Is Schism The Best Future for the UMC? Why? Why Not?

Very pleased to be a part of DreamUMC’s 1st Anniversary “Sync Blog tonight. The assignment for this blog is its title.

Although, if I had a “do-over” on this entry, I’d title this blog:

“Game Theory And the Possibility of Schism.”

I’m going to take the question literally, and answer it as such. I’m also going to mainly be answering from a “Game Theory” perspective, not what my own personal view might be.

Secondly, I’m also going to primarily limit my discussion to the American Church, since that’s the theological/social situation I understand best, and since we’re really not a Global Church.

Finally, and only for ease of conversation, I am broadly stereotyping American United Methodists into three categories: Progressive, Conservative, Moderate. (1)

 The Question: Is Schism The Best Future for the UMC? (underlining important here…)

It depends. If the goal is “preserving the future of the entity called ‘The United Methodist Church.'” then there are more theoretical scenarios where schism hurts, rather than helps. All of it depends upon what kind of schism were to actually happen.
So, let’s delve into that…

The are two likely schism scenarios, using the stereotypes:
Scenario 1) Progressives Leave.
Scenario 2) Conservatives Leave.

Here’s what I think would happen, then, under each of those scenarios, followed by some short analysis.

Scenario 1. Progressives Leave
If the goal is preservation of a denomination known as the “United Methodist Church,” then this is, by far, the worst option. In fact, it’s the option most likely over time, to assure the complete destruction of the entity known as “The United Methodist Church.” (2)

If progressives leave, this would result in two new bodies:
A. New Progressive Methodist Denomination
B. New Moderate/Conservative Denomination

However, this would almost assuredly result in yet another split, among the second group (The new “Moderate/Conservative” Denomination). In fact, this second split would likely happen so fast, it would make heads spin. Promise.

Here’s why…

As a very very smart moderate told me about a year ago, just after General Conference, “Eric, what you don’t understand is that Moderates are terrified of being left with the Conservatives. If Progressives leave, we’ll split again.”

I must confess, I’d not considered that possibility. But the second he did say it, my Poli-Sci/Game-Theory brain told me he was right.

You must remember this about Moderates: Moderates hate conflict.

If Progressives leave, it would not lessen the amount of conflict in new-denomination “B.” In fact, Conservatives would simply next turn their attention toward  Moderates and some of their social views. (Abortion. Rights of Women. Medical Science, etc…take your pick…)
Homosexuality is but one social issue where the far-Right in the United Methodist Church disagrees with the middle and the left.

Moderates would, much to their discomfort, now find no “foil” between them and  Conservatives, to fend off direct attack. As it is right now, a part of the current UMC “stasis” is that the Left/Right theological dipolarity keeps the heat off the Moderates.
(Most Moderates are blissfully unaware of this, btw, just as they are unaware of most of these issue, and even the possibility of schism raised by this whole sync blog!)

So, in a nutshell, if Progressives leave? Moderates and Conservatives will eventually split as well.

Therefore, would Scenario 1 be “best” for the United Methodist Church?
In fact, my argument is that this would most likely be the worst of all outcomes, on the whole. It would almost assuredly eventually leave three, much smaller, deep fractured, groups to claim the mantel of the former UMC;  none of them truly strong enough to have much real societal impact.

Scenario 2. Conservatives Leave
What would happen next would entire depend upon how Progressives would choose to live in the new configuration. Of course, the two groups created in this model would look as follows:

A. New Conservative Methodist Denomination
B. New Moderate/Progressive Denomination

As I’ve already stated, theologically, socially, even politically, Moderate and Progressive United Methodists share far more in common than separates them. Because of Moderate’s desire to “live and let live,” and Progressive’s nature desire to respect other view points outside their own, they are a natural fit.

It’s entirely likely that Moderate/Progressives could make their new denomination work.

But! This is entirely dependent upon whether or not Progressives would be willing to allow for Moderates to fully “catch up” on all issues. Should Progressives become “hardline,” (as Conservatives most assuredly would in Scenario 1) all bets are off. And we could find ourselves with, yet again, three small groups.

Theoretically, breaking into three is not at all a foregone conclusion in Scenario 2. It almost assuredly is in Scenario 1.

Therefore, would Scenario 2 be “best” for the United Methodist Church?
Surprisingly, I still answer this with a “no.”

And here, I will shift to my own personal theology and view, and not just a politicial, or “Game Theory” analysis of the likely scenarios.

Yes, Scenario 2 would likely yield a denomination consistent with the American mission field.
That would be a good thing.

As perhaps some are not yet fully aware of, the United States is now a “center/left” not “center/right” nation. I argued this in a post-election blog last fall, titled “What the Presidential Election Should Teach the United Methodist Church.” You can read it here.

The gist of that blog is America is a “Center/Left” not “Center/Right” nation. That means our “Mission Field” –those who are “unchurched,” those who are among the growing group of the “Nones”– are, on the main,  to the “Left” in their theology and politics, not to the “Right.

By the way, many many savvy political analysts (not just arm-chair preacher-analysts like me) have come to this same conclusion. (This is why the Republican Party is so feverishly working out “outreach” to women, ethnic minorities).

So, yes, the new “Moderate/Progressive” denomination would be spot-on well positions to reach the “mission field” of the American UMC. As such, it would also likely grow.

But I still don’t personally believe it would be a good idea. Mainly because I’m still, at heart, a “big tent Methodist.” I’d like to believe a truly inclusive “big tent” denomination is still possible; where all are welcomed at the table; where churches, left, right and center, are encouraged to grow and thrive.

My own Wesleyan theology tells me that there is a “live and let live” position we are not currently pursuing, and that we should. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter tried to move us toward at General Conference last session. They were defeated in this. It’s still a direction worth pursuing.

In Scenario 2, the New Progressive/Moderate denomination would be well positioned to meet the American mission field of the future. But we’d lose the opportunity to be the truly “big tent” by keeping “Conservatives” within the big tent that I believe God is still calling us to.

My Own “Best Way Forward?” REGIONALISM
I will not recount my view here again, since I put it forth in another blog, titled “United Methodism Is Not a Global Church.” It’s a long blog, so if you wish to cut to the chase, scroll down about halfway and you’ll see the major points about regionalism.

The argument is that, for better or worse, we’ve always embraced some kind of regionalism. The very existence of  five American Jurisdictions has always been a tacit admission on our part that the only way to “unity” is embracing a type of regional diversity. It’s what has kept the denomination together this long. And if we fail to understand this, then we are glossing our own ecclesial/political history.

In my opinion, some kind of “Regionalism” is the key to our future, and is the BEST option for the future of the United Methodist Church. Not, schism.

It would allow Progressives to fully minister without one hand tied behind their back. (As we are now).
It would allow clergy and congregations who wish to approve of gay marriage to perform those ceremonies in their congregations.
It would allow Conservatives to remain Conservative. If they wish to “conserve” their tradition, withing their congregations, have at it. 

Trust me, Conservative Friends, if you’ve made it clear you oppose gay marriage, gays and lesbians are not gonna break down your door, demanding that you do their wedding.

However, I know they’d like me to to do them. And I’d love to.

A new “live and let live” would allow for this.

Progressives could fully reach their mission field. Conservatives could continue to oppose social change, as they see fit. Moderates would decide…whatever they wish…because they’re moderates.

I see the same way forward, concerning LGBT clergy too. Regionalism, that is.
I realize that, in both these two views, many of my Progressive brothers and sisters would disagree with me. But, I’m trying to answer the the question “what is best for the denomination?”
Not, “what would I personally want?”
Or, what would be best for Progressives?

Is My “Best” Choice Likely to Happen?
I don’t know. I believe it to be the way forward. However, frankly, I don’t see the path.
Not without some kind of seismic shift in the way we do business.

Let me say it this way: General Conference, as currently structured, does not have a 2/3rds majority to affect changes to our Constitution that would make regionalism as possibility. Nor are the votes there, frankly, for any other kind of restructuring.

Bluntly, General Conference couldn’t find 2/3rds of the delegates who would agree that, “Peanut Butter is delicious!” That’s how divided and dysfunctional we are now.

However, I Believe Change IS Likely:
And I say this, based on “Game Theory.” Bottom line: something’s got to give. The present model is absolutely not sustainable, over time. If you believe the denomination can simply continue forward, as is, you are misreading the signs of our times.

Despite the fact that the votes aren’t there to get regionalism, and that neither of the “Scenarios” I’ve mentioned above are a “best” choices, my strong hunch is that change is very likely.

Homosexuality continues to become less and less of a contentious issue in our society, while remaining a greater and greater sticking point within the United Methodist Church.

I actually agree with those who say they wish we’d quit talking about the issue. I agree with that. Because, frankly, the culture is making up its mind. And what they are telling us is that we’re losing the “mission field” of America. We’re losing many of our sons and daughters. How many adults have I talked to, who say “My children are no longer Methodist…their going somewhere more inclusive”?

As Adam Hamilton says, we will lose the next generation of American EVANGELICALS if we do not change. Therefore, we must change. In the end, we will find that it won’t be an option, or even a debate. We will change.

Some will say: “But neither of these scenarios can happen, given the trust clause.”Or, “Neither of these scenarios will happen, because the votes aren’t there.”

I believe that these statements are naive about how change may happen(3). And I would say to anyone:

If you believe change isn’t coming because of the “trust clause” or because the votes aren’t there, you have your head in the sand.

Some final thoughts on this…

Don’t Put Your Trust in the Trust Clause
If you’re putting your trust in the “Trust Clause,” don’t.
The “trust clause” only works as a deterrent to individual congregations leaving the denomination.

Should entire blocks of Progressive or Conservative congregations band together and challenge it, it would fall like the straw man it really is. I guarantee this. I’m not threatening this, understand (See Footnote #3). I’m still speaking of “Game Theory,” here.

But should, as an example, dozens of Progressive or Conservative local churches chose to “give back” their properties in each  Annual Conference? (Maybe not even dozens…maybe just three to five…).

The trust clause would evaporate.

Annual Conferences would not be able to financially sustain that many vacant properties. There would almost certainly be negotiations between the groups (either Progressives, or Conservatives) about how they would be able to amicably leave with their properties. Mark my word. This is absolutely possible at some future point.

Again, the bottom-line-point I’m making here is: If you’re putting your “faith” in the Trust Clause, don’t.

People Vote With Their Money
This is yet another way our system can still change. Yes General Conference takes the “votes of record” for the United Methodist Church.

But money is also a vote.

Every local church understands this. A local church can “vote” to build a new building. But the capital campaign for that building is also a “vote.” If it does not go well, it doesn’t matter what the “vote of record” says. People also vote with their money. The United Methodist Church is a voluntary association, and the funds that keep the entire enterprise going are given voluntarily by each congregation.

My point is, even  though General Conference is hopelessly gridlocked and unable to change its Constitution under the normal rules, it’s  plausible that Congregations, Annual Conferences, Jurisdictions, can and will “vote” through their use of funds to support the General United Methodist Church….or to not support the General United Methodist Church.

Btw, this is, again, neither my idea, nor my preference. We Methodists, myself included, are incredibly uncomfortable with the whole idea of “withholding apportionments.” (Our church has never done it!)

But it’s reasonable to assume it could happen, under Game Theory. In fact, it’s already been suggested by smart folks whom I’ve never even met, and who are (to my knowledge), not particularly Progressive or Conservative.
Read the clearest explanation of it here.

Point is, money is a vote just as potent as General Conference “votes.” If things don’t change via some other “regular” process, they will change through how we spend/don’t spend our apportionments.

Is change coming to the United Methodist Church?
Yes. Absolutely. Without question.

The only question is how will it happen?

We can change through a managed process that yields one of the first two “scenarios” I outline. Or, we could still, by the grace of God, choose a regionalism that keeps us all under one big tent. (My favorite).

Finally, we can splinter via total collapse of the trust clause and the funding for the General Church altogether. That is also a choice. (Not a good one, of course…)

The choices are still ours.

What is not a choice is Homosexuality, and its acceptance into mainstream American life.

That is happening, and may even be  fully integrated (at least with respect to gay marriage) before our next General Conference.

If the sticking point to our future together is truly “Homosexuality,” then we have missed the whole point of what is happening in the United States right now. I mean, literally right this minute.

As I write these words, comes the news that the 12th state has approved gay marriage. That’s effectively 1/4 of the states.

As I have said many other times, this societal change on homosexuality is not primarily a political movement, nor a social one. This change is a true moving of the Spirit of Jesus Christ in American society today.  To not see it as such is a colossal failure of spiritual vision.

I hope and pray my beloved United Methodist Church finds the way forward to embrace this inclusive moving of God’s Spirit. 

To not do so is really the only choice that will kill us.

1. These are, as I’ve just said, stereotypes. I myself do not see myself as “Progressive” in every realm, but feel quite comfortable with many “Moderate” positions. In fact, my upbringing and (I would argue) my Annual Conference, is something of a bellweather conference for American United Methodist Moderates. We “get” the middle around here. Hence, although I’m fully supportive of Progressive UMC causes, I also perhaps understand the middle in ways that Progressives in other parts of the country cannot. Just sayin’

2. Keep in mind, I am taking the question literally here. I am not asking “is it good/bad for progressives, conservatives, or moderates?” Just is is “best” for the “United Methodist Church.”

3. And I emphasize the word “MAY.” I know of no movements afoot to innact any of what I describe here. I just know it’s naive not to believe that if change is not managed through the UMC’s traditional legislative process, it will not eventually happen in some other manner, such as collapse of the Trust Clause, or the withholding of apportionments.

My goal here is to speak to these as logically possible, without going further and endorsing them as my view.
That distinction is what I am attempting to do here. 

(Leave a comment below. If you like this post, then “share it” or “like” it on Facebook/Twitter by clicking the box below, so others can see too. Comments here are moderated, and are approved at my discretion, when I can get to be patient if they don’t appear right away)  

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

8 thoughts on “Is Schism The Best Future for the UMC? Why? Why Not?

  1. Eric, I agree with almost everything you wrote (I know, blue norther over the River Styx as I type…). My only disagreement comes with the tactic of 'breaking' the Trust Clause. Even with churches that have some debt, the Annual Conferences will be able to stumble along for a year or two. The church plants, especially in urban and suburban areas, often occupy real estate that has significant value. Even if sold for land value, the cash raised will go a long way toward giving the surviving UM time to regroup … and there are likely buyers of the properties … the congregations leaving. I believe there is room for all of us in one connectional church. We are only divided on issues that are not, ultimately, 'kingdom issues'. We are not seeing groups of congregants threatening to leave over the dual nature of Jesus as fully human/fully divine, no one is picketing about whether Paul actually physically wrote the letters attributed to him and no one is in a screaming match about whether the miracles actually occurred. We are disagreeing over interpretation, behavior, and judgements. I would truly, honestly love to be a part of a connectional effort to just generate 'the list' of our issues. Get 'em out there in the open. See them for what they are: human disagreements, not Eternal Matters. Some things have solutions; for others, the solutions may be as simple as 'we agree to disagree…' and we give each other the room, respect and love to do so.Dignity matters, relationships matters, people matter, but I always remind myself, as my Savior taught me to pray, He also taught me whose judgement, whose plan and whose 'big picture' matters: "…THY kingdom come, Thy will be done…". I think this is especially hard for Americans. We are so focused on me/my/I stuff that we recoil at the very thought of lack of control and submission. I just keep it more shortly put – I-T-'S N-O-T A-B-O-U-T M-E . Submission and faith in His divine plan and grace are what I need to keep in front of me.

  2. I like the game theory analysis. Not sure I buy into your assumptions about the conservatives and the moderates. Certainly the tensions are building and something will break eventually. As a refugee from the Episcopal Church I voted with my feet.

  3. I looked up game theory and the phrase that jumped out at me was "zero-sum." I think that adequately describes the end result of a scism, er, schism.

  4. What folks don't realize is that people are "voting with their feet" RIGHT NOW in the United Methodist Church.After every single General Conference, I estimate that Northaven loses somewhere between 10 and 20 members. These are people who make the decision that, given the anti-LGBT language of our current Discipline, they can not longer be associated with any church connected with "The United Methodist Church."Keep in mind too that many of these folks are *not* LGBT, but are also supporters who simply, in good conscience, cannot be a part of the denomination any more. In fact, just this week, a UM clergy I respect greatly, told me his own daughter has left for a more inclusive denomination. She's not gay, she's a "supporter," but she's leaving her lifelong UM connection because of our position on homosexuality.This is something that not only have I been saying for sometime, but so has Adam Hamilton. In the blog, Hamilton says we will lose the next generation of evangelical Christians. I would say "we ARE losing them."Study after study shows that, among the young, one of the key words they associate with the Christian Church is "homophobic."So, I always try to remind folks of this, everytime this debate comes up. Yes, folks vote with their feet. They are doing that now. This is one of the many factors in the UMC's general membership decline.BTW, I grieve the loss of each and every one of these persons. I understand the moral thinking that goes into making this decision, and I beyond encouraging them to stay in the loving congregation they HAVE found, I've found it hard to counter-act this consistent loss.I mourn and grieve for the loss of talent, creativity, and energy from these (mostly) young members that we lose. And the loss of each one stabs my heart a bit.

  5. I agree. In the blog, I cite a friend who told gave me the thought that if we split once (progressives leave) we'll likely split again (moderates and conservatives parting ways).It was a new thought that I hadn't considered before. And, as you say, that's the "zero-sum" scenario. In fact, it's probably a negative-sum.So, what I said to this smart friend was "OK, so given that we know this is a likely scenario (that "game theory" would predict two splits) then why don't we choose to stop it?"Current game theory would suggest that, at some point, we'd be able to look at these likely scenarios and choose to NOT split…to "live and let live" in some way we're not doing now.That would be the smart move.Whether it's the move we'll make…we'll see..

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