Thoughts from a retired pastor on sharing Separation of UMC to your congregation

By Warren Lathem -

Recently I heard about a UM pastor who was approached by a substantial group in his church asking to discuss the current division in the UMC, the Protocol for Separation and the Wesley Covenant Association. Reportedly, He refused to meet with them instead placing responsibility for his decision higher up the ecclesiological chain. Unfortunately, his folks had access to the higher up and upon inquiry was informed he was not forbidden to discuss the issue and further, the Discipline does not allow said directive. Needless to say, he now has a crisis of leadership on his hands. I pray it works out well, but fear it will not.


Now is the time when every pastor needs to be working with key lay leaders informing them of the current situation and helping them come to some level of comfort with the decision making process they are going to face. I am retired and so my voice is nil. However, if I was still an active pastor, I would certainly be leading my congregation toward a decision that was in keeping with my own theology. Others choose to present the options and leave the decision to the congregation without taking a leadership position themselves. That would be like Joshua standing before the Hebrew Nation saying, “it’s up to you, whatever you decide is fine.” Still other pastors like the one illustrated above are afraid even to bring up or discuss the issue.


Why? One reason may be an inordinate fear of conflict. There will certainly be conflict within many congregations over this very issue. Often pastors are paralyzed by fear in the face of conflict. So we avoid it at almost any cost. The truth is, there is no progress absent conflict. If the automobile tires have no conflict with the road surface, there is no progress. Chaos results. That’s why driving on ice is so dangerous - the absence of conflict. Pastors can learn to manage conflict well.


Another reason a pastor might avoid the situation in the UMC is a lack of any strong personal conviction. The “go along to get along” gene is very strong in the UMC cultural context. Our denominational bent toward pluralism has resulted in an absence of moral or theological clarity. All opinions are of equal value. Hence our obsession with consensus building. There is no right or wrong, but only what we agree on. We used to say we could disagree agreeably. That is true with many things, but in this situation, the lines are clearly drawn and congregations need to know on which side of the line the pastor stands. One lay friend went to his pastor to ask him where he stood since he had made no personal revelation. The conversation convinced the lay person his pastor “stands firmly in the middle of the middle of the middle.” Or as he also put it, “He is afraid to take any stand.”


Another reason the pastor may fear dealing with this issue is he or she realizes their position is in direct conflict with the majority in the church. This would appear to be the case since both anecdotal and objective evidence is clear the ordained clergy in the UMC are far more liberal than the laity. So if a Progressive pastor serves a predominately Traditional congregation, he or she risks self-revelation and the resulting consequences. I have observed in my own conference very progressive pastors never revealing their true selves to the traditional congregations to which they have been appointed. This is also true for a traditional pastor appointed to a more progressive congregation. However, statistically, this is much more uncommon.


A fourth reason is inertia. Pastors tend to love status quo, as do many of our congregations. Unfortunately, in this case it is a deadly case of denial. This is not going to go away anymore than cancer will just go away. Ignoring symptoms can be deadly. This is also true for the church. Maintaining the status quo has resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of dying congregations in the UMC. Of course, the leadership of my conference is clearly choosing the option of allowing inertia to dominate through the Separation assuming many churches will simply remain with the Post-Separation UMC. I believe they are correct. Of course, a group of like minded folk are trying to sound the alarm for the uninterested or uninformed congregations in order to break the barrier of inertia. This is a difficult task when the Bishop, DS and Pastor all reinforce the inertia of status quo. “Nothing will change for your church after the Post Separation if you remain in the UMC,” has been stated repeatedly. Many churches will believe this even though we know it is absolutely false. They will choose to believe it because it supports their inertia. And our very strategic leader knows that and is using it to the advantage of progressives.


Finally, for the sake of this train of thought, many pastors give lip service to the Great Commission, but show no fruit of fulfilling the Great Commission. For many it is the Great Omission. Just look at their record as pastors. Years and years of barrenness in the churches they have served. An occasional exception simply proves this reality. Barren. Lacking passion for the lost and a passion for the Gospel, we clergy simply hold on to our places of position and wealth coasting on to a well funded retirement. How many times have I heard a pastor say in the last 6 years, “I just want to make it to retirement.” I understand wanting out for any or all of the above reasons. Yet I do not understand retiring from a call. The demands of discipleship are the same whether “active” or “retired.” We are to stay devoted to fulfilling the Great Commission. And that demands bold, visionary, faithful leadership by our pastors.


About Warren

President Emeritus, Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela, UM preacher,1972. Retired. Married to love of my life, Jane.son: Jared, Lim, Zoe Sahar, Elijah Thomas & Alana Ray, the loves of our life. Also adopted by Pastors Tito y Yamileth, Carlos, Danny, Warren y Elizabeth SANTIAGO. Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela. Wesley Medical Center on the Seminary Campus. www.venezuelanow.org. You can give to the Wesley Medical Center or the Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela by sending a check to Venezuela Now, Inc. PO Box 2855, Acworth, GA. 30102. Be sure designate it on the memo line. Or you can give online, www.venezuelanow.org. I have been in ministry exclusively since 1972. I have pastored small churches and a church with the 4th largest worship attendance in the US among United Methodists. I co-founded the Wesleyan Seminary of Venezuela and serve as its President Emeritus. Founded Seminario Evangelico Internacional, the Mount Pisgah Christian School, The Beacon of Hope Women's Center, The Summit Counseling Center. I served 5 years as the District Superintendent of the Atlanta Marietta District. My wife is the love of my life and my greatest supporter. My son is a great joy and his wife a true answer to prayer. They are missionaries: Promesa Ministries. Books: Preaching for a Response, published by Bristol House and co-authored by friend and colleague Dan Dunn. Other books: Transformational Worship, The Pie Safe, Our Father I Believe, What Did Jesus Do? Preaching and Worship books also available in Spanish. I graduated from Reinhardt College, 72, Asbury College, 74, attended Asbury Theological Seminary, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, 77 and McCormick Theological Seminary, 88. I have served on the faculty of 3 Theological Schools and been a Trustee of one University. But I would rather work with goats than with Committees.


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