Wild dogs, babies and betrayed trust: why the UMC is disintegrating

broken trust
© Skypixel | Dreamstime.com

Trust serves as the glue that holds any society together.

We trust that others will obey the traffic laws, will pay their fair share of taxes, will be faithful to their spouses, will respect one another’s property, will contribute a proportionate amount to the common good.

When that trust is betrayed, the wounds go deep and heal poorly, if at all.


In 2015, I was in Costa Rica for a Pacific Coast sunset wedding at a small, remote place called Samara Beach. No resort town here, despite the spectacular beach. The long, occasionally tortuous drive from the four-gate airport in Liberia has limited the construction of luxury, all-inclusive resorts to waterfront spots far closer to the airport.

Instead, Samara Beach is a small, friendly, sleepy between-second-and-third world town. The two hotels that house the few North American and European tourists boast the only air-conditioners in the entire community. The heat and humidity inside push everyone else outside.

I wrote about the worship here, but the most impactful part of the week for me was a flash insight as to why fixing or healing or bringing back into any sense of unity The United Methodist Church has become, I believe, impossible.

dogs on beach

© Ankevanwyk | Dreamstime.com – Dogs Playing Photo

They trust one another in this town

Multiple dogs inhabit this beach town. Some are clearly pets with loving owners; many are not. No leash laws; they roam freely.

They congregate around the open-air restaurants that populate the beach. Diners casually feed them or ignore them as they wish.

Occasionally, owners would take their dogs to the ocean for play with balls and sticks. As soon as the fun starts, the wild dogs show up for the games.

They never fight. The dogs don’t feel it necessary to defend their territories by aggressive acts toward the other animals. They simply happily join in their doggie games and then move on when the playtime ends.

Wild and domesticated have figured out a way to trust each other.

Toddlers wandered around the bars, unsupervised. They walked barefoot over sharp stones. They explored steep concrete steps and learned how to climb them without falling.

The little ones often wore nothing but a t-shirt–the nether ends exposed for convenient elimination on the sand. Just as I never saw a dogfight, I also never heard a baby cry the entire week of my residence.

My friends there said that adults often “borrowed” babies for a while, caring for them and enjoying their antics and explorations. No helicopter “don’t touch my baby” stuff going on here.

This, I believe, is a community built on trust, with that trust held together by the Roman Catholic church where nearly everyone gathers for worship weekly.

Please don’t get the idea that I found the Utopian community. All homes display barred windows as a protection against theft. Tiny houses have multiple people living there.

We were warned to guard electronics carefully. The tourist business that does trickle in here sustains the economy and gives the local artisans and shop owners badly needed income, but money stays scarce.

Medical care is free, but I frequently noticed the need for more adequate dental care.  I’m sure multiple societal problems persist–humans do live here, after all.

Nonetheless, again, I did perceive a generalized sense of trust.

Trust serves as the glue that holds any society together. We trust that others will obey the traffic laws, will pay their fair share of taxes, will be faithful to their spouses, will respect one another’s property, will contribute a proportionate amount to the common interest.

When that trust is betrayed, the wounds go deep and heal poorly, if at all.

The betrayals hit everyone, no matter what “side” one occupies.

To overly simplify the situation in the UMC, the more conservative arm rightly feels betrayed when the Book of Discipline and what they see as disregard of the clear biblical truth.

The more liberal arm rightly feels betrayed when people of “sacred worth” still don’t measure up.  Pointing to the past sins of the UMC of sexism and racism that kept women and people of color barred, they question whether the same hermeneutic may be driving an equally inappropriate use and interpretation of Scripture.

Everyone is right. Everyone is also wrong. In our perceived rightness, we have transgressed the law and broken trust.

Once betrayed, can trust be restored?

Can such trust be restored? I doubt it. We’re too big, too spread out for real mutually beneficial dialogue.

We have too many written rules and not enough relationship.

We have little of the glue that holds a local community together such as I found in that beach-front town in Costa Rica. The very diversity we have sought is now bringing us down.

We have built fortresses against one another rather than bridges of reconciliation.

Before the 2016 General Conference, I read various proposals to keep us together by forming different jurisdictions–a “separate but equal” solution. And while I very much appreciated the hard work that went into this particular plan, the “restore and release plan,” it also reminded me of the normal sibling squabbles I used to have with my sister.

She and I often unhappily shared a room growing up. Periodically, we drew up a set of rules as to who could touch what to try to keep peace between us. Never worked. Those kinds of rules never do.

The current hope is the Commission on a Way Forward, formed by the Bishops in 2016. They know they have a complex task in front of them. They are also expressing some optimism that they will have a workable plan by the called General Conference in February 2019.

My prayers stay with them.

That sense of betrayal

But to complete their task, they’ll have to deal with the feeling of betrayal that infects much of the church.

I have often said that what Jesus ultimately did when hanging on that cross was to take upon himself the fullness of betrayal and all the pain it engenders. And then he said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”

The act of forgiveness for the festering wounds of betrayal is the greatest Christ-act any of us can ever perform. However, anyone who has fully forgiven a betrayal knows the complex forest littered with invisible land mines necessary to traverse to regain once more a safe level of trust.

It seems impossible. It takes well-practiced spiritual and emotional maturity on everyone’s side. But we appear to prefer the mire of immaturity and spitefulness.

I have maintained since the Judicial decisions of 2012 that the UMC is no longer fixable. Our theology of grace has been undermined by so many forces, all full of justifying rationales, that we are more than blind.

We cannot reach across the divides without bringing out the hidden axes to chop off the hands of those on the other sides of our perceived chasms.

It is fixable only by renewal of spirit, not by reform of rule. 

Renewal of spirit comes when we humbly repent of our sins: sins of pride, intentional blindness, arrogance, envy, ambition, hubris, to name a few.

I hope I’m wrong but am pretty sure I’m not.


Note: I wrote most of these thoughts in 2015. Since then I had the opportunity to report on the debacle known as the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church. What I perceived over two years ago continues to prove itself in the fractured life of our connection. I do not think it is too late to do a positive regroup, but rebuilding trust takes much time and effort.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • George Waite

    There is no god.

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    I think it will definitely take the Holy Spirit and the willingness of all parties for this to be resolved.

  • JohnWill

    It is a fact that many years ago, the UMC accepted the typical societal behavior of discriminating against gays. The approach was that the UMC would ask LGBT people to change their behavior in order to be part of the church.

    Since that time, a much greater proportion of society and of the UMC has recognized that the discrimination is wrong.

    Now, those who support full membership and participation in the church for LGBT are asking those who continue to favor discrimination to change their behavior.

    I have not seen anybody explain what would be a practical position for middle ground. The closest position would be to allow individual churches to decide for themselves, but the anti-gay people are unwilling to even consider such a move.