Reflections on General Conference
Many of you followed the Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church this past week. The conference adjourned on Tuesday evening, and I’m writing to share with you my current reflections on the results.
In short, without getting into too much detail, the General Conference voted by a slim majority to double down on its stance against the lives, love, and ministry of our LGBTQIA siblings. A long-standing, powerful coalition of conservative U.S. leaders and church leaders from outside the U.S. (primarily countries in Africa) were able to gather the votes to pass a version of what has been referred to as the “Traditional Plan.”
Prior to the General Conference Session, a good deal of this plan was ruled unconstitutional (that is, out of line with the UMC constitution) by the Judicial Council. The parts that were ruled unconstitutional were a series of draconian accountability measures to ensure that people will be punished if they violate the Book of Discipline. With those measures ruled unconstitutional, the plan essentially lost its “teeth.” Thus, while this plan does irrevocable harm by what it communicates to LGBTQIA people, I do not believe it will actually change very much in the way our local churches operate.
If anything, this stance has awakened the fury of many, many more Methodists in the United States than ever before. Those who have been timid before are already speaking out in much bolder ways to support those marginalized by our denomination. I expect the backlash to be massive, and I anticipate that more UMC members and churches will join the Reconciling movement and advocate for full inclusion.
In addition to the “Traditional Plan,” the General Conference also passed a plan that allows churches to choose to leave the denomination. This plan likely includes portions that are unconstitutional, but we will have to await a Judicial Council ruling on that in April.
Is the UMC at a breaking point? Yes, I believe we are. However, I believe we are ready for that. The current state of the denomination is unsustainable; something will have to give, and soon. The well-organized conservative group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association issued a statement yesterday that indicates their desire for a better “gracious exit” plan in 2020. They appear to want either another attempt at a softer landing for conservative churches to leave the UMC or another chance to force out progressive churches. For a group that insists that they stand on their principals, they appear unable act solely upon their conscience.
Meanwhile, I have been present in meetings this week where some of our strongest moderate and progressive leaders are exploring new possibilities for a more open expression of the Methodist movement. We don’t yet know what that looks like, whether it is within the UMC or outside it. None of these things happen quickly, nor should they. We must move with wisdom and discernment as we follow God’s Spirit. I know that we’ve asked for more patience than is reasonable, but this is the nature of life together.
So, what has changed? I think the most significant change that has come through the called General Conference is a sense of readiness for something new. I, for one, am committed to God’s future above all else. I believe in the Wesleyan theology of grace as the basis for everything we know about God and the journey of Christian faith, and I want to be part of the movement of God’s Holy Spirit to share God’s good news through this lens. I do value unity in the church, but I will not continue to sacrifice the lives, gifts, and well-being of LGBTQIA people for the sake of the institution. I am ready for something new!
While things may feel uncertain, I believe the pressure has built up to such a point that there may finally be energy enough for movement and change.
Meanwhile, back at First Church, yesterday some 300 people showed up for a hot breakfast at our Family Life Center. People who have recently arrived in the U.S. brought their notebooks and continue to learn the English language among new friends. Another group of adults gathered to discuss the book of Acts and its wild-and-crazy tales of the earliest Christians. A member of our staff gave a pair of new work boots to a man who is hoping this new job will bring the stability he needs for a healthy future. And somewhere in Austin, a gay teenager wondered if there is a Methodist Church out there that would welcome her, nurture her faith, give her a place to serve, and honor her calling from God. The community of Austin would not be the same if we were not here on the corner of 12th and Lavaca, with our arms outstretched to receive and offer the grace of God for all. I know that you are deeply hurting, and many of you are ready to call it quits with the church—the UMC, or any church. I urge you to put yourself in places and situations where you can find healing, and I hope that one of those places is in our Sanctuary with the gathered community.
On Sunday, our worship will be designed to tend to the hurt that so many in our congregation are experiencing and to testify to the belovedness of God’s LGBTQIA children. Through song and spoken words, hugs and prayers, anointing and Holy Communion, we will seek God’s grace for healing, for sustenance, for courage. I encourage you to come with your broken hearts and your broken hopes. It won’t all be fixed right then and there, but I believe that as we encounter the God of resurrection together, our eyes will be opened to new possibilities.
During the Sunday School hour starting at 10:00 a.m., Pastor Michael and I will share information from General Conference in an open forum in the Sanctuary. We invite the entire congregation to attend this session.
Further, our leaders are planning more meetings in the future to answer questions and have discussion about all of this; we’ll notify you once those are set. In the meantime, the Pastors are here for you. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us for conversation and prayer. We hold you in our hearts.
With tenacious hope,