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John C. Goodwin

United Methodists raise their hands in praise during opening worship for the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

Do we understand how the church works?

By the Rev. Joan G. LaBarr
7:00 A.M. ET April 23, 2012

Did you know The United Methodist Church opposes state lotteries and the death penalty?

If you did not, you're not alone.

A serious knowledge gap exists in what United Methodists know about the official positions their denomination takes and even how it's structured, say a number of church leaders. A recent survey by United Methodist Communications supports their concerns.

Nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world will gather for the April 24-May 4 General Conference in Tampa, Fla., to make critical decisions on behalf of the roughly 13-million-member denomination. These decisions will become part of the United Methodist Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions.

The Book of Discipline is the denomination's law book, and the Book of Resolutions is the denomination's stance on moral, social, public policy and economic issues. The resolutions are considered instructive and persuasive, but not binding.

Those who will vote constitute less than a percent of the membership in the denomination, but decisions they make will be significant and arguably critical to the future of The United Methodist Church. The question is how many of the other 99-plus percent will understand those decisions and their implications for The United Methodist Church.

Books few read

It is a "big mistake for General Conference delegates to think that most people in the pews really care what the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions say," noted Richard Hearne, lay leader of the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference and a member of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

Hearne said he believes the sheer volume of both books - in the neighborhood of 1,000 pages each - and the numerous changes that impede flow of the text and sometimes, good sense, are likely reasons why.

"I do know this - what we are doing is not working," he said. "Few people check the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions before taking action in their private lives. In fact, the books are more often used as weapons against the folks with whom we disagree."

The health-care debate

The Rev. William B. Lawrence can attest to the disconnect.

He is a member of the United Methodist Judicial Council, which presides over the judicial administration of the denomination. He is also dean and professor of American church history at Perkins School of Theology at United Methodist-related Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Lawrence recently chose the United Methodist stand on health care for a Sunday school class at one of the Dallas area's largest United Methodist congregations.

He distributed photocopies of the denomination's Social Principles statement on the subject, ¶ 162 (V) in the Book of Discipline, which describes health care as a basic human right and the belief that it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.

Many class members were shocked, he said, at the church's official position that health care is a human right and in the ensuing question and answer session asked why every congregation should not get to decide its stance for itself.

Similarly, when U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, then-Speaker of the House, thanked United Methodist leaders for their support of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, many United Methodists who disagreed with the law were outraged. They did not know that the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, for example, was carrying out the denomination's expressed position.

"While these statements are not laws or mandates, it is incumbent on the church to use official statements as teaching instruments," Lawrence said. "What is very clear is that a great many United Methodists, including those considered active, simply do not understand the nature of our church and how it is structured. Very few clergy find ways to teach the existence of the Social Principles, let alone what they say. &ellipsis;

"As I listen to sermons in various churches and hear laity and clergy talk about what happens in regard to the ministry of teaching, these issues are a pretty neglected area of church endeavor. I doubt for instance, that most United Methodists have much of a clue what General Conference is, how people get elected to go there, what the conference can or cannot do. Most members operate with a congregational understanding and need pastoral leadership on who we are as a connectional church," Lawrence said.

He noted that members in the pew, who might hear Rush Limbaugh as they drive home or turn on MSNBC and hear Rachel Maddow that evening, will know their opinions but not have a clue of what the United Methodist position might be.

"If pastors understood that it is not a question of whether you as an individual agree with a particular stance, but whether you are prepared to teach what the church teaches, even if your personal position is to critique the church's point of view, it would make a big difference," he said.

What a survey found

A recent United Methodist survey on U.S. immigration policy bears out the point Lawrence and Hearne made.

Survey participants were pastors and church leaders selected at random from a United Methodist Communications database. When the 2,800 completed surveys were analyzed, findings included that most church leaders have little awareness of the church's positions on key social and economic issues.

A majority of pastors responding expected their opinions to align closely with those of the church. Leaders were more likely than pastors to indicate they did not know enough to say whether their opinions were in agreement with those of the denomination. Some 72 percent of pastors indicated United Methodist positions are at least somewhat important in guiding their decision-making, compared to 60 percent of the leaders.

When asked to select the most important issues facing the church, only about 4 percent of the pastors and leaders cited immigration as a primary issue, said survey developer Charles Niedringhaus, who heads the research team at United Methodist Communications. Seventy percent of respondents cited the economy, unemployment and the U.S. national debt as their top areas of concern.

The Rev. Robert J. Williams, the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, said that issues surrounding immigration and language have a long history in The United Methodist Church, noting that in the early 20th century a number of conferences were formed based on languages, including German, Danish and Swedish, and that parts of the Discipline were translated into a number of different languages.

"I can pull old Disciplines off the shelf which have sections in six or eight different languages, so these issues aren't anything new in the life of the church," he said.

*LaBarr is a retired elder and former director of communication for the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference.

News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn., (615)-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.