Over the years, I’ve had plenty of practice writing headlines. While I appreciate the utility of a captivating headline, I prefer the quick, factual summary, understanding that many content grazers will skim but not consume much of what follows.
Over the past few weeks, several articles dropped into wide circulation with headlines emphasizing the loss of one-fifth or twenty percent of United Methodist churches in the United States through disaffiliation. While additional congregations will leave the denomination before the special provision allowing them to do so sunsets at the end of 2023, the pace is likely to slow significantly.
In communications, we sometimes talk about controlling the narrative. By interpreting facts for people, you can shape their opinion about the situation or interest them in the story by presenting it in dramatic terms. Case in point, Associated Press writer Peter Smith’s headline – “United Methodists lose one-fifth of US churches in schism driven by growing defiance of LGBTQ bans” – is factual and only one way the facts about disaffiliation can be presented. I could easily write another headline using many of the same words – “Nearly 80 percent of US churches remain United Methodist as denomination looks to move past LGBTQ bans” – that is more positive and just as factual, but it wouldn’t sell as many newspapers.
Controlling the narrative isn’t always a bad thing. Often a negative headline is simply a writer’s or editor’s attempt to get people to read their content – the dictum “if it bleeds, it leads” points to the sad fact that we are likelier to read stories with conflict, violence, or death. But for those with ill purpose, attempts to control a narrative can quickly become manipulation. Unfortunately, there have long been groups intent on spinning manipulative narratives about Mainline Protestantism on the whole and United Methodism in particular. And some of these wolves remain in our United Methodist henhouse seeking to weaken a denomination they no longer seek to change.
As someone who values people having as much agency as possible, I’d like to suggest another ‘C’-word in place of ‘controlling’ for the remaining United Methodist faithful. That ‘C’-word is ‘choosing.’ In this moment in the life of our Church, where things may feel a bit chaotic, claiming some control is an essential step toward healing and renewal. If we submit to the despairing headlines of loss, we give up our agency to shape whatever comes next.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we choose some Pollyannaish counternarrative that stretches credulity. Like much of Christianity in the United States, United Methodism faces many obstacles. Some of our challenges are different, but the most critical are shared by sibling denominations, all struggling to adapt to be in ministry with a rapidly changing culture and world. We need to address the challenges we face prayerfully and humbly. Still, an obsessive focus on decline, conflict, and age does nothing to reverse negative trends. The same energy directed toward a positive vision and mission can expand the realm of possibilities while negativity only contracts them.
Now, I have rarely been accused of being an optimist. And I will admit that I can get downright pessimistic, especially when in the company of too many dreamers. Yet, I think The United Methodist Church is in a better place today than it has been in some time. Wait… what?
I think The United Methodist Church is in a better place after losing 20 percent of its churches because we have never been clearer in what we believe than we are right now (which isn’t to suggest there isn’t room to grow here). As the oft-quoted Proverb (29:18) states, people need a clear vision to thrive, and years of infighting robbed us of necessary sight. Yes, we have fewer churches, and yes, we will have less money, requiring difficult choices and changes. Still, just as disaffiliating churches have been blessed and liberated to leave, we also can choose to lean into our own new day.
While some voices remain working hard to undermine the UMC, disaffiliations have liberated the church to embrace all of God’s children more fully. With less fear of some backlash, our bishops and general agencies can more nimbly speak to contemporary issues and provide resourcing that isn’t so watered down as to be unhelpful. More local churches and conferences celebrated moments like Pride and Juneteenth with their communities than ever before. With less of a focus on internecine arguments, our Church can turn that same energy to partner with others to address the needs of the communities God has placed us in.
Imagine, for a moment, a new headline in your local newspaper next year:
“After a generation of conflict, United Methodists boldly invest in the future”
That sounds cool, but what does it mean?
Twenty percent of our churches have left the denomination, but those who remain get to write the story accompanying this new headline. Where will we invest our gifts through the Church to benefit a shared future? What new or renewed ministry will we become known for? How will this ministry help to clarify and amplify the identity of The United Methodist Church in our communities?
Our answers to these questions and others like them will shape our shared story for years to come. But whatever we do, let’s commit to making a real difference in people’s lives.
May God inspire us to selflessly and boldly invest in a future that benefits all of God’s children.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.