A Case for Separate Paths
By Kent Millard and David F. Watson
The Revs. David F. Watson and Kent Millard work side by side at United Theological Seminary in Dayton,Ohio. Photo courtesy of United Theological Seminary.
As the 2019 General Conference limped toward its conclusion, those in attendance were reminded that we could not stay beyond our allotted time in the convention center. The next major event would be a monster truck rally. The monster truck rally prep crew needed time to spread dirt on the floor, set up the ramps, and roll out the old junkers that would meet their doom beneath the massive tires of trucks with names like Grave Digger and Maximum Destruction.
Given what we were sitting through, however, the prospect of a monster truck rally seemed relatively peaceful. As far as we were concerned, Maximum Destruction had already smashed its way through the room and left a pile of rubble in its wake.
The two of us write this article in a spirit both of lament and hope. Neither of us were “early adopters” of separation proposals. We are both ordained elders. We have both served on boards and agencies, in local churches, and in a United Methodist seminary. In fact, we have worked together at United Theological Seminary for over three years. One of us, Kent, is a Centrist. The other, David, has aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. There is much upon which we agree. There are a few things upon which we disagree. Yet we do so respectfully and without rancor. We are friends and colleagues. The debates within The United Methodist Church will not change that. We have worked hard together to foster an ethos at United that honors the Triune God through the historic Christian faith, while also accommodating the diversity of thought that facilitates intellectual growth.
Both of us have The United Methodist Church in our bones. Nevertheless, we recognize the political realities of the denomination we serve have become unsustainable. The 2019 General Conference was supposed to bring closure to our denominational dispute over human sexuality. It did not. In fact it made things much worse. The atmosphere was toxic, the rhetoric vitriolic. Each of us has friends and respected colleagues on all sides of our denominational dispute. We hurt with our friends who were hurt by those four days in St. Louis.
We cannot change what happened in the past, but the future is another matter. The path before us is not yet determined. It is entirely possible that the 2020 General Conference will be a repeat of 2019. This will only bring more acrimony and heartbreak, and will ultimately drive more people away from the church. While one “side” will prevail in the 2020 voting, there will be no true winners. Everyone will lose. It has become abundantly clear that more or better legislation cannot solve our denominational problems. Continued fighting will only further compromise our witness to the gospel.
We have both come to believe, then, that the best course of action would be for The United Methodist Church to enter a formal process of separation. It is time for the different factions in the UM Church to say to one another, like Abraham and Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me … for we are kindred” (Genesis 13:8). Our desire for separation comes not from a place of contempt for those with whom we disagree, but from a desire to have peace and focus on bringing redemption to a broken world. The conflict within the UM Church only draws our attention away from the church’s evangelistic mission. While our denomination is focused on internal disagreements, we cannot focus on those outside the church who so desperately need to hear the redemptive message of the gospel.
To be clear, neither of us is suggesting exactly what the division of the UM Church should look like or how it should happen. There are myriad possibilities for how division might take place. We are simply saying that we must get enough space between the warring factions in the church to stop the endless cycle of fighting.
If you go to the visitor’s center at the top of Mount Denali in Alaska you will see the skeletons of two bull elk with their horns interlocked. They crashed into each other so forcefully that they could not disengage from each other. Both died and were later found by hunters, their horns still interlocked. Our concern is that if we do not disengage from the fighting within our denomination, our unending conflict itself will bring us all down.
It doesn’t have to end this way. The 2019 General Conference in St. Louis demonstrated that we cannot live peaceably together in the same house. Perhaps the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis could demonstrate how we could live in different houses and learn how to be good neighbors to each other. Before the 2020 General Conference traditionalists, centrists, and progressives of good will could come together to present a process to General Conference for amicable separation with a fair distribution of denominational assets. It could ultimately be a win for both sides. Yes, it will be a challenge, but it will be a better way forward than simply continuing the decades long conflict.
Kent Millard is President of United Theological Seminary. He served 47 years in the UM Church as a pastor, most recently at St. Luke’s UM Church in Indianapolis. He is the author of The Passion Driven Congregation (with Dr. Carver McGriff), Lead Like Butler (with Brad Stevens and Judith Cebula), and The Gratitude Path.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean of United Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever. He is one of the hosts of Plain Truth: A Holy-Spirited Podcast and blogs at www.davidwatson.me.