Reflections On Disaffiliation And Resignation
I’m currently an ordained elder in the UMC. My local church has been talking disaffiliation (switching denominations) for a long time. This past September we held a Town Hall Meeting and I presented an “impact report.” Simply put, we outlined what would happen if we stayed in the UMC and what would happen if we left. Then we took a four question survey asking about people’s theology of LGBTQ inclusion and asking them which denomination they would like to be a part of in the future. The survey results showed us that our church would not be able to meet the minimum requirements for disaffiliation. We were practically split right down the middle on the issue at hand, and so at the Ad Board meeting a week later, I handed in my resignation, effective in 2023.
I resigned from the United Methodist Church, not my specific local congregation. It’s not the same as just moving to a new church – I’m leaving the entire system, and all the support that system provides. In June of 2023, I lose my house, health insurance and paycheck. So if I didn’t find something quick, I could very easily find my entire family living in some in-laws basement with no health insurance. For the very first time I had to put together a resume. I took more personality assessment tests than I even knew existed. (apparently I’m an ESTP and an enneagram 7, whatever that means). I got tested as a potential church planter, met countless pastors and District Superintendents. I grilled leadership on their theology and policies, accountability processes and church practices. I was looking for a position as a pastor in a conservative Wesleyan-type denomination. I saw a LOT of openings that did not fit the needs of my family. I got rejected in round 1, round 2 and even got rejected after a round 3 interview which included a full weekend visit. I met with Nazarenes, Free Methodists, Wesleyans, Global Methodists, and I even had a few Baptist/Non-denom types reach out. At one point I declined a dinner invite from a fellow who wanted to talk to me about international missions opportunities in Europe. It affected my personal health, my family dynamics and even my ability to do the job at the church I had not left yet. I usually try to put a happy spin on things, because I much prefer to be an upbeat and optimistic person – but I’m not going to lie to you: these last few months have been rough. Through it all, I’ve learned a lot of things and I wanted to share a few reflections.
You Don’t Need A Positive Spin.
One story I love to tell comes from the week after my resignation. One of the members of my congregation stood in my doorway. I looked up from my computer and after a long pause she said, “I’m just sad.” And I grimaced and agreed, “I’m sad too.” To my surprise, she nodded and said, “Good.” I laughed, and made an indignant face – until she explained. She said, “well – you wouldn’t want us to be HAPPY you are leaving, would you?” “Well, no,” I reflected. “And we wouldn’t want YOU to be HAPPY to leave us, right?” I thought about it. Huh, I definitely was not happy to leave. And then she said something I’ve repeated a thousand times since then, “You’re sad. And I’m sad. And that’s probably the best version of this.”
Disaffiliation is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Most churches are a mixed bag of backgrounds and opinions. We have folks who have never really thought about theology and people who have studied it at the highest academic levels – and most weeks they sit next to each other and worship Jesus together. In a lot of ways, the diversity of thought found in the church is a beautiful thing. The fact that we are not robots, and we are not all exactly the same is usually a cause for celebration. We are an incredible tapestry of God’s creativity. But when differences arise, and choices must be made – votes must be had – it does make things more difficult. It’s nobody’s fault, really. I don’t have a great big bad guy to point at. It’s just the discomfort we feel as our churches go through an impossibly difficult situation. And sometimes – yeah. You’re sad. And I’m sad. And that’s good.
It’s Different When Trusting God Is The ONLY Option.
For my entire ministry (and most of my life) I have taught and lived by faith in the almighty God and his son Jesus Christ. I have preached more Sundays than I can count about trusting in God even when we are in “the midst of darkness” or “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” And yet – it is an entirely different thing to experience a complete lack of control over personal circumstances and cling to God as the ONLY option. There are a lot of moments in life that cause us uncertainty and fear – and in that moment we have a choice. We can grab for control, or we can surrender control and trust God. The last four months of my life have been FULL of moments that cause uncertainty and fear – and I have never quite had to put my money where my mouth was in such concrete and immediate ways. BUT – I will say that my relationship with God has grown by leaps and bounds in this time of desperation. I do not yearn for challenges and struggle, but I am so incredibly grateful for the strength that is found through them. Losing control of your life is actually a rare opportunity to trust God more with your life. Week after week I realized that the sermons I was writing were written both for the congregation in front of me, but also for the man in the mirror. I needed to LIVE these truths, and not just preach them.
Before my very first visit to a potential church, Sara and I had a really raw conversation about our worries. What if they didn’t like us? What if things didn’t work out? What if we said something or did something or slipped up in some way and get rejected (again)? And I remember lying in bed that night, studying the ceiling as the hours ticked by, growing more and more confident that sleep wasn’t going to come that night – and I started to pray. I asked, “God, where am I supposed to go? What am I supposed to do with all of this? Which city is the right answer? Which place do I take my family?” And into the midst of all that stress and worry and fear God spoke to my heart. And he said, “It doesn’t matter!” And I almost laughed out loud (thankfully I did not, wouldn’t want to wake the baby). But the message came rolling over and over in my heart. “It doesn’t matter.” It doesn’t matter – because God is still in control! If it doesn’t work out with one church – then it was not meant to work out at that location. If you choose one place over another, that simply means that God is going to work with you in that place rather than the other. It’s not to say that the things we do don’t matter – but rather that no matter WHAT we do – God is still God. I cannot tell you the relief that flooded my system with that remembrance. Charles Spurgeon once said, “I have learned the kiss the waves that throw me up against the Rock of Ages.” I’m not quite in a place where I can say I’m okay with everything that happened – but I have learned to cling to God better in the midst of suffering, and for that I am grateful.
The Body Really Does Keep Score.
On of the first things I really noticed was the physical effects of what we were going through. I have never had my life situation affect my physical health so profoundly before. I’ve lost more sleep in the last four months than in the entire rest of my life. I had always heard of the “5 stages of grief”, but I never could remember what they were.
Now I know them by heart because I walked through them personally. Repetitively. Daily. Now, I can rattle them off like a memorized bible verse: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Acceptance. And I can do that because I have walked through each one. Beyond being bone tired, the mounting stress caused a real inability to focus. More than once I found myself sitting in my office, simply staring at the wall unable to move – just completely zoned out. For those who know me, I’m a very active person and love to be efficient and effective. It was frustrating to come home with so much of my “to-do” list still incomplete. As a pastor, I’ve read a lot about depression. I’ve studied how to minister to and take care of people who are going through tough life situations. I’ve counseled people who are in grief. But it truly is a different thing to experience it firsthand – and it has taught me two very important things.
First, I have a much greater empathy for those who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health situations. I’ve only dealt with these temporary stressors for just a few months – and I have been overwhelmed with how powerful it can be! I have, more than once, vowed to move forward with a bigger heart towards those who are struggling to stay on task, lacking focus or motivation, or dealing with depression. Second, I have affirmed and deepened my commitment to those life practices which battle anxiety and depression – such as physical activity. I can’t tell you how many mornings I got up and asked myself, “Do I want to go for a run? No. Of course not” – and then I do it anyways, because it’s not about what I want. It’s about getting my body moving, endorphins pumping, and all that - to combat what’s going on in my head. When someone is dealing with depression or mental health struggles, they don’t need a lecture on productivity. They need to go for a jog. Or to spend some time in prayer. To get more sleep or eat healthier. They need to talk to a therapist and possibly explore medication. This mental health stuff is serious and so powerful – and we need to use every single tool in the tool belt to combat it, and to do so with more patience and less judgment than has been used in the past.
Learning the Love The Unimpressive Church
Over the last four months I have gained a unique perspective on what God is up to in the world – and I’ve seen both the celebrations and the bruises of many different denominations. I’ve widened my perspective and I’ve learned a lot! I have two major takeaways.
First – it’s bad everywhere! We always say, “there’s no perfect church out there,” but the truth is most of us don’t really know. And some of us, deep in our heart of hearts, actually hope that there IS a perfect church community somewhere out there with no drama or struggles. It’s in our nature to dream of greener pastures. Well, I went looking and I’m here to say – there is no perfect church! Every denomination, indeed every local church I worked with or spoke to has their own version of trouble. Some churches don’t pay or support their pastors very well. Some have no young people. Some are toxic and contentious. Some are trendy but superficial. Some are hopeful but tiny and full of unrealized potential. Just about every single church I saw is thriving in some areas and lacking in other areas. Most church leaders speak of the present as compared to the pre-pandemic era. Like, if you ask about attendance they’ll say, “Well, pre-pandemic we used to be ____, and I’d say we’re about 85% of that now.” Everyone is rebuilding. Everyone is recovering from significant loss. Whether that’s actual deaths, financial loss, membership or attendance loss – everyone is getting back up after being knocked to the floor. Which also means that everyone, in one way or another, is hurting to some degree.
Second – we are so much LESS alone than we believe! Yes, all churches are broken and many are hurting – but there are SO MANY church communities faithfully loving God and loving one another in this world right now. I’ve always lived and worked inside the UMC bubble (and it’s a pretty big bubble), and so news about the decline of the UMC hit me really hard. I had moments when the brokenness I’ve seen seemed overwhelming. But it gave me an incredible sense of camaraderie to realize that we have brothers and sisters in hundreds of denominations all across this state, country and world. We are not standing alone in the world! The UMC is declining fast, but we are still ten times bigger than most of these other denominations. Yet these other denominations, being tiny, have still continued to work to build the kingdom of God wherever they can. I had a friend whose ENTIRE denomination has less churches that the UMC has in Michigan alone (yes, you read that right) – and yet his local church is doing incredible, faithful and fruitful ministry. Being small and unimpressive does not mean God cannot work through us! I have learned to love the unimpressive church in these last four months. I have realized that we can’t look back at the glory days of what was – but rather need to be faithful and true in the broken churches we have in the present.
BONUS REFLECTION – Don’t leave on a “maybe”
One final note on disaffiliation. The reality of the situation in front of a lot of churches is that the deck is stacked against the local church in favor of the denomination. A lot of churches are realizing that they are more divided on this issue than they previously knew. For some, they’re not divided theologically – but they simply don’t have the money to make it happen. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that make for disaffiliation. What that means is that when the dust settles, there will be a lot of traditional-LEANING churches leftover in the UMC. Whatever changes may or may not come – there will be gospel loving, bible believing traditionalists in the pews of UM churches. Those who have the good fortune and ability to leave, should not CONDEMN those who stay. Those who stay should not give up hope. We can all agree that there are a lot of pieces to this process, and that complicates things.
A phrase I’ve been using a lot with people in my local church is “don’t leave on a maybe.” The church I lead did not have the consensus necessary to leave, but I know these people really well. They have done beautiful ministry and will continue to do so. They are a traditional-LEANING United Methodist Church. They love the gospel, they love God and their neighbors, they love their community and they do all of that really well. In the future, the rules MIGHT change. And if they change the policies, then the church someday MIGHT have a pastor who is willing to perform a marriage they disagree with or teach from the pulpit something they do not find in scripture. But those things have not happened yet. If you find yourself in a church that, for whatever reason, is unable to join the Global Methodist Church – don’t give up hope! Who knows what tomorrow will bring? If the local church you are a member of does something that violates your conscience and goes against your personal beliefs – I recommend you find a new church. But until that actually happens – don’t leave on a “maybe.”
I realize this is all a bit long winded, but thank you for reading, I promise I’m almost done. I’ll end with a bit of a recap and update. Since I resigned from the United Methodist Church I have learned a lot of things. I’ve seen firsthand the affects of emotional turmoil on physical health. I’ve learned that sometimes “I’m sad and you’re sad and that’s good” actually makes sense (and is even preferrable!). I’ve learned to trust God more deeply and I’ve learned to love the unimpressive church. Things are bad everywhere, and yet they are never hopeless. We have brothers and sisters in churches of all sizes (and in denominations of all sizes) all over the world. Finally, I learned that the complicated nature of the disaffiliation situation means that there will traditional-leaning churches in the UMC for years to come, and for a time at least – that’s okay.
After everything was said and done, I did receive an offer to be a Pastor at a second campus for a Global Methodist Church. After a LOT of prayer and consideration, I did accept that call, and will be transferring to that church in early next year. (I’ll share more details as they become public). I would ask for continued prayers as the next step of the journey is to turn our attention to searching for a house, as we are about to be first time home-owners. I cherish all the prayers that have been said for my family thus far, and I hope you will continue to pray for us all. We will make it through this yet.
Simple, isn’t always east. Pastor JJ