Power, Protocols, and Piracy

Last week, the United Methodist Church Commission on the General Conference announced the suspension of the 2020 General Conference, postponing it to 2024. Frustrated by the failed opportunity to pass legislation called “The Protocol,” conservative political groups announced the May 1, 2022 “launch” of the Alt-Methodist denomination “Global Methodist Church.”

This action provides an opportunity for unhappy United Methodists to jump out of the “pluralistic” UMC boat and swim in real pluralism, the global Christian community, a highly competitive and sectarian religious ocean with over 45,000 denominations and networks of independent Christian churches.

Going on their own, Global Methodists can finally be free of the “cafeteria-style” religion of United Methodists, free to pick and choose their own doctrines, practices, and values from within the great genetic diversity of Christian traditions.

Perhaps they will adopt the concepts of a Nicene Creed and canonical authority from the Eastern Orthodox. Perhaps they will express their traditionalism through contemporary worship services in the style of the Pentecostals. Perhaps they will pick up traditional gender and family teachings from the Catholics, TULIP from the Calvinists, or believers baptism from Baptists. Perhaps they will join the fundamentalists espousing a pre-modern “world-view” that rejects contextual and critical readings of Scripture and gender equality. Perhaps they will opt for congregational polity of the Presbyterians or take up the hybrid model of the Episcopalians. Perhaps they will seek true holiness, as the Nazarenes, Wesleyans, Free Methodists, and Moravians do. Perhaps they will embrace the cult of personality and prosperity theology, as the mega-churches do. Perhaps they will embrace xenophobic white nationalism and join the antisocial rant against “socialism,” as so many evangelical churches have done. The traditionalist menu has many, many options from which to choose.

Will this new denomination compete with the United Methodist Church? Yes, it will, and with every other denomination in the global religious jungle.

Within global Christianity, competition is ubiquitous. Competition can create or tear down. Competition can encourage progress or undermine small business. Competition can create friendly rivalries or foment antagonism. There is no escape from competition. It is a feature of the pluralism of our society and the economics of voluntary religion.

United Methodists can do nothing about antagonistic competition from outside their denomination. They must realize, however, that such competition also exists internally. It exists between laity and clergy, between the rich and the poor, between the privileged and the marginal, between the new and old, the popular and the prophetic, the innovative and traditional, the insiders and outsiders, and between ideological factions. Take it from an urban church pastor, right when your hopes are highest, antagonistic competition can rise up out of nowhere, unseat you from that place of influence, hire away that valued staff person, lure away those youth and young families, and turn your sunshine into shadows.

This is where connectional churches have an advantage. They recognize the potentially destructive aspects of antagonistic competition and adopt practices that encourage unity, community, mutuality, respect, and collective action. These are our deep values and can help us understand the injustice faced by marginalized groups who are left without such protections. These ethical guidelines, policies and practices can rightly be called protocols by Webster’s definition: “a code prescribing strict adherence to correct etiquette and precedence as in diplomatic exchange and in military services.”

Connectional Protocols are both formal and informal, written into church law and simply communicated by oral tradition.

Here are a few examples.

Formal Connectional Protocols within the UMC (expressed in the Book of Discipline)

  • Inclusiveness: Laws encouraging diversity and banning identity-based discrimination. Laws mandating the constituency and size of committees. Procedures honoring political and ethnic minorities. Open itinerancy. The General Conference petition process open to everyone.
  • Equity: Clergy are members of a common annual conference, not local churches. Conferences establish policies for equitable compensation, access, and opportunity to contracts, and a funding system proportional to means (apportionments), and collectively fund benefits and missions.
  • Checks and Balances: Laws placing limits and accountability on the exercise of power such as security of appointment for clergy, term limits, and fair process in judicial proceedings. Laws mandating open meetings and transparency.
  • Ethics: Laws prohibiting conflicts of interest, such as the ban on nepotism on personnel, superintendency, and episcopacy committees. The trust clause preventing the use of church property in a manner contrary to the mission of the greater church.
  • Identity: Doctrinal, practical, and liturgical norms locating the UMC within the Arminian / Wesleyan tradition of Christianity.
  • Morals and Values: Laws against undermining other clergy. Laws against racism, gender and sexual harassment and other forms of antagonistic bias, abuse, and misconduct.
  • Safety: Expectations of conduct that reduce risk to the individual, to others, and the organization.

Informal Connectional Protocols within the UMC

  • Refraining from ministerial contact with former parishioners after a move.
  • Leaving a clean parsonage for incoming clergy.
  • Refraining from negative political campaigning for elected office.
  • Paying apportionments in full.
  • Accepting an appointment change when it is presented.
  • Accepting opportunities for volunteer service within the connection.
  • Collegiality. Humility in interpersonal relationships between clergy and laity.

Connectional protocols, taken together, create a system of expectations and boundaries that help preserve order and healthy relationships. Protocols help govern our natural, selfish, competitive, ambitious, and congregationalist tendency to seek inequitable privilege and power.

Weakened Connectional Protocols

When protocols are weakened or enforced in ways that are unfair or motivated by unjust bias, the entire community suffers and the connection breaks down. Here are a few ways connectional protocols have been weakened:

  • Consolidated and downsized boards that concentrate power, diminish accountability, transparency, and advocacy, reduce representation.
  • Attempts to eliminate appointment security through legislation and the defamation of ministers and churches. Adoption of involuntary part-time appointment.
  • The loop-hole allowing a conference staff member or cabinet member to serve on an episcopacy committee if the individual also serves on the jurisdictional episcopacy committee.
  • Evasion of cabinet term-limits governing privilege and cronyism through use of an “extended cabinet” appointments. Usurpation of the authority of elected offices by appointed officials.
  • Direct billing of benefits.
  • Raising minimum compensation while defunding equitable compensation or creating regressive policies limiting its use. Defamation of recipients of equitable compensation as undeserving, unfruitful, or lazy.
  • Utilization of clergy in conference positions that can more effectively be served by laypersons. Subverting an open and accountable hiring process with “political appointments.”
  • Defunding of collectively funded missions that are not capable of self-sustenance (work with youth, students, the poor).
  • The abandonment of multi-language and ethnic local churches and related publishing.
  • Allowing wealthy churches to not pay apportionments.
  • The suspension of the legislative and judicial branches of the United Methodist Church.
  • Relaxation of language protecting ethnic minorities and churches.
  • Failure to protect LGBTQ persons from discrimination, sexual harassment, defamation, and invasion of privacy. Increasingly punitive and exclusive church policies against such persons.

Protocols intend to preserve good relations, morale, and institutional integrity. Rules that leave authority unchecked, bully, harass, scandalize, and harm fail to preserve institutional integrity and core values.

In this sense, both the Traditional Plan and the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation are not a protocols at all but rather the intentional relaxation of protocols that protect the UMC from inequity, undermining, piracy, and pillage.

This is where we need to be clear about one more protocol: the expectation of loyalty and support of the United Methodist Church within the vow of professing membership. All United Methodists are obliged to support the institutional integrity of the UMC and defend its interests.

On February 25, 2021, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a non-profit corporation, filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect “Global Methodist Church” as a registered trademark. The application asserts an intent to protect WCA activity in “Providing online news and information in the fields of Christianity, religion, theology, spirituality, and establishment and operation of a Christian denominational network.” (Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Application Serial Number 90545962).

By launching the GMC brand, the Wesleyan Covenant Association ceases to be a UMC renewal organization and takes on the properties of a separate Alt-Methodist denomination. The development strategy of this new denomination is to use its surrogates in the IRD and Good News to agitate UMC members to abandon their church and join the GMC.

After years claiming that a separation would be amicable, Good News has stated they “will support churches seeking to realign with the GM Church, as well as traditionalist churches that remain in The UM Church.”

Good News seeks an “open marriage” with United Methodism, one where they openly collude with the WCA in its pillage of UMC properties and parishioners while also “supporting” traditionalist UMC churches. This is incompatible with the loyalty pledge of professing membership and ethical protocols against undermining persons serving in appointments.

UMC Judicial Council decision 696 prohibits dual denominational membership. On May 1, 2022, members of the WCA cease to be members of the UMC.

So what is required of United Methodists? The same as always. United Methodist laity, clergy, and leaders need to live into their loyalty vow, strengthen their own bonds of peace, and defend the institutional integrity of the United Methodist Church against undermining, piracy, and pillage. Doing so requires recognition of the WCA for what it is, a separate denomination, and making appropriate changes to the status of WCA members who remain in that organization after May 1. More importantly, it requires the greater work of recovering the value and practice of egalitarian, democratic, and inclusive protocols that allow our connectional polity to reach its true potential.

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