Annual Conference Reveal
As I write this, it’s the closing run of American Annual Conference season in The United Methodist Church. From watching live streams to participating in my own joint annual conference sessions, it turns out that Annual Conferences reveal a lot about what people think of the Covenant.
We hear a lot about the Clergy Covenant from church trials of pastors who offer marriage services to same-gender couples, or from pastors who refuse to divorce their same-gender partners to continue in ordained ministry.
But this annual conference season, most of the conversation in at least one Annual Conference was about whether two churches had been practicing Methodism all along.
A Failure of Leadership
In the debate at the Mississippi Annual Conference about the exit of two congregations from United Methodism, two comments came up that revealed the truth of the situation. Both Getwell Road and Orchards were allowed to leave the denomination with their property intact and paying only their financial obligations (i.e. Apportionment) for the year.
During the debate on the Mississippi Annual Conference floor, Chris McAlilly, son of Bishop Bill McAlilly (who was the founding pastor of Getwell Road UMC), remembered that he went door to door to invite people to that church’s founding. In his assessment of the current leadership at Getwell Road, he said this:
“These are people we love, who contribute to the church that we are. They had the opportunity to lead the conference, and over and over they chose not to do that.”
To McAlilly, Getwell Road had great leadership who chose to remain insular rather than participate in the annual conference. If they were dissatisfied with the conference leadership or direction, they could have involved themselves or advocated for change; instead, they became more and more insular and broke away from the connection via a thousand cuts.
Led Away from the Church
During the same debate, one speaker made note that he was part of another UM church in Tupelo at the founding of the Orchards church in that same city. He recalled that 40 couples left his church to be part of Orchards inception and are now not United Methodist at all, thanks to the Orchards’ leadership. They’ve been led away from the denomination.
But it wasn’t about the LGBTQ debate, the Tupelo resident said, that led them astray. He recalled that there was a struggle to get Orchards to add “A United Methodist Congregation” to their sign, and to have a Cross and Flame in their sanctuary. He concluded his remarks with these damning words:
“So many parts of the Discipline have not been upheld up to this point.”
For both Getwell Road and The Orchards churches, the problem began long ago. It was 2012 when The Orchards stopped paying its apportionment in full. For five years, it neglected its obligation and failed to uphold the Discipline, even as it railed against those other Covenant-breakers. And according to locals closest to the situation, failing to uphold the Discipline was a practice long before they stopped paying their fair share.
Process not a Product
Mississippi is finding out what Wisconsin figured out four years ago. As part of the clergy trial of Rev. Dr. Amy DeLong, they did reflections on the Covenant and found out an interesting result: the doctrine of the clergy covenant is secondary to the communal practice of the covenant.
While we hear a lot about the clergy covenant and about how everyone should uphold it, the problem is that the clergy do not seem to really know what it means to live out a covenant beyond assent to commandments. The Wisconsin clergy pushed back that “unless the practice of the covenant is made evident, then the consequences of violating the covenant are null and void.”
I think this articulation of the Covenant as a practice and not merely a set of beliefs is important because it seems that the people who want to uphold the Covenant as a set of Commandments don’t practice the covenant themselves.
- I’ve personally seen a megachurch pastor (and prominent supporter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association) leaving halfway through a mandatory clergy meeting. Not to go visit a hospital or a pastoral emergency, but to eat lunch and then go home. I’ve gotten a letter from the Bishop for missing a mandatory meeting, so I know such accountability is enforced, but not when large church pastors are forced to mingle with smaller ones.
- Clergy regularly do not call for the required six special offerings a year, as noted in their Charge Conference reports, a practice that benefits connectional entities such as UMCOR. A clergy friend noted on Facebook that in one Oklahoma district, only 11 out of 41 did the UMCOR special offering. In fact, there’s at least 25 ways how UM pastors don’t follow the Discipline.
- Megachurch pastors often do not expect to participate in the itinerant process, and have a strong arm in retaining and recruiting the best clergy to their churches…a reversal of the covenant connectional expectation that “Bishops appoint and we accept.” And when they don’t get their way, they withhold their substantial tithes in protest.
In short, because United Methodists are not practicing a healthy form of the Clergy Covenant, all are suffering from the lack of valuing the Connection.
Where do we go from here?
Here’s what I believe:
- I believe conservative and progressive pastors who practice the covenant with each other by being in a small group with each other, communicating with each other, and participating in leadership with each other, end up filing fewer charges against each other.
- I believe conservative and progressive pastors who practice the covenant with each other by paying attention to what one another says and does behind their church doors leads to fewer churches going astray and leaving the Connection.
- I believe the Covenant is woefully misused when it is only a form of punishment instead of being a practice to which the biggest Megachurch pastor and the smallest country church are called to watch over one another in love–and participate in that relationship.
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