Facing the Un-Tied Methodist Church

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Ignorance is not bliss. It’s not good to be unaware of what is happening.

That’s why I’m going to be blitzing you with information over the next few weeks about the General Conference of the United Methodist Church which is meeting in St. Louis from Feb. 23-26.

This could be an historic conference, a moment in which the United Methodist Church (UMC) as we have known it for fifty years will cease to be, or change in significant ways, or descend into further certainty.

The presenting issue is, of course, the church’s official stance on the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the full ministry of the church. According to the UMC’s Book of Discipline, our primary book of law, homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and therefore, same-sex weddings may not be performed by UM clergy nor take place in UM churches. Furthermore, “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained.

Several years ago, Kessler Park UMC voted to align with the Reconciling Ministries Network and register its complaint with the church’s stance, though we have continued to live under, and abide by, the denomination’s rules.

At the church’s last big global gathering, the 2016 General Conference, attempts to change the language in the Discipline failed (again), and delegates began to talk openly of schism. In a desperate attempt to keep that from happening, delegates pleaded with the bishops to take an active role in leading the denomination forward. The bishops responded by proposing to form a commission with the sole task of exploring and recommending a plan to hold the denomination together in spite of the division.

This plan was adopted, the commission formed, the plan recommended, and now the church will meet to hear it and decide if it is truly the way forward for United Methodists. 

Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. For one, the commission forwarded three different plans to the bishops. The bishops ultimately chose one called the “One Church Plan,” but included in their report the other two plans. A number of dissenting bishops argued that all three plans ought to be considered by the General Conference, and their argument was upheld by the Judicial Council.

Here is a (too) brief summary of plans being presented to General Conference, including one which didn’t come from the bishops:

One Church Plan: This plan would allow local churches and clergy to decide for themselves whether they will perform same-sex weddings, and would allow annual conferences to decide whether they will ordained LGBTQ people, and would not impose penalties on either.

Connectional Conferences Plan: This plan would create three different large all-encompassing “connectional conferences” in the United States: a traditionalist conference, a moderate conference, and a progressive conference. Each local church and clergy person would decide in which conference they wanted to be included. 

Traditionalist Plan/Modified Traditionalist Plan: These plans would maintain the prohibitive language against homosexuality and put severe penalties in place for churches, clergy, and bishops who do not comply. All conferences, bishops and clergy would have to certify their adherence to the Book of Discipline or face expulsion.

Simple Plan: This plan removes all prohibitive language against homosexuality from the Book of Discipline. Simple! But unlikely to pass.

Last Monday night, I gave a more comprehensive summary of the plans, as well as a preview of the upcoming General Conference in my Facebook Live appearance. It’s still available for viewing on the Kessler Park UMC Facebook page.

I will be appearing on Facebook Live each of the next two Monday nights at 9 pm with updates and analysis of the General Conference. You’re invited to join me to hear what’s happening.

Also, I have added a new page on the church website with information about General Conference, including links to groups connected to each plan, and sources of news throughout Conference. I’ve also posted a link to the live stream so you can watch what happens in real time.

We’ll have the live stream broadcast in the Fellowship Hall on Tuesday all day, so you can come and watch with staff and other church members. Together we can watch, pray, and celebrate or mourn the proceedings.

On the Sunday after General Conference, you’re invited to stay after worship for lunch during which I will do an extended presentation on what happened and what it means for Kessler Park UMC. We might even be joined by a delegate who attended the meeting; stay tuned for details!

Finally, I want to sincerely ask that we engage in serious and intentional prayer before and during the conference. That’s why we have decided to have a prayer vigil; the meeting will last for a total of 82 hours across four days. We’re looking for people to sign up to pray for a total of 82 hours during that same time period. You don’t need to pray at the church; you can pray in the privacy of your own home at any time which is most convenient. But we do want to make sure that we have people praying for a total of 82 hours. To sign up for the vigil, click here

If you don’t know how to pray for an hour, or would like some guidance, Ken Kelley has prepared a guide to prayer which will be available this Sunday at worship, and will be posted to the website this weekend.

This is not a time to panic or become anxious; it’s a time to pray and to wait to see what God will do through the people called United Methodists, and through those of us who are part of Kessler Park UMC.

What Just Happened

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While I was busy at the NRA Convention last weekend, two significant developments emerged out of the Council of Bishops meeting that concern the United Methodist Church. Both were clouded in confusion, lack of clarity, and messy roll-outs.

After talking to the bishop and reading a number of articles and documents, I think I finally understand what happened. So let me try to explain as plainly as I can, without editorial comment …

First, the bishops heard the recommendations of the Commission on the Way Forward, which was created in the wake of the 2016 General Conference. This commission was tasked with presenting the bishops with a plan for unity amidst the denomination’s differences on homosexuality. The bishops were presented with three plans; I won’t bore you with the details of each plan (you can read that here).

All you need to know is that one plan was approved overwhelmingly by the bishops. It’s being called the One Church Plan, and it simply calls for the removal of discriminatory language about homosexuality and same-sex weddings in the Book of Discipline. It would be up to individual churches and pastors to determine whether or not they will perform same-sex weddings, and each annual conference would determine whether or not it will ordain gay clergy. 

This is the plan that the bishops will present in February 2019 at a specially-called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. One thousand delegates will decide whether or not to accept this plan. They will also be free to amend it, change it, or perhaps even go back to one of the other two plans. Or they may do nothing. 

The problem is that the bishops bungled the communication of this news in the press release. The release stated “the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes: All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council; The Council’s recommendation of the One Church Plan; (and) An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.”

The fact that the bishops stated that “all three plans” were being submitted in the report led conservatives to seize on the idea that all three options were still on the table, one of which is their own preference — the Traditionalist Plan. They conveniently ignored the fact that the bishops clearly plan to recommend the One Church Plan.

I don’t know what will happen in St. Louis next year. Judging by the results of the 2016 Conference, and considering that most of the same delegates will be present, I don’t know how likely it is that the One Church Plan will be adopted. 

Second, the bishops also revealed the results of worldwide voting on five constitutional amendments, only three of which passed. Amendments are passed by General Conference but must be ratified by a 2/3rds vote in all Annual Conferences around the world. 

The amendments which did not pass revolved around gender equality. Amendment 1 would have added the following new paragraph to the Discipline: 

As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten women and girl's equality and well-being.


This amendment failed to get the required 2/3rds vote, falling less than a 100 votes short: 31,304 “yes” votes were cast against 15,753 “no” votes, falling short by .2%. 

Why it fell short is hard to explain. Some perhaps felt that the statement was redundant; the Discipline speaks of gender equality in other places. But there were also conservatives who took issue with the second sentence of the statement, fearing it to be part of the liberal agenda to remove masculine language from God in worship, or to deny the divinity of Jesus.

Amendment 2 would have amended a paragraph in the Discipline which would now read (additions in bold):

The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.


This amendment failed by a larger margin: 29,049 “yes votes against 18,317 “no” votes, for a majority of only 61.3%.

The problem with this amendment was, apparently, the use of two words, “age” and “gender,” in the last sentence. Conservatives feared that, by prohibiting discrimination based on age, the bishops would be unduly empowered. Here’s how one conservative commentator explains it: “Outlawing any discrimination over ‘age’ would have ended UMC’s longstanding requirements for bishops and other leaders to retire before reaching a certain age. Thus, this provision would have effectively served as a power grab for bishops seeking to consolidate and hold onto their power for far longer than what would be healthy for the church.”

Concerning the inclusion of the word “gender,” conservatives feared that this was a back-door attempt to legitimize LGBTQ acceptance in the church.

For more reading, I recommend this statement from our bishop, this press release about the constitutional amendments, and this pastoral letter from the female bishops