By Rev Shane Bishop
I have played competitive softball since I was fourteen years old at every imaginable level. Up to a handful of years ago, I played over a hundred games each season and now, in my late fifties, I still play twenty or thirty. For much of that time I was a shortstop. The shortstop is the captain of the infield and part of my role was to make sure the other players were practicing situational awareness. My constant exhortation to my teammates before the ball was pitched: “Know what you are going to do!”
My exhortation to United Methodist pastors and local churches as we prepare for General Conference 2020 (GC 2020) is very much the same, “Know what you are going to do!”
A handful of local churches have already decided what they are going to do; they won’t hang on until GC 2020. They are the outliers and the wildcards. For them, the aftermath of General Conference 2019 was just too horrible to experience all over again, most still haven’t stabilized. They don’t care what is decided at GC 2020; release them from the Trust Clause and they will be gone. Leaving the denomination under the present rules involves a jagged and potentially contentious process but at least such churches can provide their own narrative. Leaving a contentious denomination feels very different than leaving over disagreements over human sexuality. The former is institutional; the latter is personal. For these churches, attempting to get out will be their only move and they should be treated graciously. They did not ask for our current denominational dysfunction. To make them stay is a bad play for everyone.
The vast majority of UM local churches will stick it out until after GC 2020. They will see what unfolds and they will respond…or not. These churches and pastors need to be asking some important questions right now. Primary among them are, “What will our congregation do in response to GC 2020 decisions?” and “What will our pastor do in response to GC 2020 decisions?” Unless the current pastor planted the church, has been in place over a decade, or is enjoying a near perfect fit these will be two considerations with two different sets of implications, not one.
In softball, you never know where the ball will be hit so you have to anticipate all possibilities. Anything could happen. Clearly the UM Church is at a tipping point; there is no end in sight concerning the conflict and the status quo is unsustainable. It is a good time to practice situational awareness.
What could happen at GC 2020? Here’s a pretty good list of potential scenarios: the denomination formally divides, the denomination moves further right; the denomination shifts left; things stay about where they are; an exit ramp is offered; an exit ramp in not offered; or, things are passed that are later ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.
What will happen at GC 2020? Based on prior experience, here’s a list of what is likely to happen: the delegates will be flooded with multiple plans and mutually exclusive agendas; those plans will be subjected to the political processes of the floor; the human sexuality debate will overshadow all other business; the UM Church brand will be further tarnished; many churches will be further destabilized; whatever is decided will be rejected by about half the church; and, whatever is decided will require more deciding in 2024 and beyond. I’m sure we all hope and pray for better, but again, we need to practice situational awareness.
So in the meantime, I would encourage local churches and pastors to ask themselves some big questions:
Can we survive until GC 2020? If not, what would be the process for negotiating an exit? If we leave, where will we go? What is involved in legally reorganizing the church once we leave? Who owns the assets? How will ordination work for pastors who leave?
If the UM Church formally splits, where will we land? How many ways might the UM Church split? How long will the process for formal separation take?
If the UMC moves further right, can we stay?
If the UMC shifts left, can we stay?
Can our congregation survive a congregational vote on human sexuality? Should this be avoided at all costs? What would it take to get them ready?
If there is a clear exit ramp offered, will we take it? Can we afford the terms? If we take an exit, do we go independent, independent but affiliated, join with others to form a new denomination, or join an existing one?
If there is no resolution to the UM Church conflict in 2020, will we stay?
These are difficult questions that anticipate a number of outcomes and grapple with a number of responses. Local churches and pastors, even of the same theological ilk, will come down in different places. I encourage everyone to be as proactive as possible on one hand and to carefully “think things through” on the other. A failure to plan for what could happen now will almost certainly be a leadership mistake later. Having informed, prayerful, and non-anxious conversations with your church leadership right now will prevent pandemic fear in the present and knee-jerk responses in the near future.
Ready or not, GC 2020 will be here in a minute and a half. The field is lined, the opposing teams are warming up, the umpires are discussing the rules, coaches are going over the game plan and players are already trash talking. The first pitch will soon be thrown. Like softball, you never know where the ball will be hit; you just have to know what you are going to do.
The Rev. Shane L. Bishop is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council, and will be a speaker at Transformed, the association’s fourth Global Gathering on Saturday, November 9, 2019, at Asbury UM Church, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.