Participants paid $30 each for the daylong meeting at Central United Methodist Church, which included several speakers, a panel of Holston delegates, and discussion groups.
Participants were also asked to sign a resolution calling for a moratorium in Holston Conference on church trials related to complaints against pastors for violations of the Traditional Plan.
UMCNext Holston is an unofficial regional group created in May 2019 after 13 Holston leaders attended an unofficial national meeting led by the Rev. Adam Hamilton in Kansas. UMCNext has committed to reject the Traditional Plan passed by General Conference 2019 and “to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons.”
Bishop Kenneth Carder, a retired United Methodist bishop and a native of Holston Conference, served as keynote speaker.
Carder said he was a General Conference delegate in 1984 when the body decided “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
“I helped to legislate that exclusion. Sisters and brothers, forgive me,” he said. “I thought we needed to control and legislate rather than love.”
Carder said he began turning away from an “issue-oriented church to a relationship-oriented church” when a mother of a gay son confronted him after a presentation. “My son is not an issue. He’s my son, and he tried to commit suicide,” she said.
“Let’s not reduce anybody to an issue,” Carder said. He lamented the labels Christians use again each other including “traditionalist” and “progressive.” “The only real label that matters is ‘child of God.’”
Participants also heard from Sarah Wilke, executive director of Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville and daughter of the creators of the Disciple Bible Study series, Bishop Richard Wilke and Julia Kitchens Wilke.
Wilke shared her experience of coming out as a lesbian and entering into a committed relationship with her partner of 30 years. Scripture does not belong to one group in the church but to all, she said, and Bible study should be ongoing. She challenged the premise, “You can either be faithful to scripture or you can be inclusive, but you can’t be both.”
“We need to take back the scripture,” Wilke said. “We’re struggling to understand what the Bible says about homosexuality ... And I come from a family that cares deeply about scripture, do you think?”
Wilke introduced the new DVD series, “Faithful and Inclusive: The Bible, Sexuality, and The United Methodist Church,” authored by Rob Fuquay and published by the Institute for Discipleship.
Others speakers included the Rev. Leah Burns and Renee McLaughlin, both who called out participants for inequalities within the group.
“Why am I the only black person in this room? Why is that?” said Burns, associate pastor at Second United Methodist Church in Knoxville. “How can we say we want to be welcoming and then look out and see this?”
Burns noted that the Methodist denomination split in 1844 over racism and is now likely to split over homosexuality.
“Is this going to be everybody’s church or not? I never imagined that we would be at this place again,” Burns said. “It’s as if my ancestors went through all that pain for nothing, for nothing.”
McLaughlin noted that out of 13 speakers during the meeting, only three identified as LGBTQIA. “I challenge you all who are not LGBTQIA to go out and hear these voices,” said McLaughlin, a member at Signal Mountain United Methodist Church.
During a question-and-answer session, panelists included delegates representing Holston Conference at General Conference 2020 in May: Emily Ballard, Rev. Wil Cantrell, John Eldridge, and Rev. Kim Goddard.
Participants asked questions about how a proposed “protocol” for separation of United Methodists who disagree over homosexuality would work. They asked about restitution for those removed from leadership; clergy and staff pensions; finances; and disaffiliation.
Participants also queried Holston delegates about how local churches, pastors or colleges would align or change alignment if the annual conference voted to separate. They asked about vulnerability of pastors, especially local pastors, during a transition.
One question involved the ability of the Holston Annual Conference to respond to possible decisions made at General Conference in such a short time frame. General Conference meets May 5-15 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Holston Annual Conference meets June 7-10 in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
After the UMCNext Holston meeting, the Rev. Tim Jones, Holston director of communications, released this information about a special called session:
"The Annual Conference planning committee voted unanimously to request the Cabinet to set a tentative date for a Special Called Annual Conference to deal with and discuss the outcomes of the General Conference 2020 and Judicial Council decisions.”
At the conclusion of the UMCNext Holston gathering, the Rev. Don Hanshew encouraged participants to attend Holston Annual Conference, especially if they are voting members.
“If you are like-minded, we encourage you to go to Annual Conference to advocate for your own church and district,” he said. He invited participants to attend a meeting of UMCNext Holston at the conclusion of each Annual Conference business day in Susan Todd Lounge, Harrell Center, Lake Junaluska.
Hanshew is lead pastor at Dublin United Methodist Church in Dublin, Virginia.
Goddard was the final speaker of the day. She is a leader of the Holston Conference delegation and superintendent of Holston’s New River District. She acknowledged the denomination is “headed toward a division. Like it or not, we already know that.”
Goddard said it was time to dream of a new church that is focused on mission again instead of arguments.
“Friends, we will not legislate ourselves to a better church," she said. "General Conference will not make us better. Only Jesus can do that.”
Holston Conference includes 864 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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