Schism in the United Methodist Church

Reflections on and critique of Lyle Schaller’s article in the September/October 1998 issue of The Circuit Rider “Is Schism the Next Step?”  (My basic reaction written in 1998; revised in 2015)

Lyle Schaller asserts, rather forcefully, that the highly centralized polity of this denomination is built on a high level of distrust of local leadership. After reading his article, I respectfully disagree.

The polity of this denomination is built on several things: episcopal system of leadership; the Annual Conference as a central decision making unit; and the local church as an integral part of the Annual Conference.

While there is distrust in many locations, based on personalities and such, I think it is unfair and inaccurate to assert that the system is “built” on that distrust.

As to whether or not schism is in our future, we certainly see schism in our past over a variety of issues:  Pew Rent (Free Methodist Church); Ministry to the Poor (The Salvation Army); Theological Issues (Wesleyan Methodist and The Church of the Nazarene); Slavery (too many to mention, but one is the African Methodist Episcopal Church).

Nothing we are facing now is as important as the slavery issue was. Unless you were there, I doubt if many would be exercised over the issue of pew rent.

Christianity has often been polarized about issues. The very first battle was over the issue of Gentiles: should they become Jews before becoming Christians. That was settled and the church stayed together.

The issues that Schaller identifies are issues upon which sincere Christians have different opinions, but are they enough to justify schism or division? We might as well divide over whether or not the carpet in the sanctuary has tints of red or green, another subject about which people in my local churches had differences of opinion at one time or another.

People argue about the location of announcements in worship: beginning, middle, end or NOT AT ALL. To follow Schaller’s thinking to the ridiculous, we could have the Methodists who believe in announcements and those who don’t. “The Unannounced Methodists” and the “Announced Methodists” and the “Overannounced Methodists.”  (Smile)

Schaller identified the following areas of conflict: Christology, Music, Polity, Biblical interpretation, Apportionments, Multiculturalism, The source of authority, Worship, Evangelism, Ministerial placement, Conference priorities, Theological education and Homosexuality.

The United Methodist Church is not necessarily less attractive today. There are just more options from which one can easily choose, including non-participation. Churches designed to appeal to the various “generations” have been identified in recent years and some are thriving.

Schaller makes little to no mention of the reality that people leave for reasons other than polarization. As I examine the situation in churches I have served, most people leave for other reasons. The reasons vary so much as to require a long list, which might be exhausting, but not exhaustive.

Lyle E. Schaller listed six responses: denial, operational, seeking “common ground”; encourage unhappy people to leave; schism and changing the agenda to focus on evangelism and mission.

His analysis of what is happening in the Southern Baptist Convention over looks the blatant power politics that have effectively suppressed any meaningful dissent.

While there are local churches (we know of two: one United Methodists and one Southern Baptist) that have succeeded in obtaining a big enough majority to leave the denomination and while there are churches under the control of one strong personality or family or clan which would allow withdrawal to succeed, it would be my experience that the majority are not interested in playing that game.

Going back to my original motivation for writing this critique, Mr. Schaller appears to have a strong bias against several things: pluralism, our polity and a premise which I do not accept and he provides no evidence for in this article: “that there is a strong distrust of local (church) leadership”. In my experience, after attending more than 40 local church conferences, even in a church that tried to become Baptist, District Superintendents are very affirming of local church leadership. Consultation was and is alive and well in our system.

Whatever happens, perhaps Lyle E. Schaller, with tongue firmly in cheek, is doing what he does best – trying to stimulate some thinking. If so, I hope it goes in a different direction than he is proposing. It did get him some free press.

Perhaps I need to dust off my own proposal, which The Circuit Rider refused to publish a few years ago. My proposal was to dissolve the United Methodist Church completely, allowing our membership to transfer to other denominations. If done intentionally, we could take over the leadership of several denominations within one year, with the exception of The Southern Baptist Convention. Whether liberal or conservative, we could tip the balance of power in several different denominations, which are also committed to pluralism in one form or another.

Those United Methodists who believe in predestination could become Presbyterians and take over several Presbyterian denominations.

Those United Methodists who believe in speaking in tongues could take over several Pentecostal groups.

Those “high church” United Methodists who appreciate liturgy would have no trouble in taking over the Episcopal Church.

However those who affirm ‘believer Baptism’ would not be strong enough to take over the Southern Baptist Church, but Southern Baptists are so convinced of the truth of their positions that some United Methodists would be quite happy under their roof.

Those United Methodists who believe in service to the poor, while few in number, could take over The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army is interest in being a church and they would welcome the fresh recruits for their army.

I know I am leaving out some sub-groups, but before I distribute these ideas very widely, I could dust off my more complete proposal.  (Actually, I don’t know where those are right now.)  written October 9, 1998

(Postscript:  While it is impossible to apologize to Dr. Schaller, he may have been more correct than I thought 17 years ago. When I retired, my wife and I visited 45 different churches. We stayed in the same community where I had been the pastor for eight years and the cabinet asked me to worship elsewhere for one year. We complied with that request. Upon more than one occasion my wife and I commented on the good quality of our experiences, especially in the area of preaching. Some conference leaders communicated disbelief in this possibility. That would be a sign of distrust of clergy leadership.)

In spite of the small minority still pushing for schism, I continue to believe it is a very, very bad idea.