Ed. Note: Today's column brings together several United Methodist voices to reflect on last week's special session of the United Methodist Church's (UMC) General Conference and the denomination's decision to strengthen its ban on the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ people. Kevin Gregory reports on the events of last week's special session. Ashley Boggan Dreff situates the UMC's adoption of the "Traditional Plan" historically, showing how the UMC has a long track record of ignoring the recommendations of its study commissions on matters of human sexuality. Darryl W. Stephens considers the demographic shifts in the UMC and suggests how this new reality should shape future General Conference conversations. Jarell Wilson cites the harm done to LGBTQ persons in the denomination's decision and considers "a way forward" for Queer Methodists. Finally, Christian Coon reflects on how his congregation's ministry to the LGBTQ souls that God has placed in their care remains the same despite the church's hardened position on human sexuality after last week.

A Report on General Conference 2019


The United Methodist Church met for a called “special session” of its General Conference from February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, in order to “move forward” on questions of human sexuality and full inclusion of LGBTQIA persons into the life and ministry of the Church. Since 1972, The UMC has had as part of its governing document, the Book of Discipline, language stating that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained. There are many annual conferences (i.e., regions), clergy, and churches, however, that operate in defiance of Discipline on these points.
The General Conference met to receive and act on the report of the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF), a body established during GC’s regularly planned meeting in 2016. Consisting of clergy, laypersons, and bishops, the CWF was created by the denomination’s Council of Bishops after a vote from the 2016 General Conference to help The UMC move forward on matters related to human sexuality. The CWF report contained two plans to move the denomination forward. The first was the One Church Plan, which would have allowed individual clergy, churches, and annual conferences to decide on whether to ordain LGBTQIA persons and perform same-gender marriages. The second was the Connectional Conference Plan which would have dissolved the denomination’s current organizational structure and created a system whereby three “conferences” were created based on views on human sexuality. A third plan, the Traditional Plan, was included in the appendix of the report but was not created by the Commission. In addition to those three options, upwards of 50 other petitions were submitted to the called session, including a Modified Traditional Plan (an updated Traditional Plan), and the Simple Plan (which would have removed all restrictive language related to LGBTQIA persons from the Book of Discipline).
The Conference began on Saturday with a full day of prayer before beginning in earnest on Sunday with a presentation of the Commission’s report. The body of 864 delegates then went about the task of ranking the order in which they would tackle the petitions submitted to them. The body of delegates ranked, in order: 1) two petitions related to clergy pensions, 2) the Traditional Plan, two plans of disaffiliation for 3) individual churches and 4) annual conferences, and 5) the One Church Plan. 
Based on the adopted rules of the 2016 General Conference, before petitions could be adopted in a plenary session, they had to go through a legislative committee. During a normal General Conference, there are 13 legislative committees that assess petitions, but as Sunday afternoon closed, all 864 delegates were organized into one large legislative committee. The committee on Sunday and Monday voted to send the first four items that came before them to the plenary session, before voting to reject the One Church Plan and not bring it before the entire body. The Simple Plan was also considered and discussed before all other petitions were tabled. 
On Tuesday, the plenary session met, and after a discussion of pensions, was able to consider the One Church Plan again on account of it being brought to the floor as a minority report. The body heard earnest discussion about the plan, prayed together, and then voted to reject the plan for a second time. The plenary session then took up the Traditional Plan and one of the disaffiliation petitions, voting to pass them both. The Traditional Plan, already known to have sections that were unconstitutional, was sent again to the denomination’s judiciary body: the Judicial Council. They will rule on its constitutionality and ability to be implemented during their upcoming meeting in April. Any piece of legislation that was passed and is determined to be constitutional will go into effect on January 1, 2020.   

1b3f902d-c3da-420c-87a3-e48138d15b26.jpeAuthor, Kevin Gregory, is a second-year Master of Divinity student at the Divinity School. A United Methodist, he has served as a reserve delegate from the Central Texas Annual Conference to both the 2016 and 2019 General Conference sessions.


United Methodism: Out of Commission


As a United Methodist laywoman and LGBTQ+ ally, I am heartbroken by the outcome of last week’s Special Session of the General Conference 2019. But as a Methodist historian, I am not at all shocked. Methodists have been discussing “human sexuality” since the 1920s when they re-evaluated their stance on birth control. The trend for Methodism in the middle of the century was to adjust its sexual ethic to be accepting of a complex sexuality. This was best evidenced in the early 1960s when Methodists embraced the “new morality,” a sexual ethic which prioritized love, taught persons that sexuality was a vital part of whole personhood, and replaced rigid rules with Christian guidelines. However, with the formation of The United Methodist Church, the new morality was broken down through amendments at General Conference, ultimately restricting sexuality and excluding gay and lesbian persons as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Since 1972, the new morality has been amended out of existence, and The UMC has been left without a coherent sexual ethic.

To try and correct this, The United Methodist Church has formed study commissions on “human sexuality.” In 1968, the Uniting General Conference began this pattern when it tasked the Social Principles Study Commission with writing the Social Principles, including the original paragraph on “human sexuality.” Over the next four decades, four other study commissions were formed (1976, 1980, 1988, and 2008). In 2016, the Council of Bishops was asked to find a new way to lead the conversation. Instead, they suggested forming another study commission, the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF). Within its brief 51-year history, The UMC has formed six study commissions on human sexuality. 

Ironically, and unfortunately, United Methodists also have a track record of ignoring the work of study commissions, their findings, and their suggested legislation. Each of the previous special commissions recommended removing the “incompatibility clause” and, those written after 1984, reversing the ban on the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” In 2019, The UMC once again ignored the recommendation of the CWF (the One Church Plan), and instead adopted a punitive plan (the Traditional Plan) that was not part of the two years of the CWF until its last two hours.

Why have these commissions been ignored? It’s largely due to the rhetoric of the Christian Right increasing within The UMC, primarily via political caucus groups. The Good News Movement, for instance, organized in 1966 and has since become a major lobbying force between and during General Conference. They assert a fundamentalist understanding of Christian “tradition” and proclaim to advocate “historic” and “orthodox” Methodism—labels which I, as an actual Methodist historian, proudly challenge. Good News consistently argues that any “compromise” on “human sexuality” is the church giving into culture instead of sustaining scripture. Their arguments are problematic on many levels (which a post of this length cannot delve into), and as The UMC has grown internationally they have successfully garnered more and more support for their fundamentalist interpretation of scripture and its accompanying limited conception of sexuality.

I do not offer any predictions on what will happen to The UMC. I do know that it’s shameful that after 51 years and six study commissions, LGBTQ+ voices have rarely been included in the conversation and certainly never as leaders. Necessarily so, LGBTQ+ United Methodists have made their voices heard through testimonies and demonstrations between and during General Conference. They continue their ministry as a vital part of The UMC through acts of what they term “biblical obedience.” If United Methodists want to actually try something new they might invite LGBTQ+ voices to be leaders of these conversations which are about them and rarely with them.

8b176262-83e3-40a1-b29c-f4a9a8bbc21f.jpgAuthor, Ashley Boggan Dreff (MA’12), is the Director of United Methodist Studies and Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, NC. Before joining the faculty, she worked for two administrative agencies of The United Methodist Church: The Connectional Table of The UMC and the General Commission on Archives and History of The UMC. Dreff is the author of the recently published book, Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (Nashville, TN: New Room Books, 2018).


A Way Forward for Queer Methodists


The United Methodist Church has been arguing about the appropriate way of “handling” LGBTQIA people in their midst since 1972, and after 47 years it has yet to find a way to extend love and kindness (or, for that matter, even decency) to those people of God who identify as Queer. The difference between this General Conference and previous ones is that this one was “special.” The Council of Bishops called this conference precisely to present, debate, and vote on their options (which, honestly, left much to be desired) for the church to “move forward” on the question of human sexuality. They offered up a model that failed—the One Church Plan—and instead The Traditional Plan was taken up and passed.
This “traditionalist” plan is yet one more harsh reminder for Queer Methodists that we exist in a church that values us as less than whole, that would rather ignore us than minister to us, a church that is blind to the fabulous and full love God has for Queer Methodists. The church’s decision to “move forward” without including and fully loving UMC clergy and members who identify as LGBTQIA—folks like me—leaves us with a choice: Do we allow the General Conference to have the final say? Or, do we remind them—loudly and repeatedly—that the God we serve is greater than any pronouncement laid upon us? No matter what the General Conference says, Queer Methodists are a part of the church, many among us are leaders in the church, and we are loved and accepted by God, full stop. 
Make no mistake about it, the UMC is dying (along with its other “mainline” siblings), and homophobia is the hill it has chosen to die on. The Good News? We Queer Methodists serve the God of the living, the one who is not confined by the prejudices of Her people. So I have no intention of letting my ministry die with the UMC, and I don’t think other Queer Methodists should let their relationships with the divine be too closely attached to the future of the UMC either. Deo gratias.

31a1fcb7-c174-4628-8f35-d85f91652c8a.jpeAuthor, Jarell Wilson, is a minister in the United Methodist Church in Texas and a certified candidate for ordained ministry in the Rio Texas Annual Conference. He serves as a board member of Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization dedicated to working for a fully-inclusive UMC. 


United Methodism at the End of White Christian America


The end is near for The United Methodist Church (UMC), at least as we have known it. A special session of this church’s General Conference met February 23–26 to consider and vote on various proposals to maintain unity or, in this denomination’s parlance, to find “a way forward” amidst significant and longstanding internal divisions focused on homosexuality. While this could be viewed as just another mainline denomination succumbing to the pressures of U.S. culture wars—the Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal Church (US), and United Church of Christ have all grappled with this issue and voted to allow same-sex marriage and to ordain openly LGBT clergy—the case of United Methodism is distinct. The UMC, more than any other denomination, illustrates the end of an era. 
In his 2016 book, The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones wrote an obituary for white Protestant Christianity as a hegemonic presence in the U.S. cultural and political landscape. Jones identified two descendants of the deceased: white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants. Throughout its history in the U.S., Methodism has accommodated both branches. Nevertheless, these children of Christendom have been mutually antagonistic for much of the last century, particularly on issues relating to human sexuality (see R. Marie Griffith, Moral Combat). Homosexuality is the most recent symbol of division between these offspring, and United Methodism has put this sibling rivalry on full display. 
Even prior to the formation of the UMC in 1968, Charles Keysor was speaking out for Methodism’s “silent minority . . . variously called ‘evangelicals’ or ‘conservatives’ or ‘fundamentalists,’” in his words. In the intervening decades, this silent minority has remained neither silent nor outnumbered. Keysor founded the Good News Movement, the first of many conservative caucuses now constituting a “U.S. Evangelical Coalition” intent on maintaining prohibitions against homosexuals in the UMC despite vocal dissent by the more liberal branch in this church. However, this skirmish between the two factions of white Protestant Christianity in the U.S. is just a sideshow to the larger drama unfolding within the UMC, one not addressed by any of the competing factions or plans for “a way forward” considered at the recent 2019 General Conference. 
One need not delve into denominational politics to understand how the UMC exemplifies the end of white Christian America. The main challenges facing the UMC as an institution pertain not to its stance on homosexuality—or any other social issue in the U.S. cultural landscape—but rather to its global ambitions (see, for instance, my recent book, Methodist Morals). The reality facing the UMC as we know it is a matter of demographics, not theology.
The UMC has undergone a tremendous demographic shift in membership since Keysor’s clarion call to “orthodox” Methodists. The share of members residing outside the U.S. has increased every decade since 1986, when those outside the U.S. accounted for less than 5% of the total. This share had risen to 12% by 1996, 30% by 2006, and 45% by 2016 (data from the UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration). This internationalization is a result of a combination of factors, including a liberal embrace of multiculturalism and globalism, a conservative drive for world evangelism and political coalitions with African delegates, and an ever-present mentality of global imperialism among white U.S. Methodists generally. Regardless of the motivations and causes, the UMC today is not the same church in which the current debate over homosexuality began.
Increased internationalization poses significant challenges to an institution rooted in the eroding soil of white Christian America. To date, General Conference has never met outside of the U.S., and its business has been conducted almost exclusively in English. The next regularly scheduled quadrennial General Conference meets in Minneapolis in May 2020, at which time U.S. membership may account for only half of this church’s membership. General Conference will meet in Manila, Philippines, in 2024 and in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2028. By the time its global body of delegates returns to the U.S. in 2032, this former flagship denomination of white Protestant Christianity in the U.S. will be a very different church than the one U.S. Methodists are fighting over at present. 
Will the remnants of the U.S.-dominated, white Protestant Christianity that gathered in St. Louis in February 2019 remain fixated on their waning cultural and political power in the U.S.? Or, will United Methodists instead engage in a conversation much different than any of the proposals for a “way forward” for this denomination? Jones’s eulogy addressed the future of religious communities’ political participation in the U.S., a topic of limited relevance to the evolving, global church that the UMC is becoming. Whatever their theological convictions about homosexuality, United Methodists are playing out a dramatic scene at the end of white Christian America and the beginning of a more global version of the public church.

c5d30e7e-72c6-4a28-b9bf-808bcf93472e.jpgAuthor, Darryl W. Stephens, is director of United Methodist Studies and director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ministry at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is author of the books Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (U. of Tennessee Press, 2016) and Out of Exodus: A Journey of Open and Affirming Ministry (Cascade, 2018) and co-editor, with Patricia Beattie Jung, of Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach (Fortress Press, 2013). You can follow his writing on Facebook.


Our Ministry Continues


Of all the people I imagined might come to mind in the midst of the debates and discussions at General Conference last week, Nadia was not on my list.
Nadia (which is not her real name) is a recent refugee from Russia. And she’s a transgender woman. Being transgender is not the safest identity to have anywhere in the world, but certainly not in Russia, where, after her transition, she was kicked out of medical school, suffered physical abuse, and made her way to the U.S. via Cuba and Mexico. My church, a United Methodist community that I co-founded almost 10 years ago, worked with a refugee-assistance organization to sponsor Nadia and give her support, rides around town, and an orientation to this new country and city. I can’t say that I know Nadia well. She’s been to worship a handful of times, and I’ve had brief conversations with her. But her plight and all of the challenges she’s faced pushed their way to the front of my mind while I was at General Conference last week.
I went to St. Louis expecting to hear the typical conservative responses during debate as we wrestled for the umpteenth time about how to respond to the LGBTQ members and leaders in our churches. And, not surprisingly, we heard a lot of the tired (and harmful) variations of “hate the sin, love the sinner.” But I was genuinely taken aback by the number of Russian United Methodist delegates who spoke out against inclusion, which made me think of Nadia.
Throughout the proceedings, my heart kept breaking for the LGBTQ members of my church, especially those who trusted us after having been burned by churches in the past on account of their sexuality or their gender identity, some of whom have even taken the brave step of considering ordained ministry. We are doing our best to give them support, encouragement, and reminders that they’re loved by us and by God. But there are millions in other parts of our country and the world—others like Nadia—who have zero support and who fear for their lives on a daily basis.
While there are many complex dynamics that went into last week’s vote and “resolution,” one thing is for certain: it continues to give license for others to oppress, exclude, and do harm to those LGBTQ persons God has placed in our care. The vote makes churches like ours look like hypocrites for staying in a denomination that tells the LGBTQ community that they are somehow “less than.” Like most other UM churches, we don’t know what our future connections to the denomination will look like.
But while we worry about the future of the denomination, we cannot let anxiety about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) bring us to a standstill. There are too many Nadias in our midst who need our presence, our care, and our love today.

54adc7f4-a5e5-4fc1-b5ff-fca247b7d746.jpeAuthor, Christian Coon, is co-founder and current lead pastor of Urban Village Church, a multi-site United Methodist Church in Chicago. His latest book is Failing Boldly: How Falling Down in Ministry Can Be the Start of Rising Up. He also has a podcast by the same name, where he talks to leaders about failure, perseverance, and resilience.

Image: Clergy and protestors chant during the United Methodist Church’s special session of the general conference in St. Louis, Tuesday, February 26, 2019. (Photo Credit: Sid Hastings | AP)

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.