Troubled Times

Somehow, I missed the big news yesterday that sixty conservative UM clergy had a conference call, the purpose of which was to discuss separation of the denomination. I first found out about it via my friend, Christy Thomas, and her excellent blog this morning.

While I wince at her use of “inquisition” here. (We’re nowhere near an actual inquisition…) I resonate with her heartfelt sorrow.

I find no joy in the talk of separation. I also find no joy in hearing that conservative colleagues believe they cannot live in a denomination that would allow same sex marriage or other examples of the full inclusion of LGBT persons.

imagesAs others, including myself, have pointed out, many Christian churches are opening their doors. And even more than this, many actual Christians,  who sit in actual pews, are having a genuine conversion on these issues. I mean the word “conversion” in the theological sense.

So, it’s sad that conservatives are again floating the idea of separation. And I will remind everyone that this was floated back in 2004. It fell like a lead balloon.

But I will remind you of two other things:
1) This proposal in our time, as it did in 2004, comes from the conservative side, not the “progressive” side. Progressives, up to now, and on the main, want us to stay together. But they also believe that we must be a true “big tent” church, and not just a pretend big tent.
2) Conservatives are proposing this at a time when they are still “winning” all the votes. (“winning” is obviously offensive language…I will us it below, and I apologize for it, but it’s a quick way to make the point)

I want to say more about this second point…

There is no possible way to show that the UMC’s policies on LGBT persons have become more “liberal” in the past 40 years. In fact, it’s clear that they’ve become more restrictive. (1996 and the restrictions on same sex weddings. Disgusting, genital-based definitions of “self avowed, practicing” and many others examples…)

During my entire ministry, conservatives have shrieked that the UMC is losing members because it’s too “liberal.” But the clear evidence is that over that past 40 years, we’ve become nothing but more conservative.

And, guess what? We’re still losing members!!

So it cannot, de facto, be because we are straying too far to the liberal end of the theological spectrum. I make the argument, in fact, that we are losing members because we are moving in a conservative direction, when the rest of American society is moving in a progressive direction.

So, everyone should really step back for a moment and ask a very serious question: Why would conservatives be suggesting separation at a time when they are “winning” every single fight at General Conference over 40 years?

People who are “winning” a debate don’t normally threaten to leave.

It clearly makes it seems as if there is some other agenda. Perhaps not in the minds and hearts of everyone who is threatening to leave. But at least in the minds and hearts of some. Again, people who are on the “winning” side of a debate don’t normally leave.

Finally, let me speak to an idea in Christy’s blog: That all this leads to an ultimate end where progressives “leave.”

That is most certainly one possible outcome. It would be regrettable, and certainly not something I would favor at this time. But I only point out this one thing: That if we split thusly once we will be likely to split again between conservative and moderate. This was pointed out to me by some moderate friends about four years ago.

Moderates, in the long run, would not be able to sustain a denomination without the progressive wing, and would eventually also separate from the conservatives…or vice versa. However it happens, it would happen. So, if we split once, we split again.

I reviewed all this in the following blog, for those who are interested in the logic: Is Schism the Best Future for the UMC?

This logic makes the likelihood of split –despite the vitriolic rhetoric of some– less than it might appear right now. But change is absolutely coming, in some form or fashion. I’m just not smart enough to know how it will happen.

But I know that I still yearn for the truly “big tent” (not “pretend big tent”) global church where conservatives, moderates and progressives can all find and keep their place. I am on record as saying that “Live and Let Live Can Work.” And I believe it deep the core of my faith.

I believe God has given us the gifts to be smart enough to figure out how to do this.

It’s an open question as to whether we will.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. 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. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

5 thoughts on “Troubled Times

  1. Eric as you know I have been at this for 32 years. I can assure you of the ordination class I started with very few are left. Every one of the them left because of Christian orthodoxy and their need to adhere to it. It is not about sex. I have had hundreds of members through the years just leave and give up. Now the progressives are saying the young people are coming because of our stance on human sexuality. I think we could argue this for a while. I don’t want to. Just know THEY said the same thing in the sixties about ‘free’ love. The boomers came back in droves after they started their families. I will tell you this, over the last forty years, no matter if we are more conservative or not, it has been the evangelicals that have been exiting our churches.

    1. Having never served in traditionally evangelical churches, I can’t comment on your assertion that they have been leaving over the past 40 years. I can absolutely document that members have been leaving Northaven over the past decade. My estimates is that we’ve lost perhaps well over 100 members during my tenure…possibly two.

      Whether or not evangelicals are leaving more than progressives is not really my primary point, however. And I hope you don’t miss the primary point.

      The primary point is that conservatives have complained for decades that we’re “too liberal.” So, during most of my adult ministry, we’ve become more “conservative.” (our written polity…)

      But, we’ve continued to lose members. So, logically it follows, it can’t be because we’re still too “liberal.” That’s not logically possible, given the evidence of the past forty years. That’s not to say that some evangelicals aren’t leaving…again, I can’t speak to that.

      But if you look at the broad averages and trends of the denomination as a whole…not just your church or mine, or the ones we know personally….it makes no logical sense to say “We’re losing members because we’re not conservative enough.”

      BTW, there’s also evidence that other more evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptists have also been shedding members in recent years. Again, more evidence that whatever our malaise is, it cannot be because we “too liberal.”

      I am a firm believer that “live and let live” can work, and can be the future of a strong, vibrant United Methodist Church.

  2. Excellent post. Agree in full. And would add part of desperation in some quarters is the looming generational disagreement within evangelicalism. Seen more clearly in non UM evangelicalism (eg Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Vines wt al) but it is present in UMC too. Entrenched leaders in Confessing Movement, Good News and IRD are nervously looking over their shoulders. They said with great fanfare that only arguments they would hear are Biblical arguments. And it is young evangelicals that have been pressing the pro gay Christian exegesis in ways the traditionalists understand. Hence there panic.

  3. We could go back and forth on this forever Eric. We know we disagree. But I don’t think your logic is a solid as you think. Few people would say that United Methodism has grown more conservative over the years, whether you can prove it with written documentation or not. That is not the perception by anyone I know on either side of the issue. But then again, that is not the issue. The issue is that ‘human sexuality’ has just become an unfortunate symptom of a much deeper problem. I too regret that this has become the point in which we are focusing on today. I realize that human sexuality problems are even more pronounced in the heterosexual community just because of shear numbers. You win there Eric.But Christian orthodoxy and our view of the Biblical witness are so different that I have more in common with my friends in other denominations than I have with the progressives. That saddens me to the point that I welcome the dialogue about how we address this ‘finally’. And it will not be by listening to the ‘extreme center’, that is where we have been for years. It is not working for anyone, you or me.

  4. Eric,
    One lesson learned from watching the Southern Baptists is that those who want to draw lines of who is in and who is out don’t stop drawing lines. They threw out all of the “liberals” and now are fighting over Calvinism vs. Arminianism and once again threatening to disfellowship those who are not seen as orthodox enough – in most cases, not Calvinists.
    I’m an American Baptist in what was our Pacific Southwest. A number of years ago, that entire region voted to leave ABC over similar concerns, promising to build a new coalition of folk really concerned about evangelism and healthy churches. Let’s just say that things didn’t go nearly as they hoped for them. The loss did damage our big tent and took away some of the vitality of the larger body but it also removed a great deal of tension and animosity.
    Watching our experience, I would recommend letting those 60 pastors leave but not allowing them to take things that are not theirs – ie properties that belong to judicatories or whoever (do your buildings belong to the individual congregation or the larger body?), standing in your retirement/disability programs, credentials as clergy, etc.

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