By: Christa Meland
United Methodists from all points of the globe spent six hours in prayer for the church before beginning the 2019 General Conference’s hard work of reviewing church policy regarding homosexuality. This is the first time that a General Conference has started with a whole day of prayer—and Minnesota delegates said it was a meaningful and significant way to begin their gathering and collective discernment process.
“It was a wonderful day of coming together to pray and sing and worship together and realize what church is supposed to be about,” said Rev. Judy Zabel, a clergy delegate from Minnesota who serves Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. “My great hope for the next three days is that we will listen carefully to one another and the Spirit and that we will be unified as a church—that we will leave St. Louis as one body, one faith, one baptism, one church.”
Prayers led by United Methodist bishops asked for guidance and courage. In the morning, bishops from Europe and Eurasia, Africa, the U.S. and the Philippines guided the gathering in experiential prayer sharing the mission, ministry, and challenges of The United Methodist Church.
Bishops Eduard Khegay, Moscow Area, and Harald Rückert, Germany Area, led the group in singing the Swedish hymn, “How Great Thou Art”—first in English and then in Swedish.
Bishop Mande Muyombo, North Katanga Area, in his booming voice, said, “In Africa we pray loudly. We pray hard. We pray for the church. It is a wonderful church that transforms the poor.”
Retired Bishop Peter Weaver prayed for guidance.
“Here we are again, God. United Methodists are conferencing again, a little sooner than usual. We need your guidance a little more than usual.”
Rev. Woojae Im, a clergy delegate from Minnesota who serves Church of Peace in Richfield, said it was “remarkable” to begin this historic gathering with a day of prayer, and it set the tone for the “profound” work that lies ahead. “Surrender, Christ, discipleship, will of God—those are the words and phrases that spoke to me throughout the day,” he noted.
Most members of the Minnesota delegation have publicly said they support the One Church Plan, which a majority of the bishops also recommend. Im is one of them, but he said it occurred to him while sitting in the Dome where General Conference is taking place that multiple sports games have been played in that very space, which used to house the St. Louis Rams. At those games, some win and some lose—but they always end with the players accepting the outcome.
“They surrender to the rule at the end of the day; they applaud each other and say ‘good game,’” Im said. “I hope that happens at our General Conference: Even though my vote might not win, I surrender. I don’t opt out if my plan doesn’t pass.”
By midday, there had been no reference to LGBTQ people and that concern was voiced by those who support changing church policies concerning homosexuality. The second half of the prayer day began with an emotional call to pray for “our LGBTQ brothers and sisters,” issued by Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of North Alabama.
As the body came back together after lunch, Wallace-Padgett said, “We see you, we are together as part of the Christian body, and when one suffers we all suffer. We need to care for one another, stretch the hand of sacred love to one another, knowing we are children of God. With the heart of Jesus, we move into prayer time specifically for LGBTQ siblings that are here and around the world.”
As the choir began to sing “I Need You to Survive,” circles were formed around LGBTQ delegates and a rainbow flag was waved. Voices around the Dome at America’s Center, lifted up the words, “I won’t harm you with words from my mouth, you are important to me. I prayed for you, you prayed for me, I need you to survive.”
Although Zabel appreciated beginning General Conference with a day of prayer, she was disappointed that the body didn’t get to hear from someone in the LGBTQI community. “We prayed for them but we didn’t hear their voices,” she said. “We talk about them but we don’t talk with them. It would have been good to hear from a gay clergyperson—their testimony and their witness.”
Communion closed the day, and it was the highlight for Dave Nuckols, a lay delegate from Minnesota and a member of Minnetonka UMC. Bishops served bread and wine to both delegates and visitors, and prayed over individuals as requested.
Nuckols’ greatest hope for the next few days is that delegates come together and “discern a healthier, more vital place for the church—that we can offer a better measure of grace for LGBTQ persons, that we can stop insisting that I have the right answer, you have the wrong answer and but we can offer more grace to our pastors to be in ministry.”
Staying together through all the storms was a recurring theme in the prayers spoken in the many languages of the denomination.
Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of the Council of Bishops, and Wallace-Padgett modeled a prayer for the delegates.
Facing each other, holding hands, they repeated to each other, “If I have done anything intended or unintended to harm you, please forgive me. May the peace of Christ be with you.”
United Methodist News Service reporter Kathy L. Gilbert contributed to this article.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church