By Keith Boyette
March 15, 2019
In the months preceding the special General Conference, the refrain from every quarter of The United Methodist Church persisted – “Change is coming. The UM Church will not be the same after February 2019. No one knows what it will look like, but it will be different.” The special General Conference is now behind us. Change is occurring, but uncertainty is still very much with us.
Supporters of the One Church Plan were stunned at its defeat. Confident that the special General Conference would redefine our church’s teachings, leading proponents of the plan urged the defeat of any gracious exit proposal. Now they must face the reality of what we have been saying for months: the irreconcilable differences in the UM Church leave us with a severely fractured denomination.
While the special General Conference reaffirmed the UM Church’s teachings on the definition of marriage, ordination standards, and sexual ethics, and addressed important aspects of our church’s governance, the reality is that one cannot legislate behavior. Without leadership at the general and annual conference levels committed to implementing the actions of the special General Conference, more conflict and dysfunction are inevitable. The future is not bright for the institution.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has been resolute from its inception. The adoption of the One Church Plan would have left its governing council with no choice but to call a convening conference for a new Methodist denomination. All was in readiness for us to do so, but the One Church Plan was not adopted.
True to its word, the WCA decided not to proceed with a convening conference at this time. Some were disappointed by this decision. Many hoped for the launch of a new denomination after enduring years of frustration in a denominational system in chaos. With little likelihood of good order and missional effectiveness being restored, and the probability of further rebellion occurring, some hoped for a decisive step leading to the departure of orthodox evangelical pastors and churches.
The WCA Council did not proceed as some would have hoped for two reasons: the UM Church’s teaching remains unchanged, and the absence of a clean gracious exit path forces local churches to risk losing property and assets or spend significant resources in litigation and payments made to the institution.
The WCA Council and senior leadership continue to monitor developments closely. Our objectives and mission have not changed. The WCA was formed to connect Spirit-filled, orthodox churches that are committed to the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition. It calls its members to contend for the faith delivered to us, and to encourage and resource clergy, laity, congregations, regional chapters, and bishops. That mission remains unchanged. We remain committed to the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We remain committed to the renewal and restoration of a vital, vibrant Methodist church grounded in orthodox Methodist beliefs and focused on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
We have completed our mission to provide a unified response to the recommendation of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward. We have developed a plan for a positive and faithful future which we are focused on implementing whether within the UM Church or in a new Methodist denomination should that be necessary. Our Next Steps task group has created a roadmap for important changes in the UM Church at the 2020 General Conference that we believe will bring renewal and reformation. On the other hand, if we determine a convening conference is necessary, that roadmap provides everything needed to launch a new Methodist movement.
We will continue to build important relationships globally with individual Methodists, lay and clergy, and with orthodox, evangelical churches. We will strengthen regional chapters in every U.S. annual conference and continue to develop our chapter structure in international annual conferences.
The WCA has demonstrated that it is a well-organized, highly motivated, and committed movement. We are grateful to those individuals and congregations who are members. Your membership fees fund our movement. We invite others of like mind and heart to become members now.
We are confidently hopeful about the future of Methodism. As demonstrated at the special General Conference, we represent the majority of United Methodists. Our movement is truly global and the center of power in the UM Church is global and will become more so in the coming years. While we are saddened that membership and attendance in the United States continues to decline, we are heartened by the growth and fidelity to the faith present in the international parts of the church.
Furthermore, some of the healthiest, most vital churches in the United States are aligned with our movement. These churches are found in every demographic – small, mid-size and large membership. As the recent UMNS survey revealed, delegations from U.S. annual conferences are not necessarily representative of the rank-and-file membership of their local churches. Recent events have demonstrated the importance of orthodox, evangelical clergy and laity becoming involved in the election of delegates to the General Conference. Our regional chapters will play an important role in this regard as we prepare for the 2020 General Conference. Delegates to the 2020 General Conference will be elected in May and June of this year during the annual conference season.
We see signs of revival coming to Methodism and to a rekindled healthy, vibrant expression of Wesleyan Christianity around the world. For instance, we celebrate the strong and committed involvement of youth and young adults in orthodox, evangelical churches. We are eager for them to influence our church for years to come.
However, like the people, delivered from bondage in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, we are aware of significant challenges. Although “United Methodist” remains a respected name on the continent of Africa, denominational dysfunction in the U.S. has significantly diminished its prestige. Local churches across the theological spectrum are removing the name from their signage.
Many UM bishops and the staff of UM general boards and agencies have demonstrated that they are more focused on institutional preservation than on the creation of a faithful, vital and vibrant Christian movement. They will strive to protect their turf and positions in the coming years.
Shocked by the outcome of the special General Conference, many who supported the One Church Plan have already responded with defiance, obstinance, and outright rebellion. Instead of living with integrity in accordance with the discernment of the General Conference or exiting because they cannot live in conformity with the doctrine and polity they vowed to observe, they will continue to obstruct and disrupt the UM Church in the fulfillment of its mission, hurting themselves and the church they purport to love.
Sadly, some bishops, consecrated to maintain the order and teachings of the church, have indicated they will defy the will of the General Conference. These actions are ultimately self-destructive and undercut the very work they have been set apart to advance. Frankly, their actions demonstrate their spiritual immaturity and sacrifice any lingering trust possessed by their offices.
The WCA is carefully monitoring developments in annual conferences throughout the church. We remain ready to move ahead at the appropriate time to launch a new Methodist movement if that becomes necessary. In the meantime, we continue to work toward the reform, renewal and revitalization of the UM Church, including at the 2020 General Conference. We continue to be ready for every contingency. We will work in close alignment globally. We will not support efforts to kick the can down the road. And we recognize we must be prudent and strategic as we navigate our way forward.
What can you do? First, become engaged at your local church, district and annual conference levels. Call your leadership to account. Work for the election of orthodox, evangelical delegates to General Conference in your annual conference. Ensure that the lay delegates from your local church to annual conference support such a goal.
Second, be vigilant and prayerful during this season of waiting and watching. Remain informed. Ensure that others are well informed. Be prayerful, strategic and discerning in your giving to the local church. Ensure that its resources are only being deployed to support that which aligns with the orthodox, evangelical faith. Take those steps to ensure your personal giving is not used to support actions contrary to the will of the General Conference.
Third, remain unified. The WCA and its members have demonstrated the power of acting in concert. A very small number of churches have already left the UM Church. Many of them have elected to remain members of the WCA because they understand the value of connection, shared mission, and concerted action. Other churches may withdraw from the UM Church in the days to come. The WCA is facilitating a network for such churches so that they, along with churches that remain United Methodist, can work together to advance the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition. Now is the time to strengthen our unified actions by becoming a member of the WCA as individuals and as churches.
Finally, act together. The temptation exists to respond in the moment to events as they unfold. Our strength comes from coordinated action that is well thought out and strategically deployed. Grounded in unwavering faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His call for us to be a people set apart, let us take up our cross. Let us run the race set before us with perseverance. Let us love boldly and unconditionally while we share with all the uncompromised truth of the Gospel and God’s plan for human flourishing.
Personally, I count it a great privilege to contend for the faith with each of you. Jesus said we would face adversity. We desire not the approval of others. Desperately dependent on God, we commit our path to the One who is the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus the Christ. Thank you for all the ways you have made a difference in the short history of our movement. With John Wesley, we affirm, “The best is yet to come.”
Rev. Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.