Via Media Methodists Respond to A&W Plan: Part 3 (Trust)

When I was growing up, a very large church down the road had an interesting structure. The entire church operation was in the pastor’s name. His name was on the deed to the buildings, the land, the school, the bank account; it was all in the senior pastor’s name. His dad had founded the church and had handed it down to his son as the successor. The family was in charge of everything. The pastor’s spouse was in charge of the school. I thought this was very strange to have everything under the control of one person and one family, but the people who attended the church didn’t seem to mind. It had always been like this and they saw no reason in changing it because they trusted their pastor implicitly. They trusted that this man of God was never going to do anything wrong.

I see church in a very different way than these folks. Church is not something that I control, but something I am the rector over. Take the church I currently serve. It was planted over 207 years ago, and has been a living part of this community ever since. None of the people in the congregation planted the church. None of them were in the 2nd wave or the 3rd wave or 4th wave or even the 5th wave. They are here because of folks that were here before them. They are here because of pioneers who were willing to lead the way. I am appointed their shepherd for this time, but I know one day someone else will be their shepherd. This is not just the United Methodist system, but all church systems. No matter how long we stay in one place, eventually we have to hand it over to someone and let it go.

My friends Evan and Drew have reviewed the A&W plan in in part 1 and part 2 of this series much more in depth than I could, so I want to look at an underlying issue. I want to talk about the trust clause. Trust clauses are part of denominations that hold their property together in a trust as a body. Instead of the pastor’s name or the trustee’s name on the property deed, The United Methodist Church “holds the property in trust.” I had a friend recently lament to me that if the trust clause is the only thing keeping us together, then maybe we should let it go. What if the issue is not the trust clause but trust?

What if the deepest issue in United Methodism today is that we just don’t trust one another? This can manifest itself in a myriad of different ways, such as doctrinal erosion, labeling, name calling, and even wanting to shed ourselves of some of our churches. My District Superintendent called it a deficit of trust in the system. Maybe a lot of this deficit of trust is cause by the system itself. We have pastors who are placed in appointments and then judged on how well they meet certain tick marks on checklist sheets. We have pastors who graduate from seminary with expectations to change the church and manifest the kingdom of God only to find out that the real world isn’t that neat or easy. We have pastors who wrestle with faith, doubt, fear, and real issues that you can’t just dismiss.

Maybe my cynical friend is right. If the only thing keeping us together is the trust clause then maybe we should just do away with it. Let everyone out who wants out. Let people keep their property, their retirements, their congregations, and just become an independent, vaguely denominational church. Let the folks on the right leave and the folks on the left. Come up with some ritual of leaving for the occasion. Put annual conferences in charge of sorting it all out. Have a year or four of jubilee where all the churches that want out have a chance to do so.

Maybe I am naive, but I still believe in the resurrection. It is going to take some dying, but we can be the church of John & Charles Wesley again. In the words of Paul, we are going to have to die to our selves so we can truly be raised in Christ.

  • We are going to have to give up our ideas of a pure or perfect church. (I don’t believe this idea of church is possible in our broken world).
  • We are going to have to give up our exclusive claims to words like justice and orthodoxy.
  • We are going to have to give up the idea that all United Methodist churches will look alike and worship alike and believe alike. (If you know me, this one is hard for me)
  • We are going to have to learn how to trust other sinners. (This is only possible with reclaiming Wesley’s class meetings)

There is something I am only beginning to discover as I turn 40.

The church universal, of which the United Methodist Church is part of, is not mine.

It’s Christ’s. All I know that this sinner can do is play my part and trust that God will bless my insignificant effort.

How about you? Are you ready to trust again?


  1. Stephen, you have zeroed in on one of the important issues underlying our divisions in the church. Trust is definitely in short supply. The Call to Action study in 2009 identified a tremendous gap in trust between the laity and the leadership of the church.

    We trust annual conference boards of ordained ministry to ensure that persons recommended for ordination fall within the parameters of our Disciplinary requirements. They have sometimes not done so, leading to broken trust. We trust clergy who have vowed to live by the covenant outlined in the Discipline. When they have not done so, trust is broken. We trust bishops to uphold the Discipline and teach and maintain the doctrines of United Methodism. When some fail to do so, trust is broken. I’m sure people on all sides of the debate could go on listing evidence of broken trust.

    The funny thing about trust is that you can’t just decide to trust again (as you seem to imply by the closing comments in your piece). Trust has to be earned. Just ask any person in a marriage where a spouse has been unfaithful. We earn the right to be trusted again based on actions of integrity and congruence. Until bishops and clergy act in accord with United Methodist doctrines and discipline, they will not earn the trust of the rank and file members. I believe this is the only way that unity can be restored in United Methodism.

    Words are cheap. It is actions that will demonstrate whether trust can be rebuilt.

    1. Tom, I appreciate your feedback and I find very little with which to disagree. Trust must be earned and rebuilt. I am not against some flexibility in our system to give regions or conferences more flexibility in certain areas of the BOD, but this should come through the proper channels before being implemented. It certainly shouldn’t just be claimed without the discernment of the whole body. I would only add that sometimes trust must be risked. When a spouse has been unfaithful, that first leap of faith to restore that trust is a risk – it will often feel undeserved, maybe even foolhardy. But relationship itself is always a risk, and thus so is trust. Thanks again, and peace.

      1. Jon, I can only speak for myself, but I have had very good personal and public interactions with Tom. While I do not agree with the prominence of caucuses as a whole in the UMC, and I don’t always agree with Good News’ actions and/or statements. I have found him to be a generous and forthright interlocutor. That is much more than I can say for many other caucus leaders, both traditionalist and progressive.

  2. Well written, Stephen.
    I particularly found resonance with your statement:
    “We are going to have to give up our exclusive claims to words like justice and orthodoxy.”

    The “extremist” ends of this playground see-saw/teeter-totter gain traction as they get louder.
    It is sad to see the “Jerry Springer show” method of holy conferencing on any issue, but this one beats the band.

    Even those in the “so-called” middle are beginning to lose any sense of “trust” that Mr. Dumpty can be put back together again.

    This will take genuine leadership; not the kind we’ve seen to date.

  3. Evan, I’ve been a United Methodist for 34 years. i became one because of the damage the fundamentalist heresy hunters did to the Southern Baptist Convention. For the last 34 years, at least, Good News has been trying to do the same thing to the UMC. Our polity, so far,has prevented it. Excuse me if I don’t trust its executive director to have the interests of the UMC at heart.

  4. Stephen, thank you for this post. It is very thoughtful and insightful. I also agree with Tom. We are going to have to be self-conscious about rebuilding trust. That is going to take time and effort.

  5. Jon Altman (inadvertently) makes you realize something important. Some number of people have become United Methodist (even ordained clergy) because they didn’t like aspects of the faith tradition they were previously affiliated with. Whether it is former Southern Baptists or former Roman Catholics or former whatever else, there is a huge difference between the idea of moving toward something rather than away from something. This adds to the complexity of many of the discussions about doctrine and covenant. Some of our leaders seem to pretend that we are Unitarians who welcome everyone of any perspective when we obviously are not. I don’t know Jon Altman so I do not know his views on traditional Christian beliefs but his attacks on “heresy hunters” would lead one to the conclusion that he is perhaps not entirely orthodox or that his definition of “orthodox” may be different than most people’s.

    Can we stay in connection with people whose heart is not the same? If we cannot trust that decisions of General Conference (remember that is a democratically elected body representative of all annual conferences) will actually be obeyed and enforced, then how are we a connectional denomination? If we are not really a connectional denomination then why should my offering plate dollars go to pay for bishops in the Western Jurisdiction because the Western Jurisdiction (alone in the USA) does not pay for its bishops and doesn’t even contribute anything toward the central conferences and the retirees?

    When a bishop appoints a new pastor to a congregation, that congregation is expected to not only accept but to love and support that person regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, family stability or theological perspective. That congregation is expected to support the connection by paying their apportionments. The congregation has to trust that consideration went into finding the best person for their pulpit and that standards haven’t been changed for the convenience of the clergyperson. The congregation has to trust that money is being spent on wise purposes to advance His Kingdom particularly on causes that need support on a broader basis than a single congregation as opposed to pet causes of the people who happen to be hired to run that agency. No one can honestly say that trust has been strengthened by the leadership of the denomination.

    1. You are correct, Creed, you don’t know me. You also apparently don’t know much about the heresy hunting of the Southern Baptist Convention that began in 1979. There weren’t any “liberals” in the SBC. That didn’t keep the fundamentalists from trying to “root out liberals.”

      1. And Jon, you obviously know nothing about me. As a progressive Democrat, I would have agreed a lot with Foy Valentine. Unfortunately, the cleansing that has occurred since Houston has had a lot of bad repercussions. But, there is a long way from the SBC takeover and where we are in The UMC. But, we are not the Unitarians either.

  6. I have read each of the “Via Media” evaluations of the Watson / Arnold suggestion. It is hard to see how their plan would appeal to anyone except those who want to purge Methodism of gays and persons friendly to gays. It is not serious. Why the effort? Why not use the energy to think through Hamilton / Slaughter, which at least describes Methodists as we are?

    Is this an issue of trust, in the ordinary meaning of “I trust that my paycheck will appear on payday”? Hard to see how. I was baptized Methodist about 24 years before the UMC added the clause against “homosexuality”. When I returned to the church, I was astounded to read about the clause: contrary to science, contrary to lessons experience hammered into me after friends came out (roughly 1969 – ’71), but fully conforming to prejudices I learned when I was about 10 years old from guys on my block who were about 12 or 13. No, I had had no idea what a “fag” or a “queer” was except that it was even worse than being declared a “sissy”. Therefore, I’m not likely to change my mind on this.

    It seems that there are people in the UMC who believe that the clause is well-founded in experience, in science, in theology. Fine. Here’s where trust might matter: I trust that anyone going to the trouble of being a Methodist now has a faith that is similar to mine and similar beliefs on a series of churchy issues such as preceding grace, free will, predestination (no), the value of the epistle of James (not an epistle of “straw”; faith without works is dead), and an affection for that passage in Matthew 25. I trust that even a Methodist who agrees with “that clause” will, like me, have trouble recognizing Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands…” as a Christian sermon.

    That is: opinions about sexual orientation are secondary to a flock of opinions that we share because we are Methodist. Some of the shared opinions derive from Wesley and some from a shared history of the evolution of the Methodist Church over the past 200 years.


    John Welch

  7. I love gays and other sinners such as my self. I am Christian and Methodist and to me it is about scripture. Someone will need to teach me to read scripture differently if the definition of sin is to change. I am a nobody in the church but scripture is more important than the Discipline. What is God saying to us about sin and sanctification.

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