Selective Connectionalism?

The crisis in the United Methodist Church is not a crisis about sexuality. It is much more a crisis of leadership. Specifically, episcopal leadership and even more specifically, integrity among the episcopacy.

I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I've been a pastor for thirty years. Twenty-one of those years were full-time. Two themes were recurrent throughout those three decades as I served first as a student pastor, then as an elder in full connection, and now as a part-time pastor: stewardship and connectionalism. Not Bible and theology. Not evangelism and discipleship. Not faith and grace. Not prayer and discipline. Money and responsibility.

Over and over and over again I sat through clergy meetings and Annual Conferences where either the Bishop or a member of his/her Cabinet lectured us about the importance of paying 100% of our apportionments (Leadership never could seem to settle on a descriptive word for the totality of the money they expected from the local church. One year they would call it "Askings," then it would morph into "Giving," followed by "Apportionments" and now it is "Mission Shares." Anything to keep local churches from identifying it as kind of church tax). The tool that leadership consistently utilized to stress the importance of fully funding both the General Church and the Annual Conference was "connectionalism."

From the Methodist perspective connectionalism is the "ensuring that all components in the connection carry out their appropriate responsibilities in ways that enable the whole United Methodist Church to be faithful in its mission" (Par. 701.2 The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, page 507 in the 2012 edition). Thus it was continually hammered home that since we are a connectional church we must enable the other parts of the connection to carry out their responsibilities and that means fully funding them.

Often, in no uncertain terms, members of the episcopal Cabinet (primarily District Superintendents) would convey to the clergy that their vocational means (appointments) would be in jeopardy if their church(es) did not pay 100% of their "Mission Shares." We were continually told that failure to pay 100% reflected a lack of pastoral skill and leadership. We were failing at "connectionalism."

So here we sit today in a denomination whose membership decline coincides almost perfectly with the drive to legitimize homosexuality as a viable biblical sexual expression which has culminated in the election of an openly gay practicing lesbian as a bishop despite the Discipline's ban on ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals as elders. And many of us want to know, "Whatever happened to connectionalism?"

If the episcopacy was right to lean on local pastors to make sure their churches paid all of their "askings" on the basis of being in a connectional church, then how is it possible that a woman who has seemingly never hidden her practice of homosexuality was first ordained an elder in violation of church law, has boasted of conducting over fifty homosexual weddings in violation of church law, and married her lesbian partner which also is a violation of the connectional covenant? This goes far beyond hypocrisy striking at the root of integrity.

On the official website of the United Methodist Church, on the "Frequently Asked Questions" page we find the following sentence under the heading "What are a bishop's responsibilities?" "Bishops also have the responsibility to see that the rules and regulations developed by General Conference are carried out." Where exactly was any episcopal oversight when Karen Oliveto was being ordained, presiding over homosexual weddings, or marrying her lesbian partner? The excuse I've heard most has to do with a lack of jurisdiction. But wait a minute! All I've ever heard from the episcopacy is about how "connected" we all are. And how that "connection" implies responsibility. Now its "don't blame me I wasn't her bishop"?

Bishops, you can't twist a pastor's arm for money in the name of connectionalism and then backpedal away from the Oliveto election whining about a lack of jurisdiction in a connectional church! But backpedal you have and with each step backward you have taken you have undermined your own integrity.

For instance, your collective response to the razor thin vote to give you unprecedented legislative power at the 2016 General Conference concerning your desire to "pause" rather than allow the Conference to do its job concerning issues of sexuality, titled "An Offering For A Way Forward" reflects a sleight-of-hand maneuver that should be beneath the dignity of the episcopacy. You say,

Your bishops were honored to receive the request of General Conference to help lead our United Methodist Church forward during this time of both great crisis and great opportunity. As far as we can discover, this is the first time that a General Conference has ever made such a request of the Council of Bishops, and we accept this request with humility.

"Honored to receive the request"? First off, the "request" you refer to is the vote to accept your own recommendation to the General Conference to delay the debate on homosexuality! You prompted this and now you are making it sound like General Conference delegates were begging you to intervene? Not only that, but the vote to grant you that legislative power "for the first time" was a margin of twenty-three votes! Many of those who voted to grant you that authority have made it clear they were confused by the language of the resolution and would not have knowingly voted to give you that power. Twenty-three votes. And you have the unmitigated gall to say you were "honored to receive the request." That is a complete lack of integrity.

Moreover, as the General Conference began more than a hundred clergy made it known that they are practicing homosexuals. Where have you been, bishops? We are a connectional church, remember? The New York conference ordained four self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Where were you bishops? Four conferences have passed non-conformity resolutions concerning the Discipline's ban on ordaining homosexual clergy. Where are you bishops? Moreover, in your "Way Forward" address you say, "We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another-including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline." Apparently, you take us all for fools because all you said is that you will find ways not to uphold the Discipline while you uphold the Discipline. What a profound lack of integrity from spiritual leaders.

Don't talk to me anymore about being a "connectional" church. Don't talk to me about how you support and uphold the Discipline. You have lost my respect. When push comes to shove you have demonstrated that you don't practice what you preach. The words of Matthew 23:2-4 come to mind as I think about the Methodist episcopacy:

The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

Bishops, I have a question. As faithful United Methodists, is it really our stewardship and connectionalism that you desire most? Then, as faithful stewards over the resources God has placed in our hands perhaps it is time that we stop paying the episcopacy for not doing its job. Until the episcopacy of the United Methodist Church begins to show interest in upholding The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and decides to be true to Methodism's mission 'to spread scriptural holiness over the land,' perhaps the bishops do not deserve to be the recipients of our faithful stewardship.

I invite United Methodists to learn about The Faithful Stewardship Pledge at www.themethodistchurch.net.