From Sidelines to Front Row in the Movement For LGBT Inclusion

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Left photo courtesy United Methodist News Service

By now you have likely heard what happened at the Western Jurisdiction meeting of the United Methodist Church.  In our church, jurisdictions have many responsibilities, primary among them to elect new Bishops.  My jurisdiction had one slot to fill due to the retirement of Bishop Brown.  Last year I was elected from my conference as a voting delegate to the conference.  I was one of the 100 people responsible for what happened.

Leading up to the conference I was called or emailed by representatives from several of the candidates for Bishop.  Each time I laid out for them what I was looking for in a candidate to support, and top of my list was my concern for the vitality of our local churches.  The strength of United Methodism as a whole is directly linked to the health of our local churches and no one can claim that we don’t have an unfolding crisis in local church health.

It has always been my assertion that the Annual Conference exists primarily to support local congregations not the other way around.  This is something I believed as a local church pastor and something I continue to claim now as a conference staff person.  The whole institution of the church succeeds when our local churches do.

At the same time I have been at best a sideline observer on the quest for full LGBT inclusion in the church.  This has never been my personal cause.  I’ve never been a vocal advocate.  I’ve never preached on the subject in my church.  I have been quick to claim that I do have “gay friends” when discussing the issue with my more progressive colleagues.  In private I am supportive, but publically I have been silent.

Four years ago I cautioned our previous delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conferences to not go to fast.  I was afraid my center-right leaning congregation would be left behind and be deeply divided if we moved to change the churches stance on LGBT inclusion.  I didn’t want to cause harm to my people or my church.  So I know many are feeling the same way now about this year’s conferences.

Voting on the final ballot

Voting on the final ballot

So, how did I get from there to here? From the sidelines to actively, and publicly, embracing my small role in electing the first “out” Bishop.  The full story, unfolding over the last few months, is too long to share.  So instead let me share about the last few days.  I came into Jurisdictional Conference uncertain about who I would support.  I had my top three but Rev. Oliveto was not one of them.

As part of the process our delegation met with all the candidates for about 30 minutes each.  First up was Rev. Oliveto.  In her speech to the whole conference the day before she had said something that perked my interest a lot, “We have allowed our differences to be a distraction from discipleship.”  Yes!  Yes we have.  So I was eager to hear more.

In her time with us she responded eloquently to the questions we had prepared.  She reminded us that our job was to “Keep showing up, stay rooted in love, and remember we have no need to be defensive.”  Amen.  She then talked about how we as clergy have the unique responsibly to give our skills away.  We should not use our expertise to hold ourselves above our congregations but instead use our knowledge to equip everyone for the work of the church.  Amen again!

Finally, in response to a question about the role of the annual conference she stated, “the primary purpose of the annual conference is to equip local churches.”  In that moment I didn’t just want her to be a bishop in the church, I wanted her to be my bishop.  A very good friend leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m guessing she has your vote.”  Yes.  Yes she did.

Rev. Oliveto, in my opinion, is the best candidate we had before us in this election by my own criteria.  That became more and more clear the better I got to know her.  Her love of Jesus, the church, and her passion for making disciples was evident in everything she said and did.  She is a person of wisdom and joy.  I am an unapologetic progressive evangelical and as I got to know Rev. Oliveto I feel I have found a kindred spirit.  Even though I don’t think she would embrace the label as I do.

All of this leads to what was the most personally shameful part of this whole process.  As I prayed and discerned my part in this moment one thought would not leave me, I wised Rev. Oliveto wasn’t gay.  I wished we could be blessed by all her obvious gifts and graces without the baggage.  I wished the story could be about how an amazing episcopal leader had been found who was going to take the church in a new direction and that’s it.  I didn’t want to make history.  I just wanted the best person for the job.  This is my sin in this process and I need to repent of it.

Because here is the thing.  Rev. Oliveto would not be who she is if she wasn’t who she is.  Being gay is part of the package.  It is one of the gifts God gave her to shape her into the leader we need her to be.  It’s inseparable from the other parts of her I already adore.  We need her to be her complete, true, self.

One small, often overlooked, part of the fight for full LGBT inclusion is this: By denying people full participation in the church we are denying ourselves their gifts and graces.  Today, when fewer and fewer even care about what the church does, we need joyful and dedicated leaders to help us take the good news into new places.  In Rev. Oliveto I firmly believe we have one of those leaders and I expect the Holy Spirit to move in amazing ways in the months and years to come.

We are being blessed by God through our new Bishop.  I am doing all I can to allow that blessing to cast out my fear.  Yes, some will reject what we’ve done.  Yes, some members and clergy may leave our churches.  I know this.  But I also know that the election of Bishop Oliveto was not simply a parliamentary process, it was a Pentecost moment.  A moment where the Holy Spirit moved in a rare and palpable way.

I claim my part and my responsibly in this decision. I am open to discussion with any who have questions or concerns (jscott@mtnskyumc.org).  I fully embrace the rocky road that lays ahead because I know we have chosen the narrower path that leads to life.

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Are Conservative United Methodists Preparing for #Methxit ?

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Courtesy United Methodist News Service

First off, yes, that’s me.  Caught in an unflattering moment for sure.  I wanted my time at General Conference 2016 to be about something other than what it ended up being about.  I wanted it to be mostly about congregations:  My love and hope for them and discerning if and how this highest body of United Methodism could be a better aid to them in some way.

Instead, it turned into something else.  Somehow, over those two weeks, I was shaped in a new way, into a stronger advocate you might say, and it happened over bacon.  Very good bacon.

robandmeAs part of the Western Jurisdiction delegation, I was asked to attend the Good News coalition breakfasts that happened each morning of General Conference.  When we got into the legislative part of our time, our delegation wanted to know what guidance they were giving folks about which legislation.  I wasn’t super excited to do this, but I was willing.

 

The legislation part wasn’t, in the end, all that interesting.  They publish their voting guides just like all the rest of the groups do.  In the breakfast, you did get to hear some commentary not in the guide, which at times was enlightening.  Mostly, though, even that was variations on “if this passes people will give less money to your churches.”  Fear mongering, pure and simple.

No, the truly interesting part was the daily devotional time.  This was where the real messages they wanted to communicate were shared.  For now, I just want to talk about the last two that I saw from Wednesday and Thursday of the second week (I didn’t attend Friday). I plan to cover others later.

Wednesday was Maxie Dunnam.  This is apparently someone you are supposed to know, but I had no clue who he was.  I learned later that he’s an important figure in the Good News movement and former president of Asbury Seminary.  In a sermon with enough self-deprecation to move it from charming to desperate feeling, he laid out his feelings about the current impasse the church finds itself in.  He didn’t name LGBT issues specifically, but in this room he didn’t need to. I won’t dig too deep into his message since I recorded it and you can watch it below if you want.  For me the money quote comes about in the middle, around 7:45 mark, where he says:

“We [meaning orthodox, conservative, evangelical, etc] are going to demonstrate that our loyalty and commitment to unity is not through structure and intuition, it’s through doctrine, discipline, and mission.  Rather than support for structures and apportionments.  I ought to get an Amen from you on that.”

I remember very clearly sitting in my seat thinking, did he really just say that?  He did.  And yes, they gave him an Amen.

Thursday was Rev. Kenneth Levingston from Jones Memorial in Houston, Texas.  Now Thursday is the day after the Howard motion passed and took all human sexuality petitions off the table and opened the door for a special General Conference in 2018/19.  So, this morning it was becoming clear that the stalemate around human sexuality in the church would continue.  I went into this breakfast very interested in hearing what would be said about this.  Then Rev. Levingston spoke, and if I was surprised at what I felt was being so clearly communicated from Rev. Dunnam, this guy wasn’t even trying obscure his intentions.

Drawing on the stories of Abram and Lott and Paul and Barnabus, he laid out the biblical imperative for separation.  No words minced here.  Towards the end, around the 7:45 mark, he says,

“Sometime we have to spend some time apart so that maybe down the road God can bring us down together.”

 Again, if you are interested, you can watch the whole thing below.

So let’s think through what this means.  Who was going to speak, and when, was announced back at the first breakfast.  They were obviously invited well in advance and had obviously prepared their remarks beforehand.  These were not off the cuff messages responding to the events of the previous days.  These were intentional messages delivered at intentional times.

Basically, it felt orchestrated.   Now, perhaps there was a Plan A / Plan B arrangement depending on how legislation went.  That is very possible.  But there is simply no way some part of this wasn’t determined ahead of time.  It’s also important to consider that if this is what they are willing to say publically, where even people like me can hear, what is being said privately, in rooms where nobody else is listening?

Now, add to this, this announcement from the same people who put on this breakfast, announcing the new Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The purpose statement from their own website about this new association starts with,

“In these times of great uncertainty about the future of The United Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Covenant Association stands together as an alliance to advance vibrant, scriptural Christianity within Methodism.”

Great uncertainty about the future of The United Methodist Church? You do not need to read between the lines too much to see what is happening here.  If remaining in the United Methodist Church becomes too unpalatable where do you go?  How about simply building up the association you’ve already created.

Then, this happens:  Conferences from my jurisdiction nominate two openly gay pastors for Bishop and a conference from the the North-central Jurisdiction does the same.  After creating near perfect conditions for schism, the Good News folks now also have the perfect scapegoat.

I need to say now that I’m not normally a conspiracy person.  I don’t believe the world is controlled by secret councils or a cartel of bankers or anything like that.  I also don’t really think what we are seeing unfold here is even a conspiracy.  What I do think is happening is that one side in this debate has dug in so far, and put all their chips down on one position, that they don’t have anywhere else left to go.  Irresistible force meet immovable object.

So, where do we go then?  Well, next week will be jurisdictional conferences across the United States.  I will be attending, and voting, at mine.  We will prayerfully consider who is best called to fill our one open Bishop slot.  My brothers and sisters in the North-Central Jurisdiction will do the same.  My guess is both of these elections will be very closely watched.

 

To be fair, I really don’t know what is going to happen.  But I write all of this so that we can all have our eyes a little more open.  Let’s not pretend that groundwork isn’t being laid right now for a massive “I’m taking my ball and going home” moment in the life of the United Methodist church because that is exactly what is going on.  Let’s also not pretend that those who have the most to gain, those who would be the leaders in this new Orthodox Evangelical Methodist Church, aren’t the ones fanning the flames the most.

Let’s drop the pretexts and just call a spade a spade.  Let’s have the integrity to stop hiding behind rhetoric about covenant and orthodoxy and say aloud what’s really going on.

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On Schism: Is it the Holy Spirit tempting us?

It is 3am and I am awake.  I am awake because dozens of messages flooded by phone from Untied Methodist friends far and wide.  Some pleading with me to tell them that the recent rumors of a renewed effort to divide our denomination were not true.  I write this in a time of uncertainty, not knowing what is true yet.  My mind is swimming with the potential implications of what dividing the church could mean.  What harm it would cause.  Whose lives would be affected.  None of this leads to a restful posture but instead is a recipe for sleeplessness.

As I laid in bed one thought continued through my head that I finally decided to rise and put down in words.  What is behind this?  Not who to be honest.  I know there have been persons pushing for this for several General Conferences now.  I am in no way surprised that some group of people decided to push this agenda again.  Not who, but instead what force.

Is this the Holy Spirit?

At the current moment we are both continuing our decline as denomination in terms of membership and attendance but we are also waking up with the fact that the vitality of our local churches needs to be a priority.  In my area we have recently made new and large investments in helping bring about more vital congregations through the creation of my position and others.  We are starting new churches at an unprecedented rate and working with more and more local churches to get reengaged in their communities and reclaiming their mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world.  Surely, if the Holy Spirit is somewhere it is there?  Surely if God is moving it is with those brave disciples on the ground working to bless their neighbors.  Surely that is where the prince of peace and the God of grace is!

So what then emboldens and empowers those that would derail that work, bring unquestionable harm to local churches, and waste precious time and likely millions of dollars on an effort to rip our denomination in two?  I cannot help but think of the one who tempted Jesus in the desert.  

Three times Jesus is tempted with the easy path.  He is tempted to test God’s goodness.  He is tempted to forgo the hard work that laid ahead of him.  He is tempted to seize power and bend the world with it.  Each time Jesus resisted.

The power that tempts us today I do not believe is the Holy Spirit.  I do not believe it is the God that in his nature models for us what it means to be both diverse and unified.  The one that tempts us this day, the one that drives me from my sleep to write these words, is the same that tempted Jesus so long ago.  And like him we must too resist the temptation to grab power, avoid the hard work of bridge building, and abandoning God and God’s promise.

Yesterday, on the floor of General Conference, I held hands across the tables to sing Blessed be the Tie That Binds.  Let us all pray that that tie is strong enough for us in the hours and days that lead ahead.

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Four things that aren’t really holding us back [and the one that is]

An article is making the rounds titled “Five things are holding Christianity back.”  It is a good, succinct, listing of things I’ve heard for a while.  As I read through I started to ask, are these things really holding us back?  Are we even being held back?  Or is the truth that we are actually not even trying to move forward.

In order for something to hold you back you first must be trying to go somewhere.  Are we?  I’m not sure.

I do want to address the articles list though, to offer a slightly differing opinion.

Buildings
dentalYes, the great golden calf that is our beloved building.  Loved by those who gather there, despised by church reformers everywhere.  “If only we didn’t have to put all this money into the buildings!” the argument goes, “We’d be free as birds to do God’s work.

Excepting of course that most birds have nests.  Never mind that part.

Actually, the author of the article gives up his own argument with this line: “In some cases, these financial burdens are being turned back into the soil as they are sold off, repurposed, or given away to those who can do something relevant and exciting with them.”  Okay, how about us?  Can’t we be the ones who do something interesting and relevant with them?

Even the examples he offers fall within this line of thinking.  For some reason though the author seems to think that the congregation the built the building can’t be made to think differently about it.

I’ll call foul on that one.

When I was first shown around my current church where I serve as pastor I was shown an entire floor of empty Sunday school rooms.  The person giving the tour waxed about how it would be nice to have them full again.  She was thinking Sunday school, I was thinking something else.   Along the line a few members, here from the beginning of my tenure (i.e. not new people), caught the vision too.  Today those rooms house our Free Store, which has given away over $100,000 in clothing and household goods in its first 18 months.

Also when I arrived we were doing school supply donations.  Over the years we’ve increased our relationship with the elementary school next door.  So much so, that the principle (of a public school) came and addressed our church on Sunday morning.  He talked about how blessed they are to have us as neighbors, and that for them it’s like having an additional 20,000 square feet right next door.

Buildings aren’t the issue (most of the time), it’s how we view them.  So long as they are in reasonable condition they are the greatest assets one can have for experimental ministry.  We started our Free Store for $75, mostly spent on paint, because we had rent free space to use.  If we had to rent it, even for just a little, the project never would have got moving.

Denominations
Ah yes, the curse of institution.  I’ll be the first to say my tradition has too much institution, hands down, no argument.  However, I’m not sure the process of connecting local congregations with other local congregations is a bad thing.  In fact, I think it’s a very good thing!

Like buildings, denominations aren’t really the issue, it’s what you do with them.   Too often though we make them an end unto itself.   The thinking is “We must do this to keep United Methodism going.”  As if United Methodism was the point.  Well, sorry to break it to you, it’s not the point, the Kingdom of God is.

Denominations then function as any basic human organization.  We human have been organizing ourselves along different lines for most of history, so there must be something to it.

Like all organizations though it’s affectivity will be determined on how well it lives out its stated purpose.   For my tradition that would be “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  If you want to know if we are doing a good job you need only ask how well we are doing at that.

Not very good unfortunately.

That, however, doesn’t mean that denominations are wrong, we are just misaligned.  Humans will always organize themselves, and they will always be stronger, smarter, and more capable because they do.  The challenge is to make sure that the energy and effort you capture through organizing is pointed in the right direction.  Yes, we’re off the mark right now, but that doesn’t mean the denominational project is wrong.

Worship
I’m not sure how you can argue that the thing we do to put ourselves in intentional relationship with the loving God that directs the universe is somehow holding us back.  Thankfully the author doesn’t go there.

tradI’m going to agree with most of his points here actually.  Yes, keeping dead traditions alive because we find it easier isn’t true worship.  However, we need to be cautious about how we decide what’s dead.   I see too many young families walking out of the little Orthodox Church up the street to make any real sweeping claims on the subject.

Second, yes, worship is not the front door it used to be.  Many first encounter the church during it’s mission and work in the world.  However, and this is a big however, it was drilled into my head the fact that you can’t grow a church with bad worship.  You can be as missional and outgoing as the day is long, if worship is a snore you won’t grow.  Period.

Bad worship might be holding us back.  Good worship will set us free.

Church Boards
This will follow my argument about denominations.  Structure isn’t bad, outdated structure is.  Boards are there to coordinate the life of the church, that’s good, that needs doing.  They are not there to be authoritarian and micromanagers, that’s bad.

Again, a place where I more or less agree with the author.

Fear
This is where he actually gets it head on.  Fear is the greatest enemy of Christianity today for one simple reason, fear is the opposite of faith.

Faith isn’t about having all the answers.  It’s not about knowing exactly what’s going to happen and when.  If you had those things you actually won’t need faith.

No, faith is, despite incomplete or conflicting data, choosing to trust in an outcome you cannot fully predict.  Fear is a lack of trust in that same outcome.

Faith and fear are opposites, and if the whole of Christianity is based on a claim of faith, faith about God, faith about Jesus, and faith about the Holy Spirit, fear is the one and only true cancer on Christianity today.

Our future will not look like the past.  We know this.  However, we don’t know what it will actually look like, our data is incomplete.  Faith moves forward while fear stands in place and cowers.

So back to where we started, are we even trying to go somewhere, or are we standing motionless?  Choosing to see only what is wrong, what we perceive is holding us back is a reaction of fear.  It’s excuse making.  Faith looks around and asks, “I wonder what God wants made of this?”  How does God want us to use our old Sunday school rooms, our denominations, our structure, and our worship?  Those are questions of faith and trust.

Our inability to ask these questions is the only thing truly holding us back.

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MeTalk: The church with no windows

Recently, I newer person to our church commented that we had windows.  At first I thought this was a rather unusual thing to get excited about, but after we talked a bit I saw where she was coming from.

church window 1Lots of modern worship spaces have no windows, no outside light, and nothing “natural” in them.  They are designed more like movie theaters than the stained glass bejeweled cathedrals of old.

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