Conference delegates react to General Conference 2019

By John W. Coleman

Nearly two weeks after The United Methodist Church’s dramatic and historic 2019 Special General Conference, which was supposed to point the denomination’s Way Forward, conversations and news stories are still full of questions and answers, opinions and updates.

“The dust is still swirling,” says UM News Service, which is trying to keep up while keeping the church informed. Meanwhile, comments are populating sermons and church meetings, social media and blog posts, even church banners and marque signs.

On the cusp of the Lenten season, it may be ironic that after a baptism-like, first-day immersion into inspirational prayer, the GC2019 delegates and the global church they represent were driven into a legislative wilderness of torment. But emerging from that wilderness will require much longer than the 40 days of Lent.

United Methodists of all perspectives—from traditional to progressive and in-between—are grappling with how welcoming the denomination should be of LGBTQ members and whether that welcome should extend to accepting their participation in marriage and ordained ministry.

Bishop Peggy Johnson, who sees people of good faith and goodwill on both sides of the controversy, has offered her clear sentiments in several writings. Like her, most members of the UMC Council of Bishops supported the losing One Church Plan. It would have allowed U.S. churches and conferences flexibility to decide for themselves on same-sex unions and ordination of gay clergy, while allowing the international Central Conferences to maintain their predominantly traditional policies.

Bishop Johnson will report on General Conference to Eastern PA members on March 16 at West Lawn UMC and at four district town hall meetings later this month. She also plans to visit several churches to answer questions and address concerns.

“Lots of things are up in the air,” the bishop says in a new video statement posted on the conference website and YouTube page. “But we know our mission is to ‘make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.’ … We are very much a part of God’s work, even if we don’t always agree on the same things.”

The UMC’s Judicial Council must rule on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan and a new “disaffiliation” policy, both passed by the General Conference. The plan, approved by a close vote, more strictly enforces prohibitions against same-gender weddings and LGBTQ ordained ministers. The disaffiliation, or “gracious exit” policy would allow churches, under required conditions, to take their properties and assets with them if they leave the denomination for conscientious reasons.

“The LGBTQIA community has been deeply wounded by the results of General Conference,” explained Bishop Johnson. “People who are gay, transgender, queer feel that this is their identity, and to hear that this is really a sin is hurtful. So I apologize to this community for the hurt that has been inflicted on them. I pray that someday we’ll work through this so that we can understand each other better, as we continue to have holy conferencing and do Jesus’ work together.”

Indeed, the bishop went further in a column she wrote for her Bishop’s Blog: “I believe with all my heart that eventually The United Methodist Church will become a welcoming and affirming denomination in ministry with the LGBTQIA+ community. Like the arc of justice, the wait is long, and the struggle can last a long, long time.”

The Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, who led the Eastern PA Conference delegation and appears in the same brief video, urges members to become more engaged, not less, by volunteering to serve on district and conference boards and committees and to be  equalizing lay delegates at Annual Conference in June.

“Right now is the time to engage with one another,” she says, cautioning people not to retreat from each other but to seek common ground. 

Taylor-Storm, who remained neutral in her comments leading up to the special legislative session, seemed to take a side in supporting an amendment on the General Conference floor on Monday, Feb. 25.

“I speak for all who are at home feeling betrayed, harmed, undermined by this work,” she told the body after it had voted down the One Church Plan. “The Church is not the General Conference. This conference is not a full expression of who we are as United Methodists.”

“And hear me, friends,” she continued in a trembling voice, offering a prophetic statement that drew thunderous shouts and applause, along with newspaper coverage and many likes and shares of the Facebook video clip. “Resurrection happens on the third day, not because people voted for it. Resurrection happens on the third day because the movement of God could not be legislated. You see, God does not depend on a majority vote.”

As Superintendent of the South District, Taylor-Storm wrote to her constituents in a letter after General Conference. “I cannot ignore the fact that many throughout our district are hurting this day. The LGBTQIA+ community serve amongst us as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ; they are our beloved sisters and brothers, friends, neighbors, and, for many of us, our children. God is clear that, ’If one member suffers, all suffer together.’”

The Rev. Joe DiPaolo, a conservative delegate, was pleased with the voting outcome, although troubled by the painful process and the rancorous protests that erupted near the end. “I think I will lose some folks who are more progressive,” he said of the church he serves, First UMC Lancaster, a congregation with diverse views. He was quoted in a recent UM News Service article, “Reaction to GC2019 remains strong.”

“The actions taken by General Conference have kept the teachings of our denomination on marriage and sexuality aligned with those of the Church universal worldwide, and have prevented the loss of most of our churches in Africa and other parts of the world,” he shared in written comments to NEWSpirit Communications. “It has also prevented divisive debate and conflict from being visited upon nearly every local church in the United States.”  

Still, he described the conference as “exhausting, spiritually, physically and emotionally, leaving many who were there grieved and raw.

“Personally, I was saddened and embarrassed by the conduct of many delegates and observers,” he lamented. “I did not hear any disparaging or insulting statements from those who spoke on the floor on behalf of the Traditional Plan. But I did hear many insulting and demeaning comments, even accusations based on mere ‘rumors, aimed at those who believe in the historic teaching of the Christian church on marriage.”

DiPaolo is a leader in the churchwide Wesleyan Covenant Association that championed the Traditional Plan and a modified version of it. The association of conservative members and churches was prepared to depart as a group and form a new Wesleyan denomination next month but decided this week to remain in the UMC at least for now, pending rulings by the Judicial Council and subsequent legislation at the 2020 General Conference.

“Despite all, I remain hopeful for the future of the United Methodist Church,” he wrote. “I long for us to find ways, even in our disagreements, to change the dynamic of conflict that has characterized the last few years of our life together. I yearn to find ways to work together to reach our broken world with the healing power of the gospel.” 

Jane Bonner, another conservative delegate, is convener of the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Evangelical Connection. “I believe the implementation of the Traditional Plan is a key to Methodism returning to the original purpose God intended us to serve,” she wrote in her comments. “Contrary to its title, the One Church Plan would have divided Methodists, not only from each other globally, but within each congregation and from the historic Christian faith.”

Bonner’s daughter, the Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner, came out as lesbian in November 2018 and spoke to the Eastern PA Conference delegation after the Special Session adjourned one evening. The Rev. Bonner directs Frontera Wesley, the Wesley Foundation of Tucson, a campus ministry whose students work for mercy and justice on Arizona’s U.S. border with Mexico. She told delegates that if upheld, the changes in the UMC’s Book of Discipline could endanger her career in ordained ministry.

“I am rightfully nervous to have my orders held by a conference with such a traumatically painful history of trials,” she wrote on Facebook. “I will not be surrendering anything without a fight.”

“Although, it has been painful for many, and I have suffered personal loss through this process, I am relieved this dispute is settled,” said Jane Bonner. “After signing a covenant with my delegation to hold to the pattern of Christian Conferencing, I was shocked at the manner in which the proponents of the One Church Plan verbally abused sitting Bishops and viciously referred to Traditionalists. Wearing big campaign buttons and boisterously shouting interruptions gave the whole conference the effect of a political rally rather than holy conferencing. I am hopeful that better teaching about our identity in Christ will bring greater understanding and peace among us. I look forward to all of us learning to love better and more genuinely.”

The Rev. Jeff Raffauf, the pastor of West Lawn UMC, and Judy Ehninger, of Asbury UMC Allentown, led many UMC Way Forward preparatory dialogues as delegates prior to General Conference.

Ehninger said she’s “praying for healing… patience and courage to be a non-anxious presence.”  Meanwhile, Raffauf summed up the Way Forward in different terms in his personal blog during the contentious Special Session:

“So now we are left to pick up the pieces from this very public family fight. We are left to figure out how to live faithfully together, and how we can continue to call all people to faith in Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “We are left to sort out how we can be a light to the nations when we can barely get along. For me, it’s simple — not easy, but simple….

“Come March 1st there will still be hungry people to feed, homeless people to shelter, broken people to whom we offer the healing balm that is Jesus Christ, and a message of Good News to be proclaimed. And we will do it, together — with whoever chooses to be a part of that. That’s what we do. It’s who we are.”

Want to read more opinions of Eastern PA Conference members? Check out Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kristin Holmes’ article:

Local United Methodists grapple with denomination decision on gay clergy and same-gender weddings