A Soil Prepared

The Northwest Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church leads the pack of disaffiliating congregations, and does so by a large margin. As I write this, the average disaffiliation rate in the USA is about 7%. In the NWTX Annual Conference it is about 75%.

Needless to say, many look at this disparity and ask, “How did this happen?” Some have asked me this question, knowing that I was born, grew up, was ordained, and served in the NWTX Annual Conference. This post is my response to the question. [1]. It is not a historical response; that would take time and primary research to achieve that status. What follows is more nearly a personal reflection rooted in my memory and experience. Hence, the title. Looking at the massive disaffiliation percentage, I would say it is the result of a prepared soil.

Farmers do not plant any crop without first preparing the soil. Every harvest is the end result of a much larger and longer process. Agricultural yields are related to soil preparation and tending. Given that the NWTX Annual Conference is largely agricultural, this metaphor works for me to respond to the question, “How did this happen?”
For a period roughly from 1965 to the present, several formidable “fertilizers” have been in play in the NWTX Annual Conference, preparing the soil for a 75% disaffiliation rate. In this post, all I can do is name them and leave it to others to explore each one in greater detail. But even in summary, it is a complex story.

The Republican Party

When Governor Ann Richards was defeated for re-election by George W. Bush in 1994, it was the first time in 120 years (except for eight years) that Texas had a Republican governor. Since then, it has only had Republican leaders, with a demonstrably growing political power at both the local, state, and federal levels.

But here too, there were decades of preparation to turn Texas from historically Democratic to solidly Republican. The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas is likely the best source for seeing how the shift occurred. But the Texas GOP account (what they call moving the party from Point A to Point B) tells a similar story. Beginning in the mid-1960’s (some say when JFK was elected President), Texas Democrats began to distance themselves from the national party. Even Lyndon Johnson’s succession to the Presidency (as a Texan) did not span the widening gap (in fact, widening it further) as he supported the civil rights movement.

The 1970’s were pivotal, illustrated by Jimmy Carter’s win in 1976, but his loss just four years later to Ronald Reagan in 1980. The political shift going on in the country was mirrored in Texas. This radical shift “put the pedal to the metal” for a comparatively rapid rise of the Republican party in the state. It focused in Rick Perry, with defeat of Jim Hightower in 1991 as Agricultural Commissioner. Born and raised in Paint Creek (within the NWTX Conference), Perry combined agricultural savvy and an Air Force career to achieve election (as a Democrat) to the State House in 1984. But in 1989, Perry moved from the Democratic to the Republican Party (a telling story in and of itself), and he wasted no time in saying he would restore “cattle, corn, and cotton” to the center stage of Texas agricultural. That was an electable platform, and he became Agricultural Commissioner, thought by some to be a more powerful position than governor. Perry’s political meteor lit up the night sky, moving him into Lieutenant Governorship (under “W”) and then by succession and re-election as Texas’ longest-sitting governor. By the time he left office, Texas was positioned and powered to give its electoral college vote in both 2016 and 2020 to Donald Trump, an achievement which Trump rewarded by naming Perry Secretary of Energy in his administration.

Perry’s popularity (and that of his wife, Anita too—now with the Anita Thigpen Perry School of Nursing at Texas Tech in Lubbock named for her) is entrenched in northwest Texas, along with the Trumpian ideology that is present there too, bolstered even more by Perry’s declaration of Trump as “God’s chosen one” in a November 2019 interview on Fox News (Washington Post article by Eugene Scott, 12/18/19). Simply put, the rise of the GOP in Texas has played a substantial role in the demise of the UMC in the Northwest Texas Annual Conference.

The Good News Movement

Beginning in 1967, a group of United Methodist evangelicals began the Good News movement. It quickly became an unofficial adversary of the new UMC (1968), in its claim that the denomination was becoming (like the nation) demonstrably liberal, which meant non-Christian (perhaps even Communist) in crucial ways—initially illustrated in the General Board of Global Ministry, the United Methodist Publishing House, United Methodist Women, and the denomination’s thirteen official seminaries. The movement was “good news” for fundamentalist/evangelical UM’S who needed to know there were “true Methodists” at work to save the denomination. Over time Good News established alternative agencies: The Mission Society, Bristol House publishers, and the Renew women’s ministry. It did not need to start a seminary; it already had a de facto one, as will be seen in the next section.

When in 1972, the UMC began its 50-year tensions related to homosexuality (the one-word coverage term in those days), Good News quickly moved to the point spearheading resistance to the alleged “gay agenda” eating away at the UMC, like termites devouring wood. [2] The resistance has held firm to the present moment, rising to the level of a “cage match” in 2014 and to the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association in 2016 and the Global Methodist Church in 2022. The Good News movement has been embedded in both.

Here is where I enter the picture, sadly in retrospect, but not sadly at the time. I cannot write this account apart from a mea culpa acknowledgement. Before I graduated from McMurry College (now University) in 1970, I had been introduced to Good News. Attending Asbury Seminary (1970-73), I came to know more leaders in the movement. By 1975, I was on the Good News Board, chairing national Convocations in Anderson, Indiana and Dallas, Texas. I was also in the first class of John Wesley Fellows (1977), begun by A Foundation for Theological Education in part to address the alleged liberal takeover of UM seminaries. I later served as Executive Director of AFTE. All this to say, I saw Good News “up close and personal.” And that includes seeing and participating in its rise to power in the Northwest Texas Annual Conference. That rise occurred in tandem with the next “fertilizer”—in which I also played a role, back then—but no more. [3]

Asbury Theological Seminary

Founded in 1923, Asbury Seminary came into existence to fight liberalism and modernism in the church and society. Always multi-denominational, it was theologically in the Wesleyan tradition, albeit on the conservative side. Given where I was theologically in 1970, it was a natural choice for my theological (MDiv) education.

Graduating in 1973, I returned to the Northwest Texas Conference to pastor. Moving to Duke University for PhD work (Wesley Studies), I was subsequently invited to return to Asbury Seminary in 1980 as a faculty member, where I remained until I retired in 2012, except for a 1993-1998 ministry at Shepherd’s Care (a ministry to ministers and their families which Jeannie and I founded), at AFTE, and at The Upper Room (General Board of Discipleship).

During my “Asbury years,” I witnessed and contributed to the mounting influence of the seminary in the Northwest Texas Conference. During this time, Asbury Seminary came to train more United Methodist seminarians than any of the official theological schools. The seminary was careful to distance itself officially from the Good News movement (including my being asked to step down from the Good News Board when I came on the faculty in 1980), but there were affinities, including the fact that Good News had moved its headquarters to Wilmore, where the two Asbury institutions are located.

The marked increase in Asbury’s influence in the NWTX Conference is pervasive. Laity (donors) and clergy (pastors, superintendents, bishops, and seminary staff and trustees) alike align with Asbury’s perspective and presence, right up to the present. I taught many of the alumni, I have preached all over the Conference in churches that are disaffiliating, and I taught in some ”Asbury-ish” camps and conferences over the years.
In 2004, the NWTX Conference chose me to receive the Francis Asbury Award (the UMC’s recognition of excellence in educational leadership), and in 2012, I was one of two named Distinguished Alumni of Asbury Seminary. As late as that, my “Asbury stock” was still in recognizably good shape. In 2014, all that changed, and I became persona non grata in the Asbury network. But I cannot deny or leave out of this recollection the fact that I helped spread the Good News and Asbury Seminary “fertilizers” in the NWTX Conference, even though I have come to lament it, given where things have ended up.

All three of these “fertilizers” exhibit and promote an authoritarian style of leadership, where “bucking the system” is a show of strength, even godliness. This style played well in the social and ecclesial culture of the NWTX Conference in the decades leading up to disaffiliation. And to this day, in both the nation and church, political partisans and pastoral potentates exercise high control over others. In many places the splintering of the UMC is clergy driven more than laity desired.

Taken together, the three “fertilizers” have been put into the soil of the Northwest Texas Annual Conference for 50+ years (if not more), and they have been put there through a mixture of actions and motives. The 75% disaffiliation vote this past fall was the “harvest” of a soil prepared for it. [4]

[1] I have not lived or served in the NWTX Annual for some time. I asked friends there to read this piece and suggest any changes.
[2] Here’s an interesting sidebar: while many UM fundamentalist/evangelicals were not fans of the Revised Standard Version (1946) which was produced through the auspices of the “suspect” National Council of Churches, they were thrilled to see the word ‘homosexual’ in the biblical text (1 Corinthians 6:9). This ignited an accelerated anti-LGBTQ sentiment, raising their interpretation of ‘sodomite’ to the level of an actual Bible verse. [Note: the insertion of the word ‘homosexual’ into the text is now a recognized error, even by some evangelicals.]
[3] Some would likely add the Confessing Movement and the Institute for Religion and Democracy at this point, and they have respective supporters in the NWTX Conference. I am only mentioning them because I have not had a leadership role in either group. My guess would be that if the mailing/donor lists of Good News, Asbury Seminary, the Confessing Movement, the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and the Global Methodist Church were compared, there would be substantial overlap. Over the past 50 years, all these groups (and more, even beyond the UMC) have become rooms in a larger Christian fundamentalist/evangelical house.
[4] My guess is that the same three “fertilizers” have been worked into the soil of United Methodism elsewhere in the USA, and in some foreign countries. I have limited my writing to what I know and have experienced. The point is, even these three things play in more than one Annual Conference, and are themselves part of a larger Christian Nationalism active today.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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