While I'm sure there will be another wave of disaffiliating congregations in 2023, I think we can safely say this will be the largest wave of congregations making their way out of the denomination. After what seemed like years of a denominational logjam where dreams, fears and rumors of division or schism floated about the UMC, the dam has broken. About 10-15% of the UMC's here in North America will be looking to exit at specially-called annual conference sessions focused on disaffiliation before the end of the year. Admittedly, the challenges, already daunting, for the United Methodist Church will now be multiplying as large swaths of members and clergy leave.
But if you want to know the truth, the Global Methodist Church faces even more daunting challenges. They are discovering that the denomination they envisioned, isn't coming, and never will come, into fruition. Instead, GMC leadership will be forced to contend with five challenges they did not anticipate, and will not go away.
First, like most everyone else, the church GMC envisioned has been profoundly effected by the aftermath of 2020. GMC congregations who felt more insulated from the undulation around social and political issues that have tossed theologically-centrist or big-tent congregations around pre-pandemic, are now getting a taste of dealing with similar challenges post-pandemic. Anger and disagreement on how to have handled the pandemic, racial divisions, the 2020 election, the January 6th insurrection, and numerous other hot button issues erupted via social media posts and shook traditionalist congregations like everyone else. People sharing pews suddenly found themselves at odds, finding out they had a "truther" or a "QAnon" enthusiast next to them. Parents with gay kids now wondered if they were being targeted by SPRC chairperson making political posts as a "groomer". Traditionalist pastors started getting requests for the church van to go a Greg Laurie or Christian Nationalist revival. For many traditionalists particularly of large churches, it was the first time they'd dealt with the downside of the cultural wars.
Second, the yield from online worship isn't exactly a bumper crop. Like everyone at the outset of the lockdown, traditionalist congregations saw streaming numbers increase exponentially. For many of these churches, particularly larger ones, significant investments in equipment and staff were made to cultivate a "virtual congregation".
Maybe it's too soon to call the virtual revolution a bust, but not only are streaming numbers down (way down), they also don't seem to generate people committed to a local church ministry. In fact, it is being argued that online worship has stoked more an air of consumerism, and less that of discipleship, but by putting an even greater premium on the quality of preaching, music, and video production, as opposed to becoming part of a faith community.
Since the movement of the Holy Spirit in traditionalist congregations is often generally associated with numerical growth, in listening to podcasts with various pastors of disaffiliated or disaffiliating congregations, the true attendance decline is being masked by the number of "streaming engagements" on those attending "online". While some congregations have been able to make a little hay with streaming, and exploring technology's possibilities must still a priority for the local church, the reality is that investments in online worship have yielded little return in terms of in-person engagement. This is the difference between a congregation that worshipped 1000 prior to the pandemic, saying they currently worship 1000, with 700 worshipping in-person and 300 online. The numbers might be similar, but the reality is that the reach and resource of the congregation are more likely than not, diminished.
Third, large disaffiliating congregations aren't going GMC. The GMC was counting on the large congregations who are now forming the the Foundry Network, and other emerging "non-binding associations", to be its bread and butter for total membership and apportionment revenue. Despite the GMC insisting it will be a reformed, organized, orderly Wesleyan movement that is a 180 degree change from the UMC, the similarities in institutional structure are more than concerning to clergy and lay-leaders who just went through an arduous and expensive process to sever their denominational affiliation.
The fact is that clergy in large congregations largely felt like the greater denominational polity and bureaucracy was an unnecessary weight while they were IN the UMC. Now as they deal with the pandemic fallout, and using disaffiliation to lower their financial overhead, why would they risk getting tangled up in something similar... or possibly worse?
Worse, you say? How could it be worse?
Let's just look at the facts: WCA leadership somehow turned a growing numerical majority at General Conference into an election for 2020 GC that in America wholesale rejected evangelical delegates... even in the south. They botched what could have been a smooth denominational launch into a disjointed, expensive, confrontational endeavor with no UMC seed-money to get started. And even though they've been planning for this possibility since 2016, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about ordination, appointments, apportionments, property ownership, the role of bishops, and a host of other matters that large disaffiliated congregations need answers to make decisions about their future in, or out, of the GMC. How can WCA leadership describe the last six years of their tenure as anything less than "disappointing"?
I just can't help but think that no matter how outwardly the Foundry Network clergy are affirming the GMC, since 2016 they've watched them do the equivalent of swapping a hundred-dollar bill for a ten, a five, seven-two's, $17.45 in Canadian nickels, and a bag of "magic beans". No way they'll ever hitch their wagon to that ox.
Fourth, the GMC lost their own sense of the moral high-ground when the bishops in Africa disavowed the "Africa Initiative", WCA, and GMC.... and they don't know how to get it back. Over dinner at a centrist event back in 2017, a friend of ours who was connected to the global church, and specifically the African conferences, explained how badly the Africa Initiative was behaving politically. The bishops were dealing with all sort of machinations around episcopal and General Conference delegate elections on the part of AI leaders to install themselves into positions of leadership and influence. Given the financial support and training received by the Africa Initiative from Good News, the IRD, WCA, and the Beeson Institute at Asbury Seminary, this was creating a great deal of mistrust among African church leaders regarding the intentions of American traditionalist UM's.
So the call of the African bishops to revive "The Christmas Covenant" this summer in a plea for continued unity shouldn't be a surprise. Not only had this been voiced years ago across by the same bishops, but the call was roundly ignored again by WCA leadership even as they claimed to be the United Methodists who truly had the central conferences best interests at heart. Since the creation of a central US conference didn't suit what they wanted, the WCA kept pushing their agenda and narrative. Given the history Sub-Saharan Africa has had with western leadership telling her to just sit quietly while others determine what's going to be best for them, who can blame the bishops for making the statement denouncing the WCA, GMC, and Africa Initiative?
Finally, whatever vision GMC leadership seems to have for its denomination doesn't appear to be the priority of disaffiliating congregations looking to join its ranks. Maybe you didn't know this, but one of the UM seminaries has been doing its darnedest to exist next to, or even supplant, Asbury Seminary as the GMC flagship educational institution. A few years ago, United Theological Seminary began to take concrete steps in this direction. They formed their own version of Asbury's "Good News" called "Spirit and Truth", which arranges conferences (their own version of "New Room") on the "Holy Spirit" to connect with laity and clergy alike. And just like Good News, Spirit and Truth publishes it's own e-publication: "Firebrand Magazine". David Watson, Dean of UTS, is a major player in this shift which has resulted in what appears to be the first GMC "bishop"-in-residence at the seminary (Mike Lowry) and first institution offering a track to GMC ordination.
In numerous articles about the launch of the GMC, Watson, among others, keeps talking about the need to recapture the initial spirit of the Methodist Movement. To that end, they've suggested that GMC clergy and congregations won't just be accountable for their theological beliefs, but will be required to reorganize their local churches around the "Methodist Class Meeting". These small groups geared toward theological education and moral accountability would be (in theory) mandatory for all GMC members. They would be the heart of the new denomination, just as Wesley used them to organize the movement in Great Britain.
The problem is that I don't really sense any energy around Class Meetings or small group discipleship in disaffiliation meetings, literature, or podcasting. In fact, I've been invited to present the pro-UMC case in at least a dozen congregations investigating disaffiliation, and in not one of them is a wholesale reorganization of polity and discipleship around small group accountability at the forefront of their priorities.
Insuring no same-sex wedding takes place in their sanctuary? Yes.
Embracing a literalist view of scripture? Yes.
Local Church ownership of the property by putting the "trust clause" in garbage can? Yes.
Fewer, or no, apportionment payments? Yes.
Freedom from the "woke" agenda of the UMC? Absolutely
Spiritual and congregational renewal by totally reforming church governance and discipleship around high demand small-group accountability? Not so much.
All I hear are questions about fearing gay marriage, gay clergy, the "woke agenda", the giant sucking sound made by apportionment money being used for anything other than the needs of the local church forced to hand it over, and the injustice of a "trust clause". And when I reflect on the "woke agenda" questions, I suspect that GMC leaders with any integrity are going to really struggle with what is currently ailing the right-wing of American Christianity. Some GMC leaders may think they're about to lead a "Class Meeting Revival", but I suspect that even at the GMC Convening Conference it's going to be difficult to keep the smoldering passion around around racist ideology, gender complementarism, political demagoguery, the demonization of queer persons, and numerous conspiracy theories we know exist in at least small numbers in American evangelical churches, under wraps.
Doesn't take but one person, one moment, on one microphone, talking about a pizza place in Washington where kids are enslaved in the basement one time, to uncork the chaos of every agenda other than an a small group meeting starting with "How Is It With Your Soul?" Such is the alligator wrestling GMC leadership better be preparing for as they get both more, and less, of what they expected.
(Rev. Bryan Bucher is an UM Elder in the West Ohio Conference, and one of the founders of the United Methodist Centrist Movement)