By Thomas Lambrecht
It's all about the money. That could have been the title of the latest opinion piece from Mainstream UMC. And of course, beneath the issue of dollars is the issue of power and control. The central question is whether, in the name of including LGBTQ persons in marriage and ordained ministry, the church is willing to exclude millions of United Methodists outside the U.S.
Underlying a bewildering onslaught of statistics in the Mainstream piece is this message: We moderates and progressives contribute the money that funds this denomination, so we should control the church. The subtext is that traditionalists (what the piece calls "WCA conferences" in an attempt to target the Wesleyan Covenant Association) are disloyal to The United Methodist Church because they allegedly contributed a lower percentage of apportionments and a lower total of dollars than moderate and progressive annual conferences. The implication is that these disloyal traditionalists should just leave the UM Church, since they do not want to support it financially anyway, and stop trying to force their outmoded theology on the rest of us.
The Rev. Dr. Mark Holland uses this latest blog and fundraising letter on behalf of Mainstream UMC to cast this spin on the reports of election of delegates to General Conference compared with the amount and percentage of apportionments paid by each annual conference.
Of course, the reality is more complicated and nuanced. Any serious analyst of annual conference apportionment giving would agree. There are solidly traditionalist annual conferences that pay full apportionments, including one annual conference that pays 113 percent - the highest rate of any annual conference. And there are progressive annual conferences that pay lower percentages than most. The reasons for conferences not to pay full apportionments range from not receiving those moneys from local churches to the decision not to cannibalize annual conference resources to support the general church to ideological concerns on both the progressive and traditionalist ends of the spectrum.
Contrary to Holland's rhetorical sleights-of-hand, there is no such thing as a "WCA conference" or a "WCA bishop." The WCA does not control annual conference finances, nor has it called for the withholding of apportionments (contrary to some progressive leaders who have called for such withholding). Giving decisions are being made by hundreds of thousands of individual United Methodists and thousands of congregations. There is no organized movement on the traditionalist side to withhold or redirect apportionments. Again, this is contrary to recent moves after St. Louis by some progressives, including at least one annual conference that makes official provision for withholding general church apportionments.
The reality of our current situation makes Holland's flashy color-coded maps of the United States seem overblown.
Regardless of the numbers, fair-minded people should thoroughly examine the underlying presuppositions of Holland's argument.
One presupposition is that those who give the money ought to call the shots. Money represents power. What makes many U.S. progressives and moderates nervous is that in the next eight to twelve years, the membership growth in Africa will be at a tipping point when it overshadows the decline in North America. At that point, the Africans may control budgetary decisions in how the church's money is spent. This fear of losing control of the money is prompting many centrists and progressives to reconsider the value of belonging to a global church.
(In my experience, African church leaders are very grateful for the financial support for mission and ministry that U.S. churches provide. Primarily concerned with clergy training, orphanages, hospitals, and schools, they have no desire to take advantage of that support and our goodwill by demanding what we cannot provide. Their desire is to work in equal collaboration, not as junior partners in our relationship.)
Make no mistake about it, money, justice, and control should be openly discussed. These are biblical and ethical issues addressed throughout the Scriptures. However, it is ironic to hear concern about finances and power articulated at the annual conference and global levels, yet denied at the local level. For years, traditionalist church members have been repeatedly told to give their money to the church and trust the church to know how best to spend that money. Any attempt by local members to channel their giving in ways that church leaders deem "unacceptable" is frowned upon and often actively resisted. Local church members are not able to control how their money is spent. They have only one choice: give or not give (and of course the amount).
After many years of seeing their money fund causes and political stances by the church that they do not agree with, many traditionalists have chosen to redirect or to reduce their giving. Now in response to the St. Louis General Conference, many progressives are exercising the same choice to protest a stance by the global church that they disagree with.
How this plays out in the current conflict in our church is that some progressives and moderates apparently believe it is poor stewardship to give money to support parts of the church they believe are doing harm to LGBTQ people and their allies. They are exercising a choice that many traditionalists have made for years, being unwilling to support parts of the church that violate their consciences.
Holland states, "There seem to be a lot of local churches in these [more traditionalist] conferences that are simply not invested in our global mission. Leaving is just the next step." Does that mean that progressive annual conferences and local churches currently withholding the general church apportionments are not invested in the church's global mission? Is the Rev. Adam Hamilton not invested in the church's global mission because his church is reportedly withholding half its multi-million-dollar apportionments until the end of the year? Are the half-dozen annual conferences that formed task forces to explore the possibility of leaving The United Methodist Church not invested in the church's global mission?
Holland's characterizations ring hollow when the tables are turned in his rhetorical exercise.
Good News supports the proposition that United Methodists should not be compelled to financially support ministry that violates their consciences. But Holland should not pretend that traditionalists are the only ones who do so, nor that exercising conscientious stewardship is disloyalty to the denomination that means we should forfeit our voice.
It is not disloyalty to the church that is causing people to withhold or redirect their giving. It is mistrust in the leadership of the church and the decisions made about how to spend money. UMCOR universally receives overwhelming support because it spends its money to help those in need - a cause nearly everyone agrees on. Givers want to be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them, and are increasingly unwilling to write "blank checks" to the church.
That leads to the second controversial presupposition in Holland's piece: the speculative claim that progressive/moderate annual conferences fund 78 percent of the global church's budget and his belief that progressives and moderates should therefore determine the beliefs and direction of the church.
To put it simply, that is not how The United Methodist Church works. Responsible centrist and progressive leaders know this is true. Dollars are not votes. The rich do not get to dictate to the poor. The wealthy West does not get to overrule the voices of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.
Holland has already made his feelings clear when he wrote about "Five Reasons to Consider a U.S. Church" that would break apart the global UM Church along national lines. His latest piece continues the same line of reasoning, using the resources of the U.S. church to discount United Methodists in other nations. In many circles, that perspective comes across as boilerplate colonialism. It is one thing for those who have resources to set a boundary on what they are able and willing to afford spending. It is another thing to use those resources to dictate how the church should operate. We rightly decry this abuse of power in local churches. Why not in our global church?
Finally, it defies logic to blame the WCA for a shortfall in current apportionments and then criticize the WCA for raising funds to help make up the shortfall. Here, Holland is confusing apples and oranges. The shortfall in general church apportionments is not a new phenomenon. Reasonable centrist and progressive leaders know that to be true. It is caused by local churches and annual conferences across the theological spectrum for a variety of reasons, and it affects the total ministry of the church.
What is new is progressive and moderate individuals and annual conferences who had previously committed to fund specific mission work in Africa and Russia suddenly pulling the funding after the 2019 General Conference explicitly in response to the church's decision to maintain the traditional biblical stance on marriage and sexuality. It is this shortfall that the WCA Central Conference Ministry Fund is designed to help remedy. The WCA did not cause the shortfall but is doing the responsible thing by attempting to supply assistance to central conference mission work that is jeopardized by progressives and moderates exercising their conscience-driven decision.
The big picture takeaway from all of this is that we have a demonstration of the impossibility of various parts of the church living together and sharing a common mission. Many U.S. Methodists have come to the point where they can no longer financially support those parts of the church they believe cause harm to LGBTQ people and allies. At the same time, many other U.S. Methodists can no longer financially support a church structure that not only fails to defend a traditional biblical sexual ethic, but also actively supports disobedience and defiance of the church's requirements, decided globally by the only body with the authority to speak for the whole church.
Some moderates and progressives can discount our non-U.S. members as less than equal or not worthy of full participation in the processes of the church. However, our brothers and sisters outside the U.S. bring a needed corrective to the cultural myopia that afflicts our theology and practice of ministry. And we can do the same for them. As such, central conference leaders and members are valued and equal partners in the global ministry of The United Methodist Church, regardless of how much money each of us brings to the table.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.