By: Christa Meland
Last week, 10 Minnesota United Methodists attended a three-day national gathering to share hopes, learn from others, and discuss together how to create a more inclusive church.
UMCNext, which took place at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, brought together 616 people from every annual conference in the United States—all of whom opposed the Traditional Plan approved by the 2019 General Conference. Minnesota attendees were Revs. Laurie Kantonen, Tyler Sit, Mariah Tollgaard, Judy Zabel, and Carol Zaagsma, and lay people Becky Boland, Walker Brault, Shirley Durr, Dave Nuckols, and Cindy Saufferer.
Although the much of the conversation centered on the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church, speakers talked about various forms of discrimination that the church has participated in throughout its history—including racism and sexism. Intertwined with powerful testimonies was a call for participants to remember their baptismal vows to reject evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
Listening deeply, opening hearts
Many Minnesota participants said the most illuminating part of the event was the small group discussions they had at pre-assigned tables of eight. In those table groups, they processed and discussed three potential paths forward: dissolving The United Methodist Church, a negotiated separation to start something new, and staying and working to change the church from within. They also shared their visions for the future, what they want to continue in a future expression of Methodism, and what a successful transition to that new expression would like for their congregation and conference.
“This was a profound experience for me—being able to listen deeply to people in very different contexts than my own opened my heart to new understandings of the complexities of the path before us,” said Tollgaard, who serves Hamline Church in St. Paul. Her table included people from southern states, a closeted clergy person serving a conservative context, an LGBTQ lay leader in a national organization, and pastors serving divided churches.
Kantonen, who serves Hubbard UMC and will soon move into the role of North Star District superintendent, also sat at table with significant diversity—and it reminded her in some ways of the makeup in Minnesota.
“There are people not okay with what happened at General Conference 2019 but their ability to respond to it is so determined by their context,” she said. “That applies in rural Minnesota as well. When you live in a metro area, you have a much greater opportunity to self-select what type of Methodist church you want to be part of. There is more of a balancing act in rural Minnesota between saying ‘this does not represent me—it’s not what I want or how I feel,’ but also not being able to pick up and do something else.”
Kantonen pointed out that rural churches often encompass more diverse viewpoints, and people across the political and theological spectrum—Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives—have learned to work together in ministry and don’t want to upset that balance.
As she moves into her district superintendent role, Kantonen sees an opportunity to help rural churches have some necessary but perhaps uncomfortable conversations so that they are prepared for whatever may be next for the denomination.
For many, the table conversations highlighted both challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
“It was a reminder for me that not everybody lives in a place where they can be authentically who they are,” said Boland, a member of Hennepin Avenue UMC in Minneapolis. “If you’re scared for your life, it’s hard to say you’re going to talk about something new.”
Boland said she came away encouraged by Minnesota United Methodists’ desire and commitment to be in dialogue.
“Not everyone is having the conversations we’re having here in Minnesota,” she said. “We’re blessed to be able to be in conversation whether we agree or don’t agree. We’re on a journey together.”
Commitments, next steps, and dreams
Attendees of UMCNext looked for areas of common ground despite their different experiences and circumstances, and they agreed on four key commitments:
1. We long to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity, anchored in scripture and informed by tradition, experience and reason as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.
2. We commit to resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.
3. We reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and will resist its implementation.
4. We will work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons. We affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons, celebrate their gifts, and commit to being in ministry together.
Minnesota participants agreed that one of their next steps is to discuss and build support around the four commitments throughout the conference—and to engage in courageous conversations with new people who are in alignment with those commitments. (They would appreciate your feedback through this survey as they continue to discern what's next.)
One of the things several Minnesotans said they came away with is recognition that there isn’t one path or strategy to move forward. While some United Methodists feel like there is no way they can stay in The United Methodist Church, others feel there is no way they can leave even if they want to—particularly churches and clergy in more traditional areas and conferences. So while staying and working for change within the current structure might be a more feasible strategy for some, working on a new expression of Methodism might make more sense for others. Rather than choosing one strategy, multiple strategies will likely need to work in parallel.
“I think the UMCNext experience, while a microcosm of the diversity of The United Methodist Church, just showed how deeply complicated our future path will be and that there won’t be one path that works for all of us, even those of us who are wanting to move in a direction of full inclusion,” said Tollgaard.
Tollgaard and many other Minnesota participants are hopeful that the Minnesota Conference moves together to a new expression of Methodism—and they will continue to lay the groundwork for that through Minnesota Methodists, a grassroots movement of Minnesotans working toward the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church.
“Our conference is going to have a new home in American Methodism,” said Nuckols, a member of Minnetonka UMC and a delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences. “We have a future that we can look forward to optimistically and without fear of change.”
Brault, a member of reconciling congregation Hamline Church and a recent college graduate, said UMCNext rekindled his desire to “build a new space where equality and justice are central.”
“Seeing all of the good that Hamline Church does, I want to expand that beyond that church and the Twin Cities even,” said Brault, an alternate delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences. “There are LGBTQ people in every church in our conference and every United Methodist church in the world. I want to see them fully welcomed in the life of the church.”
Tollgaard’s dream: “I hope that ultimately we can grow into being the church that God calls us to be—that place of grace and welcome, that place that celebrates the diversity of all people and seeks justice and liberation for all people, that community of people living out our gospel mission of loving with the heart of Jesus.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church