My non-United Methodist readers might want to drop out now, but for my UM colleagues, here are a few questions I would ask before joining a break-away denomination. I’m thinking primarily of the Wesley Covenant Association but this could also apply to the Liberation Methodist Connexion.
1. How many churches will actually make the move?
The answer is “No one knows”. The WCA is projecting about 3,000-5,000 congregations out of 30,000 in the USA. They estimate that 95% will have less than 500 members.
Likewise, in Michigan no one knows for sure. The WCA website identifies 29 “WCA-friendly” churches in the state and based on informal conversations, I’d guess about 100+ out of 830 UM churches might choose to join. For the most part, they are typical UM churches with 250 members or less. If anyone has better numbers I would welcome them, but if these guesses are at all representative of the nation it makes for a fairly small denomination of medium and small membership churches with some large churches mostly in Texas and the south.
2. So the question for clergy is, “What are my opportunities for ministry?”
If I was early in my career, I’d be wondering where I might be able to serve. Since the WCA plans to do away with guaranteed appointment, will I be able to find settings for a life-long ministry? Will I have to search across the country, rather than in a geographical conference? With a weakened role for Bishops in appointment-making, women and ethnic minority clergy need to wonder about their futures in a theologically conservative, predominately white denomination.
3. And for local churches, “Will there be clergy to serve our congregation?”
UM congregations have always depended on the appointment system for trained, conference-approved pastoral leadership. Without the guarantee of appointment for clergy, there can be no guarantee of pastors for congregations. Will small rural circuits and churches in under-served communities be able to attract pastors without the power of episcopal appointment to make sure they are served? When an opening exists, the WCA proposes that a congregation will interview four candidates, one of which must be ethnic minority. Where will those candidates come from?
3. Which leads to a larger question, “What will an Annual Conference look like?“
If there are only 100 churches in Michigan, perhaps the conference will be all of the Midwestern states. What about Bishops, conference staff, medical/health coverage, mission outreach, equitable salary support, clergy training and supervision, camping programs–all the things we have come to expect from an annual conference? Or will the conference be little more than a loose collection of local churches scattered across a large geographic area? For clergy, what will conference membership actually mean?
4. The WCA envisions broader evangelism, growing existing churches and planting new ones.
But in Michigan, many of our churches have been declining or plateauing for years despite intensive programs for congregational renewal. Will being part of a smaller denomination change these local realities? Who will do the hard work of planting new churches?
4. And then of course, “Who will pay for it?“
The WCA promises lower apportionments but even modest denominational leadership cost money. Currently the weight of general church and annual conference budgets falls disproportionately on large membership churches, one of which contributes significantly more dollars than the combined support from many small churches. Who will pay for operating a new denomination, planting new churches, reaching young adults, serving the poor and supporting ethnic minority ministries, all of which the WCA envisions for its future?
5. The even larger question is, “What about Africa and the rest of the world?“
The WCA is committed to a broad global vision, but global ministry is expensive. The UM Churches in the USA invest millions of dollars every year in support of the Central Conferences, paying up to 90% of their expenses. In a smaller denomination with lower local church apportionments, where will those mission dollars come from?
6. And at a personal level, how will it feel to be part of a “like-minded, traditional, orthodox” denomination?
UM clergy and congregations, whether conservative, liberal or somewhere in-between, enjoy a freedom that comes with a broadly inclusive church. Though I may agree with the WCA on some positions, do I want to join a denomination which requires a commitment to “traditional, orthodox doctrine and discipline”? Even if I am conservative, will I really be at home in a denomination where everyone is supposed to be “like-minded”?
Until now, it has been relatively easy to view this matter primarily in terms of the political or theological issues like homosexuality. However, at some point, the tough, practical questions come to bear. I assume the WCA Transitional Leadership Team (which remains incognito) will address these questions and perhaps some of my friends who are part of the WCA or the Liberation Methodist Connexion can offer a response. I’d welcome that.
…But if I was thinking of joining a new Methodist denomination, these are some of the questions I would ask.