Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Results of General Conference 2019

"With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…" (Ephesians 4:2-3)

I

As most of you may now know, 864 delegates (half lay, half clergy) from United Methodist churches all over the world met for a called special session of General Conference in St. Louis, MO through yesterday afternoon (February 26) to discuss and act on the report called the “Commission on a Way Forward” relating to the matter of human sexuality.   After passionate debate, two efforts to pass what was known as the “One Church Plan” failed by small margins, and the delegates instead passed what is known as the “Traditional Plan” by a vote of 438 to 384 (52% approval rate).

This plan essentially leaves intact the current denominational policies that do not allow ordination of LGBTQ clergy candidates, and which do not allow our clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.  However, it also adds new mandatory accountability structures for clergy who violate these policies.  While it’s unclear how constitutional these new structures will end up being, the intent was clearly to uphold and better enforce our current policies regarding human sexuality.  A minority report petition on “disaffiliation” also passed, which would potentially allow graceful exits from the denomination for clergy and churches who disagree.  (For a more complete article on the results, read HERE, or also find a variety of result links from our North Georgia delegation HERE).

II

In light of this decision, some UMs are ecstatic and have a great sense of satisfaction. Others are in great shock, anguish, and deeply hurt by what transpired.  Regardless of where you are personally, please know that I am praying for you -- that God would be with you wherever you are, and will use this decision to bring about a more perfect and faithful church, even while using broken and imperfect people like you and me to do it.

To those who hold traditional views, I would invite and urge you not to gloat or feel smug in this decision, which was by no means a mandate (the Traditional plan passed by a slim 54 votes; nearly half of the delegates did NOT vote for it). Instead I encourage you to exhibit humility in what transpired, and invite you to reach out and extend biblical charity and comfort to your brothers and sisters who have felt deeply hurt and betrayed by this decision. Practice the words of 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” You may not agree with them theologically, but they are still your sisters and brothers in Christ.

To those who feel hurt, I would likewise urge you not to do anything rash, but instead to trust that God is working even now to bring about a greater good that we can’t yet see -- God always has a way of doing that through the biggest and most painful disappointments in our lives!  Please remember, too, that 2/3 of American United Methodists do not and did not support the plan that was adopted – its support came from a coalition of 1/3 of the American delegates and almost all of the international delegates (who make up 40% of our denomination’s membership).  Also, we do not really yet know how this decision will play out (or if it will):  the adopted plan (or parts of it) may be ruled unconstitutional by our denomination’s Judicial Council at its meeting April 23-25;  there are also rumors of a new denomination that may emerge to more faithfully represent a different vision for the UMC.  My point is that since God is bigger than this decision, you do not need to fear the present or future -- He will be with you and us all!

III

On a personal basis, I feel it important to share full disclosure that I am among those who are deeply disappointed by this decision. …not because I am “progressive” in my views of human sexuality – in general, I am not.  No. I am disappointed because the approach taken by the Traditional Plan, in my opinion, lacked charity and a gracious spirit in failing to acknowledge or even allow for the reality that deeply committed Christians can, do, and will continue to hold differing views on this and many other subjects, and yet still be faithful, deeply committed, biblical followers of Jesus Christ

The adopted plan mandates that all United Methodists must think exactly the same on this particular subject, with no room for any contrary opinions – a view which I believe is not only unbiblical, but inconsistent with a truly Methodist vision of Christianity.  In his 1771 sermon “Catholic Spirit,” the founder of Methodism John Wesley once wrote “although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works” (Paragraph 4 of his sermon Intro; Read the entire sermon HERE). 

Some have tried to frame this debate in terms of biblical authority – as if one “side” is based on scripture and the other is not.  But nothing could be further from the truth. In my humble opinion, this debate was not (and still is not) about biblical authority but about biblical interpretation -- both conservatives and progressives claim the Bible to be God’s authoritative word.  What’s under debate is not the authority of scripture, but what exactly that means.  Wesley’s words above illustrate that for centuries, Methodist Christians have felt it possible to have a gracious spirit that allows for differences of biblical interpretation, while still holding to the fundamental authority of scripture itself.

What I fear that this decision will do is embolden some (as others already have done) to create within the church a pharisaical atmosphere similar to the one that Jesus experienced in his own ministry -- one where genuine, prayerful, Spirit-led dialogue and debate is not only discouraged, but is at times ruthlessly silenced (we’ve seen that multiple times throughout church history, in fact).  Such an environment stifles the God-created, God-inspired diversity found in holy scripture, and is inconsistent with the diversity of our God who is “three in one” and “one in three” (the Holy Trinity).  Consequently, I believe that adoption of this plan will not really “settle” the debate, but may instead actually inflame and invigorate it even more (which may be a good thing).

From a legal standpoint, in mandating prescribed punishments for clergy who violate its rules, the plan deprives offenders of due process -- something alone which may be ruled unconstitutional in April by our Judicial Council. 

Finally, contrary to scripture itself, I believe this decision has sent a signal to the world -- however unintentionally -- that truth is indeed more important to us United Methodists than love, and that the legalism of the Pharisees (holding to the “letter” of the law) is more valuable to us than the gracious spirit of Jesus (holding to the “spirit” of the law).

So yes, I am hurting for my more “progressive” friends and colleagues who hold a different view than my own, and who (I fear) think that their voice and presence in the church is not  welcomed or important.  Consequently, I still dream of a church where people can honor and respect one another’s differing views without the need question their fidelity to scripture or their faithfulness to God’s word. Unfortunately, this is not what was adopted yesterday.

IV

Despite all that I have said, however, I do need to point out that while the adopted plan will not change our current official UM view that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that LGBTQ persons cannot be ordained as clergy, it nevertheless also continues to affirm (paragraph 161(G) of our Book of Discipline) that…All persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” Consequently, we will still accept LGBTQ persons into church membership and engage in ministry with them – this decision does not change that reality, even for my Traditionalist friends.  After all, Jesus did not come to call people to their need for a particular sexual orientation, but to their need for a Savior. As Gods church, we should do no less.

As to where we are headed as a denomination generally (and as McKendree UMC specifically), at this point it is really too soon to say.  There are many things still be worked through from this decision.  I and other clergy and laity throughout our North Georgia United Methodist Conference will be meeting with our Bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson on March 21, and will be with others in our Atlanta-Emory District on March 24 to debrief about what happened and talk about “next steps.”  After that, I should hopefully be in a better position to answer specific questions about where all this will take us.  In the meantime, I urge you to stay the course!

As I was writing this, I was inspired by a very helpful, pastoral, and affirming video message from Bishop Sue that I encourage you to watch HERE.  She ended with words that I feel are very important to remember:  "At the end of the day, the most important thing is our life together as followers of Jesus Christ, and the mission that we share together" of making disciples for the transformation of the world. I couldn't have said it better myself!

Regardless of who or where you are in all of this – whether you are lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, conservative, traditionalist, evangelical, centrist, liberal, progressive, or anything else you can label -- I want you to know that as your Senior Pastor at McKendree UMC, I love you, care about you, and if you’ll allow me the chance, I want to honor and respect what you feel God is calling you to in this matter, even if or where it may not be my own. As always, my “door” is open if you want to talk with me about what you are feeling or struggling with related to this or any other subject.

As we continue to prayerfully discern where all of this takes us, most importantly let’s also continue our work and ministry together here in Gwinnett County, seeking to be God’s “nurturing community, connecting all through Christ.”  And please never, ever forget that God loves you and I do, too (I mean that!)

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