All three Methodist churches in the Northeaster’s coverage area are feeling the impact of a new ruling on LGBTQIA acceptance within the United Methodist Church. On Feb. 26, a long-awaited special session of the General Conference of United Methodists took place in St. Louis, Missouri, to clarify the Church’s stance on LGBTQIA acceptance for local congregations. One thousand Methodists—a combination of clergy and laypeople (members of the church who do not hold leadership positions)—debated the merits of three potential plans.
The first, the One Church Plan, removed existing exclusionary language from the church’s Book of Discipline. This would have allowed churches and pastors to use their own discretion regarding officiating gay marriages and allowing openly gay clergy.
The second, the Connectional Conference Plan, proposed to maintain the financial gridwork of the United Methodist Church through pension needs and disaster relief, but would have allowed the church to split into separate ideological branches based on their levels of acceptance of differing sexualities.
The third and most conservative option was the Traditionalist Plan, which moved to formalize previously penciled-in restrictions regarding homosexuality. Under these proposed guidelines, clergy members cannot be “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” and any Methodist clergy member who officiates same-sex weddings would be punished through suspension, and possibly even removal from the pulpit.
The Traditionalist Plan passed with 53 percent of the vote. As a result, the fragile coalitions that have bound the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States for years are beginning to unravel. And now that church leadership has made its stance clear, the spotlight is on the thousands of individual congregations across the country who now must decide whether to stay aligned with the traditional Methodist decree or pack up and leave the church altogether.
Representatives from each of the three Northeast Methodist churches expressed concern about the ruling.
“It is clarifying,” said Pastor Leah Challberg of Northeast United Methodist Church, located at the intersection of Cleveland and Lowry. “For so long we have operated under Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell [for LGBTQIA clergy], and that policy is not sustainable. So for our congregation, it feels good to have that clarity. But if we are in a denomination that is definitively closed to people who are marginalized, we cannot sit back and not do anything about it.”
On Sunday, March 10, Northeast UMC church leadership, led by Challberg and Pastor Hope Hutchison, met and determined that they will be pulling their financial support, called an apportionment, from the denomination. Challberg said it was an easy decision to make. “It was a thoughtful, yet quick, decision for our leadership,” she said. “I want to—and our community wants to—follow the call of Jesus: the call to center marginalized voices. If our integrity is leading us to a place that continues to marginalize those voices, that’s really hard for me to support.”
Community United Methodist Church, located in Columbia Heights, made the same decision to withhold apportionments. The funds will remain in escrow throughout this calendar year as the congregation’s future in the church becomes clearer. Linda McCollough, the pastor at Community, says that the decision is not one of outright resistance, but instead a means of voicing disapproval of the February vote.
“We want to do the least amount of harm,” said McCollough. “Ideally, we would do none. But we know that this legislation has harmed people, and we do not take that lightly. And making sure that all people in our local contexts know that they are beloved children of God is most important right now.”
Diane Christianson, the pastor at Faith United Methodist in St. Anthony said her congregation has chosen not to withhold apportionments. But there are more ways than one to show solidarity with the LGBTQIA community during this tempestuous period. Faith United Methodist is recognized as a reconciling congregation, meaning their church includes in its mission a goal of eliminating discriminatory practices. Faith also instituted an “Altar for All” designation last year, which means that they will not abide by the official prohibition against ordaining same-sex marriages.
“There has been a lot of sadness in my congregation, a lot of anger, a lot of ‘what in the world are we going to do now?’” said Christianson. “This decision has hit people in their personal lives, within the congregation, as well as within the whole denomination. And so [Faith United Methodist] in particular, because we’ve made these kind of declarations, is a very hurting congregation right now.”
Despite a spectrum of beliefs within all three Northeast congregations—support for all of the plans existed within all three assemblies—all of the pastors believe the most important message to impart to their communities now is one of love and acceptance.
“One of the great social principles [of Methodism] is that we are called to love God and love our neighbor,” said McCollough. “That means anything I want and desire for myself, I should also want and desire for my neighbor. That’s ultimately what love is about: it’s about loving people right where they are at.”
Much of the frustration around this monumental decision stems from all three churches’ desire to maintain their focus on the immediate needs of their communities while still spreading messages of love to those who have been hurt by the ruling.
Northeast UMC, for example, has always had a strong focus on sustainability and climate action, and Challberg does not want her focus on local issues to be halted by this bureaucratic decision. Christianson and McCollough agree. “It takes our attention away from all the wonderful ways we do reach out to the world in Jesus’s name,”said Christianson.
“It’s so important for people to know that we are still here, and we are still doing the work that we need to be doing,” says McCollough. “Our three churches are very community oriented.”
It is not only church pastors who are spending lot of time and energy reflecting on the decision. Derrick Watson is an openly gay layperson at Northeast United Methodist who serves on the church council. Upon hearing the February ruling, he was initially thrown into a spiritual tailspin.
“My immediate reaction was to quit the church and start going to the Lutheran church full time,” said Watson, who plays in the bell choir at Gustavus Adolphus at Johnson and 27th in addition to his participation at Northeast Methodist. But upon further reflection, Watson said he quickly realized the way forward is not to leave, but instead to stay put and fight for his rights. “Technically, it’s not okay to be a gay Methodist, and I can’t really wrap my mind around that,” he says. “But I am not Lutheran. I am a Methodist. And there is no reason why a bureaucratic decision that was made by flawed humans should throw me out of the church.”
Watson hopes one day to become a Methodist minister. But the historically-held stance of the church, made more concrete by the February ruling, has always pushed his dream just out of reach. “What is the point of being in the ministry if you cannot be true to yourself?” he said. “It seems like a very corrupted foundation to go off of.”
While the decision made on Feb. 26 drew, for many, a line in the sand, this is only the beginning of what will be a long process of reconciliation, and, more ominously, schisms within the church. The Judicial Council of Methodists will meet in late April to determine the constitutionality of February’s decision, meaning it is possible for the ruling to be revoked. Pastors McCollough and Christianson see the current waiting period as frustrating, yet they believe larger actions cannot be taken until the judicial body comes back with their final decision. Pastor Challberg of Northeast United Methodist, on the other hand, believes the damage already done is irrevocable.
“There has been a clarifying stake in the ground,” said Challberg. “If, in April, the Judicial Council deems this unconstitutional, there was still a very clear vote against inclusion and rights. So [our church] won’t change our trajectory.”
Watson said he wants this decision, while frustrating, to be national call for mobilizing toward a more accepting future. He knows not every gay Methodist in the world is as fortunate as him to have an accepting congregation. “Going to church every Sunday, my entire life, has been a battle,” says Watson. “A battle for recognition, a battle for self-respect, and a battle to be loved. I’m very grateful that my local community unconditionally loves me, but it can’t stop there. We have to fight for a world where all can be loved.”
Editor’s note: The United Methodist Church is an international church, with members all over the world. It will hold its General Conference in Minneapolis May 5-15, 2020.
Below: Community United Methodist Church is at 950 Gould Ave. in Columbia Heights.