At the beginning of January I shared a response with our entire congregation regarding questions I was receiving regarding a potential separation within the United Methodist Church. Those questions came after a diverse group of leaders within our denomination released a proposal to restructure the United Methodist Church.
You can find that earlier note by visiting this link.
Today I want to share an important update regarding additional work that has been done to fulfill the intent of this earlier proposal.
For the sake of context, here is a brief summary of what has brought us to where we are today.
In February 2019 there was a special called session of General Conference to address ongoing disagreement within our global denomination around issues related to human sexuality. General Conference is the main legislative body of the United Methodist Church which includes representatives from all around the world.
Further, it is the only body that can speak for the denomination and formally adopt any potential changes to the general rules of our church which are found in our United Methodist Book of Discipline.
May 5th-15, 2020 will be the next gathering of this legislative body.
Since last February, more than a dozen proposals have been announced to move forward with some form of separation based on the shared belief that we are at an impasse regarding the questions addressed during the special session of General Conference in February of 2019.
The significance of the January proposal was that it includes key leaders representing the entire theological spectrum of our church as well as the various perspectives on the particular disagreements regarding human sexuality.
I want to note two things from what I shared in January.
- First, that I believed this proposal was a positive sign for our future.
Our future faithfulness to our mission requires a willingness to be honest about our present reality. The easiest thing to do in our individual life and in our life together is to ignore the problem which prevents us from taking necessary steps to make positive change.
- Secondly, that I believe our current impasse is over differences which include but are not limited to whether clergy may officiate same-sex weddings.
The statement released in January highlighted, “fundamental differences regarding the understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice.”
This is why I noted that the leadership that produced the January proposal represented the entire theological spectrum of our church as well as the various perspectives on the disagreements regarding human sexuality.
*For the sake of clarity, the words ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are the most commonly used words to describe disagreements regarding human sexuality. I would suggest that the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ would more appropriately represent the theological differences within the church.
A final note about the proposal released in January…
In order to achieve the stated goals of reconciliation and graceful separation, the January proposal spoke about an “imagined” new traditional denomination.
That means that the success of what’s at the heart of the January proposal would require that this imagined denomination become a reality.
What’s happened since January?
With that final note in mind, several weeks ago I was invited to attend a gathering in Atlanta to begin the work of forming this new traditional Methodist denomination in the event that the January proposal was adopted by the General Conference.
I was nominated by our Bishop to participate in this conversation. From the nominations submitted by various leaders, 30 individuals were selected. After those selections were made, I was made aware of my nomination and was asked if I would be willing to participate in this gathering.
This group included bishops, clergy, and laity, men and women, African-American, Asian, Caribbean, Caucasian, and Hispanic persons from across the United States as well as the United Methodist Conferences in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Philippines.
Over the course of three days we worked in both large and small group settings to begin the work of shaping this new expression of Methodism.
Additionally, we spent significant time identifying and thinking through the various concerns of the transitional period that would occur including those concerns related to ensuring ongoing support of the world-wide church and the missional initiatives shared within our current denomination.
It was three long days of difficult work but at the conclusion of that time a document was prepared entitled “Reimagining the Passion of a Global Wesleyan Movement.”
That final document details the broad agreement reached during our time together regarding vision for a new church’s “culture and mission,” “essential doctrinal beliefs,” and “organizational” structure.
Included in that document is this statement.
“If the 2020 General Conference adopts the Protocol legislation, with one voice and a spirit of humility we intend to form a global Wesleyan movement committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, and the work of the Holy Spirit in conveying God’s truth, grace, renewal, and sanctification to all people who repent and believe.”
*The full statement is available at this link.
The final question addressed to all those in attendance was whether or not we would sign this final document.
I agreed to add my name to this work recognizing that doing so would require I answer two critical questions to each person I serve as the Senior Pastor of First Methodist Mansfield.
Why did I sign?
First, I want you to hear that I signed this document on my behalf and not on behalf of our congregation.
As a Senior Pastor, I have the responsibility to provide leadership but I do not have the authority to speak any final word for our church about our future denominational affiliation.
As a pastor, I have a responsibility to listen to God, to patiently and prayerfully discern how God is speaking into my life and pastoral ministry, and to live out my calling according to my best understanding of God’s leading.
I signed because I believe that God is calling for the formation of this new denomination.
Secondly, I signed this document because I love the United Methodist Church.
I have known no other home than the United Methodist Church. I am proud to be the son of a father who has served for 44 years as a United Methodist Pastor and a mother who has had that same level of investment and commitment to the church. Both of my grandparents were members of The Methodist Church prior to our merger in 1968 merger with the United Brethren Church which created our current denomination. I am humbled and grateful for this heritage of faith.
With that in mind, I believe that our current denomination needs this new denomination. It’s formation does more than serve a part of the current church. It serves the whole of the United Methodist Church.
It enables what those who drafted the January proposal and those who worked together in Atlanta believe to be the best way for every local congregation to move forward.
It is not a perfect solution. That simply does not exist for many reasons. The primary one being that we are imperfect people who are each doing our best to understand how God is leading and to follow that leading with humility and grace.
Finally – because of my deep respect and appreciation for the courageous leadership of others – I felt a conviction to follow their example.
I knew that my participation and personal endorsement would raise questions that would require a response. I recognize that what I am sharing today is not a full response to every one of those questions.
I want you to know that I welcome those questions.
In every instance that a question is asked of me as Senior Pastor, I try to communicate two things as clearly as possible.
- I appreciate this question being asked and the opportunity it provides me to respond. I cannot respond to what is not expressed.
- I want every person who asks a question to feel confident sharing with others my willingness to respond to any other question, comment or critique that anyone might have.
Should the General Conference pass the January proposal, the reality is that it is the fundamental differences within the larger denomination that have created the problem that every local church will be forced to address.
The easiest thing for any pastor to do is to remain silent, but I do not believe that doing so would be fulfilling my obligation to provide leadership for our local church.
What does this mean for First Methodist Mansfield and our future?
First and foremost, the General Conference body is the only body that can officially adopt any proposed changes to the general rules of our church.
That means that absolutely nothing has changed and nothing will change without the action of General Conference.
As I have said before, it is impossible for me to predict what that body will do, but what I do know with certainty is that Jesus will still be Lord regardless of what does or does not happen.
The mission we share of Making Disciples of Jesus Christ who Love God, Love Others and Serve the World will remain the same.
Who we have been is who we will continue to be regardless of whatever challenges or opportunities we face in the remaining months of 2020 and in the years to come.
I do want you to know that after serving here for 10 years under the leadership of our former Senior Pastor, Rev. Mike Ramsdell, and during my five years serving as your Senior Pastor, I do believe that I have come to know very closely the heart and theology of this church.
I also know that within our church there is not uniformity of thought or opinion on issues related to human sexuality. That is true of every church in America today and whatever choice we may have to make in the future will not change this reality.
With that being said – despite those differing thoughts – if General Conference does approve what was outlined in the January proposal, I do believe that the understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice of our church is aligned very closely with the new expression of Methodism outlined in the document that I personally affirmed.
But here is the most important point.
I will not and can not make that decision for our congregation. That is outside the boundaries of my authority.
If the denomination asks our congregation to make that decision, our congregation will make that decision.
In that instance, my responsibility will be to inform and advise but our church will decide.
In the meantime, I will remind you of what you already know.
Faithfulness has been the defining mark of this church for generations. Obedience has fueled the great work of this church for the last 134 years.
Your city needs you. The world needs you. Christ is counting on you.
Let us not forget the mission that we share.
As God has been faithful in the past, God will be faithful in our future. God has never given us any reason for us to doubt that we can trust Him for the future.
So pray for your church. Pray for the church. Pray like Jesus taught us. Pray for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done.