For years, I silently struggled with what to do. My doubt and growing shame crippled me. Do I stick it out despite being miserable? Do I keep going despite my growing disbelief in the United Methodist Church? I sat in my candidacy mentor’s office and asked him a question to which I already knew the answer, “If I leave now, will they ever let me come back?”
“No. Probably not.”
Still, I always held out hope. Maybe one day, I could get myself together. I could grow up, make sense of my calling, and somehow serve the church without a feeling of despair and without feeling like I was cheating either God or the church. But, I know the church’s answer is and will remain, “Probably not.” Yet, I still hope.
The UMC needs to ready itself for the reality that it will not stay united. The church will split. In fact, it has already done so. The official break is being fought over buildings, pensions, insurance, and assets, but the church’s leadership succumbed to the demand of the laity long ago to split down an ideological and cultural divide. As membership and clergy have lost a sense of identity with whatever it now means to be “Methodist,” they have found a new tribal home in other movements. The draw of our former Methodism no longer gives people meaning, hope, or purpose strong enough to overcome the call of other political, cultural, or national identities. We have long been a divided church in all but name. Any trip to a General or Annual Conference with eyes to see will show you a church that sings and prays in one voice but votes and identifies as two. The singing and praying were an exercise in fantasy. The voting and backroom maneuvering were real.
Current fights between Methodist factions are not about the future of the UMC. Most observers and even participants believe that the left is fighting against the right or the progressives are fighting against the traditionalists. This is wrong. The factions inside the church are not fighting their “enemies” but their allies. By creating splits around particular issues like “homosexuality” or “biblical authority,” opposing factions are creating ideological markers over what the new orthodoxy will be in the churches that survive the Methodist schism. When the cloth begins to tear, these fights will accelerate and new fights masquerading as growing issues in the UMC – but in reality will just be markers in the new emerging denominations – will erupt.
The left and the right will rage, but their voices will truthfully be directed towards their own friends. Congregations, pastors, and conferences need to figure out now what they believe and what they want their church to be, otherwise when all the screaming stops, the partisans will have staked out the markers for the new denominations before everyone else realizes what has happened. Hold onto the cloth too long, and you will have no say in which way it rips. What is left will be the church as the partisans have always dreamed: a church designed by them and for them.
And, like me, you may be left without a home. It’s a lonely place.
In all likelihood, I will not be joining the denominational rags that the partisans will declare to be the true heirs of John Wesley. The church is breaking because of partisans. It will not be saved by them. When it splits, members will be disillusioned as they will feel they have had no say in what happened. Most do not want to split. Most do not feel strongly one way or the other about the partisans’ issues, but it won’t matter. They will have to choose which denomination they now belong, and they will resent the church for it. Moderates will have to convince their members that whichever denomination they chose was the right call, despite the fact that moderate leaders didn’t want the new church anyway. After the split, partisans will compete for the loyalty of moderates with their membership, assets, and money despite previously dismissing them as faithless and lukewarm. The ensuing mess will only embolden partisan leaders now empowered by the ideological markers that they set up to split the church. The uncertainty felt by everyone else will be in contrast to the partisans’ assurance and growing influence. Partisans may grow popular and powerful, but it will be at the cost of Methodism. Their power will convince them that they have done the right thing, but they will now be charged with preventing that which they caused in the UMC: growing disillusionment, distrust, and division in their new denominational rags. I will not help them save it as pastor or member.
I would, however, help save something else in whatever way God would take me. I would help save a Methodism that no longer claims or desires ideological purity. I would gladly sacrifice a sense of orthodox “official theology” for an orthopraxy* of discipleship. I would sacrifice Wesleyan assurance for humility, partisanship for solidarity, prophecy for reflection, and activism for discernment. I would sacrifice a church designed to solve the problems of the world for a church that disciples the people who are already solving them. I would sacrifice connectionalism for friendship, the episcopacy for a mentor, and The Discipline for grace. For a church like that, I would even sacrifice my identity as failed pastor for one more shot at preaching the good news. These dry bones can live.
The new Methodism cannot take the image of a new Rome or a new Temple. There can be no new Lovely Lane. The old things have passed away. Methodism is and has always been a movement within the church designed to claim, equip, and inspire. I want that back. The partisans can take whatever is left.
*Orthopraxy means “correct practice” as opposed to orthodoxy’s “correct belief”