When the global United Methodist Church voted in February in St. Louis to formalize its doctrine banning LGBTQ persons from serving as ministers of the church and firing ministers who performed same-sex marriages, it sent shock waves rippling throughout the world. Methodists who believed that their church was open and welcoming to all were stunned. But not for long.
In Minnesota, a resistance group called Minnesota Methodists formed quickly. They organized petitions repudiating the global church’s stance. They began to envision a new version of the Methodist Church, “rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all persons, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation,” wrote Rev. Carol Zaagsma, Portland Avenue UMC, on the Uniting Methodists website.
At the Minnesota Annual Conference held in St. Cloud June 18-20, delegates and pastors from Faith UMC, St. Anthony; Community UMC, Columbia Heights; and Northeast UMC joined clergy and members of the conference’s other 360 churches to discuss two measures put forward by Minnesota Methodists in answer to Bishop Bruce Ough’s question of “what kind of conference do you want to be?”
The first measure was a vision statement that commits the Minnesota Conference to the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church. It passed 491-86. The second measure was a resolution that rejects the Traditional Plan approved in St. Louis. The Minnesota Conference asserted that the Traditional Plan “does great harm to the witness of The United Methodist Church” and vowed that “the Minnesota Annual Conference will not perpetuate this harm in any form.” It passed 446-108.
Part of the resolution read, ““Silence is often harmful and serves to perpetuate discrimination.” The resolution continues, “We will no longer remain silent. We say to our LGBTQIA+ siblings: you are beloved children of God, and you are beloved by us. We celebrate the many gifts and graces you bring to the church. We humbly seek forgiveness. We commit ourselves to creating the inclusive church God intends us to be.”
“It’s an aspirational statement,” said Rev. Dianne Christianson, Faith UMC.
“It’s not technically binding,” said Rev. Leah Challberg, Northeast UMC, said of the resolutions. “But it does send a clarifying message.”
Christianson added, “It was passed by 85 percent of the delegates. That’s as close to unanimity as you can get in a large body.”
Derrick Watson, Northeast UMC, attended as a lay (non-clergy) delegate. “It felt like the opening shot of the Methodist Civil War was fired,” he said. “The lines were very clearly drawn.” The 15 percent of voters who did not approve the resolutions, he said, were vocal supporters of the Traditional Plan. The vote had a strong urban/rural divide, with churches in the Twin Cities District clearly in the forefront of the inclusive movement.
Despite its apparent split from the greater United Methodist Church, the Minnesota Conference at this time remains under the global umbrella. Although there is a mechanism in the church’s Book of Discipline for individual churches to leave the fold, there are no such provisions for a state-wide conference. Local churches are as much up in the air now as they were in February.
Challberg noted that a number of Methodist ministers are still in the closet. “It’s a very tough decision for them to make. They think, ‘Do I engage honestly with my congregation and risk losing my job?’”
Rev. Linda McCullough, Community UMC, came out to her congregation after the February vote. “I came out after the General Conference because I wanted to live fully into my being made in the image of God and full personhood here,” she said. “My congregation overall received the information well. They know my love for God and passion for the greatest calling to love God and love others (“Love always and first” was the name of the sermon) is grounded in my faithfulness and having people know that God loves everyone, no exceptions, no incompatibility. My calling to ministry is grounded in sharing God’s love with all people, because that hasn’t always been the case for me.”
In an email, McCullough said the church had filed no charges against her for coming out.
To get the message out that it welcomes members of the LBGTQAI+ community, Community UMC adopted a new logo (CommYOUnity, with YOU in rainbow colors) and was a sponsor of Columbia Heights’ first PRIDE celebration.
Northeast UMC, where Watson is the only openly gay member, is holding monthly after-church meetings to keep members up to date on the latest church developments and to try to plan for an uncertain future. Discussions range from what will happen to church property if the Methodist Church splits to “how do we live into being the Jesus-shaped church we want to be?” said Challberg.
The church provided support for a recent seminar, “Our Movement Forward,” at Lake Harriet UMC that brought together people of color, and queer and transgender individuals from across the U.S. to discuss their roles in the Methodist Church.
Whether the Minnesota Conference will leave the United Methodist Church is still in doubt. Much will be decided in June 2020, when the global church holds its General Conference in downtown Minneapolis. “We hope we will stick together, and continue to work together, and serve together,” Christianson said.
“I look at it this way,” she said. “The last time the General Conference was held in Minneapolis was 1956. At that conference, landmark legislation was passed, after decades of controversy, to allow full ordination rights to women. I’m praying for another Minneapolis Miracle that we stay united and go with full inclusion!”
(Full disclosure: Cynthia Sowden is a member of Northeast United Methodist Church and serves on the Twin Cities District Strategy Team.)