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NIMBY and the Separation Protocol

by Chris Ritter

NIMBY: “Not In My Back Yard.”

Decisions made at higher levels of government are often met with local resistance. Local pressures scuttle plans for everything from airports, affordable housing, and nuclear waste disposal sites. We all want change… and for things to stay the same for us. This is human nature and it creates “fightings without, and fears within.” According to Corporate Finance Institute, NIMBY rears its head (legitimately or otherwise) due to lack of trust, concern for the loss of culture, or fear of change. The United Methodist ecosystem is currently rife with all three.

As the impact of the Feinberg Separation Protocol is assessed, NIMBY is rearing its ugly head. Peace through separation sounds attractive to a conflicted church… unless it comes home to our annual conference. And it certainly will.

Two examples just in the past 48 hours:

Insurrection in Florida?

Eyebrows raised at the the curious news of three Florida Cabinet members filing paperwork for a new Methodist Church. On its face, this seemed to be some sort of high-level insurrection against the bishop and denomination. Let me offer an alternative narrative based on a non-WCA primary source and also a secondary source:

Bishop Ken Carter of Florida was central to the Feinberg Separation Protocol negotiations. Once the plan of separation was announced, he met with traditionalist members of his cabinet. They expressed a desire to help prepare a landing place for Florida Conference churches they all acknowledged would not be able to stay in a post-separation UMC as described. Significant doubts existed within the minds of these cabinet members as to whether the denomination conceived by WCA would meet their needs. “Wait and see” would not do. The legal corporation for a new denomination must be available or clergy credentials, tax-exempt status, and a host of other issues would be imperiled. These things take time. The bishop was made aware that groundwork was being done prior to the filing.

When copies of the filing for a new Methodist denomination surfaced, the rest of the cabinet got involved. Intense meetings were held. As a way of achieving peace, two of the three cabinet members removed their name from the paperwork and the third one went on leave of absence. It seems to me that prudent planning done transparently was chewed up in the buzz saw of NIMBY angst.

Centrists and Progressives have often celebrated the Feinberg Protocol that will give them control of The UMC ship. Fine. But don’t be shocked when those who are disembarking are readying their life raft. You can’t have it both ways.

Bishops Feathering their Nests?

Stan Copeland, the pastor of Lovers Lane UMC, issued a scathing Facebook post this week against bishops taking actions in light of the Protocol. He calls out episcopal leaders, like Bishop Scott Jones, who are tentatively scheduling special sessions of their annual conference to deal with the decisions that may come through approval of the Protocol. Copeland:

  • Bishop Jones and several other bishops have secured summer dates for annual Conferences to be called that will no doubt be divisive. Many pastors are saying, “We don’t want to vote! Especially in the summer.” Their case is when we don’t know how everything is shaping up for our denomination if conservative non-compatibilist churches exit the denomination, why make a hasty decision as a UMC Annual Conference. With legislation for a UMC Regional Conference structure coming out of the Central Conferences, a plan for a 21stCentury UMC, new Social Principles proposed, and much more to decide on in May at General Conference, why would Bishops make plans to take a summer vote and worse, why would they be actively working to form a new Church.

Calling a special session of annual conference is not, as Copeland suggests, some sort of conservative maneuvering. Progressive bishops are doing the same thing. The Indiana Conference will hold their special session on October 10 to consider whether to be in a new Traditional Methodist Church or post-separation UMC. Iowa has a date scheduled, even though Bishop Trimble has come out against separation.

Inexplicably, Copeland also blasts Bishop Mueller for offering an alternative to the Protocol and separation. But he doesn’t seem to want anyone to prepare for it, either. He asks, “What’s the rush?”

  • With some of our Bishops, where is the integrity and the commitment to the “call to unity?” Why are some Bishops working on plans to divide the church? Why are some Bishops already insisting on votes to “stay or leave” the denomination weeks after General Conference causing great angst?What is the reason for the rush to make such a monumental, even radical decision to leave the denomination?

One wonders: Has Copeland read the Protocol? Everyone is eager to get this nightmare behind us. Until annual conferences vote, there will be an open wound and continued uncertainty. If 20% of the members of an annual conference want to take a vote, there will be a vote. Many bishops realize this 20% threshold clearly exists in their episcopal areas and are making prudent plans. Unless they are in denial, why wouldn’t they? The alternative is to risk a vote in June 2020 which may be too chaotic a timeline for everyone to assess any possible changes made to the Protocol at GC2020.

Managing NIMBY

Some conferences are leaning into the changes coming via the Protocol and are preparing for it. These actions foster trust and lower anxiety. It is unfortunate that the sorting process created by the Feinberg Protocol is a zero sum game. A win for one side is a loss for the other. But it is what it is. The Missouri Annual Conference just released the results of a clergy survey that revealed 200 of their clergy would only serve in a conference with Traditional sexual ethics. 158 would only serve in a conference that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ sexualities. 158 said they could serve in either. Congregational data, of course, is more difficult to attain because our churches have never been asked to vote on these issues. But attempts at understanding based on hard data help everyone prepare.

Our Episcopal and Anglican brothers and sisters are looking on our Protocol with admiration. They wish they had followed such a plan instead of spending untold millions in the courts. The basis of the Protocol is good faith, a commodity that has been missing as decisions made at General Conference has been ignored in the annual conferences. In such a broken system do we have assurances that the Protocol will be followed?

For all the conferences that find themselves fairly unified on one side of the Protocol options, there are many more that will experience significant losses. Many conferences will fall below the threshold of financial viability, or at least be forced to downsize or merge. But downsizing and merging are already happening, fed by the stress of a denomination at odds with itself. This is a time to grid up our loins, grit our teeth, and take the short-term pain that can take us to eventual health. United Methodists are in for a rough couple of years. This is only acceptable when compared to a rough couple of decades.

I call on Traditionalists to act with courage, openness and candor. Centrists will do well to stop clutching their pearls every time organizational efforts arise for a new traditional Methodist Church. The Feinberg Proposal approved by top bishops and denominational leaders has granted permission for United Methodists to openly discuss alternative futures. Let’s give each other space for this… even if its in our own back yard.


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