Multiply-Methodist Federated Churches: a suggestion

crack Nate Brelsford freeimagesThis is also not a plan. 

Whereas the Jurisdictional Re-Draw strategy is a non-legislative strategic approach that could be used to to move us toward a number of different outcomes, this suggestion is something that could be implemented in the aftermath of a number of different outcomes. Here is a mess-free way to move forward in any outcome that involves all or some of the current UMC becoming two or more denominations.

One of the biggest comments, fears, and anticipated losses I hear as I engage in conversations about the future of Methodism sounds something like this: “But my local church is not a monolith; there are people here I know and love and am family with, who think and believe radically different things. If we have to vote which expression of Methodism to join, this will split (and perhaps therefore kill) my local church.”

This is a significant fear, and for good reason. Like any beloved community, Methodist local churches are comprised of human beings, and represent a broad range of perspectives on how to read the bible, what marriage or ordination mean, how to live out justice, and many other questions besides. As the saying goes (at least around here), “wherever you have 3 Methodists gathered, you’re sure to have at least 4 opinions.” If local churches have to take a vote to decide between a denomination that follows the current Book of Discipline, a denomination that lives and lets live, a denomination that prohibits discrimination, and who knows what else, would any church have a unanimous vote? Would people be free to express their convictions if they knew doing so would literally be a vote to separate from their neighbor, mentor, Sunday school pupil, Choir director, or prayer partner? As one of my wise colleagues said, “How small do I need my church to be so that I know everyone agrees with me? If it’s just me, is that small enough?”

At the same time, I live in northern New England, where we have an unusually high number (compared to more population-dense areas) of federated churches. A federated church is a local church that is comprised out of the merger of two or more congregations from different denominations. In our Methodist family here, we have Methodist-UCC federated churches, Baptist-Methodist federated churches, Methopiscoeran federated churches (or something like that), and many more. For the purposes of record-keeping, the congregation’s membership are identified as members of the local church and of their particular denomination, so that we can count just the Methodists in the Presbyterian-Methodist federated church for our statistical tables. Often, such churches have written into their bylaws that they will alternate with each change of pastor the denomination represented by their pastor. The bylaws spell out how building use, appointment/call, and other decisions are made to be in keeping with the disparate polities of their respective denominations.

And this weekend it hit me: here is a solution for the local church torn over, for example, whether to become part of the “centrist” Methodist denomination or the “progressive” Methodist one. Choose yes. Allow the members of the church to decide for themselves which denomination they want to be part of, and “split” the congregation into those two or more denominations. And then re-merge into a federated local church, comprised of two or more Methodist denominations. A Multiply-Methodist federated church. Using the wisdom of our siblings in churches that are already federated, adopt bylaws that clearly delineate how the polities of each denomination will be handled. And keep your church friends and family, and even your favorite pew.

If we can figure out how to create local church congregations out of traditions that allow and that prohibit wine, traditions that require and that eschew congregational voting to accept a new pastor, and traditions that embrace a huge range of theological backgrounds from prevenient grace to predestination, surely we can figure out a way for congregations who love each other despite their differences to live and minister side by side.

After all, most local congregations already are.

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