During General Conference 2000, I had a cup of coffee and conversation at a table in the Cleveland convention center with a man who identified himself as a member of Broadway United Methodist Church in the Northern Illinois Conference once led by the Rev. Greg Dell. Rev. Dell, who died in 2016, had conducted a “sacred union” service for a gay couple in 1998. This ran afoul of the prohibition in The Book of Discipline of United Methodist clergy officiating or celebrating such religious services. A disciplinary complaint was filed against Rev. Dell and he was suspended indefinitely from ministry at a church trial. He was offered the opportunity to have the suspension lifted if he promised not to do it again, but he declined. The suspension was eventually limited to one year.
My coffee and conversation companion was an articulate and intelligent person. If I recall correctly he was a physician. He was also a “self-identified, practicing homosexual” in a committed same-sex, monogamous relationship. He lobbied me to vote to relax our denominational limitations and proscriptions regarding people like him. I listened attentively and graciously. I could sense evidence of God’s grace in his life.
I told him I believed our denominational standards were in keeping with the Bible and I intended to vote accordingly. We parted in peace, but I could see the disappointment in his eyes.
A few years later I was at my desk in the office of a church on what locals called “The Sunny Side of Louisville” when a call came through. The caller was pleasant, identified herself as an “evangelical lesbian” and asked if she and her partner would be welcome in that church. Her self-identification was one I had never heard before. I explained that as the pastor I welcomed everyone to Jesus through the church, but since I was relatively new to that church I did not know how the members of the congregation would receive them. I do not know if the couple came to worship in that church.
I thought I was being honest and subsequent events proved the congregation was highly conflicted and dysfunctional. But nagging retrospection tells me my response was a cop-out not unlike those congregations that tell a district superintendent they are open to receiving a female pastor or a pastor of a different race or ethnicity but they don’t believe their community would be as understanding and welcoming.
At my next appointment, two women and their children began regularly attending worship services and Sunday School. Then they asked if they could become professing members of the church. They were a family and wanted to be part of our church family. I sensed deep faith and active grace in them. We had deep and grace-filled conversation. I told them I welcomed them, but wanted to avoid causing them and their children and the church harm so I wanted some time to have some meetings before the meeting with others before they took the membership vows.
After several straightforward and grace-filled conversations with church leaders and influencers, the day came when I gladly received them into membership of that vital congregation. Of course, having been around the block a few times, I intentionally asked my district superintendent to stand beside me in the chancel that Sunday morning and he did. The fallout in that typical Midwestern center-right congregation was very minimal. From everything I know, the family was well assimilated in the congregation.
These are just three of my personal pastoral experiences over the years of local church ministry. There were more with young and older adults seeking healing in their relationship with Christ and his church and their sexuality or that of their adolescent or adult children. Of course, I cannot deny the impact of my experience with my own child. Rather than repeat those elements, however, I encourage you to read a couple of my previous blogs. Since I am new to the blogosphere they will not be hard to find.
I doubt that my experiences over the years are that uncommon, but in the event you are inclined to celebrate “winning” at General Conference 2019, I ask you to sit down and listen to a clergy colleague explain how your vote to punish her or him for engaging in pastoral ministry under a faithful understanding of the leading of the Holy Spirit will impair their ministry. Take the risk and time to listen to someone share how your vote denies God’s call on their life to licensed or ordained ministry. Hear the cries and see the tears of persons baptized and confirmed in The United Methodist Church as they tell you of their realization that statements to the contrary they feel rejected by what had once been their church.