Following are observations from John Pearce of his time at the UMC Next gathering in Kansas City. On Sunday, June 16, John, Greg Bergquist, and Paul Purdue will share their reflections on UMC Next at 9:15am in the Community Center. Click here to learn more.
Greetings to my friends at Belmont United Methodist Church. I have the privilege of attending the UMC Next event in Kansas City and am traveling with Paul Purdue. My sense is that this event could be incredibly important in creating a new form of Methodist church in the United States. My sense is also that many of my friends at Belmont would have appreciated the opportunity to attend and that many have a high degree of interest in what is happening here. So, I am going to attempt to send a daily email summarizing my experience. I will be doing this late at night or during the day on my phone and request a lot of grace and understanding that to some extent this is a mind dump and that spelling and grammar and being 100% accurate may suffer. If you are not interested, I apologize but sending it to all at Belmont is the only way to do this.
Paul and I continue to appreciate your prayers.
Email sent out on May 22:
72 Hours with Pastor Paul - Thoughts from John Pearce, day 3
Greetings Belmont UMC friends, this is my day 3 report. I have received a couple dozen e-mails and texts from Belmonters saying they appreciated receiving my e-mail and that it was helpful to them. I am not sure how big Belmont's e-mail list is, and I don't want hundreds of responses, but I continue to hope that you guys find this helpful and of interest. I also hope that I am not violating any of the confidentiality rules at UMC Next or saying anything that may offend someone. I believe that the risk I am taking by sharing my daily observations is worth it; for many people at Belmont this subject is so important I feel that if I don't share you may only have rumor and social media outlets for information.
Once again, I am beginning this at 10:30pm because Paul and I went to dinner with Carol Cavin-Dillon, Senior Pastor at West End UMC, and Tom Lee, a lay representative. Since this was our only chance for dinner out so we went to one of those Kansas City beef specialty places and ate too much. It was a great opportunity to have good conversation about how our two churches are feeling about the current state of the UMC. We also discussed ways our two churches could work together or at least stay close as we all navigate our way forward.
Tonight, I want to make a clarification of something from last night and then I will start with a story. I will walk through the day with play-by-play info but I think the people that Paul and I are meeting and the stories we are hearing are important. As John Collett recently said at a Belmont meeting, our concerns and questions will be worked out through many one-on-one conversations and through the personal relationships we develop, not General Conference legislation.
First, my Master of Divinity educated daughter who works for the United Methodist Publishing House (where her job is all about words) texted me this afternoon apparently embarrassed and said the word I was searching for last night was "hermeneutic," which is an adjective concerning interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts. Last night I said "hermetic" which could mean an airtight seal. I went to the University of Alabama and we did not use big words like "hermeneutic." I appreciate my daughter's education at Boston University School of Theology and that I could clear this up.
For the first two days of this event we have all been assigned to one of 77 tables with 8 people at each, with the purpose of having as much diversity as possible. I described my table last night, but now I want to tell you more about the person sitting to my right, who I will call "my friend." I won't say anything that would identify her, but I will say she is gay and a provisional Elder in the UMC at a church on thwest Ccher life, an undocumented immigrant with no work permit. My friend has had a challenging life and continues to be hurt and feel marginalized by the very church that she loves and serves. She and I have very different life experiences, however, as the table discussion went on she and I tended to find ourselves almost always in agreement on the issues - even when not in agreement with the others. I will probably never see her again, but we got to know each other pretty well in the 36 hours we spent together. This morning, I felt comfortable enough with her to ask if I could have "a safe space" to ask her a question. I was feeling unsure about whether or not I should have shared my observations at last night's LGBTQI caucus, whether I violated their "safe space," and if I had been insensitive or just not understand. My friend was at the meeting and in the middle of it, not sitting in the back of the room like me with my mouth closed and my ears open. I quickly learned that she was much more disappointed with the conversation than I was and, in fact, upset about it. I learned that these conversations are really complicated at times and you can't assume that any person thinks about things a particular way - listening more and talking less is always a good strategy. That having been said, the reason I want to tell you about this person is because of the sadness I feel for her situation and the lack of hope she has for a reasonable solution. We discussed three alternative strategies today for the church to move forward, which included a strategy to disaffiliate and re-affiliate as a new church starting over. I will say more about these three options below. I will not say how much each option was supported, but it is safe to say this particular option was not well supported. So, as we worked toward the end of our day around the table, I sensed my friend was not as engaged as she had been up until that point. We spoke and she said, "I will not be in the church six months from now so what is going to be done at General Conference 2020 is not something I can be a part of." We talked about that and she said that she has been fighting this issue for decades and just could not stay and keep doing that. She went on to say that she needed her conference to disaffiliate as soon as possible and just start a new church. Without that as an option, she would have to leave the church that she has been a part of for many years. I told her I was sorry and was hopeful that we could all find a way for her to still be a part of this church without it harming her. I wished her well, but we both knew that this quick cure is not likely to occur, and that the sad reality is that she will leave the UMC before this year is over. It will be a loss for her, but it will also be a loss for the church in general - the UMC in particular and the college students that she has ministered to for many years. There are many lessons from this story but one in particular for me is that God made us all different, we have different life experiences, and we all see the situation that the UMC is in from our own unique perspectives. We can have completely opposite views on what the solutions should be with each person being right and neither wrong. We need to keep talking with each other, but mostly we need to keep listening to each other. I am confident we have persons at Belmont that are in this same situation. My hope is that for those that have to leave sooner than later, we ultimately are able to create a church that does not harm people and that those who have been harmed might find their way back.
My overall feeling for the day is that this is not going to be easy. I knew that but today brought a new perspective to the difficulty. Every path has challenges and there are no easy solutions, at least not any that have been identified yet. My other thought is this would be a great time for the UMC to have a visionary and dynamic CEO that says, "this is what we are doing and this is where we are going, so stop talking and go get it done." Instead we are having trouble figuring out what we want, who our leaders are, and most of all I am not sure we are willing to step back and let those leaders lead and follow. We need to get our act together quickly around who our leaders are, where we want to go, and are willing to follow.
Paul picked me up a little late this morning in the pouring down rain. We actually had cell phone flood warning alarms going off during our meeting because of all the rain. We were told that unless it is a tornado warning we did not need to be concerned. I think we all started having flash backs of the Wizard of Oz with being in Kansas with tornadoes. We were fine but with the traffic, heavy rain, and slow traffic lights, Paul and I were 10 minutes late. Paul was smart enough to have a rain jacket and since I did not, he was gracious enough to drop me at the door. As it turned out, we didn't need to worry about being late. As I mentioned yesterday, they sing a lot at this meeting and we only missed a couple of songs.
We spent the first 30 minutes talking about the proper use of pronouns and why that is important. We learned that when introducing oneself, you should declare your pronouns and never assume anything about another person's pronouns. So, I am supposed to introduce myself by stating my name and saying that my pronouns are he, him, and his. I am admittedly "old school" and have been introducing myself for almost 60 years without the need to state my pronouns. Paul seemed to be a bit more open to this concept than I was, but I never fully understood why this was important. I actually found it to be quite distracting when people introduced themselves and then added their pronouns. I suppose I am not sensitive enough, but I have chosen not to follow this protocol. Do, however, consider yourself warned if Paul starts telling you his pronouns.
We then had a few minutes to go over what we did yesterday and then some of the comments and questions received overnight were shared. They shared highlights and basic questions accumulated so far. Next, we had a speaker who talked about the need to address racism in the church and in society - especially in our local churches and the conference. Willingness to accept appointments of people of color, etc. Many of our friends of color feel that the issue of race is being jumped over and all focus is beging put on sexual orientation. I certainly don't think we have completed the work related to persons of color and we should never forget their situation, however, there is nothing in our rule book (The Book of Discipline) that mandates that we discriminate against them. I want us to never forget that we need to be sensitive to and keep focused on the issue of race and do a better job in the way we work with and stay in community with our friends of color, but can we take time to focus on eliminating "mandatory" discrimination?
Next, we moved on to the "meat" of our day. Junios Dotson, General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries and a member of the convening team (which again is well known), introduced 3 potential paths forward for the United Methodist Church. He reiterated that the convening team did not have any pre-determined answers as to paths forward and we were here to "unpack" these options and determine the will of the audience. I will talk about each path and explain what they mean from my perspective and understanding of what I heard. I will also share my views on the pros, cons, and consequences of each path, but I will not disclose other persons' expressed views, nor will I disclose how the body determined our preferences for each path forward. I think the convening team will be sharing some of the voting data (we voted to express levels of support - this is not an official body of the UMC and has no real powers within it) and I may share more verbally, but nothing in writing.
The following descriptions of the three paths forward and the various issues surrounding each are my opinions and observations and may not be consistent with what others heard and observed. Each path has a few items that will be true for each one: local churches will lose members no matter which way we choose, all three will take time, all three will require resistance, and we could be working on all three well into 2024 or 2028 before fully resolved.
The first path forward was described as "Negotiate for Dissolution." This means we enter into protracted conversations/negotiations with WCA, Methodist agencies, and perhaps the conferences to figure out how to split up the UMC into two or perhaps three churches. There are many issues to think about and I will name a few. The WCA is already well organized, they have a leader, they have by-laws and rules, they seem to be falling in line in a compliant manner, and they know what they want to take. We (the progressives) can't organize a two-car funeral (I stole that line from Paul Purdue recently and have been anxious to use it). There are many questions that need to be answered. What do the centrists/progressives ("we") want and who is our leader? Who gets the brand? How do you divide up agencies? How do agencies survive and thrive? Can some agencies serve multiple new churches like WesPath, Upper Room, UMCOR, Methodist Publishing House, GCFA, and Board of Global Ministries? What about higher education, Methodist-related colleges, camps, and conference office buildings? Agency and conference assets, cash, and investments? What about places like in Memphis with Methodist hospital systems, owned 1/3 by the Memphis conference, 1/3 by an Arkansas conference, and 1/3 by a Mississippi conference? How do local churches (or perhaps conferences) decide which new church to join? How are the pastors divided up? Does the Book of Discipline allow for this, does it even matter anymore? What is the work that is needed from the boards and agencies? Do individual churches select their branch or do conferences decide? What if members inside a church want to go different directions? Who goes and travels the world helping non-US Methodists to understand what is happening and how it is in their best interest to vote in favor? Will non-US Methodists vote to allow it? What data/facts do we need? Who will negotiate with WCA? Can WCA be trusted? What is our goal for GC 2020? Does it require constitutional changes which require a 2/3 vote at General Conference and an aggregate 2/3 favorable vote of annual conferences globally? We need to create a group of leaders that can determine and signal a path that we want to work toward and negotiate for. We need to sit down and meet with the other side and try to understand their needs and views. We need to determine the common interests of all sides and stakeholders. We need lots of data - especially financial - to know what is being split up. Will WCA negotiate in good faith? Understand the dollar numbers? We need all sides sitting at the table. In my view, this is our best option. We need to know what we want, what we are willing to give up, what our negotiating leverage is, and then we need to toughen up in our approach to negotiation. Everyone is playing poker at this point and according to Adam Hamilton the WCA has some very good poker players. We need to figure out what we want the new church to look like. Funding, structure, policies, etc. Do we need BOD? We need to pick/create a group of leaders who generally understand what we want and can articulate a vision and then we need to let them lead and stop having everyone with an opinion at the table. Get a good negotiation team together and then go negotiate with the WCA.
The second path forward was described as "Leave/Disaffiliate and Affiliate Together." This means individual churches or conferences go through the disaffiliation process, after which they get back together and create a new church. It would need 2/3 vote of local church and 1/2 vote of the annual conference. It must pay this year's and next year's apportionments, as well as their share of underfunded pension liabilities. Churches can take their buildings and assets with them. This could be a quick option, relatively speaking. It could get done over the next 18 months. We may lose a significant portion of a congregation. Does inertia and unwillingness to actually decide to leave prevent many of these from happening? Are there sufficient assets and revenue stream on the "other side" to make this new church work? Does it need an operating model? Does it have our structure at conference level? This would mean that we leave all the shared assets behind and effectively give them to WCA. In my view this is quitting and getting out of the fight. It would be like a couple with houses, assets, cars, and children getting a divorce in which one spouse gets in their car and drives away as the property settlement. Some ask do we really need any of the assets. We would walk away from all the boards and agencies, the colleges and universities, the hospitals, the conference structure, and assets and give it all to WCA. Those that can't leave are then left behind as an even smaller minority in a church led by the WCA that they don't agree with. The exciting part is the opportunity to start a new church from a blank piece of paper. What happens in 45 countries - does WCA stay with the non-US church? Is there a connectional structure? How do we get clergy appointed? Most churches will take the easy path and stay because it takes a deep level of support to actually vote to leave. The pension liabilities and the disaffiliation resolution that states churches must pay this and next year's apportionments plus their share of the conference unfunded pension liability "as if paid by a commercial annuity." As if paid by a commercial annuity is very significant and will greatly, in my view, unnecessarily increase the cost of disaffiliation. The timeline to disaffiliate is about three or four years, but there is a concern that WCA will try and make it harder at GC 2020. It is my opinion that disaffiliation may at some point become the best and only answer for Belmont, but it should be our last resort. It will be expensive; it means we leave everything related to the UMC (beyond our building) behind and we start over in a new and unknown space. We couldn't even use the name "Belmont Church."
The third path forward is "Stay, Build Community, Resist and Reform." This is the easiest because nothing really changes. It relies on the conservatives growing weary and on relational power, not on legislative power. It requires resistance in all forms. Lead the WCA to finally give up the fight. How long could we maintain this fight? How many members do we lose because of the fight? How do you attract new members while fighting? How do you have time to be the church when your focus is on resistance? Implementation of a plan to fight WCA and the Traditional plan at all times? How does this resistance impact clergy? Resistance only helps if it bothers someone - this is not for resistance's sake. We need to change the views of WCA and offer true theology to the world. We need to recruit churches to join us in our fight against WCA and the Traditional Plan. Do we want to be in a fighting mode for many more years? We need to work on central conference Bishops. We need to help people understand the conservative groups and what they really are doing. We need relationships with the central conferences.
After presentation of the plans, we outlined pros and cons of each plan. We did a lot of polling on our electronic devices. We believe that when we look at all the issues on each of these paths it looks impossible. Everything is hard and yet nothing looks as exciting as a blank piece of paper to create a new church. Nothing is impossible yet everything requires time and energy. Considering disaffiliating a local church or conference to an unknown place is hard. Power is in our words and brands. Nothing is "traditional" about the Traditional Plan. They stole the term and we need to focus on our brand.
We heard a few more testimonials about how individuals had been harmed by the United Methodist structure, polity, or BOD. These stories were all compelling and meaningful, but I will not recap them here.
We then spent an hour or so going through the five core values that I listed yesterday at our tables. Looking for wordsmithing and editing points, as well as substantive points. All of that was reported back electronically and we understand we will have a new version in the morning.
We then focused on resistance. Resistance is grounded in our baptismal vows. We agree to resist evil in whatever form it presents itself. Strategic resistance really turns up the heat. WCA is susceptible to resistance. What strategies for resistance can conferences, churches, and individuals adopt? Our clergy are more vulnerable to negative consequences than lay people. We all brainstormed methods of resisting and submitted our ideas. We talked about national movements such as "Black Lives Matter" and "Me Too." We talked about having a positive campaign calling all Christians to have a day of caring for persons with needs.
Afterwards, we came back to the three paths forward and recapped the pros and cons as expressed by the large group earlier. We then used the voting/polling devices to express support for various scenarios. I will not talk about how those preferences turned out as we will deal more with this tomorrow.
We adjourned at 6:30 pm.
Email sent out on May 21:
72 Hours with Pastor Paul - Thoughts from John Pearce, day 2
I have received dozens of e-mails with positive feedback on yesterday's update, so I will continue and again offer my apologies to those who are receiving it and prefer not to. Text from my updates will also be put on the church website each morning.
It is about 10:30pm and I am back in my room after a full day. Wish I could tell you I was out late because Paul and I were partying, but actually we stayed an extra 90 minutes to attend the LGBTQI caucus group meeting because we wanted to know what they were thinking. I will say more about that later. This update will be much more difficult than yesterday’s, but I will start with my overall sense for what I saw and felt today.
The one word I would use to describe what I felt today was hopeful. I am hopeful that the United Methodist Church, in the US, may be able to find a way forward with an inclusive church that no longer hurts people, at least intentionally and by order of The Book of Discipline. I may even be optimistic, but I don’t want to be naïve. Within the Wesley Covenant/Good News/Institute on Religion & Democracy movement we are not dealing with honest rational people that care about the United Methodist Church. They are not to be trusted - they only care about their view and promoting it. We must be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
I was very impressed with Adam Hamilton and his leadership. Not because I have read his books, but like some I have met here, because of his love for his church, members, those that are being hurt and marginalized. Adam wants the church (The Church of the Resurection as well as the bigger UM Church) to be a place that his children and grandchildren would be proud to be a part of. Also, because he is rational, articulate, and data/fact oriented, he challenges false comments like "the vast majority of Methodists in the United States agree with the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA)"- a comment that the WCA shared with the African Bishops. He does that through polling and asking specific questions and having the data/results to support what he says.
I really believe that, today, we were with 600 people from all over the United States that are “like-minded” with most Belmont UMC members and I think Belmonters would have felt good about being part of this group. I know that so many, including some at Belmont UMC, have lost patience with this battle and want to leave, but I believe we are on the cusp of doing something really good in the United Methodist Church that Belmonters would be proud of. I am not naïve - I know this will be hard, frustrating, there will be more setbacks, it will take time, and in the end, we may lose, but it sure would be great to win. I think the cause is worth the fight and it is my hope that Belmont UMC will stay in the fight, be a leader, and demonstrate what a United Methodist Church should be.
So, a word about confidentiality and why there is no press. We were not asked to keep silent or not share what is happening in general terms, in fact we are encouraged to do that. It is my understanding that one of the tasks for representatives such as Paul and myself is to go back and hold similar meetings. We were asked to keep the names of persons attending confidential, unless we have their expressed permission to disclose their attendance. That means don’t share names, don’t take pictures that show people, and don’t attribute comments to specific people. I confess to having disclosed that our Pastor Paul is in attendance, but I think he is okay with that. People need to be able to speak freely as we struggle and strategize together without fear of having their comments misused by the media or others with an agenda. So, I am not allowed to attribute comments to any specific person but that does not mean I can’t share what is happening in a general way. I also would encourage you to not give much credibility to things you might see in the news or on social media. I have already had questions about a piece of paper that was titled “Our Movement Forward” because it was apparently picked up by the news or social media. I saw the paper - it was something that someone handed out but was not discussed. I have not read it yet, but some were interpreting it as being of significance just because it was out.
Paul and I had breakfast with Greg Bergquist at 8:00 am. Greg seems to be much more connected than Paul and I are and we talked about what we each thought might happen. I don't attribute anything to either Paul or Greg, but will offer that I think St. Louis was an effort to compromise and let us all live together despite our differences, an effort that was rejected by groups (WCA and African Church) that said, no, it is our way or nothing. So, we are done compromising and it is time for a "divorce." It is my hope that the divorce will be amicable so as to reduce the cost and the length of time it will take. I also am not sure the United Methodist Church can survive a lengthy divorce. My view is the only hope the United Methodist Church has to survive and be the church is to have an agreement with the WCA for the general aspects of a divorce plan ready and previously agreed to in time for GC2020 in Minneapolis next year. That does not mean that every detail will be resolved, just that a framework and general principles are agreed to. I know many want this to happen yesterday but, in my opinion, getting this done by GC2020 will be considered “warp speed.”
After breakfast, Paul went back to his hotel room and I went back to my room and worked a little bit at my day job, the one I get paid to do. Paul picked me up at noon, so we would be at the Church of The Resurrection (CoR) in time for the 12:45pm registration opening. As we circled CoR, I commented to Paul “I am confident their landscaping budget is bigger than Belmont UMC’s entire budget.” Paul agreed, but was focused on finding the correct parking lot and correct building to go to, which was no small task. We went inside and yet again, hanging out with Paul, I got to meet many people that he knew. I believe we met and talked with all 10 of the representatives from the Memphis conference. I greeted and spoke with the other eight TN Conference representatives and realized that I actually knew each one of them. Again, I am not allowed to say their names but seven are clergy from bigger churches in the conference and three are lay persons like me. We signed in, got our credentials, and hung out until 2:00pm. CoR has at least two large areas where you can purchase coffee or food. So, we found coffee, healthy food (as opposed to yesterday's meal at BNA), and looked for a place to sit. We were invited by a woman who appeared to be about 70 years old to join her. We learned that she was from Iowa, her father was a United Methodist Bishop from the North Central Jurisdiction and died a few years ago at age 95. She knew who Bishop Job was and said that she had never been an “activist” in the United Methodist Church, but after St. Louis she could no longer sit back and not fight for what is right. I share this story because this seemed to be the sentiment of several people I met.
Afterwards, we moved from building B to building A for the 2:00pm opening session where a rather large sanctuary is. What a sanctuary! It made Brentwood UMC’s sanctuary look small. The sanctuary appeared to be very new, included all the high tech features you could think of, and yet still felt like a worship space. The colors, the olive trees, the massive stained-glass window at the front of the sanctuary all added to this. You can almost see it in the photo at the top of this email. The bright red screen you see in that same photo appears to be 15 feet tall by maybe 150 feet wide. They have all kinds of graphics and information rolling on that screen, including a close up of the speakers at all times for people to see. Paul and I agreed that we are happy that Belmont UMC does not have all of this stuff. We were impressed but not envious.
Adam Hamilton started the session and was quite impressive. First time I have ever heard him speak. He introduced the convening team and made it clear that they did not have a plan that they were going to present and ask us to vote on. He said it was their expressed goal to ask questions, listen, get feedback and work together on figuring out what our path forward should be in the UMC. They did, however, say they had agreed on five basic assumptions that would guide our meeting and were not debatable. My kids would be proud of me, because I thought to take a picture of these with my phone so that I could remember them and list them here:
- We will not accept the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019.
- We are committed to being a church of justice and inclusion for all people.
- We call for the elimination of the incompatibility language and restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons.
- We are committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity that passionately embraces both the evangelical and social gospel as we seek to follow Jesus Christ.
- We believe this vision is the path to a hope-filled future for the United Methodist Church.
Adam shared addtional data that he believes is correct. In the US, there are 32,000 United Methodist Churches. He believes 6,000 of those are aligned with the WCA and 26,000 do not support the WCA. He said there were 5.5 million United Methodists in the US that do not align with the WCA. I think he said that was out of 7 million total United Methodists in the US, but I don’t see that in my notes. He spoke at length about the hurt that members of his church continue to suffer as LGBTQI persons. He talked about CoR being about 70% inclusive and 30% not so sure, while 15 years ago it would have been the opposite. He talked about each of us being on a journey of learning, growing, and understanding where we were wrong, and that many years ago he did not understand the harm the church was doing. Adam said he has grown and come a long way. He felt the 30% were worth saving and bringing along with us in their journeys and his hope was that we could be a church that continues to help bring people along because otherwise you alienate them and forever lose them. He spoke about his hurt, dismay, and disappointment with GC2019 in St. Louis and how when he returned home and held a gathering of CoR attended in person by 2,000 members, and how another 7,000 watched online. Adam talked about what he thought happened in St. Louis and that he could no longer be a part of a church that continued to hurt people this way. He went on to say that CoR was going to show radical hospitality around inclusiveness or he would no longer be their pastor. He received overwhelming support but said they did lose some members, which he also grieves. Adam was much more articulate than I am being, but hopefully you get the point. This is when he said he wanted the UMC to be a place that his children will want to go to long after he is gone.
Afterwards, Randall Miller (Professor of Ethics at the Pacific School of Religion) and Ginger Gaines-Cirelli (Senior Pastor of Historic Foundry UMC in DC) talked about expectations for the meeting. Both are members of the convening team, so their participation is well known. I confess my notes are not so good here and I apologize. This is what I have:
- To bring together a diverse group of church leaders from across the US to strategize - re: a new Methodism.
- Respond with urgency - re: 2019 GC and the Traditional Plan
- Develop and share strategy for rescending the enactment of the Traditional Plan and energize a new Methodist Church.
- Develop next steps for individuals and churches to use and take action between now and GC2020.
We then heard from numerous speakers about:
- Building community together
- Transparency and safe space to speak freely
- No pre-defined decisions or plans; the need to create this together as we go
- Social media and trust
- We are here because none of us are sure we can continue to be part of a church that is hurting people
- Like the disciples, we are afraid, angry, unsure, and reeling at what has happened
Several people then gave a personal testimony of how they have been hurt. Gay persons, women, older adults, persons of color, etc. The gathering was closed with a lot of singing - several songs with words shown on the screen, but more like the way we sing at Belmont UMC. There was a service of Communion and we were then dismissed at 3:45pm.
At 4:15pm we gathered in a large room in building B. It felt sort of like being at the Opryland Hotel convention center where only persons with the provided credentials could enter. We met there until 6:00pm for dinner and then kept going from 6:30-7:30pm. We loaded an app onto our phones and had a series of questions to respond to. Mostly multiple choice but sometime what they called “word crowding.” They would ask you to select one-word response to a question and then the screen would show all of the responses from all 600 people with larger size font depending on how many people submitted that word. We learned a lot about who we were in the room. After that, there was another series of speakers. I especially appreciated the Bishop from North Georgia (I feel that I can mention her because she is on the convening team and her participation is well known). She talked a lot about needing a new Hermetic (I probably just butchered that word) view of the Bible, saying that we need to reclaim the Bible, learn to interpret scripture, and curtail Biblical literalism. We need to declare a different way to interpret scripture and take the Bible back. Again, she was much more articulate than that, but she is a Bishop and I am a CPA, so that is what you get. We talked about our church not turning people away in their time of need and that the goal was not to do less harm but to do NO harm.
We then spent about 45 minutes getting to know and understand the 8 people at our table. We were assigned tables with the goal of having a diverse group including all over the country. I can’t say names or be overly descriptive, but at my table there was a male clergy from Wisconsin and lay persons from Alabama and Mississippi (they made TN appear a little more progressive as compared to what they said about their states). There were also women of Native American descent, a clergy woman of color from the West Coast, and a gay woman, almost clergy, from the West Coast (with whom I had a good conversation), and a female lay person from Texas. The overall conversation was good. We talked about all the questions they wanted us to respond to and got to know each other. We will stay together with that group until the end of day on Wednesday when we gather by conference.
After a 30-minute break for dinner, each table reported what we had talked about. That was a little hard to follow, but the good news was they had a special website that someone from each table was able to use during the conversation to record what was said and submit to the convening team.
Next, Adam Hamilton came back up to speak. More data, which I like. He talked about the surveys that he and CoR have conducted over the past couple of years. Adam says he has been a speaker at 45 annual conferences in the last few years, had taught classes at dozens of seminaries, and held numerous conferences and leadership institutes. He said his surveys are likely not statistically accurate, but they do cover a broad range of diverse groups over the past few years. He developed a new way to categorize Methodists. Adam said that he realized that not everyone would agree with his categories but it seemed to work and he has used it consistently. Those four categories are:
- Progressive Incompatibilist
- Progressive Compatibilist
- Traditional Compatibilist
- Traditional Incompatibilist
For example, the WCA would be considered category 4. They are traditionalist yet they will not accept those that think differently. Whereas category 3 may not believe in same sex marriage, but they are fine living in a church where that happens - even in the church they attend. Adam then has numerous slides with the results for different types of groups. Laity, clergy, 150 largest US Methodist churches, executive pastors, how laity described their churches, how clergy described their churches, etc. I made note of only a few of the categories, but in general each group reflected that category 1 had around 10%, category 2 had around 50%, category 3 had about 25%, and category 4 had about 10%. Adam admitted that the WCA type groups have not been attending many of his events in the last year, so he may be missing some folks in the numbers. The point that he is trying to make is that somewhere between 70% and 80% are the compatibilists that want an inclusive church where all can live together, love each other, respect different opinions, yet allow everyone to be included and fully involved members.
Adam then did more polling. One question was what percentage of your church would vote to leave the UMC to be part of a more inclusive denomination. He pointed out that the disaffiliation agreement recently passed required a 66% local church vote. I don’t recall the exact answers we could choose from, but I think I voted 80% for my church and hope that was okay. I think they are testing to see if we plan a split how committed are people. The last point I made a note of was we can’t be an echo chamber and we need to make sure we are not just listening to ourselves but make sure we are hearing all points of view and types of people. Afterwards, we had more singing, (they tend to sing a lot) and adjourned.
Paul and I decided to stay and observe the LGBTQI caucus from 7:30-9:00 pm. I know what I am about to say could be easily misinterpreted and cause people to be unhappy with me, but you were not there, and I was, so don’t judge me for saying this. I also acknowledge that I have never walked in their shoes and suffered the hurt they continue to suffer, so I do not judge them and accept that this is their view. My thought was that it was a not good and it caused me to lose some of the hope I had built up during the day. There were probably about 150 people and it was a negative session with one speaker after another expressing in very strong terms hateful comments from random things such as why CoR would have a blood drive going on this week when most LGBTQI people could not give blood, or generalizations about southern churches, or demanding that everyone at this meeting that supported the One Church Plan should apologize before anything else happens. I could go on and on but will not. I will say that every once in a while, a more rational person would rise to speak in defense of the persons and groups being attacked or offer a more positive comment. One particular person that I noted was a gay clergy that was ordained last year, and he talked about all the straight persons that stood by him throughout that process, supported him despite personal risk to them, and he was not going to forget their role. I think my concern with this group is they are what Adam defined as Progressive – Incompatibilist. I wish my friend and fellow Belmonter Deron Johnson had been at this meeting. Deron would have had the standing, understanding, judgement, and ability to articulate why so much of what was being said was not helpful and inappropriate. I will trust that the convening team will have the ability to navigate past the issues that some in this group may raise and I also realize that everyone in the room was not involved in making these comments and some did offer more positive thoughts.
Paul and I finally left and got drenched in a rainstorm while trying to find our car. The storm lasted all day and is still going on at what is now almost 1:00am. I need to sign off, but I wanted to say that again today I feel honored to have been selected to attend this event. I hope that I am representing Belmont UMC and the TN Conference in a manner that would be pleasing to both of those groups. I am more hopeful now than since the day before GC2019 began that there is a future for the United Methodist Church that is inclusive and does not perpetrate harm and hurt on any particular group, and especially our LGBTQI friends that are the current target of hate and misguided interpretations of scripture. As I said yesterday, how is it of all places in our society today that it is the church that is doing the most harm? Amazing.
I am anxious for tomorrow and hope that we begin to see concrete action items and strategies that are useful to Belmont UMC and to this cause. I hope I have not offended anyone with my dissertation and recap of the day’s events. I hope to make some good notes tomorrow and share more with you tomorrow night.
Email sent out on May 20:
Sunday, May 19
After all that happened at Belmont United Methodist Church on Sunday, I have decided to create a running summary/ random thoughts of my 72 hours watching to see if this event will in fact be the start of a new United Methodist Church in the US or if it will just fizzle out. I think some people call this a blog, but I don't know how to do that, so I am sending myself an e-mail and will ask my technology consultants how to distribute this appropriately to some of my Belmont friends. I am calling it 72 hours with Pastor Paul, because the two of us are traveling together and sharing a rental car and seem to be very connected and I am so thankful for Paul and his deep sense of caring and concern for Belmont and our LGBTQI friends that the United Methodist Church seems to be hurting so recklessly.
After getting all packed on Saturday night and getting all of my papers and folders together, I was ready to start this Journey at 8:00am. I realize that I am "old school" but I feel better when I have a hard copy print of the various e-mails with all the logistics and relevant conversations in hand, because who knows when these darn computers will stop working.
Lori and I headed out at 8:30am to go to Sunday school and church. Logistics of getting Erin to choir on time, Kate to church, and Lori's parents to church were all worked out and, believe it or not, only required three cars. Always good to help mitigate Belmont's parking issues.
The Friendship Sunday school class made a big deal of Paul, Greg, and me attending this event. Prayers, questions, and well wishes abounded and were much appreciated. A lot of people in that room have spent their lives working with the United Methodist Church, most of whom have forgotten more about the United Methodist Church than I know. We spent our class time talking about Steve Harper's book "Holy Love A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality" led by Kim Hawkins and Steve Bryant. Such a good book and as I sat there listening to the conversation and taking it all in, I thought what a good send off it was for me.
The 10:30am service was good and at the end Bill Haire had a wonderful prayer for Paul, Greg, and me. I was overwhelmed by all of our Belmont friends, some I did not know, who came down to "lay hands" on us, offer their support, and wish us well. They were behind me, so I could not tell how many people were there, but it felt like a lot. Afterwards, dozens of people wished me well, thanked me for going, and expressed their hopes for the event. Wow, what a day, and it was not even half over.
Prior to Sunday, I was feeling that this meeting in Kansas City could be a big deal for the future of the United Methodist Church in the US and for Belmont UMC, but Sunday intensified that belief. Ten representatives from the TN Conference that were invited, seven clergy from some of the bigger churches, including Paul from Belmont UMC. Three lay persons including me, I think because I serve as the Conference President of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration. I knew this type of meeting would be important to Belmont but Sunday made that understanding much more real. I am honored to have been invited, and I think that my experience as a CPA partner with a global accounting firm, a lifetime of understanding local church finances, and now six full years into understanding Methodist finances at the Conference level should give me a perspective on all of this that is likely unique and hopefully helpful. Surely there were people more qualified to go than me, just from Belmont. Steve Bryant, Lynn Taylor, Jerome Del Pino, Bob Kohler, Paul Franklyn, Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, etc. - the list could go on and on. These people have been doing this United Methodist stuff for decades, but they are not going, and I am, so my view is I must listen to these folks, ask for their thoughts, take it all in, and go do the job. I know there are going to be some really important people at this meeting, but you know what, that does not intimidate me at all. So far these important people have not done a very good job positioning the United Methodist Church. Maybe it would help to have some new perspectives.
After a fun lunch with Lori, Erin, Kate and Lori's parents (Ben is spending a few days of R&R with his 125 classmates at the beach), I headed off to Paul's house to pick him up at 2:00pm. Paul had already had a long day - two worship services, two sermons, and a Staff Parish meeting to interview a candidate for Belmont. However, his day was barely half over. I would never say anything bad about Paul, because I think the world of him, but air travel does not seem to be his strength. I will just leave it with, I think it was best that I was driving and navigating us to our hotels in Kansas City.
Paul and I headed to Providence United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet to attend and be a part of one of five TN Conference District Pre-Conference meetings. There were probably 200 people that attended, and Paul and I sat with their senior pastor, Jacob Armstrong, and one of the Methodist preachers that is doing a fantastic job of growing a new and thriving United Methodist church. It was fun to be with Paul at this meeting because he knows everyone there and introduced me to many people. It is an interesting church as compared to Belmont - contempary services only with a stage, chairs no pews, no hymnals or bulletins, and everything shown on two large screens up front. There are two "praise singers" with a piano up front, great voices and high-energy singing. I did notice that most of their songs had only one line that they repeated dozens of times, which seemed to be effective, just different from Belmont. Lots of glass around the walls, with trees and lots of green to look out at. No 21st Avenue to worry about. Belmont was represented by Jefferson Furtado and his family, Mike O'Neal, Carol Brown, and Sarah McWhirt-Toler.
I had recorded a five-minute video that was being shown at all five district meetings about changes CFA is trying to make for the funding of clergy health and pension benefits. In an effort to be 100% transparent, I had a three-page spread sheet as a handout at each of the five district meetings. After the video, our District Superintendent, Scott Aleridge, made me go on stage with him during the video to answer questions afterwards. What a riveting subject to talk about, and who would have thought handing out three-page copies of Excel spreadsheets would be well received? After the meeting and the dozen or so conversations I had, I concluded that they are so anxious to have transparency and the facts this actually went well.
Paul and I then headed to BNA, found a parking spot, and headed in. I felt bad about my "TSA PreCheck" status as I waited on Paul to make it through the TSA scanning process. I felt worse when it was time to line up at Southwest and I was A-30 and Paul was C-15. Those of you that fly Southwest understand that issue. BNA was as crowded as I have ever seen it. We had 45 minutes and tried to find something to eat. Lines were long so we settled on food that was bad for us in the food court. The flight was interesting - out of the 140 passengers, 60 were members of the University of Kansas Women's Rowing Team. A lot of tall, muscular college women that all had ear buds on listening to music and no carry on bags. Again those of you that fly Southwest know the value of 60 passengers with no carry on bags. I saved Paul a middle seat towards the back in the middle of all these rowers. We learned that the University of Kansas Big 12 conference rowing championship was held this weekend in Oak Ridge and the University of Texas won. We also learned they row boats in teams of 4 or 8. Still not sure why they needed 60 of them.
Paul and I talked a lot, and I reviewed Belmont's April financial reports. I needed to get my comments and questions off to our Business Administrator, Susan Fagan, and Nancy Northington who was graciously and very competently I might add, filling in for me at Monday night's Finance Committee meeting.
I was not at all sure what was going to happen in Kansas City, so I decided to put my beliefs in writing to help me stay focused, and in the event I met someone in an elevator and needed an "elevator speech." This is what I wrote:
- I believe that every person is of sacred worth and created in God's image. (I stole that from the opening line of Belmont UMC's statement, but I believe it fully )
- I believe that Jesus taught us by his actions and his words that we should care for and minister to those that are hurting and marginalized.
- I believe that the United Methodist Church, instead of caring for and ministering to, is causing further harm and marginalization to our LGBTQI friends, which is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Of all places in our society, it is the church that is perhaps doing the most harm.
- I believe the United Methodist Church is worth saving, but only if we stop hurting people further and intentionally. The Book of Discipline, our rule book, mandates discrimination. Wow!
Paul and I landed in Kansas City at 9:00pm, made it through an airport that seemed fully closed with no one there (as opposed to the crowds in Nashville ), navigated past the Kansas rowing team to get our bags, and found the rental car bus. We obtained our car (which of all things had Davidson County TN tags) and with the help of GPS made it to Overland Park to our two separate hotels. Since we were meeting Greg Bergquist for breakfast at the same hotel I was staying at, Paul dropped me off and kept the car. I went to bed around 10:30am with great anticipation for the next three days.