An Open Pastoral Letter to United Methodists

Friday, May 20th, 2016

Dear United Methodists,

Another General Conference has ended and you are feeling betrayed, angry and sad about the brokenness of the church. Is there a way forward? Have the Bishops provided it with the document by the same name? Are we hopeful about the future?

First, as much as we might want to be angry with our Episcopal leaders, we should reflect on what a difficult place they are in. Just imagine what the country would be like if both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were both sworn in as President. Imagine further, if Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz also became President. Also sworn in the same day would be Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan, and so on until, eventually we had—simultaneously—66 Presidents of the United States. Are you sweating, yet? This is analogous to the situation we face in the United Methodist church. We have 66 bishops (46 episcopal regions in the US and 20 areas outside the US) who serve as the episcopal leaders over the United Methodist Church. Is it any wonder that we are deadlocked with no leadership? In the past the system managed to work reasonably well because, despite the numbers, there was a broad agreement concerning the gospel, the Wesleyan message, and there was, frankly, more integrity about covenant keeping. All of that is gone today. The church is left without leadership. The covenant which binds us is in tatters. The gospel message has become dim. The Wesleyan distinctives have long been reduced to a few predictable sound bites which have been ripped from their original setting and meaning. We are in a tough spot.

Second, we need a little truth telling about what happened at General Conference on the issue of human sexuality. The “leadership” move by the bishops was as predictable as it was lamentable. Appoint a commission to study the issue of human sexuality and kick the can down the road for three more years.

1. This episcopal document, known as An Opening for a Way Forward, is the final triumph of Rule 44. Like Rule 44, it will place in the hands of a few carefully selected people the privilege of drafting legislation about human sexuality. We have been given Rule 44 back in a different form, but it will unfold over three years rather than three days. I would rather be shot in three days than slowly tortured over three years, but that’s just me.

2. This motion expects that two or three more years of discussion will change things. They will not. The voices “chosen” for the evangelical position will likely be the weakest, most conflict adverse people they can find. But, even with that, the Scriptures will not change over the next two years. No amount of blue ribbon commissions will change God’s Word.

3. The time frame allows for three more years of cultural shift in post-Christian America. Because many of the leaders of the United Methodist church still foolishly envision our church as occupying the cultural center, it is hoped that more United Methodists will finally get on board this path of cultural accommodation. Let me be clear: I am not going to get on that boat. Because it will only lead us to more missional drift, more staggering membership losses, and more silencing of the Wesleyan message.

I consider the passing of the Episcopal initiative a failure for the church. It continues our agony for three more years. One of the closing sentences from the document best sums up the agony which awaits us: “We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”

What exactly does this mean? It is language which has become all too familiar to those of us in the rank and file. It throws us all back into the fog. Everyone can read into this whatever they want. But, let’s be clear what it really means. This statement gives official episcopal “space” for further disobedience to the Discipline (avoiding complaints, trials, and harm) while, in a masterful stroke of double-speak, says “while we uphold the Discipline.

What is the Way Forward?

Despite all of this agony, I have not given up hope in the power of the historic Wesleyan message. I believe that God still has a plan for the “people called Methodist.” I am not planning on leaving the UMC, but nor can I hope that anyone in leadership can lead us to a place of health. So, what do we do? We must realize that the future of the church is in our hands. We cannot expect our church to be rescued by endless meetings of Annual or General Conferences, episcopal deliberations, or costly blue ribbon study commissions. We must turn the volume off on the “general church” deliberations and focus on preaching the gospel, discipling believers, and living in holy covenant.

This is why we created the New Room Network and the New Room Covenant. We have zero interest in starting a new denomination. We are not even interested in arguing for separation. I’m tired of all the “solution” for a “third way” and a “way forward.” None of this will help us. We don’t have time for that. There is too much gospel work to be done. There are too many people dying without Jesus Christ. The purpose of New Room is to enter a new space which is joyful and missional. We are uniting evangelical Wesleyans from all around the world in a restored covenant. Thousands of United Methodists are joining. Thousands of other Wesleyans who are either former United Methodists or who belong to other Wesleyan movements like the Free Methodists, the Wesleyans, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and Salvation Army are joining from all around the world. This has nothing to do with “getting out” or “staying in” the UMC. This is for everyone who longs for the day when the gospel is again clearly proclaimed, God’s Word is affirmed, the Wesleyan insights are embraced, and our covenant is restored. Please join us.

I will never forget last September at our last New Room Conference. The conference ended with hundreds of United Methodist pastors on their face before God in travailing prayer. I had never seen anything like it. God is not through with us. We do have a future and a hope. Come to our next New Room Conference (Sept. 21-23) which will draw over a thousand of us together. We have created a space for hope. We have created a space for mission. We have created a new room for Wesleyan identity. Let’s join together and remember our first love, shall we?

Learn more about the New Room Network.

Comments

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Timothy Tennent rightly summarizes the conundrum of a vexed and ambivalent church that cannot shut the door on disobedience or resolve to live together in scriptural holiness. But he also discerns that the Holy Spirit is creating “a space for hope.” Not a space for resignation to the world, but air space for what the Spirit intends to do NOW.

  • Dick Dedic says:

    I applaud Dr. Tennant for taking a firm stand for unity within the church. We do not need to be talking only division…”My way or the highway.” But we also do not need to be homogeneous. Methodism has always been diverse and consequently Centerist. Our problem right now is that we are governed by a Book of Discipline that is partly belief statement and partly administrative rules. As a church we need a clearly stated mission/belief statement that is based on Biblical truths and God’s clear message to love all peoples. Secondly, we need a separate book of regulations/rules that reflects our congregational understanding of our statements of belief. This dual document system; much like the US Constitution and the Federal/State regulations that support and implement each other would provide a means of unity and diversity. The General Conference would be responsible for statement of beliefs. The Council of Bishops would be responsible for the rules. Since the bishops are elected by the Annual Conferences they should serve a 4 year renewable term and be responsible for the leadership and administration of the Conference. Differences in rules or regulations should be decided within the Council of Bishops and affirmed or denied by the Judicial Council as being in accordance with or against church belief. I recognize that this proposal will lead to a more congregational form of church structure, but that is a reflection of a diverse world. We can be centered in belief and diverse in application.

  • Mary Page says:

    We fail Jesus everyday. Fail by disobeying. So does the church as a corporate whole. WE never get it right ever we see dimly and do the best we can with the understanding we have. Better to do something than nothing.

    The fuel of the Methodist church is prayer. Doing Steve Harpers Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition John Wesley never got it right. Not one time but he never let it stop him. Instead he used all his many prayers to develop a devotional life. So what is that now in the Methodist church? Not a program not a rule not a regulation not the book of discipline but devotional life which becomes a blessing catcher. I wonder if we could do that corporately..reading reflecting recording relating leads to formative… first prudential rule is DO NO HARM hard a detachment displacement ethic the boundary the frame for spiritual life what is it for corporate or general conference… how to avoid legalism but still create frameworks and boundaries to work within hmmmmm maybe even general conference has strayed from the basic essential core of Methodism intentional prayer study talking about it to self, talking about it to others write it down and revise till consensus or a set of opinions are formed then relate it to the reality that is …pick a path and know Jesus will adjust it

    • I usually stay away from these issues, but when I felt God’s call to the UMC and began to see the divergent beliefs, this is the Scripture God laid on my heart and what I have sought to do in my time of ministry over the last 25 years, 15 of those years as a Full Elder.

      2 Tim 4 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist,discharge all the duties of your ministry.

      I don’t argue with people, I carefully, and I hope always, with a Spirit of Love and Grace, teach the whole counsel of God’s Word. Every year, we have new people baptized into the faith, others publically profess their faith and become confirmed members. And all seek God’s Call and direction for their lives and for the Church.

  • Author says:

    If we practice Mark 12: 30-31, everything else will settle out.

    • James Mace says:

      We do not generally “practice Mark 12: 30-31” yet because misinterpreters of Scripture have changed the definition of the Second Great Commandment, and now after centuries this alteration of God’s holy word has gained the status of tradition. But my doctoral work is restoring the priority of love for fellow Christians as enumerated by Jesus and the Apostles.

      Only after the Church has recovered the true doctrine and praxis of the Second Great Commandment will we incarnate the holy divine image required to fulfill our Great Commission. This is necessary to facilitate Wesley’s “grand ‘Pentecost’.” With that restoration, our best days lie yet ahead.

  • Thank you for your writing and efforts for unity in the United Methodist Church. I attended Asbury Theological Seminary Orlando. There I was trained, nurtured, and grew as a theologian and leader in the church.

    Your words ‘I’d rather be shot for three days than tortured for three years’ in your open letter discouraging the UMC to take time to dialogue concerning human sexuality is disheartening to me.

    This discourages the witness and message of Asbury Theological Seminary. Though you write in great hope for the New Room Conference, and though this conference has been meaningful for many in the past two years, your words hurt and hinder our witness as Methodists to ‘do no harm’ in your preceding paragraphs.

    I served a conservative United Methodist Church in the Greater Miami, Ft. Lauderdale area where we experienced shootings and suicide regularly in our area. I remember when a Church of the Nazarene pastor was murdered in cold blood in North Miami.

    In addition, Christians are being tortured and killed by radical religious groups around the world and locally in the U.S. context.

    Wilmore is not the center for United Methodism nor the voice to use such flippant language.

    Your hateful words do not personify your writings on Christian mission and witness. I sense you are frustrated, but the Asbury community is vast, and you do not speak for all of us. Though some of us are of other theological persuasions than you, we value the words and witness of Asbury Theological Seminary – ‘the whole bible for the whole world,’ and we do not expect to hear such misused words of our current president.

  • Somehow the fact that the Methodists created a clear unbalance between the three branches is overlooked here. A strong legislative (General Conference) and judicial (Judicial Council) branch was balanced with a weak Executive branch. The bishops have no voice or vote without the permission of the General Conference. The legislative branch created the division. Now they want a miracle intervention, as long as is an orthodox response. Jesus was unorthodox. The status quo will never be satisfied.

  • Randy Neal says:

    Looks like New Room is your new denomination. No one is ever satisfied until they find or create a church that reflects their ideals, beliefs, and feelings.

  • I appreciate the clarity and compassion of Dr. Tennant’s words. As a former UM but always Wesleyan at the heart of my preaching, teaching, etc., I find it refreshing to hear reasonable explanation and hope for the “Holy Catholic Church”. Let the wind of His Spirit drive us to the throne!

  • Bonnie Brown says:

    Excellently stated, Dr. Tennent! Wanted to share with our UM congregation on our Facebook page, but the FB link below your blog post isn’t “working.”

  • Chuck K says:

    Thank you, Dr. Tennent…. Your Holy Spirit inspired words brought some peace to my soul…
    God Bless you!

  • Tim Meers says:

    Thank you so much for this letter… it reaffirms my desire to attend Asbury when I finish this degree. Thank you for your commitment to God’s word and our mission to the sexually broken, whether hetero or homosexual. This whole identity crisis attacks the very essence of the creation story and the mystery of the Church and Christ as bride and groom.

    • Jack Harnish says:

      I am deeply dismayed by the content and the tone of your so-called “pastoral letter”. There is nothing pastoral about it. Denigrating the Council of Bishops, undermining the new commission before it gets started, then basically saying “We don’t care about the UMC, we’re going to save the world ourselves” does not serve ATS well.

  • Max Wilkins says:

    New Room is the most exciting, positive, proactive, missional and Kingdom focussed movement to emerge from the Wesleyan stream of our faith in decades. As a fully engaged participant I was so blessed by the complete focus on advancing the gospel, the Wesleyan way, and the Kingdom, while moving away from politics, division, and distractions. It was publicly declared that New Room would be a “denominational angst free zone” and I believe we have held to that. Dr. Tennent you wrote: “We don’t have time for that. There is too much gospel work to be done. There are too many people dying without Jesus Christ. The purpose of New Room is to enter a new space which is joyful and missional. We are uniting evangelical Wesleyans from all around the world in a restored covenant.” I couldn’t agree more, and I applaud you and the multitude of other faithful people from the Wesleyan movement who have helped to make New Room a reality. Those of us who share this common heritage, message and mission can encourage one another and spur one another on to love and good works. In doing so, and focussing on the mission, I truly believe we will see the emergence of a renewed enthusiasm (in the most literal and positive sense of the word) among the people called Methodists. Thank you so much. See you in September in Franklin.

  • Alan Jackson says:

    Wow…you really wrote “The church is left without leadership” I am sure our Bisphops would find that quite amusing. Please remain in the “academy”…because being a pastor in local church is hard enough…with the feeding the poor and visiting sick parishioners without hearing those who appointed us lack leadership skills.

  • Pat Polis says:

    Thank you Dr. Ten ant for your thoughtful words. I am proud to be an Asbury Seminary graduate.

  • Christopher says:

    General church deliberations are as part of the covenant as prohibitions on gay marriages. How then do you choose which parts of the covenant to follow and which parts to eschew? That’s the disingenuous part that smells of hypocrisy.

  • Paul Seay says:

    I expect better from a seminary president.

  • I will add to the observations of just how divided our Methodist ideals have become, and how much disparity can be seen between the more liberal-minded among us and some of the basic tenants of Christianity…
    I recently took a night class at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS… a “Methodist” college which receives apportionments from the General Conference, primarily in the form of full and half scholarships granted to entering freshmen. The class I attended was held in the Department of Religious Studies, in what is decidedly the most run-down and ignored building I have seen on campus. There was very little evidence in that building that I was in a Methodist, Christian college at all. The bulletin boards which used to be covered in info flyers and pamphlets from various seminaries had be re-purposed as a place for student expression, and was covered with dozens of photos of Budda and Jesus, supposedly as an exercise of compare/contrast and a visual expression of what is seen in society. The photos were all accompanied by identifying phases such as “Sunday-school Jesus”, “White Jesus”, “Daycare Jesus”, “Sad Jesus”, etc. (I noticed that the corresponding labels of Budda did not appear to have the same patronizing tone.) As my class had been canceled, I decided to use my time there to look around and get a fuller picture of the Religious Studies Dept. After all, one bulletin board may not have been representative of the Dept. I found the posting of “Religious Studies Spring Classes 2016” rather informative. I wish I could attach a photo of it, along with other pearls I saw taped outside the faculty office, but I’ll share a few quotes from the course descriptions here.
    Course RLST 4900-01, RLST 3900-01
    “What Does Religious Studies Study?”
    by Dr.Steven G. Smith (Ph.D., Duke University) “Does religion change basically along with historical changes in society? Is “religion” a real thing?”

    RLST 2750- IDST 2500-05
    Spiritual But Not Religious
    Dr. Lola Williamson (Ph.D., Univ. of Wisconsin)
    “We will then read a contemporary ethnographic study of SBNRs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The
    course will culminate with student’s own ethnographic research of an SBNR group in Jackson (of which there are many).”

    Hinduism In America RLST 2750-03, IDST 25-01 Dr. Lola Williamson (Ph. D., Univ. of Wisconsin) “Then we’ll… explore convert Hinduism, including popular meditation movements… proffered to the American public from the 1960s to the present”

    Modern and Contemporary Theology, RLST 31-01 Dr. Shelli Poe (Ph.D., University of Virginia, who states her areas of emphasis are “Christian theology, feminism, and liberation”
    “Isn’t religious belief outdated, superstitious, and a thing of the past? How can people claim to know God and practice religion in an age of space travel, modern medicine, and the iPhone?… We will investigate the roles theology and Christians *may* (emphasis mine) still have to play in the contemporary world.”

    The Qur’an Comes West, FYCS 1020-01
    Dr. Rahel Fischbach (Ph. D. candidate, Georgetown University)
    The reputation of the Qur’an… in Western discourse is generally negative, stereotyping it as the eternally static “other”….This was not always so. Great Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Voltaire, politicians such as Thomas Jefferson, and artists like Thomas Blake held the Qur’an to be *the embodiment of rational religion* (emphasis mine). What happened to the… collective memory… that changed this outlook?”

    Special Interests for Religious Studies Majors include:
    Christian Liberation: Race and Sex
    Religion, Science and Nature
    Trinity: Then and Now
    Re-Thinking Jesus
    Religion and Literature
    The Meaning of Work

    I’m sorry, but I do not feel these options are providing the most fertile ground for preparing future Evangelical Christian &/or Methodist ministers, lay leaders, youth leaders, or disciples.

    The money from our tithes that fund scholarships to Millsaps, and liberal-agenda colleges like it, is money that is distributed and spent at the discretion of the college, and from all appearances, it is not preferentially spent on maintaining the Religious Studies building or the ideals most of us would expect. I personally think it is time to change this.
    I found no evidence of a current on-campus chaplain.

    The student interest group of Religious Studies is
    S.L.A.C.K.E.R.

    On display outside the Chapel (which appeared to get little use) is an antique church pew, covered with political stickers, rainbow LBGT stickers, and some with profanity. What a statement.

    I’ll stop there, but let it be known that there are no classes this semester that specifically teach the tenants of the Wesleyan Methodist Tradition, or claim to uphold the basic tenants of Christianity as truth.

  • The letter is typical Asbury fodder and reveals a lack of understanding of the great work our bishops are doing to revive and transform the UMC to serve this present age. The issue of our time is not human sexuality but rather how we like Wesley will discern the value of “going into the fields” of our time to offer Christ.

  • A question that can be asked is whether or not anyone outside the UMC needs what we have to offer. Most people who have looked at us have said “No, thanks!” From my perspective, the Wesleyan understanding of scriptural teaching is desperately needed in evangelicalism today, yet few evangelical UM’s seem to have any interest in embracing our Wesleyan distinctives. It seems that the Southern Baptists set the standard for our UM evangelical understanding of salvation, and the Chrismatics set the standard for the UM understanding of any works of grace beyond initial salvation. Is entire sanctification possible? Is it possible to be so filled with the perfect love of Christ that a Christian can love God and other people without barriers of sin to prevent that perfect love? If those things are possible, we UM’s had better get busy proclaiming those truths and practicing them as well.

  • to “Love our Neighbor”. What does that mean. We can talk circles around the idea of love and all agree it is something we should do. But for one person loving their neighbor is to correct a brother’s behavior and for another person loving their neighbor is accepting their identification of themself. For the current issue of human sexuality we cannot say”Love your Neighbor” and not get more specific and think that we have communicated our intent. Even the letter above is not painfully clear about the question of human sexuality.

  • This is enough to make the granddaughter of a mid-century Methodist minister want to shed her Methodist roots! And I thought the Southern Baptist Convention was disappointing!

  • I agree completely with you. My husband is a retired UMC minister, and an electrical engineer. He served in the full time ministry for nine years in the mid century, before the Methodist Church merged with the EUB. The Methodist Church was, at that time, quite progressive. The church advocated for civil rights, and the end of the Viet Nam War.
    I no longer recognize the church where I used to attend and was an active member. My husband and I now attend a UCC.