“A Way Forward”

As many of you are already aware, the Special Called Session of the General Conference of the UMC is now concluded and some decisions—tentative as they may be—have been made about the future of our denomination.

The General Conference, a body of elected clergy and lay delegates representing the global UMC, typically meets every four years on a cycle that reflects the Presidential election cycle. This Special Called Session had been part of a plan to address the continuing conflict within the Church over matters of Human Sexuality. The hope was that the GC would make a definitive declaration that would allow us to move forward, one way or another.

In some ways, we have gained some clarity. The GC voted, by a margin of 54%-46%, to adopt the Traditional Plan (TP, also known as the Traditionalist Plan). In addition, the GC voted to adopt a plan for “disaffilitation,” the process through which local churches and other agencies of the UMC could choose to leave the denomination.

What we do know, however, is that both of these plans have already been deemed “unconstitutional” by the Judicial Council of the UMC, a fact that means neither of them can take effect until they are reformulated and approved in a new form by the GC. Since that can only happen when the GC is in session, the earliest that could happen will be in May of 2020.

These decisions, and the fact that they cannot take effect because of the constitutional flaws, have caused great consternation across the denomination. Supporters of the TP feel as if opponents deliberately blocked them from making the necessary amendments that would allow the TP to pass constitutional muster. Opponents of the TP feel as if the church has refused to acknowledge the complexity of the issue and has turned its back on LGBTQ persons.

If you have spent much time at all following these developments or thinking about your own understanding of what the Scriptures say about this issue, you already know that the way I have describe it above is a vast simplification. There is a very broad spectrum of belief about this issue and many thoughtful people have come to very different conclusions about what it means for us to be a faithful church.

One of the things I shared with those who gathered for the two teaching sessions I led earlier this week is that our discipline demands that we welcome all persons, just as clearly and definitively as it states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” By church law—and by the command of Jesus Christ that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves—it is our duty to create a welcoming environment for all people, regardless of how we interpret the scriptures on this issue.

Often, we hear people say, “You can love the sinner and refuse to accept the sin.” To be honest, I’m still chewing on that idea—not because I think it’s untrue or unscriptural, but because of the fact that it’s a moving target. Things that we once applied that statement toward are no longer thought of in that way by most people. Furthermore, there’s literally only one sin we have identified as a church that should be held to this standard. Many of us in the Church even question the basic premise that there is no way in which homosexual persons can practice their sexuality without being sinful.

Many of you are well aware of the fact that I am personally more aligned with the progressive viewpoint on this issue. I have tried to make no secret about that, but I have also tried to teach with respect for differing points of view and to keep the integrity of the pastoral office which I have accepted. I want to assure you that I have made a covenant with the Church and I intend to honor it. Though this is a deeply personal issue for me, none of you has to worry about your pastor breaking the covenant as an expression of conscience.

More importantly, I want you to know that I will continue to give my love and support to each of you and to pour my energies into leading our congregation into a new day. The world around us is changing and the things we used to do that produced such great results in the past are simply no longer working as well as they once did. Though it is certainly a reflection of the times in which we live, the fact is that the church has been dealing with such realities for 2000 years.

Each time a new challenge has arisen, the church has found new ways to offer relationship with God to people in need. That, my friends, must be our focus, our Way Forward. We cannot allow our disagreements or policy decisions to distract us from offering people relationship with Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace, Pastor John

“Holy Conversations”

In my very first meeting with a church leader from FUMC Gainesville in the spring of 2016, I received a challenge: Can you help us address our future? That’s not an exact quote or even a paraphrase, really, but the essence of what was said.

It was just a couple of weeks after the announcement of my pending appointment here that was to take effect in July, but I was already being asked to consider how we might envision what our congregation could look like in the years ahead. What I found as I continued to meet with the leadership here—Rev. Don Yeager, the staff, and lay leadership—was that there had been an expressed hunger to develop the ministries of the church in new ways.

That work began with a focus on re-imagining our worship life, a conversation that began even before I officially arrived and resulted in the launch of two new weekly worship experiences nine months later. It continued as we talked about what ministries with youth and children might look like, hired new staff, and began to address our debt with more vigor.

Along the way, we had multiple opportunities to engage with programs designed to help congregations like ours do that work in systematic ways. Though our lay leadership often felt as if that kind of process might be helpful, we continued to wait for the right time.

Now is that time! I’m happy to share with you that we have begun a process called “Holy Conversations,” a program designed and facilitated by the incredible folks at the Texas Methodist Foundation. Over the course of the next 6-7 months, a wonderful team of people from diverse perspectives and stages of life and relationship with our congregation will meet with our consultants, the Rev. John Thornburg and the Rev. Carol Montgomery. Our first meeting was held on February 5, and it was a wonderful start to the process.

Our team includes people young and not as young 😊, some of whom have been members of FUMC for decades and others who are new to our church. The team members are:

  • Kent Wooldridge
  • Kay James
  • Gary Sutton
  • Katie Brinkley
  • Jason Brinkley
  • Bernadette Trammell
  • Edna Slater and
  • Pastor John.

Our work together will be focused on assessing where we are as a church, what our resources are, and how our gifts match up with the needs of our community. And, if you’re wondering, you will have plenty of opportunities to participate, as well—to offer your thoughts and perspectives along the way. I hope that you will be in prayer as this work ensues. Without you, it will be incomplete!