By: Christa Meland
Sixty-two Minnesotans attended the 2019 Leadership Institute at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Leawood, Kansas last week—and many left with hope and a renewed commitment to work for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in The United Methodist Church. (Watch video of attendees sharing key takeaways.)
“It’s been a gift to join my own personal convictions, the convictions and passions of my congregation into the sense that we are a mighty movement, hugely resourced, and we’ve got nowhere to go but to a more open church,” said Rev. Elizabeth Macaulay, who serves Christ UMC in Rochester and attended the gathering.
The Leadership Institute is an annual event that offers practical ministry tools and ideas for all church leaders. This year, the event took a different tone and served as a forum for discussion and strategizing about the future of the denomination.
The Sept. 25-27 event, which drew about 2,500 people from more than 1,300 churches, came seven months after the top legislative body of The United Methodist Church adopted the Traditional Plan, which maintains that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and increases penalties for self-avowed gay clergy and clergy who officiate same-sex weddings. In June, the Minnesota Conference adopted a vision that names a commitment to the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church.
Framing the conversation
Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of ministries for the Minnesota Conference, said she appreciated the framework for the conversations that took place over the three days of the event. It started out with a thoughtful exploration of how we read scripture and make sense of the Bible, then dove into the history of race and gender inclusion in the church, named what’s at stake in the denomination, and finally presented a vision for 2020 and beyond. Gregorson is mulling how that same framework could be shared with and used by local churches as they prepare for what’s next.
Rev. Adam Hamilton, lead pastor at COR, kicked off the Leadership Institute by making a case for full inclusion in the church. “I don’t want to be part of a church anymore who says ‘You are less than, you are loved but…’” he told those gathered.
Hamilton shared his own powerful journey of wrestling with the Bible and ultimately changing his mind about LGBT inclusion. Other sessions featured a look at the Next Generation UMC legislation and the Indianapolis Plan that will go to General Conference 2020 and a panel of bishops talking about their hopes for the church in 2032.
Through an interactive poll at the opening session, more than three-fourths of those present named themselves as “compatibilists” (mostly progressive, some traditional), meaning they feel they can be part of the same church as others who have differing views on inclusion.
Best-selling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks was the most well-known speaker and gave a session on moral leadership. He said we’re living in an age of bad generalizations and self-simplification, reducing ourselves and others to one narrative among many that are part of our lives; at the same time, we’re doing something we’ve never done before in trying to build the world’s first mass multi-cultural democracy. Doing that successfully requires us to “see someone else deeply, know someone else profoundly, make others feel heard and understood, and be equally known yourself,” which involves both emotional and moral transformation, he said.
The idea of deep listening resonated with Rev. Kate Payton, a new-to-Minnesota pastor who serves Glendale UMC in Savage.
“I am a white cis-gender straight female, and part of what I have learned at this event is that I need to sit with the suffering of others, whether that be LGBTQ persons or persons of color or anyone else that has experienced marginalization,” she said. “What I’m working on is expanding my own capacity to be uncomfortable and to be in pain so that the Easter Sunday that comes, that we work for, will in fact be full, real, relational, incarnational hope...”
For many, the event affirmed that those yearning for inclusion are not alone.
“As someone who had been away from the church for 15 years, I learned that there are a lot of Methodists who share my beliefs about justice,” said James Bordewick, a member of Community UMC in Columbia Heights.
Others came away discouraged and concerned about the legislative process.
Rev. Paul Baudhuin, who serves Aldersgate UMC in St. Louis Park, noted in a blog post that it seems we’re poised to head to General Conference 2020 ready to present, debate, and vote on legislation the same way we’ve done it for decades—noting that our current system is no longer effective.
“We cannot merely work on legislation and run it through the same broken system over and over. We need to design a whole new mechanism,” he wrote. “Seeking justice and systemic change through committee and legislation will always sift toward the lowest common denominator, which, quite honestly, for marginalized communities means bread crumbs at best, but more likely continued harm and oppression.”
On the last day of the event, attendees met by annual conference and discussed questions about how to build cohesion and prevent fracturing, ways to resist the Traditional Plan, existing partnerships within the global church, and next steps.
When asked to describe the annual conference they can be passionate about, Minnesota attendees talked about living into our vision and values, living out of abundance rather than scarcity, developing the next generation of disciples, diversity in harmony rather than conformity, pastors not being worried about losing their jobs, willingness to take risks, living in the hard questions, addressing structural racism, and taking tangible steps in relation to the inclusive vision adopted at Annual Conference in June.
“I’m encouraged that the inclusive future of The United Methodist Church that I believe in is believed in by so many other people all over the country and all over the world,” said Rev. Becky Sechrist, who serves Minnehaha UMC in Minneapolis.
Building relationships was a refrain repeated throughout the conversation—taking the time to listen to one another and truly see each other, and having open conversations about what we’re afraid of losing.
“One key thing I learned at this conference is how important social cohesion is—to be together, connected in Christ and connected with one another as we go through these turbulent times in The United Methodist Church,” said Rev. Judy Zabel, who serves Hennepin Avenue UMC in Minneapolis. “We have all the tools to do that, but we need to work at it; we need to be willing to sit down and talk with each other and listen to each other, and then work together to move forward, not just looking to our past.”
Other ideas that surfaced were creating a speakers’ bureau of people willing to share their personal stories around the topic of LGBTQIA+ inclusion, centering marginalized voices at all gatherings, making the conference’s inclusive vision into a sermon series or small group study, and sharing specific actions that churches and individuals can take.
Two students from Hamline University in St. Paul were among the Minnesotans in attendance, and freshman Emily Hilderbrand summed up her experience in a way that echoed the sentiments of many others: “There’s a lot of work to be done, but when the work is done, we’re going to have a better UMC, and I am ready to do that work.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church