By Walter Fenton
Whatever else you think of the Rev. Mark Holland, Executive Director of Mainstream UMC, the man does love his colored maps. And to be clear his maps are invariably ones of just The United Methodist Church in the U.S., ignoring more than 40 percent of our global church’s membership. In Holland’s world, the UM Church is like a U.S. electoral map where you can color-code each state based on the election of delegates to the church’s next General Conference. Everything is seen through this prism, and now, as his recent post indicates, also through the amount of money that flows through annual conferences to the general church.
This rather blunt way of looking at the UM Church inevitably includes errors, reductionisms, and, in Holland’s case, intentional obfuscations. (Readers looking for more nuanced perspectives on the recent delegate elections and how rank-and-file United Methodists in the U.S. characterize themselves should read the Rev. Dr. Chappell Temples’ recent article. Also helpful are the results of a professional survey commissioned by United Methodist Communications and its companion analysis.) In the meantime here are some needed clarifications regarding Holland’s recent claims:
1. First, contrary to his headline and the claims throughout his article, there are no such entities as “WCA [Wesleyan Covenant Association] annual conferences.” This is simply a conjuring of Holland’s imagination. The WCA has not encouraged the creation of “WCA annual conferences” and no annual conference in the U.S. (or anywhere else for that matter) has voted to identify as such. This conjuring, however, is necessary for Holland’s fanciful claim that “WCA annual conferences… are among the worst at not paying their global apportionments.” Faithful United Methodists who work in our annual conferences and at the general church’s General Council on Finance and Administration report any number of reasons (or no reason at all) why some annual conferences do not pay 100 percent of their apportionments. We are completely confident no annual conference has ever told them, “We’re not paying 100 percent because we are a WCA annual conference.”
2. Second, plenty of annual conferences Holland would never tag as “WCA annual conferences” fall well below paying 100 percent. For instance, the California Pacific Annual Conference (not particularly known as a bastion for WCA support) paid 83.5 percent in 2018. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference, home to Bishop Sally Dyck and Reconciling Ministries Network’s headquarters, paid just 71.5 percent. And the Detroit and West Michigan Annual Conferences (both now defunct and merged together as the Michigan Annual Conference) paid 76.8 and 86.4 percent respectively (we could go on). Applying Holland’s blunt approach one could claim, as he does of his imaginary “WCA annual conferences,” that they too are “not invested in [the denomination’s] global mission.” But this would be to join Holland in the kind of fact free speculation he majors in.
3. Holland also implies all apportionments support the UM Church’s “global mission.” To suit his argument he is willing to stretch the term “mission” as far as possible in his effort to portray some annual conferences as callous when it comes to “global mission.” Most United Methodists see through this ploy. Everything from effective mission work (in the classical sense of the term) to bishops’ salaries and on to the General Board of Church and Society’s (GBCS) advocacy for its favorite progressive political causes is funded by annual conference apportionments. With justification, many UM local churches and annual conferences do not believe every last apportionment dollar is supporting “global missions.” By Holland’s blunt evaluation people could assume (unfairly) that since the largely progressive Northern Illinois and California Pacific Annual Conferences pay well short of 100 percent of their apportionments they could care less about GBCS’s advocacy for asylum seekers at the U.S.’s southern border or climate change legislation. In short, Holland’s blunt analysis and fact-free assumptions about annual conferences paying less than 100 percent of apportionments leads to all kinds of absurdities.
4. But for fevered imaginations there is no conspiracy not worth pedaling. For instance, Holland implies the Texas Annual Conference’s declining apportionment payments can be linked to the fact that it is where “WCA Bishop Scott Jones” presides and home to Good News’ offices. For starters, in the same way there are no WCA annual conferences there are no WCA bishops. Bishop Jones, Bishop Dyck, and Bishop Grant Hagiya (Cal-Pac) are United Methodist Church bishops. We are all entitled to disagree with them, but to characterize them as bishops of only this or that part of the church is both unfair and wrong. And unless Holland has some hard evidence supporting his conspiracy for why the Texas Annual Conference is paying less in apportionments, it is probably best to refrain from speculating. Every year many local UM churches, be they progressive, centrist, traditionalist or a mix of two or more, pay less than 100 percent of their apportionments. The reasons they do not do so run from a simple lack of funds, the need to direct dollars to a major physical plant repair, the desire to prioritize a new children’s ministry program, and yes, as a message to the general church regarding their displeasure with its direction. And in turn, annual conferences make the same calculations every year. Holland, however, errs in assuming he knows exactly why this or that annual conference pays less than 100 percent; he does not.
5. We are also are happy to set the record straight regarding the WCA’s Central Conference Ministry Fund. We are puzzled by Holland’s harsh assessment that it is a “complete fraud” and a “publicity stunt” since he offers no evidence to buttress his charge. Shortly after the special General Conference in St. Louis, some proponents of the One Church and Simple Plans talked openly of withdrawing support for discrete ministries in Africa and Eurasia. At least two bishops on two separate continents alerted us to ministries they believed might be adversely impacted. In response, the WCA Council decided to do what it could to fill the gap where possible, hence the creation of the fund. The WCA is under no illusion it can fill every gap that might open because of the loss of apportionment dollars, but it does believe it should do what it can. Furthermore, the WCA has not advocated for the withholding of apportionments nor does it anticipate doing so. Having said that, we unashamedly reaffirm what we said in our announcement about the Central Conference Ministry Fund:
“We do acknowledge that payment of apportionments presents an ethical dilemma for faithful United Methodists where our church’s teachings are flagrantly disregarded and remain unenforced. We have urged our members to be wise and discerning about the giving of their tithes and offerings, understanding that we each have many options available to support the Lord’s work.”
6. And finally a quick word regarding Holland’s special pleading for Mainstream UMC vis-à-vis all those well staffed renewal and reform groups. First, to give the impression Mainstream UMC is fighting alone is not only wrong, it is a slight – something centrists seem good at lately – on the groups that have been advocating for LGBTQ+ rights for decades. The Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Ministries Network, and the Clergy Queer Caucus (more recently) all have staff members who have been in the thick of things long before Holland and Mainstream UMC arrived. We will allow our friends at the Confessing Movement, Good News, and UMAction to report their own staffing numbers (we doubt Holland’s aggregate number is correct), but we do plead guilty to having a massive staff of three people, two of whom work out of a small office and one who works out of his home (no complaints though). Fortunately, we have a dedicated global council, dozens of regional chapters, and thousands of faithful members who are happy to give of their time, talent and resources to our mission.
Despite Holland’s attempted obfuscation, general church apportionments support far more than just global missions, particularly as the term missions is commonly defined. Therefore, we are not surprised some traditionalist, centrist, and progressive annual conferences over the past few years have decided to withhold them as a way of sending a message to a general church they find bloated, dysfunctional, fails to represent their theological and ethical values, and remains mired in a conflict with irreconcilable differences. But to assume these are the only reason for withholding now or in the past is idle speculation. Given plunging worship attendance figures, we are sure some annual conferences, whether they are traditionalist, centrist, or progressive, simply do not have the funds to pay 100 percent. Unfortunately, this is likely to continue to be the case as long as diametrically opposed parties are yoked together in the UM Church.
No one working for an amicable separation of the church – and United Methodists from across the spectrum are now doing so – ever prioritized it as their first option. Holland is eager to tell his readers “WCA Bishop Scott Jones” has “co-authored a plan for GC 2020 that calls for the dissolution of the global church,” but he conveniently fails to report that his co-author is Bishop David Bard, the progressive leader of the Michigan Annual Conference. Perhaps these two leaders recognize what is increasingly clear to many United Methodists: more fighting, conspiracy mongering, and name calling will just chase off more people of whatever stripe, and that will surely lead to less funding for global missions.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.