Disaffiliation Is Like A Bank Run

Photo by Expect Best on Pexels.com

I thought of writing a thank you note to Franklin Roosevelt. Watching the coverage of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, I am grateful for the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in the first weeks of his first term in 1933. His foresight is still making America a better country. This isn’t 2008, but people are nervous. Our financial system is only more interconnected now than it was then. It’s easy to see a contagion spreading across small to mid-size banks nationwide. I become nervous when I hear financial reporters use the “it’s wonderful life” analogy to explain what’s occurring with bank failure. 

Why am I talking about a run on a bank that funded technology start-ups in Silicon Valley and spooked investors worldwide? It reminds me of the disaffiliation process. Think of our churches as branches of small to medium-sized banks. We’re not the most extensive operation in the world, but we’ve branches in small towns across America, Africa, the Philippines, Russia, and elsewhere. Over the past two years (at least), we’ve experienced a faith run on our congregations. In countless congregations, particularly across the south, our parishioners have rushed to withdraw their faith in and from the local churches. Unlike the federal government, there is no FDIC or Department of the Treasury to stop the run or guarantee the deposits of the account holders. When there is a run on the faith of a local congregation, no one is made whole. Everyone loses something. We all come away diminished and broke.

Some annual conferences have taken FDIC-like actions, virtually shutting down the disaffiliation process in their respective jurisdictions. In my annual conference, the disaffiliation process is proceeding at pace. These actions (in conferences limiting disaffiliations) do not, as in the fears of a banking crisis, do not stop churches and Christians from withdrawing their faith in the church, each other, the denomination, God, Jesus, family, friends, or other things. Disaffiliation is still spreading like a financial contagion. At first glance, faith appears to be hemorrhaging. Faith can be removed, lost, and taken at any time. I see this happening every day.  

On the other hand, we can grow our faith and deposit mustard seeds, day or night. Jesus’ bank never closes. We can halt the massive faith sell-off with a single mustard seed. Our mustard seed is insured. Our FDIC is the empty tomb. If you’ve lost yours, go to Jesus. He will make you whole, give you another or help you find the one you’ve misplaced. Despite the demands and stresses of this process, you do not have to lose faith. Jesus is still Jesus. God is still God. Hold on to your faith in God. Our faith in God and God’s love for all humanity matters more than any legal process or the value of our church property.

–Richard Bryant

Thank God For Monday

Photo by Adrian Cogua on Pexels.com

Yesterday was a long day. Most Sundays are demanding. This one was a humdinger. In addition to the standard stuff and nearly 70 in worship (yes, we keep going up each week), we had one of those meetings in the afternoon. You know the kind of meeting I’m discussing: a disaffiliation meeting. Following our annual conference procedures, our church council hosted a question-and-answer session. Well over fifty were in attendance between those in person and on Zoom. The purpose of the meeting was for the council to take the congregation’s temperature on disaffiliation. If the council decides there is enough interest, they will pull the trigger (so to speak), and we will go forward with the process. If not, the status quo will hold.

Two weeks prior, the church council began to collect questions from the congregation about the disaffiliation process. They placed a heavy wooden box in the narthex and set up a specific email address to receive questions. We weren’t overwhelmed with questions. However, there were plenty of good queries to occupy the council, and all gathered for the planned two hours.

The chair of the council (and I) sent the questions out to the entire church, saying these were the questions we’d received and would attempt to answer at Sunday’s meeting. Early Sunday morning, the council chair received an additional e-mail; a new story was floating that I, the pastor, had written all the questions to shape the debate. Oh Lord, these people watch too much of one television network whose name I will not say. Are we not able to check the conspiracy theories at the door? For the record, the people who wrote the questions self-identified in the meeting, and I made it clear I was used to having a target on my back (as pastors often have) but questioning my integrity made me mad as hell—my day got worse from there.

Disaffiliation is my kryptonite. The closer I come to it, the weaker I become. I’ll come right out and say it. It’s a soul-destroying (also a local church, friendship, and family destroying) process that steadily erodes my faith, my faith in humanity, the church, and other people from the inside out. That’s not pessimism; that’s reality. I didn’t attend seminary to become a paid shill for the United Methodist Church. I wanted to become a pastor, preacher, and poet of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I love his biases and opinions. I work daily for them to become wholly and entirely mine. If I seem one-sided for any position, it is for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I have a personal agenda. It is for love, grace, and forgiveness. I push the Beatitudes, day in and day out. I have this phrase I like to ask people on Sunday morning, “How would this look through Jesus’ eyes?”

How would our disaffiliation process and the quest for self-righteous division look through Jesus’ eyes? Frustrating. Of course, I’m biased. I can’t think the guy who said the Beatitudes would believe that any of this is a good idea. I’d bet everything, while loving us and forgiving us, he wants us to do much better in the loving our neighbor department. Again, I’m biased-for Jesus. What do I know?

I’ve got to get away from disaffiliation. The problem is that there’s nowhere to hide. Like the COVID pandemic that preceded it, this virus seems to be everywhere. God help us all.

–Richard Bryant

A Reason For Optimism

Photo by Charmain Jansen van Rensburg on Pexels.com

I know I sound like a pessimist. However, I like to think of myself as a pragmatist and a realist; especially when it comes to matters of the church. I know where we are. I know the decisions my congregation are wrestling with and how they fit into the more considerable upheaval rippling across Methodism. If you’re sitting safe and secure now, wondering what all the fuss is over, don’t worry. Someday soon, disaffiliation will come knocking at your door. It will no longer matter how we got here and what should have occurred at annual and general conferences long ago. The most critical issue will be that the members of your congregation will want to decide if they will remain members of the United Methodist Church, today. Their reasons for wanting to leave or stay will vary from place to place and person to person. A word of warning, it will be challenging to be in ministry during this process.

Despite this reality, I am optimistic. There are reasons for optimism. I sense, see, and feel a degree of optimism in defiance of the grievance-based assault on United Methodism and mainline Christianity. Why? How? From where does my optimism arise? It may sound simple, but so is the Gospel. I am optimistic because I believe in a simple hope delivered by an optimistic rabbi from Galilee who had a vision of everything working out. I am optimistic because Jesus was optimistic. After all, scripture paints a vivid picture of a world where sorrow ends, justice is restored, equality is guaranteed, and heaven meets earth. I am optimistic because it all works out in the end, not because of anything I do but because of everything Jesus has done.

I am optimistic because we are still here. The church still stands. Our buildings are not empty. While discerning a path forward, my congregation and others welcome new members. Methodism is not a lost cause. Even United Methodism in the Southeast Jurisdiction is still thriving. Despite crummy weather, COVID, death, a land war in Europe, and mass shootings across America, ordinary Methodists are coming to church to sing, pray, and hear the word of God. If they are angry about the issues of human sexuality tearing us apart, I do not see it from my pulpit. Remember when people checked their politics at the door? It still happens! I hear heartfelt prayers about life, love, loss, healing, new birth, and salvation. I see people on different sides of the political spectrum turn to one another and say, “may the peace of Christ be with you.” I am optimistic because we are here. We are talking to each other. We are laughing, hugging, and crying. We are alive. I am optimistic because we are still alive.

We are still standing. (Antwone Fisher, 2002)

I am optimistic because I see God whittling away at our spiritual narcissism. We know churches split, secede, and divide. This is a constant in both religious and human history. God knows the folly of our quest to achieve holiness through our own efforts. Christianity’s presumptions about doctrine, Biblical interpretations, and theology are ours alone. I am optimistic because I know we can give these matters to God and still be led by the Holy Spirit, not individuals with specific religious agendas. I am optimistic because I know others are still listening for the still, gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit.

I am optimistic because there will always be another Sunday. On Sunday, the doors are open. It is already built and they are coming, to paraphrase “Field of Dreams.” It is the church. They are the people. Welcome them with optimism and hope. If it’s all we have, then that’s good enough.


–Richard Bryant

What Would The Balloon Hear You Say?

Photo by Mykola Volkov on Pexels.com

It was a cold, nasty, awful weekend in central North Carolina. I was surprised to see anyone in church on Super Bowl Sunday. It was one of those days where the temperature was hovering in the high 30s, and if it dipped any lower, we’d be blanketed with snow, but that didn’t’ happen. It was just a cold drizzle. I wondered who would get out of bed and drag themselves to church on a day like yesterday. But, as is usual on mornings that begin with such skepticism, I was surprised at what hot coffee, companionship, and a little prayer will do to warm the human soul. We weren’t as full as last week, but overall, those who braved the weather impressed me, and I thanked them for making an effort. 

The wet weather moved east overnight, and the blue skies returned to North Carolina. The winds were still cold, but at least there was no rain. It was dry. We could see the sky and sunshine. Oh, how I had missed the sunshine over the past week. My body and soul needed physical and spiritual vitamin D. If I couldn’t see the sun and blue sky, how on earth could I look for Chinese spy balloons?

This morning as I went to the car to meet my parents for breakfast, I glanced skyward for the first time in several days. Was there anything above the church listening to our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? I was hoping I might see something I could not spot because of the previous day’s inclement weather. But, instead, I realized yesterday morning: if there’s anything that will change the subject from disaffiliation, it is intelligence-gathering balloons traversing the United States (or North Carolina) from China. So let me say thank you to the People’s Liberation Army for making coffee time about something other than the slow-moving train wreck that is United Methodism. Or, as you guys would say, “谢谢 (Xièxiè).”

The balloons (or objects) raise some interesting theological questions for United Methodists. Our government says the first balloon was equipped with listening and intelligence-gathering equipment. We know for sure that it floated over North Carolina. I wonder what it would have picked up as it went over our Methodist churches and homes during the week it was airborne. What would the balloon have heard us say about our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? Would the balloon have picked up that those people who say they are so open to welcoming and admitting the stranger, the other, and their neighbors on Sunday morning go straight home and say just the opposite during the week? Would it have picked up that we make ever so slightly racist jokes about Black History month from our places of permanent white privilege while talking about the need for anti-racism as an annual conference priority? Would the balloon have heard us telling our neighbors misinformation about the disaffiliation process? Who knows what the balloon heard? Perhaps that’s why we are so nervous and so ready to shoot them down so quickly.  We can’t let the truth get out. Fire the missiles! Destroy the evidence.

So, we go out on clear days, look skyward, and check to see if someone is listening to what we say and knows our secrets. The answer is yes. Someone does know, and we can’t kill that someone with a Sidewinder missile.

We are in bad shape if we need a Chinese balloon to remind us that God is listening or that we have a conscience.

–Richard Bryant

The Good News of Critical Grace Theory

Photo by Nikko Tan on Pexels.com

There is much for United Methodists to address in addition to the primary matter still occupying most of our Methodist time. What else must we discuss, with equal amounts of prophetic force, as we continue into the third decade of the 21st century? How, in an era of dissolution and disaffiliation, where these controversies mark an apparent dilution of our message, ministry, and purpose, do we continue to proclaim the revolutionary teachings of a 1st-century rabbi executed by the Romans (in the most brutal form of capital punishment possible), for speaking on behalf the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed? How do we share the rabbi’s life and teachings when many remain ignorant of Jesus’ life and death? How can we speak to the life-giving reality and hope he addressed when we find ourselves willingly mired in the same systems of death, power, and dominion which take life, oppress people, and stifle the light of the world? Yes, it’s time to step back, take a breath, take a knee, say we are sorry, find a breach, and begin repairing the world today. At the moment, this may be all we can do. This is the least we can do. It is something we must do. God is calling us to multi-task: end capital punishment, stop the normalization of mass gun violence, confront cycles of systemic poverty, upend a health care system that is bankrupting ordinary Americans, and call out racism whenever and wherever we see it.

The movement to free United Methodism from the downward spiral of cultural, social, and religious oblivion is not solely a battle to find space for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in our pulpits and pews. As we begin black history month, we remember the need to work continuously and diligently for the rights of African-Americans, queer African-Americans, and all other persons of color to be heard and seen in congregations across the United States. Diversity, equality, and inclusion are not unachievable ideals, boxes to be checked, or Marxist talking points. They are the very hallmarks of the kingdom of God. It is what I call Critical Grace Theory. Without diversity, equality, and inclusion, there is no Grace, freely given and freely received. Suppose we cease to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, a message rooted in cultural diversity, human equality, and radical inclusion. In that case, we forgo the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We stop being Christians. We become spiritual nomads, willing to worship anyone or anything that uses the trappings of our former faith to provide us with the one thing we think we need more than anything else: security. In our frantic quest for safety, we’ve allowed ourselves to be scared of anyone who isn’t like us. Fear kills God. Fear kills religion. Fear kills the love of neighbor. Fear is killing us. Fear killed Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, authentic Christianity, has never trafficked in fear. Jesus’ message is hope, joy, light, and love. You are not hearing the gospel if you do not hear these words in your church. When you encounter these teachings, you will see diversity, equality, and inclusion practiced on an unimaginable scale in most American congregations. I long for this long denominational winter to end.

I look forward to a spiritual spring, the coming kingdom of God, where God’s love is available to all who seek and desire a relationship with the church and Jesus without any preconditions. Why is this so much to ask?

In the meantime, we are not powerless! You have a voice. Now is the time to start with a conversation and coffee. Make some new friends. Contact your AME, AME Zion, CME, or other African American religious neighbors. Learn some Black history, especially the Black history of your community. Ask questions. Pray with your sisters and brothers in Christ. Remember Isaiah 58: repair the breach and restore the streets.

–Richard Bryant