By Patrick Scriven
I appreciate that “United Methodist leaders” decided to wait until after the holidays to deliver the news of a proposal to allow for some amicable separation within The United Methodist Church. Unfortunately, they chose to release this news on a Friday morning leaving pastors with the unfortunate task of trying to discern what it all means while also deciding if they want to address it on Sunday morning. Tack on top of that a number of sensational news reports with misleading headlines, and our shared tendency to skim the news, and some pastors may now have to answer questions about things this Sunday that haven’t even happened yet.
Recognizing this challenge, I’m offering a few suggestions to consider. I wish I had had a chance to write them earlier, but hopefully, they will help someone in a pinch.
Lean on United Methodist Sources over National Reporting
There are some good resources out there to help. United Methodist News Service offered a story on this latest development in addition to the Press Release and the actual Protocol that was proposed. A number of our United Methodist Bishops released statements yesterday to try to interpret things, though their collective reach is modest compared to the Washington Post, New York Times, etc. Most of the Episcopal statements that I saw were cautiously optimistic but shied away from declaring this as a slam dunk. Here is a link to the one released by Bishop Stanovsky.
I’ve encountered a number of questions already that presume that conservative United Methodists, as individuals or congregations, will need to leave The United Methodist Church if this agreement is approved in May. One reporter even asked me if people were relieved that conservatives would be leaving.
I can’t speak for everyone, but most United Methodist leaders I know are pained when anyone leaves their church, even if they would be relieved to resolve this particular, long-lasting, drama.
To my understanding, this proposal doesn’t require anyone to leave The United Methodist Church, allowing instead a mechanism for congregations and Annual Conferences who cannot live in a church where all are welcome to do so. It is not safe, or kind to my thinking, to assume that ‘conservative’ equals ‘incompatibilist.’ I hope no one assumes that conservatives will leave in mass, even if proposed changes do make it easier for a subset of conservatives to do so.
We don’t have Monolithic churches
On a related note, I’ve never attended a progressive United Methodist church that didn’t have a few conservative outliers in their midst, just as I’ve never been to a conservative United Methodist Church without a progressive or two. Most United Methodist churches are somewhere in the middle with 50/50, 60/40 or 70/30 splits. And these tallies shift depending on the topic and definitions used to describe whatever is being decided or discussed.
My point? Any possible split has the potential to be painful, and even in churches where we might assume that we know their theological persuasion, care should be used to avoid unnecessary harm. Those who leave may be able to reside in a theological monolith for a time, but for United Methodists who remain, we will still need to wrestle with theological diversity.
Use this Moment to have ‘The Conversation’
It’s human nature to avoid difficult situations and conversations. This is true with parenting teenagers and equally so in the lives of many United Methodist churches. If your United Methodist church has avoided the ‘conflict’ by avoiding ‘the conversation,’ perhaps this is a good opportunity to get started before May arrives and you are caught flat-footed.
While we wait for General Conference to act decisively (or not) in May, local churches should continue to have honest, real conversations about inclusion, the blessings of diversity, and the changes we can each make to help those who come through our doors to encounter a God that loves them deeply.
Difficult conservations like these are the kind of work that we are called to particularly at this moment, and we will still need to attend to them even if a good resolution is arrived at in May. I’ve never attended a church that loved perfectly, and expect that it isn’t an experience most of us will ever have. Until we do, let’s keep going on to perfection!🙂
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated layperson working professionally in the church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries.