Friday, September 20, 2019

The Current Three-Way Standoff in the UMC

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

As The United Methodist Church continues to react to GC2019, plan for GC2020, and try to come to grips with the all-consuming debate over gay ordination and gay marriage in the church, it seems that the church may be settling into a three-way standoff between US (and Western European) centrists and progressives, US traditionalists, and African (and Eastern European) leaders.

In technical terms, a three-way standoff is a conflict in which none of the parties can achieve their goals, nor can they retreat from the conflict. Thus, the parties remain in a deadlocked state. Armed three-way (or more) standoffs are a trope in movies such as "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

Here’s a run-down of the parties in the current UMC three-way standoff, why they can’t achieve what they want, and why they are not willing to retreat.

US Centrists and (some) Progressives
The goal of US centrists and progressives, along with progressives in Western Europe, is clear: to remove what they see as discriminatory language against LGBTQ persons in the Book of Discipline, enabling United Methodist in those contexts to ordain LGBTQ persons and to perform gay weddings.

Yet as has been shown repeatedly, US & European centrists and progressives do not have enough GC votes to accomplish this goal, since both US traditionalists and Africans, Eastern Europeans, and many Filipinos are opposed to such changes.

Yet at the same time, US centrists and some US progressives have also indicated that they are not willing to walk away from the UMC. The UMC Next plan that is being advanced to GC2020 essentially calls for US traditionalists to leave the church instead of centrists and progressives.

Some US progressives (especially those associated with UM Forward and the Western Jurisdiction) have indicated a willingness to leave the conflict, but this appears to still be a minority opinion among centrists and progressives as a bloc.

Motivations vary, but a sense of ownership of the UMC, commitment to current structures, including the boards and agencies, and a sense of having the direction of history on their side have made most centrists and progressives unwilling to leave the denomination en masse.

US Traditionalists
The goal of US traditionalists is to be part of a church that does not ordain queer people or perform gay weddings. While they have up until GC2019 tried to accomplish this goal through GC legislation, the way events have unfolded since then seems to have shown them that they cannot easily achieve that goal through this strategy. UMC polity allows too many ways for centrists and progressives to stay and resist.

While it is possible that traditionalists could win a long-term legislative war of closing loopholes, most traditionalists seem to have concluded that they best way to achieve the goal of being in a church without gay ministers or gay weddings is to split the denomination.

Yet African bishops have indicated that, while they support traditionalists’ understanding of marriage, they do not support traditionalists’ goal to split the church. Without the support of that bloc, US traditionalists have a relatively small bloc of votes themselves and cannot advance any agenda.

At the same time, US traditionalists overall seem unwilling to walk away from the UMC. Certainly, there have been individual traditionalist congregations here and there that have left or are leaving, but leaders of Good News have been vocal about their intention to stay in the UMC.

In large part, this seems to be because traditionalists are unwilling to accept anything that could look like a defeat, and they believe that leaving the denomination after “winning” the GC2019 vote would look like a defeat. Much of the motivating energy of US traditionalists seems to come from a sense of being a successful insurgency. Leaving does not fit with that narrative.

African Bishops (and Eastern Europeans)
The African bishops recently met and reiterated their traditional understanding of marriage and their unwillingness to split the denomination. This statement is consistent with earlier statements. Yet reading between the lines of the bishops’ statement, the overall political goals of African leaders seem to be two-fold: to be included as central players in the UMC decision-making process and to preserve the current agency structure.

One of the African bishops’ main objections to all of the division proposals was that they were developed without African input. For a major group in the denomination, Africans are given relatively little say in determining the agenda and possible futures of the denomination, and they would like more.

In addition to that goal is support for the boards and agencies and the financial and technical support they provide for ministries in Africa. In this regard, Eastern Europeans find themselves in a similar place – maintain a strongly traditionalist stance on marriage but opposed to dividing the church.

Yet American control of agenda-setting is deeply ingrained in the UMC and reinforced by a variety of linguistic, procedural, administrative, financial, and practical considerations, and neither US traditionalists nor US centrists and progressives seem interested in making major changes to the denomination that would give Africans a greater voice, as evidenced by the division plans developed without any African input.

Moreover, US United Methodists very clearly control the purse strings both of the boards and agencies and of annual conference- and church-based partnerships. Thus, Africans can ask for the boards and agencies to continue and continue their funding, but since Americans provide that funding and can withhold it, it is beyond Africans’ power to determine the future of the boards and agencies.

At the same time, Africans, or at least the African bishops, have indicated that they are unwilling to walk away from the UMC. The name of United Methodist has strong “brand equity” on the continent of Africa, and Africans are deeply committed to the name because of what it says to the societies in which African United Methodists operate. Moreover, Africans feel like they should not have to leave their church because of fights that others have caused and are mostly occurring among others.

And thus we arrive at the current three-way standoff in the UMC: US centrists and progressives, US traditionalists, and Africans, none able to achieve their goals in the church, but none willing to walk away, deadlocked in conflict.

Editor's note: The original version of this post referred to the UMC's situation as a "Mexican standoff." The name was changed in response to readers who raised concerns that this term implied negative ethnic stereotypes. While this was certainly not my intent, I sincerely apologize to any who may have been offended by the use of this term.


  1. I have walked away---many people of integrity have done so. As a Wesleyan, I strive for perfection, and living in community with these coalitions of hypocrites makes holiness MORE difficult.

  2. And in the meantime, numerical decline marches on. Although I have not completely walked away, my participation and financial support of the local church is far less than it once was. My decision to create some space was the result of drastic change at the local church that was handled in a very heavy-handed, short-sighted way followed by a series of pastors who could not have been more different from each other when it came to their understandings about God, us, and the church. It was then that I started monitoring what was happening at the denominational level and was appalled to learn that the UMC is mired down in a morass of theological plurality.

    During my years of cruising the internet and monitoring every United Methodist voice I could find I progressed through several ways I visualized the denomination: First it was as a gianormous square raft with umpteen oars lining all four sides, each paddling the best it knows how. At some later point it became like water spilled on the floor going multiple directions at once, making effective leadership impossible. Headed into GC2016 the denomination became cats with their tails tied together. At some point during the Way Forward Process, the denomination morphed into a group of people who could not agree that the best way to get out of a paper bag would be to simply walk out of the opening. Most recently, given the major push back post GC2019 along with all the diverse solutions to sort out this theological tangle, it is hard to tell if GC2020 will be more like a black hole or more like throwing a handful of different colors of Jell-o at a wall and see what sticks. The chances of it coming up with some sort of coherent solution seems slim to none. That is not surprising since the American UMC has not been anywhere close to coherent for decades.

    So, while everybody is arguing, keep your eye on the laity; we are very much aware of what is going on and we are certainly not impressed.

  3. When the leaders of the various groups resist common sense solutions, you either get desertion or mutiny. So far desertion is the selected mode.

    1. "Mexican Standoff"? Are you kidding? That is a blatantly racist remark. I can't believe you wrote that!

      Rev. Dr. Lee D. Cary (ret. UM clergy)

    2. I certainly did not intend any racist connotations to the term, but I have changed the title to avoid giving that impression. My apologize to anyone who was offended by the original title.

  4. I cannot believe that someone in your position and with your education would use the term that you did. Editing your original submission but leaving it in your posting as an aside hardly corrects the insensitivity which you exhibited in the first place.

    Many people of diverse culture and ethnicity have been hurt by what the denomination has focused on for the last several General Conferences. As an example of the disconnect between GBGM and marginalized people, the agencies motion that was voted upon at GC2016 on a consent calendar eliminated funding for the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The UMC. It is no small thing that the DMC is settling in to the embrace of The General Commission on Religion and Race! I am sure you are aware that other groups previously funded by GBGM, such as Golden Cross, AIDS/HIV ministries and Older Adult Ministries have all lost some or all of their funding.

    Based on your language in this blog post, as well as the actions submitted by petitions from GBGM to GC2016, marginalized people need to be concerned about having a place in the church. Well Dr. Scott, this is not your church; this is not WCA's Church; this is not RMN's church. This is God's church where all are welcome and all should strive to make them all feel so.

    1. Again, I am deeply sorry for my insensitivity in using this term. I thought of it as a film term, not one with racial/ethnic connotations. I should have done more research into the term and/or thought more carefully about how it could be heard, and it is my fault for not doing so. I apologize. I do pray that the UMC may be a church where people of all cultures, ethnicities, abilities, and other differences may be welcome and celebrated, and I repent of the ways in which I have failed to live into that reality.

  5. While I have appreciated much on this blog, I was disappointed to see two ways in which this blog post really does not fairly and accurately represent American traditionalists:
    1. Our concern is not about ANY same-sex-attracted person being in ministry, but about all ministers abiding by biblical lifestyle choices (including celibacy in singleness). It would not have been hard for you to add the word "non-celibate" before "gay ministers. While US liberals may not make that distinction, if you are seeking to accurately represent traditionalists, that is very key.
    2. It is quite true that leading US liberals (what you call "centrists and progressives") have been firm in not wanting to share more power with Africans, but it is simply inaccurate to lump US traditionalists as similarly uninterested in making big changes "that would give Africans a greater voice." I and other renewal leaders have been very vocal for years in protesting the systemic marginalization of African United Methodists in our denominational hierarchy and in supporting moves that would give African United Methodism a greater voice more proportionate to its share of membership. Any claim to the contrary is such an extreme misrepresentation that I was really surprised to see this. And I am not aware of any major proposal that could be interpreted as "a plan of separation" that significantly involved US renewal leaders for which it would be accurate to use as broad and strong language as you use in talking about them being "developed without ANY African input." Please do better than this.