An Open Pastoral Letter to United Methodists, Part II: A Word of Clarification

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Dear United Methodists,

Immediately following General Conference I wrote an Open Letter to United Methodists expressing my long term hope for a renewal in the global Wesleyan movement which was rooted not in ecclesiastical deliberations, but in grass roots faithfulness of the “people called Methodists.” I truly wish that I could have shared that message with each of you in person and face to face because it was written in tears over the intractable situation we are in.

Blog articles are a collection of words, and it is not always easy to convey one’s tone or emotions in a blog entry. Speaking honestly, despite the situation we are in, I would not describe my feeling as “anger” but more as “sadness.” I am a lifetime United Methodist. I love our Wesleyan heritage. Yet, my entire ministry has been conducted within the larger narrative of decline and cultural accommodation. The blog article garnered wide circulation. Some were distressed because I have not supported any movement towards separation. Others were distressed because they felt the letter seemed to have lost hope in the leadership of the United Methodist church.

There are many signs of hope amidst the rubble of destruction. I long for the day when United Methodists will re-capture the vibrancy which once characterized our movement. I am proud of all the ways Asbury Theological Seminary graduates, as well as many graduates from the official United Methodist seminaries, have remained faithful to the gospel in the midst of this massive cultural transition from a church in Christendom, to a church in a post-Christendom culture. I am also thankful for those bishops, pastors, and lay men and women around the church who stand unabashedly for historic faith and Wesleyan faithfulness.

I want to sincerely apologize for anything I said in that Open Letter that cast any indictment or disparagement on our episcopal leadership. I intended to express sympathy for their situation. The Council of Bishops can only speak with one voice, yet the makeup of the Council is so polarized it is difficult for a clear voice to be heard. I am, myself, under the appointment of a bishop who has been a great stalwart for historic Christianity. Indeed, I have great respect for many on the Council. I sincerely apologize for any hurt I may have caused any bishops who have given their lives to bringing faithful leadership to our beloved church.

I do know that in the wake of General Conference there are millions of United Methodists around the world who need to know that we have a future. In closing I want to reiterate my invitation to consider the New Room Network as a way of linking Wesleyans around the world. I believe that the millions of United Methodists who are distraught and discouraged may find in the New Room a new space for hope. The New Room Network has nothing to do with dividing the church and everything to do with uniting Christians around the world in the work of awakening and renewal in the classic Wesleyan way. I think we can all agree we are in need of a great awakening in our time. That’s what the New Room Network is all about—gathering, connecting and resourcing the global church to sow for a great awakening. You can learn more about that here.

Finally, while I am a seminary president, I write as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. Like so many others, I am in pain. I feel betrayed. We have been in slow schism for decades, having lost millions and millions of members. I long to see us regain our focus on mission, discipleship, church planting and evangelism. That was the heart of my Open Letter. I also know that I am a “frail child of dust.” I am a sinner, desperately in need of the grace of God. I have never advocated separation from the United Methodist Church, though my reasons for that will have to wait for another time. I have never wavered in my faith that God is not through with us yet. May God’s grace grant us a future and a hope.

Comments

  • John Harnish says:

    Though I appreciate your attempt at an apology, which I accept as genuine, your earlier blog did more than just denigrate the Bishops. And while I want to accept your apology, I sense the same tone and spirit in this blog which I found so troubling in the first one. Finally, you can say “I write as an elder in the UMC”, but whenever you write it is clearly in your role as the President of Asbury Seminary and it is not in the seminary’s best interest for the President to write without thinking through the consequences and implications of what he says. Finally, though you say “I have never advocated separation”, your previous post clearly suggests the steps you have taken which could contribute to that. I am deeply troubled by both the first post and the apology.

  • The emotions you have described in the two blogs about general conference seem to be in line with the process of “grief” which encompasses an array of emotions including anger, sadness, feeling of loss of control, despondency and mourning. There can be a grief in the death of a dream, a vision, a hope or even of a loss of “identity” which could explain feelings which have erupted after conference. But remember we have a hope through the resurrection- and where there is death- life can arise. I pray the UM church arises stronger and more committed to our Saviour- shedding the corporate for Scripture and risking the stand on the Truth. I pray this trial refines us as we endure the struggles and remain faithful to the call of Christ.
    And yes, many grieve- but joy comes in the morning:)

  • Aybido says:

    I can only imagine the backlash that precipitated this “clarification.” The first letter was, in opinion, brilliant. I sent it to friends and re-posted it on my blog in great admiration for its clarity and courage. I know you are in a difficult spot with a diverse group of stakeholders and agendas to manage, and an enrollment to maintain and hopefully grow. You will always have many critics, but in this case you have nothing to apologize for, and in any case, no apology will ever “unoffend” the offended. But where will the offended be five years from now? Don’t cave. Let Asbury be a place where disciples and discipler-makers are made and let the chips fall where they will.

  • Timothy you are Methodist you get to say it and debate it. You get to cry over it, rage over it, share it and ponder it. If the head leaders faith is now so weak they take a dissenting opinion then they have a problem. Strong faith incorporates dissenting opinions without being swayed. They need a better process. In the laity we argue, we say what we think, not at the person personally but at the issues. Methodism has that gift from the very beginning. Oh Lord get up an all night prayer vigil for Ashbury Seminary they had an opinion. Who have you been playing with Timmy?

  • dan johnson says:

    Dear Rev. Tennent (I write to you as an elder in the UMC),

    Thank you for this follow up email. I, too, am one who loves our Church, and who was shaped by my experiences at Asbury Seminary, and who have had the honor of serving on Asbury’s Board of Trustees these past 20 years. I’m also a pastor who has been impacted deeply by the stories of my people. For good or for ill, (I believe mostly good), I see the gray more than the black or white, I see the extension of grace and kindness to be the way God calls me to live and serve, and that, from my view point, makes life complicated and complex. We are living in intense times in the church, and for some reason, feelings rise to fever pitch around issues of sexuality, to the point that they almost overshadow all else. I also have an innate inclination to have my position on a matter and be very comfortable with others having a different position – maybe it’s the only way a fourht of six children could survive, but I think it’s more than that. There are lots of us out in the church who believe this way, especially around issues that we believe are not at the essence of our faith (such as matters of the Creeds which are essential).
    Regarding General Conference, during the first several days I could not imagine any good outcome for our church, and then when I learned of the move to ask the Council of Bishops to lead, I was, quite frankly, elated! I believed it to be a movement of the Spirit, a way through the Sea when there seemed to be no way. Admittedly I am biased because our Bishop, Ken Carter, is believed by all of us in Florida to be a superb person of God and a faithful leader of the church, and will be President Elect of the Council, so yes, I was thrilled, and am thrilled. I trust the whole church will keep them in our prayers.
    So, thanks to you, a fellow UM Clergy person and also the President of my alma mater and of the Board on which I serve; thanks for your “Part II.” I remember a long time ago, during the 8 day, spontaneous revival when the Holy Spirit visited Asbury; the overwhelming sense was one of “quiet, wondrous love.” I will never forget it, it has shaped me and my ministry, and I pray it will always be so for Asbury and for our Church.

    • Mason Dorsey says:

      Dear Dr. Tennent,

      I think both of your letters were fine and an accurate, caring, loving reflection on the events of GC and their impact on the church, and on you. Your leadership and call for scriptural holiness are what the church needs. My hope is that you are asked to serve on the special commission on human sexuality and that you will shed much light on the truth of how God calls us to live. I don’t believe that the UMC will be allowed the luxury of continuing to maintain a middle ground. If what we have discerned is the middle ground, we are being pushed from that middle. Your leadership is compassionate for those who disagree with the biblical stance the church has maintained and the UMC has kept. We know that we cannot keep the middle we have carved out. It is not respected by the LGBTQI community nor by the clergy and bishops who are more open to changing the UMC’s stance. Keeping the tension of the middle is not going to be possible, except in word. Whether we maintain the banner of the UMC, or dissolve into 2 or more separate denominations, the tension of the middle will not be maintained. This is grievous to many and I appreciate your grief in this too. Thank you for continuing to lead from the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. Thank you for continuing to call us to serve the God who gave His Son so that the world might have everlasting life. Thank you for helping all of us to stay humble through difficult conversations. In Christ’s love, thank you.

  • Given your position with seminary leaders, caucus group leaders, Seedbed, and pressure from the denomination, I can only seek to understand your difficulty. First and foremost, as your brother in Christ Jesus, your fellow elder in the church, as one saved by grace, and moving on to perfection in the power of the Holy Spirit, and as an individual who was blocked from your receptiveness, I do not fully understand your passive rhetoric. I do not think that blogs are just a ‘collection of words.’ You used words in your open letter that hurt the global community and our Wesleyan holiness Christian witness. These words were not expected from someone in your position. I hope you will read and respond to what I wrote concerning your first post when you receive it in the mail as it wasn’t posted to your blog.

    Second, I encourage you to listen to the voices coming from all your colleagues, alumni, students, and the UMC denomination – not just your board and contributors. I do not understand why such statements come from Asbury given that it is not an official UMC institution. I encourage you to distance yourself from speaking with authority for the United Methodist Denomination – at least for a while, and join colleagues, students, alumni, and many others in fervent prayer and table conversations. As a leader, you are given great respect, and with the fact that your flock is wide and vast, endorsing movements that do no unite our body but further divide it is disheartening. Many of us are not naive.

    Given these thoughts, to which we can disagree while being perfected in love, I wish you the best, and pray that our church will be perfected in the love of God, and not in specific endorsements fueled with big voices and big money from caucus groups. You are a man of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, with a big platform. With your apology and repentance, I thank you, and it is my prayer that you have realized once again the brokenness of our human condition and the hope for all people – created in the Image of God – to whom the whole bible for the whole world reaches.

  • Betsy says:

    As a person who has sat in a UMC pew for most of my 60+ years, I fully appreciated the honesty of your first post; your angst resonated with mine. The church has allowed this insanity to drag on for way too long. It was sometime last year, while monitoring all the voices swirling around the sexuality question that I realized there was a very divisive momentum building toward GC2016. I think it was a mistake to deflect that because it would have been the most honest expression of who we are as a church; I was actually hoping that it would force leadership to acknowledge that an unhealthy level of diversity is running amuck in The United Methodist Church. I am a huge fan of what Asbury Seminary is doing through seedbed and The New Room Conference– it is the best hope for the person sitting in a pew in a United Methodist Church. I stumbled into seedbed its first year. When J. D. Walt started writing The Daily Text it became a continuation of my journey in learning what all I did not know and understand about basic orthodox Christianity. His series on singing the Psalms was absolutely amazing and helped me through a tough spot. It has been good to be in Wesleyan territory with a modern twist because before that, my journey had been criss-crossing denominational lines. To my dismay, outside of John Wesley himself, none of my teachers were from the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition although my favorite teacher, a Presbyterian pastor, was very Wesleyan in his thinking; he actually describes where The Methodist Church got off track (the words in brackets are my personalization of the statement):

    “…Essentially, the Pharisees’ problem, and ours, is in understanding the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. We easily confuse the two. One implies information, while the other is a vital relationship…Typically Protestant churches are better at helping people know [some] things about God than we are at
    helping them know God as people who live with him. It should come as no surprise that when Christians really need their faith, if [some] knowledge is all they have, they will soon wander away in search of a God worth worshiping. [The church version will no longer “do”]”– M. Craig Barnes, “When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change”

  • Dr. Tennant,
    With as much grace as I can muster, let me say that the folks who needed this apology are the ones who are most likely never to “pick up a weapon and stand a post,” or, “run toward the bullets instead of away.” Having said that, whatever you do, never apologize for your statement, “I would rather be shot in three days than slowly tortured over three years, but that’s just me.” That statement may be even more applicable than you realize. Those who think it flippant and ungracious do not see the battle that is raging for the life of the UM Church. As Dr. Anthony Esolen in, “Over our Dead Bodies” writes, “The fist guy to climb the siege ladder to the top of the castle will most assuredly die, but if he does not go, no one else can go.” The real warrior has already died once, a death without which he is impotent. We need warriors like you whom we can follow up the hill…called Calvary. Sir, keep the flag high. If we lose it’s vision, we will lose our way.

  • Dear Dr. Tennent, I want to affirm both of your Open Letters. As a 1973 graduate of A. T. S. and a retired elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church, I have been standing up for our biblical, orthodox, conservative, Holiness position in our DISCIPLES ever since these issues began at the Atlanta General Conference in 1972, the end of my middler year at Asbury. Your Letters are most encouraging, for I am getting weary of the battle. Dr. Kenneth Cain Kinghorn was my Professor of Church History when I was a student at Asbury. He did not say this is my class in the fall of 1970, but another Asburian and retired elder in our Conference had him two or three years after I did. According to that friend, and maybe I misunderstood him, Dr. Kinghorn told his class, “No denomination has drifted so far astray as the United Methodist denomination has and then experienced Revival/Awakening.” I still do believe God is on His throne and in control and affirm II CHRONICLES 7:14. However, as I have said, “I am tired of the fight.” We are, as Good News has said, “At the Methodist Crossroads.” This is not so much a question of LGBTQI issues and agenda as it is the authority of Holy Scriptures. To think that we have to “wait this out” for perhaps another three years is frightening. I do appreciate my Alma Mater sponsoring the ministry PRAY UMC. We have two irreconcilable positions on this matter that is vital to our Christian faith. Just how much longer can those of us who are faithful and true to God’s Holy Word remain in a denomination that fights of the basic tenets of our Christian faith. I don’t know if I can remain loyal to our denomination much longer. I have no issues of any of our local Churches who are faithful evangelical congregations; it is with the concept of a “big tent” philosophy that embraces the far left, progressive Movement along with those of us who are orthodox, conservative, evangelical that continues to bother me. We need to be truly “The People of the Book” who are united in faith and doctrine.–Yours in Christ, The Rev. R. David Reynolds (“Pastor Dave”), Asbury Theological Seminary Class of 1973 and REtired Elder Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the UMC

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Well, you can see that Wesleyan-holiness patriots are in no mood to give way to the “spirit that rules the air” (Ephesians 2:1). Nor should they. This isn’t the moment that belongs to the devil. It’s the moment Jesus talked about when the Spirit “proves the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.” If you want to clarify your original remarks, that’s okay, Dr. Tennent, but don’t garble your message by trying to please the world.