• R.C. Muhlbaier

3 Reasons to Rethink the Independent Streak in the UMC Exodus

I recently came across an article by Bob Smietana about the shock caused by the announcement that Vineyard Anaheim decided to leave the Association of Vineyard Churches. Vineyard Anaheim has been a flagship church for the Association since its founding by the late John Weber. The statements of confusion, lament, anger, and even cold practicality were all too familiar as someone living through the breakup of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Yet, the reasons for the Vineyard Anaheim’s exit do not seem to be related to doctrinal differences; at least none have been publicly cited to date. Instead, the departure seems to be a growing desire for independence among Protestant Christianity. Smietana describes the trend this way: “The decision to leave also reveals the growing challenges facing many Protestant groups: the decline of denominational loyalty, the rise of ‘pastor-warlords’ who run their churches with little or no accountability and the influence of so-called Network Christianity, a growing movement led by pastors and apostles who claim to hear directly from God and turn their churches into personal platforms for spiritual influence.”


I notice a similar desire for independence as I follow and engage in conversations with some UMC clergy and laity who are looking to move on from the dysfunctional denomination. Currently, the only option for congregations to separate from the UMC is through disaffiliation. This means all congregations leaving the UMC are becoming legally independent churches. In spite of this, some existing pastors and congregations are joining other existing Wesleyan denominations or anticipate joining the emerging Global Methodist Church (GMC). Others are questioning the necessity and wisdom of joining a new denomination after the difficult and, too often, contentious process of leaving the UMC. Why should these congregations not simply stay independent?


Independent or non-denominational churches are not a new phenomenon. As mainline church membership has steadily decreased, there has been an explosion of independent or non-denominational churches over the past several decades. While many independent churches are healthy and faithful, there are too many congregations and pastors where such independence has led to abuse. The recent podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”, is a sad revelation of the leadership abuses of Mark Driscoll that serves as a dramatic, maybe even extreme, example of congregational and pastoral independence gone horribly wrong. I am worried that the independent mood of congregations and clergy leaving the UMC will contribute to an unhealthy mindset in this transitional season.


Clergy and congregations are running away from a broken and diminished UMC as much or more than they are inspired by the potential of being part of a healthy denomination. Making all the necessary decisions for beginning a new season of ministry while the pain and frustration of exiting the UMC is so fresh has the potential for crippling the ministry impact of a congregation. The guardrails of a denomination support congregations in this time of transition and into the future. Below I outline three ministry sustaining benefits of joining another denomination for congregations exiting the UMC.


Accountability

I realize the irony of lifting up accountability as a benefit for congregations exiting the UMC. Theological differences have long been a source of contention in the UMC. Almost from the very beginning of the denomination the church has had debate over human sexuality, biblical interpretation, and social ethics. Yet, what has truly led to the breakup of the UMC is failure of the polity. Since the 2019 special General Conference, some progressives, including bishops and whole jurisdictions, have rejected the decision of the General Conference on marriage and ordination. The lack of will and mechanisms for accountability in these situations have made the functional coexistence of progressives and traditionalists within the denomination impossible.

The UMC is a unique case in that at the merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church a “big tent” philosophy was adopted that never established what was truly essential to be United Methodist. As a result, while the official doctrine of the UMC has not changed, the denomination’s agencies and institutions have drifted into (some say captured by) progressive theology. Other Wesleyan/Methodist traditions have not experienced a similar drift, and the GMC is committed to not making the same mistake again.

The clear boundaries for doctrine and practice paired with accountability mechanisms offered by most denominations benefit local congregations by limiting its own theological drift. Without these denominational guides, local congregations too often drift to theological extremes whether progressive or fundamentalist. Some of this stability is derived from consistent pastoral teaching, which leads us to the next benefit.

Maintaining Theological Distinctives

Related to accountability is maintaining the distinctives of the Wesleyan/Methodist theological tradition. The connection to a functioning Methodist movement ensures that pastoral leadership will have been formed in the tradition and evaluated by others for their theological understanding. In addition, local churches connected to the movement will have access to resources and training that have a consistent theological foundation. Without a connection to the Methodist movement, local churches are likely to sway with whatever is popular at the time.

One common example is the Christian Education of a local church. The newest and best promoted studies are adopted regardless of the theological foundations of the material. It is healthy to learn about different views within the church catholic, but it must be done intentionally. The materials and methods we use for formation within our local churches need to have a consistent theological foundation if we want to avoid confusion and even unnecessary conflict.

Theological distinctives are not only maintained by the formation that takes place in the local church, but also in the practice and polity of the denomination. I will be the first to acknowledge that denominations do not always effectively educate on the theological foundations of ecclesiology, practice, and polity. I do not have space to go into detail here, but there are theological reasons underlying sacraments, ordination, and denominational structures. These standards and practices have an impact on the life of the local church in obvious and less obvious ways.

One might challenge the assumption that maintaining theological distinctions is a valuable endeavor. To be sure, it is possible to be too constricting in maintaining tradition and theological distinctives to the point where the church cannot adapt to changing contexts or maintain unnecessary barriers to faith. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that any one tradition can consistently and faithfully maintain the whole richness of the faith. John Welsey himself wrote that he believed that God formed the methodists for the purpose of the promulgation of the doctrine of entire sanctification. When the different, but orthodox, theological traditions of the Body of Christ are faithful in the teaching and practice of their tradition, other parts of the Body are edified by rediscovering teachings and practices that have been lost or neglected in their own tradition.

Cooperative Ministry

Ministry cooperation is not unique to denominations. I have been part of communities where leaders of the local churches formed a ministerial association in which the churches worked together on a variety of common ministries even though they represented different denominations and theological traditions. These types of partnerships are of great benefit to local communities, but they do not negate the impact of cooperative ministry within a denomination. One of the best examples of what can be achieved through cooperative ministry is UMCOR in the United Methodist Church. UMCOR does disaster relief and other humanitarian work and is one of the most respected relief agencies in the world, even rivaling the Red Cross. The overhead for UMCOR is funded by the general church so 100% of donations go directly to the relief work. UMCOR is know to arrive early and leave much later than other relief agencies. As an aside, UMCOR is an agency of the UMC that I hope the Global Methodist Church finds ways to partner with instead of trying to reinvent the wheel for this type of work.

Other cooperative ministry is facilitated by the connectional nature of the Wesleyan/Methodist denominations. General boards, annual conferences, and districts (or the equivalent of each) all have great potential to rally the gifts of the church for great needs and moves of the Spirit. The fact the communication and funding mechanisms are already established allows for more effective and sustained mobilization. The cooperation on these various levels are not limited to mercy and justice ministries. Discipleship and leadership development can be greatly enhanced in local churches through cooperative ministry.

Another aspect of cooperative ministry is the support that pastors and congregations receive from the connection. It may come as a shock, but pastors are not all gifted in the same areas. Similarly, congregations do not always have the spectrum for gifts and experience for the variety of ministry needs in their contexts. Denominational connections pool gifts and experience to provide opportunities for ministry resources and training to help develop the areas of growth in leaders and congregations.

On a more personal level, the connectional nature of many Wesleyan/Methodist denominations creates opportunities for ministry cooperation and support through “watching over one another in love”, as John Wesley encouraged. Ministry is hard. Pastors and lay leadership need to be able to share their struggles with others; often it is best done with others outside their local congregation. Covenant groups and associations that target particular lay roles provide opportunities for fellowship and support that balances a common experience within the denomination or tradition with the freedom of gathering with others outside the local context. Healthy leaders facilitate healthy ministry.

Conclusion

Transition is always hard. Transition as the result of decades of long conflict is even harder. The pain and lost trust for those exiting the UMC is not to be denied. Yet, I believe that it is important for past pain to not be the deciding factor for whether a congregation chooses to affiliate with another Wesleyan/Methodist denomination. This new season of ministry will bring many challenges for exiting congregations, but the journey will be much harder if traveled alone. Independent churches must find qualified pastors, adopt theology, and develop policies all on their own. The benefits of accountability, maintaining distinctives, and cooperative ministry provide guide rails for the road ahead and rest areas along the way. When you hit pot holes or run out of gas, there will be others to help you get back on the road. If you choose to align with the Global Methodist Church, as I recently have, we will know your pain and can heal together as we join in this new movement of the Holy Spirit. We welcome you.



For other good articles on this topic visit here and here.


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