Prayers on the Eve of the End of the UMC

General Conference begins tomorrow. United Methodists from around the world will convene their much anticipated and multiply delayed legislative assembly, postponed since 2020. This gathering will not be business as usual. The end is near for The United Methodist Church, at least as we have known it.  

I offer these prayers on the eve of the end of the UMC. Don’t misunderstand me: I do not pray for the demise of this church. My prayers are rooted in observation rather than preference. The end of the UMC we have known is merely the occasion—not the substance—of my petitions. Here, I offer observations and prayers.

General Conference is broken. This voting body that normally meets every four years has failed repeatedly to address the underlying issues of division in the UMC. The legislative process has not helped this church change and grow. Opinions have masqueraded as doctrine; majority vote has supplanted discernment; power has prevailed. Furthermore, the delegations gathering tomorrow will be incomplete. Over 100 delegates are anticipated absent due to difficulties with visas and international travel. So, I pray for wholeness in the midst of brokenness, new growth on old branches, and humility and compassion among our delegates.

The presenting issue is homosexuality. In 1988, GC commissioned a study of homosexuality and the church. Years of research, interviews, deliberations, and prayer went into this study, which was prepared for the 1992 assembly. However, conservative caucuses declared an end to debate before GC ever convened, refusing to consider the study’s findings. How can productive deliberation occur when a majority refuses to discuss? The issue is not really homosexuality, then, is it? So, I pray for an openness to hear each other and a willingness to discern—again and anew.

Queer clergy and their allies have been caucusing for over thirty years as the UMC has stood deadlocked. In 1996, delegates clashed again, this time in Denver. In 2000, nearly 200 protesters were arrested at GC in Cleveland. In 2004, proposals for regionalization were firmly rejected, and a broken chalice symbolized this broken church at GC in Pittsburgh. In 2008, demonstrators in Fort Worth again witnessed against the UMC’s unchanging discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ persons. In 2012, discussion of anything having to do with sexuality ceased at GC after delays and protests in Tampa. In 2016, the legislative assembly ground to a halt in Portland, begging the Council of Bishops to intervene. The resulting “special session” that met in St. Louis in 2019 proved more divisive than any that came before, enacting a Traditionalist Plan full of strictures and penalties for LGBTQ persons and their allies. This is also the GC that catalyzed and enabled nearly 25% of US congregations to disaffiliate. So, I pray for queer clergy, their allies, and the church that has abused and betrayed them for decades.

This week in Charlotte, historical awareness will separate the change agents from those merely swept up in the moment. The UMC is being transformed into something new, and that change requires relinquishing what is old. Active participants in this transformation must be able to distinguish new from old—a task requiring knowledge of our tradition and history. General Conference, as a whole, has a lousy track record of such cognition. So, I pray for the wisdom of history for all general conference delegates.

We are on the eve of the end of the UMC. The birth pangs of a new church are beginning. The old is passing away. Whether accompanied by a bang or a whimper, this church will not be the same UMC is was before. United Methodists, prepare yourselves for a birth or a funeral—or both—but don’t fool yourselves into believing that the UMC will continue on as it has been. So, I pray for this new church.

For a deep historical dive, see my new book Reckoning Methodism: Mission and Division in the Public Church.

Epilogue: For an in-depth report on what happened at General Conference in Charlottte, NC, see “Methodists split and now made BIG changes this week (The Whole Story),” Ready to Harvest, May 4, 2024.

Reckoning Methodism

Now available in paperback! Reckoning Methodism: Mission and Division in the Public Church is a timely appraisal of White church and society in the United States. This book seeks historical clarity, collective repentance, charismatic learning, and institutional courage as United Methodists reckon with inherited animosities, divisions, and racism. Reckoning Methodism is available at Amazon, B&N, and Cascade Books (March 2024).

If you would like to write a review of the book for your conference newsletter or other publication, request a free review copy here.

This work is essential reading for those who care for the church.” —Kevin Carnahan
A prophetic call . . . Reckoning Methodism is a must-read.“—Hendrik R. Pieterse
the ‘reckoning’ is applicable to the broader society“—Kenneth L. Carder

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