Over two weekends in September, two groups of Holston United Methodists met separately to prepare for dramatic changes in the denomination that may result during General Conference 2020 next May.
On Sept. 15, about 50 people gathered at St. Elmo United Methodist Church in Chattanooga for “Holy Conversations” including worship and small-group discussions.
On Sept. 21, about 75 people gathered for the second annual meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Holston chapter at First Broad Street United Methodist Church in Kingsport. The meeting included worship and a business meeting.
The meetings were not organized by Holston Conference's central or district offices, but included United Methodist church members and clergy in Holston Conference churches. In both meetings, lay members comprised about 80 percent of the group, outnumbering clergy.
The two groups represented opposing viewpoints on scripture interpretation and how the denomination’s Book of Discipline should set and enforce church law related to homosexuality, ordination, and marriage.
At the Chattanooga meeting, worship included music by the St. Elmo choir, prayer, and Holy Communion celebrated by the Rev. Debra Dickerson, St. Elmo pastor.
Following worship, small groups were organized. Participants discussed prepared questions and reported their groups’ responses to the entire body.
The questions included, “What renewal of the church excites you so much that you would support and work toward it? How can this new expression of Methodism seek to not do any more harm regarding issues of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identify and classism?”
A few participants shared personal stories of feeling excluded from other churches as a consequence of sexuality and believing they had found a safe place in The United Methodist Church.
After General Conference 2019, “the division that we knew was there has become more obvious,” said one church member.
The groups discussed ways of developing relationships with church and community members so congregations can become more welcoming and diverse in a future church.
“It’s much harder to push aside people than push aside issues,” said one participant. “If we want to love people, we have to attempt to know people. We are blessed by people who are pushed to the margins.”
First Broad Street
At the Kingsport meeting, worship included music by Sunnyside bluegrass band and a message by the Rev. Carolyn Moore, pastor at Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia.
“The Kingdom of God means a lot to me,” Moore said, before explaining that an orthodox expression of Methodism is a “kingdom down” expression.
“Can you imagine what would happen in the Methodist movement if we just took away the trust clause?” she asked. “If we were not yoked to the institution, we wouldn’t be in any of this. But if it’s not Christ for the world, then it’s not Christ for any of it.”
After worship, registered members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association elected board members, took an offering for organizational expenses, and asked questions of Moore and the chapter's leaders.
Question topics concerned departing the denomination; emphasis on local congregations and local pastors in a future church; low attendance and membership; and representation of progressive clergy.
“I was shocked at the number of pastors who were progressive in what I thought was a conservative area,” said one participant who watched Holston Annual Conference sessions on live stream in June 2019.
The meeting concluded with breakout sessions, including one led by a pastor with a plan to build relationships through small groups in Holston Conference. “This is as near to a home that I have, so let’s go on the offensive,” he said. "I don’t want to play defense anymore. I want to play offense.”
Holston Conference members are expected to participate in related meetings leading to General Conference 2020.
This week (Sept. 25-27), several Holstonians are attending "Leadership Institute" at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The theme is "Bright Hope for Tomorrow: The Future of The United Methodist Church."
On Nov. 9, six members from Holston Conference are expected to attend the Wesleyan Covenant Association's "Global Gathering" at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The theme is "Transformed."
Also on Nov. 9, the Church Street UMC Reconcilers will present workshops and speaker J.J. Warren in Knoxville, Tennessee. The theme is "Forward Together Holston."
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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