Unwinding and (Re)Creating The #UMC, part one [Guest Post]

Category: Technology

The following is a guest post sent to me before UMC Next, but I held off publishing until now so as to not sway the conference. The author outlines a rationale for why The United Methodist Church must be dissolved and how it might be best done.

It is longer than the average blog post on this site, so it is broken up into two parts:

As with all guest content, it is the opinion of the author not the blog owner. I am committed to supporting informed and helpful commentary on all paths ahead for LGBTQ inclusion, so this comes with my support of that effort, not with my endorsement of it as my preferred way forward. Clear? Thanks.

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Unwinding [and (Re)Creating] The United Methodist Church, Part One

By Rev. Nate Berneking[1]

Introduction

I just finished reading Kevin Slimp’s essay collection,Where Do We Go From Here?  Honest Responses From Twenty Four United Methodist Leaders.[2]  I appreciate all the works, those from traditionalists andprogressives.  I even count three of the authors as friends, two of them as primary mentors in my education and one, my current bishop and Missouri Conference colleague prior to his election and consecration.  Many authors thoughtfully reflected on how clergy and laity might continue in ministry after the storm of General Conference 2019, and I was amused at how people I know to be quite different came to related or similar conclusions.  

Still, I can’t help but wonder why no author really dug at what the problem seems so obviously to be, nor did they write of any concrete steps that must now be taken.  Most of the essays focused on theological or emotional healing.  Some continued to dwell on the divisive issue, itself: scriptural interpretation of passages related to same-sex acts and inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community. A few, Bishop Farr and Dr. Frank among them, drove a bit more at the question of polity, how the Church ought to be structured, but no author thoroughly addressed how the United Methodist Church might come to embody a new structure or system of governance that solves our impasse.  That, in my mind,isthe problem:  every solution generated, some that sound like they could work, runs squarely into the institution’s protection against change. We ought to know this is going to happen.  It is always the way with established institutions.  

In this essay, I’d like to speak my own piece about where “we” might “go” from here.  I’d like to suggest with those writers, Rebekah Miles perhaps most explicitly in the collection, that “we,” meaning those of us still part of the United Methodist Church, accept and allow for a split.[3]  More critically, I argue that the institution of the United Methodist Church must be brought to an end, “unwound” or “dissolved” responsibly so as to protect individuals and churches, and then, in its place, we must (re)create a new structure in which local churches and clergy serving them gain the benefit of the protections offered by a common connection, while also benefitting from greater freedom to act, restrictions and requirements replaced by a focus on resources shared through the judicatory(ies) of which they are a part. I’d even like to sketch a roadmap for getting there.    

A Word About Myself

Let me get something out of the way.  I supported the One Church Plan, though I wasn’t a voting delegate.  I support full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals in all aspects of the Church.  I support clergy presiding at their weddings.  I support ordination of qualified members of the queer community as clergy.  And, I hope that doesn’t cause my traditionalist friends and colleagues to stop reading.  If I were of your opinion, I’d be writing something almost identical to what I’m about to say.  As traditionalists form their own new thing, I would encourage thought along the same lines, even if doctrinal standards are more traditional in expression on issues of human sexuality.  In fact, if we, as we have in the past, eventually decide to mend the split, the sort of structure for which I’m advocating would make union easier.  More importantly, I think it will unleash churches to be much more functional and, I’ll use Bishop Schnase’s preferred word, fruitful.[4]

In the third part, I will briefly sketch what I think are the critical components of the new structure.  I avoid specifics.  I really desire the beginning of a conversation with any who might be considering what really comes next.  But first, we all must address what we have before us, the institutional end of the United Methodist Church as amalgamation of entities.  We must begin a process of what corporate lawyers would call “winding up the affairs” of the institution(s).  

Unwinding

Make no mistake. Ending the existence of the United Methodist Church’s institutional structures will be an endeavor.  Right now, its core institution is, as are all institutions, designed to protect itself from any sort of change, dissolution most notably.  That it (i.e.,“we”) pays its leaders, from the most part-time clergy to the bishops and general secretaries and their staffs, creates an awful lot of incentive for leaders, me among them, to keep things just as they are.  At the same time, the systems in place that create and run the institution, my fellow conference treasurers and bishops would argue, also choke the institution’s very source of life, the laity and their local churches who faithfully participate in and give to ministries.  This is the problem:  the institution is both choking off the source of life and protecting the systems that do the choking.  

  1. The Case For Unwinding the United Methodist Church. 

It isn’t that I’m anti-annual conference, anti-general agency or anti-episcopacy.  I see the value our structure has offered.  My own ecclesiology tends toward Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox influences, though I also confess to a Baptist upbringing that I never quite scrubbed from my subconscious.  I hold an office in an annual conference responsible for the administration of both apportioned funds sent in by local churches and the benefits for clergy.  I work with the Missouri Annual Conference’s cabinet to ensure the care for clergy as they transition appointments.  I sit on Wespath’s Board of Directors and I teach tax for Wespath’s educational programs.[5]  I’ve travelled to Mozambique many times and I see both the good work of Missouri churches there, but also the work of churches from the New York and Virginia Annual Conferences, as well as funding from the General Board of Global Ministries. I agree with those authors in Where Do We Go From Here?who point out the value of our “connection.”  It won’t be easy to undo, and some of it, we may very well want to keep.  

It gets even more complicated when you consider the benefits provided to clergy.  Our clergy are beneficiaries of three iterations of a defined benefit pension plan, a defined contribution plan and a 403(b) personal savings plan, all maintained through Wespath.  Most are also beneficiaries of health insurance provided to clergypersons by annual conferences at little or even no cost for individual premiums.  Elders, of which I am one, benefit from a “security of appointment” and minimum salary requirements. The nature of some of these benefits – e.g., defined benefit plans with few clergy contributions and lifetime payments – has allowed clergy to ignore or fail to prepare themselves for any financial life beyond their next appointment.  To suddenly undo these benefits, or worse, for their funding to decline, without making provision could ruin clergy members and their families 

However, we have, from the very start of the denomination, sought to impose structural restrictions on how the Church might express itself.  Those restrictions have come to preserve both the benefits and corresponding weaknesses.  The United Methodist Constitution proves one of the most formidable barriers to making significant changes, even when the change is meant to adapt the Church in a changing world.  Traditionalists discovered that formidability as they began trying to conceive of a way that would tighten restrictions around same-sex marriage and ordination (or consecration) of LGBTQIA+ candidates (or bishops).  The Judicial Council deployed the “principle of legality” to nix large chunks of the original and the ultimately adopted Traditional Plan.    

Now, progressives and moderates are discovering the same formidability as they seek their own way around what General Conference adopted, noting how difficult and stifling some of those provisions would be.  I have heard some quietly suggest amending ¶101 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2016 to allow annual conferences to modify or adapt the Disciplineto its own contexts. Those making this proposal desire more de-centralized power spread to annual conferences.  I appreciate and might have affirmed this idea if it had a legal life.  But, making this change without a Constitutional amendment will almost certainly be deemed an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority by General Conference.  It’s true that ¶101 allows Central Conferences to adapt the Discipline, but this provision is added to the Constitution itself in ¶31, Article IV, §5.  The constitution offers no such enumerated power to annual conferences.  As a result, such change is likely forbidden. 

In board rooms and cabinet conversations around the connection, people have begun to discuss just how “over-constitutionalized” the United Methodist Church has become.  This problem transcends the issue of sexuality. In 2012, when conservatives, moderates and progressives worked together to create a new structure of the general church called “Plan UMC,” the Judicial Council undid the overwhelmingly approved legislation before General Conference even adjourned.  The same fate befell an erosion of the security of appointment. And while I was split in my opinion on the two pieces of legislation (thinking Plan UMC a good plan and the erosion of appointment security dangerous), I could not argue with the logic of the Judicial Council.  The legislation did, in fact, violate the Constitution as it is written and as Judicial Council has interpreted it.  

Amending the Constitution is next to impossible given the requirements for doing so.  But, even simple legislation too often eludes our attempts, the legislative sub-committee process so byzantine, even those participating in multiple general conferences as delegates fail to fully understand how it works.  The rule-making system is, itself, broken, especially in the face of deep ideological and theological divides.  

As I said in the Introduction, we shouldn’t be surprised at how hard it is to fix the system. In 1977, writing about agriculture, the author Wendell Berry noted how the development of an institution of specialists prevented the actual solution of any problems experienced in both farming and food production.  The institution itself had (still has) become the problem in agriculture, with no interest in solving the problems.  To solve problems would, in essence, undo the need and existence of the institution.[6] The same might be said of the United Methodist Church.  Berry ultimately concluded, “The only real, practical, hope-giving way to remedy the fragmentation that is the disease of the modern spirit is a small and humble way—a way that a government or agency or organization or institution will never think of, though a person may think of it:  one must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only in turn, become public solutions.”[7]

And, while I suppose I’m proposing my own institutional fix, my aim would take us to a place in which people in their local churches, can do just that.  But, for that to happen, we must take things apart, but responsibly, protecting people and congregations.

(End of part 1. Click here for Part 2)


Footnotes for Part 1

[1]Nate Berneking is the Director of Finance and Administrative Ministries of the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Prior to seminary at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, he practiced law for a large St. Louis law firm.  He has a B.A. from Saint Louis University and a J.D. from Saint Louis University School of Law.  He also serves as a member of the board of directors for Wespath Benefits & Investments.  The views in this article are solely his and do not reflect the views or opinions of the Missouri Annual Conference, Wespath Benefits & Investments or any other organization with which he is affiliated.   

[2]Where Do We Go From Here?  Honest Responses From Twenty-Four United Methodist Leaders, Kevin Slimp, ed., (Knoxville:  Market Square, 2019).  

[3]Miles, Rebekah, “When Brothers and Sisters Fight to the Death: Ecclesiology, Mission, and the Future of the United Methodist Church,’ in Where Do We Go?, 147.

[4]Schnase, Robert, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 7.

[5]I disclose my various roles in “the connection” not just to make the point that I understand its importance, but also in a spirit of transparency. However, I reiterate what I wrote in my bio, the opinions expressed in this article are solely my own and I do not speak for Wespath, its Board of Directors or the Missouri Annual Conference. 

[6]Berry, Wendell, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1996), 24-25. 

[7]Id. at 25.

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Your turn

Thoughts on part 1 of Nate’s essay? Here’s part 2 to conclude his thoughts.

Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.

Unwinding and (Re)Creating The #UMC, part one [Guest Post]