I am not leaving

The United Methodist Church will have a special General Conference next weekend (Feb. 23-26) that may have profound impact on the future of the denomination. No matter how the vote comes out, I will not be leaving.

I don’t make this declaration lightly.

If the One Church Plan is adopted, I suspect that the UMC will experience what other denominations have after adopting similar measures. We will see a large exodus of people, clergy, and congregations, which will shift the denomination further to the progressive side. The net effect of these changes will be that I will find myself a minority in a denomination that will grow increasingly less tolerant of my theology. I am not naive about the way evangelical clergy are treated in progressive conferences already. I have heard the hostile language used by “centrists” toward evangelicals in the last year. I have read the words of a bishop of our church who accuses those who support our current Discipline of being merely interested in power and oppression rather than fidelity to Scripture. I know that staying in an increasingly progressive UMC will not be a path of ease. Indeed, I may face expulsion at some point down the line, despite the promises of the OCP to protect the conscience of clergy.

If this is a possible future I imagine, why stay and why be public about that intention before the votes? I have a few reasons.

First, my sense of call has not waivered or changed. God called me to serve in the United Methodist Church. I have prayed quite a bit about whether that is still God’s intention for my ministry, and the only answers I have received are “yes.” Although I had no awareness of the looming crisis in the denomination when I answered my call more than 10 years ago, God was surely aware. Absent a strong leading from God, it would be unfaithful for me to abandon the call.

Second, I can’t shake Jeremiah 32. I believe God has put that piece of Scripture in my mind. In Jeremiah 32, God tells the prophet that the Babylonians are coming and that to resist them is pointless. Instead, Jeremiah should buy a field in Anathoth and seal the records away in a clay jar where they will surive a long period because God’s promise is that one day the people will return to the land. I apologize to my colleagues who hear in this passage a comparison to the Babylonians. I merely share what is on my heart. Staying even if the denomination takes a vote that I do not support is my version of buying a field in Anathoth. At least, I think that is what God is telling me by keeping this passage so clearly before me.

Third, I interpret John Wesley’s instructions as a counsel for unity. In his sermon “On Schism,” Wesley argues that the only biblical grounds for separation from a church of which I am a member is if the body requires me to do something the word of God forbids or prohibits me from doing something the word of God requires. On its face, the adoption of the OCP neither requires me to do something the Bible forbids nor prohibits me from doing what it requires. Yes, in time, as the denomination changes that may also change. In the meantime, however, I lean on the wisdom of our movement’s founder. Wesley has been a profound spiritual teacher and guide for me. I continue to turn to him for guidance in matters such as this.

Finally, I cannot as a matter of personal integrity continue in the process of ordination that I am in if my plan is to leave the UMC if it votes contrary to my understanding of the Bible. I know some people land somewhere else on this. For some, the vote changes things and changes the analysis. I fault no one for that. In the coming days, however, I am hoping to hear that I have been approved to move forward to track 3 of my conference’s ordination process. I have had to persevere under some very difficult circumstances to get to this point. I have in the past two years wondered whether the UMC was trying to tell me it did not want me to be an elder, but I have pressed ahead because I believe this is the work God is calling me to do. I simply do not feel that I can with integrity ask the conference to vote me forward in the process, but plan to leave if the General Conference goes a direction I do not support. I know that statement may sound incoherent to some. I can only offer that it feels like an issue of integrity to me. I cannot accept the polity of the UMC and refuse to accept the outcome of its politics. Others do not share my view. I understand.

This is where I stand as we approach the General Conference.

My prayers are with the delegates who will gather, discuss, debate, and decide. I cannot imagine the burdens they carry.

My heart is already breaking for the church general because I know that no matter what happens the pain and difficulty will continue. I am also carrying grief because I know that the vote could lead members of the congregation I serve to cut ties with the UMC.

These are heavy days.

In these days, I hold on to the hope of Jeremiah and I trust that God is at work in ways that I am too small to comprehend.

29 thoughts on “I am not leaving

  1. John, I’m one of those progressives that are hoping we can stay in a church and still honor what we hear from God and read in the Bible, especially in Jesus’ teachings, that we’re to welcome all. No, it’s not a “rebellion against the order of creation” (as in Gary’s note) since LGBTQ+ folks are part of God’s creation. I personally fear that the OCP will not be accepted and that I’ll have to make a decision about whether to stay or not. I don’t know what I would decide. I do appreciate Steven’s comments. The CHURCH is much broader than the United Methodist Church. I only hope that I will pray and go through a discernment process as well done as you have, John.

    1. Thanks for the comment and kindness. I know there is fear and anxiety on all sides. It is probably why we struggle right now to be generous toward each other. May God lead and strengthen you.

      1. It’s very unfortunate that traditionalists are often caricatured as denying the sacred worth of persons created by God. This is a devilish canard, patently false, but it plays a large role in sowing confusion and exasperation and madness in our current process.

  2. Any denomination needs a spectrum of theology as long as it is Christ-centered. It is difficult when we have a stake in an issue not to personalize it. It is Christ who should be at the center of our lives, not our egos. Out of that center will come loving ways of treating one another. Shalom for all.

  3. I too will be staying United Methodist. I love the UMC and every fiber of my being tells me that I belong in the United Methodist Church. When I joined, I promised to be loyal to God and the church and I will continue to be. I know changes are coming, both good and bad, but I believe God’s grace and mercy is sufficient to see us through the difficult days ahead. Thank you John for this article and may God bless you through your journey.

  4. John,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I disagree with several of the premises you set out. Let me mention a couple.

    1) You say “I suspect that the UMC will experience what other denominations have after adopting similar measures.” Can you name these denominations? Lutherans [ELCA]? Presbyterians? Episcopalians? United Church of Christ? In fact, looking at the net effect across a decade of reports, none of these denominations saw “a large exodus of people, clergy, and congregations, which will shift the denomination further to the progressive side.” None of them saw membership decline any more substantial than what the UMC has been experiencing going back two or three decades. Our decline has been in concert with theirs. This is more about general demographics in mainline church families than any decision about inclusion.

    2) Wesley has been a central teaching for those of us labeled “Progressive” as well. He was Armenian and not Calvinist in his theological underpinnings. Questions of who is to be fully welcome at the tables of grace and in our fellowship didn’t spin around doctrinal purity. The journey in holiness, or sanctification calls us, each and all, to learn and grow as lead by the Spirit — Just as St. Paul changed his thinking on food and circumcision; and Wesley changed his view on Heart Religion, Lay Leadership and Field Preaching; and Methodists in the U.S. changed our views on slavery, a segregated church, women in ministry and the welcoming divorced clergy into service — we are called to be a family committed to welcoming new realities as the Spirit gives us clarity.

    I give thanks for your ministry and your desire for “integrity.” At the same time I pray you might understand that for others of us “integrity” means seeing a church that is welcoming of the gifts of LGBTQI persons who pledge to live faithfully. I join Dr. Steve Harper who points out that our Covenant is not a score card but rather a call to LIFE and God’s continuing renewal of persons and the church.

    1. Phil, thanks for writing. In saying that it is an “integrity” issue for me, I no way meant to imply it was something else for anyone else. I am writing and reporting my process and my decision. I do not see or intent that as a commentary on anyone else.

      I think there are interesting conversations to be had about Wesley’s view of holiness (always a favorite topic of mine) and the scale and scope of denominational change in recent years. I do not have time to engage at length on those things now. Thanks for taking the time to write. God bless you.

  5. It is a cliche to say each person chooses to live in their own reality but as a young person struggling to find my reality I finally concluded that Christ was the ultimate reality that I, or anyone, could try to live by. I see Christ as the ultimate realist with His many teachings —and the greatest of these is Love; I am the Truth (and the Truth shall set you free), the Way, the Light, the Shepherd, the Teacher — and to me, the Realist. Christ lived as a Realist 2000 years ago. He wasn’t a magician, or a fortune teller, He wasn’t self centered but God centered. And he became flesh, 2000 years ago, subject to the knowledge and realities of that time placing everything into the context of His and God’s love. Thank goodness.

    Christ the Realist has continued to live these 2000 years and being of the flesh kept learning. As a Teacher, He could be a scientist discovering truths and facts, sorting them into His Reality. He had to be impressed with Wesley’s programs and teachings and actions dealing with the realities of his time. A wonderful Disciple. Probably why I am a Methodist today.

    I am not a Theologian, just a retired physician, who with my wife Ann, spent some years in Africa under the UMC as medical missionaries. I believe in the realities of the US and of Africa and of the blessed differences in the cultures and civilizations of this earth. I believe in the realities of our sexuality as science has shown exists. I didn’t choose to be heterosexual, I just am. Others didn’t choose to be homosexual, they just are. Yet we are all under the canopy of Christ’s Realistic Love. We all deserve the blessings of marriage, of career, of the pursuit of happiness, under and in Christ’s Realistic Love.

  6. John, I am praying for you, the church, and all the participants at the General Conference. As you stated these are indeed heavy times, and they call for all of us to be deeply immersed in prayer, not just for the now, but going forward. Prayers for unity, prayers for wisdom, prayers for healing and always prayers that God’s will be done. DeColores

  7. As a Wesleyan outsider it troubles me that this beloved church so widely used and blessed by God has descended to this point. Your decision to stay is admirable. I recall that Wesley never left the Anglican fellowship. I still wonder if he would be able to stay connected to a body so clearly misguided morally.
    Jesus Himself didn’t “come out” of the Jewish fellowship although they ended up expelling Him and his apprentices.

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