By Patrick Scriven
Last Saturday’s Table Talk conversation at Spokane Valley UMC was the largest so far with 166 United Methodists coming together to discuss differing understandings of human sexuality and the Way Forward for the Church we share, all within a context of worship and mutual respect.
Since the first Table Talks opportunity was held twelve days ago, nearly 600 people have attended gatherings in all four of the states which comprise the Greater Northwest Area.
Four more opportunities this weekend, including one at Edmonds UMC on Saturday (with Bishop Elaine Stanovsky in attendance), will very likely push the attendance of Table Talks past 1,000.
With 16 additional opportunities planned across the area, you still have a chance to attend even if you can’t make it out this weekend.
While I have a good understanding of what happens at a Table Talks gathering, I haven’t actually had the opportunity to attend one yet myself. Curious, I reached out to several people who attended the Spokane Valley Table Talk while the event was still fresh on their minds.
I asked three questions, here is what they said (edited for length and clarity):
Q1: How was this helpful to you as a leader of, or in, a United Methodist faith community?
Rev. Geoff Helton: The stated purpose of the Table Talk was to build relational capacity to enable us to discuss difficult topics. I found this a helpful way of understanding where people are coming from with their differing perspectives on full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons. We spent some good time exploring the feelings and stories that this topic brings to the forefront and this is really helpful. We are people of story and when we don’t know the story behind someone’s words or actions we tend to make one up! This is almost always counterproductive.
Rev. Paul Graves: When 1972 General Conference declared homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teachings, I intuitively recoiled and silently said, “this can’t be a good thing for our Church.” I still think that these 48 years later. I didn’t seriously start speaking and doing things to advocate for homosexual persons until I was invited to be on staff of the Strength for the Journey Aids Retreat in Spokane. I met a mix of gay and lesbian persons there, and my resistance to the UMC stance was no longer silent.
Rosalee Mohney: If the top priority for the Table Talks is for people with divergent views to sit down and talk, that was accomplished. At one point, I listened to the crowd and there was lots of discussion going on – no voices being raised. Laughter was in abundance and I could just tell that people were very serious about what they were doing based upon the directions and the ‘atmosphere’ following the time of worship.
Rev. Alissa Bertsch: It was helpful to see how many people in the Inland District were desirous of this sort of opportunity. We had so many people interested before the event that we were asked to send in numbers so they would have enough tables. As it was, more and more tables had to be added on the day of the event because the turnout was so good. For a Sunday afternoon in the Inland District this was REALLY a big deal.
Q2: Will you use anything from this event in your local context to discuss the topics raised (human sexuality, UMC unity)? What?
Graves: The worship service was sensitive and effective in the liturgical way it brought us into a deeper awareness of God’s grace and compassion in our being together. The 2 questions used were good starters for creating a sense of safety for us, so I want to bring them into an intentional study in our own congregation.
Mohney: It was a good thing to have the discussion thoroughly grounded with the time of worship that [Inland District Superintendent] Gregg Sealey led. I believe it was an extremely important piece to the whole discussion. It was great to see the history/evolution of the church around this topic, also.
Bertsch: One of the dynamics that exists in my congregation at Cheney UMC is a distinct commitment and capacity to find unity in the Body of Christ even though there is disagreement on human sexuality. I don’t fear that this issue would ever split Cheney, but if the UMC were to split, I think we would struggle to figure what to do and THAT could cause serious issues for us.
In our context, I can see using it to continue our work of shifting our mindset around the lure of ministry to us ourselves vs. outreach to others. [Several of the Table Talks elements could help] those who don’t recognize the importance of welcoming “new” people hear their perspective too.
Helton: Rather than devolving into debate or argument, the Table Talk really allowed us to engage one another in a very non-threatening way. I really appreciated this. We will definitely build this into our discussions on the unity of the church, full inclusion and the future of the church.
Q3: What is your personal next step as a leader in The United Methodist Church?
Bertsch: My personal next step as a leader is to continue to preach the Good News of unity in Christ and that we are indeed called to love God and love our neighbor. Period.
My role as pastor is to keep us focused on what is really important in our community and to limit anxiety about could be while also preparing us to meet the challenge of the unknown future of the larger denomination.
Helton: I’ll be praying and encouraging my church to pray for the future of our church. I’ll also be trying to speak to the fear that anticipated change will bring. We don’t know what will come of General Conference 2019 and we are naturally afraid of what will happen. But we cannot let fear paralyze us and we cannot let fear drive our words and actions. The ethic of Jesus firmly grounded in love and love must guide us and inspire what we say or do moving into the future. We also need to trust in God and the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
Mohney: It left me wondering if my personal story can help anyone else? My journey beginning with my son telling me his honesty about himself is very positive – if that story gives someone a deeper understanding of the possibilities of a parent-son relationship can or should be, I am humbled by that. There is much that could be said about positive stories of families that hold our sons, brothers, sisters, friends together as personal examples for others to hang onto.
Graves: I mentioned to my table-mates that if I were to “un-retire” to serve another congregation, I would ask to be appointed to a Reconciling Congregation. Since I’m not going to un-retire, I plan to work toward encouraging our congregation to explore the study and discernment process required for potential Reconciling Congregations.
As I slowly work toward that goal, I will continue to listen to people, write my insights and advocate as I can to Open Minds, Open Hearts and Open Doorsto all who seek spiritual healing through the UMC!
Will you be Table Talking?
While I hope you find inspiration to attend a Table Talk in this post, please use your best judgment when deciding whether these opportunities are for you. The event is not designed to resolve the differing opinions people hold within The United Methodist Church or, directly, the work of the Commission on the Way Forward or the Council of Bishops. If that will cause you pain, or some level of anger, it may not be for you at this time.
However, Table Talks are designed to demonstrate that there is another way beyond the binary winners/losers, right/wrong approach. Or as Bishop Stanovsky said in her invitation, “Christians don’t need to beat each other up when we disagree.” This is about us. With humility, mutual respect, and ample amounts of God’s good grace, perhaps we can still find a way forward together.
Rev. Gregg Sealey’s solid leadership was referenced in one of the comments above but I didn’t want to neglect to mention how instrumental Inland District Lay Leader John Townsend (Coeur d’Alene Community UMC) was as well. According to Rev. Bertsch, “John did an EXCELLENT job of walking through the history of General Conference legislative language without (in my opinion) demonstrating judgement or commentary.” My email inbox over the past couple weeks can also testify to John’s earnest effort to do his part well.
What a fantastic testimony to the Church and what we, lay and clergy, can do together!
Alissa Bertsch is Lead Pastor at Cheney United Methodist Church and is also an avid equestrian who enjoys the discipline of dressage.
Paul Graves serves as the chair for the Commission on Older Adult Ministries for the PNWUMC.
Geoff Helton is Lead Pastor at Audubon Park United Methodist Church and is also an Adjunct Professor in Whitworth University’s Theology Department.
Rosalee Mohney serves as Wildfires UMVIM Coordinator for the PNW Conference, and also as dean for the Older Adults Retreat.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.