A Way Forward

The United Methodist Church is a turning point. Following the Special Session of General Conference, people of faith from a variety of points of view are discerning how to best move forward.  (See "Viewpoints" lower on this page.)

In St. Louis April 23-26, 806 delegates met from across the globe gathered to consider the denomination’s stance on human sexuality. Fifty-three percent of the delegates voted for the Traditional Plan banning same-gender marriage and “self-avowed practicing” gay and lesbian clergy.  This plan upholds the church’s 40-year stance that homosexuals are people of sacred worth, but also that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The One Church Plan, advocated for by the Council of Bishops and a reported two-thirds of the U.S. delegates, was voted down. 

Before they are enacted, the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan and “gracious exit” provisions for churches wishing to leave the denomination, which was also adopted by the delegates, are expected to be considered by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s Supreme Court, when it meets April 23-25.

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Thoughts From ‘Inside The Bar’ at GC2019

By: Charlie Moore*

My plan is to share some of my thoughts with you in three parts. Part I will be my thinking a week before I departed for GC2019. Part II will be my thoughts once I was “Inside The Bar” in St. Louis and Part III are my reflections upon returning home from this historic event. Just to be clear, in parliamentary parlance, “the bar” is the area in which the voting members are seated.

Going to ‘The Bar’

As a lay delegate, I have to admit that my current views on the proposed “Plans” are still in formation. My thinking is not based upon a deep scriptural or theological foundation. My thinking is much more influenced by the cultural context in which I live. I was a sociology major who ended up as a financial executive with a very large corporation for almost 30 years. I then spent the last 20 years pursuing global entrepreneurial/business initiatives along with multiple volunteer initiatives throughout the “United Methodist Connection.” My “cultural context” is complex. While most of my adult life has been lived within an evolving progressive culture, I have also spent many months in the more traditional context of sub-Saharan Africa during 25 extended visits to Zimbabwe over the past 20 years. These many visits as a VIM Team leader and as Board Member of Africa University, have sensitized me to the wide range of viewpoints on the issue of human sexuality. I am deeply regretful that we are at the point where one singular issue can have the potential impact of significantly reducing the depth and breadth of our beloved Connection. As I prepare to travel to St. Louis, I continue in prayer as I seek guidance from the Holy Spirit.

Inside ‘The Bar’

Upon arriving in St. Louis, I was able to spend considerable time with a number of my close Zimbabwean friends who are fellow delegates and visitors to General Conference. Their support of the Traditional Plan is clear and it is deeply rooted in their history. This history began as the evangelical white missionaries brought Christianity from the U.S. to Africa. Almost all theological seminaries in Africa continue to teach from a traditional/evangelical perspective. In my conversations with my African friends, it was also conveyed to me that almost all African annual conferences plan to remain in our denomination even if the One Church Plan passes. This realization significantly influenced my final decision to fully support the One Church Plan — which is founded on the notion that this path will do the least harm to our beloved Connection and will result in the least number of people leaving our denomination. As the voting proceeded, my heart began pounding as it stretched to try and fully capture what was happening. And now that the One Church Plan has failed and the Traditional Plan has prevailed, I am struggling to envision how we will proceed from here and I turn again to the Holy Spirit for wisdom and comfort. At this point, it is NOT “Well With My Soul.”

Home From ‘The Bar’

Upon leaving the Bar and returning home, I am feeling overwhelmed by the outpouring of commentary on both sides of these issues through social media as well as through formal statements from various United Methodist affiliated organizations. In fact, after several days, I have decided to stop reading all of this so I can formulate my own thoughts. What has become increasingly clear to me is that these issues will continue to dominate well past General Conference 2020. What is also clear to me is the fact that my passion for mission with our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe has grown even stronger — if that is possible. I refuse to allow a single issue to define or limit my love for our beloved Connection. I will remain committed regardless of what denominational structure ultimately prevails and I will work tirelessly to minimize and adapt to whatever the financial impact will be on our global ministries, our seminaries and our institutions of higher learning. It is NOW “Well With My Soul.”

*Charlie Moore, a member of Community UMC in Crofton, was a lay delegate to General Conference.

Trust in God: 'Just Keep Stepping!'

By: Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli*

My dad was born and raised in the Ozark hills of northwest Arkansas, the son of generations reared in that beautiful place. There’s a peculiar way of speaking that’s native to that land. Today I realize how deeply embedded in my own speech are those idioms.

When we sneezed, Daddy would say, “Scat there!” I have no idea what that means. But I often find myself blurting out that “blessing” when someone sneezes! When I was anxious about an assignment, Dad would say, “[That’s] No step for a stepper!” and I would know that Dad believed in me and my abilities. Those words were deep encouragement.

All of us need deep encouragement in these days following the 2019 General Conference. My fervent hope was that The United Methodist Church would offer the world a vision for how to live together in diversity and conflict, an alternative to the radical polarization and dissolution of relationship on display in the public square everywhere. I prayed that our connection in the Body of Christ, love for one another, core values from the Wesleyan tradition, and commitment to the scriptural calls to unity, humility, compassion, and justice would allow us to do something new.

I was encouraged by the opportunity presented by the Commission on a Way Forward to lessen harm for LGBTQIA people while making space for faithful, contextual ministries in all the places United Methodists live and serve around the world. I was grateful for the recognition that, for contextual ministries to occur, the discriminatory language against LGBTQIA people in our Book of Discipline had to be removed. I walked into St. Louis with so much hope for what the people called Methodist might do.

Instead, at best, we come away from St. Louis with the status quo and, at worst, new provisions (should they be deemed constitutional) that accomplish the very opposite of what was called for by the 2016 General Conference.

Far from allowing contextual ministries, these new provisions demand a rigid uniformity of practice that penalizes dissent and threatens expulsion. They reject outright any blessing of the well-documented gifts and graces of LGBTQIA persons for ministry or of longstanding, loving, committed relationships between same-gender partners. They disregard the theological and biblical integrity and conscience of LGBTQIA allies. Those who cannot abide by these punitive standards are offered a “gracious exit.”

The Commission on a Way Forward was asked to develop a plan offering as much unity as possible with as much contextuality for ministry as possible. The Traditional Plan was not the work of the Commission. Its passage leaves us with legislation that is largely unconstitutional, encourages either schism or further disobedience and conflict, harms our evangelism through its exclusion and hypocrisy, and inflicts further harm on LGBTQIA young people, adults, their families and allies.

So what do we do now?

In January, I began a new morning prayer practice of being available to Christ, listening, and writing down what I receive for future reflection. Here is some of what I have heard:

"Know that the future is held in God’s keeping."

"The way will make itself. Just keep stepping."

"Be free of worry. There is no point. Be in today and love. Be in today and serve. Be in today and play. Laugh at the tempter. There is no power greater than love. And love holds you."

As we move into this moment following the General Conference with all the uncertainty it brings, I hear my Daddy’s voice saying, “No step for a stepper!” I hear the voice of Christ saying, “Just keep stepping.”

In other words, trust that God is giving you what you need. Trust that God holds the future. Keep doing what you do and serving as you serve and loving as you love in your congregation. The people in your local communities need you to keep being the church for them — regardless of what vote gets taken at an institutional meeting.

I don’t intend to stop serving Jesus and my congregation in the ways I am called to serve. My congregation is committed to continue being a witness for the inclusive love of God and radical hospitality of Christ for all people in our diverse human family.

I pray that we in the Baltimore-Washington Conference will continue to value the beautiful diversity we experience in our connection, honor one another’s consciences, and celebrate the faithful, contextual, life-changing ministries that happen across our Conference.

Just keep stepping! When you are tempted to be discouraged, laugh at the tempter. God’s love is holding you. God’s love is holding US. That is more than enough to see us through.

Let’s step out together into God’s future.

*The Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor of Foundry UMC in D.C., was a clergy delegate to General Conference.

Faith of Africans will shape the church's future

By: Matt Sichel*

In 1821, freed Methodist slaves from the United States returned to Africa and began the Liberia Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. This was the first American Methodist mission to Africa. In 1855, the United Brethren in Christ sent three missionaries to Sierra Leone, where they spent the next 80 years doing mission work in their only foreign field. This year at the Special General Conference, both the Sierra Leone and the Liberian Conferences sent 12 delegates each, the same amount as we sent from our Baltimore-Washington Conference.

Overall, over 40 percent of the delegates were from outside of the U.S., with 30 percent from Africa. This says something significant to me about the nature and future of our United Methodist Church.

I was the last elected lay delegate to our NEJ/General Conference delegation. This was my first opportunity to represent our annual conference. I was honored and humbled at the chance. While my theological perspective is certainly more conservative than the majority of our delegation, I appreciated that I was always able to share my thoughts openly in our delegation meetings.

I spent the majority of the sessions in St. Louis with the other reserve delegates, sitting next to my sister, Sarah Schlieckert. She and I have connected over many things these past four years, and I have grown to appreciate her faithful, intellectual curiosity. I have tried to articulate the basis for my conservative viewpoints to her, and she has done the real work of trying to genuinely understand me. I hope I have done the same with her, listening, learning, and growing.

On Monday, when the votes for the Traditional Plan showed a 55 percent majority, many in the hall were stunned. I pointed to the numbers and mentioned to Sarah, “you will see that vote spread over and over again for the rest of the session.”

To those of us who supported the Traditional Plan, those numbers made complete sense. No amount of impassioned speeches, big name support or marketing campaigns would have changed that vote.

The UMC is deeply divided over this issue because we are deeply divided on the interpretation and application of Scripture. Those who espouse a traditional understanding of human sexuality will not be moved, and come to it after honestly wrestling with Scripture. It is not stirred by animus, but by a dedication to trying to be faithful to what we have understood, knowing that we will be held responsible by our Lord for what we have supported and taught.

Yes, some have suggested that two-thirds of American delegates supported the One Church Plan, but the United States is not the center of the UMC any longer.

We made disciples for the transformation of the world, and those disciples now come from Russia, the Philippines, Mexico, and yes, Africa. And like their conservative American brothers and sisters, they have wrestled with the Scriptures and come on their own to a traditional understanding of human sexuality.

Those missionaries sent to Africa birthed a new movement of God in Methodism. I come away from St. Louis stunned not by the outcome, but by the dynamo that is the UMC in Africa.

Their witness to the Spirit of God and the vitality of a movement tells me that God is indeed still speaking, and right now, God has an African accent.

At General Conference 2019, Africa stood up to become the leaders of the church. Will we rejoice or lament this beautifully diverse, global nature of our denomination?

*Matt Sichel, a member of Wesley UMC in Hampstead, was a reserve delegate to the General Conference.

The debate stretches beyond sexuality

By: Rev. Stephen Andrew Tillett*

Over the years, whenever I have been typing the words "United Methodist Church" fast, it often comes out as “Untied Methodist Church.” At General Conference 2019, the UMC accelerated the process of becoming untied.

I have spent a lot of time reading the comments of colleagues on both sides of the theological and ideological divide. The pain, anguish and, at times, anger that my beloved colleagues feel about the outcome of the Special Session of General Conference is palpable.

There are some who have asserted that “sexuality” is really just a smokescreen. The actual issues at play are power, proceeds and property.

Let's keep it real. There have always been people of various expressions of human sexuality in the church from the very beginning. We know this because it is referenced in biblical writings.  There is nothing new under the sun. We are all "going on to perfection" but none of us are there yet (nor will we be in this life).

I do not claim to be the arbiter of all that is true in this matter. There are many things the Bible has to say about personal holiness that were not the focus this week in St. Louis.

Nevertheless, Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:1-5 really speak to me.  “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” 

While I understand that there are many of us who have not yet made our peace with life circa 2019, and wish many things weren't so ...they are.  Same sex marriage is now the law of the land in the United States. Furthermore, every person reading this probably has LGBTQ relatives, coworkers, members and associates.

These people are all precious and beloved in God's sight and deserving of our love and respect.  Any denomination that is not forward-looking and willing to embrace all of God's people risks becoming irrelevant and extinct.

Our children and grandchildren, who are Millennials and Generation Z, do not feel compelled to stay anywhere they're not wanted or welcome. And if they choose to leave, when those of us who are older "go the way of all flesh," who will be left in those congregations?   

I also submit that one of the reasons the Traditionalist's Plan has not passed muster with the Judicial Council is because they are not concerned with whether it is deemed "constitutional" or not. That's because, after the schism, they will write a new Book of Discipline to suit the new denomination they are forming. 

So my counsel to our wounded colleagues and members is simple. As with any relationship, if somebody has made it clear they don't want you... that they don't want to be with you, rather than trying to contort yourselves into something unrecognizable so they will tolerate you, “shake the dust off your feet” and keep it moving.

Life is too short to waste time trying to win the approval of others that they will never deign to grant to you.

Instead, I would suggest that we remember the words found in Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

God is your God. God belongs to all of us, just the same. And no one can stand in God’s way when the Lord wants to bless you or to use you.

“If God is for us, who can be against us? ... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

God is love and God loves you and me. That is more than enough.

*The Rev. Stephen Andrew Tillett is pastor of Asbury Broadneck UMC in Annapolis. He attended General Conference as an observer.

Traditionalists respond to Special Session

By: Erik Alsgaard*

The Baltimore-Washington Conference is the most diverse conference in United Methodism, in terms of race, gender, age, geography, and theology.

Several people in favor of the Traditional Plan who witnessed the 2019 Special Session offered their thoughts after it was approved on Feb. 26. That plan, along with a few other petitions, is now in the hands of the church’s Judicial Council — similar to the Supreme Court — for rulings on the constitutionality of the legislation (see story, p. 1).

“By its actions, the UMC prioritized biblical authority and covenantal accountability as critical to our life as a United Methodist Church,” wrote the Rev. Rudy Bropleh, lead pastor of Asbury UMC in Shepherdstown, W.Va. “(At Asbury), it means that we will not be known for what we’re against, but what we’re for. And we’re for loving all people, receiving all people, and serving all people. We will strive to do no harm to anybody, but try to do good to everybody.

"At Asbury," he continued, "we don’t check human sexuality at the door; we never have and we never will. We don’t discriminate against anyone. Instead, our goal is to be in relationship with all people.” 

The Rev. Heath Wilson, pastor at Tom’s Creek UMC in Emmitsburg, said he told his congregation on March 3 that they were open and welcoming to all.

“We all come with some brokenness and we all come with some holiness and all of us come in need of Christ,” he said. “And everyone who comes on a Communion Sunday is invited to the Table to receive.  You are invited to the table … no matter who you love, you are invited to the Table even if you are not sure you trust Jesus yet, you are invited to the Table if you are filled with joy and you are invited to the Table if you are struggling with depression, you are invited to the Table if you never drink a drop of alcohol, you are invited to the Table if you are struggling with addictions.  You are invited to worship, you are invited to commune, you are invited to be part of something greater, no matter what! So, let’s journey together.”

The Rev. Travis Knoll, who pastors Hunts Memorial UMC in Towson, shared a brief outline of his sermon on March 3. In it, he said that Christians often get it wrong in that Jesus didn’t say, “come, let’s discuss truth.” Instead, it’s “come, follow me.”

“In other words, it was an invitation back into relationship with God through Christ ('if you have seen me, you have seen the father') at the cost of abandoning our own claims to godliness and understanding. It isn't 'blind faith;' it is instead an exchange — we give up pretending that we are God in order to have an actual relationship with the real God...

“I love the church,” he wrote, “but I think that we are often in the place of telling God what is good and what is evil. That is backward. God is the one who decides what is good and what is not. That is why I think that the church cannot do as we might wish; we are not God.”

The Rev. Ray McDonald, pastor at Laurel UMC, said that he would say to his congregation that there are well-intended Christian brothers and sisters on both sides of the divide.

“There is no room for rejoicing when part of our body is mourning,” he said. “We need to mourn with those who mourn. We have not settled much while we are still so divided. We will begin to pray for #GC2020. We will pray for the global UMC — praying for those on both sides of this divide.

“I will remind them that at First Church, we love every one and everyone is welcome.”

*Erik Alsgaard is the managing editor for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church.

BWC delegates deliver undernotes of grace

By: Melissa Lauber*

Kelly Robier, a lay delegate from the Baltimore-Washington Conference, seconded many of the motions and amendments that came to the floor of General Conference. It was almost second nature. She wanted a meaningful discussion of the church’s future. She sought to support those petitions she thought would make that future more faithful. Plus, she has a voice that carries. People can hear her.

On February 25, in St. Louis, Robier rose to the microphone to offer an amendment to the One Church Plan that addressed the constitutionality of the plan. Then she sat down to vote, only to find her voting machine was out of order.

Robier raised a flag to let the page know she needed a new machine, but there wasn’t time. The page advised her to quickly remove the card of Conrad Link, who was sitting next to her, from his machine and insert hers. She quickly voted.

Her one gesture changed the outcome. The vote was 404 to 403. Her one vote counted. Her gesture made a difference. In essence, she made an amendment, and then single-handedly passed it. That is the power of one voice.

Earlier in the day there was a vote that ended in a tie – 409 to 409. It was a symbol of how closely divided the church is.

Some people noted the votes were a sign of the increasingly global nature of the Church, with the delegates from the Central Conferences tending to be more conservative.

The Rev. Mark Holland, executive director of Mainstream UMC, noted, “So here are the details of how we lost the big vote today. We had 386 votes for the One Church plan; we lost by 50 votes out of 822 cast. There were 34 delegates who were not seated for the conference, mostly due to visa issues. We knew we needed to flip 30 votes yesterday and we did not. We had two-thirds of the U.S. vote, half of Europe (all of Western Europe) and some success in the Philippines. We needed 50 votes out of 260 from Africa and we received maybe 10 and maybe even zero.”

But in a note to her congregation at Falston UMC, the Rev. Karin Walker noted that if 28 people had voted differently the Traditional Plan would have been defeated. If 26 people had voted differently, the One Church Plan would have passed.

If God is speaking within, or through, the people called United Methodist, God is saying more than one thing.

In the Dome in St. Louis, much of what was said was hurtful and wrapped up in power, control, and pain. There were also undernotes of grace. But on the whole, people spoke to their own choirs, echoed the thoughts of their own tribes and wiped one another’s tears.

One delegate cited the Methodist debate over race in 1939, which was “a stand-up-and-clap, sit-down-and-cry moment.” With the creation of the segregated Central Conference, whites stood and clapped, blacks sat down and cried, he said. At this conference, the LGBTQ community in rainbow stoles and their allies cried. They also chanted, and sang and preached and prayed.

On the floor, proponents of the Traditional Plan, said that “loving accountability for the sake of holiness is the most Wesleyan thing there is.” While those in favor of the One Church Plan asked, “Are your convictions of righteousness so big that they will obscure the grace of God?"

A delegate from Liberia proclaimed, “It is better to be divided by truth rather than united in error.” In those moments, the cry for division felt palpable — like torture by a thousand tiny parliamentary paper cuts.

The delegates of the Baltimore-Washington Conference did a stupendous job. They rose repeatedly to the microphone, asking potent questions, making amendments and speaking prophetic words.

At one point, early in the conference, the song “Marching in the Light of Christ,” began and the BWC delegation rose from their chairs and danced in the aisle behind their tables.

At another point, Jen Ihlo, one of the BWC’s lay delegates, rose and addressed the body. “I’m queer,” she said. “That’s one tiny part of who I am. We are all of us children of God. We all belong.”

Like Robier, I’ll second that.

*Melissa Lauber is the Director of Communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church.

 

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