The United Methodist Church: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

On our podcast, Pod Have Mercy, we’ve talked about the UMC with a variety of folk – Ted Campbell is most recent. But we’ve also shared time with Bishops Scott Jones (Texas) and David Graves (Alabama West Florida and South Georgia) and others. I’ve linked to our most recent with Professor Ted Campbell, Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Perkins School of Theology. His understanding of Methodist connectionalism as a part of our theological formation is fascinating.

There are a lot of meetings going on in The United Methodist Church in the USA. Unfortunately, many of these meetings are one sided – depending on what area or region you are in. One of the biggest topics of discussion at conference and district meetings is: What does the future for the United Methodist Church look like? What will stay the same? What will change? As I’ve listened to the answers, there is a lot of misinformation coming from both sides of the aisle.

There are a few things we know absolutely and some things we don’t know yet.

WHAT WE DO KNOW

  • Our Articles of Religion and our Doctrinal Standards that have been in place since Methodism began will remain unchanged and in place in The United Methodist Church. The UMC cannot revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine. We also cannot change our Confession of Faith. We cannot change the General Rules of our Societies. These are all available in the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, along with our Doctrinal History and Standards, in paragraphs 102-105. If anyone infers that these aspects of our church will change, they are incorrect. And, if you look at the new Global Methodist Church’s Book of Doctrines and Disciplines, you will see the exact same doctrinal standards, articles of religion, confession, and general rules. They are the same in both churches.
  • The United Methodist Church will have plenty of space for people with traditional beliefs on human sexuality. The conversation of whether someone leaves The United Methodist Church or stays has been presented as a binary choice – a false dilemma – and that is unfortunate because it is not a binary choice. As Bishop John Yambasu wrote me before he died, there will be traditionalists, centrists, and progressives in The United Methodist Church (he also added that Africa will remain UMC, but that is the next point). I know many traditionalists who will remain in the UMC. The vast majority of lay and clergy people that I am friends with and been in ministry with for 30 years in the Southeast and South Central US are traditional in their understanding of human sexuality and they are remaining in the UMC. I am traditional as is Bishop David Graves, Prof. Ted Campbell, and many others. In an October 2021 meeting of large churches and young clergy, 750 people were present from across the US. They stated that 53% of the churches represented were traditional and would remain in The United Methodist Church. The breakdown of clergy was close to 50/50 split as well and are remaining UMC.
  • The United Methodist Church in Africa will remain United Methodist. They have already publicly stated this fact. They are traditional in their views on human sexuality and will not change their views. Their conferences can actually vote to leave now if they choose (even if American conferences cannot), but they have stated that they are not leaving the UMC.
  • There will be contextual space for differences on human sexuality in the UMC in the USA and in other places around the world, but our doctrines, articles of religion, and other doctrinal standards will not change.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

  • We don’t know how long it will be before the UMC removes restrictive language around marriage and ordination in the Book of Discipline. It is very possible that it does not change in 2024. It is important to remember that the UMC position on human sexuality has not changed and cannot change until General Conference decides something else.
  • We don’t know how the future of the UMC will be organized globally. I believe our Central Conferences – in Africa, Philippines, and Europe – will lead the way in what the new global UMC looks like and how we are organized as a connection.
  • We don’t know how the number of conferences and the number of bishops will change in the US. There will be realignment and restructuring that will need to take place, but in my opinion, this is not a bad thing at all.
  • We don’t know how many churches will leave the UMC and join the Global Methodist Church or the Free Methodist Church. A lot of people say with certainty what percentage of UMC churches will leave. I have no idea and neither does anyone else.
  • The last thing I will say is that we don’t know the depth and nuance that exists in each local church around the issues of human sexuality, but especially around the idea of leaving the UMC vs. joining the Global Methodist or Free Methodist Churches. Just because the pastor may have a strong viewpoint, or a handful of leaders, I would encourage each and every church to engage in some pretty deep listening and discernment before any decisions are made. This will keep as much of the local church together as possible.

    I’m sure there are many other things we know and don’t know and I’m glad to add to the list. For now, I leave you with some wise words from my Bishop Scott Jones. He is convinced that churches in the Conference can move forward with grace and mutual respect. He quoted John Wesley: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.