Dear Friends of the South Georgia Conference,
Earlier this week, I wrote an article reminding you about our process and timeline around disaffiliation and departures. The decisions and policies our Conference leadership and Trustees have made are meant to help those who wish to wait and see what happens at General Conference 2024. If you have not reviewed that information, please do so here. In that spirit, I would like to elaborate on some personal reflections about why churches in the South Georgia Conference should, in fact, wait until 2024 before making any final decisions.
Over the last several months, I have heard it said time and time again that a local United Methodist Church needs to disaffiliate from The United Methodist denomination because it is a good business deal. In fact, someone recently shared a social media post written by a person who said their local UM church decision was purely business and that because of the property value it made good business sense and would provide control and autonomy. In the post, the person went on to say that they did not know about the trust clause. They got one thing correct, this business dealing is about power, money, and control. These comments are not Methodist. Methodism is about a movement inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Regarding the trust clause, our founder John Wesley instituted the trust clause in the mid-18th century when he secured property for meeting spaces and ministry sites for Methodist Societies. Wesley had several lawyers work on the trust clause, and it has been an important part of our polity helping to preserve our historic faith since our beginning 238 years ago. We are not a congregational church and have never been. The trust clause reminds us that we are a connectional church. As United Methodists, we ask first what is best for the whole, not what is best for me and my local church. As Christians and as Methodists, we are in the faith business; we are not in the business of making deals.
If this is a business deal for you, then I ask you to please do some soul searching and reflect on your motivations. I have taken a lot of criticism for allowing previous churches in the South Georgia Conference to disaffiliate under paragraph 2553 in The Book of Discipline. Paragraph 2553 is about human sexuality, and many are trying to use it to say it is about liberal theology, abortion, or the erroneous notion that Bishops want to change the Bible, and the list goes on. Now, people want to misuse paragraph 2553 for their own business deal.
There has been traditional and liberal theology since the beginning of time. No one is rewriting the Bible. People will interpret the Bible in their own way and have since it came into written form.
On the issue of abortion, we have a wonderful statement on abortion in our Book of Discipline. Our social principles have spoken to the issue of abortion since 1972 and in the General Conferences that followed. Our stance has only become more focused on making decisions that value life.
Only the General Conference of The United Methodist Church can change the Book of Discipline or speak for The United Methodist Church. Many will give their opinions and that is simply it: their opinion. With any divisive topic there are leaders, including a few bishops in The United Methodist Church, that have expressed opinions or actions with which I disagree or find hurtful to the body of the Church. To be honest, there have been things I have said and actions I have done that have been hurtful to others as well. Bishops do not all think alike, any more than clergy or members of a local church think alike. We are connected to people who think differently than we do, which strengthens us more rather than hurts us.
Are we going to throw away the very connection - the South Georgia Annual Conference - that has given every clergy and laity in the annual conference the opportunities you enjoy today? You may have heard me say that I have remained a United Methodist bishop to be a part of the solution. The Gospel message of Jesus calls us to be in the middle of all people’s lives and not those who are just like us.
People use this business deal mindset to place fear mongering into the system. The church and our institutions have been filled with so much fear around financial sustainability and vitality. Those encouraging disaffiliation emphasize that the clock is ticking regarding the use of paragraph 2553 for disaffiliation, which sunsets on December 31, 2023. This December 31, 2023, date reminds me of the panic around Y2K. Will the computers handle the roll over from the 1990’s to 2000? Some predicted that our world would be spun into turmoil. Some even prepared for and used words like Armageddon. I see some similarities in the Y2K panic and The United Methodist Church. We are people of faith, not fear!
Several churches have faithfully discerned that disaffiliation is what God was leading them to do. For their faithful discernment, I give thanks. However, if this is primarily a business deal for you, you need to prayerfully discern how you can continue to push your church towards disaffiliation in good conscience. How can any church request to disaffiliate under the disguise of these actions? I have said since the day that I began my assignment in the Alabama-West Florida Conference and now the South Georgia Conference that I will follow the leading of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, and the Book of Discipline as I faithfully serve these areas.
What has disheartened me in recent weeks is that I asked this annual conference to not have disaffiliation discussions from November 20th through the rest of 2022. I asked everyone to focus on Advent and sharing the Good News of the Christ Child. This was an ask, not a mandate. Our world, our communities, and, frankly, all of us need good news and, simply put, we need a word of hope. Many of you did just that, and I thank you for your efforts in sharing Jesus. Yet others held disaffiliation meetings in groups or in the church; others had official leadership board meetings or congregational meetings; and some congregations circulated petitions or made phone calls urging people to support a particular position. Just think what might have happened if those efforts were focused on sharing Jesus. As I had one church member tell me recently, “The only contact that I have gotten from my church in years was a phone call asking would I sign a petition about disaffiliation.” What if people had instead made phone calls to invite people to Advent and Christmas services? As my former Bishop, Bishop Ray Chamberlain, said to me one time, “David, as much as your heart hurts over this, you can’t even imagine how the heart of God hurts.” That was 25 years ago, but I have been reminded of this time and time again as I have encountered hurtful times in my life and ministry.
I have repeatedly asked all our churches to wait until after the 2024 General Conference, which will take place April 23-May 3, 2024, to discern next steps for their local church. After General Conference, we will have more accurate information so that our Annual Conference and our local churches can make strategic, Holy Spirit-led decisions and not business deals.
I know that I open myself to criticism with this article. I have been given many labels as a bishop and some have even questioned my salvation. I am not alone in what I endure on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this just helps me empathize with so many of our United Methodist clergy and laity who have experienced overwhelming verbal and emotional abuse. That should not happen in our churches. Jesus was characterized as a radical, and church people back in the day cut a business deal with the Roman Government to put Jesus to death. Over my 40 years of ministry, I have seen a lot of church business deals. It pains me to even think about many of them.
For me, I am going to keep preaching Jesus and hope you will join me in our 2023 year of prayer. At our upcoming June 2023 Annual Conference, this scripture will guide our time together:
“And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus. After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.” -Acts 4:29-31
When was the last time you prayed for boldness?
Bishop David Graves
This is the second of four articles that Bishop Graves will be sharing over the next few weeks.