Disaffiliation supporters use political playbook

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Key Points

  • Bill Brownson, a General Conference lay delegate, reflects on the arguments of those advocating for church disaffiliations.
  • He says many are using the same fear tactics seen in political campaigns.
  • Rather than villainizing each other, Brownson argues for mutually respectful Christian dialogue and mutual transparency.

Bill Brownson. Image courtesy of the West Ohio Conference. 
Bill Brownson.
Image courtesy of the West Ohio Conference.


UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.

On any given day I receive one or more emails with commentaries bemoaning the conduct of United Methodist leaders, especially bishops. One of those emails earlier this month had another lengthy lament complaining about episcopal leadership in this era of disaffiliations.

It was a well-framed partisan political argument asserting that the “other” party lacks all manner of good character or common sense. The claims were polarizing and one-sided and mirrored the worst forms — although tried and true — of current political debates.    

Here’s the formula for these repetitive writings from multiple sources and organizations, which are impressively coordinated and disciplined:

  • It’s the continuing United Methodist Church and its leaders (read bishops) that are not upholding the rules of the Book of Discipline.
  • Therefore, churches that have a “correct” (read more traditional) understanding of Scripture should be able to depart the denomination that sponsored and supported them with the lowest of hurdles.
  • The rules that annual conferences have put in place for disaffiliations are onerous and unfair (even though the framework for the rules was endorsed by supporters of the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference).
  • Conferences (again, read bishops) are insufficiently pastoral to congregations and individuals choosing to leave.
  • Bottom line: Bishops are corrupt, and their conference trustees and other leaders cannot be trusted.

Staying on message is the hallmark of a well-run political campaign and often means ascribing motives and a lack of character to your opponents. Make no mistake, numerous highly vocal proponents of disaffiliation are following a secular political campaign playbook.

It is not rooted in Scripture, and it is increasingly devoid of basic respect and fair play. There is honor and credibility in making the case for fundamental disagreements. The same are sacrificed when ends justify means.

Faithful people have reached different conclusions about Christian teaching and church governance for thousands of years. But villainizing others to gain the upper hand is dishonorable and wrong. I admire the restraint of our bishops in not responding to broadsides rooted in secular political strategy (coming from both the left and the right).

What’s the political playbook some proponents of disaffiliation are advancing? An effective first component is to instill fear. The most common fear is that a gay or lesbian person will be appointed as their pastor. But the likelihood an LGBTQ pastor will be appointed to a church that doesn’t want one is zero. (Sadly, even churches where a majority don’t want a woman or person of color have blocked their appointments.) This fear is baseless.

The next fear that’s cultivated is that a church will have to host gay weddings. Again, the chances of this occurring against the will of the church or their appointed pastor are slim.

A third fear is that “if we don’t act now, we’ll be forced to stay or forfeit our money and property.” There has long been and will continue to be a path to disaffiliation when the vast majority of a church’s members have an abiding desire to leave the connection.

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A common tactic of secular political campaigns is to extrapolate the views of a few as though they are the views of the many. Some churches in my conference have received imagery and quotes (often out of context) about bishops many states away, or some who retired years ago. When a pastor who traveled to a neighboring United Methodist congregation to advocate for disaffiliation was asked about the credibility of materials he was touting, he just shrugged his shoulders.

Another secular political trick is asserting that if those in power (i.e., our elected bishops) don’t speak out about everything they disagree with, that means they agree with whatever someone claims is true or just.

Let’s get real and be honest: Leaders can’t chase every rabbit or be distracted by outrageous claims. Leaders must lead.

When someone says the terms of disaffiliation of an annual conference are unjust, isn’t it ironic that those rules are published and known, while the materials and training sessions of those advocating disaffiliation are not?

Ahead of a disaffiliation vote some long-time members have been quoted the vows of membership as a test and urged to leave the church if they have searching questions about any of them. Is one expected to believe that such questions are being asked of every member? Cleansing voter rolls is yet another method used in contemporary U.S. political campaigns to win.

There are many with sincere questions or outright disagreements about the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. Some may want to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.

But do any of us serve God when we exchange frank and mutually respectful Christian dialogue for the polarizing tactics and aspersions torn from the pages of U.S. political campaigns? Repetitive and continuing laments ring hollow and are misplaced.

Brownson is a General Conference lay delegate from the West Ohio Conference.

News contact: Joey Butler or Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday (weekly) Digests.

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