughtful, and timely analysis of the current state of affairs in the UMC. It is abundantly clear that those supporting the One Church Plan and those supporting the Traditional Plan cannot live in harmony together in the same church organization. I am in prayer daily for this separation to take shape and to happen as soon as possible. One Church Plan proponents have failed at every conference to turn the UMC towards their misguided path and they should now see clearly the need to avail themselves of the offered gracious exit. We Traditionalist wish them well, but we cannot abide in their disobedience at all levels and before Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Thank you to our brothers and sisters in Christ who make up the Wesleyan Covenant Association, The Good News team, The Institute on Religion and Democracy and UM Action, People Need Jesus, and American Family Association for leading, informing, and being effective keeping all UMC members aware of the state of affairs within the global United Methodist Church. Thank you Gregory Stover for your excellent article.

  2. Greg, as always, you provide thoughtful reflections on difficult topics.

    God makes all things new. The UM “Greenhouse” is broken; lives cannot grow and thrive in this environment. The United Methodist Church has become a wilderness, not a spiritual place of retreat, but a barren one that is uninhabitable, a place where all of God’s children cannot live and thrive. The great tragedy is that we stopped listening and caring for one another decades ago. There has been mold, dead branches, and decay in the UM greenhouse for several years. The cultural and theological divides are now insurmountable; it is time to create something new that reflects the heart of Christ – One who always stepped across the lines to welcome all.
    I continue to pray for God to lead us to a new place where all are fully welcomed, a table where love, mercy, and grace are served to each and every person.

    1. Cathy, thanks for our comments. While we may differ on exactly what a welcoming church looks like, I believe we agree that Christ’s church needs to be a place of refuge and grace for all who are seeking to find the salvation offered in Jesus. It appears that we cannot live into this vision as one institutional denomination. Perhaps in separate structural bodies we can live into the vision as each understands it. God’s blessing to you.

  3. If there is going to be an amicable separation without winners and losers, we all need to remove phrases like “failed at every conference to turn the UMC toward their misguided path” and “avail themselves of the offered gracious exit” from our written expressions on this topic.

    … I confess my need to change some of my written expressions too!

    1. Tracy, while I doubt all rhetoric can be eliminated, the process toward finding a way forward will be strengthened the more we can find ways to speak (write) our understandings of the truth in less inflammatory ways. Perhaps it will be easier to set aside some of the rhetoric if a significant group is publicly moving toward a plan for amicable separation — that is, perhaps the emphasis can shift from debating our positions, to recognizing our differences and focusing on what an equitable division looks like.

  4. Since when did disobeying Biblical teaching become “OK” if a person felt hurt & misunderstood? The United Methodist denomination has failed all it’s members by not enforcing resolutions of the Discipline and letting people get by with disobedience. Shame on the Council of Bishops for encouraging those who seek to only obey certain parts of the Bible and turn a deaf ear to those who defiantly oppose to follow what they knew the Discipline required. I feel let down & sad that the governing body of our denomination can’t abide by our own rules.

    1. Amen & Agree !! And add to that, I sight !st Cor.6 ;9-11. i believe this scripture plainly states the standard which we are called to abide by (ref; The Soldier’s Bible-Holman Standard Christian Bible-(HCSB).

  5. “Amicable separation” sounds like an oxymoron to me. Periodically on the UMC Facebook page, questions are asked, and the comments are always interesting. Questions such as “What is your favorite hymn?” or “What is your favorite Bible passage?” Not long before GC2019, the question was “What did you take away from Sunday’s sermon?” The very first response was “Our pastor said if anything but the Traditional Plan passes, he’s leaving the church.” This my-way-or-the-highway attitude — on both sides — is anything but amicable. Whether the story I’ve been told about the 1844 schism is true or apocryphal, I can’t say. But I’ve heard over the years that the split was marked by a funeral service because there had been a death in the MEC before the birth of the MECS. Then it took until 1939 for the two to finally get back together. Sad.

  6. This talk of blessing one another and working together after separating is what has got us to this point. You don’t bless sin, these centrist and progressives are endangering people’s eternal destiny and I believe John Wesley would agree. This does not mean we don’t love them and we don’t go around looking for a fight but we have to stand for biblical Christianity. These are not just different views or expressions of the faith, these progressives are in error. We should separate and pray that they repent of there sin and return to the faith and definitely not work together after separation. 1 Cor.5:1-13

    1. Mike, thanks for your comments. I agree that the teaching promoted by progressives regarding human sexuality is contrary to Scripture and in error. If I did not believe that I would not suggest that the situation is so serious that separation is a needed remedy. The point I am making about blessing each other on our way is based on the following thought process. Both sides in this controversy claim to be followers of Christ. Both sides believe the other is in error in interpretation of Scripture and our conclusions. While I am convinced of my own position, it is not my place to make a final judgment about the hearts of those who oppose me. Only God can/will make that judgment. John Wesley in his sermon “Catholic Spirit” made the point that we all error in some ways in our understandings and judgments; this is a part of our human condition. The difficulty is that we don’t know always know where we are in error. If we did we would most certainly change our opinion or action. So, we proceed with both conviction and humility. So, I am willing to bless others on their way; although that blessing does not connote my approval of their opinion. It seems that Gamaliel did much the same when he encouraged fellow Jewish leaders to proceed cautiously in dealing with the early Christian believers. He suggested that they be careful because if “this thing” were not from God it would fail, but if it were he and his colleagues could be found opposing God. (cf. Acts).

    1. For me, the key question will not be “who supported what plan,” but “where will a person’s commitments lie in the future.” It is my assumption that in a separation into two or more churches, each new church would define their doctrine, theology and practice. In light of our current controversy, one would likely take a progressive stance on sexual ethics, while the other would stand firmly against same-sex ordination and marriage. Every church, every pastor and every bishop would need to declare themselves about which church they would become a part of. One would think that bishops who supported the OCP would likely associate with the more progressive branch. Of course, there could be exceptions.

  7. Thanks Pastor Stover. Well done.
    I don’t like the term ‘It is a win-win situation’; but as much as I don’t like the term; an amicable separation is a win-win.
    The primary and only agenda item at the 2020 General Conference has to be amicable separation. Otherwise, the 2020 GC will soley be a debate quagmire on theology with evangelism left outside.

  8. Close, But…
    The idea that those who supported the Traditional Plan and OCP can’t stay together isn’t quite accurate. The OCP was an attempt to do just that. One side said they can’t stay in a church where others interpret scripture and practice ministry different from them. That’s what got us here. And while I find Gregory’s recognition of our divide well articulated there was one aspect of separation he didn’t address. The only amicable separation mentioned involves dissolving the UMC. Since traditionalists have wide consensus on needing to be fully separated, why can’t there be a “sending forth” to start a new denomination of Traditional Methodists (WCA?) and leave those in the centrist/progressive camps to figure out how to reform the denomination?
    Rob Fuquay

    1. Rob, thanks for your comments and engaging this conversation. Here are two brief responses to your thoughts. First, I don’t believe it is either accurate or fair to say that what got us here is the unwillingness of traditionalists to live in a denomination where others interpret Scripture and practice ministry differently. This seems to beg the question at hand. Could we not as easily say that what got us here is the unwillingness of centrists and progressives to uphold the position on same-sex relationships which the UMC officially has endorsed consistently since 1972?

      Second,I did (at least in passing) refer to other approaches other than dissolution. I mentioned that we could continue the conflict until either the traditionalists or the centrists/progressives finally say, “enough is enough” and determine to go a new direction. The TP included an exit provision for those who could not in conscience uphold the Discipline. Many Centrists and Progressives in response accused us of trying to force them from the church. When traditionalists asked for an exit plan which any, including traditionalists could make use of, centrists and progressives largely were opposed. Now that the TP has been supported comes the suggestion that traditionalists be “sent forth” and the centrist/progressives retain the denomination. Herein is the difficulty and my rationale for dissolution or something akin to it. Who and how will we decide who leaves? Is it not better to all leave to form two or more new expressions of Methodism? There are multiple thoughts about how this could be accomplished. I believe the end would be the empowerment of two or more denominations — hopefully without a bitter fight over who stays and who leaves.

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