I am not a United Methodist. I had my own exit strategy that did not require conference approval. Yet, I have compassion for those South Carolina United Methodists who feel trapped by an unfaithful power structure. What I offer is a personal perspective. It is advice based on how I understand the faith, how I have struggled to express it with my life, and how I understand the processes that move the South Carolina Conference. If you find it to extreme for your liking, then set it aside. Perhaps some part of it will inspire someone to produce better words.
As I write this a task force is preparing to meet in a very few days to discuss amicable separation. It is a useless endeavor. One does not need to borrow Bishop Olivetto’s tarot-like spirit cards to know that nothing good will come of it. What follows are the best recommendations I can devise for those who choose to remain in captivity in Egypt.
God does not normally take us from captivity to the promised land in a whirlwind. Between the two there is a wilderness. The way for those of you who remain behind is not any easier. If you are waiting for someone else to do the work, it will not get done. If you are waiting for an angel to appear with gold tablets inscribed with the deed to your property, it’s not going to happen. If you are trusting God to send someone who will some day rescue the church, then know that it is you he has sent to be responsible for the church in your lifetime. You were supposed to pass along that which you received and not wait for some future generation to recover what you have lost. Yes, God will one day redeem a remnant, but you will be held accountable for the care of the church in your lifetime. If you are not going to fix the problem then walk away, if you are not going to walk away, then fix it. If you intend to do neither, then be quiet.
Whether you are staying in the South Carolina Conference of the UMC because disaffiliation is costly, or because the Conference has promised that you will be welcomed, or because you feel trapped by a Machiavellian bishop who will not allow any Traditionalist church to leave for any reason at any price, then you have special obligations and opportunities to preserve your faith community with integrity. Act in accordance with your faith and in compliance with the Discipline. Let the Conference leadership know that if they insist that you remain then things are going to look different.
The laity need to lead in holding the church accountable through stewardship. It is the laity and the local churches who in all times are called to honor the faith in hostile environs (Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled).
The clergy need to stop rubber stamping reports from the Board of Ordained Ministry. The clergy are first in accountability for the things of God (Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness).
If United Methodists are to be a people with contradictory definitions of God and with oppositional missions in service of God, then those missions cannot be developed, directed, and funded by a common source. The Annual Conference responsibilities must be restricted to the bare minimum of administrative tasks, and the funding, development, and implementation of missions returned to the local churches and voluntary collectives of local churches.
Churches who worship a Christ of whom it is said, “there is salvation in no other name,” must direct ministries that are faithful to that understanding. Churches who worship a Christ who is one way among many should direct ministries that are faithful to that understanding. Those whose God calls them to assist women and men through crisis pregnancy centers ought to be able to do so. Those whose God is satisfied only through increasing numbers of abortions should be allowed to serve that God. Those ministries cannot be fulfilled through one central annual conference structure.
Everything I am about offer is sound Christian practice and is sanctioned within the current Discipline of the United Methodist Church. It is also likely to infuriate the bishop and send the cabinet into a tantrum. I do not recommend this path because it will induce such a reaction from Conference leadership, but because there is no way for a church or pastor to live out the historic faith within the South Carolina Conference of the UMC that will not enrage your Conference leadership.
A church cannot do any of this alone. Your church must organize in connection with other churches in your conference and you must begin at once. Six years have been wasted, and there is not much time left to make a difference. Charge Conference season has already begun. You are down to weeks, not months, to organize and start the process. Laity should assure that their lay delegates to Annual Conference are unambiguously and enthusiastically committed to holding the Conference accountable through the budgetary process. If your church refuses to elect such a delegate, then hold your church accountable through the same process. Close your wallet.
An organized group of faithful laity would develop a sound plan for budgetary accountability. What follows is an example of how kit might start. South Carolina UMs are paying $1,254,540 for district superintendents’ salaries (not counting pension and insurance). Superintendents receive $252,00 for office expenses, $340,000 for parsonages and $440,000 for offices. You provide an additional $170,000 for lodging and retreats. District Superintendents cost local churches $2,456,540 not counting pensions, insurance, and district program expenses. Are you getting 2.5 million dollars’ worth of effective Christian ministry from your superintendents? If you perceive conference leadership as being little help to your local ministry, or no help, or even an obstacle to your local church ministry, then how dare you take millions from collection plates for their support?
Remember, you have not found yourselves in this mess through some accident. The state of the church is not the result of some unanticipated natural disaster. It was carefully planned. Superintendents are not uninvolved bystanders. The conference leadership worked hard to bring you to where you are, and they are working hard to take you further down the road. If they want to gather at Hilton Head or a lakeside mountain resort to discuss how to drag you further along, then there is nothing you can do to stop them. But, you don’t have to gas up their car and buy their lunch.
There is no reason why this type of leadership should receive a salary greater than the minimum salary for an elder, nor any faithful purpose for large office expenses. There is nothing about their office work that cannot be done from the parsonage (for over a year they did work from home). If one made a case for a separate office, then South Carolina is littered with United Methodist churches that Bishop Holston has padlocked and left to rot. Every district has once thriving churches with empty offices and classrooms. That number has increased under the present leadership. Most of these churches would happily offer their use for the cost of utilities. These properties could be used before renting property from secular landlords. In this digital age it is hard to imagine a faithful use of $21,000 in office expenses for the work they do. The total amount spent on superintendents can be reduced by two-thirds without affecting a single program/ministry of the conference. Seventy to eighty thousand dollars per superintendent is a large enough sum to accomplish the minimum of what must be done, and a small enough sum to keep them out of additional mischief.
Funding for Methodist colleges drain another 1.6 million dollars from collection plates, yet the mission of these colleges has changed since their inception. Do they exist to inculcate Christian virtue in our youth? Do they teach that all knowledge is useless unless employed in service of Christ? Do they allow any talk of the Holy Spirit in their instruction unless it is a joke or object of ridicule?
An essential part of Christian ministry is accomplished through facilitating education. Knowledge is a characteristic of God who is all knowing, and the pursuit of knowledge is a virtue. However, scholarship programs will need to advance the missions of both progressive and traditional churches. Until a way is found to do that, the amount for scholarships ought to be zeroed out. This will not cause any harm to the Methodist colleges. Our three-hundred-thousand-dollar contribution to Wofford is a trifle to their budget, but it can be well used in Christian education and ministry if returned to the local church. Progressive and traditional churches will find no shortage of opportunities to fulfill this mission without Annual Conference interference.
Adjusting the compensation of district superintendents and eliminating the scholarship fund can return $4,056,540 to local churches without diminishing any ongoing program/ministry of the Conference. (If one argues that reducing the scholarship program harms students—even though the money goes to colleges to distribute as they see fit and not to the students—then let the money follow the student and not the school. Even that is best done at the local church level,)
These two goals fall within the possibility of the next Annual Conference. It would be extremely difficult, require organization beginning immediately, and would draw the ire of conference institutionalists, but it is just barely inside the set of things that are possible. If not, then return the next year with more organization and a more detailed plan. In following years, the program ministries need to be reduced to minimal administrative functions with programming development and direction returned to the progressive and traditional churches.
The budgetary part of accountability falls primarily on the laity. While your conference leadership abides with clergy who openly disregard our doctrine and campaign to change the core values of the Discipline, they will not tolerate for a moment a clergy who advocates radical changes to the budget. Unless the conference ballots are cast electronically, you will lose the votes of many clergy who are unwilling to stand up and be counted.
For the clergy: Stop giving your assent to ungodly clergy and an unfaithful process. I heard of a man who when asked how he managed to grow such a lovely beard replied, I stopped shaving. How do we recover a faithful clergy? Stop approving the unfaithful.
We cannot blame the seminaries for the state of United Methodist clergy, nor our Boards of Ordained Ministry, nor our Episcopacy. The fault lies with traditional, orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan clergy who annually approve the recommendations of the Board of Ordained Ministry and send them into a superintendency that cannot or will not guard the faith. The errors of the bishops, boards, and seminaries would be of no consequence if traditional clergy did not rubber stamp them. If the Conference insists that you remain and will not let you go, then it is past time to say, things are going to look different around here.
But you may think this too hard and refer me to the parable of the tares and the wheat. I suggest you have learned the wrong lesson from the parable. It is not the job of disciples to plant the tares. Rejecting the work of the Board of Ordained Ministry is not a matter of pulling up the wheat. It’s about not planting tares.
You know that the seminaries did not do their job of equipping for ministry, you know that the Board of Ordained Ministry did not do its job of honestly vetting for doctrinal understanding and disciplinary faithfulness, you know that the episcopacy will not do its job of supervising and correcting. You cannot approve any part of a work that has less integrity than heathen ethics let alone Christian morality. In Conferences where there is still one clergy in four who hold the ancient faith this will have a therapeutic effect on the condition of clergy.
Considering candidates one by one is not an honest option. There is no way that every member of the clergy session knows each candidate well enough to make that decision. It is not right to ask that they should. We cannot replace a board with a committee of six hundred. If the work of the Board fails then the process reaches a dead end. There is no detour. Furthermore, even the best of candidates will fall into error. You cannot send them into a superintendency that does not correct those errors but aggravates them. You have seen South Carolina clergy who openly deny most of the Articles of Religion appointed to positions of authority. You know how many traditional pastors are intimidated into silence on the state of the church. You cannot in good conscience continue to send sheep to be shepherded by wolves. Until the episcopacy can demonstrate through actions that it has returned doctrinal integrity to the superintendency then you ought not approve another ordination, consecration, or change in status. If the Conference insists that you remain then you must insist that things will look a lot different.
Finally. I recommend to all—clergy and laity—an act of faithfulness of a purely spiritual nature. It may sound small, but it is revolutionary—learn to kneel again. I offer this as a help. Take as an example James the Just whose “knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God and asking forgiveness for the people.” The Methodist people were once familiar with the posture of prayer. It was common to see a pastors surrender themselves in prayer. Methodists, like all Christians through history, were comfortable kneeling in prayer, especially at the altar. That is, until 1988 when the Book of Worship removed kneeling by the clergy from all rites except one. Clergy are instructed to kneel before the bishop at their ordination. So, we begin our ministry knowing to kneel before the bishop but never before God.
Another hermit preacher of the fourth century said, “The Devil has no knees, . . . he cannot worship, he cannot adore.” Kneel in prayer beside the pulpit, at the altar, in the pews, by the bedside, with your family. If you enjoy singing the Communion hymn “when I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,” then ask yourself: When do I plan on doing that? You will find kneeling in prayer a holy help. It is revolutionary. I encourage clergy and laity everywhere to recover the practice. If you are going to stand up to a bishop, first learn to kneel before God. Ask forgiveness for the people.
4 thoughts on “For Those Remaining in the South Carolina Captivity”
An excellent commentary incorporating obvious deep thought and very practical, usable suggestions for those who remain in captivity. As always, ” Follow the money.”
Wow! I think you really meant ‘Florida’ not ‘South Carolina!’ I am sure many others can say the same for their states. The laity need to seize control of their churches again. When my husband took a summer long sabbatical to complete another unit of a CPE, he asked the laity to lead. They were so afraid, they asked him everything before they took a step. He wanted them to see they could lead, and lead they did. He came home every night, but he would take no calls for questions. They did everything from visitation to sermon rotation. When he came back, they were a changed and on-fire congregation.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.