Addressing The #UMC Elephant: 4 Lessons

At this last session of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference (my annual conference), two churches submitted several pieces of legislation that sought to change The United Methodist Church’s current teaching on issues related to human sexuality. As most of you are likely aware, our denomination currently holds to the following: 1) that marriage is a life-long, monogamous relationship between one man and one woman; 2) the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with historic Christian teaching; 3) no “self-avowed, practicing” (i.e. partnered, married, etc) homosexual is to be admitted into the clergy; 4) that no United Methodist clergy person is to preside at a same-sex union nor are any United Methodist properties/buildings to be used for such celebrations. This has been our church’s position since 1972, when it was formally entered into our Book of Discipline. After discussion and a close vote, the Greater New Jersey Conference approved legislation that would alter current denominational teaching; this will be sent for consideration at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon.

I struggled with how and when, and even if, to share and explain this annual conference action with the two churches I serve. Just like all United Methodist congregations, my churches have folks who feel very strongly about these matters. As I prayed about an appropriate response, I received some emails from church members, expressing consternation regarding the annual conference vote, even indicating this might spur their exodus from the denomination. I clearly realized I needed to open the conversation. So, instead of addressing this during Sunday worship, which I felt would not allow adequate time for processing and feedback, I decided to begin the discussion using our church communication (weekly e-mail and bi-monthly newsletter) and Wednesday Bible study. I want to share with you a few things I learned as this conversation has unfolded in my local context:

1) People are grateful when the conversation is opened. I cannot count the number of people – conservative, liberal, and in between – who have told me they have appreciated “naming the elephant in the room” (one church member’s way of phrasing it). Just providing people the space to discuss this has been liberating and cathartic for so many. When the pastor opens the space for the conversation, she or he has the chance to model holy conversation and gives permission for others to engage.

2) Don’t underestimate the power of story. As the dozen or so of us sat around that table at Bible study, a few people began to share stories that were new to all of us — about a gay relative who died of AIDS in the 80’s, about two gay couples who traveled with a church couple to adopt a child overseas. As people chose to be vulnerable and trust each other, the focus shifted from how the church stands on an “issue,” to the church’s relationship with a gay family member, or friends who are a gay couple, etc.

3) Our church folks want to understand our polity. At the beginning of this conversation, I spent a substantial amount of time detailing United Methodist polity — how legislation works, the relationship and differences between Annual and General Conference, how the Book of Discipline is amended. Many of them are now very clear on what the Book of Discipline says, and they can more clearly articulate church teaching. People feel empowered when they have a firm grasp of how we United Methodists order and structure ourselves.

4) Our people can handle disagreement and difference. Even after hours of discussion and prayer, people in my church are still not of one mind on how the UMC should approach LGBT concerns. Some would like to see the language and prohibitions in our Book of Discipline changed; others believe our current teaching is faithful and right. Homogeneity isn’t the goal; loving and serving God and each other despite difference is (Rev. Jeremy Troxler brilliantly wrote about just that).

How, if at all, has this conversation played out in your local church? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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7 thoughts on “Addressing The #UMC Elephant: 4 Lessons

  1. I appreciated the openness and candor of this “elephantine” post, but still forsee that there are powerful and important points that are irreconcilable. Ultimately, the interpretation of scripture, and its authority are at stake. Culture and stories do not determine “thus saith the Lord”. The Bible still proclaims “Holiness unto the Lord” and expands that proclamation to daily life and actions. The God who proclaimed “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exo. 20:14) also said “if a man lies with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22), and “vile affections” (Rom. 1:26). What gives us the authority to proclaim one is truth (adultery), and the other is a lie (homosexuality)??

    Yes, I have heard all the specious arguments about slavery, brutality against women, and other terrible things that are not specifically condemned in scripture. I have also never found any verse, not one, that celebrates homosexual marriage, but many that celebrate holy marriage of one man and one woman.

    I am simply trying to portray my deep concern that we (the UMC) are becoming a people too cozy with what God calls evil and sinful. GC 2016 will become a crisis point no matter what happens. However, I predict that our numbers, our influence on culture, and more importantly God’s blessing on our ministry will decline dramatically depending on the direction we go.

    Dr. Mike Hopper
    Pastor, Faith UMC
    Greenfield Indiana

  2. Mike:

    While I might agree with you on some points, I can’t agree with your last point: regardless of the direction we decide to go on sexuality, our numbers, influence, and God’s blessing on our ministry will continue to decline until and unless we make discipleship and mission a priority. If it were about the right stance of sexuality, either the Episcopalians or the Southern Baptists would be growing. Yet both are in decline despite their strong stances. Sexuality is certainly important, and is certainly where our energies currently are. But our lack of generative discipleship and fruitlessness in such is our major problem… and it is a “major” of the faith that we seem to be avoiding. What would it mean to have a General Conference focused on discipleship with a moratorium on matters of sexuality, since we’ve wasted several General Conferences on the issue with nothing to show for it. It’s become an idol.

    1. Do we need to finally acknowledge that the real issue is that there are a number of gay non-celibate ordained clergy who wish to serve openly without losing their benefits and privileges despite having lied during their ordination vows and violated the Discipline every day since? Considering that same sex marriage is the law of the land now, the rest of the issues truly should recede in concern because the stance of The UMC has no bearing on a moot debate. But, the issue of closeted clergy is a different situation.

      1. As a single, celibate clergywoman, I am APPALLED at the notion that there may be active, practicing gay clergy in the church. Certainly , if that is the case it should be acknowledged; AND charges should be filed. Trials should be held, and these folks should be relieved of their clergy credentials.

  3. Unfortunately, I know of one lay leader who resigned their position and left their congregation because of the votes at Annual Conference. I know of other lay members who had people come up to them after their reports and say, “Is it time for me to leave?”

    Conference leadership made a major mistake when it was decided to rewrite the two resolutions from the Reconciling Community rather than follow the standard practice of them simply being ruled out of order because they were in violation of the Discipline.

    1. After debating and dealing with this issue for nearly 50 years, it may indeed be the right time to leave the United Methodist Church. Many of us are worn out with the endless listening, talking and debate. My question becomes, can I still be loyal to “The United Methodist Church” when it affirms and even begins to celebrate gay “marriage”? Scripture has not changed. Someone has moved my proverbial cheese, and I don’t think it was the Holy Spirit.

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