While a few churches have severed themselves from the United Methodist denomination over an anticipated difference in policy regarding the ordination of openly gay pastors and same-sex marriage at some point in the future, others have rarely discussed the issue directly, even though it has been a subject of debate at General Conference for about 50 years.
But some churches have decided to address the issue openly, frankly and directly, prompted largely by the Special Session of General Conference in 2019. The following story visits a few churches that chose to host difficult conversations.
Platte Woods UMC
Rev. Yvi Martin likens the General Conference delays that have occurred due to the pandemic (it was originally scheduled for 2020) to a holding pattern of an airplane circling a runaway, with the passengers within sight of where they need to go but unable to take the next step to get there.
“For associate pastors Rev. Choongho Kwon and Rev. Jess Horsley and I, this just didn’t feel like the time for a blind eye and a silent voice in leading our congregation,” she said. “Not only do the questions around full inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ+ siblings in our connection warrant our church’s attention, but our church was hungry for someone to help guide them in the conversation.”
Platte Woods is a large church, and certainly not a church of one mind in these conversations.
“We got to work, not knowing exactly what it was we were doing, but knowing something needed to be done,” Martin said. “We weren’t just
going to stare out the window, waiting to land.”
Over the past 12 months, the church conducted a three-part approach to the conversation around the UMC and human sexuality. They hosted a Courageous Conversation with a panel of five people in their church. Some identified as LGBTQ, and others were family members or allies. They listened to their stories and then allowed time for Q-and-A. This event was open to the whole church and was also available online.
The second step was to address polity. They pooled resources from Rev. Adam Hamilton and Rev. Tom Berlin (General Conference leaders who have worked against the church splitting) and hosted a conversation called the Future of the UMC. They made an open presentation with Q-and-A and addressed the pressing questions people in the church seemed to be asking. They also introduced the concept and categories of Traditional Non-Compatibilist, Traditional Compatibilist, Progressive Compatibilist and Progressive Non-Compatibilist. This approach, at a minimum, gave the congregation more than a simple binary framework to wrestle with.
The most recent step was to address the question: What does the Bible say about sexual identity and same-sex relationships?
“We felt this part of the work did not lend itself as well to a large, open-forum format,” Martin said. “It seemed we might cultivate more fertile ground for constructive, trusting conversation in small-group settings.”
Together they developed a 90-minute lesson that dives deep into biblical exegesis of six verses that are most commonly used to uphold a doctrine that discriminates and excludes LGBTQ people from the Christian community. They examined the language and context of each verse, and they held space for questions and curiosity about what these verses meant in their time and what they mean for us now.
“We invited small groups (of any kind, Sunday School classes, friends and family, women’s Bible studies, anyone) to schedule a time with one of the three pastors to go through this presentation together. It became known as the “Pastors’ Roadshow!” Martin said.
Between January and April, more than 200 people attended a presentation. They will resume them again this fall.
At Manchester UMC in St. Louis, Rev. Andy Bryan went straight to the scripture in a sermon, addressing the six or seven verses in the Bible that come up around these issues and doing it in a Methodist way.
“John Wesley said to interpret scripture literally, except when it comes into conflict with other scripture, then go with one that speaks plainly,” Bryan said.
Bryan took a deep look at each of the scriptures and gave his interpretation of them. He acknowledged that some biblical scholars arrive at the same interpretation as he does, and some arrive at a different interpretation. He gave his best, honest view of what these verses meant. He implored people to thoughtfully consider not only what they believe about these verses but why they arrived at that belief.
“I know what I believe, and I know why,” he said. “I’d really like each and every one of you to be able to say the same.”
Manchester has a periodic event called Backstage Pass, in which Bryan shares as transparently as possible some aspects of the church. In a recent Backstage Pass, Bryan used a “#BeUMC” video from United Methodist Communications in which people explained why they are United Methodist. He cautioned people not to be confused about the language they may have heard around the United Methodist Church splitting.
“It’s not really splitting. It’s more like splinters are falling off,” he said. “Surveys have shown that 75-80% of the United Methodist Church want to remain United Methodist.”
Bryan had addressed these issues before, most directly when he was pastor at Campbel UMC in Springfield in 2019, after a Special Called Session of the General Conference failed to resolve the issues in a way that people had hoped.
“I’ve always felt it is important to be as honest and transparent as possible about what is going on in the larger church,” Bryan said. Usually, if he has addressed the issue, it’s in response to something that has happened, like action (or inaction) at General Conference or once in Springfield after an incident at a local school brought the issue to public attention.
“When I know an issue is on peoples hearts and minds, I want to say something about it,” he said.
The response at Manchester to the sermon series has been very positive, particularly among the younger people.
“What I have tried to do is strike a positive tone. There’s a lot of hubbubs framed around anxiety, animosity and fear,” he said. “I framed this in hopefulness for the future.”
Manchester is two centuries old and looks traditional but is diverse theologically and politically.
“We manage to figure out how to do things together in a traditional atmosphere,” Bryan said. “We’re a community of people who care about one another despite our differences.”
Bryan believes that is the kind of church the world needs and is encouraged by many new families that have started attending there in the last several months.
“I know I’ve made plenty of people mad who are not in favor of full inclusion, but it is important for me to announce the Gospel as I see it,” he said.
Bryan thinks many pastors almost say something, get negative feedback, and then back way off, which ends up being inconsistent.
“Our people know what you hear from me is advocating for full inclusion. That’s how it’s going to be,” he said. “Regardless of someone’s opinion on that, whether they agree or disagree, they appreciate knowing where I am.”
Maryville First United Methodist Church was already facing up to the issues around inclusion before Rev. Kim Mitchell got there in the summer of 2019. A few months earlier, the previous pastor, Rev. Scott Moon, had helped the church start having conversations immediately following General Conference in 2019. Some leaders in the church started an exploratory team and began to covenant together, reading books and having small group discussions around the issue. They studied the books Torn, Where Do We Go From Here, and People to be Loved.
As a pastor, Mitchell was an advisor to the committee. The aim of the group was for people from all sides of the issue to be able to have conversations about it together. They did not intend to move toward a vote on anything.
“We’re the church at the corner of First and Main. We’re the heart of Maryville,” Mitchell said, noting that it is important for the people of the church to be the church for the entire community.
As things progressed, the group decided that to represent Christ in their community, they needed a more affirming approach. The exploratory
team concluded their work in November 2021. The church did not decide to become a reconciling church but does have three Reconciling communities within the church, including an LGBTQ support group. Mitchell heard that a few families left over the issues before she got there. There are a few that haven’t come back after COVID-19, but she doesn’t know what to attribute that to.
“It’s not about waving the flag. It’s about loving people where they are,” Mitchell said. “We know we have differences, but we also know that we’re called to love one another.”
“When you look out at our congregation, it’s about evenly split in terms of where people stand politically,” Mitchell said. “We’ve decided it’s not about politics. It’s about loving one another. We’ve worshiped together for 100 years while having differences.”