Holy Conversation

February 1st, 2015

How do you think clergy and annual conferences should negotiate the tension between accountability to church law and a refusal to conform? Here are some of the answers our readers gave:

“Because both issues related to clergy covenant and human sexuality are deeply rooted in our relationship with God, we need to approach them with the awareness that we are standing on holy ground. In the presence of God, we need to take off our shoes and walk prayerfully, rather than tromp around in combat boots trying to defeat our opponents.”
James A. Harnish 
Author, retired UMC pastor from Winter Haven, FL

“Trust in covenant relationship is tested and strengthened over time. It’s a difficult and heart-breaking process, yet it leads, eventually, to hearts that heal and grow bigger because the people involved chose to sit in the difficulty rather than run away. I hope clergypersons in our church will sit in the difficult place of the testing of our relationships and contemplate the option of a closer, stronger covenant that God is working in us and between us.”
David Horton
Teaching pastor at St. Luke UMC’s Gethsemane campus in Houston, TX

“Because I love my daughter, I decided to sign the marriage license for her and her partner and therefore violate one part of the Book of Discipline. I chose to follow the parts of the Discipline that talk about inclusion and the need to be in ministry to all people. I chose Jesus’s law of love and inclusion.”
Mike Tupper
Elder at Parchment UMC in Parchment, MI

“‘Sacred trust’ involves serving the church/Christ. Entering this trust, we surrender our expressive individualism. We presume the church, because of revelation and wisdom, has truth. Also, we know the church is imperfect. So we work to reform her. But our reforming observes the ‘sacred trust’ and never undermines it.”
Paul T. Stallsworth
Pastor of Whiteville UMC in Whiteville, NC

“When one has friends or family who are gay or lesbian, then their personal names take the place of the label ‘homosexual.’ This changes how one speaks of, acts toward, and thinks about the matter. It’s easy to condemn an abstract stranger. Can we judge so harshly a sibling, cousin, or child?”
Marty Toepke-Floyd
Pastor of First UMC in Redfield, SD

“Humans are created to demonstrate humane and gracious love while acting for justice and mercy. Our human purpose is to live the humane life. Gay marriage will happen just as the roles of blacks and women changed the Book of Disciple. Let us hasten to change our Law.”
William E. Salmon
Retired United Methodist pastor in the Great Plains Annual Conference

“We are a table people. Though we may disagree on issues, God calls us to accountability and transformation at Christ’s table. United Methodists hold this “common-union” by remaining accountable through connection. We must be willing to listen and respond lovingly at God’s table with scripture as our conversational lens.”
David Wofford
Pastor of Young Harris UMC in Athens, GA

“I would like to say that we study together, pray together, and engage in holy conversation with one another and with medical/psychological experts about the issue. Sadly, I am afraid we are too polarized to do that in any meaningful way.”
Jim Cantrell
Pastor of Snellville UMC in Snellville, GA

“Acts of disobedience to current covenant law, though believed by objectors to be grounded in love, justice, and mercy, cannot be exempted from the actions required to hold people accountable for breaking covenant. Until there is sufficient consensus to change the expectations within covenant law, exempting objectors only heightens the tension.”
Brian Arnold
Pastor of John Stewart UMC in Upper Sandusky, OH

“We pledge at ordination to be in ministry ‘for and with all people.’ Conducting same-sex marriages is the only limitation on that pledge explicitly written into the Book of Discipline. No one has asked me personally for such a ceremony, but I have a VERY difficult time reconciling why that act (conducting a same-sex marriage) is grouped in with other chargeable offenses that have clear victims.”
Jon Altman
Pastor of Mississippi City UMC in Gulfport, MS

“I’m a lifelong Methodist and twenty-five-year clergy, understanding the rules. I resent those vested elders and bishops who violate our doctrinal standards without being held accountable. I resent the special interest group’s attempt to hijack all of our churches and rob our ancestors. If it’s successful, we’ll secede and sue.”
Joe Lawson
Pastor of Grace UMC and Thrasher UMC in Booneville, MS

“Having mostly given up on any sense of discipline other than the authority inherent in appointment making, issues like our current debate over sexuality make all instances of discipline look arbitrary. Without a return to Wesleyan discipleship practices, we'll just dissolve further into ‘what feels right to me.’”
Richard Heyduck
Assistant professor at Wiley College in Marshall, TX, and member of the Texas Annual Conference

“When two women, grateful for finding each other later in life, wanted to get married in their church and I couldn’t perform their ceremony, the Spirit broke something open for me and for our congregation. It became a very personal injustice. Never again will we deny equal access to ministry.” Kelly Turney
Pastor of East Longmeadow UMC in East Longmeadow, MA

“Fallible human beings wrote the Book of Discipline. However, it was written with the best of intentions by those who sought to create a system to guide The United Methodist Church. Yet the phrase ‘sacred trust’ has become a weapon with which dissent, reform, and change are steadily purged from the church. Progressive clergy should no longer be fearful of saying the institutional paradigm with which we live is discriminatory and sinful.”
Richard Bryant
Pastor of Ocracoke UMC in Ocracoke Island, NC

“Ordained ministers took a vow to maintain, teach, and uphold the doctrines and teachings of The United Methodist Church. We should abide by them until General Conference decides otherwise. The acts of civil disobedience by the pro-gay pastors/churches have the power to destroy the denomination. If one can no longer uphold our teachings then in good conscience they should leave. The focus of attention on this issue distracts us from the larger issue of congregational and denominational vitality.”
Mark Mildren
Pastor of First UMC in West Plains, MO

“I often find myself on the minority side of issues, or so it seems, but I think the sacred trust is broken. Bishops tell the evangelical wing of the church that they will uphold the Discipline, but I believe our Discipline holds scripture as authoritative. And, when it comes to the discussion of same-gender marriage, civil law seems to take authority over biblical principles.”
James W. Sainsbury
Retired clergy in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference

“At my ordination, I covenanted with The UMC to abide by its teachings to be ‘loyal . . . accepting . . . and defending’ of its order, liturgy, doctrine, and Discipline. That covenant is vital to our connection. If I disagree, I can express those thoughts freely—but I am still in covenant to abide by the rules. If I cannot abide, I am free to choose another denomination that shares my belief system. I do not believe I can pick and choose which parts I will obey and still be in covenant with the others.”
Ed Weston
Pastor of Belleville UMC in Belleville, IL

“We United Methodists have said that ‘divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.’ So alas is this issue for the church. And it is time to acknowledge irreconcilable differences and part ways. This is not schism. It is divorce.”
Rex E. Piercy
Member of the Northern Illinois Conference

“There is holy disagreement about UM responses to same-gender marriage. The overarching ethic of Jesus the Christ is that of radical and inclusive love (and respect) for each human being. Our social principles have this clarity. If one acts out of love, justice, and mercy, then this is accountability in the gospel and should be in The UMC! Our church laws are created in political disarray and sometimes, out of gospel accountability, need to be broken.”
Norman E. “Ned” Dewire
President emeritus, Methodist Theological School in Ohio; former general secretary, General Council on Ministries

“The rules in United Methodism explicitly state that the pastor alone is to decide whose marriage will be solemnized ‘in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the church.’ No local committee decides. No vote of session. No poll of the community or neighborhood. No family habit of a patriarchal auction of a daughter to an opposing family. No. The pastor shall decide. There is an accrued wisdom in this, the leaving of these lasting decisions to those in the local situations, in the contexts in which they are to be lived out. Would you want a General Conference every four years voting on a list of those to be married in Boston, those to be allowed to marry in Los Angeles, those types of people fit for matrimony in Wisconsin? Surely not. That is why the primary directive in the discipline leaves such to the discretion of the pastor.

“Marriage: UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a. ‘(Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of The United Methodist Church.’ The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor. So. Do we mean this? Are we going to ‘enforce’—as one general superintendent put it in the book Finding Our Way—‘enforce the Discipline’? Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right and responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple. There is no shading here, no hem or haw. The pastor decides. After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules. No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different. Not to marry a gay couple is now to contradict the laws of 30+ states who protect the right of gay people to marry. Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister. ‘The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.’ Not the General Conference. Not the general superintendent. Not the district superintendent. Not the charge conference. The pastor. And that is as it should be. Thanks be to God. In ecclesiology, Jesus is our beacon not our boundary.”
Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, Boston, MA

“Remove the prohibition from the Discipline and return the decision whether to perform weddings to our individual clergy, where it rightly belongs, just as it was before the prohibition was inserted into the Discipline. The Discipline is a book of ‘order’ not of prohibitions. Then live together, respecting each other’s decisions.”
Fran Deaner
Pastor of Bashford United Methodist Church in Madison, WI

“While I respect ‘civil disobedience’ as a conscientious objection and response to church law deemed thoroughly unjust, I prefer that church law be upheld—but changed.”
Lisa Marchal
Elder in the Indiana Annual Conference

“I believe we are bound to live and uphold the vow we took! I may disagree with something; however, the congregation and community that I serve have an expectation that I will lead the way in the event and or issue that is before us! Leaders from the bottom up to the top down must hold each other to the task, even when we disagree!”
Elbrist Mason
Pastor of St. Paul UMC in Meridian, MS

“Not to be flippant, but I remember a Charlie Brown cartoon posted in the library of my seminary. Snoopy sits on the roof of his doghouse with a typewriter before him. The caption is ‘I am writing a new theological book. The title is: “Did you ever think you could be wrong?”’ Zeal and passion can be mistaken. If the Bible is God’s inspired revelation, and I believe that it is, then the hermeneutic we use is critical to our understanding of justice.”
David Price
Pastor of Springfield UMC in Springfield, MN

“A willful practice of nonconformity should not mandate the removal of the clergyperson or require a trial. We need Discipline language that would allow for notable exceptions to our rules without necessarily condoning a particular behavior.”
John Kent Berry
Pastor of Walbut Springs Memorial UMC in Walnut Springs, TX

“When church law contradicts the law of Love (Rom 13:8-10), it is incumbent upon Christ’s followers to owe no one anything except to love. UMC law violates the law of love by declaring homosexuals exempt from marriage, which is also a sacred trust between Christians.”
Janet Hubbard
Pastor of Orchard Park UMC in Orchard Park, NY

“My Christian belief is ‘sacred trust’ in God and God’s word, not in church law. To date, our church law upholds that woman is for man and man is for woman. I, too, have a right to an ‘act of conscience’ stating that changing this church law is condoning sin. We can't be divided among ourselves. We either must obey a church law or split. By constantly disobeying it without changing it formally, we’re like two children fighting it out and doing what they please.”
Christine Pauley
Pastor of Malcom UMC and Sheridan UMC in Grinnell, IA

“Among all the other things The Book of Discipline 2012 says is this: ‘We share with many Christian communions . . . the sober realization that the church is in need of continual reformation and renewal.’ Found in the fourth paragraph on page 48, under Basic Christian Affirmations and consistent with our call to the transformation of the world.”
Carolyn Hardin Engelhardt
Director of the Ministry Resource Center at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT

“My feeling is that when we make covenant, we abide by it. There is a process with which change can be made. But until that change is made, you honor your vow and follow the Discipline or face the consequences. Which, in my opinion, should be severe. If you don’t want to follow the Discipline of The United Methodist Church, then leave the denomination.”
Sam Davis
Pastor of Harmony UMC in Mingo Junction, OH

“When we make the decision to be a member of an organization, we accept the responsibilities involved.”
Alicia Wentler
Pastor of Simpson UMC in Amityville, NY

“The UMC move to relativism as an ethic unravels the need for covenant. As elders and bishops break the covenant in one area, others will break it where an intense angst and a righteous fire burns in the belly.” 

Ray Owens Jr.
Pastor of St. Mark’s UMC in Monroe, LA

“Posing the gay marriage issue as a collision between ‘a sacred trust’ and ‘a conflict of conscience’ gives an either/or alternative that is mistaken. It assumes this issue is unique to ministry. To officiate or not to officiate represents the dilemma Christian ministry has always carried as its sacred privilege. There are consequences to following the direction of conscience, as there are consequences to holding to the directive of law. It’s never a good thing to follow a bad law, and it’s always important to be faithful to the collegial agreements found in the law we all have accepted. How do we resolve this? Three questions have to be asked:

Can we live with ourselves by the decisions we make?

Can we accept the consequences for disobedience to the covenant?

And most importantly: Is the church a ‘window into the soul of the way it should be’ or a ‘mirror that simply reflects cultural bias’?

My opinion: United Methodists, pastors and laity, have always been on the cusp of what it means to do what the less bold would not do, to be with those to whom the more particular would not be willing to relate, and to risk what the more cautious would never dream. If breaking the covenant is for the sake of being faithful to God and conscience, I will do it. If church law forces us to violate the premise that ALL people are of sacred worth and available to the ministry of the church, I will work to change it.”
Charles Schuster
Retired UMC pastor in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference

“Annual conferences have few choices, and fewer resources, to respond outside our disciplinary guidelines. Yet an emphasis on the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) as a guide to our conversations could change the course of our church. As clergy of all stripes, we need to watch how we argue and the choices we make.”
Brad Scott
Pastor of First UMC in Bluefield, VA

“‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ This is our sacred trust as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Thomas W. Butler
Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference

“Trust can only exist in relationships. Our trust is not in a document (BOD) or in an institution (church). But trust is an integral part of every relationship that is a meaningful part of our lives. When we trust someone, we feel safe to share what is important to us, including our thoughts, hopes, concerns, and values. When others trust us, they feel safe to share what is important to them, including their thoughts, hopes, concerns, and values. That does not mean that we will always agree; just that we will listen to, respect, and value what the other has to offer. In fact, trust allows us to disagree, to be heard, to be respected, and to remain open to new possibilities/learnings without compromising our values. Trust opens up all kinds of creative possibilities. Lack of trust shuts down any possibility of moving forward.”
Clay Jacobs
Retired clergy in the North Georgia Annual Conference

“For too many years we have focused on the first portion of paragraph 363 regarding our sacred trust. Now we are called to focus on the last portion of paragraph 363. Therefore, having been in ministry since 1974 and serving as an ordained deacon since 1997, as an act of conscience, I stand in faithful obedience to God and refuse to conform to institutional constraints.”
Linda C. Marshall
Minister of nurture at Trinity UMC in Denver, CO

“Our sacred trust is embodied through lives that express the way, truth, and life in God, revealed by Jesus Christ, dead and risen. Does that mean lives that are static, or ones that are dynamic and creative? Is God still creating, doing something new? Seeking truth risks having current truths turned upside-down.”
Ron P. Griffen
Pastor of First UMC in El Centro, CA

“A person might change their convictions about the church rules they promised to uphold at their ordination. Integrity would suggest that they should leave the institution they no longer agree with, thereby releasing themselves from promises they no longer intend to keep. General Conference should create a way to leave without serious penalty for pastors and congregations who no longer agree with the rules they once promised to uphold.”
J. David Trawick
Pastor of Northwest Hills UMC in San Antonio, TX

“The Book of Discipline has been made into a golden calf. Since 1972, LGBTQ lives have been the sacrifice demanded by its contents. But we don’t worship a book; we worship the God of love. Let us remember, ‘we were not made for the law but the law was made for us.’”
Alex da Silva Souto
Pastor of South Meriden Trinity UMC in South Meriden, CT

“I am made to think that the answer for our church in dealing with the divisive issue of homosexuality lies in deep study of the Gospels and writings of Paul. When the question of the ordination of women was upon us, we chose to depend on the many places in scripture where women were used in ministry in ways that overrode the places where Paul places women in subjugation to men. I recommend that we again study deeply the Gospels and Paul’s writings. I think that we need to study again the many, many places that show the absolute openness of the gospel and the church to everyone and anyone they came into contact with. We know that Jesus had a strict personal morality. Jesus loved and accepted many whose personal morality was different than his. It is for us to follow his example and be open to those whose lifestyles we disagree with. I believe that the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus override the negative and separation statements made by Paul.”
Ronald J. Williams
Retired elder at Blue Valley Memorial UMC in Manhattan, KS

When reaching out to others, does your church think of it in terms of "evangelism" or simply "hospitality"? Send us an e-mail to circuitrider@umpublishing.org and tell us what you think.

About the Author

Circuit Rider

Circuit Rider is a magazine for United Methodist clergy. Issues back to 2008 are available on Ministry Matters. For read more…
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