There were beautiful parts of this year’s session of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, held on the campus of Grove City College. These beautiful parts to which I refer practically brought me to my knees in grateful prayer:
The sound of over a thousand voices singing grand songs of praise during worship;
The ordination and commissioning of precious souls who are as gifted as they are called;
A Retiree Celebration that provided a heartwarming honoring of retirees, all of whom have served the church with faithfulness, creativity, and integrity for a long, long time;
A Memorial Service that celebrated the lives of our conference’s honored dead, who breathed their last breath during this last year (but who, at present, are more alive than they have ever been);
Preaching that elevated my spirit and illuminated the goodness of Jesus;
Testimonies that reminded me of the transformational impact of the Gospel;
Youth whose vibrancy regularly inspired a sense of abundant life;
The setting of pastoral appointments for another year of ministry;
The leadership of a Bishop who teaches me something every time she leads;
Moments of prayer and tender conversation with amazing people, many of whom I only get to see once a year;
Friends (like Joel Garrett and Erica Rushing) going out of their way to minister compassionately to my spirit.
In the aftermath of Annual Conference, some participants make it a sport to denigrate the entire experience, which always feels to me like both the mistreatment of a portion of sacred ground and a dishonoring of many people who sacrificed a great deal of time and energy to put the experience together. Our collective heart would probably beat in healthier fashion if we began with gratitude rather than cynicism.
I will certainly acknowledge, however, that I experienced great pain at Annual Conference this year—perhaps a deeper and more unsettling pain than I had ever experienced in that context. I know that I am not alone in that. Progressives experienced the pain. So did Traditionalists. So did the LGBTQ+ community and its advocates. Many things led to the pain, not the least of which was a burgeoning sense of a division among people related to the denomination’s official position on homosexuality—that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching,” which has led the denomination to continue its prohibition of the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the hosting of same sex weddings in United Methodist sanctuaries.
Traditionalists maintain that this position represents a necessary honoring of orthodoxy and the Biblical understanding of marriage. Progressives assert that it represents an institutionalized bigotry and a marginalization of people based on an irresponsible adherence to biblical legalism. This spirit of division manifested itself dramatically this last week at Annual Conference, particularly around the work of electing our delegates to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. At those 2020 Conferences, the issues of human sexuality and denominational structure will once again figure prominently.
The following are my personal reflections on what transpired this last week. There is nothing official or sacrosanct about these reflections. Nor am I insisting on my own rightness. (There is already way too much of that going on.) I offer these reflections simply to broaden the conversation, deepen our shared sense of accountability, and hopefully clarify my own heart on some of the matters at hand.
Here are my reflections.
We elected a remarkably gifted and extraordinarily faithful delegation to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. The clergy and laity on the delegation bring strong convictions, abundant giftedness, and a wealth of experience. They will serve the church faithfully, prayerfully, and with a comprehensive devotion. I am honored to be alongside them in the work of the delegation, and I will learn much from them. They are my friends, and many of us have stood together in important places over the years. I have been praying for them since the moment they were elected. I am particularly grateful that Rev. Alyce Weaver Dunn is the chair of the delegation. Her stellar leadership will be a profound blessing to all of us. In fact, it already has been.
We elected a delegation that does not reflect (or represent) the complexity and theological diversity of Western Pennsylvania. This is where the pain begins. In a time when people feel a sense of urgency about clarifying boundaries and battle lines, tension is heightened and processes become distorted, or at least exaggerated. This year, the exaggeration at hand is a delegation that is disproportionately Traditionalist. This fact takes nothing away from the gifted delegates we elected. It simply generates a marginalizing and disenfranchising sense of voicelessness on the part of many in Western Pennsylvania who feel that their convictions will not be valued or honored fully, particularly at General Conference. The delegation will need to be attentive to this.
The 16 people from the delegation who will travel to the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis (12 delegates and 4 alternates) include one Asian American and no African Americans—meaning that, in the election process, we were not as attentive to racial diversity as we have been in the past. I do not believe that this reflects intentional racism on anyone’s part. Please hear that. But there is such a thing as institutional racism—a systemic devaluing of racial minorities that finds expression when processes and systems bend toward a particular strategy that ultimately excludes or marginalizes people of color (such as when an election process becomes fixated on a particular theological perspective at the expense of fair and necessary representation). A posture of privilege might inspire some to dismiss this point as irrelevant. My sense, however, based upon several personal conversations, is that many African American United Methodists in Western Pennsylvania experienced a deep sense of institutional harm at Annual Conference. We dare not allow ourselves to become dismissive or cynical about that.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association of Western PA, a strategic Traditionalist group in the Conference, mobilized effectively and had a significant impact on the elections of delegates. In fact, the six clergy and six laity elected to General Conference were precisely the twelve people that appeared on the WCA’s list of endorsed possible candidates. In Western Pennsylvania, many women and men whom I greatly admire and whose leadership I value have become members of the WCA because their deeply held convictions and prayerful discernment have led them in that direction. Which is to say, it is not my intention to demonize the WCA or its leadership. But I will express this heartfelt concern: There is always the potential for great relational and spiritual harm whenever any group, irrespective of its theological persuasion, begins to have a disproportionately weighty influence on the decisions of a community. In such cases, the group often becomes a self-appointed arbiter of discernment, which can only result in a truncated collection of priorities. While I respect the WCA’s convictions, I hope that we as an Annual Conference will recognize the urgency of making certain that we avoid the kind of one-dimensionalism that ignores the reality of who we are.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association of Western PA, in one of its recent letters, singled out five leaders in Western Pennsylvania for whom NOT to vote in the elections for General and Jurisdictional Conferences: Sharon Gregory (our Conference’s faithful Lay Leader); Diane Miller (a longtime overseer and supporter of Missions in the Conference); Amy Wagner (our Conference’s multi-gifted Director of Congregational Development and Revitalization); William Meekins (former District Superintendent and Assistant to the Bishop, current pastor, and one of the most courageous voices for Christ-centered justice that this Annual Conference has ever known); and, finally, yours truly (a humble District Superintendent who is simply trying to keep it real). We were put on the list of “objectionables” because, at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, we stood in support of what the WCA describes as the “progressive” (an adjective that I find inaccurate) One Church Plan—a plan for which I did indeed vote. Of all the plans that remained, I saw the One Church Plan as the best option to ensure the existence of a denomination that could make space for a diversity of perspectives on matters that, in my opinion, do not strike at the root of Christianity. I also saw the One Church Plan as an opportunity to remove language from the Book of Discipline that, irrespective of the righteousness of our intentions, has become weaponized against a segment of humanity that has already been marginalized and excluded.
Because of the way we voted, five of us made the WCA block-list. This was not a hatchet job on the part of the WCA. They did not disparage our character and made clear in the letter that we are loved (which I appreciated). But it was indeed a calculated political maneuver rendered for the purpose of keeping out of the General Conference voting the voices of leaders whose convictions on human sexuality might not be in alignment with the WCA’s corporate understanding of orthodoxy. I suspect that members of the WCA would defend themselves by saying that, since their goal was to preserve what they understand to be orthodoxy by influencing who gets elected, the end justifies the means. But there is a destructive consequence when a group moves intentionally from “please consider voting for these people” to “please DO NOT vote for THOSE people.” Such a tactic corrupts community, undermines both the integrity and the potential of colleagues, and elevates hegemony over orthodoxy.
I hope that the members of the WCA, no matter how justified they feel in their actions, understand that their block-list was wounding to the people named. It felt like a punitive response to our commitment to do exactly what we were entrusted by the Annual Conference to do as delegates in 2019—specifically, to vote our prayerful conscience with the most attentive discernment that we could bring to the table. As a member of the larger delegation for 2020, my challenge now is to open my heart to some wonderful people on the delegation whom I dearly love but who may be connected to a WCA that publicly advocated for my not being elected to the very delegation of which I am now a part. I pray that my friends on the delegation (and my friends in the WCA) will hear my heart and join me in the vulnerability of navigating this complex territory.
Finally, I will share with you once again some words that I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Special Called Session of the General Conference in February. They are words about what I am choosing to believe at present:
I choose to believe that my Traditionalist friends are driven, not by hatred, homophobia, or bigotry, but by their conviction that souls, eternity, and biblical truth are at stake.
I choose to believe that my Progressive friends are driven, not by irreverence toward Scripture or by an eagerness to accommodate cultural trends, but by an unwavering passion for a history-altering liberation and justice to which they believe the ministry of Jesus absolutely points.
I choose to believe that my Centrist friends (and, yes, I believe that there is a Center place in all of this) are driven, not by a refusal to “choose a side,” but by the belief that the saving grace of Jesus Christ makes possible a wide and durable unity in which divergent viewpoints can breathe the same healthy air.
I choose to believe that my LGBTQ+ friends are driven, not by a desire to diminish the church’s emphasis on sexual holiness, but by their recognition of the fact that their sexual identity is an integral part of their personhood and by their desire to be seen, not as an “issue” or as a group of “incompatibles,” but as souls within the Body of Christ who are called, gifted, and equipped and who long for relational covenants and spiritual wholeness like all the rest of us.
Most importantly, I choose to believe that Jesus is still Lord, and that God cares about the ministry and mission of the United Methodist Church even more than we do—FAR more than we do, in fact. Furthermore, I choose to believe that our current struggle has not taken us beyond the boundaries of what God can redeem, reshape, reconfigure, and restore.