It’s official now. 95 congregations disaffiliated from the Louisiana Annual Conference on May 27, 2023. That number is in addition to 67 congregations that disaffiliated at previous sessions of the Annual Conference. If my math is correct, that’s 162 congregations now separated from the UMC in Louisiana. According to the denominational website UMData.org, the Louisiana Annual Conference had 438 congregations is 2020. Again, if my math is correct, that means 36.98% of the congregations chose to disaffiliate. Honestly, that’s a whole lot more congregations than I ever anticipated would depart, but then again, what do I know? I left before the divorce, so…
Why am I writing about it if I left before it all started? I’m writing because there are now 162 congregations that have to chart a new future and I have something I want to say to them–JOIN ANOTHER DENOMINATION! That advice can’t be emphasized enough. I’ve already offered that advice in a previous blog, but I want to expand on the thought more broadly here.
Reasons for Joining a Denomination
I am thoroughly convinced the early leaders of the Christian Church foresaw the congregations connected to one another. Yes, the “house” churches and other groups that met were independent of one another with their own deacons and elders, but they were clearly overseen by bishops. Deacons, elders and bishops are the three offices mentioned in scripture as necessary for the functioning of the local church. The Apostle Paul, writing to his young protege Timothy, stipulates the requirements of two of the offices in 1 Timothy 3: 1 – 13, and the Apostle Peter writes concerning elders in the church in 1 Peter 5: 1 – 4. Overseers (or bishops) oversaw more than one local congregation as the church grew.
The Apostle Peter demonstrated this type of leadership very early in the church’s life. In Acts 15, we find the account of the Jerusalem Council where Peter addresses the church on the issue of Gentiles being allowed to join the church and what they must do before being allowed to join. The precedent is clear that the early church fathers and mothers demonstrated the connectional nature of the church. It is incumbent upon us, as we seek to be faithful, to join our local congregations to the larger body of Christ through a denomination.
It Promotes Accountability
Joining ourselves to a denomination promotes accountability in two primary ways. First, there is accountability to doctrine that is outside ourselves. Independent congregations are free to formulate their own doctrine and can sometimes go off the rail in its teachings unless there is considered doctrine developed over time and with the debate and input of centuries of theological reflection. Imagine for a moment, an independent local congregation whose theological foundations could change on the whims of a new pastor who was not sufficiently vetted (more on this later).
Secondly, joining a congregation lends accountability to clergy through credentialing, training, relationships and more. Almost all denomination have a vetting process for its ministerial candidates, and required continuing education for ordained and licensed clergy. Have those processes always worked out as desired? Of course not! People lie. People change. Systems break down. Loopholes develop. Leaders don’t do their work. There are many reasons bad clergy “slip through the crack,” but that doesn’t mean that a system in place is better than not having a means to hold clergy accountable and help them grow in the knowledge and wisdom of Jesus.
Sure, an independent congregation can hold their pastor accountable by firing them, but it can too easily happen a second time or a third time without the broader process of clergy training and credentialing that most denominations offer. That system is firmly rooted in the doctrines and beliefs expressed in the denomination’s published catechism. It is the most beneficial way to insure that a local congregation is led by competent, trained clergy.
Every one of the disaffiliating congregations has a rich history in the Wesleyan tradition. John Wesley could never have imagined a time when his churches were not connected in some way. Don’t think for one moment that the United Methodist Church has the market cornered on Wesleyan connectionalism, though. There are a large number of denominations that find their roots in the Wesleyan movement. The Wesleyan Church, The Free Methodist Church, The Church of the Nazarene, The Salvation Army, the newly formed Global Methodist Church and my chosen home, The Evangelical Methodist Church, are among them. Each of these denominations are firmly rooted in Wesleyan-Arminian theology and operate with a “connectional” polity, much as the United Methodist Church does.
Additionally, there is the Congregational Methodist Church and the Association of Independent Methodists, although I find it a bit of an oxymoron to say “independent” Methodist or “congregational” Methodist. That just seems to be outside the vision John Wesley had for the movement from its infancy. That fact notwithstanding, it is important for a congregation to consider its rich history as it charts its path forward. How will that history be preserved in the best possible manner? By joining itself to another Wesleyan denomination.
For broader research on denominations rooted in the Wesleyan tradition, please take the time to check out the Global Wesleyan Alliance and also the World Methodist Council. Their lists of member denominations and associations will give any congregation a starting point in choosing a new place to connect like a true Wesleyan.
As I’ve previously written, it’s not a matter of if a congregation will need a new pastor, but when will a congregation need a new pastor. Every congregation will go through a pastoral transition (some former UM congregations will do so sooner rather than later). When that transition occurs, being part of a denomination will provide a process and a network for new pastoral selection. A process and a network are what is important. Having a formal process in place will not guarantee a congregation a new pastor, but it certainly gives a congregation a tremendous advantage in identifying and calling competent and trained clergy.
Don’t Be a Loner
So, there are my four reasons for former UM congregations to join themselves to another denomination. There are others, for sure, but these are sufficient for consideration as a congregation moves forward into its new reality, and here’s the reality: Who you are is not who you were. The question is: Who will you be?
As each of the 162 disaffiliated congregations from the Louisiana Annual Conference went through an established discernment process to reach that point, a subsequent discernment process is necessary to determine how they will live in the future. I know some have already chosen their new home. Wonderful! For others, they are choosing to remain independent for now. Let me encourage those congregations to only let it be so for a season. It is not unwise to do so, but to do so for more than a year is to run the risk of losing the rich Wesleyan heritage of the local congregation. That would be a tragic result, indeed!
Questions or concerns? Don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’ll be happy to share about my experience with the Evangelical Methodist Church, and to help you discern if this might be where God is calling your congregation to connect. In a future post, I’ll be sharing the reasons I chose the Evangelical Methodist Church as my new home. Hope you’ll come back and read again.
Until next time, keep looking up…