United Methodist Church: To split or not to split

Local clergy from Eastside United Methodist Churches weigh in on the church’s future regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion.

On Jan. 3, the United Methodist Church (UMC) made headlines around the world with news that it would be splitting over issues of LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Except that’s not exactly what’s happening.

The Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler with Faith United Methodist Church (FUMC) in Issaquah explained to me that the plan for UMC to split is just one of a number of proposals that could be voted on in May at the church’s General Conference in Minneapolis.

The General Conference is a UMC summit that brings together people from all over the globe every four years, with delegates representing all geographical areas where there are UMC churches. At the upcoming conference, delegates will vote on what the church’s next steps will be when it comes to the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion.

A decades-long discussion

The church’s stance when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community has been a long-standing, ongoing discussion in UMC for decades — since the 1970s, according to Ingram Schindler.

In 2016, a group of leaders in the church requested the UMC bishops do something to address the issue.

So in February 2019, UMC held a special General Conference during which delegates voted on the issue. The results had the church sticking with a “traditional” plan, which affirmed the restrictions on clergy who performed same-sex marriages and LGBTQ+ clergy.

Ingram Schindler said if UMC clergy were to perform a same-sex marriage — and were reported to the UMC’s governing body — the punishment would be a one-year suspension without pay for the first offense. On the second offense, member of the clergy would lose their credentials. Those would be punishments only if the individual were convicted.

When it comes to LGBTQ+ clergy, Ingram Schindler said they closed loopholes that previously allowed members of the LGBTQ+ community to become ordained in the church.

So why are there restrictions?

According to UMC’s Book of Discipline (the church’s book of law), “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” In addition, the book states, “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

The restrictions and punishments were supposed to go into effect Jan. 1, but now with the upcoming vote on LGBTQ+ inclusion in May, the Rev. Lara Bolger with Redmond United Methodist Church (RUMC) said the church has placed an “abeyance” on the processing of any complaints or trials related to LGBTQ+ issues (abeyance is just another word for suspension or moratorium).

A big deal

As I mentioned earlier, the proposal for UMC to split made headlines earlier this month but things are not as cut and dried.

There are about 10 different plans that are being worked on that will be proposed to delegates.

Ingram Schindler, who is the clergy delegate for the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference (which covers all of Washington and the northwest portion of Idaho), said they will receive the legislation for all of the proposals in the next month or so, and they will vote on them at the General Conference in May.

For each clergy delegate, there is a lay (non-clergy) delegate counterpart and the number of delegates a region has depends on the number of UMC members. So here in the upper left, our church numbers are pretty small to only warrant two delegates. Ingram Schindler said other conferences in the country and around the world can have more than a dozen clergy and lay delegates each.

Although there are so many proposals currently circulating, the one that made headlines did so because a number of well-known leaders in the church signed their names to it. The leaders also had very diverse views — ranging across the spectrum from very traditionalist to very “inclusivist.”

Ingram Schindler said the individuals also put all of their support for that plan, taking their names off of any other plans they may have previously supported.

“That is a big deal,” she said. “And it was an international group, which is significant.”

The Rev. Joe Kim of Bothell United Methodist Church (BUMC) said the proposal gave him a sense of “cautious optimism” because people with varying views were able to come to an agreement and compromise.

Bellevue First United Methodist Church’s (BFUMC) pastor, the Rev. Phil Antilla, agreed, saying the proposal showed good teamwork on both sides. He said any time people are asked to vote and there can only be one winner, about half of the group will not be happy. This proposal involved people representing different platforms coming together — through mediation — working to answer the question of “what can [they] all live with?”

Antilla likened the possible split to a divorce, which is like an immediate death. And in most divorces, people realize that in order to split, they have to work together.

This act — of two parties with widely differing views coming together and compromising — is also significant because in this day and age, it seems to be happening less and less.

Just take a look at Congress.

Suspending clause

And if a split were to happen there are many things to consider. One of the biggest things would be finances and assets.

Ingram Schindler said UMC has a trust clause for individual churches who wish to leave UMC. For example, if members of FUMC decided to become a Lutheran church, it takes more than just changing the signage. She said the property and assets of individual churches actually belong to the greater UMC.

But in the headline-making proposal, that trust clause will be suspended and churches who wish to leave UMC would be able to do so with all of their property and assets. In addition, Bolger said the new traditionalist denomination would receive $25 million over a four-year period. The plan also calls for $39 million to be allotted toward anti-racism work.

The Rev. Steve Baber of St. Peter’s United Methodist Church (SPUMC) in Bellevue said UMC has not fully addressed issues related to race and said if the church had fully addressed them in the past, they probably would not be where they are when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues.

The church or a conference may call themselves progressive, but Baber noted, “you’re progressive on issues you’re comfortable with.”

Hopes for the future

While a split in UMC is not for sure happening, many of the clergy I spoke with on the Eastside feel it is inevitable. They acknowledged that while a split means pain and an end to certain relationships, it can also create a path toward healing.

With a potential split, Ingram Schindler is concerned about the denomination breaking off into homogeneous groups. FUMC is intentionally diverse, with people who are more traditional as well as those who are more inclusive.

During our conversation, Ingram Schindler asked, what does it look like for people to love others who are different from them? She said we need to learn how to have conversations with those who are different from us. We need to learn from others and be challenged by others.

It’s hard to grow in an echo chamber, Ingram Schindler noted.

That last statement was definitely a stop-and-think moment for me regarding my opinions on people who hold different views from me.

Bolger has mixed feelings about the church’s future but said when harm is being caused — in this case to the LGBTQ+ community — in a relationship, a split can mean relief and an end to the harm.

Regardless of what happens to UMC in the future — split or no split — Bolger said she hopes to see, “a place where we can heal from the harm, the wounds that have been inflicted…that there’s space for that.”

Kim of BUMC wants to see a new version of UMC that moves toward breaking down the barriers that may have previously kept people out of the church. Whatever happens, he would like to see the church become more inclusive in helping people become closer to God.

And continuing with the divorce analogy, Antilla said while you probably won’t tell someone, “Congratulations on your divorce,” you can acknowledge a split marks a new beginning. He said UMC is already separated but the upcoming vote may make it official.

Baber said everyone is going to have to grow and he would like to see UMC left with something that allows people to be all that they can be in the church in expressing themselves. He said the church is filled with stories and all stories need to be told. For too long, Baber said, the United States has presented a monolithic story and has told those who don’t fit into that story to be quiet. But everyone’s story must not just be told, but affirmed.

“Being different doesn’t mean being deficient,” Baber said.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact Samantha Pak at spak@soundpublishing.com.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact columnist Samantha Pak at spak@soundpublishing.com.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact columnist Samantha Pak at spak@soundpublishing.com.