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Breakin’ up is hard to do

Woman praying at General Conference 2019

Relationships — between individuals, nations, churches, or denominations — are complex. Jack Harnish explores the difficulties United Methodists now face.


JOHN E. HARNISH

Retired pastor, Michigan Conference

Comma, comma, down, dooby-doo down, down. Breakin’ up is hard to do.

Because I am of “a certain age,” the song that keeps strumming through my head, as I watch the shifting reactions to the Special General Conference, is the Neil Sedaka song from the 60s, “Breakin’ Up is Hard to Do”. And it really is.

Prior to the General Conference the Wesleyan Covenant Association was clearly intent on leaving The United Methodist Church. They had a name, organization, leadership, and membership of individuals and congregations who were set to form a new denomination if the General Conference didn’t go their way. They had  announced a “Convening Conference,” which has now been delayed but not entirely cancelled, as they are still talking about leaving as a possibility. Their major provision for “disaffiliation,” which would allow congregations to leave the denomination and take their property with them, has an uncertain future until the Judicial Council rules on it later this month.

But in all their preparations, the larger issues of breaking up the denomination at large–boards, agencies, budgets, institutions, mission programs, and the global enterprise of the church–was seldom mentioned. The focus was on local churches and of course Africa, but no mention was made of how that commitment would be funded in a break-away association. No one talked about how they would provide for the training of clergy or salaries of superintendents, bishops, and executives to run a global enterprise. They seemed to think breaking up would be easy, but it’s hard to do.

Now the “progressives” are the ones talking about breaking up, and for good reason. In our representative form of church polity, it is clear the denomination has taken a hard turn to the right by enacting legalistic and punitive rules for “enhanced accountability” around one issue—homosexuality. The General Conference has spoken, and it is likely that the 2020 General Conference will be even more conservative on this issue with the addition of more delegates from Africa and fewer from the U. S. 

Old-line 60s style radicals on the left can “buckle down and fight,” but they have no chance of success. The alternatives are to stay and be a remnant witness for inclusivity in an increasingly conservative denomination, or to break away and form a new branch of Methodism. Now, progressives will also learn that breakin’ up is hard to do.

First, it is hard to do because I/we are Methodists. We are Wesleyan in theology and our identity is rooted in the Wesleyan understanding of the church. Even though I currently attend a Presbyterian Church, I am not a Calvinist. Even though I agree with the United Church of Christ on inclusion, I am not a congregationalist. Even though I love the liturgy of the Episcopalians, I am not sure I want to return to the “Mother Church.” We are Wesleyan Methodist Christians and most of us desire to remain so.

Second, it’s hard to do because we believe in the unity of the church. I hate to be part of a break-away splinter group which adds to the disunion of the church. In a bitterly divided nation and world, I had hoped we United Methodists could model a way of living together in spite of our differences as a witness to the power of love in the commitment to a shared mission. It’s hard to admit that may no longer be possible.

Third, breakin’ up is hard to do because we are not an association of local churches; we are a global connection in shared ministry. This great institution with a $600 million budget includes colleges and seminaries, hospitals and schools, youth camps and inner city ministries around the world, all of which are connected through the shared budgets of our annual conferences and general boards. For example, were it not for the annual Africa University apportionment, we never would have been able to build a new university in Zimbabwe from scratch and maintain it for 25 years. Without the support of the whole connection, we would not have been able to open two new seminaries in Estonia and Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And those are just a few of the projects I worked with when I was at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Projects and missionaries around the world depend on the World Service apportionment as their lifeline. The Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Women provide millions of dollars every year for our global mission. If this denomination divides, neither group will be able to fund this massive institution and global witness.

Fourth, breakin’ up will be hard because it will be a shattering rather than a clear break. It will not be a division like 1844 when the church split north and south along the Mason-Dixon line. Except perhaps for the Western Jurisdiction, it will be a shattering and smattering of individual congregations, sometimes across town or across the street from each other, going in different directions. Each congregation will have to vote on whether to leave or stay. Every three-point charge will have to negotiate which church goes where and whether they will remain together. Pastors will have to decide on an individual basis where to cast their lot for their future in ministry. Legal issues, property disputes, titles to institutions, legal renaming of boards and agencies will require huge amounts of energy and funds to sort it all out. There will likely be law suits, court cases and wrangling in annual conferences over the division of assets. It will be ugly. All the while our witness in the world and the “brand” of Methodism will suffer.

I’d like to end this article on a positive note, but I am hard pressed to find one right now. It seems to me the best answer would a plan similar to the “Connectional Conference Plan” which was proposed and rejected in St. Louis. We need some sort of global loosening of the connection so that more decisions can be made regionally or nationally rather than globally. The only other alternative is for progressives to face the fact that the denomination, as we know it, will continue to move in a more conservative direction, and to form a new expression of Methodism with the clear knowledge that breakin’ up is hard to do.

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