Ten Predictions – United Methodism Summer 2016

Ten Predictions – United Methodism Summer 2016

[July 10, 2016 — First, an apology — many of you are not United Methodists and care little about the ecclesial wars underway in the denomination of my birth and my ordination.  Forgive my need to offer this set of predictions at this time.  More importantly, what is happening in our nation now, following the tragic murders and wounding of police officers in Dallas, along with the police shootings of African American men in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge (and beyond), only places in sharp relief the relative insignificant meanderings, bigoted and contradictory activities of United Methodism these days. We UM’s are in search of our true identity.  Would that we might find again ways to speak to the nation of the power of love to overcome fear.  So, I write this perspective, these predictions on United Methodism 2016.  We are a denomination in search of our soul.  Pray for us.]

Ten Predictions about United Methodism — summer of 2016:

United Methodism’s structure is akin to the old cosmological suggestion that the world rested on the back of a turtle.  And what is beneath that turtle?  The answer comes, of course, it is said, “it’s turtles all the way down!”  In United Methodism it is conferences all the way down!

This spring and summer, in the United States, there are conferences on top of conferences (General Conference was in Portland in May), on top of this are Annual Conferences (56 in the U.S) and this week we will have five Jurisdictional Conferences where bishops will be elected.  I will spare the reader my perspectives on each of these, except as they lead to the ten predictions outlined below:

Prediction #1. For the next decade at least, the word “omnishambled,” a new word to recent editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, will describe the denomination.  There will be very little that can be said to be “United.”  I recall the wedding bulletin nicely printed for a ceremony many years ago.  It read that the wedding was being held at the First Untied Methodist Church.  Spell check missed it — UNTIED rather than UNITED.  Well, we are headed into a decade of Untied Methodism.

Prediction #2:  More and more annual conferences will be acting independently.  They will be rejecting the bigoted constraints adopted by the recent and future General Conferences.  This is already well underway.  This summer several annual conferences voted to act in ways that are contrary to the “official stances” of the church.  These conferences will refuse to act against pastors performing same-sex weddings, they will support the ordination of GLBTQ persons, they will act in support of reproductive rights organizations and they will seek a more just way forward in the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
Prediction #3: The 2016 Jurisdictional Conferences held in five regions of the U.S. this week will be an “inflection point” for leadership change in the church.  The theological and leadership commitments of the fifteen new bishops will shift the church to a more centrist and left-of-center place in the U.S.  While the power of right-wing groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the Good News Movement and the Confessing Movement were evident in Portland at General Conference, the reality is that such locked-down opposition to alternative perspectives will not carry over to these Jurisdictional gatherings.  Look for several, perhaps a majority, of courageous centrists and progressives to be elected.
Predication #4:  The Western Jurisdiction will elect the first openly gay bishop in the denomination.  There are currently two strong candidates.  This will produce widely spreading ripples across the denomination both of approval and dissent.
Predication #5: In reaction to these developments (annual conferences challenging the official stances of the church and the election of the first openly gay bishop), a small group of U.S. United Methodist bishops will seek to hold punitive church trials against pastors who perform same-sex ceremonies.  One such trial is already underway in Kansas at the urging of Bishop Scott Jones. 
Prediction #6: Increasingly these clergy trials will become more problematic and counterproductive for the traditionalists.   They will be opposed and dismissed as foolish by a majority of folks in the pew, younger clergy and Christian friends outside the denomination.  Instead, in most U.S. annual conferences, so-called “just resolutions” will be worked out with clergy who disobey the strictures of the church.
Prediction #7:  There will be ever more organized efforts to hold the denomination together, with the hope of keeping as many at the table as possible.  One such group is the United Methodist Centrist Movement that is growing in strength especially in the North Central Jurisdiction (see: UMCM).  They speak clearly of the need to welcome a broader range of voices, against church trials and for support of local congregations.
Predication #8:  The old and sadly familiar pattern of scapegoating the Western Jurisdiction as a place of rebellion will increase in many quarters.  However, there will be growing appreciation of the way the Western Jurisdiction has remained steadfast in its witness to an alternative vision for the church.  One compelling and insightful voice from the West is the Rev. Jeremy Smith.  His recent reflections on the role of the Western Jurisdiction are, to my mind, prescient (see: Jeremy Smith’s Hacking Christianity)
Prediction #9: The cost of doing general church business for boards, agencies, council of bishops (travel, staff, meetings, programming) will become ever more burdensome, even overwhelming.  Attempts to do institutional work out of the same ‘global church’ paradigm as in the past, will cause the 2020 General Conference to make dramatic cuts in budget, program design and staffing.
Prediction #10:  Slowly, over the next decade, the United Methodist church in the U.S., at least the church that remains (there will no doubt be some splintering) will focus more on relationship and less on programs, more on conversation and less on spectacle, less on top down decision-making and more in the building of communities of support, and more on finding a third way forward.
Yes, these predictions do project an omnishambled future for United Methodism; still they are in the end hopeful.  The move to a place where relationships are valued over program and conversations over spectacle will require new leaders — like those I pray will be elected bishops this next week.  Conferences of the future will be less about performers on stage and more about those who gather around tables to share, listen and learn. 
We have reached the limits of the strategies by those who would seek to impose corporate systems and lockstep programs for growth on the church and her clergy.  There has been too much “talking down to” and too little listening to the genuine articles, the clergy and laity who carry out ministry in local settings. We will discover the value of what some social scientists call “positive deviance.”  It will require a looking for and listening for different perspectives on the church and ministry.
At one recent annual conference as hundreds of the clergy gathered for what is called the “clergy session,” there came a need for conversation among those gathered.  (Such conversation is, by the way, the basic idea behind a “conference.”  It is, in United Methodist-speak, “watching over one another in love.”)  However, as it became painfully clear, in this session clergy couldn’t converse — there were no microphones available in large hall of the convention center.  Clergy colleagues wishing to raise a question or make a suggestion couldn’t hear one another.  The bishop seemed surprised that there would be a question or a conversation needed.  He simply said, “We didn’t anticipate this.”
We shall see which of these ten predictions come true — I would bet on most of them — but I am especially clear that conversation, genuine and respectful conversation, will make a return in the next decade if there is any hope for renewal.