It comes with much personal reflection that after the United Methodist Church’s Annual Conference for the Pacific Northwest Conference area, encompassing where I live in Washington State, I decided to leave the church after seeing what I believe to be the church leadership moving away from spirituality and Christian teachings to a place where members of the hierarchy in our conference use the Church as a platform to pontificate a particular flavor of politics, aligning itself with an American political party, promoting organizations that provide legal advice to those who evade the law, and worst of all having members that promote an organization that advocates the killing of law enforcement officers. This is a sad outcome, but it represents an evolution of thinking becoming endemic to particular districts. I do not believe that most of the districts approve generally of these changes but unfortunately for me they encompass the area I reside. The best choice for me was to end my relationship.
I joined with the faith when I was twelve years old, being introduced to the United Methodist Church by two close friends. My parents were married at the same church my wife and I were thirty-seven years later.
Now the Church I attended as a teenager or a young adult in the area I reside is not as it was before. For this I will no longer attend. After attending an annual conference meeting, I penned a letter to my church’s laity and pastor which describes my observations and sums the decision I had to leave.
I faced three choices. Either accept the changes and go about as before, constantly at odds with myself as to why I must endure what I cannot accept; contest the actions of the church administration at a time in my life when I have grown weary of continually having to fight such battles; or attending to my own conscience and pursuing the faith of my choosing. For me the last choice is the best choice.
Here is the letter:
I attended the conference held in Portland as a lay member in representation of our church. Last year, I attended the conference in Puyallup.
One of the first differences between the two years is that both Washington and the Oregon-Idaho conference attended and were represented equally. I will defer to Pastor Sandy to elaborate on more of the particulars and structure. What I present now represents my overall impression of the event and some of my observations—which are my own.
For a brief background of the previous year’s event I participated in several work forums held between members of the laity discussing a wide range of topics pertinent to our annual conference. The participation among the audience showed how our church involves its members in a consensus minded, laity centered conference where members provided a foundation for our church and set policy accordingly. It moreover provided us to witness worthy causes such as disaster relief, bible education, spreading the world of Jesus, and helping vulnerable people to find comfort and meaning in their lives. Of course there were administrative matters requiring the vote of the membership.
In last year’s event for me and undoubtedly many others, there existed to my belief only one outstanding topic related to the church offering a more inclusive approach to clergy having alternative family arrangements that is in conflict with the book of discipline. We had a healthy debate in that fashion, which was good to voice these matters. In the end, the conference voted to not allocate funds toward prosecuting individuals based on these alternative lifestyles. For me this was a middle ground for this decade’s long controversy.
That aside, I came from last year’s event invigorated and very pleased with the experience. So when I had the opportunity for this year I had many hopes that I could further experience the renewal of faith in our church and reflect on the conference for direction on how we can grow our church accordingly and to the teachings of Jesus.
Unfortunately that was not the case this year.
Having attended our annual meeting in Portland, I came from the experience dissuaded and profoundly concerned at the misdirection the leadership and many influential members are steering the Pacific Northwest Conference.
From the start of the event my concerns came into play. One of the first acts of the leadership was to bring forth a group of probably a dozen or more individuals who were assigned roles to act in a manner of safety monitors for the conference. Not that these were individuals solely tasked with providing safety of the conference, such as medical professionals or maintenance of fire watch or similar duties but rather these were a light form of security officials who could be summoned whenever there was a disagreement between individuals. They were brought before the audience and introduced. The speaker declared that this group avails itself to involve itself whenever there is a situation where two or more people discussing a matter which “makes them feel uncomfortable”. The speaker further elaborated that the meeting would not be a place that is “unsafe for people” and there was an implied warning that vigorous dissent could warrant the imposition of the safety officers into the discussion.
Why was this of such concern to me? Because I have seen over the past five years in my writing and study of social censorship shows great numbers of examples where one particular party suppresses contrary views under the rubric of “safety” or “safe zones”, both of which were expressed by the speaker in a manner that is consistent with the types of censorship of speech when groups such as safety committees find certain speech objectionable.
Had this safety announcement been the limit of what I experienced, I propose it might have been benign. Coupled with other problems over several days it proved to be a prelude of more to come.
At these events, one can find booths featuring a great number of programs, crafts, books and displays introducing to participants some of the efforts our church brings to the many, with at least one goal being to provide members with additional resources and ways to participate. Yet, I discovered in hearing from others that several of the displays were not featured due to “lack of room” and were cancelled. Suspiciously, some of the displays were prominent and being placed next to the auditorium, while others were in the lower level where some of the classes were held.
Of those that received the preferential display site next to the main auditorium most carried political undertones.
I recall one booth showing a legal defense fund and advocacy group formed within the church administration addressed toward law breaking individuals in our society. This was not a jail ministry of sorts but almost went as far as being an analog of the ACLU but one centered on criminal defense. There were pamphlets proffered to be handed out to illegal immigrant groups advising them how to evade immigration officials and to not trust certain law enforcement officers. There was a political side of this that encouraged members of the church to lobby to end enforcement of immigration law.
Next to this booth was a display showing a police officer purportedly attacking a person who was down on a sidewalk, claiming that police brutality was involved and the take away from this booth was that law enforcement officers were essentially untrustworthy villains who victimize others. Compounding the message, was the introduction of groups that confront police in disturbing manners, groups that openly call during rallies for the death and murder of police officers. But the promotion of this group was not limited to one booth.
During one of the full membership events in the main auditorium, one of the speakers praised this group as being somehow beneficial to the community and that they were welcome with open arms into one of the churches to participate in volunteer services. It was not just that participants in this organization wanted to receive church services, but they were collectively identified and praised by the speaker collectively identified with this movement.
For me and undeniably many others in attendance I found the promotion of that organization as deeply insulting to those who served in the police profession. I retired from a sheriff’s department as a deputy. No other officer or deputy I have known over the years has done anything to justify being murdered yet the PNW conference leadership actively promotes a group who advocates the killing of persons such as my friends, family members, and coworkers who actually protect the community. I attended over the years probably fifteen officer funerals, the majority of which were officers who were murdered in the line of duty. I also had the unfortunate experience of two of my coworkers dying at work, one when I was a cadet back in 1984 and another in 2010, the latter person I found dead in a field after he suffered a horrific car crash. Yet, again, the UMC church officials promoted an organization having many of its membership who would rejoice in such tragedies.
If that was not enough of a concern, the leadership of the event made much work of introducing secular politics into the church. In my view this is both outside of what should be the scope our discipline and from a financial perspective could jeopardize our church’s tax-exempt status.
During a film presentation to the membership, it was greatly apparent that the conference was made to endorse a particular political view that is held by a faction of one of the main political parties in the U.S. Several politicians, one being a socialist city councilwoman in Seattle, are promoted as having virtues that somehow align with church teachings. The film also showed political movements at the exclusion of other political causes that were in conflict with the official political position presented, and presumably assented to by church leadership. None of these politics, or other politics for that matter, should have a place in our church as they are not the word of God or Christ.
It was readily apparent that the leadership and speakers’ goal was to foster a change in the UMC to align with these political goals. I had to wonder what they were managing, was it a church or a political movement disguising itself as a church. It seemed to me that there is an attempt to use the church as merely a vehicle to promote a particular politic, of course using funds from the membership to accomplish this effort.
To promote financial income of a politician, numerous persons at the conference wore decals and pins advertising a book that was offered by a political candidate for the presidency. Cokesbury, the Christian Bookstore aligned in some fashion with the Church, provided a shelf at the conference for this candidate along with free pins/decals for to be worn by members to help sell these books. Aside from the political endorsement, which walks the line of being in violation of IRS regulations of promoting political candidates, this particular candidate was the person who eagerly assisted the prosecution of elective wars that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, a person who during an interview visibly rejoiced and expressed a disturbing glee in how the leader of a particular nation was ultimately assassinated as a direct result of this military expedition. I cannot help but see the irony of this when coupled with our church’s century’s long goal to rid the world of the sufferings brought on by war and needless conflict. But apparently, this former candidate’s professed political position somehow aligns itself with the same political goals fostered by the conference’s leadership.
Toward the end of the semi-week’s schedule, the speakers presented a workshop encouraging members to write letters and make phone calls to politicians to encourage certain policy making.
Moving on from the political concern, the leadership swore in new ministers and others appointed to positions. While I laud each of these persons for their accomplishments and wish them the best, the official reciting to them their oaths of office when dictating that the appointees should Uphold the Book of Discipline, there was very obviously a dismissive attitude toward affirming this element of the oath. In fact, laughter was expressed, as if the book of discipline was to be ignored whenever it suited them or was inconvenient. Coupled with some of the political ideals promoted, led me to believe we were witnessing the cusp of the transformation of our conference into one that chooses to deviate from the will of the church generally.
The political correctness did not end there but the most striking example was some of the disrespect shown at one time toward our Indian members in the Southwest of our region.
My table was situated adjacent to an exit door leading outside. An Indian woman standing at the door lit a smudge pot containing herbs and sweet grasses and waiving the wafts of a light smoke outside. Later, she was introduced to the membership in front of the platform. She recited a tradition they had: a century’s long tradition that they incorporated into their later worship in our church. The practice where the laity would pray to God and the smoke from the smudge pot rose to carry their prayers to the heavens, a beautiful allegory and praise thought I. But apparently this was not permitted.
Sometime before her presentation, someone told her that she would not be permitted to present her prayer with us in the traditional manner. She had to extinguish the smudge pot before the prayer because “someone complained” about how the smoke would affect the health of people in the audience. The conference room was very expansive and provided a high ceiling. The argument was baseless. Somehow Catholics manage with having a censer but we could not pray this way. Once again we subjugate our Indian friends by denying them the right to pray in a manner of their own choosing. And if the insult was not enough, she asked that we refer to her people as not Native Americans but Indians or as their tribe such as the Chehalis, or such. In the end, however, the speaker at the podium somehow could not respect this and called her instead a Native American.
On the notion of church attrition we in the membership learned of more church closings. It seemed this time there were many more than last year. I foresee that if the leadership of this conference continues its political and social engineering goals the number of these churches leaving will increase. I did not see as much affordance to discussion as last year, and I had the impression that the leadership was uninterested in what the laity might have thought about the politics and instead is going to press on with its own agenda.
Several weeks ago, and I apologize for not having the source immediately available to me, I read that most of the church closings are in conferences where the approaches similar or identical to the policies set by the leadership of our area are much higher compared with areas that are not. The UMC is declining in the United States generally but is flourishing in Africa and South Korea, among other nations. The politics in our area are also not in alignment with that of Eastern Washington, most of Idaho, most geographical areas of Western Washington, and most of Oregon except for the Willamette Valley and possibly Salem. If the administration of these conferences keeps to themselves and practices whatever politics they wish they might also be benign. But, if instead it forces the matter onto each of the members in these more conservative areas, that’s going to be off putting to most of the laity of those named locations.
While I believe that our church should be more inclusive as previously aforementioned, my opinions are that the leadership is going too greater lengths to foster a political agenda.
The claim is that we need to fundamentally change the church to be more in political alignment with the Millennial Generation in order to stave off the attrition of the church membership. To some degree this is helpful but in the long term it is a recipe for failure.
The Millennial Generation is the least pious generation seen so far. I don’t believe we will gain more of these cohorts than we will lose by stepping over ourselves to attract them. If instead we ditched the politics and political correctness and focused on our worship and time honored traditions of promoting care and good toward others we actually will appeal more to the Generation Z cohort that is just coming of adult age.
This generation is as evidenced by research to be the most pious generation since the Greatest Generation. It is estimated that 40% of this cohort is open to religion and is interested in exploring membership. They are also not in direct ideological alignment with some of the identity politics and policies that the conference leadership is promoting. If we evangelize and bring to our church this generation we are all but certain to reverse the decade’s long trend of membership attrition plaguing mainline protestant churches. If continue with alienating our more conservative older members and ignore the wants and needs of Generation Z, we might make a strategic mistake that will be greatly damaging.
I hope for the sake of our church generally that the leadership of the PNW changes its approach and policy and not be so willing to be rogue in its approach toward the United Methodist Church General Conference.
In all, for the past thirty or so years, the possibility of a schism occurring in the church between two factions in the church and its damage being debilitating, I have since this conference event reversed my beliefs in part.
If we are to experience minor but vocal leadership factions of the PNW annual conference act with dismissiveness toward church policy, to use the church as a platform to promote a brand of politics, and exclude others who might have a difference of opinion in how the region is governed it might be better to allow this split and release these factions to go their own way. In the long term it might be the better solution.
From the above letter the objection came down to the fact that I could not attend and provide donations to a church that allows itself to promote an organization or an idea that calls for the murder of those such as myself, family members, and coworkers simply for the uniforms and jobs we performed. It is abhorrent. When I asked our bishop for clarification of this position, she stated that the United Methodist Church has no official position on this organization but does support the ideas for which it stands. Both the bishop and the pastor of my local Church were asked to comment about the fact that a booth, prominently displayed at the front of the conference entrance, or that during an all member meeting one of the presenter advocated this hate group both of them expressed they had no knowledge of these matters and claimed that they did not see and did not hear this.
For the embracement of politics, again I believe the conference’s leadership uses its position to further a political agenda. This is not a matter in my view for the Church which should be a refuge from politics and a place where doing good should be paramount. Unfortunately, to an unacceptable degree this is not the direction the Church is taking in this conference.
It is time to move on.
By Darren Smith