A Reflection on Methodism Today
By Bishop Forrest C. Stith, Retired
And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So, I answered, “O Lord God, You know.” Again, He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.” -- Ezekiel 37:3
Amidst a season of cultural wars, remnants of COVID-19, and disaffiliations, it was a joy to share, virtually, with my home conference, the Baltimore-Washington Conference. We are so thankful for new technology that allows us to go home without leaving our house. It was a wonderful annual conference, superbly conducted by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, who is not only an outstanding preacher, but a very capable presiding officer. The Bible study was extraordinary, led by my colleague, Bishop Peter Weaver, on the Book of Acts, in which he recalled the story of the actions of the first apostles. His insights set the tone of an upbeat conference, which amidst much business, ordination, special recognitions, and difficult decisions, set aside much of one day to be saturated in mission in schools in the Baltimore area.
Alas, during these sessions on disaffiliations, I felt deeply wounded when I witnessed 23 churches disaffiliate. Although it is a small percentage, (less than ten percent), a loss of any part of the body is still a loss. My personal pain was an existential one, for three reasons. First, out of 26 years of ordained ministry in the BWC, and 20 years residing in the bounds of the conference during retirement, this is my home. Secondly, 12 of those active years were in positions of leadership in the conference, where I often visited and ministered some of these churches, from Baltimore to West Virginia, and Washington D.C. to southern Maryland. Thirdly, this conference is the place where Methodism began in 1784, at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore. For these reasons and more, I had great pain. Yet, I can only imagine what it must be like for conferences experiencing losses in the hundreds. St. Paul says it best in 1 Corinthians 12:12–13, "For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.” And so, we ask: “Can these bones live?"
Factors Affecting Disaffiliation
While I do not know all the reasons for these disaffiliations, I am sure the stated objection is the fear that in 2024 there will be changes in the Book of Discipline at General Conference around human sexuality. One of my spiritual mentors said, “They are not angry about what they say they’re angry about.” Their reason for leaving the denomination may well be based on other deeper issues. I suspect there are a multitude of such issues. Nine come to mind.
Profile of the Disaffiliating
First, while it is dangerous to generalize about those who have chosen to leave the denomination, and I do not possess the statistical skills to produce a scientific profile, there are some corollaries. One is the racial makeup of disaffiliating churches, which is predominately white. Another is geography. When we look at a map of the United States, we see that the disaffiliations are strongest in what we used to call the Bible Belt, stretching across much of the south, and up into Pennsylvania and west to Ohio, Indiana, etc. These represent the same area where biblical conservatism has been strongest. One can also assume that age would be another category, since the latest Gallup, Pew and Jones polls demonstrate that younger generations are more inclusive in attitude and relationships than older generations.
Second, the current societal/cultural context in America is fiercely political and polarizing. Local churches are not immune, but rather, are deeply affected by this polarization. The basis of the current American so-called “cultural wars” is a historical assumption that the only valid American way of life is a WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) and male foundation. This assumption, which is deeply engraved in the psyche, excludes persons who represent the minority of the population, in historicity, values, culture, and a variety of religious practices. That includes African Americans, ethnic minorities, immigrants (outside of northwestern Europe), women, and especially the LGBTQ community. One of the strongest advocates for this position is the American National Christian Movement.
Although it is a minority movement, it is very vocal and active, and occasionally found in evangelical/conservative United Methodist churches. Like a prairie fire, its tentacles infect many congregations who are gullible to its message. Alongside similar secular nationalistic organizations, white communities are subject to the messages of hate and rejection, shrouded in “conserving traditional values,” whether in public schools, libraries, sports events, community organizations, and of course the church.
The Source Of All Evil Is Money/Systemic Racism
Some historians have suggested that this WASP exclusiveness began in 1621 with the first recorded history of slavery in America. While the date is debatable, there is no doubt that maintaining the existence of slavery and free labor, required extreme measures of propaganda, based on a new theology and medical malfeasance, to produce a worldview that supported the inhumane treatment of other human beings. The ultimate form of this was eugenics, a biological/philosophy undergirding white supremacy over all other ethnic groups. Eugenics attempted to prove this theory with so-called medical research. This method became rampant in the mid-1800s at the crest of the enslavement of Africans and past the Civil War. This philosophy was years later seized upon by Adolph Hitler and others. Alongside this movement were theological underpinnings of racial superiority.
Following the horrific U.S. Civil War, it was said that “the North may have won the war, but the South won the peace." While many in the North were tired and depressed by all the consequences of violence and death, the South, systematically worked to create a new narrative to justify what they termed “the Lost Cause.” The foundation of their cause had already been established by theologians and quasi-doctors during slavery. Their scholars rewrote American history books, painting the plantations as peaceful, benevolent owners protecting the enslaved population, much like the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The Daughters of the Confederacy co-opted others to build monuments, rename roads, buildings, schools, and more to celebrate Southern generals and other Confederate leaders.
Most of all, through the intimidation of formerly enslaved persons, Whites created tenant farming, sharecropping, the Klu Klux Klan, Jim Crow, public lynchings, segregated facilities, and a denigrating second-class citizenship of the formerly enslaved through publications, drama, newspapers, music by Stephen Foster and others caricaturing African Americans, etc. The result was a brainwashing of many Americans, in the South and North, that subconsciously infected the psyche of many to justify the exclusion and inferiority of African Americans. Today, we call it systemic racism. All this happened, in spite of the passing of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution to assure equality of the formerly enslaved and the illegality of slavery.
Paradigm for Dominance
White Supremacy became the unwritten guidepost of America, which set a paradigm for the relationship of the WASP community with any group that was either self-excluded or mandatorily excluded. This unwritten rule centered around power. An example of the struggle for power over others is the story of Jacob and Esau in the book of Genesis. Manifest Destiny is the fruition of a people who see their divine calling, as WASPs, to dominate the entire continent, from sea to shining sea. In the path of this ideology was the assumption that people of color were expendable. Mexicans and Native Americans were systematically killed, dehumanized, subjugated and marginalized, and still are. Similarly, during the Great Migration movement, in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was discrimination and acts of prejudice against southern Europeans, Catholics and Jews, unless they assimilated into a “melting pot” of “whiteness.” Minorities were accepted, as long as they did not accrue financial assets, be elected to public office, or hold any position of power over the white community. Minorities were okay as long as they were subservient; entertainers, servants, supporting and marginalized.
The formula for justifying this domination was, and is, simple and it continues to be the mantra for many Americans:
- Identify and magnify physical differences such as color, facial structure, religious practices, etc., because differences can be used to equate superiority or inferiority.
- Find selected Biblical texts to indicate the inferiority of a group, which is easy, since the Biblical perspective is often written by a patriarchal system, and God’s chosen people are ethnic Semitic Jews. (Note: Jesus is never quoted as justifying domination over others).
- Being chosen carries privileges and some benevolent responsibilities while dominating others.
This legalized inequality set the paradigm for today’s white supremacy and all other exclusions of any human being.
Fourth, all denominations struggle with the discrepancy between the unwritten rule of selected dominance and the Bible, which states clearly that we are called to love our neighbor. Matthew 22:36-40 states, “Jesus said unto him, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The rest of the story is the definition of a neighbor: anyone in need.
The unique story of The United Methodist Church is a story of over 200 years of wrestling, like Jacob, with our identity under the call of God, maintaining a theology of inclusiveness, yet conversely being in sync with cultural norms in our community and society. While Wesley was clear, in his radical (vile) attitude of welcoming all God’s children, as the church developed, it often inhaled the fumes of its society, resulting in splinters, re-organizations, resolutions and revivals.
The dramatic split of North and South in 1844, was not as simple as the North against slavery and the South for slavery. In both churches, there was a mix of opinions. In the South, there were church people of goodwill who taught their slaves to read or spoke up against slavery, under punishment of death. In the North there were church buildings turned into safe houses of stations of the Underground Railroad. The abolition movement included many church people, including Methodists. There were preachers, North and South, who inhaled the gospel of white supremacy. (Remember, eugenics had its birth at Boston University.) While the votes for or against full inclusiveness seemed clearly Southern-driven, there was always a remnant in the South believing in the Good News of inclusiveness.
Following the reunion of Northern and Southern Methodism in 1939, the demonic Central Jurisdiction was created as a sacrificial lamb. At each quadrennial session that followed, there were resolutions seeking its reversal. As early as 1954, an amendment to the Constitution was passed that allowed conferences of the Central Jurisdiction to merge with other Conferences. As far back as the period of American Reconstruction, Methodist women’s organizations were active in fighting against segregation and discrimination. The first formally organized Women’s Society was formed to provide relief, welfare, education, and help for post-enslaved African Americans. Women were the phalanx of Methodist social action.
There were, however, struggles over the role of women in ministry. This struggle officially ended at the 1956 General Conference, which voted to allow women to be ordained and to lead at every level of the Church. I can remember, while attending Drew Seminary from 1955-1958, there were a total of five talented women enrolled; none of whom were pursuing divinity degrees for pastoral ministry, because they knew they would be excluded.
The war stories are rampant of exclusion of ethnic minorities, Native Americans, Hispanic, Asian Americans and indigenous people around the world, in our mission endeavors. During World War II, when Japanese-American citizens were rounded up like cattle and put in concentration camps, while white German Americans were never harmed, it was Methodist missionaries who went to the camps and served the people and taught their children. There has always been the commandment of Jesus to love thy neighbor. The current remnant may well be the new United Methodist Church. Yes, these bones can live.
Divergence Between Policies and Actions
Fifth, we are a diverse denomination. I maintain that the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church is the most diverse body in American Christendom in terms of race, gender age, and nationality. One of my Episcopal friends, suggests that “the Jurisdiction was born in iniquity, but has been the source of our diverse elections of bishops.” One can wonder, how much of a difference is there between the stated policies for the inclusiveness of the denomination and the rank-and-file members. To assume that the Social Principles and concomitant policies of inclusiveness represent all congregations and congregants would be naïve. The basic decisions of the General Church are the result of meetings, learnings, fellowshipping, and decisions of the General Conference, which the average United Methodist is not privy to. These leaders, however, are often aware of the perspectives of the constituency, which often leads to cautious approaches to social issues.
The current debate over LGBTQ inclusion is an example of this creative tension. The original ban on homosexuality is an example of this ambivalence. It was first raised in 1972, amidst a conference preoccupied with a new church organization and the inclusion of ethnic minorities and women. Very little to no discussion about human sexuality occurred before the vote. Over the next 60 years, in debates over the issue, the votes have been very close, while the numbers of delegates favoring exclusion were enhanced by the amazing growth of the church in Africa. These African representatives were affected by two factors. First, most missionaries to Africa from the West tended to be conservative evangelicals. Secondly, many of the African governments determined that homosexuality was a propitious scapegoat to hide their own inadequacies, and thus passed laws against it. This was reflected in the last General Conference of 2016 when the Good News movement found an ally with many African delegates to barely defeat a more moderate position. The suspicion was that this balance of power would shift, due to American annual conferences prioritizing a change in the Discipline. This led to the proposed Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and the subsequent creation of the Global Methodist Church.
Subliminal Factors Affecting Disaffiliation
Sixth, I suspect some disaffiliations are a backlash to policies and emphases over the years and generations which forced some to swallow ideas against their preferences. They can now visibly reject issues such as enhanced racial relations, women in leadership, and a number of social justice issues.
The Joy And Pain Of Inclusiveness
While we have much to celebrate in our efforts toward inclusiveness, it has not come without some pain, stress, and loss of morale. A major result of the union of three denominations into The United Methodist Church was the insistence of the former EUB denomination that the Central Jurisdiction and segregation be abolished. Subsequently, the new church emphasized diversity and inclusiveness. That emphasis has continued from local churches to boards, agencies, the Council of Bishops, annual conferences, schools, institutions, etc. Much of the resulting inclusiveness was done without edicts or legislation, but by the commitment of loyal United Methodists to “do what is right.”
During the 2022 Jurisdictional Conferences, of the 13 new U.S. bishops elected, seven were women and eight were people of color. The first ever black female bishop was elected to the South-Central Jurisdiction and the first Native American bishop was also elected. With the election of seven women bishops in 2022, 44 percent of the Council of Bishops are women.
From the perspective of Christ’s Beloved Community (koinonia), the church has much to celebrate. From other perspectives, the celebration is muted. The ethnic minority churches, often continue to struggle because the society itself is still filled with inequality and injustices. While representation at the top is visible, local minority churches struggle, as they must serve their constituents with limited resources and systemic roadblocks. Many pastors serve with minimum salaries and support benefits. It is difficult to recruit and sustain the brightest and best clergy in such circumstances.
In reference to my home conference, the Baltimore-Washington Conference, since 1968, no white male clergy person has been elected as bishop. Three African American males were elected: Edward Carroll, Forrest Stith, Marcus Matthews. Two white women, Susan Morrison and Peggy Johnson, were elected in that time frame. There have been many talented white men; district superintendents, college presidents, heads of general agencies, leaders of General and Jurisdictional entities, and pastors of large churches. Many have offered themselves to serve as episcopal leaders, but none successfully.
It would not be farfetched to assume that some white male clergy would feel resentment, left out, or even bitter and excluded from holding the most prestigious office in the denomination. Yet, white men far outnumbered all other clergy, until recently. The question is, what are the subliminal feelings, and what about the rest of the jurisdiction, and the church in America; and does it affect morale and disaffiliation? The human question is “Who’s in charge?”
Seventh, remember the strength of the UMC, for generations, was small congregations of two hundred members in attendance or less. Less than 50 years ago, we could brag that “there are more UM churches than post offices in America.” These small churches were in every part of America, every demographic group. Methodists were proud of their status, their symbol of the cross and flame, their church buildings, parsonages, apportionments paid in full, support of their pastor, and “his” concomitant role in their community. In the last 50 years, much has changed. Many of these communities have lost their economic base, and demographics have changed. The cost of a pastor has escalated, especially in the BWC where housing allowances have replaced parsonages. (Good for the pastor’s equity, but not good for the local budget.) Pride has been replaced by feelings of despair. (Someone needs to be blamed.) Many small communities have experienced a brain drain, with the loss of their brightest and best relocating for jobs.
Sixty years ago, I read somewhere that the value of the appointment system was to assure that every vital congregation would be served by a qualified and certified pastor, and that every ordained pastor would be assured of serving a vital or potentially viable congregation. If that be so, a host of dilemmas have taken away that adage. Many pastors are stuck, waiting for a “better” appointment, and many congregations are awaiting their “superhero pastor.” The bishop or denomination, many believe, must be blamed.
Many pastors of small congregations are either untrained or trained in non-United Methodist seminaries. In our eagerness to fill vacancies, we have filled empty spaces without requiring loyalty, experience or basic understandings of the history, principles and theology of our church. The result is, too often, for generations, some of our churches (small and large), have been led by clergy with minimum loyalty and commitment to the denomination.
The role of the district superintendent is perhaps the most crucial position in the denomination. He or she is the liaison and representative of the bishop. Only the DS is given the authority in the Book of Discipline to intervene in local church affairs and sign off on legal, real estate, buildings, and fiscal matters. The assumption is such a person would be physically present in each local congregation at least once a year, to interact, share, and hear the state of the church. Such a presence can make a difference in the life or death of the local church. “While the cat’s away the mice will play,” people say. Worse yet, they may disaffiliate.
Eighth, another factor affecting morale in congregations is creeping secularism. Methodism’s strongest days were when most people (in and outside the church) were spiritually grounded, and whether they attended church regularly or not, they believed in God, attempted to follow the Ten Commandments, and were afraid of the literal fire and damnation of hell. Camp meeting conversions were the norm, as the Society had a deep sense of the mystery of life, which was God. But in today’s world, the mysterious is viewed through a huge Webb telescope as it gazes at millions of stars. The Gospel of relationships is far more needed now than the Gospel of fear of the unknown, but it is far more difficult to preach.
As I have visited congregations since retirement, I noticed some pastors and churches seem to avoid the use of symbols, signs, literature, displays or spoken words connecting the local church to our denomination. A visitor might not be aware of the connection. One wonders if the parishioners even are aware that theirs is a United Methodist church. I am reminded of our loss of a couple mega-churches that began as Methodists, but after long pastorates, and changes in membership, we lost them as they became independent.
Our denomination is a part of a society whose historicity is based on individualism and independent thinking. The United States, in many ways, continues to struggle whether it wants to be a federation or a confederation. A confederation is a group unified by common principles and authority. A federation is a group unified in name only, formed to defend itself in difficult days. I note the popularity of TV preachers and mega-churches who emphasize self-gratification, amidst independence. It is a miracle that we have held together as a confederation or connection, with local congregations ceding much authority to the denomination. From time to time, we have had groups or individual congregations splinter off, rejecting Methodist connectionism, saying “I can do it by myself.”
Finally, the Wesley Covenant Association chose the propitious time to revolt and crafted an enticing, though fallacious, message to proselytize and communicate to those disaffected by the above reasons. There are also pastors who simply have a personal gripe with the conference or its leaders. Most churches that disaffiliate are being led by disaffected pastors. Since most members of disaffiliating congregations are following the “wrong shepherd,” we need to prepare for those who want to stay with us, as well as those whose eyes become opened.
Can These Bones Live?
With so many departures, we may feel like the prophet Ezekiel, who was a part of the forced exodus of Israelites from Jerusalem to Babylon. In the midst of his prophetic ministry, he had a vision of a valley of dry bones, and God asked him that question. "Can Israel live again?" His answer, and our answer is, "you know O Lord, as if to say, if it is your will, the remnant will survive and thrive."
As we move forward, we need to affirm our rich heritage in the grace of Jesus Christ, celebrate 200 years of a unique ministry of unity amidst diversity, take nothing for granted, and spend our energy and resources seeking people with whom to share a new vision.
Bishop Peter Weaver’s Bible Study on the book of “actions of the early church” calls to mind the conversion experiences of Paul, Philip and Peter in the eighth through tenth chapters of the Book of Acts. It is not just a story of insular personal conversions, but of radical cultural conversions. In the eighth chapter, Paul has to address the reality that the revelation of God is not limited to traditional Hebraic society. In the ninth chapter, Philip must address the possibility that Jesus came for an Ethiopian eunuch, one who is outside the cultural norm in race and sexuality. And in the tenth chapter, Peter must address the possibility that Jesus came also for the most existential enemy of the Jewish people, a Roman centurion.
To dramatize that moment, Peter is given a dream where he is asked to eat non-kosher food. God’s command is “Rise, Peter, slay and eat.” From that point on Peter, Paul and a host of others lead the early Christians to evangelize, not only Jews, but Gentiles, women, pagans and slaves. In Acts 10:34, it says, “Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’”
Yes, Ezekiel, these bones, called United Methodists, will live, because as in his time, the remnant were very much alive. To follow Jesus demands we “Draw the Circle Wider” -- the circles of culture and comfort -- and let the Spirit move to whomever God has created. May it be so.