Last week, we learned that the meeting of the General Conference, the legislative decision-making body of the United Methodist Church, already postponed twice, will now be postponed once again. The meeting will now take place in 2024, when the next regularly scheduled General Conference would occur.
This decision was in part a practical, logistical one—though it is regrettable. While many would like to see the denominational logjam break loose, the group that plans the event prioritized the participation of the whole elected body and determined that it was not feasible to ethically gain vaccinations and visas in a timely manner to allow delegates from 40 countries to enter the US for the planned meeting this August. I believe this is true. We are experiencing the challenges of a global church. Still, there is also a lot more at work behind the scenes.
A new denomination is being launched by those who count themselves among the “traditionalist” wing of the church. In order to build the momentum needed to move forward with these plans, many traditionalist leaders advocated for this year’s General Conference to happen as planned. Some even offered vaccination for delegates in countries where vaccines are not widely available—a practice perceived by some to be an unjust approach, carried out for self-serving reasons.
Postponement was the desired outcome of much of the progressive wing of the church. Some believed that there was too great a risk of inequity—that too many people would be prevented from attending by either lack of vaccination or inaccessibility of visas. In addition, many progressives would like to see the conservative wing make their exit prior to General Conference, so that the ones who eventually meet to determine the way forward will be those who actually plan to participate in the future of the United Methodist Church. In other words, these folks are saying, “If you are planning on leaving the denomination, we’d prefer that you not have a vote in determining its future.”
While I am sympathetic to this perspective, I also recognize the continued harm of dragging out the process. Divorce is messy, and ours is being made far messier by this pandemic. Our LGBTQ+ members bear the greatest pain of this delay. In addition, churches who do not have clarity regarding whether their congregation would like to move in a more progressive or more traditionalist direction are in limbo as the process is drawn out.
From my perspective, the landscape has changed since 2019. It is already clear that a significant portion of the traditionalist wing of the church will break away, inevitably leaving a more progressive UMC. Even as we wait, few Bishops are currently acting on complaints that they receive about clergy who perform same-sex weddings, choosing instead to hold those complaints in abeyance. We are seeing an increasing number of LGBTQ+ candidates exploring the candidacy process, anticipating that this will be a denomination in which they are able to and want to serve in the not-too-distant future.
The sense I get is one of anticipatory change. United Methodism is headed for a more progressive, open expression, even as we await the official changing of the rules. Leaders who intend to stay and lead the UMC are working to articulate a vision for the future of the denomination, and I like what I’m hearing from them. Still, I believe we need to temper our expectations of the denomination. Change will always be incremental among any significant body of people. This is both frustrating and healthy. While the slow speed of change is limiting and perpetuates harm, it also prevents the missteps that come with moving quickly, and it allows more people to come along as they, too, grow and change.
Change will continue, and it will not wait for General Conference. As some Bishops have moved forward with their own plans to retire, many remaining Bishops, including our own, have been asked to oversee multiple conferences until the time when new Bishops can be elected. Usually this occurs in the meeting of Jurisdictional Conferences, following General Conference. Again, the logjam is significant. The result is unsustainable, so we expect to see a call from the Council of Bishops to hold Jurisdictional Conferences later this year in order to elect new Bishops. Meanwhile, the new traditionalist denomination I refer to above, The Global Methodist Church (GMC), will launch on May 1, and some churches will take action to withdraw from the UMC to join it. The landscape will continue to change.
I believe that the ability to do ministry as we see fit gives us the space we need in order to endure this transitional period. FUMC voted in July 2019 to open our facilities to all couples seeking the blessing of marriage, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and to support our pastors who officiate such weddings. We are doing the ministry we are called to, and we will continue that.
The metaphor that works for me here is breathing. The Hebrew scriptures use the same word (Ruah) for both breath and spirit. It is tempting to “hold our breath” waiting for General Conference to make the official change we have longed to see. We can “hold our breath” waiting for every church and every member to come around to affirm the lives and loves of LGBTQ+ people. OR, we can breathe now. Through the Holy Spirit, we can breathe in and remember that the God who created each and every one of us has already affirmed us. Breathe in belovedness. Through the Holy Spirit, we can breathe out and see the power unleashed when we tell the story of a God who loves and celebrates LGBTQ+ life and love. This is God’s work through us, and it is vitally important, healing, redeeming work. We do not need to hold our breath; we have all we need.
I am honored and grateful to be your pastor, even on the difficult parts of this journey together. If you would like to share your concern or frustration about this with me, I invite a conversation that would help you move toward the healing that God desires for you. Don’t hesitate to reach out by replying to this email. In the meantime, we’ll keep you posted as developments continue.
With gratitude for each of you,