WCA leaders cast vision amid division at Eastern PA seminar

By John W. Coleman

Preaching a message of grace and a mission of growth, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) is working to unify and support people who favor the Traditionalist view of The United Methodist Church’s future—the view that narrowly won a majority of votes at the Special General Conference in February. That majority declined to sanction same-sex marriage for LGBT members and to welcome them into ordained ministry.

“Now we’re offering a positive vision of our future—what we’re calling the next Methodism—and a sense of moving forward,” said the Rev. Joseph DiPaolo, leader of the loosely organized WCA movement in the Eastern PA Conference. He wants to see that movement connect and encourage people of like minds and hearts because “we can do so much more together than apart.”

Indeed, the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the association, preached that message at its Northeastern Regional Gathering May 11, hosted by Washington Crossing UMC.

“I believe we are on the doorstep of the next Great Awakening and God is preparing us for that awakening,” he shared, referencing Charles Wesley’s sermon “Awake, Thou Who Sleepest” and likening today’s churches to those that lost their fervor in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. “I believe the UMC is in an existential crisis,” said Boyette, calling for the church to be “resurrected” and to “reclaim sound doctrine grounded in the Word of God.”

“We will not capitulate to this culture,” asserted the retired Virginia Conference clergy member and former attorney. “We will contend for the historic Christian faith through the Wesleyan tradition.”

Irreconcilable differences

Citing a lack of unity and “cohesive vision,” he described the current divisions in the denomination as “irreconcilable at this time…making it very hard to see a way where we can all remain in one church.”

“If we part ways, I don’t want there to be rancor, a winners and losers scenario, but a scenario where we bless each other in our going out,” said Boyette. “I pray for those who have a different vision of our church. I don’t pray that God will smite them or change their minds. I pray that God will fulfill His purposes, and that He will correct in me anything that is contrary to His will.”

The WCA must focus, he said, on “encouraging those who persevere in this tough time.” He offered some other goals for the association, including:

  • planting new churches and revitalizing declining, small-membership churches;
  • having a “strengthened global connection” so that U.S. churches can support and benefit from churches in Africa that are “alive and growing”;
  • empowering local churches more as decision-making missional centers, while reducing the role and “idolatry” of the larger institution and general agencies;
  • reducing bishops’ administrative influence and connectional responsibilities beyond their assigned areas;
  • increasing the active leadership role of laity; and  
  • offering more affordable ways for laity to pursue ministry as local and ordained pastors, including a shift in funding theological education away from seminaries and directly to students.
Krystl Johnson
Krystl Johnson

Other speakers at the regional WCA seminar included Krystl Johnson (left), a young adult lay member of St. Daniel’s UMC in Chester and a delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General conferences. Creatively using social media references, she offered a message of adherence to orthodoxy and vital evangelism in “A Millennial’s Vision of a Global Church.” (Johnson will address the Laity Session of the 2019 Eastern PA Annual Conference June 13.)

The Rev. Beth Caulfield, who leads the WCA’s work in the Greater New Jersey Conference, spoke on “Recovering a Vision for Wesleyan Holiness.” She emphasized the importance of defending traditional beliefs and doctrinal standards against the popularity of contemporary culture.

The Rev. John Longmire and Tom Clingan of Hempfield UMC in Lancaster proposed a WCA global mission partnership with a children’s ministry in Kenya. The Rev. Scott McDermott, Washington Crossing UMC’s lead pastor, preached at the opening worship, and Bishop Peggy Johnson greeted the assembly and welcomed guests.

Workshops, led by Eastern PA members, focused on “Reimagining Wesleyan Discipleship” (by Keith Buckbee), “Ministry with the Sexually Broken” (by Elizabeth Santos Fisher) and “Funding the Next Methodism(s)” (by Jack Brooks).

Steering clear of controversy

DiPaolo, pastor of First UMC Lancaster, organized and emceed the daylong event, which drew about 125 attendees. He also hosts a small, monthly gathering of about 20-30 WCA members at his church on first Saturdays.

 “We’re trying to steer clear of controversy, but a lot of people are still holding back” he observed. “I want to see us focus on doing good ministry.”

Like Boyette, DiPaolo, also a delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General conferences, sees eventual schism ahead in the UMC, although that is not his preference. “It seems like we’ve been pulling the cart in opposite directions for so long, we’ve just about pulled it apart.”

He hopes a negotiated dissolution happens peacefully before relations between traditionalists and centrists and progressives becomes so “brutal and nasty” that the rancor ruins any chance of cooperation around UMCOR, clergy pensions and other areas of ministry that should transcend ideology.