Since the results of the called 2019 General Conference were announced, people at Floris UMC have been asking me how we will respond. Those in our church who are LGBTQ persons and family members felt hurt and rejected by the passage of the Traditional Plan. Many of us felt that our personal values were violated in the decision of the General Conference, the only body that is able to speak officially for the United Methodist Church. Some members captured what many were saying when they noted that for the first time in their lives, the cross and flame on the sign in front of our church reflected something they could not and would not support. They were not angered that they did not get their way. They were embarrassed to be associated with a decision that they did not know how to explain to their LGBTQ family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Most have children who are fully accepting of all people and who do not notice or exclude people due to categories of sexual orientation. Those of us who support marriage and job equity find the more stringent conditions of the Traditional Plan to be a movement away from the way of Christ. The simple reason for this is that we believe sexual orientation is a way a person is created by God rather than a sin they commit against God.
At Floris, I have also heard from members who support the traditional view of marriage and ordination found in the current Book of Discipline. Some of these persons were offended at the way their friends in the LGBTQ community were characterized by traditional delegates at General Conference. Some shared that matters in this debate are simply not pivotal to their church membership, or in need of enhanced measures of enforcement in the church.
As one of the authors of the One Church Plan, I returned from General Conference disappointed and tired. My two years on the Commission on a Way Forward were invested in the hope of a better outcome for the United Methodist Church than what I experienced. While I was saddened by the full victory of traditional delegates and the unwavering voting block of evangelical American United Methodists and members of many central conferences in other continents and countries, I knew I had a lot of work to do back home. In the conversations and meetings that followed at Floris UMC in the days after General Conference, God used two moments to galvanize what I was hearing from so many in our congregation.
The first was the feedback I heard from LGBTQ members of our church. They were among the most gracious and kind responses I received. I called to apologize to them and see how they were doing in the wake of the news. Before responding, they asked how I was doing and thanked me for my service. One woman spoke of her experience with her wife and children at our church. She said that after a few years at Floris, she had to admit that she was never really sure if her family was accepted or not. Did the people sitting around her welcome them or want them to leave? Would someone one day tell their children that their parents were sinful? It was apparent that she felt a great deal of insecurity long before the General Conference ever took place. This church member said that she would like to know that Floris wanted her family and people like her to be included so that together, we could get on with the important mission of our church. She said she loved seeing our church share Christ and grow as disciples. She celebrated the ways we bless the vulnerable and poor and bring the love and hope of Christ to those in difficult times. She said that she loved this mission. She was not looking for an LGBTQ church. She was looking for a Christian community where she knew she and her family were accepted, loved and included in that mission. While I was focused outwardly, frustrated by the outcome of General Conference, I was inwardly convicted by the Holy Spirit that we did not have our own community in order.
When we held a General Conference debriefing at Floris, God used another moment to help me understand our congregation’s way forward. More than 600 people came to the event, along with over 200 who joined online. At one point I asked those who experienced the outcome of the General Conference as something personal because they were LGBTQ persons, family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors or allies to raise their hand. I emphasized that we were not voting and that some would not raise their hands because they were taught never to raise their hand in church for any reason. Many told me later that they were shocked when, thinking they would be in the minority, they estimated that about 90% of those gathered had their hands up as well. LGBTQ members shared that it was a moment when they understood how many people cared about them. They could see that it was a safe and welcoming environment. All I could think of was Why on earth was this the first time we ever knew so clearly? I was convicted by my own complicity in this confusion and given a tremendous sense of clarity about the loving church we long to be.
Our denomination has a lot to sort out and it will take until the 2020 General Conference for anything to change. So does our congregation, and we don’t have that much time. It is clear to me that we want to be a broadly inclusive community. For several years we have worked to be a church that looks more like our community, inclusive of all ethnicities. Last year we included funds in our Dream Campaign to hire someone to help our church become more inclusive of people with disabilities. Now it is clear that we want to be intentionally welcoming and inclusive of the LGBTQ community as well. This is no longer something we think about. Our hands are raised to say that it is a personal value to us.
In the next three weeks, we will establish three teams to work for no more than six months to offer our church council actionable plans to become a more inclusive church in these three areas. For the next six months, and perhaps the time beyond, we will use the “1Church4All” graphic to remind us of our goal to welcome and include all abilities, all ethnicities and all orientations. Anyone who would like to use this graphic in a positive way in their church is welcome to do so. We think six months is important. Many of our members consider our church to be on probation. They want to know if what we say is real or just talk. They want to know if we are going to stand about and admire a problem of the past or step into an opportunity for our future. We will not find perfection in six months. But we can move to places of welcome and inclusion we have never experienced in our 126-year history as Floris United Methodist Church and show our community who we are in the midst of this difficult time in our denomination. That work will begin the long journey of congregational sanctification in the perfecting love of Christ.
In the 1980s, United Methodist Churches across the country decided to welcome people with physical disabilities. We talked about it, but the welcome was never real until we literally built accessibility ramps, widened doorways, redesigned bathrooms and made other critical adaptations so that people would actually be welcomed and included in our ministry. At Floris UMC we must do something similar in these three key areas. We need our content experts, people with disabilities, people of various ethnicities and LGBTQ members and friends to serve on these teams along with many others. We can design our community and ministry with God’s leading and with each other. All people are of sacred worth is a statement that did not change at General Conference. At this time, we will acknowledge that we are a broken and sinful community, but that we share a common aspiration to follow as God leads us to a deeper and more loving experience of the church.