News out of the 2019 General Conference caused pain and uncertainty for many. United Methodist congregations in Michigan offered information and pastoral care.
Senior Content Editor, Michigan Conference
It’s been a week since the 2019 General Conference adjourned in St. Louis, MO. February 24-26, delegates from around the globe engaged in debate, and then 822 of them voted on the Traditional Plan. That plan was approved (53%-47%) and is now under review by the denomination’s Judicial Council scheduled to meet in late April.
“The United Methodist Church will maintain its stance on human sexuality,” wrote Bishop David Bard, in a March 3rd pastoral letter read in many Michigan Conference congregations. “In addition, enhanced enforcement provisions were approved as a way to encourage pastors, bishops, and churches to follow Disciplinary requirements. The plan encourages those who disagree with these positions to consider leaving to form another Methodist organization. It is not yet clear which of these provisions will be ruled constitutional or how they may be implemented.”
Last week St. Louis, Missouri was at the epicenter of determining a course into the future for the worldwide United Methodist Church. Here in the United States, the effects of legislation passed at General Conference are being felt in places like St. Louis, Michigan.
Located in the Mid-Michigan District, St. Louis First United Methodist Church is a congregation of 220 members, similar to many town and country congregations all over this nation. Their Facebook page is filled with posts about a Fat Tuesday pancake dinner and youth collecting pop cans to fund a mission trip to Kentucky. First Church sponsors a Scout Troop and their United Methodist Women serve up free Community Soup Suppers.
St. Louis First UMC is pastored by the Rev. Terri Bentley. And perhaps the first-Sunday-after-General-Conference in this congregation was not unlike that observed in many churches across Michigan and beyond.
“We had a baptism and communion on March 3rd,” Pastor Terri said. “I read the Bishop’s letter and printed letters so that people could take them home and read them rather than just hear the words.” She explained that she had done classes and reviewed the plans before General Conference. “I have tried to keep people informed from the very beginning,” she noted. The Sunday before General Conference was a day to talk about, “Do no harm. Do Good. And stay in love with God.” She said that there are persons at First UMC who are supportive of the Traditional Plan and others who are not.
Reflecting on the time with parishioners on March 3rd, Bentley, shared, “None of us knows exactly what this means, but St. Louis First will continue to be a congregation that welcomes people. We have LGBT people who attend, and they are loved.” She reported saying to one gay person after worship, “Please don’t leave. My heart breaks right along with yours.” The person’s response was, “It will take more than this to get me to leave.”
In terms of what’s next, Bentley said, “We will keep on keeping on. We don’t know what the Judicial Council will say, and General Conference meets again next year.” She confessed that her initial personal reaction during General Conference was, “I am done. I can’t do this anymore.” By Tuesday’s vote to approve the Traditional Plan, she said, “I felt better but was hurting. I am still hurting. Waiting is not easy.”
Elsewhere in Michigan
In an interview aired February 27th on Michigan Radio’s Stateside, the Rev. Dr. Joy Moore of Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint and Wesleyan Covenant Association Council Member said, “It was a difficult few days for The United Methodist Church. I don’t think anyone won with that vote. What we attempted to do was continue the position that the denomination has always held.” Then she added perspective by saying, “I think we hadn’t recognized yet that the church had not moved as quickly as the culture. And by attempting to do that in an off-season focused vote, I think we did more harm in the conversations we had with one another in seeing again that the majority still believes that our Discipline is the church that they joined and the church that they want to remain a part of.”
In St. Louis, Michigan and elsewhere, the headlines coming out of General Conference did do harm. This prompted many congregations to rally to do good in the name of a loving God. United Methodist churches around the state held meetings in the wake of the General Conference. These gatherings provided opportunities to share information, listen, and reaffirm a spirit of welcome.
The General Conference adjourned at 6:30 pm on February 26. That same evening, Grand Rapids First United Methodist Church held a prayer service “for all who were wounded by the decisions of General Conference.” Approximately 100 were in attendance, expressing lament, anger and hope. Senior Pastor, the Rev. Dr. Bob Hundley, described the two years of preparation that came before that service. “We have held more than a dozen pastoral forums so that congregants could not only know the issues, but talk about them openly,” he said. During those two years, the congregation adopted a theological statement of what it means to be a “progressive United Methodist Church,” and hosted an “Inclusion First” educational event in November 2018 that reached members and the community.
During the week following General Conference, Hundley wrote a pastoral letter, nearly 200 people attended a Sunday morning Pastor’s Forum, and worship focused on healing. First Church’s Leadership Council established a Steering Committee, “that will work to help us prayerfully and decisively into our future,” according to the Senior Pastor. The pastoral care team is reaching out to LGBTQ persons in the church and “the wide circle of care that is ours in this urban center congregation.” Hundley concludes: “The decisions of General Conference have this congregation reeling with extraordinary disappointment, distrust of the bureaucracy of the church, and questioning whether the United Methodist Church is any longer relevant in the lives of people (all people), that we are called to love and serve.”
The Rev. Mike Riegler, pastor of Montague United Methodist Church, is feeling that “General Conference stirred everything up rather than having settled anything.” He talked with his congregation about the 2019 General Conference on March 3rd and said, “Everybody who commented thanked me for being clear and for keeping them in the loop in a loving a caring manner.” Riegler spent months preparing the congregation. “After going through the steps and letting others speak, I shared my position; that I am affirming of LGBTQ persons, but I will not be performing same-sex marriages.” He continued, “That’s where I stand, so I am satisfied that the Traditional Plan passed.” He went on to share that, “Some have told me I would change my mind if I got enlightened, but I have studied carefully and prayerfully for many years and, theologically, I can’t get to a place where I find same-sex marriage in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be acceptable.” Riegler said that his congregation is a “harder read,” noting, “My church stands in a more progressive-liberal position than I do, with exceptions, or course. But my relationship with them is good, even with those who disagree with me.” He doesn’t believe the conversations about General Conference in his congregation “changed any minds.” Looking ahead, Pastor Mike reflected, “What could come is a bit of a mystery. I wish people would sit still and abide in the Lord and let this play through.”
The morning after General Conference, the Rev. Nancy Lynn, Senior Pastor of Ann Arbor First United Methodist Church, sent a pastoral letter “affirming who we are as a welcoming congregation as well as our love and acceptance of our LGBTQ+ members and community at large.” The church and the Wesley Foundation co-hosted a Service of Affirmation, Prayer, and Communion the evening of February 27th. The pastor reported, “We sang, prayed, and came to the table together. Chaplain Tim Kobler and I each gave a short homily affirming that we will continue to welcome all people in our ministries.” Over the weekend there were Q and A sessions at both Ann Arbor FUMC locations to help the congregation understand what happened at General Conference and what might happen next. Pastor Lynn added, “On Sunday morning our youth and families made welcoming posters and stood outside our building with their posters as people were walking by before worship began.”
“The people at First United Methodist of Holland were deeply grieved by the actions of GC 2019,” said the Senior Pastor, the Rev. Brad Bartelmay. “General Conference’s failure to move toward justice was particularly poignant for us since we had just voted overwhelmingly in a church conference to become a Reconciling Congregation on Sunday, February 17th.” The congregation held a worship experience on Thursday, February 28th, focused on “creating space for people to share their woundedness, and anger and through this to discover hope for the future.” Then those attending worship on March 3rd, participated in a remembrance of baptism. Bartelmay described the act as “a way of reminding ourselves that we are followers of Christ first and that other commitments (including denominational ones) must be examined in light of Christ’s radical call to justice and community.” The pastor expressed gratitude that the community of faith in Holland has set its course, “committed to living in fully inclusive relationship with all our neighbors, while we strive for justice for our LGBTQIA siblings and their allies.”
The Rev. Matt Hook, senior pastor of Dexter United Methodist Church was a reserve delegate to the 2019 General Conference. He had parishioners emailing and texting him while he was in St. Louis. Once home, he wrote an all-church email on March 1st, that included Bishop Bard’s pastoral letter to the Michigan Conference. Emotions were mixed. “Overarching was sadness over the realization that we are not as united as we may have thought we were,” Hook said. “There was sadness for our brothers and sisters who are LGBTQ folks, who may have been hurt by the decisions.”
His sermon on March 3rd addressed the decisions made in St. Louis. “Some thought it was just right and others thought it was not enough,” he reported. His preaching began with, “Here at Dexter we continue to be a messy and loving church that welcomes all people to take their next step with Jesus.” Hook shared that the global church gathering, “reaffirmed the church’s stance regarding sexual ethics as it relates to its clergy regarding ordination and weddings. There was no way everyone would feel satisfied with the outcome and, in either case, some people would feel hurt.” Of his experience as a reserve delegate, he told the congregation, “I witnessed many forms of brokenness. Tons of emotion. But I didn’t have to go to St. Louis to witness that. I witness plenty right here and carry it around in my own heart.” This week Pastor Hook hosted two listening sessions where “people shared their hearts and listened well to one another. They were not all one voice or one opinion.” Hook concludes, “We don’t have time to wait. The most healthy thing we can do is share Christ with more people of every persuasion.”
The Rev. Dale Ostema was among the pastors sitting down to write a monthly blog last week. He began, “I know many of you listened closely as our denomination met in a special General Conference session earlier this week to discuss and decide a way forward for the UMC regarding our ministry to and with sisters and brothers who are gay.” From there he addressed what the actions of General Conference mean for Traverse City Central United Methodist Church, respecting differing views of members. “Some of you may be relieved that the UMC you know and love has not changed its views on this matter. You know Central to be a warm and welcoming church for all and want us to stay this way. Both Pastor Chris and I are honored to be your pastors and we appreciate where you stand.” He went on, “Others of you, like me, are heartbroken and frustrated. We had hoped our General Conference would have allowed us to express our calling to more deeply accept and affirm persons who are gay in our local ministry context.”
Ostema’s blog ended with words of encouragement: “The church you walked out of after worship last week is the same church you’ll walk into this week. … To our gay brothers and sisters, please know even though our denomination says your ‘lifestyle is incompatible with Christian teaching,’ I, along with hundreds of others here and thousands everywhere, say to you, ‘God loves and calls you just as you are.’”
“We were unable to gather for worship during General Conference due to a blizzard that shut down most of the Upper Peninsula,” said the Rev. Kristi Hintz, who pastors Marquette Hope UMC along with her husband, Christopher. “We have members of our congregation on both sides of the polarizing issue of human sexuality,” Kristi said. “But we have consensus around the sadness of division and inability to value unity above judgment.” Pastor Hintz shared that the congregation has turned to their campus community for leadership. “We are blessed to be led by our Northern Michigan University community and its director Erica Thomas.” Students, who have sometimes felt unwelcome in church, experience an “open and welcoming presence,” at NMU, a place known by its tagline, “Love Everyone.” Hintz is ordering more “Love Everyone” magnets and stickers this week for distribution in the community. “It is this expression of welcome, hope, and home for all that led one member to say in worship last Sunday that the response of this congregation has made her once again proud to be a Methodist,” Hintz remarked.
The Rev. Deane Wyllys has been the spiritual leader of Owosso: First United Methodist Church since July 2018. Since he arrived, he has been preparing the congregation, “informing them of the plans for a way forward.” So, on the Wednesday morning after General Conference, he emailed a brief, factual summary. Wyllys also emailed Bishop Bard’s letter to everyone in the congregation as soon as it was available later in the week. “A few people thanked me by email and on Sunday morning,” he said. “It was on our hearts. Only a few shared that they were disappointed with the outcomes.” Personally, the pastor was “hit the hardest by the feeling of hostility in the air as I was watching the livestream.” He regrets coming away with a “strong sense of irreconcilable differences.”
Wyllys remains guardedly hopeful. “My feeling is everyone needs to take a step back and look at what we have and are we willing to sacrifice for all the United Methodist Church does. I think of such things as UMCOR and the wonderful work they do. What would a split do to ministries like that? It would be terrible.” Moving into Lent, he is reminding folks that they need to remember and be sensitive to all sides. “Some are hurt, and some are very thankful, and we need to be sensitive.” He added, “My emphasis starting tonight at Ash Wednesday, is that we all need to have a servant’s heart right now.”
Journey into Lent
Back to the state’s heartland. About an hour drive southeast out of St. Louis, Michigan there is a village church by the name of Mulliken United Methodist Church. Though small, in number, compared to congregations like Grand Rapids First or Traverse City Central, they are no smaller of heart. Which is not to say that everyone agrees with his or her neighbor in the pews of Mulliken UMC.
But something bigger binds this church family together. Their pastor, the Rev. Vaughn Thurston-Cox, carefully explained the actions of the 2019 General Conference to the congregation on March 6th. “I am not asking any of you to change your mind,” he said. “I am not asking you to share my understanding of life together with LGBTQ persons. I am where I am after a two-to-three-year journey. And I didn’t get there because someone pushed me.”
Pastor Vaughn celebrated the diversity present in the sanctuary and talked about possibilities. “One thing I love about us in the church is we are not the same,” he said. “Only God knows what’s possible, right now. The key thing that makes us work as a congregation is that we have been able to see past the things that make us different. We love each other. That’s what makes this congregation work.”
In his March blog, Bishop David Bard invited all Michigan congregations to “observe a holy Lent,” on the heels of General Conference 2019. “Take the pain, hurt, anguish, loss, grief, uncertainty, and injustice in our lives and in the world seriously,” he said. “Trust that if you do, God’s Spirit will continue God’s work of moving us from sadness to tenderness, of taking ashes and creating life, of resurrection.”
As Mulliken UMC joins its 800 sister congregations of The Michigan Conference in celebrating Ash Wednesday, Pastor Vaughn Thurston-Cox proclaims, “What I can say with certainty is, if we just keep on loving each other, we are going to be okay. … I believe in you, because I believe in Jesus, and I see Jesus in you, each of you.”
His benediction on March 3rd rings out beyond Mulliken: “Holy Father, we give you thanks, not because we have all the answers, but because we have the one answer that matters, which is your love in Jesus Christ.”