A Mess in St Louis

Before the United Methodist Special General Conference opened on Saturday, we prayed. Perhaps God would miraculously grant a fruitful discussion among 800disputantswho have very little in common except our cross-and-flame nametags. We prayed for openness to different points of view, unity, communion, gracious listening, holy conferencing, empathetic feelings, and generosity of spirt.

It didn’t work.

At some point I shifted my own prayers to, “Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.” This plan, recommended by the UMC bishops, aimed to give more discretion to local churches and annual conferences in LGBTQ inclusion, ministry, and mission. It was summarily trashed early in the voting; the rival Traditional Plan, which reaffirms the denomination’s prohibitions against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, was approved.

The Lord, as far as I could tell, had business elsewhere. In fairness to the Lord, months earlier nearly everybody had announced how they would vote on the questions before us. Many vowed that if the outcome was disagreeable to them, they would pack up their congregation and exit the UMC. Ever try to have a church meeting after half of the attendees announce, “If this doesn’t go our way, and maybe even if it does, we’re leaving”?

Now it is the UMC’s turn to experience the agony previously endured by the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, though I fear that our interlocked, connectional polity will make our pain worse. We bishops believed in unity but couldn’t figure out how to lead it. As we called for generosity and openness from the podium, Traditional Plan politicos were busy on the floor counting votes and making deals. The Traditional Plan carried the day but with a majority so slim that few could call it a victory. (Every pastor knows not to go into a building program with less than 60 percent of the vote.) Traditionalists andprogressives did share one conviction: don’t trust bishops.

The misnamed Traditional Plan—little in the 200-year tradition of American Methodism justifies such punitive, exclusionary measures—passed after being amended in a fruitless attempt to overcome its lack of constitutional validity. The traditionalists from the Wesleyan Covenant Association got to go back home proud of the way they had defended “scriptural authority,” eager to roll up their sleeves and go to work tearing asunder the church that produced them.

In the four decades I’ve been an ordained leader in the UMC, we have lost 30 percent of our membership. Our response? Spend millions of dollars and hours of work to decide who else we can exclude. From what I know of Jesus, I predict he will not deal graciously with the infidelity of this church born in John Wesley’s exuberant, extroverted, “Salvation for all!” A chill overtook my once-warmed Wesleyan heart as convention delegates casually discussed the conditions for a “gracious exit.” Never had I heard schism so openly affirmed in a church meeting. My question for right-wing schismatics: Do you really think that your vote at General Conference can stop the Trinity from creating LBGTQ Christians and then recklessly sending them to lead Methodist churches?

What now for the UMC? There will be significant losses from LGBTQ Christians and their allies who have given up on the UMC, along with losses from those for whom the UMC will never be confined, closed, and conservative enough. We’ll be poorer for the loss of both conversation partners. As for those in the global church who participated in this smackdown of North American Methodist mission and evangelism, they may soon regret the loss of financial support from a considerably weakened North American Methodism.

If any good comes out of this debacle in St. Louis, it may be the recognition of some basic realities.

First, no fundamentally helpful decisions will ever come out of any General Conference, no matter how much prayer precedes it. The General Conference is no longer a viable means of governing the church. Polls showed that the majority of North American United Methodists supported the One Church Plan. Many African and Asian delegates, who come from vital churches full of Holy Spirit-induced innovation, joined the conservatives in dictating to the North American United Methodists the boundaries of our mission and the scope of congregational formation. A big, no-holds-barred, winner-take-all political convention may work for a national political party. It’s a disaster for the body of Christ.

Second, over a couple of decades, people my age have constructed the Book of Discipline to serve the interests of our generation, albeit unknowingly. Adaptation or innovation in the general church have been rendered impossible. If there’s any good worth doing, there’s a rule to be passed to force you to do it. The way to come to a good decision is through endless meetings followed by coercive, will-to-power voting.

In this Special General Conference we have now declared ourselves to be the church of the aged. The average UM is white and 61 years old. Just like me, my church has got too much past and too little future. I fear that this will be remembered as the week that the UMC decisively, openly turned away from ministry with anyone under 40.

Finally, the Holy Spirit doesn’t work from the top down. The Spirit does good from the bottom up, through God’s hijinks in the local church. We Methodists may brag that we are “connectional” in organization and episcopal in polity. But, by God’s grace, this train wreck may give us the opportunity to rediscover the power of the local and congregational.

The question of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, insoluble at a corporate-style global gathering of 800 people, is more or less resolved in every congregation I know. The solution may not be one of which I approve, but in a way that somehow works in the present moment for that congregation, in the place where Christ has assembled them, they muddle through. They may still have great differences; they may have lost members because of their solution. There may be repeated, heated arguments. The pastor may be uneasy with and unsure how to lead their work in progress, but they have practiced forbearance because Jesus told them to. They have discovered the adventure of worshiping the Trinity with people with whom they disagree, because, like it or not, those are the folk whom the Lord has convened and made Methodist. They muddle through.

All pneumatology is local, gift of God from the bottom up. Now those of us who still love and linger in the UMC can fully give ourselves to that local task of muddling through. I told my seminarians, “If you are wondering why God Almighty would call somebody like you into the United Methodist ministry, here’s your answer. God is calling upon you for assistance to clean up what my generation has messed up.” By the grace of God we may rediscover the joy of working with a relentlessly redemptive God who can bring good even out of our mess at General Conference.


This article was originally posted through The Christian Century, where Will Willimon continues to serve as editor-at-large.

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18 thoughts on “A Mess in St Louis

  1. My heart is with you, Dr Willimon, and with all my UMC friends and neighbors. As a PCUSA Presbyterian, I’ve witnessed some pain. As a member of a congregation that celebrates the beginning of a young “different” church in its midst, I hold out hope for UMC folks everywhere. We’ve watched the excitement in UMC Church of the Resurrection, with the leadership of Adam Hamilton, as its outreach brings love and service to Kansas City. I think God’s got this.

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  3. Will, even in the conservative PCA, we are trying to figure out this issue — how to balance Jesus’ generous grace to all sorts of sinners with His call to repent as part of that grace. And we are praying for our sisters and brothers in the UMC as you all wrestle through this as a global church, which is a strength of diversity we lack. We are all called to be holy, a dam*ed hard thing most days, but my final hope is in the oft repeated promise of Scripture, “that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” whoever they are and whatever it is they wrestle with. Paul and Barnabas split, and yet the gates of hell still did not prevail. Praying.

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  4. In think Wesley may answer….

    “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in krausen and drunkenness, not a sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christand make no provision for the flesh in regards to its lust.”

    After all, Wesley was a man of one book and rejected the Liberals of his day. Indeed, he could not have been a man of God any other way. And there would have been no Methodism without him. Therefore, your opponents are his true heirs. And you don’t deserve to bear the name of a group labeled because of its dogmatic pursuit of holiness rather than worldliness and doing that which pleases the world.

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    • PREACH it brother!!! I grieve for all those excluded by the rules made in St. Louis, comforted only by the certain knowledge that It is the numbskull of a denomination that is doing the excluding, not Christ. Woe unto us!!!

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  5. God bless any LGBT person or ally who still has the patience to fight the good fight in the United Methodist church. I grew up a United Methodist, but in the early 90s I knew that I wasn’t sticking around in a church that wanted to debate whether I was compatible with their damned Book of Discipline. When is enough enough? Let the United Methodists be a church that doesn’t welcome everyone, and join a denomination, or create one, that does welcome everyone. The United Church of Christ does and is more Christ-like than the Methodists who are so worried about their methods.

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  8. The problem with the one church plan is that it didn’t make you united in more than structure, Methodist or even a church. You pretend you were hoping to unite knowing in fact you’d be kicking out those who actually cared about the Scriptures. You pretend you care about saving the church but liberal churches are dying fastest. By undermining the gospel, they undermine the one thing that they can offer to a weary world.

    Forgive my cynicism if it feels to me the ocp was about little more than saving face with colleagues but not God, Saving sin but not sinners, and saving structural integrity but not souls.

    Of course in the aftermath, the progressive wing will have to answer for the unmitigated racism toward people of color. Horrifying the way the church in Africa and Asia was talked about by the same people who will lecture us tomorrow about systemic racism.

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  9. The issue that you and no one in the Episcopacy is facing up to Will, is the absolute grab of scriptural power and authority the so called “One Church Plan” really was. It gives the finest politicians in our Church (you do campaign like demons and run for Bishop after all) the absolute and sole right to decide in their baronage what is meet and right with the Lord. Our Bishops have not earned that right, not on earth, and certainly not in heaven. I am praying heartily that those of influence in Methodism will search scripture, reason, tradition and experience for answers as to what will please our God in heaven, rather than starting every decision argument with “we have lost 30 percent of our membership.” Please consider this. Blessings, Pat Trammell VHUMC, Birmingham, AL

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  10. To make this about the LBGTQ A agenda is to cloud the issue. The majority of the US Bishops and retired Bishops did everything they could to rig the vote. Took a position—one church plan—-trying to suspend rules of order and tried to put speech cops at each table all while making sure pensions were not affected in any plan. You have failed when you put salvation of “social justice.” For instance, no investment in fossil fuels (we ALL use them) and divesting in Israel. In Western North Carolina, the conference flew up a Bishops assistant, boarded him, and allowed him to lead a delegate listening session. The FIRST slide he put up after the GC proposed plan was a slide on pension liabilities. Cmon man! The Bishops have been living high on the hog. They have set mandatory retirement ages and move to the “cemeteries” where they rake in millions in pensions and salaries. shame on you.

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  11. “Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.”

    Lord, smite everyone who disagrees with meeeeeee

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  13. Reminds me of the Irish blessing:
    May those who love you love you; and those who don’t love you, may God turn their hearts. And if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so you’ll know them by their limping.

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