GATLINBURG, Tenn. (Feb. 7, 2019) – A lifelong church member, Marlon Johnson knew at age 13 or 14 that he was called to ministry. “There was never a time when I didn’t identify as a United Methodist,” he said.
But at some point, he read the Book of Discipline and faced the fact that his church bans gay clergy. “I’m thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’” he said. “'They won’t let me if they find out how I experience the world or how I think or feel.'”
On Saturday night, Feb. 2, Johnson went to the altar with other young adults attending Divine Rhythm to testify that he is answering God’s call to ministry.
Johnson, age 28, also joined a late-night session with other young adults to learn more about an upcoming vote at General Conference and to share experiences and concerns related to the denomination’s deep divisions over human sexuality.
“The people who stood up were brave,” said Thomas Hammontree, age 25, chair of Divine Rhythm’s design team. “They were concerned. Some I could tell were scared. Some, I could tell that was the first time they had expressed their opinion.”
About 300 attended Divine Rhythm, Holston Conference’s annual spiritual weekend for people ages 18 to 35, held Feb. 1-3 at Mills Auditorium.
About 70 of the 300 attended an opportunity to meet with Holston delegates and to ask questions about decisions that could change the future of The United Methodist Church. On Feb. 23-26, Holston delegates will travel to St. Louis to join 864 total delegates for a special session of General Conference.
The Rev. Kim Goddard, leader of Holston’s delegation, said it made “perfect sense” to hear from young adults at Divine Rhythm. She noticed that young adults were missing from the conversation as delegates met with church members all over Holston this past year to talk about General Conference.
“They wanted to hear about the plans,” Goddard said of the late-night meeting at Divine Rhythm. “They had lots of questions so we did a Q&A. It was just a delightfully open conversation.”
Joining the 10 p.m. session were Emily Ballard, Holston delegate; Bishop Dindy Taylor, Holston’s resident bishop; and the speaker for the weekend, the Rev. Rachel Billups from Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church.
“It was good to hear from the delegates and also from the various viewpoints of the younger generation, who are struggling to be authentic in sharing Christ’s love in the midst of also honoring their traditions,” said Jason Phipps, age 41, leader of the young-adult ministry and a member at Noe’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Morristown, Tennessee.
“There were some very emotional testimonies given,” Phipps said. “If these are our neighbors’ stories, then these are our stories, too, because God wants all of us to love our neighbors.”
Hammontree noticed that participants struggled to understand the plans that will be considered at General Conference. The various plans lay out paths for a “way forward” for The United Methodist Church, including elimination of language that excludes the LGBTQ community or strengthening punishments for breaking church laws against gay clergy and same-sex unions. (See more information on proposed plans, below.)
“They were really focused on making sure the General Conference understands that these are people,” Hammontree said. “It’s not just a rule we’re trying to change or politics, but these are people who are affected by this every day. How do we go forward with loving people and not leaving people behind?”
Hammontree is a member at Kodak United Methodist Church in Kodak, Tennessee. He has served on four Holston Conference camp staffs, currently as program director at Camp Lookout in Rising Fawn, Georgia.
Johnson shared stories his father had told him, which he said were related to the church’s struggle over human sexuality. “They were stories about racism in the pre-integrated South, issues with people looking at him, spitting at him, assaulting him and the amount of terror he experienced as a black man in the South,” he said.
In today’s church, “while we haven’t made strides, we still open the door and say, ‘Your skin color doesn’t deny your right to Jesus,’” Johnson said.
Johnson said he realizes he “may never be ordained” if the current church law stands, “but it’s not going to stop me from doing ministry. I’ve got to do this for the LGBTQ community, for African Americans, and for people on the margins. I decided no matter what the cost, let’s commit to this.”
Johnson is a graduate student studying counselor education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. A native of South Carolina, he attended Divine Rhythm with the UTK Wesley Foundation. He worships at Central United Methodist Church in Knoxville.
Ballard, age 23, said she was “inspired by everyone who spoke ... by their boldness to be able to say all those things.”
As a delegate, preacher’s daughter, and church staff member, Ballard said she has remained silent on a sensitive topic while feeling like a failure for not speaking out on behalf of young adults.
"Churches often say, 'We need young people,' but it's never that they 'want' young people," she said. "We come off as too naïve or immature to have an impact."
When it seemed the late-night conversation had concluded, Ballard was struck by a realization: “You can’t stay silent, and you can’t let everyone else stay silent.” She suddenly stood on a chair and called participants back in the room to hear her “confession.”
“I feel like I have failed, and I absolutely am not going to stay silent about my opinion, and I’m encouraging you to not stay silent,” Ballard said she told her colleagues. “We are in this safe space, and we should be able to voice our hopes and fears for the church.”
Ballard is a graduate of Emory & Henry College and a member at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. She currently serves as student ministries assistant and young-adult coordinator at Concord.
She said she was asked if the Holston delegation supports any of the proposed plans for the denomination’s “way forward.” Her answer was that General Conference delegates don’t know exactly what they’ll be voting on, since legislation could be modified in St. Louis, and also, Holston delegates do not vote as a block.
“That’s confusing to people,” Ballard said. “We are elected as individuals and will vote as individuals.”
Holston will send 12 delegates to General Conference, plus four alternates. Half of the delegation are clergy; half are lay members. The current Holston delegation was elected at Annual Conference in June 2015.
Participants in the sharing session at Divine Rhythm noted how safe and open the environment was for discussion.
“I believe everyone who engaged in the conversation honestly wants to do God’s will,” Phipps said. “I hope that whatever decision is made that everyone knows they can seek God and receive his love.”
“They were an example of how the church needs to be having this conversation,” Hammontree said. “People were intentional about listening to each other. To see the engagement of those young adults was moving. We probably could have gone another hour.”
At the conclusion, Hammontree asked young adults to gather around and pray for Goddard, Ballard, and Bishop Taylor, who will soon leave for St. Louis.
“That was amazing,” said Goddard, age 57. “They laid hands on us, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the church moving forward.’”
In a later moment with Taylor, Johnson said he heard her say she was honored to be with those who attended and shared.
“I said to her, ‘We are the church. We’re not just the future. We are the church now.’”
Forum speakers ask delegates to support Traditional Plan (The Call, 1.12.19)