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Why Did I Leave The Church I Love?

Some of you will disagree with this article. Some will hate it. A few of you will possibly never read another word I write. For all these reasons, and more, I thought long and hard about publishing it. In the end, I believe you deserve an explanation for my decision to leave a church that for the last 35+ years I've encouraged people to be a part of.


It was never my desire to leave. In fact, I really wanted a brass Circuit Rider clergy grave marker on my tombstone one day. Not any time soon, mind you, but some day. And I tried my best to be faithful to my vows as both a member of The United Methodist Church and as a clergy person.


So, I didn't make this decision lightly. And, please know that it has nothing to do with me hating anyone, or wanting to hurt any person or any group. Rather, it is born strictly from my understanding of the Bible and from my desire to teach and practice what I truly believe is God's will.


I'm only going to give three of my reasons, and I'm not going to go into deep detail. Feel free to comment in the blog, or to email me, and I'll try to respond, to answer questions, to provide more insight. Here goes.


The United Methodist Church is a worldwide denomination governed by The Book of Discipline. It sets the doctrine and practices of the church, and it is to be followed by United Methodist churches and clergy everywhere. All clergy vow to uphold it and to live under its authority. That doesn't mean that all United Methodists, or all United Methodist clergy, agree with every bit of it.


The present kerfuffle is one that has raged since pretty much the day The United Methodist Church formed in 1968. It has to do, not surprisingly with human sexuality, with homosexuality in particular.


The official stance of The United Methodist Church has always been that God loves all people and that all people, gay or straight, are "people of sacred worth." The Church has also officially stated that sex should be reserved for marriage and that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman. Thus, The United Methodist Church officially considers the practice of homosexuality, along with the practice of heterosexual sex outside of marriage, as sinful.


Because of that, The UMC has prohibited "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" from being ordained as clergy. Further, it has prohibited pastors from officiating at same-sex marriages, and it has forbidden any church property to be used to host same-sex marriages.


Many inside and outside the Church disagree with these views and want to see these restrictions be removed. United Methodists have argued over this, voted on it, and advocated about it for over 50 years. That debate has come to a head, to an impasse. Many are openly ignoring The Book of Discipline and they are doing so without facing any consequences. A quick Internet search will likely yield plenty of examples.


It has become obvious that one of two things will happen. Either The Book of Discipline will be changed regarding human sexuality and the restrictions lessened or removed, or The Book of Discipline will remain the same and it will be increasingly ignored. Either way, there will be no uniform understanding of human sexuality nor a consistent expectation for clergy and churches.


Full disclosure: I agree with The Book of Discipline and I support the current restrictions. I believe this understanding of human sexuality and of God's desire for sex to be reserved for monogamous, heterosexual marriage is consistent with a plain-sense reading of the Bible and is in accord with 2000 years of Christian teaching. It is also the view of the vast majority of Christian denominations around the world.


I also believe sex is a tremendously important topic, one about which a church, and its pastors, should speak with love, clarity, and consistency. This is especially true if their message is at odds with much of the prevailing culture, as is the case today.


Some of you will be tempted to quit reading now. If you do, then at least scroll to the end and take a look at the three authors I've shared there. Each offers a truly unique perspective on this issue - one, Caleb Kaltenbach, was raised by LGBTQ parents, and the other two, Wesley Hill and Sam Alberry, are priests in the Anglican tradition who both identify as gay but seek to lead a celibate life.


This put me in a conundrum. The Church I love, the only denomination I've ever been a part of, is moving in a direction my conscience will not allow me to go. What was I to do? I chose to leave.


Reason #1 - The Issue of Loyalty

My father used to say something to the extent of "If you're gonna sell Chevys, then don't drive a Ford." His point was that you should be an unabashed advocate for your employer, for your team. Can you imagine a New York Yankee wearing a Boston Red Sox cap?


I knew that I couldn't continue to encourage people to join a denomination with which I had a significant difference of opinion on such an important issue. I also knew that my Bishop deserves to have pastors who are unreservedly enthusiastic about the denomination and its direction. So, I had to leave.


Reason #2 - I'm Tired of Fighting

I'm a classic middle-born child. I want everybody to get along and I hate fussing. And United Methodists have spent an inordinate amount of time fussing with each other, even demonizing each other, over this issue.


Many who want things to change accuse their opponents of fostering injustice and oppression. Many who press for things to stay the same often accuse their opponents of not believing the Bible. I can't tell you the number of United Methodist speeches and sermons I've listened to in the last 20 years that were devoted to trying to change the minds of other United Methodists. Nor can I count the articles written about it. And I daresay that next to no one has been swayed. In fact, I contend that it has only served to harden people's opinions.


Is internal squabbling a recipe for success? I think not. I'm a Georgia Bulldog fan. Do you honestly think our football team would be the reigning, repeat National Champions if the coaches spent every practice fussing with the players? Or if, rather than preparing for the next game, the coaches bickered at every staff meeting?


I don't mind standing up for what I believe, but I'm 60 years old and have no desire to spend the last years of my life and of my ministry fighting with people who wear the same jersey I do. Had I remained on The United Methodist team, I would have been at odds with much of the leadership and with many, likely most, of my fellow clergy.


This is one of the reasons I have so appreciated the approach of Bishop David Graves in the South Georgia Annual Conference. Bishop Graves publicly and often said that he wished no church, or pastor, would leave the denomination. He also said that he wanted people and churches to get where they believed God wanted them to be. So, he, and the Conference, were gracious as churches proceeded with discerning God's direction.


It is time for peace in The United Methodist family. That's why I hope that Annual Conferences - my old North Georgia particularly - will graciously let churches and pastors go. I truly believed that the best gift I could give The United Methodist Church, at this time, was for me to remove myself from the situation. So, I had to leave.


Reason #3 - A Consistent Voice

Back to my daddy, a lifelong Methodist, first in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, then in the Methodist Church, and then a United Methodist until his death in 2012. Our family took long cross country trips when I was a boy. One of the things Daddy liked to point out was that pretty much anywhere we went, we'd find a United Methodist church. It didn't matter if we were in small towns, big cities, or rural hamlets. Down south, up north, or out west, somewhere you'd spot the Cross and Flame of The United Methodist Church.


Daddy grew up in a world of hitchhiking and of travelers getting stranded with little way to get in touch with the folks back home. He knew that it was possible to find yourself in a pickle with no one to help you. I can remember that he'd tell me that, if ever I was a long way from home and in a mess of some sorts, that I should look up the Methodist church and find their pastor. In those pre-cell phone days, he told me to "remember three things - your preacher's name, your church's phone number, and the preacher's home number."


"You get that preacher, no matter where you are, to call your preacher, and I'll guarantee you when your preacher vouches for you, they'll help you any way they can," he said. Daddy assumed I'd be active in a church and worthy of my preacher's recommendation.


My daddy understood what it means for The United Methodist Church to be a connectional church. And it's something I've loved throughout these years.


Here's the problem. I can tell my children and grandchildren the same thing, if, that is, I'm talking about the help they need being a bus ticket, a motel room, a hot meal, even a visit to a county jail. But what if they're needing direction on something as fundamental to life as sex? What if they're asking questions about the Bible and its teachings on right and wrong, about how they should conduct themselves on a date? The list goes on and on, doesn't it?


The United Methodist Church of today, and even more of the future, does not and will not speak with a consistent voice on this issue of human sexuality. I cannot encourage my two grandchildren to "find a United Methodist preacher" if they're seeking guidance regarding human sexuality. If a town has two churches, then they're apt to get completely opposite and conflicting direction from each pastor.


So, if I can't tell my children to seek out the spiritual direction of a pastor in my own denomination - especially in a denomination with a Book of Discipline that is designed to provide consistency and unity - then I've got a real problem. And you know the answer. I had to leave.


Conclusion

Obviously, I have differences with The United Methodist Church and its direction. I hope I don't come across as mean-spirited or hypercritical. I do not condemn those who differ from me or who choose to remain United Methodists. I pray and hope for God's best for you. And I'd appreciate your prayers for me. Like Abraham and Lot in the Old Testament, or Paul and Barnabas in the New, we just need to head our separate ways.


My desire is that as I and many others like me leave, The United Methodist Church can focus on serving God as they believe He is calling them to do. There is no reason for Christians to spend more time fighting each other than in fighting the Real Enemy. This hurting, lost world needs better, much better, and my prayer is that my former teammates can experience joy and unity in their ministry together.


I'll be serving the Fort Valley Methodist Church in the Global Methodist Church. I don't believe the Global Methodist is a perfect church. If it ever was, then that all ended when they let me in. But I do believe it is a church with a commitment to speak with one, consistent voice on this important issue, and on many others. I believe it is a church founded on the Scripture, on the historic Creeds of the Early Church, and on the teachings of John Wesley. I believe it is a church with an emphasis on connection and mutual accountability.


So, I go with gratitude for The United Methodist Church and with excitement for the new adventure before me. I'm ready, with my Global Methodist colleagues, to make disciples of Jesus Christ who worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly (Global Methodist Church Mission Statement).


Thanks for reading and God bless,

Herb Flanders

hflanders@gmail.com


Resources


1. Caleb Kaltenbach - Recommended Book: Messy Grace.


2. Wesley Hill - Recommended Book: Washed and Waiting.


3. Sam Alberry - Numerous books including Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?,

Is God Anti-Gay?, and What God Has To Say About Our Bodies. I've not read these

books but I've read a number of Dr. Alberry's articles and have heard him interviewed.






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