The special session of General Conference happened Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis. Despite months of planning and preparation to help United Methodists settle on a “way forward” that could keep them unified, delegates departed Missouri with battle wounds that were deeper and more painful than before.
“We are people who are hurting, and I don’t think it makes any difference how the final voting came out,” said the Rev. Kim Goddard, Holston delegation leader. “We know we weren’t able -- in our wrangling and attempts at holy conferencing -– we were not able to ‘do no harm.’ We just need to acknowledge that.”
In the end, the Traditional Plan passed by a narrow margin, 438 (53 percent) to 384 (47 percent). The Traditional Plan retains the church’s current ban on the performance of same-gender marriages by clergy in United Methodist churches. The vote also held up the Book of Discipline’s prohibition on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and added additional accountability for enforcing violations of those rules.
However, parts of the Traditional Plan were ruled unconstitutional and are scheduled to be reviewed by the denomination’s Judicial Council in late April.
“It will take some time to clarify which parts will become part of our church law and which parts will not,” according to a statement issued by the Council of Bishops on Feb. 26. The legislation deemed constitutional is not official church law (for U.S. churches) until Jan. 1, 2020.
Until then, the Council of Bishops urged United Methodists to “stay focused on the mission that glorifies God and reaches new people with the gospel.”
“We continue to teach and believe that all persons are welcomed in the church, all persons are persons of sacred worth and we welcome all to receive the ministry of Jesus,” said Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of the Council of Bishops.
Holston Conference sent 12 delegates and three alternates to St. Louis for what would ultimately become a showdown between supporters of the Traditional Plan and supporters of the One Church Plan and Simple Plan. The latter two plans, as well as the Connectional Conference Plan, failed to receive enough votes to move out of legislative committee.
Holston delegates were elected by their Annual Conference in June 2015 to represent them at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates ended up taking a second tour, to St. Louis, after the topic of human sexuality once again hijacked the once-every-four-years meeting in May 2016.
“It is an honor to be elected as a delegate for Holston, but with that comes an incredible responsibility,” said Becky Hall, a lay delegate from Christ United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.
The Council of Bishops was asked, by the General Conference, to help the denomination find a way forward on the divisive issue, so that the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church could fulfill its work. That work includes not only revising church law, but also adopting resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. The General Conference also approves plans and budgets for churchwide programs.
In response, the Council of Bishops proposed the formation of a Commission on a Way Forward to examine and possibly revise every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality. A special General Conference was called in late February to act on the report from the commission, which proposed three plans as options to strengthen church unity.
“I am honored to be part of this pivotal moment in the history of our church and am committed to going to St. Louis with an open mind and open heart that I might hear and follow God’s leading,” said the Rev. Randy Frye, clergy delegate, prior to leaving for St. Louis. Frye is senior pastor at First Broad Street United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee.
Holston’s delegation occupied two tables at the left-front part of the floor at The Dome at America's Center, where multiple tables were oriented toward the stage. About 820 delegates were present at General Conference, representing 12.6 million United Methodists from all over the world. The people of The United Methodist Church are part of the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Bishop Mary Virginia “Dindy” Taylor, Holston’s resident bishop, sat at one of the long tables on the stage with other episcopal leaders. Her seat was not far from Bishop David Graves, Holston native and current leader of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, and Bishop James Swanson, immediate-past resident bishop of Holston and current leader of the Mississippi Conference.
United Methodist bishops do not vote at General Conference. They preside from the stage.
“As predicted, it was a grueling week of legislative and plenary work,” said Graves in a follow-up video.
The first day, Feb. 23, was devoted to prayer, an activity that was criticized by some live-stream viewers.
“While I have read some comments saying we were ‘wasting precious time,’ I cannot even begin to imagine what our atmosphere would be like if we hadn't taken time to center on God and God's will,” said the Rev. Tim Jones, Holston Conference communications director, in one of his daily emails.
On Day 2, delegates voted to prioritize the multiple pieces of legislation. First on the list was the Wespath pension, followed by the Traditional Plan and two “disaffiliation” plans.
The One Church Plan, favored by the Council of Bishops, and the Simple Plan, favored by many LGBTQ advocates, lagged significantly behind.
From her seat on the floor, Goddard texted her grief skyward to Jones, who was sitting in the press box near the rafters.
“Sitting through these discussions of how to ‘disaffiliate’ is just plain heartbreaking to me,” Goddard texted, referring to legislation detailing how United Methodists who disagree could leave the church. “[I'm] trying really hard to see how this is a good thing regardless of what plan, if any, eventually passes.”
As he did during the 2016 General Conference, the Rev. Wil Cantrell kept thousands of followers informed (and riveted) with his daily blog reports and analyses of the proceedings.
“The Traditional Plan has the most momentum right now though, as noted earlier, garnering over 50 percent of the vote is much easier in a priority vote than in a vote for final passage,” said Cantrell, delegate and associate pastor at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
On Day 3, a majority of delegates voted to place the Traditional Plan on the plenary schedule for final consideration. The decision didn’t occur without a struggle among delegates as well as observers.
“Today’s session was heartbreaking,” said delegate Karen Wright, member at Broadway United Methodist in Maryville, Tennessee. “The stonewalling of the conservative delegates was chilling.”
Delegate John Tate said he was disappointed in the way people on both sides debated, stalled, and were “willing to do whatever was necessary to win the day.”
“The hardest part of the conference for me was knowing that there would be no winners, only losers, regardless of whichever plan had the most support,” said Tate, a member at Fairview United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee.
Antoine Umba Ilunga, a delegate from the North Katanga Conference in Congo, minced no words in explaining why the Traditional Plan should prevail. “Simple reason, because the Bible says a man must be married to a woman,” he told United Methodist News Service.
A last-ditch effort to bring the One Church Plan back through a minority report was defeated. Holston’s Emily Ballard joined young adults at the microphone in support of the plan. Ballard is a member at Concord United Methodist in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“People speaking here don’t represent the church that will be for years down the road,” said Shayla Jordan, a lay delegate from Great Plains Conference, while holding a petition representing more than 15,500 other young adults.
On Feb. 26, after hours of delaying tactics by opponents, the body finally passed the Traditional Plan, 438 to 384.
The General Conference also passed a disaffiliation plan, providing guidelines for congregations who wish to leave The United Methodist Church “for reasons of conscience” regarding issues of human sexuality. (On March 6, the Council of Bishops challenged the constitutionality of the petition.)
Delegates also approved two petitions recommended by Wespath Benefits and Investments, the denomination’s pension agency. One petition requires that any local church that withdraws or is closed must pay its fair share of unfunded pension liability for their annual conference. Another petition spells out that any clergy who end their relationship with a conference will be treated as “terminated vested” participants, according to United Methodist News Service.
Hours after General Conference had adjourned, delegate Frye expressed his concerns before returning to his local church in Kingsport.
“While I ultimately chose the Traditional Plan, I’m not convinced it is a way forward,” he said. “It’s going to result in more frustration and probably defiance ... My heart aches because of the pain so many are feeling tonight, and my prayer is that healing will come as we focus on our mission of making disciples and changing lives.”
IN GOD WE TRUST
On the day following General Conference, downtown St. Louis was suddenly quieter. Many delegates had departed. At least two Holston delegates were still present.
Jones gathered them up for video statements that would be shared at meetings across Holston Conference in nine district locations, pre-planned for March 3 at 3 p.m.
In the video, Goddard is visibly tired. “For the last several hours I’ve been trying to wrap my head around all that happened and put it into some kind of perspective,” she said. “And for me, I think what I learned in a very real way is that the Discipline may get changed and debated at General Conference ... but that’s not where the church happens.”
Goddard, who is superintendent for Holston’s New River District, added, “I am so looking forward to getting back home to Holston, back to the mission of the church -- back to loving every person who is a part of our churches, and those who are part of our communities.”
Del Holley, a lay delegate and conference lay leader, also participated in the video. He explained the implications of the legislation, and then his voice broke as he asked for prayer.
”I’ve asked you to continue to pray that we would treat one another with the love of Christ, that the world might see the love of Christ displayed in the way that we speak to one another ... So let’s continue to pray,” said Holley, a member at Colonial Heights United Methodist in Knoxville.
In East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, where the 872 congregations of Holston Conference reside, church members were also trying to understand and recover from what happened in St. Louis. Pastors scrambled to share welcome statements for communities that might read the headlines and surmise that some people, especially those identifying as LGBTQ, were no longer welcome in their churches.
“I’m sure you’re wondering how we will ever resolve our differences,” Bishop Taylor said on March 1, a few days before her Cabinet met in Pigeon Forge to set ministerial appointments for the coming year.
“I don’t know the answer, but this I do know," Taylor said. "The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time. That means we will continue to be the church as we seek to be in ministry together.”
Meanwhile, in secret or on social media, some members had already begun strategizing to elect General Conference delegates that they trust to vote their way.
The Holston Annual Conference will choose its next set of delegates June 9-12 in Lake Junaluska, N.C.
The regular session of General Conference 2020 meets May 5-15 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org. United Methodist News Service contributed to this report.GC Debriefing video (Holston Communications, 3.3.19)
See more photos, videos, info at GCNews.blog
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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