UMCNext planning new directions for the church

By Heather Hahn; Sam Hodges; Virginia quotes added by Forrest White
May 22, 2019 | LEAWOOD, Kan. (UM News)

More than 600 U.S. United Methodists spent three days grappling with possible options for forging what they hope will be a more just and inclusive church future.

What united those at UMCNext, which met May 20-22 behind closed doors at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., was their opposition to the Traditional Plan.

That legislation, which the special 2019 General Conference approved by a vote of 438-384, retains the church stance that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and strengthens enforcement of church bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

The increased enforcement takes effect Jan. 1 in the United States. But another General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, is also just around the corner, in May 2020.

“I was devastated by the results of the General Conference decision to go with the Traditional Plan. There was embarrassment to call myself a United Methodist pastor,” said the Rev. Kirk Nave, senior pastor at Braddock Street UMC, Winchester, who attended the UMCNext gathering. “Inactive young adult United Methodists have said, ‘If you didn't know why young adults don't want to come to church, you should now’ and ‘If you're fighting over who to keep out of the church, are you really a church?’"

The Rev. Grace Han, lead pastor of Trinity UMC, Alexandria, described herself as “incredibly discouraged” after 2019 General Conference.

The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli (center) answers a question at the press conference following
UMCNext. Looking on are fellow convening team members the Rev. DJ del Rosario (left) and
Karen G. Prudente. Photo by David Burke, Great Plains Conference.

“Not only did we take a step in the wrong direction, it was clear that our church was broken and I wasn’t clear how we would move forward together,” said Han, who was also a part of the gathering in Kansas. “UMCNext was a long, intense, and sometimes difficult week. But it was a hope filled one. It made me realize the power and diversity of our connection and I was hopeful for where God is calling us next. We all agreed something needs to change and that was a powerful starting point. We agreed that God’s Holy Spirit isn’t done with us yet, and that God will breathe new life in our dry bones.”

 Those gathered identified two possible approaches toward a new United Methodism, said the Rev. DJ del Rosario of the Pacific Northwest Conference. These include continued resistance to the Traditional Plan with the goal of reforming the church from within, as well as some form of negotiated separation to create something new.
They did not reach a consensus on a single direction. For now, those in attendance are working on a both-and-approach. And working groups will be developing plans for the next General Conference to consider.

“The ‘both-and-approach’ isn’t satisfying, but it’s strategic,” Han said. “What was clear at our gathering was that there wasn’t a one size fits all solution.  The reality is that what is next in San Francisco is going to look different than what is next in Virginia, which is going to look different than what is next in Alabama. But the goal is to all move toward the same goal, toward a fully inclusive church, and we were all united on that goal.”

“There are churches who feel every urgency that they are going to leave now,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, one of the event’s conveners and lead pastor at Church of the Resurrection, the denomination’s most-attended U.S. church with an average weekly worship attendance of nearly 7,000. “There are also churches that say we couldn’t leave even if we wanted to… So we’re ultimately going to have several pathways forward.”

Hamilton and others at the post-event press conference were also clear that resistance could mean violating the restrictions in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, and risking their ministry. Resistance, conveners said, also could take less dramatic forms such as making sure their communities know all are welcome.

“Reforming the church from within is nothing new regarding full inclusion for our LGBTQIA United Methodists and their allies,” Nave said. “Resistance toward full inclusion is going to continue no matter what happens. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said. In our baptismal vows, each of us promised to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Some of that evil is within me, as a white, heterosexual male, with all the privilege that comes with that, in addition to the sinfulness within me of which I am already aware. Some of that is without, as we confront systems and interpretations of the Bible that are harmful.”

     The UMCNext gathering drew together at least 10 representatives from each of the denomination’s 54 U.S. conferences — many of whom applied to go. Hamilton said the event had 2,000 more people apply to attend than could fit in the room.

Event organizers, he said, worked to ensure inclusion of LGBTQ United Methodists, diverse ethnic/racial groups and young people. Also in attendance were 16 bishops.
Ahead of the gathering, Hamilton said that it was closed to the press because of concern “that the dialogue might be less frank, open and honest” otherwise.

But during the event, a number of participants as well as event critics took to Twitter and Facebook to air their thoughts and complaints — offering only snippets about what was happening.

The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, said during the press conference that those gathered agreed to four commitments.

These include:
• To be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity.
• To resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and abilities.
• To reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and resist its implementation.
• To work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ individuals.

Table discussions, Gaines-Cirelli said, centered on people’s hopes for the church.

And indeed multiple participants at the event’s conclusion expressed hope for the church’s future.

No general church or annual conference dollars went to funding UMCNext, Hamilton said. People paid their own way to attend and United Methodist Church of the Resurrection also covered the costs of hosting duties.

 “It is encouraging to see centrists and progressives looking at some way forward for the United Methodist movement that looks a whole lot different than what we saw at General Conference,” said the Rev. Clayton Oliphint, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas. 

“I think this is a wilderness time for us,” he said. “But I think God is leading us to something better.”

Han called UMCNext a good start, but knows the hard work is still ahead. “My hope is that we can be faithful to the ministry God has called us,” she said. “I hope that out of this conversation, we can move on toward sanctification to live more fully, more honestly, more faithfully into God’s mission.  I hope we can be a fully inclusive and diverse church because that’s what it means to be God’s church.”

The UMCNext event came on the heels of another gathering where the church’s future was on the agenda. The Our Movement Forward summit, on May 17-18 at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church, also brought together United Methodists who advocate for full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians.

The summit, which was open to any who wanted to attend, aimed to center on the liberation of the marginalized, namely people of color and queer and transgender individuals. The event also had similar options on the table, including both resistance and the formation of a whole new expression of United Methodism.

Our Movement Forward received support from sponsors. Some of the event sponsors did not contribute funds but staff labor. With help from sponsors and individual donors, sponsors also provided scholarships to people who could not attend otherwise.

The Rev. Heecheon Jeon, a district superintendent in the Iowa Conference, attended both gatherings. He said he sees opportunities for sharing ideas across both gatherings. He said Iowa United Methodists who attended either event plan to get together to discuss next steps for moving forward.

“I hope we can share some common values to widen the circle of this liberation movement,” he said.

The Rev. Tyler Sit, the openly gay founding pastor of New City Church in Minneapolis, was a co-convener of Our Movement Forward and a participant at UMCNext.

He likened what’s happened at the 2019 special General Conference to a giant, old tree that has fallen in a forest, leading to new saplings starting to grow and reach for the light.
“I think it would be an improper move to try to commandeer or consolidate efforts too soon,” he said. “We are at a place right now where we need a breadth of efforts because we don’t know what’s going to work.”

T.C. Morrow was unable to attend Our Movement Forward due to a prior commitment but was an eager participant at UMCNext.

She has faced a rocky candidacy for deacon’s orders in the Baltimore-Washington Conference because she is married to another woman. She will be presented as a candidate again on May 29 at her conference’s clergy session. Whatever happens, she said she remains committed to doing ministry that fights injustice and oppression.

“We don't know what the future will bring for the people now called United Methodists, but there are more people than ever on the journey for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people,” she said.
“I am energized by this even as I know it is a messy, complicated time as we move forward into new ways of being the church together. We need as many people as possible to resist, risking their comfort and privilege, and join this fight for LGBTQ inclusion.”

Saying he was devastated by the outcome of 2019 General Conference, Nave left Kansas more than just hopeful.

“My hope is not merely a hope. It is in the promise of God for deliverance,” Nave said. “Whenever there are periods of persecution, God always, always, delivers the oppressed. My hope is now joined with others for God to build a church, complete with a rich Wesleyan heritage and theology, where all of God's children are welcomed, where their monogamous, loving, relationships, are blessed, and their call to ministry can be lived out.”

-Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for UM News. Sam Hodges, a UM News reporter based in Dallas, contributed to the story. Forrest White is a news associate with the Virginia Conference Communications office.


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