Milestones for What To Do Next

June 12th, 2019
This article is featured in the Where Will You Serve? (May/June/July 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

I recall thinking that life would get easier after General Conference. After two years of serving on the Commission on the Way Forward and preparing with fellow delegates from the Virginia Annual Conference, I was ready to think about something other than plans for the future and how the votes would go in St. Louis. I knew ahead of time that the outcome was uncertain and that the Traditional Plan had the advantage of a highly focused voting coalition of conservative voters from the United States and many central conferences. What did not occur to me was the level of frustration I would encounter when I returned to Floris UMC, where I serve as the Lead Pastor. I am not alone.

Most United Methodist churches have a broad constituency of members who are centrist, traditional, and progressive. Some churches skew right. They have more traditional members who are pleased by the outcome and hope the conversation will now cease. Other United Methodist churches skew left or have a normal bell curve distribution of members. Pastors in many of these churches have shared that members who have never spoken about LGBTQ inclusion have become vocal. Some are considering whether to leave congregations they love because they feel that the denominational outcomes of the General Conference violate values they hold. It is important to remember the impact the ability to livestream the General Conference has on our members. Many found some of the speeches in favor of enhanced enforcement policies against marriage equity or ordination of qualified gay persons to be offensive and even harmful. What was said, in some cases, was much harder than how people voted. Traditional United Methodists undoubtedly found speeches for the One Church Plan to be distasteful as well. However, because the Traditional Plan prevailed, those most frustrated are centrists and progressive United Methodists who hoped for a new openness to vocational equity and same-sex marriage in the church.

If you happen to serve a church where such persons are the largest part of your congregation, you have been a busy person lately. Here are suggestions for those wondering what to do next:

1. Care.

Reach out to those most impacted by these decisions. Call and visit LGBTQ persons in your congregation, their family members, co-workers, friends, and allies. Do not be passive. Hear their frustration and listen attentively. See what they can teach you about what your church might do next.

2. Give people good information.

After the Judicial Council clarifies what parts of the General Conference outcomes will become part of the Book of Discipline, have a meeting where those interested can hear the results and ask questions. This can be done as a church or district. Help people find the information they are seeking.

3. Lead your church.

It is very clear to me that the majority of the church I serve want to welcome and include LGBTQ persons along with everyone else in our diverse community. This priority has emerged and requires attention. It is also true that we aren’t sure how. We launched three teams to offer discrete and actionable plans to our church council to welcome and include people of different abilities, races, and sexual orientations and identities. These teams are led by persons who are of differing abilities, races, and include the LGBTQ community. They are committed to doing ministry with, rather than for, such persons. Therefore, we need their expertise and their leadership.

"Reckless Love" by Tom Berlin. Order here:

At the same time, we want to assess the general quality of Christian community our members experience. Schools use climate surveys to understand the level of engagement among their students. We need something similar to understand how we experience the quality of community in our congregation. These are initiatives in evangelism and congregational health. We see this as an opportunity to increase the level of love, connection, relationship, and care we all enjoy and a way to share Christ intentionally in our region. Numerous members of our church are motivated to sign up and become a part of these efforts and have a desire to create #1Church4All. This longing is an unplanned gift of the General Conference outcomes.

4. Help people consider the unique opportunity this time affords us.

No matter where you are on the progressive to traditional spectrum, for many of us the outcomes of the 2019 General Conference are simply the first few bullets on a much longer list of “what disappoints me about the UMC.” I love the United Methodist Church. I am a life-long member. I have given my vocational life to it. I have friends across our connection. I have been honored to be our clergy delegation leader to multiple General Conferences, and I can tell you that increasingly in our system there is more broken than fixed.

Rather than hear the current conversation about exit and division as bad news, it is time for us to see it as a time rich with opportunity. It feels chaotic and unpredictable, but it has hope and possibility. The work will uniquely belong to leaders who can bring together diverse coalitions willing to plan for a new church in keeping with our heritage beyond our current impasse. These groups must cooperate if the 2020 General Conference is to pass measures that will usher in a new future. The key will be for leaders to persist in our desire to create a new and more inclusive expression of the Wesleyan desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ, work for social justice, and help people grow in the sanctifying love of Christ.

To prepare the congregation you serve for potential changes in our connectional life together, it is important to identify milestones on the journey ahead. We must identify and communicate these milestones if we want people to continue the journey. Milestones include the declarations of the Judicial Council, the outcomes of delegate elections for the 2020 General Conference, identification of groups we might join and events we can attend to meet others who share this vision, and how we can communicate our frustrations with leaders in our conference and denomination to register our concerns.

I am currently considering three timelines that overlap each other. One is my personal timeline. I have to decide what I am willing to do to help the congregation I serve. The second is what we are doing at Floris United Methodist Church in response to the outcomes of the 2019 General Conference. The third timeline includes relationships, activities, and events that will enable like-minded leaders and congregations to find our way together in the years ahead.

I’m observing that this is an oddly energizing time for clergy and laity leaders. It’s not about winning or gaining control but discerning the will of the Holy Spirit in our lives and congregations. Leaders at this time long to act in accordance with God’s calling. It is a time full of clarity, self-differentiation, a great deal of hard work, and the call to be of good courage as we walk down the road we believe the Lord has set before us.

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