The Church Is Of God: Reflections and Encouragements Concerning the United Methodist Church

Throughout the years of my childhood and youth, this is the language that I heard the pastor use whenever persons were received into the membership of a United Methodist congregation:

Dearly beloved, the Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.

In many ways, this language shaped my ecclesiology before I even knew what ecclesiology was. In hearing these words on a regular basis, I came to believe that the church, at its best, is something more than an institution or denomination. In fact, the church is nothing less than God’s sacramental instrument in a fallen world—a Christ-centered and Christ-shaped community that God will preserve “to the end of time.”

I still believe those things about the church. If you are a person of the church, I hope that you believe them too. 

I am inspired to invoke that paragraph from United Methodism’s liturgical history so that it might become the theological backdrop for everything else I am about to write. These are challenging, frustrating, demanding, and at times heartbreaking days for the denominational tribe known as the United Methodist Church. My prayer, however, is that United Methodist Christ-followers will find encouragement in the truth that the Church is well worth the struggle and that the Church “will be preserved to the end of time,” even if we are uncertain at present of exactly what part the United Methodist Church will play in that preserved church.

As most United Methodists have heard, the Commission on General Conference issued a press release last week (Thursday, March 3) stating that the long-delayed 2020 General Conference will be postponed once again, this time until 2024. The following link will take you to the Commission’s press release in its entirety:

This news, while perhaps somewhat anticipated, has fallen heavily on the hearts of many persons throughout the denomination, irrespective of where they might locate themselves in the theological spectrum. In a meeting that I attended recently, one pastor phrased it this way: “I feel like we are stuck in an administrative quagmire that is preventing us from doing the ministry that we are called to do. And the mechanism for getting out of the quagmire has just been pulled away from us for another two years.”

Even those who were less enthusiastic about the proposed Protocol for Separation (a portion of separation legislation upon which the General Conference was to have voted) are feeling the pain of this most recent postponement. “I will be a United Methodist come what may,” said a lay person to me this week. “But I hate the thought of people in the United Methodist Church feeling like they are being held hostage by a denomination that they no longer feel called to be a part of.”

As a District Superintendent in the denomination, and as one who has served gratefully at various levels of United Methodism over the last 33 years, I hold the dynamics of the current situation deeply in my spirit. Like many, I too am weary with the waiting, even as I cling to my conviction that God is still redemptively at work in the nooks and crannies of the struggle. I am also weary of the cynicism and rancor that many are all too eager to embrace in their frustration. Wherever it is that I have been either an agent of such cynicism and rancor or its inspiration, I offer prayers of repentance, even as I type these words.

A second announcement made last week concerns an updated launch date for a new traditionalist Methodist denomination called the Global Methodist Church. Leaders had originally planned to launch the new denomination later in 2022 in conjunction with the General Conference that was to have been held in late August and early September. Motivated by the most recent postponement of General Conference, the Global Methodist Church has moved up its launch date to May 1, 2022.

What does all this mean for United Methodists in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and elsewhere? 

Given the fact that this news is so recent, denominational and conference leadership is still in the process of responding to it. The Council of Bishops met last week and will meet again this week for the purpose of clarifying information and achieving consensus on how to lead the denomination in a manner that addresses the current circumstances and navigates their implications. The episcopal leaders of the Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Susquehanna Annual Conferences (Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball) have kept their Cabinets up to date on the general progress of these important meetings while guarding completely the confidentiality of the meetings’ specific content. I am confident that reliable guidance and leadership from the Bishops will be offered in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I invite your patience in that regard.

Worth noting is that coordinated, sustained, and prayerful work has been done in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference over the last year to envision, develop, and, I hope, eventually propose some strategic ways forward for the Conference related to the current denominational division. While I cannot share the particulars of this work (since the work is still in process), I know that the work has taken place at Bishop Moore-Koikoi’s initiative and with her active involvement, and that the participants in this work include traditionalist, centrist, and progressive laity and clergy, all of whom have voiced a commitment to helping the people of our Annual Conference to “land well,” no matter what happens in the denomination. I am deeply encouraged by the fact that Western Pennsylvania’s Bishop and Conference leaders have been forward-thinking enough to begin strategic conversations about how this Conference can approach denominational realities in a manner that is attentive and gracious to all parties. With you, I look forward to more detailed information about this work when that information becomes available.

I am also encouraged by the fact that Bishop Moore-Koikoi and her Cabinet (including this District Superintendent) are wholeheartedly committed to providing the kind of leadership and assistance that will help the laity and clergy of Western Pennsylvania to navigate the complex territory that is before us. We are seeking to lead in a manner that, in accordance with our tradition’s “three simple rules,” avoids the causing of harm, manifests the doing of good, and prioritizes an attendance upon the ordinances of God.

As the dust settles upon recent developments in the denomination, I encourage the United Methodists who are reading these words to commit themselves to those practices that best reflect the love of Jesus and the integrity of our Gospel:

  • Pray with fasting and a renewed sense of urgency for our part of the Body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. Even if you are unsure of exactly how to pray at this point, spend daily time in wordless attentiveness to the presence of God on behalf of the denomination, allowing the Holy Spirit to intercede on your behalf and to translate the deepest groans of your soul into articulate petitions. Pray for the members of the Commission on General Conference as they process the various reactions to their recent decision. Pray for the Council of Bishops (including Bishop Moore-Koikoi) as they discern how best to lead. Pray for the entirety of the denomination in a without-ceasing kind of urgency, that we might become more vibrantly and faithfully the church that God is calling us to be.
  • Engage in the essential spiritual work of providing non-anxious leadership among anxious people. Some of the people in your church will approach these matters with fear, anger, and perhaps even resentment. Amid such responses, behave in a manner that helps those around you to envision what it looks like to rest and live in God’s peace, even when the circumstances feel less than peaceful.
  • Model consistently a graciousness that stubbornly refuses to dismiss, belittle, or demonize the viewpoints and perspectives with which you disagree. Remember that the divide in United Methodism is not a divide between people who love Jesus and people who don’t, or between people who believe in the Bible and people who don’t. Rather, it is a divide between faithful Christ-followers who have arrived at significantly different conclusions about how the Bible is to be read, interpreted, understood, and applied. I am not suggesting that each conclusion is equally right. I am simply calling for agapic love across the theological divide and a stubborn refusal to weaponize one’s own sense of certainty. 
  • Be intentional about caring for those voices and hearts in your church that might reflect a minority viewpoint that runs counter to your church’s majority perspective. In most if not all of our United Methodist congregations, there is a spectrum of thought that includes a diversity of convictions. While many congregations may have a dominant theological viewpoint, it is unlikely that it is unanimously affirmed.
  • Remember that there are LGBTQ+ persons who are part of your congregation or who are connected to your church, community, or family who feel particularly vulnerable and who bear with great pain the emotional wounds and scars of this ongoing divisive conversation. Irrespective of your theological stance, look for ways to incarnate an intentional ministry of love and care on behalf of the LGBTQ+ persons in your network of relationships.
  • Help the people of your church to cultivate the kind of patience that will prevent them from acting irresponsibly or hastily (ahead of pending guidance from episcopal and denominational leadership) and that will enable them to practice discernment at a healthier pace. I realize that a call for patience might sound unhelpful and even offensive to those who feel they have been waiting too long already for an intended outcome. In my experience, however, significant and trajectory-altering transitions demand much more time than many are willing to afford to them. It is the responsibility of experienced leaders to set a pace and tone that make holistic discernment a greater possibility.
  • Stubbornly resist anything like cynicism during these days, since cynicism both distorts our spiritual vision and stifles the joy of our salvation.
  • Finally, amid denominational division, help the people of your church not to get sidetracked or distracted to the point that they lose their focus on the church’s mission, which remains as urgent and critical as ever: Making disciples of Jesus Christ and equipping them to offer transformational love, ministry, and witness to a fallen and hurting world.

Within my network of friendships and certainly within the ministry of the United Methodist Church, there are Conservatives/Traditionalists whom I dearly love and who will eventually find their way into the Global Methodist Church; there are Liberals/Progressives whom I dearly love and who feel strongly called to become a very different kind of church than that which the Global Methodist Church envisions; and there are those whom I dearly love who locate themselves somewhere in what might be described as “the wide center,” holding strong convictions but refusing to treat them as either theological litmus tests or a compelling reason to divide.

I am praying daily and fervently for the many souls in all three of these categories, believing that the unity we share in Jesus Christ is durable and trustworthy enough to permit hearts to connect even over significant theological differences and perhaps even different denominational identities.

I conclude where I began, with a portion of the church’s liturgy that speaks powerfully into the circumstances in which we find ourselves:

Dearly beloved, the Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.

May the truth of those words resonate loudly in the hearts of United Methodists, that their discipleship might reflect unwavering integrity and that their church might illuminate the very priorities of God.