The Traditional Methodist Denominations We Don't Need
by Chris Ritter
Does the world need another denomination? I used to think not. But it now seems clear to me that our denomination needs another denomination whether the world needs it or not. The insistence upon institutional unity paired with lack of attention to actual Christian unity has created internal tensions that our connection can no longer bear. That is why we have a Protocol for Separation. While 10,000+/- denominations in the U.S. seems like quite enough, there are some hopeful missional opportunities with which a new traditional denomination may engage.
David Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries, shared some thoughts a couple a years ago that grabbed my attention. The multitude of denominational options have allowed evangelical Christianity to infiltrate cultural cracks and crevices. Scott cites Rodney Stark and Roger Finke who argue “such a free-market approach to religion that provides more religious choices is good for religious adherence.”
Of the myriad denominations in the U.S., only a few stand in the Mainline space. The Ecumenical Movement’s project of merging denominations and ironing away their unique quirks has not served Mainline Christianity well. It has made us less nimble in adjusting our mission strategies to reach a rapidly changing culture. Scott: “This lack of religious options and competitors on the mainline side may be one reason for mainline membership decline starting in the mid-twentieth century.” Mainlines have also become overwhelmingly reflective of theological liberalism. Unity has too often been based on some lower common denominator. A new Traditional/Mainline expression may find a missionary space long underserved.
Scott also argues that Mainline standardization has restricted Christian missionary sending and giving: “Mainline denominations… generally reduced the number of organizations conducting mission over the 20th century as they merged organizations responsible for men’s and women’s work and domestic and foreign work. Organizational consolidation may have decreased interest in mission among mainline Protestants.”
So maybe the world does need another denomination. The conversation happening now is what kind of new denomination we need.
Can we begin by eliminating some options?
United Methodism 1.1 Denomination
Annual conferences coming into a new Methodist denomination have their own set of questions and concerns. These are multi-million dollar judicatory structures have their own budgets, staff, properties, standing rules, and institutional relationships. They will need to move slower than others. A friend recently argued that the new traditional Methodist Church should basically retain our present Book of Discipline. After all, it is argued, would this not allow the church to lay claim to the true UM legacy? “The Progressives are the ones that are changing, not us. We are staying the same.”
United Methodism, however, is broken. Change is long overdue on so many fronts. It would be a huge missed opportunity to punt on repairing those elements of our polity that are broken. Guaranteed appointments need to go. Our current system of itineracy needs to go. The way we resource congregations needs to be significantly changed and streamlined. While there are limits to the amount of change that any organization can tolerate, I hope we don’t clone what we know just for the sake of our own comfort.
The Small-but-Pure Denomination
We don’t want to recreate the mess we have now. This has led some traditionalists to say that we need to be highly selective about who we let in. The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians took something of this approach when they broke from the PC(USA). ECO is far from “ya’ll come.” A friend of mine is a local businessman and presbyter in a nearby congregation. When his church sought to join ECO, he had to undergo a theological examination as a local church leader. Some of this is healthy. In fact, I think we eventually need some sort of covenant and consecration for local church officers. But let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion of a pure denomination. That does not exist this side of Heaven.
We will never be in a place where do we not need to contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Ecclesia semper reformanda est, the church must ever be reforming. Want to be a New Testament church? Which one? The church at Corinth had sexual immorality. Galatia had legalism. Ephesus was at risk of losing their first love. Pergamum had false teaching. Sardis was spiritually dead. Poor Laodicea Jesus called a bucket of luke-warm regurgitation. While we can markedly improve as we start a new church, let us not think we can solve all our problems with separation. Some demons only come out by prayer and fasting. For now, all that are joining will be United Methodists… for good and ill.
Let’s think in terms of a sanctifying system rather than a collection of the sanctified.
The Conference that Became a Denomination
There has been talk of current United Methodist conferences becoming their own denomination. This option, it is said, avoids the toxic binary choices that may be offered at GC2020. Many conferences cannot operate under their present business model if they lose even 20% of their churches. It is conjectured that a traditional conference may appeal to it own culture and history (much older than UM history) to go it alone, at least for the time being.
I don’t believe this option is going to be viable. A denomination so constituted would still have the same internal tensions as United Methodism. (At the end of the day, you are either going to do same-sex weddings or not.) Going independent doesn’t solve much. These conferences risk leaking both Progressive and Traditionalists congregations. Rather than keeping everyone together, they could take double hit.
The Casual Association of Megas
Evangelical United Methodist Mega-Churches are perhaps the group most likely to exhibit anti-denominational bias, and with good reason. Unlike United Methodism in general, these churches have found a way to be effective in their culture. Instead of being honored for their accomplishments, they have often been viewed with suspicion by the institution. Our system has not always been kind to entrepreneurs. Add to this the tension what happens when bishops assert their appointive authority over associate clergy in ways contrary with the wishes of the lead pastor. Large churches and founding pastors often want much more a voice in issues of pastoral succession.
Apportionment payments are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to support work that has been largely ineffective with respect to the denomination’s stated mission. Large churches tire of funding a system in dire need of reform. They would rather use apportionment dollars locally on what IS working instead of subsidizing what ISN’T working. “We could hire five new staff members with the amount flushed away in UM apportionments,” one pastor friend commented. Another friend recently told me that he doesn’t want to go from being a cash cow in one denomination to a cash cow in another.
So the idea is out there for a non-denomination of sorts… an association. Apportionments? How about zero? If you are a mega-church, you don’t really need a denomination. You have your own branding, HR department, mission relationships, and discipleship systems. All the senior pastors can go golfing once a year and conference together over a steak dinner later that night. Many of these pastors are friends and have existing collegial accountability relationships. The pastors can take turns being bishop (if they decide they want that sort of thing.) This is seriously being discussed.
I believe this line of thinking is short-sighted. A seminary professor friend has noted that Methodist churches that go independent tend to lose their Wesleyan DNA in the space of about twenty years. They become a vanilla evangelical congregation among many others. When everything is stable going great, none of us really needs a denomination. But there are those times when a crisis can be averted when an authoritative outside voice imposes discipline. A level of apostolic authority over local church ministry is biblical and necessary to save us from the whims of personality.
The Ethnic Denomination
Our U.S. ethnic caucuses are generally orthodox in their approach to human sexuality and Scripture. But it is not a slam-dunk that they want to be part of a single new traditional denomination. The United Methodist Church’s insistence upon structural racial integration has sometimes forced Korean, Latino, African-American, Pacific-Islander congregations into connectional spaces that are not optimal for their mission. One solution is for these groups to form their own small denominations. I hope this level of division does not become necessary. It would reveal our collective lack of connectional imagination. We must find a way to allow ethnic churches to thrive without loss of connection to the whole.
What I am really pointing to is the wide diversity among United Methodist traditionalists. Terry Mattingly of Get Religion has said United Methodism is all about “location, location, location.” But even in the same location there can be very different expressions of Methodist faith. Can one new traditional church accommodate all of us?
I hope so.
John Wesley was extremely orthodox in theology and very pliable and entrepreneurial in structure. United Methodism has flipped these two things to our great harm. We need to do the hard work at the denominational level of defining and communicating what we believe. We need a general superintendency that assertively teaches and upholds our doctrine. We should use a very light hand in defining structure.
I believe congregations should be empowered to self-select their annual conference and transfer as needed. I believe that annual conferences should be empowered to choose the local polity that works for them. Annual conferences should overlap geographically as needed. If a hundred Korean congregations want to form an annual conference that covers the entire nation, I believe that should be respected. (There used to be many ethnic langauge conferences as immigrants moved across the West). If twenty mega-churches want to form an annual conference with low overhead… that should be okay, too. If a current annual conference wants to pattern itself on what we have today, they should be free to go for it. But congregations should have freedom of movement so that they are not trapped in a connectional relationship that is not working for them. A new traditional Methodist Church should be a meritocracy.
For sure, there needs to some essential elements of polity. We need accountability, connection, a unified episcopacy, and a strong set of healthy norms. Beyond this, our current penchant for arbitrary lines and unnecessary standardization should be held well in check. Much of this is for the convenience of the hierarchy rather than the needs of the mission field.
If we do this right, we can reap of benefit of multiple expressions within one new traditional denomination. Over time, this will reward what is working and discourage what is not. If we do this wrong, we will splinter into separate groups and lose our collective traditional Wesleyan witness. My prayer is that the vision for a strong, nimble, lean, diverse connection rooted in common theology will take hold among the diaspora of Traditional Methodists.
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