Mediating a Denominational Division

The United Methodists are dividing, and have used a mediator to help them.

Sometimes mediation is used to bring people together, mend fences and repair relationships (e.g., employment disputes). But other times it’s used to help people part ways as amicably as possible, most notably in divorce cases. The split within the United Methodist Church (UMC) is akin to a divorce.

The United Methodists have been wrestling for years over whether to permit LGBTQ individuals to marry and be ordained. After a majority voted last summer to adopt a more conservative stance on the issue, it became clear that all UMC churches could no longer cooperate within the same denomination. But, as in a divorce, the decision to split opens the door to a host of difficult decisions, both financial and emotional. So an international group of Methodist bishops and other church leaders invited Ken Feinberg to mediate.

Mr. Feinberg has mediated a number of high-profile cases in the U.S., including distribution of the 9-11 funds and Catholic priest sex abuse cases. I blogged about him last year, after I heard Michael Lewis’ interview with him.

It does seem a bit ironic that the Methodists selected a Jewish mediator and not a Christian mediator who might be more sympathetic with their core beliefs. Since the main issues in this case involved process and property, they decided that his experience was more important than his religion.  A lawyer, he was assisted by two lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis, Rick Godfrey, who is United Methodist, and Wendy Bloom, a litigator who too is Jewish. By all accounts, the participants were pleased with their mediators. And the mediators benefited too: Ms. Bloom said that, when discussions got difficult, someone would call for prayer, and one of the bishops would pray. “I’ve never encountered pauses for prayer before in mediation, and it really did work. These prayers were inspiring and re-focused everyone on the task at hand.”

Mr. Feinberg told an interviewer that one essential requirement for the mediation was to ensure that the right people were at the table—that all constituencies were represented, and that the representatives truly spoke for, and could “deliver” an agreement. Another was to maintain confidentiality. He saw the three main issues as re-structuring, governance, and financial issues.

The proposal arrived at through mediation, called the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, must be approved at this year’s General Conference in May. In another irony of this process, the traditionalist majority is the one that’s leaving to form a new denomination, while the minority gets to retain the name. When asked about that, Mr. Feinberg said simply, “That was a decision that was reached by everybody around the table. It became apparent that that would be the result.”