As the Wesleyan Covenant Association prepares for another Global Gathering this weekend, many United Methodists will wonder if this will be the defining moment, the convening of an alternative General Conference to constitute a new conservative denomination, the serving of the divorce papers, the split.
Talk of the split is everywhere. Search for some United Methodist theme on Google, and ads appear for a law firm that will represent United Methodist congregations that desire to leave.
Back in the 1840s, the split was over racism and slavery, together with some other issues, like regionalization, the balance of power between General Conference and bishops, defending the character and honor of Bishop James Osgood Andrew, reigning in the divisive agitation of abolitionists, and …
OK, OK, it was about racism, slavery and the status of Black people.
This time around, the split is also about people, gay people, along with a few other issues, like the authority of scripture, our connection to ecumenical Christianity, the Lord’s teachings, the balance of power between General Conference and the local church, who gets to be bishop, appointment security, ineffective pastors, the divisive agitation of liberal activists, and …
OK, OK, its about homophobia, exclusion, and the status of LGBTQ people.
This being the case, when the next split happens, we expect it to follow the fault line of polarization evident in American Society between the cultural left and right: Conservatives and Progressives, Democrats and Republicans, a fault line dividing conferences, local churches, and many families.
Such division has been the objective of millions of dollars in propaganda and organizing efforts for decades. The split, we are told, is inevitable and will be good, leading to reconciliation and peace while creating new fresh expressions of Methodism.
Just like divorce. Just like North Georgia.
Now let us imagine an alternative universe. Dream with me for a moment.
In this universe, the church is also divided, but not between cultural liberals and conservatives. Instead it is divided by power, privilege, and status, between the rich and those they consider inferior. Imagine that only the wealthy large churches and plutocratic elites want to leave.
Their sudden exit would leave behind all those they consider peons. Small, non-white, rural, urban, and poor congregations are abandoned to fend for themselves in a world marked by marginalization, inequity, and scarcity. Like an apocalyptic rapture story, the rich suddenly depart, and a remnant of United Methodists are left behind to face tribulation.
Like our split, this rapture event would be inevitable. In preparation, the wealthiest Methodists develop a plan for their future: the One Percent Plan.
Under the One Percent Plan rich churches could leave by paying one percent of the value of their property, essentially, one month’s rent, while being given a cash settlement of some share of collective assets. The rich clergy and churches would then join a new denomination called the Gentrified Methodist Church, or GMC, while those who are left behind would remain to face the tribulation in the post-rapture UMC.
Membership in the Gentrified Methodist Church would be by invitation only and limited to churches with 500 or more in worship attendance, budgets of at least $1 million, and clergy with ministerial salaries three times U.S. median income. Churches below this threshold desiring to enter the GMC could potentially become satellite congregations or paternalistic community centers run by large, rich churches. The elites would continue in their figurehead positions of privilege within the GMC but with less responsibility and greater economic security.
To preserve wealth privilege, the appointment system of the GMC would shift appointive power to the local churches. Pastors would compete with one another for opportunities. The regional bishops would facilitate the process to ensure that the financial gifts of the church are properly matched to the social graces of the clergy they call.
Serving an extended tenure, ministers in the GMC would be free to introduce personal interests, biases, and doctrinal perspectives without concern for consistency with potential successors. With no policy of appointment security, equitable compensation, or cumbersome “fair process,” local church leaders could quickly dispense with ministers who fail to cater to their needs.
As the new denomination would be exclusive to larger wealthy churches, there would be little dissatisfaction, inequity, or jealousy among clergy. Instead, a new collegiality would emerge as Gentrified Methodist clergy easily socialize with one another, sharing their best practices, promoting each other’s book tours, spending time together on long sabbaticals, enjoying a good game of golf, a weekend hunt at the ranch, and of course, the yearly Educational Opportunities tour.
The new GMC would not need a board of pensions. Limiting membership to the wealthy, each pastor would already have sufficient individual wealth to fund housing and retirement. Healthcare could be purchased collectively or individually. Apportionment rates would be very low, perhaps even with a flat annual membership fee. Each GMC Church would retain more of its own resources and provide its members with the very best talent, programs, and church facilities while extending itself through strategic planting of satellite campuses in areas with high per-capita income.
Operating under independent congregational polity, the Gentrified Methodists would have the resources to create and sustain homogeneous congregations, each having its own brand, running its own camps, short-term mission trips, and community ministries without the risk of infiltration by annoying or jealous people and other weirdos. With no danger of wealthy parishioners leaving for ideological reasons, GMC laity and clergy would be more prone to mind their own business and ignore the idiosyncrasies of other independent GMC pastors and churches.
In the post-rapture UMC, however, conditions deteriorate rapidly. The sudden disappearance of so many powerful, wealthy, influential, visible, leaders creates a vacuum of leadership and a scarcity of resources.
Historic executive agencies and hierarchies collapse. Missionaries are recalled. Church camps are sold. Student ministry centers are shuttered.
Freed from Disciplinary rules about undermining, the GMC disseminates propaganda into the Tribulation UMC inviting the remnant of wealthy members to join them. Some choose to remain in their small or poor churches, but many believe they must choose between Jesus and “socialism.”
As the tribulation progresses, new leaders emerge in the vacuum created by departed elites and plutocrats. Solidarity emerges between grass roots Tribulation Methodist clergy who are no longer agitated by ideological propaganda disseminated by the rich and are no longer driven into anxious and antagonistic competitive work patterns by feudal overlords.
With smaller congregations serving poor, non-white, rural and working class families, the luxury of cultural and ideological homogeneity is not an option. Unity matters for survival. Tribulation Methodist churches begin teaching methods of civil discourse and orderly, democratic processes for peaceful conflict resolution. Schooled in these methods, members of the Tribulation UMC grow in both church and civic leadership. Cultural diversity is embraced, and welcome differences in ideas sustain a process of continuous intellectual growth and moral development. Youth and young adults are introduced early into processes of leadership development emphasizing the values of solidarity, sustainability, and simplicity, and are taught to value their own communities rather than seek gentrification and assimilation.
Faced with scarcity, Tribulation Methodist church leaders return to Christian monastic traditions, exploring sustainable, collective models for ministry and embracing evangelical simplicity. Although initially driven by necessity, the efficiency and humility of this approach results in significant credibility in vast sectors of the general public.
Without rich churches to paternalistically provide for regional camps, programs, and service opportunities, the Tribulation Methodists organize between sister churches to form inclusive, volunteer, passion driven committees. They work collectively to conduct fund-raisers and develop engaging programs. This, in turn, creates opportunities for people from diverse congregations and social settings to work together. New lasting relationships of respect form around shared experience, work, and values, overcoming prejudice and bias.
With this renewed sense of unity and equality, churches and pastors recover their appreciation for shared, itinerant ministry. They begin to see themselves as many congregations of one church. Pastors begin supporting each other in ministry as they mentor new leaders. Everyone benefits from the sharing of diverse talents.
Learning from their past mistakes, Tribulation Methodists seek to avoid the obsessive compulsive disorders and partisan spirit of the Gentrified Methodists. Consequently, they adopt a slate of anti-gentrification reforms.
- They unite the offices of bishop and district superintendent under the district superintendency, elect superintendents to one six year term, and create stationing committees of district lay leaders to recommend appointment changes.
- They work collectively to provide all clergy with suitable housing, healthcare, and retirement, while setting both minimum and maximum standards for clergy compensation. They balance this privilege with a fair but thorough process of credentialing and evaluation.
- They remove all Anglo-normative, homophobic, and class biased language from their Book of Discipline.
- They remove all loop-holes protecting persons in privilege from measures of equity and accountability.
- They require churches that grow past 500 in worship to divide to form two or more churches.
- They require that 2/3 of new congregations be planted in underrepresented populations.
- They require their clergy to speak at least one second language used in the community.
- They focus their communications ministries on reaching the general public, avoiding “church-speak” and political “shop talk.”
- They set aside tithing from new local church members for the purpose of evangelism for one year, allowing fruitful evangelism to fund more evangelism.
- They establish and help collectively fund minimum standards for facility upkeep.
- They establish accessible, affordable pathways for clergy to gain access to academic preparation for ministry.
- Tribulation Methodists require clergy members to pay their tithes to the conference and publish a list of their remittances. These funds are earmarked for church extension, equitable compensation, and benefits. Churches also pay tithes to the conference.
- Clergy are prohibited from serving on the conference staff, eliminating cronyism, grooming, political appointments, and entrenched parasitic bureaucracy that competes with essential missions and functions for funding. Policies and staff structures are approved annually by the delegates of the annual conference.
- The size an annual conference is limited to 200 churches. Annual Conference gatherings are held in affordable venues, preferably a conference owned camp facility, school, community center, or church.
- General Conference is held every eight years.
These and other post rapture reforms are more practical than ideological, but ultimately they save the remnant UMC from the pains of being left behind to face the great tribulation of scarcity and forced contextualization.
Under the One Percent Plan, there is no reconciliation, but at least there is peace.
On one side, the Gentrified Methodists gain the isolation, status, privilege, power, homogeneity, and religious freedom to serve “Jesus” rather than “socialism” that they so desire, each church in its own world, with its own brand, minding its own business.
On the other, the Tribulation UMC, left behind by the great rapture of the rich, suffers initial economic hardship, but by turning to one another for support, regains a sense of community, collegiality, and inclusive enfranchisement in leadership. Forced by this scarcity into the very context defining most of society, the Tribulation UMC begins to embrace the poor, practice simplicity, authenticity, and availability, and recovers the relevance, vitality and growth that Methodism experienced under the leadership of Francis Asbury, a man who died without ever owning a home.
But alas, this alternative universe does not exist. Or does it?