To find a way forward through its impasse around homosexuality, The United Methodist Church will need a new approach to its top policymaking body — General Conference.
That’s what Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball told members of the Connectional Table, a 64-member leadership body that brings together laity and clergy to coordinate the denomination’s ministries, mission and resources. The group met April 4-7 at the offices of Wespath, the denomination’s pension and benefits agency.
“Think about what the experience has been for getting ready for coming to General Conference,” said Steiner Ball, who leads the West Virginia Conference.
“When I ask that question of people across the globe, they begin to talk about preparing for General Conference like they are preparing for war.”
She urged the Connectional Table, whose membership includes some General Conference delegates, to help turn hearts ready for war into hearts at peace.
“Your purpose is to discern and articulate a vision for the church. You have responsibility for the stewardship for the mission, ministry and resources,” she told the group. “That puts you in the perfect position to help things go well.”
Steiner Ball is one of three bishops who moderate the Commission on a Way Forward, which has the task of advising bishops on possible ways through decades-long divisions around how the church ministers with LGBTQ people. The commission is developing a final report for the bishops to use when they meet April 29-May 4. That report is not yet public.
The denomination’s Council of Bishops has called a special 2019 General Conference in St. Louis to take up legislation based on the Way Forward Commission’s recommendations. The delegates will be able to refine whatever the bishops propose or possibly work on substitute legislation.
Fierce and at-times hurtful debate about how the church includes LGBTQ individuals has erupted at each General Conference since 1972.
Steiner Ball made clear that the church would not get anywhere if people came to the big meeting girded for spiritual battle.
“When we see other people as objects, we give ourselves permission to horrible-ize them,” she said. “We set the stage for war when we exaggerate our difference.”
Ultimately, she said, United Methodists have common interests even if they have different positions around homosexuality.
She hopes delegates will come to General Conference recognizing that their fellow United Methodists have “the same love of God, the same love of Christ, the same love of the church, the same passion for making disciples, the same passion for wanting this world to be transformed.”
She suggested United Methodists might help build relationships across differing views if they followed the covenant used by the Way Forward Commission. Specifically, she pointed to the members’ covenant “to treat one another with respect, to assume the best in others, to represent one another in the best possible light, to speak the truth with love, and to practice and expect trustworthiness.”
The commission’s report to the bishops, she said, will include three sketches for the church’s future. In recent meetings, the commission has focused on the last two, but all three remain on the table.
The three models are roughly as follows:
- The traditional model would affirm the current language in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, and seek to strengthen enforcement. The church policy book says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and lists officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.
- The one-church model would remove the Book of Discipline's restrictive language and leave decision-making around LGBTQ ordination closer to the conference and local-church levels. Steiner Ball said the bishops have yet to recommend which level of the church would vote on questions of marriage or ordination. However, the model specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ people. She called it the most decentralized model because it puts decision-making closest to the ground. It also is similar to a plan the Connectional Table itself proposed to the 2016 General Conference.
- The multi-branch model would replace the five U.S. jurisdictions with three connectional conferences, each covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry — progressive, contextual and traditional branches. In this case, contextual means allowing churches flexibility in ministry with LGBTQ people as best fits their mission field. Central conferences — church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe — would remain as they are now. This plan would require amending the denomination’s constitution.
Under consideration in each of the sketches, Steiner Ball said, are different ways for handling funding matters such as bishops’ pay. For example, under the one-church model, bishops’ compensation might be funded by their episcopal areas rather than by the whole denomination as part of a shared Episcopal Fund.
“Please be respectful when you discuss these sketches,” Steiner Ball cautioned. “They represent the people who are in our churches. They also represent the people God has called us to reach.”
Germain Mupasa, a Connectional Table member from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said through an interpreter that he was struck by Steiner Ball urging people to listen without trying to convince others of their perspective.
“In a roundabout way, I think we will fail,” he said, “because then how do we convince people?”
Steiner Ball answered that United Methodists likely won’t succeed in changing each other’s stances but they can find common ground in the shared interests that lie underneath.
“There are ways we can work together even if we have different positions on homosexuality,” she said. “Our local churches are working with people who have different positions on human sexuality, and they are still feeding people and clothing people and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.”
After Steiner Ball’s presentation, Connectional Table members engaged in small-group discussions. Several spoke of how even during this time of uncertainty, they wanted to help the denomination continue to focus outward on its mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.
Dave Nuckols, a member of the Connectional Table and Way Forward Commission, told United Methodist News Service that he was doubly proud that the bishop provided an excellent overview and the Connectional Table responded openly and optimistically.
In her presentation, Steiner Ball had another piece of advice for church leaders: Trust God.
“If we trust that God will be the final judge and understand that we don’t have to be, if we understand that God gives the healing and we are called to be the caregivers, and if we care for people just as hard and as passionately as we can,” she said, “we can trust that God is going to do God’s work.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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