I am hopefully awaiting Chris Ritter’s third article on Timelines, Tensions, and the Separation Protocol. Perhaps it will pull a rabbit out a hat. Until then, I offer this.
Just do the right thing.
This is a story about setting people free to do the right thing. I have changed some nonessential details to avoid identifying which of our many wonderful children is involved.
First, I need to introduce you to M___. She is one of our children. She was eleven when we met. M___ had seen too early the evil that people can do to each other. Things we don’t talk about in church. Her dad and his girlfriend-of-the month drug her across the country. They kept her out of sight. Every time they caught the attention of local authorities they would pack up and move. She did not laugh. It was just a few days into our new life together when I made her a sandwich and glass of chocolate milk for lunch. She dropped the glass of chocolate milk on the carpet. She froze. The look in her eyes was something that no one should ever see in the face of a child. I don’t remember what I said, but in one brief moment eleven years of laughter came exploding out of her. I knew what Jesus meant when he said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning!”
All of her formal schooling would add up to maybe two years. She was illiterate but brilliant and a quick learner. Because she did not have a learning disability we could not get help from the school. They said that cultural deprivation did not qualify her for any program. So, my wife and I learned how to teach. After her eight hour day of sitting in a classroom flooded with numbers and words beyond her comprehension, we would learn to read at home. She loved reading and being read to. In a few months M___ could manage some third grade books. But she was still in sixth grade.
The class was asked to prepare a written and oral presentation of their favorite book. She was excited that this time she could participate. She chose a child’s storybook version of “A Pilgrim’s Progress.” You can guess some of what is about to happen.
The teacher at first approved but was overturned by the administration. They were concerned that at least one parent would be disturbed to the point of initiating litigation. The district office would make no allowance.
This was the 90s and we heard of an attorney in Atlanta that had started a practice defending the civil liberties of Christians. I called his office. He referred the case to an attorney in Greenville, South Carolina who in turn sent a same day fax to the school and district.
Then, I went to the school and offered them this:
You have been motivated by fear of the threat of litigation. We can now take that factor off the table. No matter which choice you make there is the danger of litigation. Now, you are set free to chose to do the right thing. The question is, “Before the courts, in the presence of this child, in the sight of the people of this community, and before Almighty God, which choice do you want to defend?”
M____ was proud to give her oral and written presentation. She learned to read. She taught her children to read, and they are teaching their children to read
People of the UMC. You are motivated more by threat of litigation and what you might loose than you are by doing the right thing. Let’s see if I can help set you free to do the right thing.
Any choice you make will result in civil litigation. The plans before you guarantee that. All of the plans have declined to offer a “failure to comply” paragraph. That is a paragraph that answers the question, “In the event that one party refuses to honor the agreement, how do we resolve the problem without going to court?” Such a paragraph could be written. It was written for the Traditional Plan, but bishops control who is recognized to make a motion at General Conference and they never allowed it to come to the floor. They never have. They never will. Almost every bishop and most of your clergy delegates have opposed and will oppose any provision that requires them to comply with the Discipline without going to court. Litigation is inevitable no matter which plan passes.
You are afraid you will loose your property. For many of you reading this, that is likely to happen no matter which of the available options you choose. The same day that I wrote this piece about how many Annual Conferences will never honor a separation agreement , the West Virginia Conference was padlocking another church negotiating an exit under the guarantees granted them in our current Discipline. Try to leave and you loose your property.
Try to stay and many of you will loose your property. Our Conference and General Church boards are burning cash, and our leaders are committed above all to preserving those institutions. A church is only considered “viable” to the degree it is able to support those institutions. Very soon, our leaders can only support these programs by selling assets. Just like the Episcopal Church is doing but on a larger scale. If they can take a small church’s assets (building funds, endowments, parsonage, church buildings, and furnishings) and convert them into just a half million in cash, then they can invest that and get a return equal to a small church’s annual apportionments. Also, that is a guaranteed income. They only need enough churches in enough cities to maintain a market presence that gives credibility to the institutions. Given all you have heard from leadership about the priority of preserving the mission of our boards, what do you think will happen to your church in a few years? For many, perhaps most, local churches this means litigation and loosing property. At the 2019 North Georgia Annual Conference there was talk of a plan that would close an estimated 200+ small churches in a short time.
So, now we are free of the threat of litigation or property loss. That is just as likely no matter what path we choose. We are set free to do the right thing. That is true for local churches, General Conference delegates, and our Judicial Council.
Local churches: Your question isn’t whether or not your property is worth keeping. It’s, “What decision do you want to defend before your children, your community, and Almighty God?” Is your worshiping community worth preserving even without the property? What choice best allows you to teach the faith to your children who will teach the faith to their children? Are you willing to sacrifice to pursue that course? Are you prepared to start a new adventure as your ancestors in the faith have done many times.
General Conference delegates: Since not one of you supports a plan that addresses the “failure to comply“ problem (and no bishop would permit it to come to a vote anyway) you have collectively condemned us to these options. So, forget about alliances and vote counts. All plans lead to the same destination. When you speak and when you vote, do not worry about whether you will win or loose, but make sure it is a vote you can defend before Almighty God and as a witness to the world.
Members of the Judicial Council: This body’s decision not to address doctrinal issues was an error that ought not stand any longer. What use does a church have for a court that will not address doctrine and whose polity decisions only serve to add to waste paper recycling bins? There may still be time to preserve a remnant if you remember your first love and return to sound doctrine.
Most people cannot be bribed into doing the wrong thing. We are more easily controlled by the threat of what someone will take from us. It is how activists control schools. It’s how employers control employees. It’s how the church is controlling us. The less one needs the less one can be controlled. When we get to where we only need one thing, and that one thing is the person of Jesus Christ, then we are truly free. Free to do the right thing.
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
How do you intimidate someone like that? The voices from Africa have been trying to tell us this. Listen. Do the right thing.