• Maria Dixon Hall

The Fuzzy Side of the Methodist Lollipop

Updated: Jan 5, 2020

You know you are living in a strange time when the United Methodist Church is trending higher than the Royal Family and JLo's new earrings on Twitter. It seems that the MSM couldn't get enough of the news of a possible deal between the Mad Methodists who are no longer united. I have to admit, I might have clicked if I hadn't already accidentally stumbled into a preview of the Deal of all Deals on Thursday.

Offering advice to would-be critics, my dear mentor, Bishop Sally Dyck writes: "I encourage you to read the proposal, recognize that it needs some work/changes at General Conference, and to seriously ask yourself, if you are UM, whether you want to continue to live together as we have been, harming one another, or accept a less than perfect, risky compromise in order to bless each other forward."

The content of this plan is intriguing and offers innovative solutions to some very sticky problems. The amount of work that was necessary to get our Church to the point of compromise is unimaginable. I believe we owe a debt of gratitude to all of those who labored in love for our denomination.

I weep not only for the loss of the United Methodist Church as I know it, but I cry for what this process continues to reveal about the United Methodist Church in terms of voice, power, and control. The sad reality is that this is a denomination that is governed by the few. Although our official polity dictates a sharing of power and voice, our 'living' practices are anything but democratic.

All the open meetings in Kansas City and other places in the world will never hide the fact that the decision-makers within our denomination have not changed in the last 16 years. Scratch deep enough on any proposal, the agenda of any meeting, and you will find the same people. A cursory glance at some of the coalition websites like UMNext, UMNow, WCA, or Reconciling Ministries, shows that there is a curious overlap of leadership and voice.

Why does this matter? Because as the daughter of a chef, I know the cook always determines the meal served. The list of signatories on the Protocol makes it clear who is preparing our meal. One glance at the photo atop of the press release, and we see a collection of elders, bishops, and lay leaders who have served our denomination faithfully. However, despite their love and care for our Church, the Protocol Stew they are serving is still shaped by a limited recipe of experiences and world views.

I take to heart their admission that they were aware of the missing voices around the table. Knowing many of these individuals personally, I know this must have torn at their hearts during every meeting. Nonetheless, they moved forward because it has become a tradition within the United Methodist Church that the acknowledgment of exclusion excuses continual exclusion. The oft-cited claims for the need for efficiency in the process and organizational urgency often obscure the stark reality that some will lose and others will win. Sadly, those who will suffer the most are those unseen and unconsidered. These are not just missing voices; these are the organizational mules that will bear the more substantial burden of the decisions made by a privileged few. Lives that will be disproportionately impacted by the Protocol as it stands.

Over 90 United Methodist-affiliated universities, including some of America's most prestigious institutions, will find themselves forced to figure out to WHICH Methodist denomination they belong. Each decision will be fraught with implications for funding and community relationships. These are not just seminaries but significant research institutions of which their traditions and ties to Methodism run deep.

Also absent were the voices of the rural church and local pastors for whom organizational survival is not just an intellectual discussion but an existential reality. More and more, our Annual Conferences are served by men and women who have no voice but a great deal of responsibility for carrying the banner of United Methodism into the most desperate pastoral contexts. Additionally, the impact on Agency staff will be immeasurable. The loss of income, relationship, and the pure stress of the uncertainty of employment could lead to a massive exodus of expertise. We are asking them to sign onto a Protocol that offers them little insight into the risk they are taking with their livelihoods. However, most troubling is the reality that again, it will be United Methodists of Color that could lose the most.

Some explanation is in order. Under this agreement, our Traditionalist brothers and sisters get $25 million over four years. Considering that under the organizational framework of the WCA they have an almost functional infrastructure, this is an excellent proposition. $25 million to not have to deal with the collateral damage or lingering capital liabilities of the United Methodist Church? Promise not to ask for more money from a smaller, less affluent, leveraged to the hilt administratively denomination when you have been able to siphon off funds to built a strong structure? Not only is this a good deal, it is a masterful example of how the Traditionalists continue to out maneuver the rest of the denomination.

On the other hand, Ethnic Minorities are designated $39 million over eight years to address the historical racism in the United Methodist Church. This line item is momentous and appears to reflect a recognition by the Church that redress is needed. These proposed funds are distributed between Asian, Black, Latino(x), Pacific Islander, and Native American ministries and churches. Additionally, there is a provision for continued funding of Africa University. These provisions of the Protocol appear generous and forward-thinking.

However, a deeper dive into the financial and rhetorical framing of this section reveals something much more concerning. A simple comparison of the present value of the business terms between the Traditionalist and Ethnic Minority funding is revealing. Money promised in the future is never worth as much as funds in hand. Therefore, $39 million over eight years presuming no interest, is valued at $39 million. But there is always interest, and even at the generous rate of 5%, this deal is only worth $26 million in 2020 funds. Conversely, the Traditionalist provision paid over four years is worth $19 million in 2020, at the same rate of interest. The difference? The Ethnic Minorities ministries only retain 66% of the value of this agreement by final payout while the Traditionalists realize 76%. Now, it has been a while since my business degree from the University of Alabama, and my Finance 101 skills may be rusty. However, I think my calculations, even with adjustment, might bear out a significant differential.

More problematic is the reality that this $26 million is split between ministries such as Africa University, Lydia Patterson, HBCUs, Asian missions, and various other initiatives. Many of these ministries highly dependent on apportionment dollars would welcome an additional infusion of cash. However, by what mechanism is disbursement decided? There is no mention of what this means for the renewal of African American churches, the expansion of Korean churches, or the innovation for Native American churches leaving a significant hole where certainty is needed. Moreover, no promises are made that these ministries will retain the proportion of the existing apportionment budget ratios. The likely result: Methodists of Color are left fighting amongst each other for diminishing pennies while the rest of the Church goes on its merry way to engage in other forms of organizational implosion.

In the broadest of strokes, the UMC appears to be recognizing its longterm failures to deal with race. After all, one of the underlying tensions throughout this debate over human sexuality is that the sin of racism remained unaddressed. However, no matter how well-intentioned these funding provisions for Ethnic Minority ministries may be, they reveal a sad reality about the continued relationship between the Church and Methodists of Color. In the end, it appears that we are more a line item than full partners in ministry. Cynically, one could argue that the entire goal of this provision was to rhetorically make it seem like the ministry of Ethnic Minorities matter to the UMC only to get us to buy into this deal without allowing us to consider the fine print. At first blush, proponents of Africa University should rave; Black Methodists for Renewal should be excited; Lydia Patterson and HBCUs should applaud. Yet as the diminishing apportionments and harsh realities of a small denomination come to light, each group will be forced into a Hunger Games version of comparing whose historical oppression is the worst.

Perhaps my cynicism is rooted in 53 years of being black in America. America nor the United Methodist Church have had the most stellar of reputations in their interracial dealings. Whether with Native Americans, newly freed slaves, Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants, in the beginning, there are always promises of milk and honey, restoration and renewal, and 40 acres and a mule. However, in the end, there are always excuses, financial difficulties, misunderstandings, and strategic oversights that make the fulfillment of these promises nothing more than dreams deferred. Simply put, people of color are always left with the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

I am rightly reminded that Ethnic Minorities make up a higher proportion of the United Methodist Episcopacy than are currently in United Methodist pews. Indeed, by the numbers, the team negotiating this agreement was diverse. Yet, even when someone is of an ethnically diverse background, to assume that that is their primary constituency is incredibly flawed. Just like President Obama, people of color who serve in leadership positions must, to have legitimacy with their white peers, downplay any perceived allegiances to their ethnicity. Moreover, because all of us are made up of multiple points of identity, to assume that race is a person of color's most valued trait is again flawed. Finally, I believe it is important to note that none of the ethnic minorities on the negotiating team signed as members of those ethnic minority caucuses.

For too long, Methodists of Color, particularly Africans and African Americans, have been pawns in the ideological battle between right and left. Used by both Progressives and Traditionalists-- we are celebrated when we do their bidding and become their targets when we fail to deliver. Moreover, our interests are placed in competition with one another. Africans and African Americas pitted against each other all for an electoral outcome that will benefit neither directly. The Black Church is too often told that our ministers are barely competent, seen as too steeped in African American Church Culture, or too angry to be anything more than a drain on resources. The brightest and best are usually plucked by well-meaning Bishops and sent to White churches so that they can have greater visibility and opportunity. Our churches in the countries throughout Africa are denied distinctive nationalities and framed on the one hand as naive and on the other as corrupt. While I am not blind to the Black Church's historical and institutional faults, I am not willing to allow the United Methodist Church to deny its culpability in dismantling and decimating a powerful force for good in the African American and African community.

I have sat in enough meetings with my 'woke' fellow clergy only to hear them castigate the "Africans" or avert their eyes when called out for inequities in process and voice. As one of my Latino brothers lamented, at best, we are useful annoyances at times, prophetic witnesses at others, but never more than hyphenated pre-defined pseudo members of the United Methodist Church.

Allow me to reinforce my belief that this Protocol, while far from perfect, offers us a starting point for moving forward. I have never been on the side of separation, but if we must part ways, then this proposal provides a possible blueprint. As we begin the process of revision and reframing, my most profound prayer is that those missing from the table at the Protocol's inception are invited to participate in its evolution. More than being given a voice, it will be vital that they are given an equal opportunity to leave their hopes and dreams imprinted on the final document. But for that to happen, those who have been at the table of power in our denomination for the last 16 years must be willing to not only make room but get up from the table.

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