Wisconsin United Methodists gathered June 22, Sunday evening of Annual Conference, at Asbury UMC in Madison to discuss the question: “If our denomination divides, what might the future Methodist churches look like?”. The session was set up as a question-and-answer session with three presenters: Tom Lambrecht, Vice President and General Manager of Good News; Chett Pritchett, Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action; and Steve Zekoff, Conference Benefits Officer and delegate to multiple General and Jurisdictional Conference sessions.

In his opening statement, Lambrecht explained several different theories on the logistics of a schism, including one involving Jurisdictional or Central Conferences with borders drawn not along geography, but by the question of whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions. He said both entities would be formed out of existing structure and under the UMC umbrella, but each would set their own social principles and be entirely autonomous. In this scenario, he said, some general boards and agencies could still serve both entities, at least in the beginning. But he said the split could happen at an Annual Conference level first, before proceeding to the General Conference “The goal would be to try and minimize disruption as much as possible, and proceed in a gracious and generous way,” he said.  

Pritchett suggested that the discussion should be reframed to ask a different question. “The question we’re asking ourselves is: what should we do with LGBT in ministry with us? Everyone is talking about this, but not talking with each other. I suggest we’re asking the wrong question. Instead: how shall we live together as the people called Methodist? Our life together is more nuanced.” He recalled past schisms and reunifications of the Methodist Church and said that while our history is important to remember, it’s also important not to continue to live in fear. “The United Methodist Church is still living ‘just in case’,” he said. “That says we don’t have hope for the future. The threat of schism has seized our denomination with fear, and a schism would leave LGBT without a voice.” He said, “The true unity of the Church is found in the love of Jesus Christ.”                       

As a delegate to the past three Jurisdictional Conferences and the past General Conference, and a staff member to four other General Conferences, Zekoff asked attendees to consider how a schism in the denomination in the United States would affect the Global Church. He talked about how the denomination is growing smaller in the United States, but larger in places like Africa, yet the United States still often dominates conversations at General Conferences. “How do we live together as a family of God that’s a worldwide body?” he asked. “What would a schism imply about the future relations of the U.S. church and the churches in the Central Conferences?” He also talked about how a split would affect churches of different sizes differently. He said that larger churches with a larger staff and attendance would be able to weather a split better, whereas smaller churches  may not. He also noted that no matter what, continuing to disagree over theological issues will only continue to keep new people from coming to church. “People aren’t going to feel welcome when we say, ‘we’re glad to have you here – now watch us fight’,” he said.

After introductions, the presenters were asked questions, including, “How do we get past divisiveness and polarity?” Lambrecht said this is the question he struggles with as well. “We have a common way of discipleship that some have chosen not to live with,” he said. “For evangelicals, that’s hard to deal with. The Bible condemns certain actions as sin. We haven’t seen a plan that enables us to continue as a united group because of that stumbling block.” Pritchett and Zekoff said that the answer would be situational. “I don’t think there’s an easy answer,” Pritchett said. “It will look different for different conferences.” Zekoff said that there’s even variances in how different churches operate. “Every congregation has a different flavor. We’re not a franchise,” he said. “Even pastors in the same theological tradition can be different. I’m okay that I’m not going to get the same experience at every United Methodist Church.”  

The presenters were also asked what their visions are for the Church. “We will find a way to live together,” Zekoff said. “I don’t know what that is yet. I’m hoping that we figure out ways to talk to each other.” Pritchett said, “I hope we continually strive to embody our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We have to be a church that allows for context.” Lambrecht added, “We are a vitally alive community of followers of Jesus taking ministry of church outside walls, reaching out to every person. All people need the transforming and forgiving love of God; he wants none of us to stay the way we are.”

The question was also raised about how to regard the Book of Discipline going forward. Pritchett asked, “Which is more authoritative, the Bible or Book of Discipline? It’s expectation that we wrestle with Scripture. We forget the difference between Discipline, the book, and the discipline of the church: practices of prayer, reading Scripture, performing acts of compassion… I believe that is the discipline we’re called to follow. The more we focus on that discipline, the more we will come to understand the Discipline.” Lambrecht said he believes there is a limit on what can be adjusted. “The Book of Discipline is our expression of how we apply Scripture,” he said. “The Discipline is not without error, but right now it’s a reflection of how we have agreed to live together.” Zekoff agreed that there is a limit on what can be adjusted, but noted that Central Conferences have the authority to adjust the Book of Discipline to meet local needs. He noted that, for example, the contents of the Book of Discipline published in Swahili are not the same as those contained in the English version.

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