By Walter B. Fenton
Transitions inherently involve some degree of confusion. A sense of certainty is lost and where one will end up is not entirely clear. Still, we often plunge into transitions because we know we can no longer stay where we are; we need to move. We accept, for at least a season, that things are going to be a bit confusing as we navigate to a new place, and so we do whatever we can to minimize the confusion, and pray the transition goes as smoothly as possible.
For over two years the Global Methodist Church’s Transitional Leadership Council (TLC) has worked diligently to help theologically conservative United Methodists make a transition they know they must make. For decades, they remained faithful to the UM Church’s core theological and ethical convictions, and to the work of its General Conferences, the time-honored way Methodists have come to discern God’s will for the Church. Unfortunately, hard experience revealed some bishops and clergy did not share their convictions, and even flouted the will of the General Conference. Trust was lost, confusion was sown, and so, after many years, it became apparent to nearly everyone in the UM Church that transitions were necessary all around.
For its part, the TLC has avoided opining on the future of the UM Church. Its references to it are generally confined to clarifying for theological conservatives how to move from the UM Church to the Global Methodist Church. So the TLC finds it regrettable that some UM bishops are sowing confusion by opining on matters without being fully informed about the Global Methodist Church, and in some instances, proving they are poorly informed about the UM Church.
For instance, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, past president of UM Church’s Council of Bishops, recently said, “If a clergy person joins the GMC, they will have to surrender their conference membership and their orders in the UMC. You cannot hold membership or be ordained in more than one denomination.”
This is only partly true. To be sure, UM Church pastors cannot be clergy members in two denominations at the same time (we’re not aware of any clergy who want to be). However, UM clergy wanting to transfer from the UM Church to the Global Methodist Church do not have to surrender their “orders” (i.e., ordination or ministerial credentials that clergy often frame and place on an office wall). These clergy continue in the ordained ministerial office, just in another denomination. Since they are not withdrawing from ordained ministry, they are entitled to keep their “orders” to demonstrate their credentials to another denomination.
Unwittingly, Bishop Harvey has created confusion for UM pastors wanting to join the Global Methodist Church. Its representatives have received numerous inquiries from pastors regarding this matter. They report that based on Bishop Harvey’s misinformation, their bishops too have informed them that if they want to transfer to the Global Methodist Church, they must surrender their ministerial orders.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, the TLC’s Chairman, has clearly stated, “Transferring clergy need not and should not ‘surrender . . . their orders’ to their UM annual conference. They are entitled to keep them and should keep them. There is very helpful information on the Global Methodist Church’s website that clarifies for clergy the precise steps necessary to make the transfer, that specifically cites the relevant section of the UM Discipline for doing so, and even provides language clergy can use to make their transfer request [see Frequently Asked Questions, question four and follow the helpful links in the answer.”
UM Bishops have also created confusion laced with a not so subtle threat. At their most recent Council of Bishops meeting, the bishops passed a motion that “urged the Wesleyan Covenant Association leaders to clarify their intent to remain in the UMC or depart for the GMC.” Again, Global Methodist Church representatives have received reports from clergy serving as WCA leaders or TLC members, stating that their district superintendents or their bishops have pressed them on this matter, even intimating that if they continue to serve as leaders in the WCA or on the TLC, they are essentially members of the Global Methodist Church, and therefore must transfer or withdraw from the UM Church.
“There is nothing in the UM Discipline requiring UM clergy in good standing to ‘clarify their intent to remain in the UMC,’” said Boyette. “And they remain clergy in good standing whether they are WCA leaders or not. Clergy who are WCA leaders, and for that matter any clergy considering transferring to another denomination or withdrawing from ordained ministry, are not required to routinely declare their intent to remain in the UM Church. These are personal-professional decisions regarding one’s call and one’s vocation, and UM clergy are free to take as much time as they want to make that decision.”
The current and past presidents of the UM Council of Bishops were all members of the mediation team that produced the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, a plan calling for the separation of the UM Church. These UM bishops were joined by others, who also publicly declared an amicable and orderly separation was the best way forward for the UM Church. While the third postponement of the denomination’s General Conference means the Protocol cannot be passed this year, there is nothing keeping UM bishops from acting in accordance with its spirit, especially when dealing with faithful UM clergy considering an important transition and looking for as much clarity and grace as possible. We call upon leaders in the UM Church to exhibit that spirit in this season.
Learn more about the Global Methodist Church by exploring its website