Processing the Events of the Michigan Annual Conference 2019

The United Methodist Church in Michigan had their 2019 Annual Conference May 30th to June 2nd. The Annual Conference began without singing “And Are We Yet Alive?” a favorite of many, including me. The Conference seemed to go downhill from there in a political sense. Everything seemed targeted with an agenda. The theme was “Bold and Effective Leaders”, focusing on Wisdom, Heart, and Courage.

During the Clergy Session, the first order of business was to do a vote which communicated the Michigan Area of the United Methodist Church was not going to follow the current doctrine, constitution, and by-laws from the only body that decides these things, the General Conference. Many said they felt blindsided by this action of the Board of Ordained Ministry. Local pastors who do not have a Master of Divinity and who have not served full time for two years were not included in the vote. However, the Board of Ordained Ministry was included in the vote, which have laity on the board. The vote was taken and a majority passed the resolution that stated the Michigan Area UMC will not follow the General Conference’s decision in regards to human sexuality.

This Annual Conference was consistently voting on things at about a 2:1 ratio. 68% to 71% was the normal majority vote. This ratio showed the division of progressive and traditional United Methodist Church clergy and delegates throughout the Conference. Resolutions were very controversial ranging from sanctity of human life to the Global UMC’s debate with human sexuality. From the leadership in our conference to those I spoke with, the life expectancy of the UMC is 2-5 years. Our Bishop in the Michigan Area said he might be the first and last Michigan Area Bishop in the UMC. Since the merger of West Michigan and Detroit Conferences began with Bishop Deborah Kiesey, but finished under Bishop David Bard’s leadership.

Something I noticed as a person with a political science degree was with how the votes went. We had two caucus groups promoting candidates which is normal. This would suggest the clergy gave their laity a voting guide on how to vote, again very normal. The way the voting went because of how many times no one was elected was also interesting. The laity preacher the morning of the first vote was elected right away. Two laity who were visible up in the front making announcements were elected. Another person who was elected received an award and was recognized on stage. However, a person who was a candidate was not allowed to pray before a ballot was taken as if it would play a part in the election. I was confused as to how for one it was not okay to pray, but others it was okay for them to speak on stage regularly. Political polls would say that facial recognition and seeing the person help in being elected when people do not know who to vote for. I only say this because I realized I can use my political science degree in the UMC for election research purposes. God does use everything in your past to help others in the future!

My ask for a Rule of Law
Immediately after the presentation of General Conference Resolution 2019-2, which the motion states:

“Faced with uncertainty after the 2019 Special Session of General Conference, United Methodists in Michigan look to Jesus’s model of gracious welcome and evangelical inclusion to guide us. As we look forward to how the global church restructures and new Methodisms emerge, the Michigan Annual Conference aspires to live into an expression of Methodism that:
– includes LBGTQIA people in the full life and membership of the United Methodist Church;
– creates time and space for reflection, forgiveness, and reconciliation among our siblings who believe differently as we move into the future;
– organizes itself in faithful, just, and equitable structures that resist oppression, while acknowledging and undoing its complicity in systems of racial and economic inequity; and
– spends our time and financial resources on mission for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially with vulnerable communities in Michigan and around the world, and not on church trials, investigations, or bringing charges against clergy based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression or related actions.”

I asked for a Rule of Law.

Before I became a pastor I was studying to be a lawyer. I began to research Judicial Council decisions a few weeks before our Annual Conference because I was helping my mentor with Central Conference legislation he wanted to bring to Annual Conference. As I read through the legislation and Judicial Council decisions I realized that you could not legally challenge an aspiration statement. Aspiration statements promote a hope to achieve something, and many people see them and yet do not understand the difference between a doctrinal or factual statement and an aspiration statement. My question as a Rule of Law was in regard to whether or not aspiration statements that do contradict current doctrine, constitution, and by-laws are allowed. I have never seen a Judicial Council decision rule on “dissemination” meaning to spread information contrary to what United Methodist’s believe. There are precedent for aspiration statements that do not violate the doctrine, constitution, and by-laws. This Rule of Law question related to dissemination is without precedent. I wanted to know if we could say aspiring things that are contrary to what our doctrine clearly states in John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry”, Notes on the New Testament Romans 1:27-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:8-10, and 2 Peter 2:7, and then alluding from the sermon to the General Rules of “Do no harm” mentioning the common things considered harmful being done in England in John Wesley’s time. I did not ask for the ruling to hurt anyone’s feelings. Though I know my words made people who are progressive upset. When you think in terms of political science, my ask for a Rule of Law makes sense out of desperation. When the executive and legislative branch of church politics do not support your position, the only branch you can appeal to is the judicial branch. In the United Methodist Church, the Judicial Council is the judicial branch.

I received many different comments from my request for a Rule of Law. Some on the progressive side said that I harmed them with my words. I was called names that are usually called to people who are on the traditionalist side. Every place I went at Conference I heard people whispering things behind my back, gossiping. What I heard on the traditionalist side was something that struck me. “Thank you for saying something, I am too afraid to say anything”, “Thank you for being a voice for the minority”, and “this has been going on for twenty-some years”. I did not see it before, but I sensed that after talking to some traditionalists in the Michigan Conference, they have been feeling oppressed for some time now. In America, are traditionalists feeling like they are marginalized? Many Michigan traditionalists in the UMC are feeling how globally progressives felt after the Special General Conference of 2019. Traditionalists do not feel welcomed, are afraid to say anything because then they are looked at as “other”, and when they do say something because of a violation, the violator gets away with the thing they did.

Separate Paths
One of the motions was to take a non-binding straw poll, “to take the temperature” of the Annual Conference. The poll was introduced as a tool that the Conference leadership would use to address the possible future of the UMC in Michigan. After the 69% (to reject the General Conference’s decision) to 31% (to follow the Discipline as is) poll, the bishop addressed a possibility of Annual Conferences separating from the Global Church. A speaker asked if churches who wished to stay within the Global UMC would be able to. The answer seemed to say an Annual Conference would break off from the Global UMC and then the individual churches would have to split away from the Annual Conference. After hearing these things a few clergy told me they will be retiring next year because of this. Also, because of yet again clergy wanting to violate the doctrine, constitution, and by-laws. If you had a covenant with people and it keeps getting broken over and over again the covenant becomes less and then nothing. Harm has been done on both sides and I do not think it would be good for two opposite sides to continue abusing one another.

A song I think about from my youth is from a band called 30 Seconds to Mars and their song “This is War”. The lyrics go “To the right, to the left, we will fight to the death!” We are destroying one another unintentionally or intentionally through resistance, saying it is better to bankrupt the denomination financially with church trials then having integrity and honor in the vows that were taken. If the UMC did not support my doctrine I would not be in it . This is why I do not understand pastors who tell me I cannot understand doctrine in a sapience way (understanding with heart and head) and I have to by a visceral way (understanding from deep feelings not intellect). If the Annual Conference does separate from the Global church there will be a Thanos like Infinity War snap and half or more UMCers will be leaving the denomination in America.

Final Thoughts
I am about to begin my 7th year in ministry in the United Methodist Church. I am a local pastor and I am not ordained. I realized at Annual Conference that I could be ordained in a new expression of Methodism within 2-5 years. CRAZY! This fight/debate in the United Methodist Church has been going on longer than the 32 years I have been alive. 47 YEARS of fighting! My father-in-law has been a pastor in the UMC for all but 5 of those 47 years. His father was also a pastor in the UMC and now has gone on to be with the saints. I do not see the debate getting healthier. It is getting worse. Do traditionalists in progressive conferences feel like Captain America at the end of Endgame? Who just had their shield torn apart. Other traditionalists from around the world show up. There is a remnant holding the line of orthodox Wesleyan Methodist belief waiting to hear, “on your left” from a friendly voice.

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