Several years ago, I wrote a note to a colleague whose church had just left our denomination. We had worked together early in my ministry when we were both serving churches in Central Arkansas. He was a good preacher and a great pastor. I sincerely wished him the best and told him I would miss seeing him at Annual Conference. He unexpectedly wrote back. He had taken on a church that had been through much trauma and through his ministry, he stabilized it. It had been a new church start but our Conference, in my opinion, had not provided the oversight it should have in allowing a formerly defrocked pastor to repeat his behaviors in another church. Accountability is a big thing in Methodism and we had failed them. I have no doubt that this pastor had carefully walked his congregation through the process of disaffiliation. When the congregation eventually voted to leave, the vote was over 90%. If you check its website, you will see that Grace Community Church in Fort Smith is thriving. This was the gracious way to leave.
And then there was First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro. Let me admit up front, I have my own issues with the pastoral leadership at that church. I served a church in Jonesboro and saw clearly that some things were not done in a transparent way. I do not know if that reflected the leadership of the church or just the senior pastor. In the United Methodist Church, we have a Book of Discipline. It tells us that we are in a covenant relationship with our fellow clergy and we should not participate in any activity that undermines the ministry of another pastor. I violated that a couple of times in going back for a funeral early in my ministry but I finally learned about boundaries and have done my best to keep those boundaries.
Last night FUMC Jonesboro had a vote to disaffiliate. There were 1,363 members present and it required a two-thirds vote to disaffiliate which meant they needed 909 votes to leave the United Methodist Church. They received 944. I do not call that a victory; I call it a tragedy. This is a church, not a basketball game. Since when is it healthy for one-third of the congregation to lose the church they have supported for a lifetime. Since when is it okay for a pastor to be so one-sided that he/she becomes the pastor for part of the congregation but not pastor for all?
Unfortunately, this battle has been played out in the public with propaganda and falsehoods being posted on Social Media without any accountability. Why not practice what we preach? Why not have people come to the table together and see what can be done to move forward in a healthy fashion even if it is moving forward with two congregations? Why does the winner take all? Where is that in the gospel?
My prayer is that we start doing this right. Stick the pastor in the corner if they cannot play fair and allow the leadership of the church to meet together regularly for fellowship, prayer, and discernment. The Spirit is still at work and we do not have to run around manipulating things to get our way. Denying the Spirit means we are not having faith, we are playing politics. We can do better. For the sake of the gospel, we must do better.