Lay Ministry Blog: A Season of Change

September 14, 2017

As I write this blog, the southern United States have just experienced two terrible hurricanes – Harvey and Irma. Floods in Texas and destruction in Florida and other parts of the Southeast have sent the country reeling. Devastation cannot be avoided when these kinds of storms hit. All we can do is pray that we remain as safe and plan to rebuild in the future.

As your Conference Lay Leader and also head of the North Alabama Delegation to General Conference in 2016 and the called General Conference in 2019, I wish to make a few observations that will be general in nature and, I hope, will apply to everyone and the future of the church. Normally, I stay away from issues that tend to divide us and leave statements of theology to the clergy and bishops of our denomination. This time I feel compelled to make a couple of statements and observations around our differences.

First of all, I wish to commend our Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett for her leadership for the past five years and how she has handled disruptions in her ministry and leadership as North Alabama’s bishop. She has weathered many storms with dignity and with a personal ability to calm the waters. She keeps the large picture of the Great Commission in focus instead of the differences we sometimes migrate to as local church clergy and laity. I also wish to remind everyone, she is so well thought of as a leader in our denomination, she was chosen from and by the Council of Bishops to be on the Commission on a Way Forward. Six persons from the Southeastern Jurisdiction are on this Commission.

Presently, Bishop Wallace-Padgett is in the process of visiting each district in our Conference for what she has called “Days in the Districts.” As a part of this time, she is having conversations around human sexuality issues with clergy and laity in order to gather thoughts from the people of North Alabama. She will share all this input with the Commission on a Way Forward.

Thanks Bishop for your leadership for the North Alabama Conference and for God!

Before I go further let me say, I personally believe our church will survive and go on as it has for 275 years since the days of our founder John Wesley and Brother Charles. It just may look different after all the storms. I also sometimes wonder if those who believe the Methodist movement will go away really understand God is in charge and not us humans.

By now, many in the United Methodist Church have made their mind up on where they stand regarding the issues that divide our church. If this is the case, and if there is no change or if there is change, some will leave our denomination and a core of Methodists will need to start over together. In my opinion, whatever happens, the church will go on with Wesleyan Methodism as its roots.

What actually could happen?

In my opinion there are numerous outcomes for the United Methodist Church after the storms are over. For example:

  • The Way Forward proposal (whatever it is), given to the Council of Bishops and then given to the called General Conference in 2019 could be defeated at the called General Conference session. If this happens some progressives will leave the church. Also, some traditionalist may leave as well because they are tired of the struggle between differences in theology. If this happens bishops, clergy, laity, churches and maybe even Jurisdictions will have to return to abiding by laws of the Book of Discipline (which is church law) or make a decision to leave the UMC.
  • Or if the Way Forward proposal is passed by the called General Conference in 2019 and it is a progressive proposal, then changes would develop to a more progressive Book of Discipline. Some clergy and laity, and even congregations, would leave the denomination.
  • Regardless of how the Way Forward proposal develops, there are groups planning for the 2020 General Conference, preparing legislation and new plans for a global church, with possible multiple Book of Disciplines, or completely rewriting our current Book of Discipline. Many United Methodists don’t realize we are already a global church with different interpretations of the Discipline now, which make them somewhat different.
  • Also, it is possible that if the proposal presented to General Conference from the Council of Bishops passes in 2019, the avenues of division in the denomination could evolve with individuals choosing which division they wish to be a part of. Or we could still be at a stalemate as we have been for a while.
  • Could there be divisions of theology – progressive and traditional – in the same local church? My answer is probably no.
  • Could there be different theologies under the same General Church of the United Methodist Church? I do think this could happen and thus provide a way to go forward as one denomination.
  • Another observation I have made is many in our local churches don’t care about our differences and take an attitude of “just let my local church exist as it has all my life.” These groups of persons perhaps are the same people who don’t ever vote in any public elections. My guess is they probably don’t wish to look beyond where they are and to stay out of church politics. They just want to be left alone and may not understand Wesleyan theology. Many of their congregations are declining in attendance and have had few, if any, professions of faith recently.

Yes, there are many other outcomes that can take place. By now many of you who are reading this blog may ask where do you stand Steve?

I believe I was elected Conference Lay Leader to stand with the Bible on issues and the Book of Discipline as church law. Also, I believe that the majority rules and yet the minority must be heard on issues. I feel I was also elected as a Delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conferences for the same reasons.

I believe what the Bible says, somewhat literally. This is the way I interpret it and the way I was taught to interpret it, which is conservative in nature. At one time, I held the attitude, change would be wrong in the church. Now, I have changed, but not in my core beliefs of being conservative and having a conservative attitude. I still believe marriage should be between a man and a woman only, but I have come to the middle in finding a way to get along with those who have different views of the theology involving human sexuality. I now believe we all must make a compromise or the church will take a hit that might be non-recoverable. The strife that is so prevalent in our church from persons on all sides of the issues seems to stay focused on the same differences all the time. This needs to stop with some kind of compromise.

So here is where I have changed in my thinking in the past few years.

I believe, that under one large tent – the General United Methodist Church, with its five Jurisdictions of this country and the rest of the world – we could have divisions that represent differences in theology. If so, we could start living in harmony again. Call the divisions whatever you wish. You and I can chose to live in the division we wish to live. As I stated before, I am not sure the divisions could exist in the same local church, but could exist other places in Methodism. A local church would be either conservative or progressive in theology and some may be both. You choose the local church of which you wish to be a part. When you have churches that are split on this issue, then let them vote to be progressive or traditional (conservative).

I wish everyone in Methodism could take a vow to love each other and refrain from trying to change each other. I wish and pray that we all would not try to change minds but would love each other through our differences and differences in theology.

If there is the compromise from the Commission on a Way Forward, Council of Bishops and called General Conference, then we will have a better chance of survival as a denomination. Thus, leaving a church intact that believes in tried and tested Wesleyan Theology and preserving the church for future generations.

The United Methodist Church seems to constantly stay in the way of storms that threaten the fiber of Wesleyan Methodism. All storms have a beginning and an end. So it will be with the storms that tend to threaten our church today. As in all weather storms the landscape is never the same as it was before the storm. This is true with the church. Once the church gets by the impasse we find ourselves in now around differences of philosophy concerning human sexuality, the landscape of the church will look different.

As I have mentioned, and overriding how I stand in theology, some other things must also change if we are to survive as a denomination. By this I mean our loss of membership and worship attendance and a lack of professions of faith in our local churches.

Either way, the human sexuality impasse and many other issues will be resolved naturally in upcoming years, as the Baby Boomer leadership leaves the stage and the Millennial leadership starts leading the church. They will soon be making the Disciplinary laws that guides us. Therefore the Book of Discipline and church law will change.

I love the North Alabama Conference and the United Methodist Church and hope we can return to harmony as fellow Christians focusing on the Great Commission and away from the strife. I’m not sure we can get to a compromise as a single church, but it’s worth a try for the generations of Christians to follow.

So why not compromise now when there is “A Season of Change” we can control? Why wait several years to make a new church that’s just a little different?

Any comment will be welcome on this blog. As you can tell, I have my mind made up and I know you do, too. I’m not here to try to change you.

Thanks for reading this blog, and thanks for letting me serve as your Conference Lay Leader. We have great United Methodist clergy and lay persons in the North Alabama Conference.

Steve Lyles
Conference Lay Leader

Discover, Develop and Deploy Spiritual Leaders to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.