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Bishop Ough reflects on separation proposal


January 06, 2020

By: Christa Meland & Doreen Gosmire

Bishop Bruce R. Ough, resident bishop for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, recently answered questions about a new proposal for General Conference that aims to address the denomination’s longtime impasse over human sexuality. Watch a video version of the interview, or read the full interview transcript below.

Last week, a diverse, 16-member group of United Methodist leaders proposed a separation plan called “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” Can you describe how this proposal was formed?
 
Let me say a word about the process and how we got to this place. There was great dismay across the entire denomination after the 2019 General Conference—just the way we conducted ourselves was really kind of a shock to everybody. And so out of that, Bishop Yambasu from the Sierra Leone Conference said, “There’s got to be a better way,” and he initiated a conversation that brought together some centrists, some progressives, some traditionalists, and that group eventually determined that it would be good to have a more formal mediation body formed. There was some evolution in all of that, but it ended up with 16 members that represent all of those various caucus groups across our denomination. They were fortunately facilitated by an exceptional mediator, Kenneth Feinberg, who’s an attorney in New York and has been very involved in other mediation processes. Perhaps the one that’s most noted is the 9/11 fund that was created.
 
The proposal that was presented is quite complex. Could you give us some of the main points?

It is quite complex, and I really want to encourage…folks to go and read carefully the protocol and the frequently asked questions because there’s too much detail to cover even in this conversation. A few of the key points:
· There would be the formation of a new Methodist denomination that would be a new traditional Methodist denomination. The continuing United Methodist Church would grant them $25 million. It’s really intended to kind of be a start-up fund to assist them in moving forward. There would be another $2 million that would be escrowed in the event that other groups would want to form. For example, there’s some thought that perhaps folks that are extremely progressive might want to form a new Methodist denomination. And that fund would be there to assist with that if that would be necessary.
· This proposal calls for the formation of regional conferences following the organization of the new, continuing United Methodist Church, and I think that is a really helpful step forward. It also calls for removing the prohibitions against LGBTQ persons, and by virtue of doing that, it would repeal the Traditional Plan.
· GCFA would also allocate $39 million to support ministries with marginalized persons that have historically been marginalized because of racism within The United Methodist Church. I think that’s a very good thing going forward.
· Annual conferences and the central conferences (which, as you know, are the conferences outside the United States) would be able to then choose to affiliate with a new Methodist denomination or simply continue as a part of The United Methodist Church. And one of the unique features, I think, one of the most helpful features, is that no annual conference or local church would have to vote to continue to be a part of The United Methodist Church.
· All pensions would remain in place for clergy and lay employees of the church, so that’s also a strong attribute of this proposal.
Those are some of the highlights. There are many other details.
 
Can you share your initial reaction to this newest proposal?
 
To be honest, I was of course heartbroken initially as I have been heartbroken over almost all of the proposals that have already been under consideration by the 2020 General Conference—heartbroken because of the structural separation of the church. I have been a strong advocate and worked very, very hard even as president of the Council of Bishops, to maintain the unity of the church. My very first reaction was, “Oh my, we really are going to separate.” Having said that, I’ve been realistic and I have shared with people along the way that I did expect a separation, partly because every proposal before the General Conference calls for some form of separating the denomination into at least two expressions. And what was really left to be decided is: Would it be a hard separation—people just walking out angry, and starting to litigate everything in courts? Or would it be a soft separation that would have as much grace and dignity as possible? So one of my reactions to this new protocol is that I think it is probably the best that we have before us currently that would allow for a gracious and dignified process for us to separate. In other words, it accomplishes a lot of what many people have been saying for some time, and that is, it is as amicable as we could expect. Now, in the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, we have been talking for some time about: Let’s look at all of the debate that’s been going on as God trying to birth something new. So I’m taking the position that maybe this is an answer to that prayer, that we’ve been praying for God birthing something new. And of course when you pray for God to do something, you don’t know what it’s going to look like. And this may not be the final answer; this may not be ultimately where God wants us to go. But it feels at the moment as if it’s a breakthrough, even as difficult as it is to think about us breaking relationships and separating from one another.
 
There are some things I really like in the proposal. I want to affirm those:
· One is the provision for self-determination and self-governance in each of the geographic regions of the church. This is actually a concept, as you know, that was being discussed rather significantly in the One Church Plan: How do we allow for the emerging reality that within the global church, there are such great cultural differences that we need to allow for more regional decision-making and regional autonomy? And this proposal would ultimately lead us to that with the continuing United Methodist Church.
· The commitment to stand with all of the marginalized populations and communities within The United Methodist Church, I think, is very significant. I think it’s a way of recognizing that the continuing United Methodist Church is going to be smaller—we know this. But what we don’t want to do in becoming smaller is to undermine our historic commitments to deal with matters of racism and how they have affected various populations and communities within The United Methodist Church.
· The immediate, voluntary cessation of processing complaints against LGBTQ clergy and clergy who perform or officiate at same-gender marriages, I think, is very significant. And I just want to be on record that as bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, I will comply with that voluntary cessation. And the reason is: At a time when there are very sort of tender and fragile conversations going on and while people are trying to absorb all that’s before us, we just don’t need more fire fights. It’s a time to sort of back off and invite our people to be in prayer, to not react but to really consider this carefully, along with the other proposals that will be coming before the General Conference.
· I’m pleased that there will be a continuing United Methodist Church. Some of the proposals, as you know, that have been circulated would call for the dissolution of the entire United Methodist Church and then let all the pieces sort of figure out what they’re going to do afterwards. I think it’s a very good thing that there will be a continued United Methodist Church and that local churches and annual conferences can simply live into that without having to vote if they choose to do so.
 
Of course we don’t know what General Conference will decide in May, but if some kind of separation occurs, what is your hope and prayer for how that might occur and how we might bless one another as we embark on different paths? 

It’s no secret, I think, to either conference that I have been advancing this mantra “stay together, stay strong” because I just think it’s in our best interest to do all we can leading up to the 2020 General Conference to remain together and remain as strong as we can. And ultimately, my hope is that on the other side of the General Conference, whatever is decided, that we will hold together, we will continue to stay together, continue to focus on our mission of making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, building capacity within our churches to love God and neighbor and reach new people and heal a broken world. I’m also very realistic: There will be congregations and individuals that will want to leave or separate and perhaps join something new, whatever that might be. And I hope that as we do that, we can do that with as much grace and dignity as possible. You know, when you get right down to the foundation of who we are as annual conferences, we love each other, and we’ve needed each other in the past, and I think we want to respect that. I’ve been in a lot of conversations, particularly with clergy, where they have different theological positions and they have different positions as it relates to the future of The United Methodist Church, but they went to seminary together, they served the same churches at different times, and they’ve worked together on committees. I want to be sure that when all is said and done, if we need to separate, if churches and individuals feel they need to separate, we can do that with an embrace and a genuine respect and love for one another. Although I hope neither the Dakotas nor the Minnesota Conference will separate from The United Methodist Church, particularly if this protocol goes forward, I do know that we will be prepared. The protocol calls for an annual conference being able to consider for a motion for separation if 20 percent of the voting members decide to do so, and so we will obviously be prepared to handle any such desires if need be. Fortunately, those decisions don’t need to be made until July 1, 2021, so it gives us some time either at the 2020 Annual Conference (which I think will be probably too early for us to deal with these questions) or a special Annual Conference Session in the fall or the Annual Conference Sessions in 2021. So we don’t need to panic. 
 
Does the Council of Bishops have a position on this or other pieces of legislation at this point?
 
We do not. The council understands that this protocol does not belong to the council. The only group that can claim any sense of ownership of it are the 16 members of that mediation team. And so the council has not taken a position. They have been informed about this. They were actually informed…the day prior to this being released publicly. The initial reaction by many members of the council was positive, much along the lines of what I’ve articulated—that without knowing a lot about the details (in fact, we did not have the written protocol before us when we were informed about this) but the initial feeling was that maybe this is a breakthrough that we’ve been praying for and been working toward really since the 2016 General Conference.
 
There’s been a call for the Judicial Council to review this proposal. Is that coming from the Council of Bishops?
 
Because the mediation team is not an authorized group, not authorized by any other group within the life of the church, they’re not in a position to enact or follow through with some of the activities that would need to happen to be prepared. So the protocol actually asks the Council of Bishops to initiate several conversations. The Council of Bishops is one of the only groups that has standing with the Judicial Council—in other words, they have standing to ask for hypothetical decisions. Other groups do not have that standing. But the Council of Bishops can, so the Council of Bishops has been asked to request a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of this protocol. They’ve also been asked to initiate conversations with GCFA to look at the financial implications of all of this. They’ve also been asked to work with the Commission on General Conference to explore how this legislation can be considered along with all the other items that have already been submitted.
 


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