This reflection is the first in a series from the leadership of the California-Pacific Annual Conference on the unity of our annual conference considering the disaffiliation movement within the United Methodist Church.
All of us have faced moments in our lives when we have contemplated leaving or exiting a difficult situation. This could be a relationship, job, institution, or life circumstance. We know the emotional impact and consequences for our lives and those affected by such actions. It is never simple or easy, and the more central such a decision is in our lives, the more it impacts ourselves and others.
Our United Methodist Church is now faced with the possibility that those we call “family members” are now contemplating leaving. It is a small number in our California-Pacific Annual Conference, yet that does not lessen the emotional impact it has on our whole body. As a Bishop of the church, my commitment is to the unity of the entire church, and it deeply hurts to realize that a few feel that theological differences make it imperative for them to leave.
My commitment has always been to live in “the Big Tent” of our denomination and that there is a place for everyone to thrive and grow. This “Big Tent” idea is that everyone can “live and let live,” and no one is forced to believe and behave in a judgmentally right or wrong way.
In reflecting on the Corinthian Church in the New Testament, Dr. Jan Love, Dean of the Candler School of Theology, has pointed out that the Corinthian Christians’ commitment to Jesus Christ was so strong that “you couldn’t be kicked out, nor could you voluntarily leave.” My ideal hope is that our faith would be this strong that we can work out our differences and remain together, even if we disagree on fundamental issues of faith.
However, you cannot force people to do something they do not want to, and although I believe you can’t be kicked out of our annual conference, we cannot force people to stay. So, unequivocally, no one is being forced to remain in the California-Pacific Annual Conference or our United Methodist Church. People are free to leave, which is a fundamental right of our faith.
The first step for a church that wishes to disaffiliate is for their Board of Trustees Chair to contact their District Superintendent, who will review the process. Our California-Pacific Board of Trustees has completed the Disaffiliation Guidelines and unanimously approved their adoption. We now have a set of guidelines in place that will guide a local church through the disaffiliation process.
Before this, I hope churches will consider some fundamental values of our annual conference. Sociologists often describe the movement of Protestant Churches with the model of “Believing, Behaving and Belonging,” and let me use this paradigm. First, in “Believing:” no one is required to believe anything contrary to their theological position. We will not enforce a specific belief system and theological values on our churches. However, we also emphasize that individual churches and members of our churches do not impose their theology and values on others or the entire annual conference.
Second, in “Behaving,” no one will be forced to a proscribed action that goes against their theological values. Individual churches will not be mandated to hold same-gender weddings, nor should churches or individuals demand that other churches not do this. We know that some churches worry that the Cabinet will send them a gay clergy member, but we carefully observe the theological position of each of our churches. We do not impose a different value system on each one. There are profound consequences to making a wrong appointment, and the Cabinet works very hard to make each appointment with the right balance.
Finally, the issue of “Belonging” is the most important to me regarding the point of disaffiliation. We must remember that most of us did not choose to be a member of the United Methodist Church and our California-Pacific Annual Conference. Unless you are a charter member of your church, this decision was made by the founders of our church, and we have inherited this legacy. Most of us belong to the generations following our founding members, and we do not own our present church. Theologically, the church is the “ecclesia” (“gathered”) or body of Christ and, as such, belongs solely to God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Triune God is so vast that everyone belongs, and no one is turned away. I believe this in the depths of my very soul, which is why I openly lament for anyone who feels they do not belong.
Like our secular world, so much disinformation is circulating, and I pray you will contact your District Superintendent for the most accurate information. Please join me as I pray for our entire United Methodist Church and ask God for the spirit of unity and peace.
Be the Hope,
Bishop Grant J. Hagiya
Los Angeles Area Resident Bishop