By Rev. Jay Therrell
March 7, 2023
Often when something is “trending” on social media, it’s a good thing. It means the event or cause is gaining enough attention that people all over the country are learning about it. Since January 1, I’ve been noticing some growing trends in The United Methodist Church. This is the final year for paragraph 2553 to be used for disaffiliation. As more and more churches are in the pipeline to depart the UMC, I am noticing increasing desperation from some annual conferences.
Here are the trends the Wesleyan Covenant Association is noticing:
- Gaslighting. We are continuing to see an increased amount of gaslighting from bishops, district superintendents, and other denominational leaders. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gaslighting as, “Psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.” Merriam-Webster has a secondary definition, “The act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.”
On Thursday, March 2, 2023, the president of the Council of Bishops, Tom Bickerton, shared a Mid-Term State of The United Methodist Church Address. In that address, Bishop Bickerton said the following about traditionalists and seemed to be referencing the Global Methodist Church without naming it (start at the 10:53 mark):
Our [United Methodist] church is splintering with certain congregations and leaders choosing to exercise a temporary disciplinary provision to disaffiliate and go either independent or to a newly emerging organization that values separation more than connection. The spirit is toxic. The attitude is confrontational. The method of invitation is filled with coercion and accusation. Words being spoken are vitriolic, mean spirited, and are often filled with falsehoods often designed to make the other side appear to be the enemy, the problem, and the reason behind the everything that is wrong with the church today. All of this has led me to ask at times why would anyone want to associate with this kind of behavior? And yet people do. Because for some very odd reason it feels comfortable, even good because it’s reflective of the culture that’s risen among us.
Moments earlier in the presentation, Bishop Bickerton had made a plea to become the “beloved community” that dealt with people in peace. Yet, only minutes later, he made the above accusations which make it seem like traditionalists seeking to leave the church are bad people. It’s the very definition of gaslighting.
As the global president of the WCA, I work with churches and pastors across four continents. I wish I could say this was the only instance of gaslighting, but I see it more and more. District superintendents tell lies to congregations that nothing will change. Bishops tell congregations that they can sign a covenant and the cabinet will never send them a pastor that doesn’t align with their values when that “covenant” is completely at the whim of the bishop and cabinet and can be changed at any time with no recourse.
Be on the lookout for gaslighting and know that you are not the problem for standing up for your faith and what you know is right. And remember what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 11-12, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
- Mistreatment of licensed local pastors. In The United Methodist Church, licensed local pastors are clergy who have, for the most part, chosen to complete a course of theological study instead of pursing a Master of Divinity degree. They are often treated as second-class clergy by not receiving appointments to larger churches, receiving less pay, and having less privileges and voting rights than ordained elders and deacons. Many annual conferences have more licensed local pastors than ordained elders. If the UMC didn’t have local pastors, it would grind to a halt.
Bishops can remove local pastors from their appointment with ease while also asking a district committee on ordained ministry to discontinue the pastor’s license. Each week I am receiving more and more calls and emails from local pastors across the United States whose churches are disaffiliating. Those local pastors are receiving calls from their district superintendent and being told to come to their office for a meeting and “to bring their license with them.” The threat of “bring your license with you” is egregious since a bishop and cabinet cannot remove the license. Only a district committee on ordained ministry can do so. It causes great harm to the psyche of the pastor and the congregation s/he serves. It’s intimidation. It’s abusive. It’s targeting. It’s wrong.
- Mistreatment of retired clergy. In The United Methodist Church when a pastor retires, they are still under supervision of their bishop and cabinet. It’s a different kind of relationship because the pastor is no longer under active appointment, but retired clergy can still be held accountable by being brought up on charges for violating The Book of Discipline. Retired clergy are required by the Discipline (paragraph 357.5) to associate with a charge conference and once a year file a report with the charge conference if they have performed a baptism, a wedding or “other pastoral functions.” As a former district superintendent, I can tell you that some retired clergy are careful to file a report. Others forget to do so. As pastors turn a page to a new chapter of their life it’s easy to see how they can forget. I can tell you no district superintendent that I knew spent much time ensuring all retired clergy followed this administrative provision. There were too many other issues that required attention.
Since the beginning of the year, I have received more and more reports where retired traditionalist clergy are being harassed if they fail to file their report. Moreover, some conferences seem to be targeting retired clergy who participate in any way with a church that has completed the disaffiliation process. Those retirees are being threatened with being brought up on charges for “disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.” In a hypocritical move, this new desire to enforce paragraph 357.5 seems only to apply to traditionalist retired clergy. Retired elders, deacons, and local pastors who participate in the lives of churches in other denominations (not the GMC or disaffiliated churches that remain independent) are allowed to slide by without filing their report or receiving a threat for losing their license or ordination.
These men and women, in many cases, have given decades to the cause of Christ and The United Methodist Church. They should be given respect not heartache. The bullying needs to stop.
- Changing the Rules Midstream. The last trend that I’ll highlight is that I am seeing an alarming increase in annual conferences changing the disaffiliation rules mid-process. In some cases, it’s as small as extra documents and administrative hoops to jump through after the church has already started the process. In other cases, it’s major. For example, the North Georgia Annual Conference “paused” its disaffiliation process right before the end of 2022, effectively cancelling it. The Northern Illinois Conference has now decided to require 30% of a church’s fair market value of its real estate as highlighted in this article. The Oklahoma Conference has decided that some churches must complete the study required in paragraphs 212-13 in The Book of Discipline even though there is no mention of doing so in paragraph 2553. In other conferences, including the Western North Carolina Conference, specific churches are having their disaffiliation processes “paused” by the bishop without any specific guidance as to how to get them on track.
It seems that as we get deeper into this final year of disaffiliation, the level of desperation is rising. Annual conferences are being forced to confront the fact that more churches are seeking to leave than they anticipated. The reduction in apportionments is significant. They’re panicking.
None of the trends I’ve mentioned are good. They’re all wrong. None of them follow Jesus’ “Golden Rule” in Matthew 7:12 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
This is a painful season. There is no getting around it. It’s true for traditionalists. It’s true for progressives and centrists. It can be made less painful if annual conferences, bishops, and other leaders will stop trying to throw up new obstacles in the middle of the process. Let adults be adults, and simply allow churches to discern their best path forward. I pray that can be a new trend.
The Rev. Jay Therrell is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Global Methodist Church.