Some came wanting a new denomination. Others said they prefer, for now, to keep working within The United Methodist Church.
But all who attended the UM-Forward event held here March 6-8 expressed commitment to Gospel-based activism on various fronts, namely LGBTQ inclusion, but also reparations, workers’ rights and climate change.
“A rainbow flag in front of a building is not enough,” said the Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, one of the event’s organizers.
Such talk resonated with the Rev. Jon Pohl, who traveled to the meeting from Lansing, Michigan.
“I came because I’m tired of half-stepping into justice,” said Pohl, pastor of Lansing’s Asbury United Methodist Church. “This seemed like a bold step.”
The Dallas gathering, titled “Trailblazing the Liberation Methodist Church,” was held March 6-8 at Preston Hollow United Methodist Church and included work toward forming a new denomination, as well as strategizing for the 2020 General Conference.
The meeting drew about 120 people, including a handful of 2020 General Conference delegates. Some late cancellations owed to concerns over coronavirus, da Silva Souto said.
For the 2019 General Conference, UM-Forward had introduced the Simple Plan, which would have removed bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” But delegates voted 438-384 to approve the Traditional Plan, reinforcing those restrictions.
The decision made international news, prompted ongoing resistance by centrist and progressive congregations in the U.S. and led many church leaders to conclude that the denomination could not hold together.
The 2020 General Conference, set for May 5-15 in Minneapolis, will consider various plans for structural change. Among them is the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, which would allow traditionalist churches and conferences to leave with their properties and form a separate denomination, using $25 million in United Methodist funds.
The protocol was arrived at by a 16-member negotiating team, including traditionalists, centrists and progressives. At the table was Jan Lawrence, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which has long advocated for full inclusion of LGTBQ persons in The United Methodist Church.
But UM-Forward was not part of the discussions, and leaders noted that ethnic ministry representatives weren’t either. An early mention of the protocol at the Dallas meeting brought scattered boos.
“Sixteen people making a decision for the whole United Methodist Church? I don’t think it’s representative, especially of ethnic churches,” said the Rev. Sandra Bonnette-Kim, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, in an interview between sessions on March 8.
For the 2020 General Conference, UM-Forward has introduced its own New Expressions Worldwide (N.E.W.) plan that calls for dissolving The United Methodist Church and creating four new denominations, from traditionalist, moderate, progressive and liberationist perspectives.
Longtime LGBTQ full-inclusion advocates such as Sue Laurie and David Braden said it’s time for a liberationist Methodist group.
“If the (United Methodist) church doesn’t want to change, I need a place that’s going to affirm me in my full humanity, and I want to make sure other LGBTQ folks know that God loves them for who they are,” said Braden, a lay person in the Northern Illinois Conference.
Roughly half of those at the conference, many of them laity, met together on March 7 for lengthy sessions about creating a denomination with the placeholder name Liberation Methodist Church.
They were guided by an 8-page draft document titled Roadmap to the Autonomous Liberation Methodist Church. It describes the denomination as having term limits for bishops, if it has bishops at all.
Organizers stressed that most specifics for the proposed new group will continue to be worked out and refined, with an update expected to be shared by Easter and articles of incorporation likely filed before General Conference 2020.
Though the protocol is not popular with UM-Forward, the proposal does call for an additional $2 million to be available for groups of churches that want to disaffiliate should the protocol pass, da Silva Souto said. He added that a Liberation Methodist Church may want to position itself to take advantage of such funds.
The Rev. Alka Lyall, pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago and chair of the Northern Illinois delegation to the 2020 General Conference, joined in what organizers called this “semi-autonomous” track of the meeting.
“I continue to work on the legislative end and see if we can liberate the (United) Methodist Church,” she said. “I am holding onto that possibility. I believe in the God of hope.”
For Lyall, having two tracks at the Dallas gathering was not a problem.
“We don’t have to be separate to do a new thing,” she said. “We can do it together.”
Some attending the conference came mostly to collect information on options as their local church considers its future.
The Rev. Darryl Stephens, a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary, planned to report back to his church, Grandview United Methodist, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The congregation there recently voted to begin the process of disaffiliation, though a second vote is planned for after the 2020 General Conference.
Stephens said he has “healthy skepticism” about the viability of a new, liberationist Methodist denomination.
But he’s willing to wait for more details.
“We’re not going to invent a church in one weekend,” Stephens said.
The Rev. Jay Williams, pastor of Union (United Methodist) Church in Boston, said that in an uncertain time, UM-Forward had already made a difference in Methodism.
“The language of liberation is now part of our vernacular,” said Williams, a leader of UM-Forward. “The needle has moved.”
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.