The Eastern PA Annual Conference considered 23 of 25 submitted resolutions during its 2015 session, May 14-16, and a handful of them generated heavy debate on controversial concerns. But despite some expressions of pain and insistence on loyalty to Scripture and covenant, the desired peaceful, collegial spirit of Holy Conferencing seemed to prevail.
Five resolutions proposed that the Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference to amend the United Methodist Book of Discipline by changing church law that rejects homosexuality as illicit in lifestyle, matrimony and ordained ministry. While several resolutions received a majority of votes, all five–submitted by various churches–failed to receive the required three-fourths proportion of votes needed to send a conference-endorsed petition to General Conference.
Titled “Full Inclusion of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) Persons in the UM,” three of the resolutions sought to achieve that goal by removing prohibitive language from the Discipline. Resolution 2015-13 specified “Eliminate Discrimination;” 2015-14 specified “Marriage Equality;” and 2015-15 specified “Ordination Equality.”
Resolutions 2015-18 and 19 sought amendments to the Book of Discipline’s Social Principles and Constitution, respectively. They would acknowledge and accept differences in beliefs among United Methodists and ensure that churches would not “reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends,” nor exclude them from full participation in church membership.
To save time and reduce repetitive discourse the body agreed to debate the five resolutions together as one block, although they were presented and voted on individually. The hour-long debate ranged from one member who suffered anti-gay insults by fellow church members to others who expressed love for all people regardless of sexual orientation but refused to accept “something contrary to the word of God.” While some appealed for openness to fully accept LGBTQ persons as “made in the image of God,” others expressed anxiety that conservative members and churches would leave the denomination as a result of that full acceptance.
“It’s so important that we as a conference continue to dialogue on these issues and not defer or table them,” said the Rev. Steve Cherry (left) in presenting Resolution 2015-13. “We have to find a way forward together….We need to stay together to do the work of God.”
“We have to find a way forward together”
Indeed, Bishop Peggy Johnson, presiding over the session, affirmed members for their tenacity and for the tone of their debate. “You have worked hard; this body has done good and faithful church conferencing,” she told them. “May I commend you on the tenor of your conversation and the Christian respect that I have felt in this room. Thanks be to God.”
After all five resolutions failed to pass, the Rev. Joan Trout withdrew another resolution she was to present titled “Affirming Standards of Sexual Practice.” She acknowledged the matter had been settled.
The Rev. Joseph DiPaolo ignited more debate, however, with his resolution titled “Affirming Our Covenant and Accountability,” which he reprised from the 2014 Annual Conference. He lamented a “loss of trust rooted in the breaking of trust,” alluding to the recent unlawful performance of same-gender weddings by UM clergy.
DiPaolo urged the conference to demand clergy accountability to the Discipline’s “rules of our common covenant,” and to call upon clergy to challenge those rules only “through legitimate channels of holy conferencing, rather than breaking that covenant.”
Impassioned debate revolved around the understanding and value of the clergy covenant, and the notion of a “higher law” superseding church law and ordination vows, among other issues. Eventually, the resolution passed with 266 members voting yes, 166 voting no and 12 abstentions.
Wesley UMC Quarryville leaves denomination
The fear that challenges and indeed, changes to church law in this arena might prompt conservative churches to leave the denomination was realized on the session’s first day. Conference Trustees Chair Alvin Kingcade reported on the board’s negotiations with Wesley UMC in Quarryville, which recently decided to leave the denomination. According to conference officials, congregational leaders say they have considered leaving for nearly two decades primarily because of the denomination’s homosexuality controversy and recent challenges to the Discipline’s positions and prohibitions.
Founded in 1828, Wesley UMC grew from about 30 worshipers to about 700 in the last two decades, making it the fastest-growing church in the conference and reportedly, in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. Part-time local pastor Blake Deibler has led that remarkable growth since he was appointed there in 1993. The rural church has a $1 million budget but $4 million in mortgage debt, mostly on its new, two-year-old building. It is a debt the conference does not want to assume by taking over the building through the UM Discipline’s trust clause (paragraph 2501).
Therefore, the conference trustees, assisted by Legal Counsel Robert Shoemaker, are negotiating “an unprecedented agreement” to let Wesley keep the property for a payment of $100,000 over five years, plus other monies owed to the conference. They recognize, admitted Kingcade and Shoemaker, that planting a new church there or selling the building for an appreciable amount would be “nearly impossible.” However, they cautioned the conference body that the agreement to relinquish church property should not be considered a precedent for future, similar situations.
The Rev. Dave Lewis presented Resolution 2015-17, calling for continued dialogue about the separation and a report to the 2016 Annual Conference before any decision is made. He admonished conference members about the tragic loss of mission and ministry potential if Wesley UMC leaves–“Potential we’re never going to get back.” It was a loss clearly felt by many who asked questions and voiced dismay.
But the Rev. John Longmire presented a substitute motion authorizing the conference trustees to “negotiate the best possible outcome” in this case, while also setting forth a more accountable process in the event another congregation decides to leave the denomination. That process would require dialogue between the bishop, district superintendent and church members to clarify the implications of their withdrawal, and it would require authorization of any negotiations be given by the annual conference and by a vote of the congregation at a church conference. The motion was approved by the conference body.* (See the decision and new policies and procedures adopted below.)
New Safe Sanctuary policies approved
Additional resolutions voted on by the conference ranged from revised Safe Sanctuary policies based on new Pennsylvania child safety laws, to advocacy on solitary confinement in prison, racial justice, fair wages, and full, equitable state funding of public schools.
Members approved, with a few minor changes, the revised, conference-wide standards for ensuring “Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church” (Resolution 2015-20). But after raising many hard-to-answer questions, they decided to table the related resolution calling for a new conference-wide Electronic Media Policy so it can be developed further and brought before the next conference session. Key sticking points were broad interpretations of the phrase “hate language” and restrictions on the e-mailing of “confidential information.”
Four justice-oriented resolutions all passed
Four justice-oriented resolutions all passed with little opposition. Three called for churches to oppose solitary confinement in prisons and to support payment of equitable, living wages–including at least $15 per hour for church employees–and “a full, fair funding formula for Pennsylvania schools.” A fourth resolution called for:
- the conference’s ministry networking group, the Connectional Table, to “develop and support small-group dialogues on racial justice throughout the annual conference”;
- the bishop and Conference Sessions Commission to make racial justice and white privilege a key element of the 2016 Annual Conference; and
- conference leaders to help congregations and communities advocate for fair, non-racial policing policies and practices, including establishment of independent citizen review boards to monitor and recommend improvements in police conduct.
Another justice-related resolution was tabled by its presenter until the adjourned annual conference session in November. It calls upon the conference to declare all acts of Anti-Semitism as “deplorable” and to stand in support of the State of Israel and “Jewish people everywhere.”
In addition, 24 local church and conference-affiliated programs and ministries were approved as Conference Advance Specials for 2015-2016. That designation affords them authorization to seek direct funding support from churches that have first fulfilled all their conference and general church commitments and wish to extend their stewardship into generous “second-mile giving.” The list of 2015-2016 Advance Specials will be posted on the conference Website in June, where the 2014-2015 list now appears.
Finally, six resolutions were approved together without debate, using a “consent calendar.” They were:
- a consistent start-date of July 1 for all pastoral transitions (with the first Sunday in July being any new pastor’s first Sunday in the pulpit);
- rental or housing allowances for retired or disabled clergy members;
- 2015-2016 guidelines for clergy moving by appointment;
- the adoption agreement to establish 2016 rates and policies of the Clergy Retirement Security Program;
- adjustments in the 2016 minimum starting and base salaries of pastors and other Equitable Compensation policies and considerations; and
- continuation of the Mission Connections initiative launched in 2013 as a two-year experiment in aligning churches for special collaborative ministry and creative mission enterprises.
The Council on Finance and Administration will present a proposed 2016 conference budget for a vote at the special Adjourned Conference session Nov. 14 at Hempfield UMC, with the expectation that economic forecasting and planning for next year will be more accurate at that time.
Story by John W. Coleman, Eastern PA Conference Communications Director
Sabrina Daluisio photos (except for Wesley UMC photo)
*Decision adopted by the 2015 Eastern PA Annual Conference regarding negotiation with Wesley UMC Quarryville, and new policies and procedures for negotiating with churches seeking to withdrawal from the denomination in the future:
Therefore be it resolved that given this unique and unprecedented circumstance, the annual
conference authorize the conference Board of Trustees to negotiate with Wesley UMC,
Quarryville the best possible outcome regarding the future ownership of all property and assets
they hold in trust for the United Methodist Church.
Be it further resolved that in order to avoid setting a precedent, in regard to any future
declaration by a church of our conference to withdraw from our denomination that the following
conditions be met:
1. That the Charge Conference of the local church – not the pastor, nor any group or committee
of the church, but the Charge Conference – present to the Annual Conference, in writing, a
detailed explanation of the reasons for their intent to withdraw.
2. That the Conference Board of Trustees wait to be given authorization and direction by the
Annual Conference before engaging in any discussion or negotiations regarding the
ownership of any united methodist church property or asset.
3. That any vote taken in the local church regarding a change in its relationship to the annual
conference be considered invalid unless it is taken within the context of a Church
Conference as prescribed in the Book of Discipline ❡248 and that the Bishop or District
Superintendent, presiding over the Church Conference, be given adequate time to
communicate with members of the congregation as to the full implications of their