DISCLOSURE: Please understand that this is my personal statement, and it has no bearing on my university’s affiliation with The UMC. ONU is committed to staying in the denomination for the time being, and there are no movements of which I am aware to seek to disaffiliate.
The United Methodist Church is in distress–hence the upside-down cross and flame. We have been in distress for some time now, but some of us are just now realizing that fact. Some of us still haven’t realized that fact–including many of the institutionalists who are trying to hold things together and try to get everyone to stay in the denomination.
Here’s why some of us may choose to leave anyway.
I’m 42 years old, about to turn 43 in the fall. For longer than I have been alive, United Methodists have been wrangling over our stance on homosexuality, the ordination of LGBTQ people, and same-sex weddings. In many ways, we have been debating this since the time we merged in 1968, although we were so caught up in the headiness of becoming a new denomination that we couldn’t see the deep divisions that were already starting to brew. In the midst of a world that was reeling from the assassination of MLK, a country embroiled in the Vietnam War, and an impending shift in youth culture, the hopeful sign of two Christian churches coming together to form one new body was good news that was greeted with great joy.
But under the surface, a looming cultural battle was beginning to well up inside us. Some of our very prominent leaders in that movement for unification of the EUB and MC were worried. As they looked at the signs all around them, they recognized that things were not always going to be hunky-dory, so they needed to react, and they needed to do it soon. So, at the first real General Conference of the new United Methodist Church, somebody moved to insert some language in our Book of Discipline that made it clear (somewhat) where we stood as a church on the issue of sexuality, and specifically on the issue of homosexuality. Bishops love to say that “the language about homosexuality has only been in the Discipline since 1972,” but they neglect to mention that this was only four years after the initial merger. So for all but four years of our denominational history, we’ve been an anti-LGBTQ+ denomination. During that same time, we’ve also had brave and hardy individuals and churches who have challenged that stance, but the stance has never changed substantially, and in fact has become more and more ingrained in our church law over time–first moving from the social principles to the list of “chargeable offenses” for clergy, and now with mandatory minimums for those who disobey.
Some of us have had enough.
Hell, I’ll be honest and say it–I’ve had enough.
I’m tired of the bickering and fighting. I’m tired of the posturing and grasping for power. I’m tired of having to organize my life and ministry around the fears of a small group of old white folks who are terrified that their power and positions in the church will diminish if we allow others to take on the mantle of leadership. I’m tired of having to say, “I’m a United Methodist, but I’m not THAT KIND of United Methodist.” I have witnessed my friends and loved ones who are LGBTQ+ be denigrated on the floor of many conferences, and I have heard them compared to pedophiles and thieves. I have been called a heretic as I walked, red-faced, back to my seat at annual conference after speaking in favor of inclusion. I have had students in my ministry setting tell me that they don’t want to seek ordination in the United Methodist Church any more because they’re not sure they’d fit in. I’m tired of justifying my institution’s connection to a denomination that is increasingly out of touch with our Methodist/Wesleyan values of openness and welcome for all. I’m fed up with being treated as a second-class citizen in my own annual conference because I work in an environment where we don’t always count “making disciples of Jesus Christ” as our first priority. I’m tired of seeing others treated like third-class citizens in our church because of whom they love or the kinds of people to whom they feel attracted. I’m tired of unity for the sake of unity, and I’m tired of seeing us sacrifice the integrity of the gospel of Jesus Christ on the altar of the idol of unity.
Right now, I’m staying in the church, mostly because I don’t have another home to go to just yet. But I’m looking, and I’m praying for a new form of Methodism to emerge out of the mess of all of this. And then, I will most likely leave. I know that there will be some who will stay and fight, and I commend them and their courage. I know that there will be some who will say I am a coward or a schismatic, and I’m o.k. with that. I know that there will be some who will say our witness will be diminished if we leave, but I respectfully and firmly disagree. The time has come for some of us to leave, and to stretch the witness of the Church to new horizons.
Think about it this way: the people who left and formed the AME, AME Zion, and CME because they abhorred the Methodist Church’s indifference to the spiritual need of Black people are now hailed as heroes. Those who left and formed the Free Methodists, Wesleyan Church, and Church of the Nazarene are now considered ecumenical and Pan-Methodist partners in our mission. There have been many people over the years who have left the Methodist church to form new bodies in order to be faithful to their understanding of the gospel. Now is the time for some of us to step away and do the same. Who knows? Perhaps someday my great-great-great grandchildren will be considered valuable Pan-Methodist collaborators with whatever becomes of the United Methodist Church because they have a unique perspective to offer that stems from their heritage as “New Methodists” or whatever. Maybe someday those of us who do leave will be written down in the history books as the brave ones who stood up for what was right when the institutional church was more concerned about propping up its failing structures.
Right now, I’m staying in, but I may leave, and when I do it will be for the purpose of loving the people with whom God has called me to serve, and to do so with integrity and the full expression of the gospel as I see it. When I leave, I know that some will also leave at the same time, and I look forward to working with them to be the church God has called us to be. And, some will stay, and I look forward to continuing in ecumenical relationship with them in whatever ways we can. As my spiritual director said to me recently, “What if the pain you’re feeling is not the pain of death, but the pangs of birth?”
New birth is painful, and it is messy, and it very rarely goes as we expect it will. But new birth is also exciting, and joyful, and filled with wonder. Let those of us who leave do so with our heads held high, and arms wide open to accept the new birth that is in our midst.