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Threat to withhold apportionments violates John Wesley's "Do No Harm" rule

Threat to withhold apportionments violates John Wesley's "Do No Harm" rule

Conference News Denominational News


The debate about the role of LGBTQ+ people in The United Methodist Church has evolved into a seemingly bridgeless chasm that threatens John Wesley's first rule for the faithful: Do No Harm.

However, the leadership of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), which represents disaffiliating churches, appears willing to do just that to get departure terms from multiple Conferences, including the Florida Conference, to their liking.

Council of Bishops President Tom Bickerton also decried what he called "a constant barrage of negative rhetoric that is filled with falsehood and inaccuracies" coming from supporters of the WCA.

In August, WCA President Rev. Jay Therrell urged theologically conservative laity in local churches to lead their church councils to "immediately begin withholding all apportionments and escrow them."

That action, which has been likened to someone burning down the house on their way out the door, could jeopardize multiple outreach support programs.

"These churches choosing not to pay their apportionments have benefitted from apportionments for years," said Rev. Scott Smith, the Lead Pastor at First UMC in Ormond Beach.

Apportionments fund the Conference connectional ministries in communities throughout the state and in many foreign countries. They support United Methodist camps such as the Warren Willis United Methodist Camp, where counselors welcome hundreds of young people throughout the year to a time of spiritual development and appreciation for the beauty of God's creation.

When United Methodist team members respond to the scenes of natural disasters, apportionments help pay for the work and comfort they provide.

The Conference budgeted $1.6 million this year for campus ministries at ten universities, including the University of Florida, Florida State, and Florida A&M. There is $350,000 for Warren Willis Camp and an additional $310,000 for our two UM-affiliated schools -- Bethune-Cookman University and Florida Southern College.

Additional support for Bethune-Cookman University comes from the Black College Fund.

"At our best, we are a connectional people.  We are, all of us, followers of Jesus with gifts and with needs.  Mature disciples do not withhold their gifts," Bishop Kenneth H. Carter said. "They build up the church for our mission.

"In Florida, this includes vulnerable children, youth encountering Christ at Camp, student ministries on our university campuses, equipping preachers and strengthening the laity, supporting mission work globally, and disaster relief in our state.  For all of these reasons, the call to withhold apportionments does harm and does not glorify God."

While the current Book of Discipline prohibits the ordination of gay pastors or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies, there has been a strong movement within the denomination to value grace and inclusion more than rules.

However, amending the Book of Discipline to allow for those currently prohibited things was met with stiff resistance at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. That Conference also led to the creation of a pathway known as Paragraph 2553 for churches to leave the denomination.

It spelled out financial obligations for departing churches, including pension support for retired pastors and apportionments.

"The WCA was totally in favor of paragraph 2553 when they thought the progressives would leave and they would control the whole church," retired pastor Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish said.

What happened, though, is that many United Methodist leaders who favored greater inclusion stayed with the denomination.

In July, the WCA responded with a lawsuit against Bishop Carter and other officers of the Florida Conference, along with the call to withhold apportionments. On August 31, Rev. Therrell was added as an attorney of record to the lawsuit.

Who potentially gets hurt by this?

The seekers, vulnerable children and young adults, education programs, and relief help—among many other areas.
In other words, those most affected could be the ones Jesus commanded church leaders and laity to protect.

The purpose of apportionments

Molly McEntire is the Mission Training and Volunteer Coordinator for the Florida Conference.

"I always view apportionments as we're meeting the needs of God's family, not just in our Florida neighborhoods but also around the world," she said.

"Apportionments give us a way to join together to help people in Haiti and Cuba, but also in Immokalee or Tallahassee. It allows us to work together to change lives. There are so many ministries in Florida and around the world doing life-changing work."

She told of going on a mission trip with the United Methodist Global Ministries to North Katanga, a particularly distressed region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"It was some of the worst poverty I have seen, but also some of the most incredible work of the Global United Methodist Church that I have seen," she said.
 

Wells dug by the United Methodist Church provide clean water in the North Katanga region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. -- Photo courtesy of Molly McEntire

In the United States, we take clean and fresh water for granted, but that wasn't the case in North Katanga until United Methodist volunteers helped dig wells. Instead of polluted water, people there had access to safe water for cooking and drinking.

"I think that a lot of times we forget that these are life-saving things that are provided around the world," McEntire said.

For Rev. Dr. Jennifer Stiles Williams, Lead Pastor at Orlando's St. Luke's United Methodist Church, the notion of using money as a weapon instead of an instrument of good goes against God's commandment.

"This harms the idea that we're all in this together. Your tithe is your gift to God. It's the gift we give to the larger United
Methodist church," she said.

"What I'm sure of is that the world tells us the way to get our point across is with money and power. Some may feel that's the only way to get their voices heard, but I don't agree. The beauty of the kingdom of God and the big banquet table, when we share our resources, is that it helps everyone."

Rev. Corey Jones, the Senior Pastor at Pasadena Community Church, agrees, particularly on the value of the Warren Willis United Methodist Camp. After attending as a camper, he has served in multiple other capacities, including team member, adult volunteer, worship leader, and curriculum writer. He was the chair of the Camp Ministry Team and a member of the Board of Camps and Retreat Ministries.

"My life has been forever changed because of the Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp and Conference Center," he said. "Other than the cancellation of camp i9n 2020 due to COVID, I have not missed spending at least one week at Camp since I started attending in 1997.

"I have seen from many vantage points how much impact Camp has on the lives of children and youth. I have also come to recognize how apportionments and connectional giving are extremely vital for ministries like Camp." 

Young people receive spiritual enrichment at the Warren Willis United Methodist Camp

Even a small drop in funding could put Camp and Retreat programs and the Florida United Methodist Campus Ministries at risk.

"Oh, for sure, that could happen," Rev. Smith said. "I'm in close communication with the campus ministry people. When the Conference doesn't receive its full apportionment, things get cut. Camps will struggle.

"Some people say the Conference isn't following the Discipline in some ways, but those churches who don't pay apportionments aren't following the Discipline either. If you want to talk about apportionments, loving your neighbor as yourself is paying your apportionments."

What's next?

While attending a session at the Warren Willis United Methodist Camp this summer, Rev. Smith said several children asked if they could still attend next year if their churches leave the Florida Conference.

"They wondered if they would still be welcome next year. Of course, they would be," he said. "But what they're seeing now is having a negative impact. They're exposed to this stuff when we should be talking about the benefit they receive from the Camp and the Campus Ministries.

"And why? Because these churches are saying that because we don't agree with you, we're not paying apportionments. Lord knows I don't support everything the Conference does, but I also know the good that we do."

The good fulfills God's command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Instead, the conflict threatens to send the wrong message about who Christians are—imperfect for sure but still caring and putting others ahead of themselves.

"It is a breach of covenant. We are in The United Methodist Church together, which means we ought to resolve these issues together," Rev. Harnish said. "To turn to the bullying tactics, using financial threats, is simply inconsistent with who we are and have been.

"When I became an ordained minister, I knew I was inheriting a legacy of those who went before me, and I was responsible for protecting that legacy. That's how Methodists live that covenant; we're not in this alone. We have to remember that."

And do no harm.

Joe Henderson is the News Content Editor for FLUMC.org
jhenderson@flumc.org


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