Editor’s Note: The following letter was written by Rev. Debbie Sperry to share information and open dialogue with her local church members about February’s special session of General Conference. Debbie has generously agreed to share it with our larger audience as an example, and has updated it since she originally sent it to members of Moscow First UMC earlier this year.
As the special session draws closer, it should be expected that interest in many local churches will grow, especially as we move past the holidays. For those who haven’t started to do so already, I hope this example with inspire you to consider your own plans for keeping your congregation well informed and encouraged to be in loving conversation with one another. – Patrick Scriven
For updates and information about the GC2019, including statements from leaders across the Western Juriisdiction, please visit: https://greaternw.org/gc2019/
By Rev. Debbie Sperry
Over the last few months, United Methodists have been hearing about the work of the Commission on the Way Forward with, now, anticipation is growing for the special called General Conference in February of 2019. For some of us this upcoming meeting has been interesting, for others it’s been painful, for others frustrating, and for still others, it hasn’t even come across our screen.
This letter will cover the basics of what’s happened with links if you’re interested in learning or reading more.
As always, as your pastor, I’m happy to meet and talk about anything that concerns or interests you.
First, a few definitions:
The Council of Bishops: All of the active and retired Bishops from across the global United Methodist connection function together as the executive branch for the denomination. The Council of Bishops will regularly respond to national and global issues. Specifically, the General Conference of 2016 asked the Council to lead the church when it came to a stalemate relating to LGBT inclusion. As a body, the bishops do not hold power to make legislative decisions.
General Conference: The quadrennial meeting of The United Methodist Church including clergy and laity from each annual conference. The number of delegates is decided much like the House of Representatives (more people = more representatives). The Pacific Northwest Conference is allocated two out of the 864 that will be seated. The General Conference is the ONLY body of the UMC that can change our polity (The Book of Discipline). In essence, they serve as the legislative branch of the UMC.
Annual Conference: The body and annual meeting of churches in a particular state/region/”conference”. Our Annual Conference is The Pacific Northwest (PNW) and includes Washington and the panhandle of Idaho (with a couple of extra churches in Montana and Canada). Our annual conference meets in June to assign, commission and ordain leaders to service, set a budget, decide policy, and response to issues that specifically relate to missions and ministry in our conference.
The Commission on the Way Forward: A group of 32 United Methodists, commissioned by the Council of Bishops, including 2 bishops, clergy, and laity, charged with creating options for how the UMC might move forward on issues that relate to LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/allied) inclusion, marriage, and ordination. The commission has met various times since the 2016 General Conference and this year submitted a report which included three plans for moving forward.
The Council of Bishops reviewed the recommendations and will allow all three recommendations from the Commission on the Way Forward (COWF) to come to the special called General Conference in 2019, with their recommendation being for the “One Church Plan.”
In essence, the “One Church Plan” would delete the exclusionary language currently in The Book of Discipline and allow each local church to make their own decision about how they will respond/include LGBT congregants and requests for marriage. So, Church A might openly advertise that the LGBT community is welcome. Church B might encourage and ask for an openly gay pastor, as well as advertise their support of gay marriage, including in their facilities. Church C might not say anything one way or the other. And Church D might be open in their stance that they do not support lesbian or gay relationships, while still relating to each individual as a child of God.
Also under the plan, each Annual Conference would have more autonomy in setting standards for the ordination of qualified candidates with regard to their orientation.
The second option presented by the Commission on the Way Forward is called the “Connectional Conference Plan” (formerly named: Multi-branch model). This choice would form “three overlapping ‘Connectional Conferences’ defined by rules concerning same sex marriage” and would “replace today’s five Jurisdictional Conferences.” These would be three separate legal entities (501c3) yet all part of the UMC.
The third option presented is called the “Traditionalist Plan.” This choice would keep the current policy and practice of the UMC for the whole denomination, while adding more enforcement. For some, this means not much would change. One emphasis that has been seen under this model is that those who are “noncompliant” with current policy (“self-avowed and practicing” clergy, allowing for ordination of gay clergy, or performing weddings for LGBT couples) would be pursued in their defiance and charges would be brought (within the church’s legal system) against those pastors, clergy, and laity.
**For a summary of the three plans by a member of the Commission, please click here.
In addition to their recommendation, the Council of Bishops referred all three proposals to the Judicial Council (like the Supreme Court of the UMC) to check for the constitutionality of the plans. The Judicial Council ruled that the “One Church Plan” was “largely constitutional” while the Traditionalist Plan “must be fixed before it can pass muster” with 9 of its 17 petitions having some issue (versus 3 minor changes to the One Church Plan). The Judicial Council did not rule on the Connectional Conference Plan as it includes constitutional changes. For more detailed information, click here.
Ultimately, the decision from the Council of Bishops is only a recommendation. It will be the General Conference who will decide which, if any, of these recommendations and, hence, changes to make to The Book of Discipline. As with all decisions relating to our polity, no decision is forever though certainly some of these recommendations have greater policy implications, as well as potential impact for our shared life within the church. Our church laws are subject to change at every General Conference, assuming proper procedure, presentation, and voting on proposed changes.
What does all of this mean for us as a local church? Well, for some it is significant as it is deeply personal and we have much invested in the outcome of these votes. For others, it will likely mean business as usual—attending our ministries and participating in missions—until something more is required of us as a congregation.
For any of the three recommendations from the Commission on the Way Forward, ultimately, it seems each church will need to clearly identify their stance on these issues and how we intend to be in ministry with the LGBT community.
To do that effectively, we will need to create a stronger culture of conversation, respect and engagement on all types of issues where we may disagree, and become more clear about our mission and vision as a church.
In the meantime, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky has invited us to read “The Road is Made by Walking” and be in dialogue with one another about how we live into the future together. For more information on this invitation, the book, or the blog being co-authored by clergy and laity in the conference, click here.
For today, I would encourage you to pray for our church and our denomination as we seek God’s will to be in ministry to all persons and reflect the love of God in how we live our faith.
Rev. Debbie Sperry serves as pastor to Moscow First United Methodist Church in Moscow, Idaho.