A united UMC: Christians dialogue post-General Conference

By Jessica Brodie

As United Methodists continue to wrestle with what happened at General Conference 2019 and how to be God’s church from here, districts across South Carolina are gathering in groups large and small to dialogue about the denomination, sexuality and how to be in purposeful mission during uncertain times.

Pastors also have been gathering on the conference level for dialogue, and United Methodist pastors from across South Carolina were invited to a post-GC2019 plenary April 25 led by Dr. Elaine Heath, author and former dean of Duke Divinity School, who spoke on how clergy can effectively and missionally lead in the midst of such turmoil and uncertainty.

At General Conference, Feb. 23-26, delegates passed the Traditional Plan in a close vote, 438 to 384. This means current statements about homosexuality in The United Methodist Church’s 2016 Book of Discipline have essentially not changed.

The Traditional Plan retains restrictions against “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” clergy and against officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage ceremonies. It also requires stricter enforcement for violations of church law. However, delegates requested that the UMC’s top court, the Judicial Council, review the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan at its meeting in late April (see related story). It has ruled twice earlier that parts of the Traditional Plan were unconstitutional.

Many in the church are feeling a great deal of turmoil over the gathering and its consequences regardless of whether they agree with the decisions at GC2019. The dialogues are designed to help people continue to do mission as a church in spite of this.

Pastors: Embracing trauma-informed leadership

At Clergy Orders April 25, Heath offered pastors information about “trauma-informed leadership” for the church, which is leadership that understands and acknowledges hurt and pain and focuses on sharing God’s love in a broken world. She said many people have been impacted by trauma, whatever form that might take, whether exclusion, abuse or other hurtful things.

“You are surrounded with people who’ve experienced harm right in this room,” Heath said, noting that one of three women and one in five or six men are sexually abused by time they are 18. “Many do not report this because of shame and a fear of not being believed.”

Part of helping lead in the midst of trauma and uncertainty is acquiring and then modeling inner peace, she said. Another key part is committing to a life of spiritual discernment. Heath suggested there were four steps to leading such a life: show up, pay attention, cooperate with God and, finally, release the outcome of our obedience, which Heath said is the hardest part. It requires giving up control and having faith that God will prevail.

But, she said, “When we live this way, when say yes to God and release the outcome … we will find Jesus-like things happening in our life from now on.”

She offered several resources to help people lead through trauma, including “Right Here Right Now,” “Five Means of Grace,” “Choose Life” and more.

Clergy and laity dialogue in districts

Districts, too, are holding services, dialogue and other gatherings both for clergy and for laity.

Not all the districts have held gatherings, such as the Marion District, which decided it would be more helpful to hold theirs after the United Methodist Judicial Council meets.

But others have been gathering, such as the Greenwood District, which held two sessions of post-GC2019 prayer, information and conversations, both at St. Paul UMC, Saluda. The first, Sunday afternoon, March 17, was a service of worship focusing on prayer for South Carolina delegates and Bishop Jonathan Holston for the upcoming annual conference and for unity and peace within the UMC, said the Rev. Bruce Sayre, convenor of Greenwood District Connectional Ministries.

The second gathering was A Way Forward Worship Service April 7, also centered on worship. The service opened with prayers of confession, intercession and petition based on Leslie Weatherhead’s “House of Prayer” and verses from Howard Thurman’s “Meditations of the Heart” and followed with Holston’s post-GC statement. The Rev. Ken Nelson, conference secretary and a clergy delegate at GC2019, presented the Traditional Plan as approved and offered some suggestions as to what the ramifications may be. Dr. Stephen Love, Greenwood District superintendent, led all in Holy Communion with a Eucharistic prayer expressed in verses from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which emphasize oneness in the Lord and oneness in the church.

In addition, Tony Watson, the Greenwood District lay leader, sent a letter to all congregations and pastors in the district urging them to use the aftermath of GC2019 as a time to examine beliefs and also to read Bishop Kenneth Carder’s book, “The United Methodist Way, Living Our Beliefs,” as well as the UMC’s Book of Discipline. Watson offered to lead a session on United Methodist beliefs for any church—whether in the Greenwood District or elsewhere in South Carolina—that desires deeper education on this.

“Regardless of where you stand on the issue, this can be opportunity for becoming stronger Christians,” Watson said. “While God’s church will prevail, it is up to every group to, as Isaiah said, ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn’ (Isaiah 51:1). This verb, ‘look,’ may mean more than just a glance or something to be observed like a beautiful landscape or sunset. It may mean to examine, to explore, to look for the source of what sustains.”

In the Columbia District, District Superintendent Dr. Cathy Jamieson said she is choosing not to do a large district-wide gathering, as she feels smaller group or one-on-one conversation would be more fruitful and feasible. She is also in conversation with Columbia District Lay Leader Betty Void to plan a couple of other options, including a district-wide Conflict Resolution training for clergy and laity and a meeting with lay servants, lay leaders and council chairs to hear their ideas, concerns and needs regarding the outcome of GC 2019.

Jamieson encouraged all pastors in the district to attend the spring Clergy Orders session, held April 25 in Chapin. She also has made herself available for “coffee chats” with her district’s pastors on several dates in April and May, as well as private meetings, if they wish to process, vent and pray with her regarding GC 2019.

Not just in South Carolina

South Carolina’s efforts are similar to others being held throughout the denomination. Many annual conferences and local districts have held gatherings, dialogues and prayer services in the aftermath of GC2019. Likewise, in a statement read before the board at their April meeting, leaders of the UMC’s Connectional Table—which works to steward the mission, vision and ministries of the UMC—acknowledged the need for denomination-wide conversations to find a path toward sustainable peace in the wake of GC2019.

Connectional Table Chair Bishop Christian Alsted and Chief Connectional Ministries Officer the Rev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai cited not just differing opinions about same-sex marriage and LGBTQIA ordination, but also different understandings of Scripture and visions for what it means to be the church in mission.

“We believe that, because of these fundamental differences, we cannot maintain unity as we have understood and practiced it in the past,” said Bishop Alsted as the two read the statement to the board.

For more on General Conference and what happened:

Share your gathering information

The Advocate urges all districts, churches or groups holding post-GC dialogues or prayer gatherings to send this information to the newspaper so all can consider attending. Email [email protected]. The deadline for the June newspaper is May 10.

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