At General Conference this week in St. Louis, Missouri, the leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) orchestrated a defeat of the bishops’ proposal for a way forward for the UMC. In its place they passed a way backwards, a regressive and punitive plan that leaves no room for those who interpret scripture differently, harms gay and lesbian people and their families, diminishes the witness of the church and serves to push not only progressives, but likely many centrists, out of the church. I wonder if they counted the cost to their victory?
I believe the coalition that leaders of the WCA put together has won a battle at General Conference and may well have lost the church. They have hurt, once more, our LGBTQ members, their families and friends. They have harmed United Methodism’s witness in America. They will have negatively impacted our mission work in the world. They have significantly impacted our ministry with young adults and the generations that follow. And they stand a good chance of seeing thousands of United Methodist Churches leaving the denomination.
For thirty-six years I’ve been a committed United Methodist. I chose this church as an eighteen-year-old college student because I loved its commitment to both the evangelical and social gospel, its emphasis on grace, its call to bring critical thinking skills to the interpretation of scripture and so much more. I have spent the last thirty years serving the church and working for her renewal. I’ve never seriously thought about leaving the UMC, until now.
I’m the founding pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, where we’ve led over 15,000 people to a personal faith in Christ, received over 22,000 adults and children into membership, and gather 13,000 people each week in worship – a congregation that looks much like our denomination – conservatives, centrists and progressives.
Our congregation is deeply committed to the United Methodist Church. While many in the WCA downplay their United Methodist affiliation, we’ve proudly proclaimed that we are United Methodists. While some WCA churches have had a history of not paying their apportionments, for twenty-nine years we’ve paid our apportionments in full at the beginning of the year as a way of demonstrating our support for the denomination (our apportionments are $2.5 million for 2019). We have provided leadership training to over 40,000 United Methodists, offered resources used in thousands of United Methodist Churches and been engaged in a host of efforts to encourage vital congregations.
We are “orthodox” (some would say conservative) when it comes to the historic essentials of the Christian faith. I believe in the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, his miracles, in the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, and in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Yet under the rules the WCA has just passed at General Conference, I don’t think I could be approved for ordained ministry as a United Methodist today.
The Traditional Plan just approved reaffirming our existing language that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It sharpened the prohibitions of pastors from marrying or our churches from hosting such weddings. It also condemned the marriages of every same-sex couple in the UMC, many raising children, as incompatible with Christian teaching. In order for these persons to be compatible with Christian teaching, the leaders of the WCA seem to imply that these couples divorce and break up their family. This idea is repugnant.
In addition, the WCA’s legislation added mandatory penalties to the Discipline so that any pastor who officiates at a same-sex marriage is to be suspended without pay for a year. On a second offense they will be defrocked. Bishops, too, have mandatory penalties for disobeying the Discipline. The legislation now imposes a litmus test for those serving on the Board of Ordained Ministry. What is next? Will there be a litmus test related to support for the Discipline’s statements about gay and lesbian people required for seminary professors, District Superintendents, board members of our general church institutions? Colleges and universities?
The policy the WCA passed at General Conference treats gay and lesbian Christians as second class. “You are people of sacred worth, but so long as you wish to share your life and love with another, you are in living in sin.” I asked our members, several years ago, “How many of you have a friend, a family member or someone else you care about that is a part of the LGBTQ community?” Nearly everyone raised their hands. How long will our people continue to feel it is okay to treat their LGBTQ friends this way? Not much longer if my e-mail, text messages, Twitter and Facebook direct messages are an indication.
And what about our children and grandchildren’s generations. Seventy-five percent of millennials support same-sex marriage. What’s their impression of United Methodism today? I want my kids to be proud to be a part of this denomination, not embarrassed or ashamed. They don’t see this as a matter of biblical faithfulness. Their hermeneutic, their way of reading and interpreting scripture, is through the lens of Jesus, the Great Commandments and the Golden Rule.
The legislation passed hurt the LGBTQ community including their family and friends. I’ll give one example of dozens of people I’ve spoken to. Yesterday I called one of our most committed members. He has perfect worship attendance, is generous, a servant leader and an incredible witness for Christ. He regularly uses his influence to bear witness to his faith and for our church. I called because I’d heard he wasn’t sure he could continue to be a part of Resurrection. He loves our church, but he felt deeply hurt by the United Methodist Church this week. As we spoke, he began to weep. He told me what it was like to be in fifth grade and hear his church, at the time, describe gay and lesbian people as an abomination. Several years later he listened, as he was coming to grips with his sexuality, as his pastor made clear gay and lesbian people were in danger of hell-fire. He left church for years. But in his 50s he found Christ once again at Resurrection. He found a community who loved and welcomed him and his husband. The pain he experienced from the passing of the Traditional Plan was deep.
I will not treat my gay and lesbian people as second class. I will not quietly accept the way backwards as an acceptable way for us to live together as United Methodists.
If the intention of the leadership of the WCA was to ignite many of the centrists in the church they’ve successfully done this. I can’t even keep up with the tweets, direct messages, texts and e-mail I’ve received in the last few days from pastors and laity across the US saying they are ready to leave. These are pastors who never imagined leaving the church – committed United Methodists. I’m hearing people who have never withheld their apportionments talking about whether they can, in good conscience, continue in mission partnerships with churches, annual conferences and others who lent support to the Traditional Plan. They are asking, Why would we support partners that have voted to push us out of the church?
Approximately two thirds of US delegates voted against the Traditional Plan. I’m told that 70 percent of the funding for the UMC comes from America. My hope is that the leadership of the WCA is re-evaluating what’s happened, and the legislation their coalition just passed. They appear to have the votes to pass whatever they would like. It is hard for many of us to see any future in a scenario in which the WCA and their supporters control the church and show disregard for the rest of the church. US churches that disagree with this path backwards will not sit by quietly and watch as this takes effect. They will protest, live in disobedience to the Discipline or leave, and the impact will be far greater than the leadership of the WCA ever imagined. If the WCA leadership does nothing, I believe they will have won the battle and lost the church.
One final word to Resurrection’s LGBTQ members, their family and friends: I love you. I feel great pain for the hurt the General Conference has caused you. I’m working with many others to address this, but I need your help, not your departure. We’ll have a meeting Saturday morning, March 2 at 10 a.m. at Resurrection Downtown, and Sunday night, March 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Resurrection Leawood (live streamed). I hope you will join me at one of these meetings this weekend.