State of the UMC (March 2021)

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State of the UMC Update (March 2021)

[March 21, 2021]

Reverend Jimmy Towson gave an update on the state of the United Methodist Church to his congregation in March 2021. 

The transcript of the video can be found below.


Introduction

Rev. Jimmy Towson

Some of you have been keeping up with what's been happening in the United Methodist Church. Some of you may not have been, and that's okay. I'm not saying that you should. But I want to just share some thoughts kind of where we are, what has happened since we last had a gathering like this. Gosh, that's been well over a year ago. And keep you up to date on what's happening. But I want to start with the word of prayer and we'll go from there. Let's do that.

Father, thank you for the privilege of just being together as your body. Thank you that when we're together, you are always present with us when two or more gathered in your name, that you're there. So that means you're here with us because there are two or more here, and we're gathered in your name. So would you open our minds and our understanding? We preached about the Holy Spirit. We'll be preaching about that at 11. God, we believe that promise to be true, that you can teach us what we need to know. So help us to do that in this time together please. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

Current Structure of the UMC

Well, I want to start with a little bit of review. For some of you, this will be the review before the exam. Did you ever have that when you're in school? I was so grateful for those, because I was like “that's the only way I was going to pass.”

But I want to remind you of some things that have happened, but I want to start with, for those of you who may be a little bit fuzzy on the structure of our church; which has been very historic, very much a part of who we are as Methodists coming to us primarily from John Wesley, our founder. But I want to talk to you a little bit about the structure of our church.

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The current structure is this. We are as, you know Park Avenue United Methodist Church is a local church. That's where most of the work gets done in all of United Methodism. When I've been on trips to Uganda, when I've been on trips to Costa Rica and we've been to Methodist churches there, a lot of what we do here is the same thing you'll do around the world. And it's mostly in the local church.

So we are a local church. As a local church we are part of a district is the next level of our structure. It's called the South Central District. You may already know that. Our district superintendent is Reverend Paula Lewis and she covers our area, which I don't know how many churches we have in the South Central District, but it runs from Waycross to Valdosta, up to Tifton, Douglas, in that area.

There are six districts in the South Georgia Annual Conference. So the next level of our structure is our Annual Conference. It's called the South Georgia Annual Conference. It runs, think about the gnat line, for those of us who know about gnats; it runs from Savannah, to Macon, to Columbus, and below. So from there to the Florida line to the Alabama line, to the coast. That's the South Georgia Annual Conference.

We have a bishop. His name is Lawson Bryan. So he presides as our Bishop over the South Georgia Annual Conference and he has six District Superintendents, like the Reverend Paula Lewis, and they make up what's known as the Cabinet. It's a lot like the Federal government, right? So it's the President and the Cabinet. So that's the structure.

You go from there though, the South Georgia Annual Conference is one of many conferences, and we are part of what is known as the Southeastern Jurisdiction. It's a conference. I want to show you a picture of the conferences that we have in the United States. Here's the map.

So these are all of the Jurisdictional Conferences. And you can see us in the beige sort of brownish, light brown color there. That's the Southeastern Jurisdiction. You'll see that Georgia, there's a line. Do you see that little line? I call that the gnat line that's between North Georgia and South Georgia. So there are two conferences in Georgia: North Georgia, South Georgia.

This is really interesting. The North Georgia Annual Conference has more members just in that Northern part of Georgia has more members than all of the Blue Western Jurisdiction put together. Isn't that crazy? In fact, South Georgia has more members than almost all of the Western Jurisdiction. That's interesting to keep in mind because the bulk of your Methodists are going to be in the brownish beige, Southeastern Jurisdiction, the Texas South Central Jurisdiction, the purple is where most of your United Methodists are found. There's some obviously all around the world, but that's where they kind of are gathered.

So we have jurisdictions. Ours is called the Southeastern Jurisdiction. The Southeastern Jurisdiction is primarily responsible for electing bishops. I'm a delegate to that conference whenever it meets. I'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But the next structure is then, we are part as a jurisdiction, we are part of the General Conference, which you can think of that as the Federal government. It's everything that United Methodists are; the General Conference is over everything. So ours is just called the United Methodist General Conference. So you can think of it kind of as it covers all of these other structures that we have.

That is a legislative body. It's kind of like our congress to some extent. It meets every four years, supposed to meet every four years and every Annual Conference elects delegates to the General Conference.

So South Georgia elects delegates both clergy and lay. You have an equal number of delegates. So South Georgia, we elected four clergy delegates and four lay delegates. And those eight people together go and vote at General Conference. We have some alternates. I'm one of the alternates to the General Conference. So if someone is sick or something, I'll step and take their place.

But that's how legislation is decided; it's by the delegates who come together at the General Conference that's supposed to meet every four years. And the delegates vote on whatever legislation is presented there.

Theological Divide

Now, you know obviously that there is a theological divide in the United Methodist Church. It's not new. It's been around for some 40, 50 years now. And I want to read something to you. I'm going to read a letter that kind of speaks to this. Let's listen to this letter.

Dear friends, I wanted very much to write to you concerning the salvation we share. Instead I must write to you to fight for the faith delivered once and for all for God's holy people. Godless people have slipped in among you. They turned the grace of our God into unrestrained immorality and deny our only master and Lord, Jesus Christ….

And the letter goes on. Anybody know who wrote that letter? Jude. It's in the Bible. Jude, the brother of Jesus wrote that letter.

There is a theological divide that has been around for a long time. It has been presented primarily along the issues of human sexuality, marriage and ordination. That is the presenting issue that we have been divided over for a long time. But that is just as bishop Mike Lowry, the bishop of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, he describes that as that's really just the tip of the iceberg.

I was reading something that he wrote recently, and this image came to mind. It's like that's just the little piece that's above the water, but there is this huge iceberg that is below the water. And it really has to do with how we understand God, how we understand Jesus Christ, how we understand the doctrine of the Bible, how we understand the resurrection, the virgin birth.

In fact Bishop Lowry was writing about some conversations that he had with some very influential United Methodist pastors and laity. He had a conversation, the first one he referred to in this article, which I'll be glad to share with you, which I just read last week, he says that he had a conversation with a highly regarded retired clergy person. This man, he was a man, had been a serious candidate for bishop to be elected for bishop at some point in his career.

He says, “We were discussing what doctrinal convictions were required for ordination to ordain a pastor” like I'm an ordained elder. So he asked him, he asked this retired pastor, he says, "Would you vote for a candidate for ordination who did not believe in the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?" The other man responded, he paused and noticeably thought for a moment, and then he said, "Yes, I would. I would vote for somebody who did not believe in the Trinity."

So Bishop Lowry is saying, "Hey, can you just take a moment and think about the implications of a statement like that?" At the very heart of our understanding of God is the Trinity. It is in the articles of our religion contained in our doctrine. It's the heart of who God is. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet we've got people out there in Methodism who are saying, that's not important anymore.

Well, he goes on. He had a conversation with some District Superintendents and one prominent DS asserted that the talk of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ ought to be jettisoned. Do you know what that means? That'll be thrown out.

This is what this District Superintendent said. She said, listen to this, this is the quote. "We have to stop preaching that Jesus died on the cross for us. It does damage to people." Well, he's not done. He said there was another DS who was in that group and this DS agreed with that comment about the crucifixion doing damage to people, and then added this thought to it. Said, "Here in communion, holy communion, our sacrament, that there should not be any confessional language in it at all." He went on to say, "We have to stop making people feel guilty and like they need to confess sins when they come to church. We aren't Catholic."

Now, that's a District Superintendent who is making that kind of a statement. He said he had another conversation with a senior pastor of a large church in his conference in Texas and they were talking about the mission statement of the United Methodist Church, which is "To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Let me say it again, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, the great commission, for the transformation of the world.

Here's what that senior pastor said. He had been a delegate to General Conference and served in leadership positions on the Board of Ordained Ministry. I've had the pleasure of serving on our Board of Ordained Ministry. He argued, this is what he said, "That we need to leave out the part about Jesus Christ and emphasize just the transformation of the world." So leave out the part about make disciples of Jesus Christ and just say, "Hey, our mission statement. We're about transforming the world."

Listen, transforming the world is a very noble and it's a good mission to have, obviously. But it's like somebody told me, Bobby Gale, when we were in New Orleans during hurricane relief, we were down there mucking out some houses. And he stopped me, he says, "Jimmy, look up and down the street.” This place was deserted. “So look up down the street," he says, "Look down there, can you see way down that block, can you see there's some people working on a house?" I said, "Yeah." He says, “Those are Christians. They're Baptist folks. They're wearing green shirts.” He said, "Look down the street down over here. You see these folks over here? These are some more Christians that I met at the church where we were getting supplies." He said, "You know what, the work that's being done here is being done in the name of Jesus Christ. We're not just a local government. We're not FEMA. We're the disciples of Jesus Christ trying to help people in need."

But this person says we shouldn't do it. He says we need to leave Jesus Christ out of it.

So there's this bigger theological divide. I think you all understand that. It's not just over the issue of human sexuality or nation in marriage, it's much bigger. There are people out there who do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ that are United Methodist pastors that are teaching that. And that's troubling for a lot of people. There are people out there who are teaching and preaching that the Scripture is not authoritative, the Holy Bible is not the authority, it's just a good read that has some good stuff in it.

So I hope you understand that while the presenting issues are significant issues for very many people, the real issue is much bigger.

In fact, Dr. Timothy Tennent who is the president of Asbury Theological Seminary says this, he says,

"We need to remember afresh what this whole struggle has been about over the last 50 years. It's not about human sexuality. It has not been about the terms of separation. It's not about the Trust Clause. These have served as some of the presenting issues. The struggle has been about nothing less than the recovery of biblical, apostolic Christianity.

It is about a prolonged and fresh encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ who alone is the Lord of the church and who has promised us that he will build his church and the gates of hell shall not stand against it. It is about a renewal of our Wesleyan message of holiness, sanctification, the re-directed heart, and the Spirit-filled life."

I agree with that.

So, where are we in this struggle with this divide? We're at a place where a lot of people... In fact, the vast majority of Methodists who are speaking on this, are in agreement that it's time for us to shake hands and go our separate ways. You've heard me speak on that before.

So just a reminder that back in 2019, I went to the General Conference which was a special Called General Conference and the purpose there was to receive the report that this Commission on a Way Forward had put together on plans to handle this issue. If you remember, there were a number of plans that were presented, but the one that actually passed was what was known as the Traditional Plan. And it basically strengthened this theological... it struck this basis that I've been talking about. It upheld where we have been and kept the same things we've had in our Discipline for this long period of time. So it basically reaffirmed what we already have believed.

It also passed what's known as a Disaffiliation Policy which allows churches who do not agree with this to leave and take their property with them if they'll pay some fees. I'll talk a little bit more about that in just a second.

But since then, after that 2019 Called General Conference, which you'll remember my report on that, it was for me ...  it was one of the most troubling things I've ever been to in my life. I think what I said was because of all the arguing and all the mean spiritedness that was there, I think I told you that when I got home that night, when we got back to Valdosta that I was like I felt like I needed to take a bath. I probably did need to take a bath, but I really "felt" like I needed to take a bath. It was not fun, and I said before, I don't want to go through that again. I don't think many people want to go through that again.

So violations of the Book of Discipline have continued since then, and people are, when it comes to ordination, they are ordaining LGBTQ folks. They are performing marriages. They're in direct contradiction with what our General Conference has said in our Book of Discipline has said for all these years. And the Bishops and Conferences are refusing to enforce those provisions and it's just like you might as well not even have them in the Book of Discipline even though that's what General Conference says we should have done based on a vote.

So what were the possible options after the 2019 meeting?

Well, we were supposed to have our regular four-year General Conference in May of this year [correction: May of this past year, meaning 2020]. But as you know, we didn't. There were some options there.

First was that there were a lot of progressive delegates who had been elected in the United States, and the thought was that they might possibly have enough votes to overturn the Traditional Plan that had been passed in 2019.

Another option would be that if they didn't have enough votes, we would still have the conservative votes to strengthen, to put some more teeth or some teeth in enforcing the Book of Discipline.

Then the third one was to possibly pass a Separation Policy. Some way, a plan that would allow us to separate gracefully and go our separate ways and go forth and prosper in both directions. It doesn't matter.

Or the possibility that nothing would happen.

Those were the options that we saw and were anticipating coming into 2020.

But, right? This is not a dog toy, is it? The coronavirus hit, which put us off track completely.

In fact, had it not been for coronavirus, here's what I think would have happened. I think we would have met in May of 2020 and we would have had a Separation Policy passed right at the very beginning of General Conference and we would already be working towards two different denominations, at least.

So I want to talk a little bit about that separation policy, because something happened. I reported on it a while ago on a Wednesday night or at some point; we had a Council Meeting. There were a group of folks who got together to talk about how we would go about separating. And they put together something known as the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. This happened in December of 2019.

You need to know it was people on all sides of this issue. And listen, I'm not naive enough to think that everybody agrees on this issue even here. I understand that there may be folks who have different opinions about that and that's okay. That's okay. But they brought all sides together in Atlanta at a meeting and brought in a fellow named Feinstein who was a lawyer who helped them negotiate a way forward by separation. And they all agreed that this is what we needed to do. Progressives, conservatives, centrists, bishops. They had a good group there. So this plan, if it were passed, would allow for the separation and to form two or more denominations: a progressive or a liberal United Methodist Church, and then a traditional version; or maybe some kind of third version. We really hadn't heard much about a third version. Sort of like the Presbyterians have done in the past. I think the Episcopalians. Some others have done this in the past.

So it would allow a traditional denomination. And I want to talk about the Global Methodist Church. Some of you may have heard about that. I'm going to come back to that. But that would be the traditional version of our new Methodist denomination. I'll come back to that.

The other option was what they called the Post-Separation UMC and that's the progressive’s part of what was left of the church.

Then the third would be some other denomination but as I said, I haven't really heard much about that.

But here was the other piece of this plan that was interesting. It would authorize Annual Conferences and local churches to vote to affiliate with one or more of these denominations. So it basically gave the churches the right to decide who they wanted to affiliate with; but also an Annual Conference could do that like the South Georgia Annual Conference would be able to vote to say, "Hey, we want to stay together as a conference, but we want to be part of the traditional church, not the progressive post-separation church." And that was a good thing. And you could do so without penalty.

You could take your property. The Conference could take the property that the Conference owns. A local church could take their own property and leave and be affiliated with a new denomination, which is important. Conferences and churches could vote to leave and retain their property without penalty. Because here's the catch for some of you who don't know - the reason Park Avenue couldn't right now just say, "Hey, we're done with this. Let's go. We're no longer part of the United Methodist Church. We're going to be an independent Methodist church" or whatever. The reason that we couldn't do that without penalty right now is because our property is held in trust, under a Trust Clause by the Annual Conference. So we don't technically own our own property even though we built it, you built it, we paid for it, you paid for it. It's ours, but they have this Trust Clause which says that if we ever stop being a part of the South Georgia Annual Conference, then our property goes to them. It's called a Trust Clause.

But under this protocol, the Trust Clause is waived and there's no issue there at all. So the Conference couldn't take your property. So to illustrate that, here's what would happen. Let's say we get fed up and we say, "Okay, we're done." So I go to my District Superintendent and I say, "Hey, we're through with the Methodist church as it appears right now. We're going to just do our own thing for a while and then we'll see where we go." And she'll say, "Okay, fine. Give me your keys." And I would say, "Oh, we have to give you our keys?" So she said, "Yeah, you can leave but you can't take your property. We get your property." So that's the way the Trust Clause works. But under this provision, that's waived. It goes away.

Where Are We Right Now?

So we thought going into May 2020, that that would actually pass. We would get the Protocol passed. We would separate and move on and go where we could, but the coronavirus hit.

So May 2020, we were supposed to be in Minneapolis for the General Conference, it was postponed until 2021. But since then, it has been postponed again. So it is now set, the one that was supposed to be 2020 is now set for 2022 in, I think, August and September.

There will be no vote on anything from a General Conference level, so far as we know, from a General Conference position until 2022; except there's one exception to that and that is that our Bishops have asked for a Called General Conference, which will be held on May the 8th of this year for really one purpose. The primary purpose of it is to allow those pieces of legislation that need to be passed in order to continue business as a General Conference to be passed. In other words, it's the rubber stamp things. We've got to approve a budget. We've got to approve some hiring, staff things, whatever it is for the General Conference. So there would be no work done at that Called General Conference on May the 8th concerning the split or concerning the issue of human sexuality, marriage, and ordination.

Some have asked, including many conferences have asked that that Protocol for Reconciliation, separation and reconciliation be placed on the agenda. It's going to be a one-day, virtual, General Conference. It's going to be almost impossible to do because we have people from around the world. We have brothers and sisters in Africa, brothers and sisters in the Philippines, brothers and sisters in Europe and in the United States, and trying to get us all together at the same time on a Zoom call of some kind... you can imagine the nightmare of that.

But there are some who say but we have enough. If we can get together to vote on a budget, we can get together to vote just simply whether we should separate or not. I don't think that the Council of Bishops is going to allow that to be on the agenda. We'll just have to see, but right now it's not on the agenda.

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But there's another issue, and this is a pretty significant issue and that is election of bishops. We elect bishops at the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Remember the one, the brown that was up on the screen. That's where we go to elect our bishops.  That's where we go to get our bishops who will be in charge of the South Georgia Annual Conference.

Here's the problem with the election of bishops right now. We've been meeting, I'm a delegate to that one, we've been meeting by Zoom call and what we have been told is that the funding for the Episcopal Fund, the money for the Episcopal Fund which pays all of the salaries, all of the expenses of all of the bishops around the world, it is dwindling fast.

In fact, the prediction I could give you the charts, the prediction is that at the current rate of giving, the Episcopal Fund will be depleted by 2024. And so we must take drastic action to eliminate some cost. We can't increase the funding. We hope folks will give, but we've got to look at our actual cost, so what we've got to do is eliminate some bishops.

So the proposal is that we not elect bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction this coming year. We have ... help me remember, I think 13 bishops. I think that's right. Is it right, David? Doesn't it sound right? Thirteen bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Out of nine states, we have 13 bishops. And what they're proposing to do, we have five bishops that were set to retire already, but they agreed to stay on another year, including our bishop, Bishop Bryan. He is set to retire. In fact, he was supposed to retire last year, but he said he would stay through September of this year. So the proposal is that we elect no more new bishops, which is kind of good because most of the delegates that were elected to the Jurisdictional Conference are progressive. It's amazing. I mean, for us to elect a bishop that lines up with traditional thinking at the Jurisdictional Conference would have been highly unlikely.

But here's the thing. What they do now if we do not elect new bishops then who's our new bishop? What do we do?

And the proposal is that they redraw the lines for the episcopal area, the Bishop's area. Before we became South Georgia and North Georgia, Georgia was one conference. Do some of you remember that? We had Bishop Looney. Some of you remember Bishop Looney? He was one bishop over both areas. And that's the way it used to be until we decided that we needed our own bishop, which was many years ago. There's a proposal that we do that we combine those areas again and make South Georgia and North Georgia one conference for purposes of a bishop.

If that were the case, then what we would do... Let's see if I've got them down here. So we're going to merge. We're going to merge episcopal areas.

So here are the options for South Georgia. The first one is that we would merge with North Georgia. If that were to happen, then we would receive as our bishop, Bishop Sue who's been there I think four years, or working on four years. Bishop Sue is not shy about her position theologically. She is a very strong, progressive bishop and has made that position clear in North Georgia to the extent that some pastors who are conservatives have been moved from churches. Some conservative churches have been closed. There have been some things that she has done that would probably not line up with South Georgia theologically. But, there is also the argument that North Georgia is large enough, they need their own bishop.

So the next option is that we might be combined with Alabama/ West Florida, which is more theologically aligned with South Georgia. That would not be necessarily a bad thing at all.

The third option is that we might end up combined with South Carolina. I really don't know enough about South Carolina's bishop or their episcopal area to comment, but that's probably less likely.

But those are issues that have to be decided this year. And in July, we will have the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference there.

So just to give you an idea, you can see Alabama/West Florida, it's kind of the lower half of Alabama and part of Florida. So you could just erase that line between South Georgia and Alabama West Florida and that might be our new episcopal area. Or erase the line up there between South Carolina and South Georgia and that becomes the episcopal area, or the one between North Georgia and South Georgia. So that's a major issue. Who's going to be our next bishop and what influence might that person have in shaping the identity of our Conference, if that makes sense to you.

So I'm giving you a lot of information I know and I'll post this. There'll be a video about this, but I need to tell you about the Global Methodist Church. This is the new version of the United Methodist Church in a traditional sense. This is something that has been in the works for a while now, really since they were talking about separating the WCA, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the group that I'm president of our chapter in South Georgia has been part of this. It does not come solely from the WCA, it comes from others who've been part of the work to pull this together.

But this was just recently released and you can go to a website to actually see what it looks like. And they have released their version of the Book of Discipline, our law book to say it in other terms. And it is very, very close to what we have currently in our Book of Discipline. It maintains the current stance, the traditional stance on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ+. It also maintains much of the same structure that we have right now, which is the bishop and the cabinet an appointment process.

There's one exception there. What it does, which is I believe a good exception, it removes the guaranteed appointment of ordained elders. If you're an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church you are guaranteed a job. No matter really how well you do or how poorly you do. Sometimes that's a great thing, but sometimes that can be an issue. But they pulled that out of it, which I think is the right thing. Just like other places, it ought to be based on your merit and your ability and the giftedness that God uses through you.

The other thing that is a positive is that bishops now would be elected under this new traditional church, would be elected not for life, but for set terms. That's been part of the problem with enforcing the Book of Discipline currently, because a bishop is elected for life and the vast majority of bishops that are part of our Council of Bishops now, lean towards either being a little left-leaning centrist or a progressive. So they have a lot of sway in what happens. And there's really no recourse against them if they do not enforce provisions of the Book of Discipline. They could be voted out as opposed to right now. They're going to be elected for set terms.

Property under this new provision, this new denomination that there will be no Trust Clause, which is a good thing. So churches who have built and paid for their churches will actually own their churches without threat that the denomination might or the conference might take their property from them.

And this is one of the stronger pieces of this new Book of Discipline too, there is accountabilities. There are provisions in there that say, listen, we expect that you will uphold the traditional teaching of the apostles, of the Wesleyan understanding of Christ and the Trinity, all those things that we have. It does things that our current Book of Discipline will not do for that accountability.

The plan is that the Global Methodist Church will officially launch, that means it becomes an official denomination, as soon as the Protocol for Separation is passed, or there is an understanding if it becomes apparent that they're just delaying this idea of considering separation. Kicking the can down the road again is not good for Methodism. There are a lot of Methodists, maybe not in our area so much, but there are a lot of Methodists who are leaving our churches because they're just tired of this and they've decided that they don't want to be a part of it anymore.

I'm very blessed that I do have the opportunity to talk with leaders in other conferences, and I was on a Zoom conference not too long ago with leaders that are from our jurisdiction and they were saying that their churches are hurting. They're hurting. People are leaving. People are not giving and it has to do with these issues, and it's troubling. Not only that, they're also telling horror stories of how some of the progressive District Superintendents and Bishops are harming those who are traditionalists in their Conferences, which is just to me, I just can't even understand why that would happen, but it is happening. We haven't seen a lot of that in South Georgia which is good.

What Now?

So I know that's a lot of information, but let me just kind of give you a couple of things. What can we do? What do we do as a church? Where are we?

There's always the option, it's true whether we're in the local church or whether we're in the Annual Conference, whether we're Jurisdiction or General Conference, there's always the option just to do nothing, just to keep doing what we're doing, where we are right now.

But there's also this option: that when we feel that the time is right and when we feel like we're ready, we could if we wanted to, if this church voted to do so, we could say we wanted to leave under the current Disaffiliation Policy, which means we have to pay some money in order to do that. Some of you've heard maybe some talk about that.

Here's the current Disaffiliation Policy: you get to leave the United Methodist Church and take your property with you, so that they waive the Trust Clause, but you have to pay the current year apportionment. So we'd have to pay 2021 apportionments and 2022 apportionments. Then we have to pay a portion of the clergy pension liability for unpaid.... I've forgotten what the proper name is, but it's basically we have to pay for pension liability that has not been funded, if that makes sense to you.

And the number that we've gotten, I think, Terry, you're in here somewhere, right, is somewhere in that neighborhood of $400,000, Terry, for us to do that right now?

Terry Hiers:
A little bit higher.

Rev. Jimmy Towson:
A little bit higher than that, which is basically two years. Our apportionments to the United Methodist Church right now are about $200,000 a year. And you may know that our Finance Committee, we voted to withhold some of those fundings. Some of that funding to the General Conference that goes to support, we think, those areas that do not line up with South Georgia and with Park Avenue theologically. We've escrowed that money over on the side, which we could possibly use if we ever got to a point where we wanted to pay this money and leave. That's two options.

A third option is to wait and see if the protocol is going to be passed. Will it be passed in 2022, which will make it easier for churches to leave? We only have to pay for our pension liability or we get to take it with us to the new denomination, so we don't pay anything.

Another is to wait and see what our Annual Conference will do. Will our Annual Conference vote to leave and go with the new Global Methodist Church, the traditional church? - with or without the passage of the Protocol. I was on the phone this past week with a layperson from another city and another church, Methodist church and he said, "Jimmy, I want your thoughts on, I'm thinking about submitting legislation at our Annual Conference"… so South Georgia's annual conference is in June that asks the Annual Conference to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. He said, "I want your thoughts on that." And we kicked it around.

There are churches in our conference, there are laity in our conference who are saying, "It's time for us as a conference to leave and be our own conference until we join the Global Methodist Church." And I don't know whether that legislation will be presented or not, but I want you to know, there's some people that are thinking along those lines. In fact, your delegation, I'm part of our delegation elected, we have been talking about that as well, even meeting with the Bishop to talk about that at times. But there hasn't been any real action in that direction taken.

So what do I think is going to happen? I know you've all been waiting with baited breath to hear what Jimmy thinks is going to happen. Here are my thoughts, and you know what, if it proves right, good if it doesn't, that's okay too, because there are a lot of uncertainties here as you've already figured.

Here's the first thing, I think. I don't think that the protocol, definitely not going to pass this year 2021 at the Called General Conference. So May the 8th. I just don't think they're going to do that.

I don't really think it's going to be passed in 2022. There are a number of reasons for that. Number one, I'm not so sure we're going to meet in 2022. It all depends on what happens with the coronavirus, whether it goes wild again or not, it depends on whether people in other countries can get the vaccine. There's just all those logistical concerns. So I'm not so sure. There are a lot of other people who are smarter than me that know more of the United Methodist structure than I do who think that the idea is just to kick the can down the road again. So we may not even have a General Conference until 2024. It might get pushed back until then. With the idea from some of our progressives that we can elect more progressive delegates and maybe overturn the Traditional Plan and change and become “the progressive church we wanted it to be.”

The third thing is this. I think what's going to happen is I think some of our larger conservative United Methodist Churches, maybe some in our Conference are going to leave. I'll tell you, the conversations that I'm in, and we meet regularly, Terry, and Jamie, and Kathy, and Brooks, all of them know I'm on the phone a lot with Zoom conferences and meetings. The people are tired. They're just tired. They're tired of fighting.

It's like I've said before, when I left my law practice to enter in the ministry, I didn't get into ministry to fight. I didn't. I got into ministry to help people know Jesus. So there's just a sense from a lot of people your conservative churches, they've been fighting this fight for so long. It's like why don't we just - let's just go do our own thing. Let's just go be who we want to be and teach people about Jesus and love people, and try to make a difference in the world and leave all this other stuff in this fighting and this bickering behind. I'll tell you what, as your pastor that sounds pretty good to me at times, because I spend a whole lot of time having to deal with it. So I think that's going to happen. I'm pretty sure that's going to happen in other Conferences too. And I think that will happen before 2024 for sure.

I believe also that this new traditional church is going to launch in 2022. One way or the other. If the Protocol comes up, if we do have a General Conference in 2022, the Protocol is passed, they'll definitely launch. If we have the General Conference in 2022, and it's not passed, they'll definitely launch. So I think that will happen then.

I think that some Annual Conferences will vote to leave and go with the Global Methodist Church at some point, before long; and I think that many local churches…

Do you know last year we lost, in our district, we lost four churches? Four churches said, "I've had enough" and they paid the money, and they pulled out. So we approved at our Annual Conference last year, the digital Zoom Annual Conference last year that those churches could do so. I think it was a total... somebody help me remember. Was that nine churches total? It was a number of churches in the Annual Conference, our South Georgia Annual Conference who left and said, "I'm done."

So what do we do now? What do we do now?

I hope you're doing this already. I hope you're praying. I hope you're praying for your pastors, and for just this whole struggle. Please keep praying. I mean, Debbie and I have our - we have our prayer list that's written out and so when we do our morning prayers and we go through a week, it's like six pages now, Debbie, isn't it in our journal? A lot of your names are in there. But I start with my family, then I start with my staff. And then the next thing I pray for is our Conference and our denomination, and what God is wanting to do there.

I hope that you'll stay informed there. There is a ton of information out there on the internet. Some of you may have seen some of it. Some of you may have questions about it. I'm happy to answer questions about it. But you do want to stay informed with the right information. And I'll help you do that. Our church will help you do that. Our staff will. Be prepared. I mean, I don't know what's happening. I don't know what's going to happen, but just be prepared. There may be a time in the life of this church when it's no longer United Methodist.

I've been Methodist all my life. I was Methodist before it was United Methodist. Raise your hand if you were Methodist before it was United Methodist? Names change sometimes. And for me, there's a sadness there because I believe in my time in ministry - I've been in the ministry now 20 years - I've watched our denomination change in the 20 years I've been in ministry. It's not the same denomination that I signed up for when I said I wanted to be a minister. And that's troubling to me, because I love the United Methodist Church. I love the Methodist church. I love the Wesleyan teaching. I love that John Wesley did all that he did, and I don't ever want to lose that. But it's like somebody very wise said, they said, "it's not that we would consider leaving the United Methodist Church, it's that the United Methodist Church has left us", as we understood it to be when we first joined it.

Educate others, let them know about it.

Keep doing what we're doing now. Just keep doing what we're doing now and love God and love others. We're going to love everybody. We're going to love everybody. It doesn't matter what their human sexuality is, we're going to love them. We've got to because Jesus loves them and we're going to do that and keep doing that.

So here's kind of the bottom line. I tell you this every time that no matter what happens, no matter what happens, we're still going to be Park Avenue, and we're still going to do what we do. Your Sunday School class will still meet. We will still have worship. It will look just like it looks right now. So that's a good thing. What happens out there, happens out there, but we're still going to be who we are. We're going to follow Jesus Christ and we're going to love others, and we're going to worship the Risen King. So that's my plan.

So there's some resources. If you want to learn more, I'll give these to you. You're welcome to get a copy of my presentation today if you'd like to and slow it down and look through it.

Questions & Closing Remarks

Do I have any time? I might have time for maybe one question if somebody has one that you say, "I just got to get this question in right now." I'm happy to maybe entertain a question. Yeah?

Question 1:
So I know you've talked a lot about the issues at General Conference and the challenges presented in the church. Have you seen any that directly linked to us or is it merely in the Annual Conferences?

Rev. Jimmy Towson:
That's a good question. The question is are we seeing violations basically of our Book of Discipline in our Annual Conference? The good news is we have not seen that, not in an open way. We are seeing it under the surface. We've seen a little bit of the tip of the iceberg, but we're seeing and hearing more about it under the surface. I think what we're seeing is, we're seeing more of our young clergy lean towards progressive ideology. And that's influencing other areas of our conference.

I'm aware of some instances in our conference where you could argue there were violations of the discipline, but it's not as egregious. It's not as bad as in other conferences, which is a blessing. I told my folks that I was on the Zoom meeting with, from the SEC, the Southeastern Jurisdiction. I said being in South Georgia and sometimes is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is we don't have those things. The curse is we don't have those things, which means we're lulled to sleep; and we don't need to be asleep, we need to be aware of what's going on. So good question. Yep. One more maybe.

Comment:
Jimmy, I'm a charter member of this church, been here a long time. One thing I never understood is why we went from the Methodist Church to the United Methodist Church. And my opinion is whatever, if we go back to where we were to start with we'd be better off.

Rev. Jimmy Towson:
Thank you, Gary. All right. Yes. One more?

Question 2:
My question is about pensions. If our church were to split we have a lot of retires; how does that affect their pensions?

Rev. Jimmy Towson:
Yeah, our understanding from CFNA is that, which is our financial group, that's part of the United Methodist Church, there will be no issues with that. It'll either transfer to the new denominations, they've already worked that out with the... What's the name of the outfit we pay the money to?

Congregation:
Wespath.

Rev. Jimmy Towson:
Wespath. They've already worked all that out with them and it won't affect us. So yeah, that's a good thing.

All right. I think I need to go preach. Let me pray for us and we'll wrap it up.

Father, thank you. I know that you, Lord want us to be aware of what's happening in our world. You placed us in our world. You told us to be in the world, but not be of the world and that's true when it comes to a denomination too. Our identity is in you Jesus Christ, as your beloved children. And that's where we should live and breathe, and place our hope and our trust always, because everything else that takes that place becomes an idol, and we would be guilty of idolatry. We don't want that. We want to follow you closely. Thank you for these friends. Thank you for this church, for the work you're doing here, and for your presence among us that is making a difference in lives. We're grateful, Lord. We love you. Bless us please. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.


Update:

On March 22, 2021, the day after this presentation by Rev. Jimmy Towson, the United Methodist Council of Bishops voted to cancel the special General Conference on May 8, 2021. So, there will not be a called General Conference on May 8, 2021.

The bishops said that they plan to use their regularly scheduled April meeting to discuss results of listening sessions and discern a possible new timeline.

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On May 14, 2021, it was announced from September 1, 2021 to the 2022 Jurisdictional Conference that the Council of Bishops approved the recommended plan of coverage for the SEJ by Bishop David Graves to provide interim episcopal leadership to both the South Georgia and the Alabama-West Florida Conferences.