Stay or go? LGBTQI members wrestle with church future

Stay or go? LGBTQI members wrestle with church future

Cody Quillen shows off his tattoo, which he has had since 2010.

Cody Quillen calls himself a “branded Methodist.” He’s got the tattoo on his forearm to prove it.

“I love the simplicity of John Wesley’s teachings,” explains Quillen, age 28. “I got through life with the cross and flame. It really did a lot for me. It saved me a time or two.”

This fall, Quillen plans to have his tattoo “covered up” or modified into an Easter symbol. He says he loves Easter and the new tattoo will represent his feelings since his denomination voted to affirm its limits on how gay and lesbian members can participate in the church.

“It will be my resurrection story,” he says of the tattoo. “Beauty will be built on death.”

Quillen is one of nine former or current Holston Conference members who shared their feelings this week about The United Methodist Church’s recent decisions and bitter disagreements over human sexuality.

Six of the nine were male; three were female. All but one of the persons interviewed were lay members. After the denomination’s top legislative body passed the Traditional Plan during its February 23-26 meeting in St. Louis, some members of Holston's LGBTQI community said they have lost their sense of security. Some are especially concerned for clergy.    

“It feels like more of a witch hunt than before,” said the Rev. Allen Marks,* a Holston clergy member in his 50s, and one of the three persons interviewed who asked not to share their real names.

“It felt like we went backwards. It felt like it became more unsafe for LGBTQI people,” said Megan Watson, age 31, referring to the recent General Conference vote to expand the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” along with other legislative actions.

All explained the importance of the church in their lives and the pain in deciding how to move forward in a denomination where they feel unwanted.

“The most recent General Conference vote has reinforced the UMC’s thoughts on my sexuality and has put me in a real difficult place,” said Joe Carrier, age 34, a member at First United Methodist Church in Bristol, Tennessee.

“I have spent years supporting [my church’s] efforts to modernize, to strengthen our appeal to millennials, and providing my social-media expertise to widen our footprint in the community. I shouldn’t have to ‘decide,’” Carrier said. “The church should be better. As God’s representative, the UMC fails.”

The Traditional Plan affirmed the Book of Discipline's current ban on gay clergy and same-sex unions. Although parts of the legislation were ruled unconstitutional, the Traditional Plan (as passed by a 53 percent majority vote) also sought to strengthen enforcement of these laws. The new church laws will take effect in January 2020 in the U.S.



Quillen’s list of United Methodist connections is as long as his arm. As a child he attended Holston View UMC and then Hiltons Memorial UMC in the former Big Stone Gap District. He was a member of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries for five years. He has served on several teams and committees and worked as a youth ministry director at two churches.

He’s currently a member at Central United Methodist in Knoxville, Tennessee, yet he feels distant from the denomination for which he once hoped to work full-time as a layperson. He now manages a dental office.

“When you’re gay and growing up in the South, especially the rural South, you look for these little bits of protection and hope,” he explained. Through his church he found “love and support” and was hopeful that someday, church law would become more inclusive of the LGBTQI community.

“Now it’s just a hard ‘no,’” Quillen said.

Matt Hicks, age 52, grew up in a Southern Baptist church where he detected “hate in their belief system” but later found a welcoming community at St. Elmo United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He loves singing in the choir.

In March 2018, Holston Conference withdrew the license of a local pastor, Anna Golladay, for officiating at a same-sex wedding. Golladay was associate pastor at St. Elmo as well as St. Marks United Methodist Church.

“That was the most crushing thing. I don’t really understand Methodist ways,” Hicks said of the Golladay incident. The General Conference’s rejection of the One Church Plan -- which would have left questions of same-sex unions up to individual clergy and congregations -- added insult to injury for Hicks.

“It was not really unexpected, I guess,” said Hicks. “But it is like finding a place to call home and then finding out I’m not as welcome as I thought.”

Jim Adams,* age 35, a seminary student, withdrew his membership from St. Marks last year after Golladay was fired. “As a gay man, I knew the leadership of Holston Conference would never support my call,” he said.

Adams moved to another annual conference, where he hopes to be permitted to answer the call to ministry that he discerned at age 16. He presses on even though he was “broken for days” after General Conference 2019 doubled down on its prohibition against gay clergy.

“I believe this decision is anti-Christ, and it hurts,” Adams said. “It brings up all the trauma I have previously experienced from the church, and it’s as if the wounds are fresh again.”



Megan Watson is a former member of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries. She was elected as a delegate to General Conference 2012, where she heard delegates (from other annual conferences) describe LGBTQI people as sexual predators and child molesters.

“It was all discouraging,” she said. “It was at General Conference 2012 that I realized fully that being ordained in The United Methodist Church wouldn’t happen for me.”

Today, Watson, who has a college degree in social work, is in management at Home Depot. She remains a member at East Ridge United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, where she attends on occasion.

While some saw the writing on the wall and at least temporarily gave up their calls to ministry, Rev. Marks was ordained more than 20 years ago and has served under appointment ever since. Only in recent years did he begin to share his secret with a few trusted friends.

“When I took those vows, I didn’t allow myself to consider that I was gay. I felt like I could live in compliance,” Marks said. Eventually, “the pressure of carrying this alone was too much. It became unhealthy to compartmentalize, because God wants our full self.”

As disappointing as General Conference was to him, the pastor has been inspired to see others speak out in protest since the passage of the Traditional Plan.

“There’s still a deep grief, but there’s also been an awakening of the center,” Marks said, referring to centrists who are motivated to join progressives in shaping the future of the church. (On May 20-22, a large group of centrists and progressives in the U.S. will meet in Leawood, Kansas.)

“I would love to see something new come out of this,” he said. “It feels like there is a weaponization of the Gospel taking place, and we’re so ready to use that against each other rather than to build up the body of Christ.”

Marks had begun to get educated about leaving his denomination, but now he feels the Holy Spirit might be calling him to help make changes within the system.



Others also said they have considered leaving The United Methodist Church, but so far have found reasons to stay.

Megan Baker,* age 29, decided to become a new member at Central United Methodist Church in March 2019. When she moved to Knoxville last year, her former United Methodist pastor helped her connect with Central where she feels welcome. After growing up in a Southern Baptist church, Baker said The United Methodist Church is like “a breath of fresh air.”

“I feel like it didn’t go so well at General Conference, but at least they’re willing to have the conversation, which is going further than the church I grew up in and not something every denomination is willing to do,” she said.

Some members of Holston Conference have said the adoption of the Traditional Plan was an answer to prayers, and the denomination should move on. Despite criticism from both conservatives and progressives who say it’s time to stop talking, Quillen said there needs to be more conversation.

“I want us to listen,” Quillen said. “I want to reach across the aisle and ask, ‘Why are you afraid of me? Why do you hate certain parts of me?’ And cutting out our global brothers and sisters isn’t going to stop the hate, either. We’ve got a lot of work to do right here. Let’s find a way to cohabitate.”

Watson said she finds it “worrisome” many are willing to give up and split the church because they disagree: “There is a lack of room to compromise,” she said. “I feel like God is big enough to handle all of us at the table ... There is beauty in the diversity we all have.”

Chris Sneed, age 40, admits he’s considered leaving his church. “I’ve been in a relationship for eight years, and I’ve been at Church Street for over 20 years. I know I will never get married in the church that I attend, and that breaks my heart.”

However, for now Sneed is staying put at Church Street United Methodist in Knoxville, where he served as lay leader from 2014 to 2018.

“Church Street has always been a leader in Holston and in the larger UMC,” Sneed said. “The hope I have is that Church Street and other congregations will take us into the future toward full inclusion.”

Katie Sluder, age 28, the daughter of a pastor, grew up in the churches of Holston Conference. She said her “heart has felt a little bruised” ever since General Conference, which she witnessed up close since she works for United Methodist Communications. “I was not prepared for the wave of emotions that hit me.”

Yet, Sluder is firm that she is not leaving The United Methodist Church. It’s where her family is and where she was “claimed as a child of God.”

“It does not matter what the General Conference body decided in 2019, or will decide in 2020 or 2024,” Sluder said. “They can vote to keep me out, but Jesus won’t. I just need to keep reminding myself of that.”


* Not his or her real name.


Contact Rev. Tim Jones, communications director, or Annette Spence, editor.


More about General Conference 2019


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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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