Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Obituary of The United Methodist Church

Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.

There are several petitions before the 2020 General Conference proposing various separations, divisions, and even dissolutions of The United Methodist Church. If this marks the end of the UMC, what will its legacy be? What would the obituary of the UMC look like? Let us imagine:

Surrounded by family and friends, The United Methodist Church took its last breath on May 5, 2020. United Methodist is survived by its parent, The Methodist Church of Great Britain, older sibling churches African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Free Methodist, The Wesleyan Church, and Church of the Nazarene; numerous daughter autonomous churches in Korea, Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore, Bolivia, Peru, Cuba, India, Puerto Rico, and other offspring.

Born in Dallas, Texas on April 24, 1968, to parents The Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church, The United Methodist Church (nicknamed the UMC) had a happy childhood growing up in an ecumenical community. United Methodist’s birth allowed for the fuller integration of African American churches into the family.

In its formative years, the UMC adopted the Social Principles derived from its parents, Methodist and EUB. Albert Outler played an influential role tutoring the UMC in “Our Theological Task” with the four guiding principles of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. One of the greatest values instilled in the young UMC was inclusiveness. The General Commission on Religion and Race and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women held the UMC accountable to these principles. The caucuses were formed to advocate for certain theological and racial-ethnic members of the body. The oldest was the Methodist Federation for Social Action, followed by Good News, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, MARCHA, and younger siblings such as Renewal and Affirmation.

As it grew older, there were multiple educational opportunities through 112 UM-affiliated colleges and universities—11 of them historically black institutions—and 13 seminaries. One of the UMC’s greatest achievements was launching Africa University in 1984. The UMC expanded its horizons as a global church with new mission churches in Cambodia, Honduras, Senegal, Russia, and other former Eastern Bloc countries such as Latvia and Estonia.

Although daughter churches in Latin America and the Caribbean were encouraged to become autonomous, churches in Africa and the Philippines remained part of the family. The UMC also welcomed 1 million members from the Ivory Coast.

The UMC grew up alongside the United States social movements such as Civil Rights, equal rights for women, and LGBTQ+ inclusion. After all, our tagline was “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Like any family, we lived, we loved, we cried, and we fought.

From a tender age, the UMC saw gender equality modeled, as even before its birth women earned full clergy rights in 1956. The UMC never lived up to the idea of complete gender equality, but it did make progress. The UMC witnessed the election of its first woman bishop in Marjorie Matthews in 1980, and four years later its first African American woman bishop, Leontine Kelly. Now women comprise 28% of the Council of Bishops. The number of women clergy has continued to rise, and women students now outnumber men at UM seminaries.

In the US, the UMC launched the National Hispanic Plan in 1992. Later came the Korean, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Asian Ministry Plans, and Strengthening the Black Church.  The UMC grew, responding to difficult social issues such as race, social inequality, and divorce. During the 1992 General Conference, the UMC responded to the Los Angeles race riots by launching “Shalom Zones” to strive for racial reconciliation and economic justice.

In areas of discipleship and evangelism, the Disciple Bible Study began in 1986 and was a big hit. The UMC Hymnal replaced the old Methodist Hymnal in 1989, and Mil Voces launched in 1996. The UMC loved quadrennial study commissions and two notable studies resulted in resources for the sacraments: By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery. The UMC birthed Path1 to plant new faith communities, but it wasn’t too successful and was defunded. The UMC honestly wasn’t the best at evangelism and new church starts, but there were some major successes, such as the Church of the Resurrection, Ginghamsburg, The Gathering, and Grace Church in Florida.

The UMC saw the signs of the internal divisions that would eventually lead to its demise when Good News did not like the General Board of Global Ministries’ emphasis on social justice and in 1984 started the Mission Society for United Methodists in Atlanta to send more evangelistic missionaries.

Tensions grew in the UMC’s home when all of God’s children were not equally welcome. The UMC said that it had open hearts, open minds, and open doors, but yet the LGBTQ+ community did not feel welcome, and their lifestyle was called incompatible by the Book of Disciple. Every four years, the UMC fought about this issue. Eventually, the fight became unbearable and tore the UMC apart. The ultimate cause of death was self-inflicted wounds.

The UMC lived a good life. It was far from perfect, but it did some great ministry. It built wonderful relationships. Members of the body who would never have met, interfaced through our global connection. We pray that, while the UMC is no longer with us, those who mourn its passing may find comfort in the relationships that the UMC gave us. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to UMCOR.

RIP UMC 1968-2020


  1. Clever. But the obit doesn't indicate what the UMC died of. Before retiring from the UMC clergy, I spoke at many funerals. And no one in attendance wondered what brought them there.

  2. Clever indeed, but rather inaccurate. The condemnation that is the problem for the LBGTQ+ community comes not from the BOD but from the Bible. Every mention of homosexual behavior in the Bible (as well as other sins) is followed by a release of God's wrath and punishment. The"death" of the UMC comes as direct result of allowing sin into our leadership. We opened ourselves to the LGBTQ+ community but they never wanted to worship with us, they wanted to change us to accept their lifestyle even though it is against biblical teachings. So it's the cancer of sin which will be the cause of death just as it has been so many times in the past. But the spark that survives will grow again. But what do I know, after all, I'm just a dumb old country boy who reads his Bible.

  3. Did the UMC die from self-inflicted wounds as Philip cleverly opines; or, did it did from cancer as unknown declares? It would be helpful if we had a substantive conversation about this and Philip's "obituary." Perhaps, in the process of dying a physical death, the UMC was reborn. In such a case, the story goes on.

  4. Following his efforts on behalf of the former EUB Church to bring it together in union with the former Methodist Church, Bishop Paul Washburn penned his reflections on the process under the title "The Unfinished Church." It was not so much a lament on the failure to deliver a perfect union as it was an appeal to journey on to the realization of the true marks of being church as offered by Dr. Albert Outler in his sermon to the Dallas uniting conference in 1968 - "Truly Catholic, Truly Evangelical, Truly Reformed." In retrospect, The UMC cannot be satisfied with its efforts to capture Wesley's Catholic Spirit that embraced personalizing the gospel of universal love as the main ingredient in realizing Christian unity. We cannot avoid being judged by our lackluster efforts of growing the body of believers especially in the North American precincts where the denomination so successfully first took root. How often have we relied solely upon administrative process and formal legislation to resolve our disputes without sharing in the abundance of forgiving grace experienced on the Protestant path to true salvation by faith and new life? Washburn and Outler would be dismayed but not surprised by the end of The UMC witness as we have known it for the past half century in summarily caving into the divisive forces of contemporary culture wars after straying from the blessings and guidance of the "three trulies."

    Robert Harman