What We Have Seen and Learned in A Painful Season

posted on May 11

What We Have Seen and Learned
in A Painful Season

All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with all of you.  Titus 3:15

Over the past ten months, our office has been assisting 13 churches in our District who have chosen Disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church under Paragraph 2553. They have specifically stated in writing their objection to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of their churches, particularly with regards to same-gender marriages and the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors. As of Saturday, May 6 and in the final Charge Conferences afterwards, we are bidding thirteen churches farewell. Landa, Lynne, Maria, and I have a collective 64 years of working with these churches. Landa, who has the longest tenure of service in our office, has resourced some of these churches and leaders for 36 years and knew well some of their saints, whose hearts were very big. I can only imagine how they felt as they watched Saturday’s proceedings and heard our churches named. Our administrative staff attended most of the disaffiliation church conferences with me, handing out and tallying ballots, watching it all unfold alongside me. It is our ministry at this time, and we bear it faithfully.

Assistance to these thirteen churches has been given in the midst of Charge Conference season, consultations, recommendations, supervision of clergy, preparing for clergy retirements and moves, making new appointments, establishing learning cohorts, helping churches rebuild after COVID, administering grants, nurturing and caring for candidates, and working with those in the various steps of ordination. Needless to say, we have been busy. The church is giving birth to itself even in the midst of some splintering and loss.

The disaffiliation work has been heavy and stressful. It could not be considered life-giving. These churches have chosen to separate from our connection. Even when we felt the decision was not in the best interest of their spiritual health and sustainability, we gave them our assistance. Many of these churches lost members in the disputes; several will not have pastors beginning next month. Their leaders are feeling a great strain, grasping for ways to recoup what has been lost through members who departed – some of whom were the hardest working volunteers and most faithful givers.

It has been said that it is easier to tear something down than to build something up. I have seen that true in my own “do it yourself” projects at home, and it is certainly true in the life of the church. I urge you to be wary of ideas that seek to tear down. Ask instead about the ability to build something meaningful and positive for building future relationships. This is much harder work. Our experience has been that most churches have not decided to unite with another denomination, even if the “tearing down” has been done during presentations on behalf of a new movement.

Many denominations already practice full inclusion of all persons as a part of their polity. As United Methodists, we are among the last to resolve this matter. We are a global, democratic denomination – not a national one. We have learned much from others who have already walked this path. Here are some of the learnings:

  1. More people depart than you wish would depart, but not nearly as many as you think will depart.
  2. The person who leads the church out of the denomination (clergy or lay) usually leaves the church within 12-18 months of the disaffiliation.
  3. At every denominational gathering after disaffiliations, churches ask if they might rejoin the connection.

All of this is to say that I truly urge your church to listen to all voices if there are conversations about disaffiliation. Think about the future, not the present. Think about the entire message of our Holy Scriptures, not only a few verses. Think about the feelings of others, not only your own feelings. It is sacrificial, and Christ-like, to care for your dear church in this manner. She is the very Bride of Christ, and we must honor her and not tear her apart. As scripture admonishes, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:14-15) Our own Gospels and indeed all of scripture warn against such harm.

We witnessed division in many congregations, and we have comforted many persons who have been disappointed by the behavior of their elected and appointed leaders; coercion and force usurped mutual discernment. Members and friends of the church felt excluded from the process and even shut down in conversations. Many left in pain, and leaders did not “count the cost” of decisions, as Jesus advised in Luke 14:28. Needless to say, it has pained us to watch any church being torn apart.

Our goal in the coming months is to refocus the church on its original sacred mission, making disciples for Jesus Christ. Disaffiliation conversations should not drain a church’s collective energy or become the main conversation in every class and meeting. This is not healthy for you. Remember, you have a much bigger mission outside your walls.

To the thirteen churches who have chosen to leave us, we part in peace.  We wish we could have convinced you to hang on to see the outcome of General Conference 2024, and to make a reasoned inquiry into the Expanded Profile, the authority of your Church Trustees, and the consultation process. Our hope was to continue being resources for you, your pastors, and your mission. As we make our last mailings to these thirteen churches, we do so with love.

All of us on the Cabinet and in our District Office offer you a great word of hope about what lies ahead for our future outreach to the next generations. As we heard recently in a district conversation, our role is to “reclaim and proclaim the expansive love of Jesus.”  He remains the Lord of our church and the Lord of our lives.  His love and grace frame our lives and fuel our work, and only through him can we offer a message of hope and welcome to all.

In Christ and For His Mission,

Rev. Bev Coppley
District Superintendent

What We Have Seen and Learned in A Painful Season