Digging Deeper on the “Protocol” and Numbers

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A mostly-closed door — is this “the room where it happened”?

Here comes an ultra-Metho-nerd post: unpacking a little more of what was shared by some of the folks from “the room where it happened” in the making of the “Protocol of Separation.”

Late last week, a team of people who come from different parts of The United Methodist Church– and may or may not represent those constituents– announced that they have drafted a proposed protocol for separation. As the Methodist connection everywhere has been loudly saying, this is NOT a deal, a promise, a package of legislation proposed let alone in effect, or a decision for the denomination. This is simply a proposed protocol for the delegates at General Conference 2020 to consider (among many proposals, some of which I’ve charted), which might help the division of denominational assets and liabilities go more smoothly, since a diverse group has already weighed in and agreed upon this plan.

We’ve all got roughly, oh, 40 million questions about this proposal, raging from how the team was selected and how they functioned to if it’s constitutional, feasible, or just to consider the protocol at all, and so on. This post addresses just one topic: where did those numbers come from?

This weekend, I was able to hear from a couple of people present at various portions of the mediation. This was indeed, as I suggested last spring, less like democracy or conferencing, and more like a multi-party negotiation, complete with intractable positions, intersecting and conflicting commitments, and nearly as much mystery and complexity as the Council of Jerusalem. When engaging in multi-party negotiation, especially when assisted by a professional mediator, the package deals and trade offs I mentioned in that previous post (see point 5) become key. Those of us outside of these closed-door meetings have no idea where dollar amounts came from, and now want to pass judgment on if the funds proposed are fair. That, unfortunately, is not how mediated agreements work.

Here’s what we’ve learned: the mediation team did NOT create a balance sheet of United Methodist assets and liabilities, assessing the relative value of each, and how much of that initial investment was made by “traditionalists” or “progressives” or anyone else, and how much debt might be incurred as assets of various sizes withdraw. Why not? Maybe it wasn’t feasible, maybe it would take too long, maybe we’d never agree on the dollar value of The United Methodist Building. It doesn’t really matter. The point is, the mediation team did not place a monetary value on anything, and we only confuse ourselves if we try to understand the money as representative of relative wealth and debt in the parts of the denomination.

Instead, the mediation team agreed upon a figure to work with to negotiate a protocol for separation: $40 million. Why $40 million? Because that’s the amount they were able to agree upon. That’s really all this number means, and in negotiation that matters, but outside the room it makes very little sense. And still, that’s the number the team identified.

From that $40M, the team eventually agreed to use $2 million to seed new non-traditionalist denominations that might break off from The UMC, and $38 million to seed the traditionalist denomination(s) that plan to break off (And then, in what I think will prove to be one of the prouder moments of The UMC, the mediation team decided to set funds aside to offer a tiny portion of restorative justice into the vast and unjust legacy of racism, colonialism, and discrimination enacted by the worldwide Methodist movement. And so of the $38M just named, the traditionalist denomination(s) will leave $13M behind for this fund and the remaining UMC will find an additional $26M for this purpose).

But how and why does the proposal divide the $40M this way? Why so much to the departing traditionalists and so little to any potential liberationist expressions? The answer is that the team negotiated a package deal, bargaining with seemingly unrelated things: money and vote thresholds. Initially, those representing the traditionalist movement wanted an Annual Conference to be able to vote by a margin of 50% plus 1 to depart from The UMC. The centrists and progressives, worried that this would allow many many Annual Conferences to withdraw, wanted that threshold to be 2/3. The more the money to departing traditionalists, the higher the voting threshold. Not pretty, but I asked how that sausage got made. In the end, the proposal is $38M to traditionalists departing (minus $13M to seek racial justice), and an Annual Conference voting threshold of 57% (in the US, and 2/3 in Central Conferences)– at which, folks estimate only 2-4 Annual Conferences in the US would vote to leave as a whole. Others withdrawing would do so as individual churches, members, or clergy people.

So there you have it: a little peek into a small portion of negotiation and mediation. I offer this to share information (it really helped my head stop spinning when I understood that the $40M was not calculated based on anything!), and not to discern if this is right or good or just or Spirit-breathed. That question is a longer and more subtle one, with which I will be wrestling for the next five months. I know I won’t be alone.

Three things I hold

balls-1464306-640x480I am a member of both my Annual Conference’s Delegation to General Conference 2020, and of our Conference Task Force exploring whether and how Methodists in New England might become a new and inclusive Methodist movement. Between juggling these roles and my own passion for the future of ministry in my local Methodist church and the wider Methodist movement, I’m having a lot of conversations and doing a lot of listening around where there is momentum, fear, energy, obstacle, hope, and tension in the Methodist connection. This past weekend, at the Bishop’s Day with the New Hampshire District, Bishop Devadhar asked me to say a few words and take some questions (as best I could) about the work of our delegation and task force. This is (roughly) what I shared. 

In both my work as a delegate and as a member of the Open Spirit Task Force– especially on my Task Force subcommittee exploring the “options” for moving forward as a denomination or denominations, there are three main things I hear and I know, and I hold as I consider what’s before us. Two I hear loud and clear, and all seem to contradict each other at times, but all are held before me and within me as I wrestle with options.

1. We can’t wait. Methodists in New England are done waiting. Many of the pathways for next steps include passing constitutional amendments, seeking to ratify them, maybe having another commission or study, then presenting a plan that can’t be presented within our current constitution, and approving that, and rolling it out, so that in four or eight or maybe twelve years, we’ll have this all resolved. But Methodist churches in New England are dying on the vine right now. Our churches won’t exist in 12 or 8 or even 4 years if we keep doing what we are doing. We are diverting missional energy into alternately defending the sanctity of the Bible and of covenants, and defending the marginalized, oppressed, and harmed, while some of us are trying to stay alive and allowed in The UMC. In the mean time, addiction and an opioid epidemic are sweeping away a generation of people in our communities, mass incarceration is destroying our already tiny racial diversity, rural poverty holds children in a death-grip, ICE is raiding communities within 100 miles of any border or coast (most of our Conference), the climate crises is literally eroding our towns and cities… you get the drift.

Traditionalists in our Conference feel they cannot stand one more day in a denomination that will suffer a gay bishop, while queer people and allies cannot endure another day in a denomination that oppresses trans, POC, and queer bodies and lives with impunity. Incremental justice is not justice, not for those who become the collateral damage of oppression. We are at a breaking point, and we have an opportunity for that to break us open into new life. We cannot waste it. I hear this loud and clear; I know it in my bones. I’m not spending my energy on any long timelines or impossible, incremental legislation.

2. Despite what the rest of the Methodist world might think or presume about us, we can never assume that the New England Annual Conference speaks or votes with one voice. We are different. Really different. And the strange fact is that Methodism in New England has seemed to thrive through (not necessarily despite) this difference. My ministry is made stronger by the churches and lay and clergy colleagues around me who are much more conservative than I. I hope the same is true of those folks’ ministries and me. But these divisions are real and are deep, and drive a huge part of the urgency to take action now. That action, however, can’t assume a monolith that moves in a single direction together– doing so would isolate, exclude, or force churches and people who find themselves in a minority position, and I defend that minority position, because I believe that’s the demand of justice.

To my siblings in traditionalist churches and espousing traditionalist viewpoints and theologies: I see you. You are not invisible. Your ministry and your presence are valuable to me and to the kin-dom of God. I will not support or vote for a course of action that would leave you isolated on a traditionalist island amid a vast progressive sea, cut off from other churches and from a denomination that would support and equip you. I wouldn’t want that if the tables were turned (as they are in the world-wide connection), and I won’t do it to someone else. That doesn’t mean I’ll cede a single drop of this liberation sea, either. Any path forward must give each of us the opportunity to be set free but still be equipped in the living out of our calling from God.

This same difference that we name in our Conference? That’s present in every Methodist community in every level of our connection. No Annual or Central Conference is a monolith; no caucus speaks as one. There is no “Africa” and what “they” want, no “LGBTQ people” and what “they” need, no “Western Jurisdiction” and what “their” vision is, or “conservatives” and how “they” will block it. The early Methodists built a big-tent religion, and that’s what we’ve inherited.

And this same difference is true in every local church in every community in our and every Conference. There is no local church that speaks with one voice, from the most conservative to the longest-standing Reconciling congregation. Any pathway forward that requires of an Annual Conference, and/or of a local congregation, a vote between this Methodist denomination and that one will be forcing people to divide from one another. That doesn’t mean we can’t or we shouldn’t; our differences are deep and our urgency is real. And that doesn’t mark the end; the early church was– eventually– stronger after Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways for a time, so that each could spread the good news (and see this post for a suggestion of how I think we could ease a portion of this harm). But this is painful. I feel that pain, deep in my bones, deep in my heart, loud and clear. I hold it while I wrestle.

3. The third thing I don’t hear loudly and clearly, but in a way that is more still and small, which means it’s unwise to ignore. The third truth speaks with a whisper into the urgency of decisive action and the painful depth of our necessary division: is it necessary? Because the thing is New England Annual Conference has been doing this– imperfectly, granted– for years. We have been living side by side, doing ministry side by side, transforming the world side by side, seeking justice side by side. We do not bring one another up on charges. We treat one another with respect. We value the ministry of others, regardless of their sexual orientations or theological commitments. We don’t always get it right– beloved community is messy and we are fallible– but we stick with it and with each other. We sit beside each other as I did with a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association on the Task Force and say to each other I don’t want to be part of a Conference in which you are not welcome, and I believe we mean it. We stand across the picket line from one another– as a neighboring colleague of mine and I once did– on marriage equality, and beside each other on workers’ rights. We find that our little communities are indeed big enough for more than one kind of Methodism, and that our witness can work, even when it varies by context.

This little truth flies in the face of the big, unbearable urgency, and our deep, painful differences. But that doesn’t make it less true. So what does that mean for our future, together or apart? And if we, stubborn New Englanders as we are, if we can find ways to be church together, what might we have to model for the rest of the connection and the rest of the world?

Three truths. Three often-contradictory, always messy things I hold in my body, in my mind, in my heart. It’s a dance, a juggling act, a confusing trifold mystery.

Fourth truth: so is God.

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.

Petitions to GC2020: Reinstatements

Here are another two petitions, dealing with the least-protected clergy people in our system: certified candidates and licensed local pastors. What happens when someone in this position is discontinued from the process, and then moves– especially given that the Spirit might call people *years* later, in different contexts and settings, and after great transformation? Sometimes, one logistically can’t go “home.”

 

Reinstatement of Certified Candidate Status

Motion: Amend ¶314.2 as follows:

  1. Reinstatement of Certified Candidate’s Status– Certified candidates whose status has been discontinued by a district committee on ordained ministry of an annual conference of The United Methodist Church may shall only be reinstated by the district committee of the district in which they were discontinued, or by another district upon transfer of the certified candidate’s file including all possible documentation of the circumstances relating to the discontinuance of certified candidate status.

[Retain rest of the paragraph as written]

Rationale: This amendment opens the possibility of reinstatement to individuals who have changed geographic location, or discerned a new context or calling, while retaining the recommendations and records related to prior discontinuance.

 

Reinstatement of Local Pastor Status

Motion: Amend ¶320.4 as follows:

  1. Reinstatement of Local Pastor Status– Local pastors whose approved status has been discontinued from an annual conference of The United Methodist Church or one of its legal predecessors may be reinstated only by the annual conference that previously approved them, its legal successor, or the annual conference of which the major portion of their former conference is a part, only upon recommendation by the district committee on ordained ministry from which their license was discontinued, the Board of Ordained Ministry, and the cabinet. Persons seeking reinstatement shall provide evidence that they have been members of a local United Methodist church since the time of the discontinuance of their local pastor status, or for at least one year prior to their request for reinstatement. The district committee shall require a recommendation from the charge conference where these persons’ his or her membership is currently held. When approved by the clergy members in full connection as provided in ¶ 337, their license and credentials shall be restored, and they shall be eligible for appointment as pastors of a charge. They shall complete current studies and meet requirements as provided in ¶¶ 315, 318.
         Whenever persons whose local pastor status approval as local pastors has been discontinued by an annual conference are being considered for appointment or temporary employment in another annual conference, the Board of Ordained Ministry where these persons are being considered shall obtain from the Board of Ordained Ministry of the conference where local pastor status approval has been discontinued verification of their qualifications and information about the circumstances relating to the discontinuance of local pastor status termination of their approval as local pastors.

Rationale: This amendment makes the language more consistent with similar paragraphs of the Discipline, and resolves the apparent contradiction posed by the second paragraph, which allows for local pastor status to be reinstated by a different annual conference.

Petitions to GC2020: Reduce Inappropriate Medical Disclosure and Discrimination

This is legislation I plan to submit to General Conference, regarding candidacy, clergy status, and the medical forms. This legislation failed by ONE vote in 2016. The UMC may or may not look anything like the denomination we know come May 15, 2020, but if it does, I hope we stop asking candidates for their BMI, blood pressure, and results of pap smears or prostate exams. Let the doctors do that stuff.

Legislation Submitted to General Conference 2020: Reduce Inappropriate Medical Disclosure and Discrimination

Summary: Six paragraphs of the Book of Discipline ask a candidate for licensed/ordained ministry or one seeking transfer/reinstatement for a specific medical form. The form, however, discloses more information than a District Committee or Board of Ordained Ministry needs to have in order to make a determination about an individual’s fitness for ministry. This bundle of legislation addresses these paragraphs, changing the form to a letter of good health from a physician, which would include the necessary information without the risk of disclosing more confidential data. Furthermore, drawing on language already in the Discipline, these paragraphs will clarify and make consistent the UMC’s non-discrimination on the basis of disabilities or diagnoses that do not otherwise hinder a person’s ability to serve in the ministry to which they are applying.

 

I. Title: Reduce Inappropriate Medical Disclosure and Discrimination – Licensed Ministry

Motion: Amend the Book of Discipline ¶315.6.c (License for Pastoral Ministry) as follows:

  1. c) Provided the board with a satisfactory letter from a physician stating the individual’s good health and listing any medical restrictions or modifications as applicable. Disabilities and diagnoses are not to be construed as unfavorable health factors when a person with a disability or diagnosis is capable of meeting the professional standards and is able to render effective service as one licensed for pastoral ministry. certificate of good health on a prescribed form from a physician approved by that board.

Rationale: Replaces the health form with a letter from a physician, eliminating the high potential for confidential information to be disclosed in violation of the candidate’s privacy. Adds that disabilities / diagnoses are not grounds for lack of fitness for ministry, making the policy consistent with that for provisional members.

II. Title: Reduce Inappropriate Medical Disclosure and Discrimination – Provisional Membership 

Motion: Amend the Book of Discipline ¶324.8 (Provisional Membership) as follows:

  1. Each candidate shall present a satisfactory letter from a physician stating the individual’s good health and listing any medical restrictions or modifications as applicable. certificate of good health by a physician on the prescribed form. Disabilities and diagnoses are not to be construed as unfavorable health factors when a person with a disability or diagnosis is capable of meeting the professional standards and is able to render effective service as a provisional member.

Rationale: Replaces the detailed health form with a letter from a physician, eliminating the high potential for confidential information on the health form to be disclosed in violation of the candidate’s privacy. This also clarifies that both disabilities and diagnoses are not grounds for lack of fitness for ministry.

III. Title: Reduce Inappropriate Medical Disclosure and Discrimination – Transfers

Motion: Amend the Book of Discipline ¶347.3.a (Transfers From Other Denominations) as follows:

  1. From Other Denominations – a) On recommendation of the Board of Ordained Ministry, the clergy members in full connection may recognize the orders of ordained clergy from other denominations and receive them as provisional members or local pastors. They shall present their credentials for examination by the bishop and Board of Ordained Ministry and give assurance of their Christian faith and experience. They shall give evidence of their agreement with and willingness to support and maintain United Methodist doctrine, discipline, and polity and present a satisfactory letter from a physician, as described in ¶324.8. certificate of good health on the prescribed form from a physician approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry.

[Retain the rest of the paragraph as written.]

Rationale: Replaces the health form with a letter from a physician, eliminating the high potential for confidential information to be disclosed in violation of the individual’s privacy. Refers back to disability / diagnosis non-discrimination for those seeking provisional membership, making the policy more consistent.

IV. Title: Reduce Inappropriate Medical Disclosure and Discrimination – Retirement Reinstatement 

Motion: Amend the Book of Discipline ¶357.7.2 (Return to Effective Relationship [from Retirement]) as follows:

(2) a satisfactory letter from a physician, as described in ¶324.8. certificate of good health on the prescribed form from a physician approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry.

[Retain the rest of the paragraph as written.]

Rationale:  (same as petition III)

V. Title: Reduce Inappropriate Medical Disclosure and Discrimination – Honorable or Administrative Location

Motion: Amend the Book of Discipline ¶365.3 (Readmission after Honorable or Administrative Location) as follows:

  1. A satisfactory letter from a physician, as described in ¶324.8. certificate of good health on the prescribed form from a physician approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry. The Board of Ordained Ministry shall require psychological evaluation.

Rationale:  (same as petition III)

VI. Title: Reduce Inappropriate Medical Disclosure and Discrimination – Involuntary Retirement

Motion: Amend the Book of Discipline ¶368.5 (Readmission after Involuntary Retirement) as follows:

  1. Presentation of satisfactory letter from a physician, as described in ¶324.8. certificate of good health on the prescribed form from a physician approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry.

[Retain the rest of the paragraph as written.]

Rationale:  (same as petition III)

Petition to GC2020: Trust Clause in the case of Successor Entities

I’m working on some legislation, and would love the input from other minds! Comments? Suggestions? (Im)Perfections?

 

Motion: Amend ¶2501.1 by adding a new paragraph following the first paragraph (which currently ends “from their connection with the entire worldwide Church.”)

This trust requirement must be maintained by The United Methodist Church and its successor denominations, institutions, and entities. In the event that an incorporated conference, agency, or organization of the denomination withdraws from or is removed from the denomination, that entity and its successor will retain responsibility to hold and administer the real and personal, tangible, and intangible property held or administered prior to withdrawal.

Rationale: The Trust Clause is an essential element of the polity of The UMC, but does not anticipate or account for successor movements or denominations, which may arise as the Spirit moves the church forward.

Setting my face toward General Conference

52607784_2050420751701159_1794689785856524288_o“The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”  – Acts 15:39-41

I dropped my kids off for their first day of school this morning, so it’s really fall. That means it’s time to turn some more of my attention to the connectional United Methodist Church and the work ahead.

I have been elected to my annual conference’s delegation to General Conference 2020. I’m excited to serve in this capacity, at a time of such potential for transformation in the denomination. I hope that this year marks the beginning of breaking open our church into new life– two or more (I hope two) movements in the Methodist tradition, setting one another free to be in ministry in our various contexts as we are called. Like Paul and Barnabas, going their separate ways, I believe we can– even in the midst of our sharp disagreements– bless one another in the name of God and go forth to strengthen the church wherever we are.

In the past, I’ve used this blogging platform as a way to process, reflect, share ideas, and generally externally-process about General Conference. I think this shared reflection is especially needed (at least for me) this year, because so much of the GC’s work will need to be collaborative and rooted in grassroots organization, drawing perspectives from across boundaries and “sharp disagreements.” So I will again turn to the open-sourced web on the internet to share and to listen, and I invite you to join me.