On March 7, The Michigan Annual Conference became the 3rd annual conference to advance a petition, “Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and Restructuring.” The only U.S. conference to do so.
Senior Content Editor, Michigan Conference
March 7, 2020 | ALBION, Michigan – It had been 23 years since the last vote taken by an annual conference here in Goodrich Chapel. Today annual conference returned to Albion for what the mayor of the city, Dave Atchison, called “a historic event.” In his welcome to the over 1,000 members of The Michigan Annual Conference, Atchison said, “You are writing another chapter of America’s story. We hope you will make a real difference today.”
And make a difference those members did. After 90 minutes of conversation, questions, and comments meant to persuade, 91% of the members approved sending the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and Restructuring to the 2020 General Conference. The vote tally was 927 Yes to 92 No.
In February 2019, in St. Louis, a Special Session of the General Conference approved a Traditional Plan that strengthened the denomination’s prohibitions against clergy officiating at same-sex unions and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” For some, this was a cause for celebration. For others, it was the source of great anguish.
In the months that followed, the Protocol was negotiated and drafted by a diverse 16-member group of bishops, and leaders of advocacy groups from across the global United Methodist connection. The Protocol would preserve The United Methodist Church and allow the formation of a new Traditionalist Methodist Church. The separating group would receive $25 million in United Methodist funds and would keep its local church properties.
By January 3, 2020, when the Protocol was made public, its drafters were not able to introduce it as legislation for GC2020. But the rules allowed an annual conference to do that. Three annual conferences agreed to act on the Protocol so that it could take its place among other plans included in the legislation to be considered by the 862 delegates in Minneapolis. The Philippines Annual Conference, meeting in its regular session Feb. 12-14, voted to both endorse and send the Protocol to GC2020. On March 5, Sierra Leone members, also meeting in regular session, became the second annual conference to approve and send it on.
“Michigan,” said Bishop David Bard, “is the only U.S. Conference taking this up. We were not the only conference asked to do this, but we were the only one to do it. I think it is deeply significant that a U.S. conference takes this action.”
For Michigan to do this, was no small undertaking. It required a Special Session of Annual Conference just 90 days away from the regular session at the end of May. Bishop David Bard reported, “The entire process has been extraordinary. Michigan staff and elected leadership have pulled together to do wonderful work.” He added, “I am also thankful for the hospitality extended us by the United Methodist-related Albion College and by the Albion community.”
Unlike the two international conferences that acted before the March 7 vote in Albion, The Michigan Conference did not endorse the Protocol. The single motion brought by the delegation for action by the Special Session was “to send the petition entitled ‘Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring’ (BOD New ¶2556)’ to the 2020 General Conference.”
Why Michigan? Bard shared his perspective. “Perhaps it’s because as acrimonious as an annual conference can be and as dysfunctional as the church can be, we have been able to demonstrate that we can come together and have this kind of conversation at this kind of time in The United Methodist Church.”
Indeed, the conversation that took place in Goodrich Chapel the afternoon of March 7 demonstrated Bard’s point. Called to attention by the chapel’s magnificent pipe organ playing, “God of love and God of power,” members spoke with a keen recognition of “this burning hour” in the life of The United Methodist Church.
Pastors and lay members of churches – large and small, north to south, east to west, traditionalist, centrist, and progressive – came to microphones to express sadness, pain, and hope.
The Rev. Jeremy Wicks (Mosaic UMC) said, “This needs to be discussed at General Conference because it is time for us to make a decision and move forward to stop the harm.” He celebrated the acceptance that questioning teens, transgender men and women, and lesbian couples experience at Mosaic, “a place where they can just be themselves.”
Many spoke in favor of what the Protocol might enable at General Conference. They expressed a deep desire to go into the future with a focus more on ministry and mission and less on what one clergy member, Deane Wyllys (Owosso First) called, “the same old, same old we’ve heard for decades.” The Rev. Elizabeth Hurd (Caledonia) noted, “What many people in this room on all sides on this debate recognize is since 1972, when language was put in the Discipline, we have been having this argument with each other. We are at an impasse.” The Rev. Jess Davenport (Kalamazoo Wesley Director) called the Protocol, “a tool for the spirit to speak” to and through delegates at the 2020 General Conference.
Several speakers questioned why traditionalists, whose position prevailed at the 2019 General Conference, are the ones designated to leave The United Methodist Church. The Rev. Tom Anderson (Highland), President of the Michigan Wesleyan Covenant Association, offered a response. Anderson stated, “Our board endorses this petition and the Protocol. A new denomination is forming. We are building the airplane as we fly it.”
Some of the concerns voiced were similar for both traditionalists and progressives. The Rev. Lawrence Embury (Pope and Griffith UMCs) cited scripture as he supported the Protocol. “Jesus was present when his followers argued about who was the greatest and who loved him the most. Jesus said to them, ‘Enough!’ We are at an Enough Moment, and the Protocol is an opportunity to move forward,” Embury said. The Rev. Carl Gladstone (Motor City Wesley and Dearborn 1st UMC) lamented lack of support for the young people in The UMC and added, “We may need to shake the dust and move on. What blessed solutions could our young people have led us to if we had made a place for them at the decision-making table? I call all of us to remember the brokenness this cements into the history of our church.”
The Rev. Mike Riegler (White Lake UMC) remarked, “I am a traditionalist, speaking in favor. While I think the Protocol is flawed, I will send a letter to the delegation and bring up where they can amend it. I trust them to do their work.” Riegler went on to assert, “I am perfectly happy for traditionalists to have a fresh start with less baggage.” A retired pastor, Tom Macaulay (Saline UMC), “in favor of full inclusion and this Protocol,” also noted, “It’s not perfect. Like my maternal grandpa, a local pastor, said, ‘If you want something done perfectly, please don’t let people get involved.’”
Both Riegler and Macaulay were among speakers expressing hope that ties of friendship will continue to bind even if separation comes about. “Pastor Tom at Saline and I don’t agree on this matter,” Macaulay shared. “I don’t know what this will do to our relationship, but I trust we will still get coffee together.” “We have to do something workable soon before we self-implode,” Riegler said. “I hope we can be kissing cousins when all of this is over, and I will be happy to organize the picnic every year.”
The Rev. Scott Manning (Rochester Hills St. Luke’s) added his words about relationships going forward. “I am thankful there were times Methodists had the courage to take the split,” Manning said, referencing 19th-century division in the church over slavery. “I urge us to vote yes and our delegation to vote yes to get bad language out and allow separation to take place.” Manning then added, “I pray that both the traditionalists and center-left of the church can come to the table and have full communion with one another.”
Often the conversation taking place at the Special Session shifted the focus from legislative arenas, like General Conference and Annual Conference, to express concern for the local church. From Lincoln Community UMC in Ypsilanti came this question: “My church will not be of one mind if General Conference passes this. Everything we’ve been doing in ministry and mission could be in jeopardy. What support services will be available from the annual conference?” Moving upstate, from Vergennes UMC in Lowell: “What about a church that wants to stay and hold a more traditional position? Are we pushed into a binary choice on this?” From southwest Michigan, Buchanan First UMC made inquiry: “Are we moving toward a point where each church and pastor has more autonomy?”
In the face of such questions, Bishop Bard shared a vision, provided in the Protocol, of the post-separation United Methodist Church “as a church where there will be places for traditionalists, centrists, and progressives.” He reminded the body that, according to the Protocol, it would be the annual conference that votes whether to stay or to separate. “The local churches that agree with where their conference is going don’t have to vote. They will decide in what ways they will minister to LGBTQ individuals.” As the leader of a post-separation Michigan Conference, Bard said he would, “Do my best to support every church in this conference, those who decide to stay in whatever the Michigan Annual Conference decides, and those who wish not to stay.”
Bard noted that the comment by Lincoln Road UMC “describes a vast majority of Michigan congregations.” He continued, “It would be amazing if I could send out a 3-page guideline to help every church stay together through thick or thin. I can’t. But know that your church and every church will have all the support we can give to knit us together in love.” The bishop counseled every pastor and every layperson present to “build up the fabric of relationships in your congregation so that what unites is stronger than what may divide.”
If one were to name a theme for the three hours shared in Goodrich Chapel on March 7, perhaps that theme would be listening. In opening remarks, the Michigan Delegation co-chair, Laura Witkowski, asked members to “take a deep breath. Take a moment to remember who you are and whose you are … We have the opportunity today, on behalf of the entire denomination, to discuss and listen to each other. Listen to all. Not just the loudest but the quietest … Listen to those who feel lost and those who feel hope. What you say will be heard by the delegation.”
Members did listen, voting down a motion at mid-point in the discussion to call for the question and end the conversation. Later, before the vote was taken, Witkowski assured members that delegates were taking notes. “We have much more work to do,” she said, “that includes 800 pieces of legislation. The Protocol is just one piece.” She thanked members for attending the Special Session. “You have found courage by showing up today … Maybe God is about to do a new thing. Keep listening to God and each other, and don’t forget to take a breath,” she concluded.
After the vote to advance the Protocol was announced, Bishop Bard also celebrated the Michigan Conference’s ability to remain in conversation. “We have not shouted. We have not had angry outbursts. We have been respectful and kind as we hear distinctly different viewpoints,” he observed. “This at least achieves a bit of Holy Conferencing.”
Some members measured their trip to Albion in minutes and tens of miles; other members in hours and hundreds of miles. Home at the end of the day, Witkowski affirmed the value of their journeys. She reflected, “The Michigan Conference had a big day today. We understood why we were there and did what was needed in an atmosphere, both energetic and calm.” The co-chair of Michigan’s delegation expressed gratitude that “most Annual Conference members understood that delegates at General Conference need all options available.” As the members of the delegation who had mixed emotions about the Protocol, “It was clear that no one believes the legislation is perfect, but it is the best way to move forward.”
After the adjournment of the Special Session, Bishop Bard noted the significance of what had just taken place. “However the vote at General Conference turns out,” Bard said, “whatever the future holds, this has been a moment all of us here will remember.” He was pleased by the outcome. “That at the end of the day, we approved sending the petition ‘Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring’ with 91% in support of doing so, is quite amazing.” He voiced appreciation again for the way the conference went about its work. “In a time of contentiousness within our denomination, and in a surrounding culture that seems to encourage heated rhetoric and barbed statements, we conducted ourselves with a great deal of grace, respect, and kindness,” Bard said. “While there may be separation in the future, we stood for making that separation as gracious as possible.”
Amidst the celebration and anticipation about the possibilities presented by the petition just passed by the Special Session of The Michigan Annual Conference, comes the reminder that change is ahead. “Every part of the church is going to experience change—annual conferences and local churches,” Bard told the Special Session. “We must continue to remind ourselves that the God who calls us together continues to call us to ministry.”
Bishop David Bard rejoiced that support for placing the Protocol in the hands of delegates to the 2020 General Conference now spans three continents. “If the legislation sent forward serves as a solid foundation for a new future for Methodism in the United States and globally, United Methodists in Michigan, Sierra Leon, and the Philippines Annual Conference Cavite, will have played an important role,” he stated. “It is significant in our global church that this legislation is being sent to the General Conference by conferences in Africa, Asia, and the United States,”