ALCOA, Tenn. (Sept. 19, 2018) -- About 340 United Methodists gathered for organized discussions earlier this week to learn more about the future of the denomination and its disagreements over human sexuality.
The gatherings were second and third in a series of discussions planned by the Holston Conference delegation as the denomination prepares for General Conference in February 2019. Holston’s delegation discussions will continue through Nov. 12. See schedule.
On Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16, the Smoky Mountain District hosted 260 participants in a discussion held at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee.
On Monday evening, Sept. 17, the Appalachian District hosted 80 at Gate City United Methodist Church in Gate City, Virginia.
At both meetings, participants watched a 14-minute video in which delegates explained history leading to the denomination’s current impasse and three plans proposed to move the church forward. (The three plans include the One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan, and the Connectional Conference Plan.)
After the video, Holston Conference delegates invited questions from the audience.
In Maryville, the Rev. Wil Cantrell led the discussion, accompanied by other delegates: Del Holley, the Rev. Sandra Johnson, the Rev. Jerry Russell, the Rev. Paul Seay, John Tate, and Karen Wright.
In Gate City, the Rev. Kim Goddard led the discussion, accompanied by the Rev. Randy Frye and the Rev. Dennie Humphreys.
The delegates are part of a 16-member group that will travel to St. Louis, Missouri, for a special General Conference on Feb. 23-26, 2019. The Holston delegation includes 12 voting members and four alternates. Goddard is the delegation leader.
Holston’s representatives will assemble in February with 864 total delegates from all over the world to decide if the United Methodist Church will change its stance on homosexuality or strengthen the ban on same-sex marriages and gay clergy. While many United Methodists pray for unity, others fear the General Conference outcome will lead to schism or a mass exit of members who disagree.
In Maryville and Gate City earlier this week, church members asked more than 20 questions at each meeting about the proposed plans, logistics, scripture, accountability, and the impact that any change could have on missions or membership.
In both meetings, delegates emphasized that “Bible-believing, Jesus-loving” United Methodists can and do interpret scripture differently. The Commission on a Way Forward was created with a charge to explore options for strengthening the unity of the church, delegates pointed out. The commission responded by creating three plans to be considered at General Conference.
“No matter what we do at General Conference, we’re going to lose people,” Goddard said. “What we’re trying to figure out is if there is a way, given our differences, that we can live together.”
One retired pastor asked what pastors should do between now and Feb. 23. Cantrell suggested setting up small groups of leaders – not necessarily committee chairs but engaged members – to dialogue about the proposed plans, historical context, and divisive issues.
“Churches that talk about this ahead of time are much more prepared for what happens than those who wait,” said Cantrell, referring to experiences of other denominations navigating similar struggles.
Cantrell suggested five resources to guide small-group discussions, listed on a prepared handout:
- The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict
- Finding Our Way: Love and Law in The United Methodist Church
- Unafraid and Unashamed: Facing the Future of United Methodism
- Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church
- Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness
Cantrell is the author of the book, “Unafraid and Unashamed.”
At the conclusion of both meetings, participants heard a plea for commitment to the love and work that bind United Methodists to each other, rather than tear them apart.
“Oh, how I long for the day that we could come together on a rainy Monday night with this much passion and this much heart to ask the question, ‘How can we better make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?’” Goddard said to her Gate City audience, citing the denomination’s mission statement.
At the Maryville meeting, Bishop Dindy Taylor was in attendance and asked to make a closing statement.
“The day after General Conference 2019, the United Methodist church where you go every Sunday, where you give your energy, where you give your love, is going to continue being the church,” she said. “And God will be glorified, not lessened.”
The next delegation discussion is scheduled for the Mountain View District at 3 p.m., Sept. 23, at First United Methodist Church in Morristown, Tennessee. See complete schedule.
Email the Holston delegation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Goddard asks district to 'hold steady' in first discussion (The Call, 8.29.18)
Photos below: (1) Questions at Gate City UMC. (2) Del Holley. (3) The Rev. Wil Cantrell at the mic. (4) Bishop Dindy Taylor closes.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.