Church future focus of annual conferences

Church future focus of annual conferences

May 16, 2019

By Jim Patterson
May 15, 2019 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Resolutions dealing with sexuality, environmental stewardship and the slogan of The United Methodist Church are among topics facing clergy and lay members at the denomination’s 2019 annual conferences.

The church’s regional governing bodies meet in the spring and summer in the U.S. Some conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines have already met, others won’t meet until as late as December. 

Many resolutions before U.S. annual conferences respond in some way to the 2019 General Conference, which passed legislation that strengthens the denomination’s bans on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and same-sex marriage. The conferences also will ordain, commission and license new clergy, as well as recognize retirees.

And conference members will be looking to the future of the denomination when they elect delegates to the 2020 General Conference.

“I would say the mood is one of hopeful anticipation,” said the Rev. Nita Crump, director of connectional ministries for the South Georgia Conference, which meets June 2-5 in Columbus, Georgia.

Crump said immediately after the special General Conference, Bishop Lawson Bryan encouraged the conference to care for people rather than focus on plans.

“God is not done with the people called Methodists and (we) are looking for ways to create and participate in a future that we anticipate will be one of spiritual and numerical growth,” she said.

Two resolutions about the denomination’s slogan demonstrate the divide over sexuality.

In the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the Rev. Jimmy Montgomery suggests adding “Open Bibles” to the beginning of the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” slogan.

“I feel that as a church, part of the problems we have is we have open hearts and open minds without considering what the Bible says about open hearts and open minds,” said Montgomery, pastor of Cochranville United Methodist Church in Cochranville, Pennsylvania.

Montgomery said when it comes to John Wesley’s quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, he believes reason, experience and tradition have superseded Scripture. Montgomery said that explains why the church is “in the mess that we’re in” regarding sexuality.

Conversely, a resolution proposed in the Arkansas Conference would disavow the “Open Hearts” slogan, calling it unearned because of the passage of the Traditional Plan.

“The motto of The United Methodist Church … is incompatible with the beliefs of some (United) Methodists as demonstrated by the continued exclusion of our LGBTQIA+ siblings from equal participation in our denomination,” reads the resolution signed by 12 pastors and lay delegates.

At least six conferences — East OhioWisconsinGreater New JerseyIowaSouth Carolina, and California-Pacific — will consider resolutions that rebuke passage of the Traditional Plan. 

“We created a team to look at ways of moving forward in ministry together in a way that we are welcoming to the LGBTQ community,” said the Rev. Hector A. Burgos, director of connectional ministries of the Greater New Jersey Conference. “We’ll be hearing from them … and perhaps have something to recommend. That’s going to be something very important for our conference as we seek clarity as to how to move forward in the midst of disagreements and the fact that the global church is trying to figure out the outcomes of General Conference.

Burgos added that the Greater New Jersey Conference has “never let this issue be at the center of who we are and what we do.”

Other resolutions that stem from the sexuality issue include:

  • resolution in the North Alabama Conference to apologize to LGBTQ people who were hurt by the 2019 General Conference.
  • One in Wisconsin to create a conference-wide dialogue program to seek understanding on sexual matters. 
  • resolution for Eastern Pennsylvania to declare itself a “One Church Plan” conference.
  • resolution calling on the Peninsula-Delaware Conference to “pray and worship with, live as people of faith alongside, accept as equal partners in God’s spirit and encourage LGBTQA persons to live authentically to their true selves.”
  • The three German annual conferences will consider the first report of a roundtable formed to search for ways to preserve unity amid different views about homosexuality. The group was created after the executive committee of the church in Germany said the German church would not impose the stricter penalties laid out in the Traditional Plan. In the report from their first meeting, the roundtable asked members of the three annual conferences to “refrain from making quick decisions that could make it very difficult for various groups and conferences to communicate.” 
  • A statement from the Southwest Philippines Conference that members are “continuing our commitment to be in solidarity to all of those who give themselves in the service of church and society without regard to race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity or religious affiliation.”
  • The Baltimore-Washington Conference will consider a resolution to affiliate with the Western Jurisdiction. Baltimore-Washington is in the Northeastern Jurisdiction.

“Right now, the Western Jurisdiction is the only jurisdiction and group that has said, ‘We are not going to honor the decision of General Conference,’” said the Rev. Deb Scott, pastor of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Baltimore.

Scott said the Western Jurisdiction members made a plea for others to join them after the special General Conference in operating under the One Church Plan, despite the fact that it failed and the Traditional Plan passed. The One Church Plan, which would have left questions of same-sex weddings up to individual clergy and congregations and questions of gay ordination up to individual conferences, failed by a vote of 436-386.

“They said, in essence, that they would be operating under the One Church Plan, which says people in local churches can make their own decisions based on (their) own context,” Scott said.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference will consider at least five more resolutions that center on resisting the Traditional Plan.

“I don’t know that this is the role of our annual conference, but you don’t know until you start having the conversation,” Scott said. “It’s a way to ensure that a conversation would be had, that things weren’t just kind of swept aside. I think we’re dealing with the heart and soul of who we are as United Methodists.”

Some resolutions support the 2019 General Conference action. The Rev. William Payne submitted a resolution asking the Florida Conference to “continue to affirm and support the guidance of the 2016 Book of Discipline on homosexuality, including the full enforcement of its current statements on human sexuality, ordination and marriage.”

Payne, who teaches at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, said the resolution is his attempt to keep Methodism on the right track — a position on LGBTQ people he said is based primarily on Scripture. Ashland is one of the denomination’s approved non-United Methodist seminaries.

“We want to have an opportunity to discuss this,” he said. “(Liberals) should acknowledge that they are going off in a different direction, and if you don’t want to come with us, you should go in your direction.

“We shouldn’t have to be a cart being pulled in two different directions. That just destroys the cart.”

In Africa, resolutions have not been filed yet for conferences that meet late in the year. However, conferences in the East Congo Episcopal Area are focused on getting a $1 per month contribution from all members of the church, while measures to promote health — especially of women and children — were declared a priority in Sierra Leone.

In Eastern Europe, the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Conference decided to put a special focus on daycare centers for children and youth whose time in orphanages come to an end or who need to deal with the transition towards an independent life as people of legal age. 

The Serbia-Macedonia Provisional Conference decided to organize its various diaconal services as an independent legal entity within the church in order to continue as an instrument of love and hope for the poor.

Climate change is also on the minds of United Methodists, with at least three conferences — IowaNorth Alabama and Florida — set to consider resolutions aimed at promoting conservation.

In the Florida Conference, a resolution calls for minimizing the use of single-use plastics, plastic straws, plastic bags and polystyrene foam. A resolution before the North Alabama Conference “rejects all attempts to theologize the science of climate change away.”

“Too many, I believe, are willing to throw our global siblings under the bus when it comes to addressing issues that are pressing in Africa and Asia, whose populations are most vulnerable to destructive climate change,” said the Rev. Dave Barnhart, pastor at Saint Junia United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and author of the resolution.

“If we are truly sincere that we are a global denomination, we had better start acting like it. It boggles my mind that scientists tell us we have 10 years to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, and that more than a million species may soon go extinct, but that the issue our church is fixated on is the legitimacy of someone’s love for another human being.”

Patterson is a United Methodist News Service reporter in Nashville, Tennessee.