Consider the consequences of a UMC breakup

By Ted Campbell, Special Contributor…

The possibility of dividing the United Methodist Church as a way out of persistent conflicts over homosexuality has been raised enough times in recent years to warrant serious reflection on what it would entail. The fact that Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans have all seen either formal divisions or significant withdrawals of congregations from their denominations over these issues does not bode well for the UMC.

Ted Campbell

But as tempting as the idea might be as a way out of our conflicts, we would have to think about realities like the following.

• Who would control pension funds, including the question of whether clergy and other church professionals would be excluded from pensions by denominational divisions?

• Who would control present UMC properties including local church properties held according to the trust clause? If you think, “It’s our church property, we can do what we want with it,” think again. Read the clause.

• How would congregations choose (or not) to align with newly defined denominational groups, and how would their decisions relate to issues of properties they hold in trust?

• How would district and conference and jurisdictional boundaries need to be shifted or realigned?

• How would church institutions such as colleges, universities and hospitals be realigned to coincide with new denominational configurations? How would covenants regarding their endowments (for example, specifying denominational participation in governance) need to be amended?

• How would national and international church agencies be reconfigured? Similarly, how would ecumenical relationships and commitments need to be renegotiated?

• Would doctrine, liturgy, and issues of personal and social morality be redefined in new denominational structures?

• Would two new denominations do the trick? Why not three or four? Denominational divisions seldom follow a neat one-two scheme. While we’re dividing, we might as well all find a space where we’re comfortable. Welcome to The Church of Ted.

We really need to be thinking about these issues. As a historian, I’m aware of many points of Methodist divisions in the past, and I’m keenly aware that issues like these inevitably ensue from denominational divisions and are often not considered in the fever of the presenting issues that lead to division.

And before we go too far down that road, let me ask you to consider just hypothetically the status of the United Methodist Church in March 1972. The United Methodist Church had existed for three years and 11 months. Richard Nixon was president of the United States. George McGovern was in the process of winning enough primary elections to secure the Democratic nomination, while George Wallace was also actively campaigning as an independent Democrat. Both democratic Georges were United Methodists. The charismatic movement was a considerable force in the culture of old-line denominations at this point, symbolized by the fact that Oral Roberts had elected to align himself with the Methodist Church in 1968 just prior to the church union of that year that resulted in the formation of the United Methodist Church.

In March 1972 the United Methodist Church did not have any formal statements regarding homosexuality and no formal restrictions on gay or lesbian persons serving as clergy or in other leadership roles. That reflected the situation of both the Methodist Church (1939-1968) and the Evangelical United Brethren Church (1946-1968). Which is to say, for me personally, that the church in which all four of my conservative, southern Methodist grandparents had functioned as laypersons throughout their adult lives did not have any formal statements about homosexuality nor restrictions against gay and lesbian persons serving in the church until April 1972. Or, to put it differently, the church of which George Wallace and George McGovern were members in March 1972, and of which Oral Roberts was a local elder, did not have any formal statements about homosexuality nor restrictions against gay and lesbian persons serving in the church.

What happened beginning in April 1972 was that the denomination began to make declarations at the level of the General Conference about these issues. That means that local congregations, districts and annual conferences had much less discretion over these issues because the denomination as a whole had adopted statements and later actions that claimed to enunciate a consensus on behalf of the whole denomination.

My colleague the Rev. Rob Renfroe, who serves as president of the Good News movement within the United Methodist Church, points out that conservative leaders in the UMC didn’t raise issues about homosexuality until liberal church leaders raised these issues. He’s literally correct about that. In April 1972 proposed language for the Social Principles statement in the Discipline only included an affirmation of the “sacred worth” of gay and lesbian persons, their need for the ministries of the church, and the need to protect their rights in civil society. That statement, however, provoked a motion from the floor of the General Conference that added the clause, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (1972 Discipline, p. 86). That set a trajectory for a 40-year culture battle over this language, including subsequent restrictions on the ordination or appointment of “self-avowed and practicing” homosexual persons.

Just hypothetically, could we return to the church of my grandparents, of George Wallace and George McGovern and Oral Roberts, and erase every single thing in the Discipline on this issue? I know that silence can be cruel. It can also be appropriate when there is no strong consensus as on issues like this. Could we just shut up? For a little while, at least? For the sake of focusing on some other stuff?

Maybe not. Maybe it’s just a fantasy on my part. But if we can’t find any other way out, and sentiment for division prevails, I have two very practical suggestions for delegates to the 2016 General Conference: 1) Find a good calculator app for your smartphones. 2) Consider electing CPAs as delegates. Carving up the pension fund and local church properties is going to be cruel work.

Christ, have mercy on us.

Dr. Campbell is an ordained UM elder with a Ph.D. in church history and is a faculty member at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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john Kent BerryMarjorie DonnellyJodiRay KaneMajor Recent comment authors
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john Kent Berry

May our gracious and loving creator give us wisdom for discerning our future together.

In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen

Marjorie Donnelly

The differences that we United Methodists have around issues of sexuality are theological. How do we understand God’s creation? How is God calling us to be in relationship to that creation? No amount of holy conferencing is going to bridge a theological gap.. The only way I see to avoid an eventual split of the UMC is to allow for theological diversity around issues of sexuality. Unfortunately, we seem to be heading away from that direction. I think that it is time for both sides to begin praying long and hard for each other, and to want nothing but the… Read more »


I find it very telling that the very first concern listed in splitting up the UMC is money. Can we just shut up? Lots of people asked that very question about race, interracial marriage, the presence of women in the clergy, our fight for income equality, workers’ rights, etc. As a member of the UMW, we’re not accustomed to “shutting up.” We’ve fought for the rights of women, minorities, children and immigrants since the 1800s. I see the discomfort even today with the effort to help migrant workers and immigrants. Many women argue or even leave the group when told… Read more »

Ray Kane
Ray Kane

The article raises many obstacles that would need to be considered for separation/division, yet it doesn’t address the more eternal issues of scriptural integrity and transforming lives and societies. The catalyst in Wesley’s movement was scriptural holiness and reforming/renewing the Church and the nation. Shouldn’t what’s glorifying to God take priority over agencies, properties, and conference/district boundaries?


So, the self-proclaimed Christian movement you are willingly associated with supports, celebrates, and endorses homosexuality- which is indisputably, unquestionably, and unequivocally condemned as sinful and contrary to the Christian life, the teachings of Jesus and the admonition of the whole of Scripture…. and you’re main concern is money, pensions, and buildings?

You’ve got to be kidding. What fellowship has light with darkness? Where is the integrity?

Sarah Flynn
Sarah Flynn

Well meaning article, but unrealistic to think that silence will be embraced by all sides. The fat is already in the fire. A few bishops are simply not going to enforce the present rules and will Conservatives just let it go at that? Not hardly. They will want their pound of flesh so that others will fear to do likewise. General Conference 2016 will see the introduction of punitive legislation aimed at noncompliant bishops and mandatory penalties for those who break the rules. The Conservatives probably have the votes to pass that sort of thing. A compromise might to be… Read more »


We can’t continue to have every General Conference disrupted by protesters.

mindy johnson-hicks

I’m gay. Perhaps y’alls argument about buildings and money is really important while I am restricted from participation in marriage and ministry. Perhaps I selfishly want to be more important to y’all than money or buildings. I guess it’s just whatevs.

Ginny Ann Weinberger

Perfectly said. Thank you for bringing the human dimension.

Barbara Lukert

Would the “silence” begin after removing all of the language regarding homosexuality from the BOD and social principles? If that were the case I would be fine with silence; however, if the statements on homosexuality were retained, I could not remain silent because I think current policies are unjust and counter to the teachings of Jesus.

Brandon Fulmer

Is the only standard of love for some people agreement and total acceptance? I wrote a very heartfelt response earlier this afternoon. I do not think it was hurtful, demeaning or demonizing to/of anyone. If anything I put a lot of time and attention in it to make sure it was none of those things. But somehow it did not pass the censors. I’m greatly troubled that this is the state of “spirited” debate these days.

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