What Divorce Professionals Can Teach the UMC

For some years, I’ve been telling you I sensed a “split” was coming in the UMC, but that I couldn’t predict just how that would happen. Ideally, a split would be affected by an orderly process, authorized by the General Conference. But, as all Methodists know, that meeting is again delayed

Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and the conservative wing of the UMC has announced the “Global Methodist Church.”

Therefore, my current view is that we are in an awkward period of “divorce.”

Divorce is an imperfect, and perhaps painful, metaphor to use in this situation.

As someone who’s been married to a divorce attorney and judge for thirty years, my one learnings is: There are better and worse ways for divorce to happen.

Some are painful and continue to perpetuate harm. Others are more open, transparent, and dispassionate; where the parties focus on their long-term goals, rather than scoring points or placing blame.

Having seem this process close up —having watched, with some awe, how lawyers, judges, and mediators navigate the challenging waters— more than most Methodist Ministers, I can tell you that many divorce attorneys and judges get a bad rap.

Many of them see their jobs as a “calling,” and they spend a good bit of time fretting over just how to reduce conflict for all parties involved.

This is, in part, because some lawyers DO perpetuate anger, bitterness, and jealousy.
And in part because nobody ever wants to be in divorce court….and almost nobody ever leaves happy.

Consider this: Divorce Court is the one legal situation where, almost always, neither side leaves “happy.”

I would therefore encourage us all to take the following attitude toward our current situation, and humbly suggest that these professionals have a good bit to each all United Methodists in our current situation:

1. We are in a period of “No Fault” Divorce and we should act like it.
One of the best things Texas did was to institute “no fault divorce.” This mean that no longer would one partner have to prove “wrong-doing” of another in order to get divorced (infidelity, financial malfeasance, etc…). Instead, the courts and lawyers would concentrate on questions such as: “What is the best division of the assets? What is best for the children?”

These are never easy questions, in the best of times. And when two partners are angry with each other, filled with accusations and recriminations —or, worse of all, convinced that they are blameless and their partner should be punitively punished— the outcomes and the process can be horrible for everyone.

Lawyers and judges can make this better or worse for their clients and the parties involved. Some are VERY GOOD at what they do…deftly mediating conflicts such that the couple’s resources are not drained by the legal fight (this can happen!).

Couples that WANT to keep fighting can literally drain away all their resources and assets, and some lawyers seemingly encourage this to run up their own fees. This, of course, harms their children along the way, and accomplishing nothing except continuing to stay “connected to the conflict.”

And the only ones who benefit in that situation are…the lawyers.

In the case of our denomination, it might feel righteous to be gleeful about the departure of Conservatives —or, for Conservatives to gloat about their new denomination, as if will be some magical Ecclesiastical Eden.

It might feel nice to “blame the other partner” for what is happening.

But at this point, and in this moment, I cannot do this, and I will not do this. I invite everyone to join me in simply making space for Conservatives to leave under as fair a set of terms as possible.

This also means that those seeking to leave must stop catastrophizing the true nature of the United Methodist Church.

Their characterizations of who the UMC is, and where it will likely go in the future, have in some cases simply not been true.

(But, I will soon point out one very obvious reason for those extreme characterizations…)

2. It will not help us to fight about “stuff.”
I still recall a divorce I heard about years ago, from an attorney involved in the case, who is a good friend. A couple had a multi-million dollar estate that they had worked to divide over three years, with hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to the lawyers. They had agreed on terms for the custody of their children, several houses, cars, etc…
They headed to their final hearing, to sign their papers, and it all fell apart.

The problem?
Deciding who would get a ceramic ashtray one of their children had made in kindergarten!

No joke.

They eventually resolved the conflict, but not without even more conflict, and more money paid to the lawyers.

Let’s NOT do this as a denomination!
Let’s not fight over “stuff!!”

Yes, there will be some painful conversations over property and assets that serve annual conferences and the entire UMC. But let us commit work through those issues with as little anger and recrimination as possible.

I’m not going to call anyone out here. But I continue to hear folks on the left and center complaining about how conservatives will leave with too much stuff…how the terms are “generous.” Unfortunately, logical analysis will not be what makes a difference here. Emotion and feeling will. And if Conservatives feel the terms of are too harsh, they will stay and fight, perpetuting harm and forcing a continued fight over stuff, rather than launching us all into a bright future.

Finally, this assertion on my part, which I trust some may not like:

3. Let us create “terms” that are as favorable as possible for as many Conservative Churches to leave as possible.

In saying this, I am neither gloating or “spiking the ball.” There is no joy in this.

But Conservatives say they want to leave and that the “marriage” is over. As Maya Angelou once said, “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”

We should BELIEVE they want to leave, and we should give them the most charitable terms that we can. We should “believe them.”

But I am hearing that the current terms —set out by the General Conference in 2019— seem too onerous to some Conservative churches.

Frankly, I agree with parts of their concern.

As noted above, those terms were set back at a time when a time when the strategic goal of the General Conference was to “keep everyone together until a plan could be worked out.”

Well, that didn’t happen.
And we’re all still “holding our breath.”
So, into this vacuum has stepped the “Global Methodist Church.” And that “is what it is.”

The WORST case for these next two years?

— Churches with significant majorities of members who want to leave, but can’t financially afford to…

— Churches that stay with the UMC, but are bitter and frustrated, and continue to fight over issues of human sexuality….causing further harm to the LGBTQ community, and the general mission of all Moderate-to-Progressive Churches…

Should this happen, this will not help anyone.

As I noted, already there are some characterizations of United Methodism being made by Conservatives that are simply not true, and that no doubt anger many in the Center and Left of our denomination. I get that. I angers me that lies are being told about the UMC.

But, guess what? Divorcing couples tell lies about each other! (See the “no fault” divorce section for how the legal systems has attempted to reduce this issue…)

I would urge anyone on the Left or Center to avoid reacting in anger or bitterness toward these often too-broad generalizations about who we are, or what we believe, even as I call on Conservatives to desist from making them.

However, I will point out this simple and obvious fact: The harsher the terms for leaving, the harsher the rhetoric will be.

If Conservatives must meet a threshold of super-majority votes of their congregations…
If Conservatives must pay excessive and burdensome financial sums…
If they are not allowed to take the properties currently administered by their own Trustees…

Then….we should then EXPECT harsher and harsher rhetoric from them!
This is simple “Game Theory.”

In this situation, we should expect painful and divisive words from the Conservatives. Because in order to raise the funds and make the vote-count, they will be forced to make extraordinary divisive, and sometimes untrue, proclamations about the United Methodist Church and why they want to leave.

Therefore, I’m urging us to avoid this, as much as humanly possible.

Right now, Annual Conferences have the ability to lessen the burdens set by General Conference in 2019, under other rules of separation that predate that decision and have been in our Discipline for years.

This procedure leaves much room for each Annual Conference to discern what the right “terms” are for their local situation.

I am not wise enough to know what the exact “terms” should be for every church and every Annual Conference.

(Something shy of ⅔ majority vote, but much more than “simple majority?” Something not intentionally financially burdensome, than what was designed to “keep everyone in place?”)

But I AM wise enough —and have seen enough— to know what the outcome will be, should the terms of too steep and feel unfair to Conservatives:

That will simply mean continuing harm, fighting, recriminations, and blame.

And the time for all of that is passed.

Look, none of this will be easy. In the “best” situation, divorce never is.
It is likely —in fact, we should expect— that some terms, some statements from one “side” or another, will often seem “unfair.” People in divorce are often angry and sometimes lash out.

Remember: Almost no one ever leaves “Divorce Court” happy on the day of their divorce, and almost nobody ever wants to be there in the first place.

But providing for fair, equitable, and just separation is a serious “calling” undertaken by many lawyers, judges, and mediators I have been blessed to know. They awe me with their deft skill in negotiating compromise. We should seek their wisdom and counsel, and follow their moral example.

This is hard, because all of us have a stake and a “position” in this; and the hardest thing to do in that case is to see the “big picture.”

Therefore…
Pray for everyone in our denomination —Left, Right, and Center— that we might find a reasonable path for everyone to be released for the powerful future ministry God has in store for us all.

A future where —wherever our individual churches “land”— that puts God’s people and God’s call, not a fight over “stuff,” first.

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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.

6 thoughts on “What Divorce Professionals Can Teach the UMC

  1. Hi, Eric. Thanks for a well-laid-out and thoughtful piece. I have been unchurched for many years while still purporting to be a Methodist (a denomination I chose to join). I am saddened that this division is happening, but encouraged that there is a moderate-to-progressive outcome coming.

  2. Thank you for this commentary! I am reading this a few days after our Annual Conference. I have come to the same conclusion: We need to bless one another and part as siblings in Christ. No difficult terms. No more trying to make it difficult to leave. I hope many who are in a position to formulate policy in our Conferences will read your article and take your observations seriously!

  3. Pastor Folkerth, this “THANK YOU” comes from a theological conservative/orthodox fellow UMC clergy. Your words have so moved me to share them on my Facebook page in the hopes that some of my fellow UMC friends would heed your well worded advice. I want you to know that I am deeply moved by your challenge for ALL us UMC folks to live out the Gospel Message of Grace. Thank you once again for this post!

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