November 3, 2021 Tom Berlin

Large Church Gathering at Church of the Resurrection

The Large Church and Young Clergy events held at Church of the Resurrection last week left me with more hope in the future of the United Methodist Church than I have enjoyed in a long time. The impact of a global pandemic on our lives and the churches we serve has been difficult to say the least. A postponed General Conference has frustrated all of us. Those who want to leave the United Methodist Church are looking for other ways out while those who desire to remain have no way to make needed changes in the life of the church. It is not hard to understand why the feeling of hope comes as a bit of surprise.


Adam Hamilton has gathered the largest United Methodist Churches by worship attendance to learn from each other for years. The difference in this gathering is that it was comprised of those that plan to stay, or who are still actively considering staying in the church. Over 140 of these churches were present in October, bringing teams of clergy, staff, and lay leaders. Joining the conference was a gathering of clergy under 40, whose desire to see the church renewed and reborn impressed me. The hope I gained was not for The United Methodist Church as it currently exists. Most agree that our denomination needs a major overhaul in missional focus, global partnerships, sustainable financial health, and streamlined leadership and administrative structures. The conversations shared by those who participated in panel discussions in plenary sessions and by the over 700 pastors and laity at discussion tables focused far more on the hope found in the reign of God and far less on the bureaucracy of a denomination.


Here is what gave me hope:


  1. The bible is central

When you affirm the need for the church to include LGBTQ persons fully in its life and ministry, people will tell you that you don’t believe in the bible. I know this from personal experience. I found it renewing to hear people talk about the importance scripture has in our lives, the way it has changed our opinions and behaviors over time, and its role in our sanctification. People fully agreed that scripture is our primary source for faith and practice. We noted the continuing importance of interpreting scripture with the help of the tradition of the church, reason and scholarship, and in the light of our experience of the Spirit in our lives and community. No one questioned that the starting point of our theology and beliefs was the bible. Through it we meet Jesus, who is the greatest source of God’s revelation to humanity.


  1. Shared values

The top five responses to the question, “What do I value most about the UMC?” were:

  1. Emphasis on God’s grace.
  2. Passionate faith in Jesus lived by serving others.
  3. Theology shaped by Scripture interpreted with the aid of tradition, experience, and reason.
  4. A wide welcome for all people.
  5. A church for thinking people.

People were clear in conversation that the doctrinal standards found in the Book of Discipline continue to guide and inspire us. While some claim exclusive rights to the orthodox (“right belief”) faith, those gathered affirmed the Apostolic faith found in the creeds and Articles of Religion of The Book of Discipline. I was impressed how often people spoke of the desire to share our faith so that others could find the goodness of becoming followers of Jesus Christ. I was also pleased that I heard conversations about the need for racial equity and for the church to do the work of racial justice in a sustained manner that would sanctify our members and begin to change our society and world. Clergy and laity, in plenary sessions and table conversations, not only espoused the need for racial justice, they also shared what they were currently doing in their churches and communities to contribute to it.


  1. A generous character

Some Christians simply can’t stay in the room when they disagree with you on important questions in our lives like LGBTQ inclusion. The list doesn’t stop there, but since that item has some leaving the UMC, it has to be discussed. 94% of those present were “compatibilists,” believing we can remain in one UMC even if we have differing ways of interpreting scripture on same-sex marriage. That number may not be surprising given that this was a gathering of those who plan to stay in the UMC or those who are actively working through that question. This was not a gathering that many “incompatibilists” would attend. 94% of those present stated that they could compatibly be in the same church, when groups leaving the UMC indicate this to be impossible. I describe this as a generous space because when asked if clergy should be required, allowed, or forbidden from officiating at same-sex weddings, 92% said such weddings should be, “allowed but not required.” It has been my experience throughout the UMC that despite the fearmongering of some, no one seriously thinks you should or could require someone to perform a wedding they did not want to perform. Nor do couples getting married want frustrated or angry clergy officiating their weddings. What I observed in the room was a spirit of generosity toward others who may not agree on this issue but want to work in functional and loving ways with each other and those they serve in congregations and communities.


  1. A desire for real change

When given a list of options on what participants would most like to change in The Book of Discipline, the top four included:

  1. General Church Structure
  2. Inclusion of LGBTQ persons
  3. Apportionment formulas
  4. Creating a simplified Book of Discipline.


I wanted you to hear some of what happened at this gathering. Perhaps my experience of hope can be yours as well as we walk the months ahead together.



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Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.