The Real Elephant in the United Methodist Living Room


by Bob Phillips


Amid the welter of challenges facing the UMC as it lumbers toward General Conference 2020, one issue stands out while another has received scant attention. The irony is that the latter issue, ‘that of which we must not speak’ is the real ecclesial death star that has warped into range of plant United Methodist and can explode it quicker and more completely than any other threat.


The much-noised problem is human sexuality… that is where the energy is flowing. Around that banner special interest groups gather and outside monies flow. That is where secular media focuses attention. But…nearly every American UM church that affirms same sex marriage and sexually active LGBTQIA+ clergy is in decline, with ageing membership and sagging attendance. The same is true for most American UM churches that affirm traditional Christian marriage and moral standards for ordination. A special General Conference costing 3+ million dollars resolved nothing. GC2020 is gearing up to be an expensive replay of GC2019 and regardless of what is decided or how it is framed, will resolve nothing. This is the loud, distracting, secondary issue.


The real elephant in the room is the lack of trust. It is endemic, spreading like a black mold across boards and agencies, bishops and clergy, conferences and congregations. Stephen Covey (among many, many others) made clear that no institution or organization or relationship can endure where trust is deficient, compromised or altogether missing. That is the UM challenge.


Sliver Samples from the Traditional View

As a United Methodist who embraces historic Wesleyan teaching, I offer these few examples of actions that have compromised trust in the institution and its collective leadership:


  1. 2002 – The NCJ College of Bishops affirms Bishop Joe Sprague’s public teaching Jesus was not born of a virgin, did not die for the sins of the world on the cross, was not bodily resurrected, is not ‘coming again,’ and is not ‘the only name under heaven given among humankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). They argue one can take scripture seriously but not literally. For traditionalists, core gospel teaching in scripture cannot be taken seriously unless taken literally, just like…apportionments!

  2. 2016 – After agreeing to a May pause on debating sexuality at GC2016 so the Council of Bishops can form a Way Forward process for a special GC, the Western Jurisdiction elects open lesbian Karen Oliveto to the office of bishop, a theological “Pearl Harbor’ assault on the fragile trust by all parties seeking a gracious way forward.

  3. 2019 – Special interest groups politicize delegate elections in numerous US annual conferences to ensure the exclusion of any clergy and lay delegates who affirm existing church teaching. This legal gerrymandering ensures several annual conferences have either no or marginalized voices reflecting the actual convictions of many churches within those conferences. Moral irony is compounded when exclusion of traditional voices has the unintended consequence of excluding large numbers of effective Hispanic-Korean-Filipino clergy from election since nearly all support traditional marriage.

  4. 2019 – The United Methodist News Service headlines emphasize African and Filipino bishops desire for unity, while burying their equal firm affirmation of traditional marriage well into the story. When the Association of Korean UM Churches, 270 of the largest congregations in the US, align with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the UMNS refuses to run the story…in English, but prints it only in Korean, which is fine if you read Korean!

  5. 2019 – The Board of Church and Society revises the church’s proposed statement on abortion, eliminating every reference that traditional members have spent 30 years seeking to include for moral boundaries and nuance, such as specific opposition to abortion performed for gender selection.

Only some of these examples touch on the sexuality debate. One can add recurring issues of trust regarding the appointment and promotion process among clergy, absence of metrics for effectiveness for boards and agencies (with some exceptions such as WESTPATH or UMCOR), trust issues for congregations regarding appointments, mistrust arising from perception of underrepresentation of traditional voices in boards, agencies, conference and jurisdictional leadership, trust issues of competence (not malfeasance) over the amount and use of apportionments, mistrust over the fairness and focus on ordination processes in conferences, the ’good old boy’ ongoing network, among others. Most of these concerns transcend liberal-conservative identities.


Sliver Samples from a Progressive View

Though traditional in beliefs, I both see numerous issues that more liberal clergy and members have with the actions and attitudes of more traditional leadership and efforts. Examples (which liberal colleagues surely could expand exponentially) include:


  1. 1972 – Singling out an individual sexual identity and behaviors as intrinsically ‘incompatible with Christian teaching,’ while a much longer biblical list of more pressing and practiced sinful behaviors receive no similar attention and are not confronted.

  2. 1976 – An increasingly singular focus of some special interest conservative groups on issues of sexuality to a degree that more liberal groups such as the Methodist Federation for Social Action cannot match…because the MFSA has focused on numerous issues of social/economic justice beyond bedroom behavior.

  3. 1986 – The Council of Bishops offers “In Defense of Creation,” seeking to engage the theological and ethical implications of nuclear war. Traditionalists respond largely in a reactive mode of criticism but continue a disturbing trend of silence or indifference to prophetic engagement in spiritual dimensions of economics, war, poverty or justice.

  4. 2016/19 – Conservative leaders gather African GC delegates offsites prior to the formal start of conference where one only assumes they were coached in how to vote and/or explained issues in ways unfavorable to excluded progressive-centrists groups. The Traditional plan passed by GC2019 shuts down progressive views and churches; trusting a church committed to punitive measures to enforce compliance is a non-starter.

  5. Although no UM is in President Trump’s inner circle of spiritual cheerleaders, strong support from ‘evangelical’ UM clergy/members helped bring him to power and keep him in power. They share the label of ‘evangelical’ among those defending Trump’s lifestyle, language, views and practices repugnant to Christian values in a Faustian bargain to leverage selective political advantage.


Without trust the words of others are not believed or are freighted with meanings that the other person or group may not intend. When trust in an institution dies, loyalty is buried by its side. When trust recedes, motivation and morale wither. When trust is wounded, it bleeds over the capacity to make and keep promises. Without trust, commitment starves and hope become a hologram rather than a pulsing reality. Remove the issue of sexuality from the denomination’s plate. The remaining trust deficits toward the Council of Bishops, bureaucratic structures, seminaries, processes and politics still will push the nose of American United Methodism further into the dried grass of obsolescence toward eventual extinction. Young adults called by God will align with churches whose processes and fairness they trust, especially if asked to complete a minimum of 7 years of education (college-seminary), plus erratic oversight for 1-4 more years, all while carrying 6-figure debt and serving for roughly $18 per hour. For many, that isn’t the UMC.


Nurturing Renewed Trust

As a Navy chaplain for 30 years I counseled hundreds of married couples over issues of loss of trust in the marriage, typically but not exclusively due to infidelity. Many times, a sufficient level of trust could not restored. Perhaps one or both partners no longer felt the real pain outweighed the uncertain gain of continued effort, or one or the other simply had moved on, or the hurt was too deep and the betrayal too consistent & predictable to merit retrieval. Occasionally trust was rebuilt, but always with a totally re-formed marriage and ongoing conversation to answer the question, “What would it take and what does my (unfaithful) partner have to do or try to do to begin the restoration of trust?”


The renewal of trust for the church can take one of two forms. The official first effort revolves around saving the institution, property and fixed/liquid assets. It is an effort seeking to preserve the longstanding and comforting language of the United Methodist Zion, a world where ‘apportionments,’ ‘appointments,’ ‘United Methodist Women,” ‘thirteen official seminaries,’ and ‘charge conference forms’ and ‘general boards and agencies’ remain viable terms. Trust the process. Trust the system produced by UM history. Trust the bishops (something that GC2019 clearly revealed is not the case for much and maybe most of the global church). Trust the traditional words and warm collective memories of the greatness of the church.


The irony is that such an approach, often freighted in language of ‘unity,’ in fact acts out a denial of the depth and breathe of the ‘wicked problem’ facing the denomination. In 2004 the late Lyle Schaller offer the last of his many gifts to the church in his book, The Ice Cube is Melting, bluntly tracking the metrics of consistent and accelerating decline in the US church and the profound need for top to bottom re-formation. Consider: most UM annual conferences have dropped 25-40% since he wrote the book and numerous conferences now routinely lose 4-5% in attendance annually. If the polar ice caps were melting as rapidly as the UMC, Miami would be submerged in 15 years, bad news for the Florida conference. Like those who deny climatic global warming, much church leadership and laity responded to Schaller then and to emerging events now as though the gradual nature of the melting requires no urgency. Thus, the culturally popular issue of sexuality has grabbed attention and resources while more compelling issues such as trust are viewed as separate and less important.


Those individuals and interest groups who see GC2020 as a call to renewed warfare to undo GC2019 and all prior general conferences in matters of sexuality, or to defend GC2019 and all prior conferences, combine to miss the point. Without widespread, deep and endemic trust, no volunteer-based organization can endure. When language, effort and outcomes are framed in terms of win-lose, them-us, and winning votes (regardless of how narrow the margin), trust becomes the first casualty. This is equally true whether the official teaching of the church prevails (the Traditional plan at GC2019) or some freshly scrubbed version of the One Church plan finds resurrection. What has happened to every Protestant denomination that has butted heads over the sexuality issue will happen to the UMC, for neither trust nor loyalty can be compelled when people feel the compromise of conscience is the price of unity.


The second approach is risky, dangerous, scary, and vital. Keep in mind that the dynamics of trust involve a spectrum; some individuals and groups are trusted completely, others not at all, and others fall here and there along the spectrum. The birthing of new expressions of Methodism that allow for allegiance to historic understandings or fresh understandings regarding sexuality would box the bickering beast. Various slabs of the denomination, all of whom already have leaders and groups they trust, would be freed to pursue whatever organizational and systemic changes are needed to realign their expression of Wesleyan Christianity with the mission of making disciples. In such cases, trust for leaders of this or that expression (progressive, traditional, whatever) would not be a paralyzing issue.


Good faith willingness and commitment to sustain support for the growing and financially challenged African and related overseas churches could retain a healthy ongoing collaboration and connections that frees churches outside the US to grow in their settings, at last freed from the 50+ years of head-knocking over sexuality. In such matters a healthy and productive measure of mutual trust focused on addressing a common desire for good would empower cooperation and inhibit civil war and guerilla actions against the ‘others.’ Shared larger ministries such as UMCOR, Archives, and WESTPATH in care of retired clergy likewise could transcend any one group. From this perspective, all the new-born expressions would be free to live into their versions of the Wesleyan way, with the main downside being the loss of the ability of blaming the ’others’ for whatever ails the church.


The bottom line. (1) Trust, not sexuality, is the elephant in the room for the church and GC2020. (2) Collectively facing this truth is the first step to wise and focused engagement with a viable future. (3) Calls for trust basically geared to organizational self-preservation will fail. Pushing win-lose scenarios for GC2020 by any interest group would be evidence of this skewed application of trust. (4) Trust nurtured within and arising from the new birth (or mitosis) of the church into new expressions of the Wesleyan way would plough the ground for a spiritually revitalized, revived and re-formed church. Such a new movement would be positioned to engage the challenges of 21st century US culture with an organization rescoped for effective and faithful service to Christ and his kingdom. How do I know? Trust me….trust, and verify!

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