Meet in the Middle: Conflict of the UMC

I led a retreat for leadership at Open Heart UMC a couple of weeks ago, and one of the things we talked about was the importance of healthy conflict. I shared a video of consultant Patrick Lencioni talking about "The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team" and we talked about it afterwards. It's a helpful and humorous presentation about leadership, and I encourage anyone to watch it when they have time.

One of his points that stuck with me were his words, "Conflict without trust is just politics, but conflict WITH trust is the pursuit of truth or the best possible answer.”

In my previous and first church appointment, I spent time preparing to have important conversations with the congregation. Conversations that I knew would be uncomfortable for all of us. I knew conflict with trust was important. I wanted to help people I had loved for many years—first as a member of the congregation, then as pastor—have those conversations in as healthy and productive manner as possible. We didn't have the conversations I thought we would. For whatever reason, they didn't happen.

However, the conflict caused by the Covid-19 pandemic was important practice. I didn't always do a great job of having those conversations. I was still learning (still am), and was earlier in my "pastorhood," but I was willing to have those discussions and be straightforward with people. Wherever the decision landed was the decision made.

Now I serve a different church, and the decision about its stance on the "Human Sexuality Issue" as it's been called, was decided before I got here. This church had decided to be affirming and supportive of members of the LGBTQIA.

My previous church? I still want them to be having these conversations in a productive manner. I want good things to be happening for God in Jesus Christ through all my Methodist friends, whether they stay United or not. I've been connected to Methodism since I was baptized as a baby in De Smet. I did spend almost 10 years either not terribly connected or only going to church with a consumer attitude, but I came back. My seminary journey led me to learn more about the history of our denomination, be aghast at some details, and then eventually embrace United Methodism even more fully. If you ever want to have a longer conversation about any of that, let me know. I'd be happy to chat!

I hear confusion today through the grapevine and through social media from people I love. I hear fear. I hear anger and distrust for the church I am both committed to and working toward being ordained in. I wanted to share a few things that may be helpful for your understanding, no matter what United Methodist Church you attend. I'll try to be simple and clear, but I won't be addressing everything. There is way more out there. Here's a start.

 The Dakotas Conference of the UMC has been sharing information about the church splintering and about disaffiliation since they have been a thing. If you have not signed up for the emails as an individual or follow the Conference on Facebook, you are not likely to receive all of the information. The local churches do not forward everything to their members/attenders because that is up to the pastor to decide how, when and how much to share.

• The District Superintendents have been sharing information at each church's Charge Conference at the end of the year for the past few years (at least). There have even been handouts with more resources to look at. If you didn't attend the Charge Conference of your local church though, you missed all that. Churches are required to promote their annual Charge Conference in multiple ways at least two weeks before that event so that all people who want to know what is going on at a higher level may participate. But they cannot make you go.

• Our current Book of Discipline (BOD), which includes the rules which govern and provide recommendations for "best practices" as the UMC was last updated in 2016. Yes, 7 years ago is our last update.

• There are both a gathering and a body—which are BOTH called the General Conference—that governs changes to the Book of Discipline of the UMC. Delegates from all over the world make up the General Conference. They meet every 4 years, but Covid messed up the schedule. The next meeting of the General Conference is in 2024.

• There has been a movement by a growing number of people to change the Book of Discipline since the clause referring to homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching" was added in 1972.... Yes, 1972, not 1872, nor back in 1784, when the first Book of Discipline was compiled. That statement has been there for the past 50 years when it was NOT included for the nearly 200 years before that.

• Other denominations have already wrestled with this issue (Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians), so we are not alone in the movement. A Special General Conference in 2019 met and was supposed to decide the issue, but in essence, it did not. It approved what is called "The Traditional Plan," again maintaining the exclusionary 1972 language in the Book of Discipline. At the same time, the more "traditional" members of the UMC were planning to leave and start their own denomination (see Wesleyan Covenant Association/Global Methodist Church further below). Delegates from the US to General Conference largely voted to be inclusive in 2019, but again, General Conference is a worldwide organization.

• It is confusing why, when the Traditional Plan was the one voted in, the people who support the traditional vote are largely the ones leaving... but they already had their oars in the water to go, I guess and wanted to re-write the rules of engagement...? I can't blame them in some ways. The worldwide UMC is a really big, complicated machine to try to change. However, its connected ministries and system do so much good all over the world. For instance, think of UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and it's tremendous impact when communities are suffering... or having a system to help change leadership when you need it at the local church level, etc. Our UM connectionalism accomplishes really important, useful things.

• I believe that there is hope from those who want to stay United Methodist and invite ALL (traditionalists, centrists, and progressives) to stay together, that the Book of Discipline has a better chance of being changed at General Conference once the Wesleyan Covenant Association/Global Methodist Church has received all the people/churches it is going to. Without the traditonalist folks to block the vote, things will be sorted out. HOWEVER, there is no telling the future. Nothing at the General Conference level is easy to predict.

• I remember when I first heard about this issue years ago. I was confused why openly LGBTQIA bishops had been approved when it was against the Book of Discipline. Why wouldn't they change the Book of Discipline first? Breaking the rule doesn't change the rule and only makes people angry, was my thinking... My less education at that time on the issue created very black and white thinking.

Eventually I learned how long people had been trying to change the Book of Discipline. Then, in Methodist History at seminary, I learned that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, tried over and over again to get the Anglican Church (as he was an Anglican priest) to provide bishops to send to the people/churches of North America as this country emerged. The Anglicans kept blowing Wesley off. Finally, feeling the Holy Spirit needed to be honored even if the Anglican Church wouldn't do it, he consecrated his OWN bishops... The Anglicans would have said he didn't have that authority... That is why and how the Methodist Church started. In short,  John Wesley himself broke "the rules" that a greater good might be served.

Recently, I've learned more about the history of this country and political parties looking for votes by motivating religious populations against our queer community and other marginalized populations. It worked to win their way to power (see Walking the Bridgeless Canyon by Kathy Baldock, but there are other resources, too). There are also additional resources that talk more about issues of history and context and scripture's original language vs. English, that shed light on why alternative thinking to the "Traditionalist" view is not anti-Bible nor heretical. There are world renown Biblical scholars on both sides of the issue.

• The Wesleyan Covenant Association started developing quite some time ago as an entity where UMC people could migrate to if 1) they decided they were non-affirming of LGBTQIA, 2) felt no one else should be either, and 3) it was a deal-breaker for their faith. They now have a new denomination forming called the Global Methodist Church.

• A special, temporary piece of legislation was created to allow churches to disaffiliate because of the Human Sexuality issue, and take the local church property with them (property is otherwise held in trust by the Conference). It expires this year. The Dakotas Conference has tried to create a system that follows that legislation and creates a pathway out for churches that see that as how God calls them. The process includes for all voting members of a local church to have a voice in the future of their church.

• A 2/3 majority vote is required to leave the UMC. HOWEVER, this is just 2/3 of the people who show up to vote... Not 2/3 of the actual membership. Hypothetically, if a hundred people are members, BUT only three people show up the day of the vote, and two vote to leave, they leave.*


It is critically important to show up and vote. If you don't vote, you are letting whatever majority DOES vote decide for you.

• Leadership of the church doesn't decide for a church on their own, even if they are loud and pointing in a certain direction. The people make this decision with their votes. Please don't believe the loudest voice in the room just because they are loud and talk like they know.

Confirmed youth are full members and get to vote. If you don't know if you are a full member with a vote (and you might NOT be just because you have been attending forever), call the church and ASK.

No church HAS to vote whether to stay UMC or leave. Many churches are not voting. Those who do not choose to leave, are staying.

In the middle of all of this, it's important to understand how your pastors become your pastors. Here's a bit more about that.

• There are two routes to becoming a UMC Pastor. Both routes are quite a process of discernment with a mentor, Board of Ordained Ministry interviews, education requirements, psychological exams, background checks, etc.

I was qualified to serve my first church as a Licensed Local Pastor in 2015 after more than a year of mentored discernment, getting letters of recommendation, filling out paperwork, requesting and receiving approval by multiple bodies (including my home UMC I was attending), and the psych exam. I then attended a nearly week-long UM Licensing School. I chose to turn down churches for a few years, and continued to work full time outside of ministry (while attending seminary) until 2018 and accepting my first appointment. When first approved and appointed, I was an LLP while I continued to fulfill the educational requirements.

I could have chosen to attend Course of Study (classes 2x a year at an approved seminary), over the next five years to complete the Licensed Local Pastor education requirement. However, being accepted at Sioux Falls Seminary allowed me to complete my full Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree in 2019.

With an MDiv, I have continued on toward the process of becoming an Elder. This requires more paperwork after graduation, another background check, another psych exam, more interviews, sending in a recording and transcript of an example of my preaching, etc., and a vote by multiple bodies to approve me to the next step. Completing all this satisfactorily led me to being Commissioned in 2021. I am currently considered a Provisional Elder, and between now and September 1st of 2023, I have a lot more paperwork, another psychological exam, etc., to get ready for ANOTHER round of interviews by the Board of Ordained Ministry. If I'm approved, I then go before the Clergy Session of the 2024 annual conference to be approved or denied before I can (hopefully) become an Ordained Elder in Full Connection that summer.

In short, it is a long process to become an approved pastor, especially an Ordained Elder. Not everyone is accepted, or accepted right away. As much as people are needed, there is also a series of checks and balances.

 If persons who happen to be openly LGBTQIA were approved to become pastors someday by the Book of Discipline, the likelihood of having a gay pastor appointed to a conservative church in the Dakotas, in my opinion, is very low. First off, our gay community is not huge here, so I can't imagine there being a lot of LGBTQIA pastors seeking appointments in the Dakotas.

Secondly, I think it is understood how such a pairing would be detrimental to the health of both the pastor and the church. The Conference has invested a lot in creating programs supporting the wellness of pastors.

Also, the Staff Parish Relations team of a church works with their District Superintendent to define their ministry context to help create the best possible match. They then meet the new pastor ahead of time. If there are red flags during that meeting, either for the pastor or the SPR team, they can request a reconsideration at that time through the District Superintendent. That is part of the process. However, rejecting a pastor that was about to be appointed could mean the church may not have one for a while... The appointment process is like dominoes and there's only a few months to accomplish it each year. Backup plans are messy, but sometimes need to come together.

There is a lot more information on the UM Conference website. One place you might start if you want to get into more details is here. Is the United Methodist Church Really...? 

I know it's a lot, and I just scratched the surface. If you are in the middle of this with a church that you love, and you just want to make the best decision to honor Jesus Christ, I encourage you to do so well-informed, and in peace. We remember that Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason are the four parts of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that we lean into as we develop our faith and discernment.

Blessing to all who read this.

~ Michele

*Late addendum after initial posting: There are more steps to leave that must be completed to actually disaffiliate, including paying apportionments and helping cover the costs of retired pastors who served you while you were UMC... There's  a formula for churches to figure that out...But there is only one vote, to my understanding.

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