By Rob Renfroe
Responses to the proposed plan for separation could hardly be more divergent. Some are shouting “hallelujah” and others are feeling dismissed, even sold out.
There are several components of the plan that I do not like. In particular, I don’t like the perception it creates. When I was first told about it, I said, “It looks like we’re being paid off to walk away.” It doesn’t look like a separation or two new denominations being birthed. It looks like traditionalists lost, and now we’re leaving.
Having said that, I am in favor of the proposal. Let me tell you why I and most traditionalist leaders favor its passage.
First, I ask myself what’s our goal? What has been our goal, for at least the past 20 years?
For me, it was never about winning or taking over the UM Church. It has been to create a vibrant evangelical Wesleyan church that is fully focused on mission and ministry — a church that is not mired in a dysfunctional and divisive struggle over sexuality.
For me the goal has never been about keeping a name — a name that in many parts of the country is a negative because it has become connected with progressive theology and non-biblical practices.
And it has not been about getting our fair share of the assets. I want that. We deserve that. But that wasn’t the goal. I was not desirous of continuing this ugly, destructive battle so we could receive additional funds. As a matter of fact, in the Yambasu negotiations that brought about the protocol, our (traditionalists’) primary concern was about funding for the Central Conferences, not ourselves.
Most of the leaders in the evangelical renewal groups have long ago accepted that we need separation. We worked for that to be the result coming out of GC 2016 and 2019. However, when we realized separation was off the table, the only option was an enhanced traditional plan — but that was not our first option mainly because we knew it would not solve anything.
Liberal areas of the church would ignore it, progressive bishops would not enforce it, and we would remain where we were before the Traditional Plan was passed. This is exactly what has happened.
Then, new elections were held for GC 2020 delegates. And we suffered real losses. Plus, we continued to hear that some of the African bishops were willing to adopt a regional conference plan that would allow the UM Church in the United States to have its own Book of Discipline and its own sexual ethics.
So, even though we “won” in 2019, there was no guarantee we would win in 2020. And even if we did, it would not really change anything.
Looking at who was elected as jurisdictional delegates, it is unlikely that we will elect a single bishop who would be committed to the full enforcement of the Discipline. And our church structure and constitution have made it nearly impossible to remove a bishop who refuses to enforce the Discipline.
So, the question is: After 47 years, how much longer do we continue to fight the same battle with the same results — good legislation that doesn’t change the reality of the church? How many more years should we spend precious financial, emotional, and spiritual resources on this same issue?
The decision was made that what was most important was allowing churches and annual conferences (where traditionalists are in the majority) to step into a vibrant Wesleyan connection with all their properties and with no payments required to the UM Church or to their annual conferences.
In other words, it was time to move forward in a positive way for the sake of mission and witness.
In all honesty, I fully understand those who are upset about the use of the denomination’s name. I realize the name is important to many, but others view our brand as having been so tarnished that keeping it is not a long-term benefit.
I understand people who say, “The progressives and centrists want to change the UM Church — they should leave, not those of us who want to be who we have always been.” I get it when people say, “GC 2019 was called to resolve this matter and it did. Traditionalists won. Those who want to change the Book of Discipline should leave, not us.” People who say those things are right. That’s the way it should be.
But, these were political negotiations. And in politics, the question is not what should be but what can be. And this is about as good a “can be” as I can imagine.
This move into the future will be difficult for many of our congregations. I am deeply sorry about that. This is where many of our bishops have brought us. There will be pain for many of our churches and annual conferences. I wish I could change that, but this is where we are. What we can do is listen to everyone, acknowledge their very real concerns, and resource them in every way to make this transition less painful than it might be.
I hope people can focus on the positives. Churches will be free to join a new evangelical Wesleyan movement. They will have lower apportionments. They will have more say in who their pastor is. And we will be done with this battle.
One last thought: When we countered those who would move the UM Church away from the Scriptures, it was easy to be unified. But now we are going to create something new. The process will be painful for some and messy for most of us. And we will have real differences about how the new church is to be structured. But we must stay together. There’s something bigger than whether the new church will have bishops, and if so what their tenure will be, what the new name will be, or even agreeing on all the ins and outs of ordination.
We are being given the privilege and the responsibility of beginning a new denomination — one that we will share with people like you, one that will be committed to the Scriptures as God’s word and to Jesus Christ as Lord of all, one that will be led by men and women, black, white, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Asian — whom we admire and respect.
This is a future we can look forward to. Let’s go there together.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president and publisher of Good News.