For the second year in a row, The United Methodist Church’s struggle to stay together despite longstanding division over homosexuality was the denomination’s top news story of 2019.
This year, however, the focus was on unity efforts by the Commission on a Way Forward and others, culminating in a special called session of General Conference Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.
Thirty-eight ballots were cast by church communicators and United Methodist News staff for the top five United Methodist news stories in 2019. February’s special General Conference had 154 total votes, including 28 first-place votes.
Other stories that made both the 2018 and 2019 top-five list were the United Methodist response to immigrants and asylum-seekers and the church’s relief and rebuilding work after natural disasters. Rounding out the “Top 5” this year were voting irregularities related to the special General Conference and a revote on an amendment to the church’s constitution.
Here's a more detailed recap of the top stories and related articles:
First: GC2019 makes headlines
A special General Conference called to deal with the decades-long division over how to be in ministry with LGBTQ people ended with the 438-384 vote passage of the Traditional Plan. That vote, and the divisiveness on display, drew news coverage around the U.S. and beyond.
The Traditional Plan, which takes effect Jan. 1, tightens bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. In April, the Judicial Council found that while some provisions of the plan were still unconstitutional, the rest of the Traditional Plan could stand.
But with the next General Conference just around the corner — May 5-15 at the Minneapolis Convention Center — alternative plans have been developed and submitted as legislation and debate continues over whether The United Methodist Church will hold together.
In May and June, U.S. annual conferences elected more delegates who publicly oppose the Traditional Plan than did so during February’s special General Conference. Active efforts, including officiating at same-sex weddings or supporting gay clergy, are being made to resist its implementation.
While advocates from various perspectives agree the shift was unlikely to be big enough to overturn the plan, strategizing continues to occur ahead of the 2020 General Conference.
Second: Providing assistance to immigrants, refugees
Throughout 2019, United Methodists and Methodists extended helping hands to displaced people on the U.S.-Mexico border and those fleeing violence in Congo.
United Methodists and members of the Methodist Church of Mexico in El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico, help migrants stranded in Mexico while awaiting asylum. Methodists in Mexicali, Mexico, helped migrants who have fled violence in Central America with food, while in McAllen, Texas, churches help with a respite care center for migrants. The Rev. John Fanestil, a United Methodist pastor, serves Holy Communion weekly as U.S. citizens gather in Friendship Park to glimpse loved ones on the other side of the border wall.
National Justice for Our Neighbors, a United Methodist group, provides free or low-cost immigration legal services to vulnerable immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief is providing close to $2 million in grants to JFON and Church World Service to support a three-year pilot project of the Board of Global Ministries, its parent agency, aimed at asylum seekers in the U.S.
Some United Methodist churches in the U.S. also provided sanctuary for immigrants facing deportation.
In Congo, The United Methodist Church offered shelter to more than 2,500 displaced people who fled violence to Uvira to avoid conflicts between the Banyamurenge and Bafuliro tribes.
Third: Responding to wind, water and fire
Again and again in 2019, United Methodists responded to natural disasters, supported by the United Methodist Committee on Relief and its partners.
In the U.S., the approach of spring came with deadly consequences. United Methodist pastors of Lee County, Alabama, became a team of crisis counselors after a March 3 tornado killed 23. As the month progressed, churches in Nebraska and other states were dealing with widespread flooding.
By the end of May, United Methodists were continuing to respond to flooding in various U.S. locations and assisting those affected by tornados, including one that struck Dayton, Ohio, area. And California residents once again faced an extended wildfire season.
In Africa, Cyclone Idai tore through Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in March, ripping tin roofs off houses and hurtling them like deadly missiles that killed and maimed. Otherwise placid rivers jumped their banks and submerged towns and villages, drowning hundreds and leaving hundreds of thousands more with no homes or possessions.
United Methodists were among those picking up the pieces after an April 22 earthquake struck the main island of Luzon in the Philippines and killed at least 16 people. Local churches and homes were among the buildings damaged.
Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas on Sept. 1 and lingered, creating both physical and psychological devastation. UMCOR has been working with the two Methodist denominations in the Bahamas to assist with recovery.
“Emotionally, it’s going to scar us for some time to come,” said the Rev. Kenneth Lewis of Freeport. “I have to deal with members who lost everything. The house is gone, belongings gone, no food, no clothing, no vehicles.”
Fourth: Voting irregularities
Voting irregularities revealed soon after the adjournment of the special 2019 General Conference called into question at least one crucial vote. A motion to substitute legislation that spelled out a pathway for churches to depart the denomination over LGBTQ issues passed by just two votes.
The General Conference Commission promised a full, independent investigation and decided in a closed-door meeting in August to void the vote on the motion to substitute and ask the Council of Bishops to request the Judicial Council to rule on what the effect of that vote nullification was.
In its Oct. 30 oral hearing on the matter, the Judicial Council questioned the lack of documentation and decided to reschedule the case for the 2020 spring session, noting “our inability to get the information requested during oral argument.” The council did rule on the effective date of the petition, saying it went into effect when the special General Conference ended.
Fifth: Constitutional amendment revote
After a revote, United Methodists around the globe have amended the denomination’s constitution to proclaim, “Men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God.” The newly adopted measure also commits United Methodists to work toward ending discrimination against women and girls.
The revote took place after the Ask the UMC and UM News teams reported incorrect wording in what was initially sent to annual conference voters.
Other stories getting multiple votes in the survey included the:
- Continued response to the Ebola outbreak in Congo;
- Proposed 2021-2024 general church budget, the smallest in more than 20 years;
- Reaction to a video released by the North Carolina Conference that featured male clergy reading aloud comments their women colleagues endured;
- Return of Native American land in Ohio and Oregon;
- Action by churches in West Virginia and around the U.S. to help deal with the crisis of opioid-related deaths;
- Focus on global health in Africa and the Philippines;
- Condemnation by Filipino United Methodists of human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings and the treatment of indigenous people in the Philippines;
- Struggles by individuals and churches affected by the economic hardships in Zimbabwe.
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.