A Delegate’s Reflection on the 2022 North Central Jurisdictional Conference

16 11 2022

The following general definitions will be helpful as you read:

  • Traditionalist – one who believes the UMC’s current position on human sexuality best captures the heart of the Scriptures: that all people are of sacred worth and beloved by God, and that sexual activity is meant to only be expressed within a covenant marriage relationship between one man and one woman. I am a traditionalist.
  • Progressive – one who wants to change the UMC’s position to define marriage as being between two consenting adults and allow for ordination of practicing gay and lesbian people. Progressives also believe a traditionalist perspective is unjust and causes harm to the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Centrist – one who wants to change the UMC’s position (like Progressives) but maintains that Traditionalists are still welcome in the future UMC. Centrists say they want to keep everyone together in the UMC despite the differences in belief about marriage and human sexuality.

Background

I was elected in 2019 to serve as a clergy delegate to the North Central Jurisdictional Conference for the 2020-23 quadrennium. After the 2019 special session of General Conference upheld the Book of Discipline’s current stance on human sexuality (again), there was a groundswell of progressive and centrist clergy and laity in the United States who worked together to elect exclusively progressive/centrist delegates for the following quadrennium. In our own conference, this group has been known as “IGRC for Unity”. They were highly successful in narrowly electing a slate of delegates (almost) entirely void of traditionalists. In fact, of the ten clergy elected in our conference, I was the only traditionalist. Only two of the ten laity elected were traditionalists. So, in total, for Jurisdictional Conference, three of our twenty delegates were traditionalist (and only one of ten for General Conference – a layperson).

As you likely know by now, the General Conference was supposed to meet in 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. Leading up to GC2020, traditionalist, progressive, and centrist leaders all worked together to draft legislation, known as The Protocol, to allow for amicable separation of traditionalists from the UMC to form a new denomination (the now Global Methodist Church). There was great support for this Protocol across the theological spectrum until GC2020 was delayed until 2021, then again until 2022. After it was delayed again (or canceled?) until 2024 when the next GC would have met anyway, the progressive and centrist supporters of the Protocol withdrew their support and the Global Methodist Church launched in May of 2022.

In November of 2021, the North Central Jurisdictional Conference met virtually and passed this covenant as an aspirational vision for the future UMC. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already. There is some good in it (combatting racism for instance), but it is overwhelmingly focused on social agendas including LGBTQ+ affirmation, to the near exclusion of evangelistic and discipleship endeavors. Traditionalists only made up 20% of the delegates and the covenant passed by 80%. Over the last six months, there has been increasing pressure from progressives and centrists for traditionalist delegates to resign if their churches are considering disaffiliation or who may not decide to stay in the future UMC. Some such delegates did resign, or their churches disaffiliated. So, entering our North Central Jurisdictional Conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana November 2-5, traditionalists were outnumbered roughly 85%-15%.

Despite the pressure to resign, I did not. I was elected primarily by traditionalist clergy from IGRC, and I was their sole voice. I did not go for myself. Furthermore, I am also faithfully United Methodist until I am not. I cannot predict the future, nor how long I will remain in the UMC. I will love the UMC if I am part of it, and I will love it and pray for its blessing even if I am not part of its future.

The Work of the NCJC

The Jurisdictional Conference’s primary work is to elect bishops to serve within the Jurisdiction. There are five regional jurisdictions in the United States. These five Jurisdictional Conferences are always scheduled to meet simultaneously so episcopal elections are happening throughout the United States at roughly the same time. Throughout the US, a total of 14 bishops were scheduled to be elected (only 13 were – the North East Jurisdiction had a deadlock vote and couldn’t agree so they opted to have one vacancy until the next elections in 2024). Our North Central Jurisdiction elected three bishops from a pool of ten clergy candidates who had put their names forward over the past two years. None of the ten candidates were traditionalist. Knowing this, I hoped to work with other traditionalists to elect bishops who were more centrist than progressive although those lines are oftentimes quite blurry. In my opinion, a few of the candidates would be more favorable to traditionalists remaining in the UMC.

**As a side note, it’s important to understand that the UMC in the United States is in significant decline whereas the UMC outside the United States is growing overall. In Africa where the UMC is growing the most, they have far fewer bishops per member than anywhere else. Africa has more UMC members than the United States and yet only has 13 bishops compared to 46 in the USA. If this interests you, check out this article by my colleague, Rev. Tom Lambrecht.**

A Subtle, but Clear Disdain for a Traditionalist Perspective

Although the majority of delegates within my own conference, along with those I interacted with from other conferences were kind to me personally, there continued to be a spirit of condescension, mocking, and intolerance for traditionalist perspectives. It’s important that you hear this evidence – especially in light of many centrist statements that traditionalists will continue to be welcome in the future UMC.

  • One bishop’s preaching suggested that the evidence of transformation through Christ in our lives means that we would no longer be heterosexist or homophobic (among other “isms”). This is very important to note given the definitions of homophobia and heterosexism that we spent two hours hearing about and discussing during our Friday afternoon session. More on that in a bit.
  • During the episcopal address, the president of our college of bishops subtly suggested that traditionalists aren’t using their intellect. He later suggested that the progressive/centrist majority should keep traditionalists in the UMC in order to continue to persuade the traditionalists to see things differently.
  • On the first ballot, a progressive bishop was elected. Despite her credentials, her election is troubling for traditionalists. During candidate interviews she shared that it is not important that we in the church “agree on Jesus.” She also gave very vague answers regarding the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
  • Our final bishop elected (another progressive) had a Q&A session that I attended previous to his election. During his verbal resume, he shared his pride in being appointed to a traditionalist church in the heart of Wisconsin which he transitioned to become a “reconciling” church (this means a progressive, LGBTQ+ affirming church). He was elected on the following ballot.
  • Across the five jurisdictions, all thirteen bishops elected were either progressive or centrist. None were traditionalist. A gay bishop (married to a man) was almost elected in the North East Jurisdiction (he received over 50% of the vote but needed 60%). In the Western Jurisdiction, a different gay bishop was elected – this in defiance of the General Conference’s voice as articulated in the UM Book of Discipline. Several of the retiring bishops were traditionalist, meaning the overall council of bishops will be substantially centrist/progressive come January 1, 2023.
  • We overwhelmingly passed four resolutions despite my objection to each:
    • Two called into question the integrity of those who may leave the UMC and asked them to resign from their leadership positions and delegations. I spoke against one of these resolutions.One called us to lift “queer” delegates to positions of leadership and dismiss charges brought against anyone for disobedience on our policies regarding marriage and human sexuality.
    • One called for General Conference to establish a United States specific regional conference allowing the US to have some autonomy from the worldwide UMC. This is a way for progressives in the US to not be subject to decisions made by a (largely traditionalist) worldwide church where they will eventually be the minority.
  • On Friday afternoon, we spent two hours in a session hearing about “the impact of homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism within the UMC.” During this time we remembered our baptism, participated in specially crafted liturgy, heard painful stories from three individuals, and had group discussions around various questions. Although the time was worthwhile, and I applaud the courage of those sharing their stories, I arrived at this simple conclusion: The given definitions of homophobia and heterosexism leave absolutely no room for those holding a traditionalist interpretation of Scripture. You can be the most loving, welcoming, non-judgmental, caring congregation to all people, but if you hold a traditionalist interpretation of Scripture resulting in the current stance on marriage and human sexuality of our denomination, then you are deemed to be homophobic and heterosexist.

Given these pieces of evidence, it became abundantly clear to me that although my bishop and some centrist leaders say that traditionalists are welcome in the future UMC, that welcome will come with conditions. At best we will not be tolerated by some and barely tolerated by others. At worst, we will be ridiculed as being unintelligent or less than sanctified, we will be labeled as homophobic and heterosexist, and our churches will be targeted for re-education until we are persuaded to change our understanding of Scripture’s teaching. The North Central Jurisdictional Conference had enough evidence to suggest that traditionalists can expect the worst.

A Miracle of God for which I’m Grateful

Confession time. I have experienced anger growing in me over the last few years dealing with our denomination’s brokenness. I have done all I know how to do to guard my heart along the way, but it hasn’t been enough. My anger has come partly from grief as I’ve seen the denomination I love so much become something I can’t support. The grief extends to relationships that have been strained or ruined as a result. My “family” (meaning my clergy covenant community) has crumbled during a particularly stressful time of ministry during the pandemic. Yes, grief is at the root of much of the anger, but there’s more. It’s also an awareness that the church I’ve worked faithfully to build is in danger of falling apart by disobedience to our church’s doctrine and discipline. The casualties are people I love and local congregations I care deeply about. There’s a sense of injustice in that, hence the anger. In addition is the personal uncertainty. What happens to my family if, for integrity’s sake, I need to leave the UMC? The uncertainty is scary and thus the anger.

I am not generally an angry person, and this slow brewing over the past few years has wounded me. I’ve tried to deal with it and have kept most of its negative affects at bay although it occasionally seeps out. But it has been slowly poisoning me for quite some time. Several weeks ago, a friend and mentor of mine pointed out that he could see its affects all over my face. He encouraged me to pray prayers of surrender and to trust God with the future – regardless of what the future brings. At the same time, my wife encouraged me to read a book by Brant Hanson called “Unoffendable”. I took both pieces of counsel to heart, and I must tell you, it’s been absolutely freeing. God has done a miracle in my heart.

I was not looking forward to the North Central Jurisdictional Conference. You read the percentages. I was going into a losing battle. Many people didn’t even want me there. However, I continually prayed prayers of surrender to God, and as a result, God gave me a heart of peace and compassion for those with whom I disagree – those who might consider me an enemy. There were some on my delegation that didn’t feel I should be there. A few refused any contact with me outside of an occasional greeting in passing. These had been friends. But I had a clear sense from the beginning of opening worship that the pandemic coupled with the continuing conflict and dysfunction in the UMC has left many of our churches, pastors, and episcopal leaders feeling broken and tired. God gave me a heart of compassion for each of them. During an extended time of prayer, I prayed for God to bless every individual on our delegation. I lifted their families and their churches by name to God. And in return, God gave me an overwhelming heart of peace toward those who have fought so hard to change the church in a way that I cannot support. Where anger once resided, compassion and love took up residence. Please hear me. That is nothing short of a transformational work of God in my heart. I did not deserve that miracle. I didn’t even directly ask for that miracle. But God gave it nonetheless. It’s a state of being and relating to others that I hope endures. I can even say that by the end of the conference I was genuinely happy for the joy and unity that the 85% had together even though I knew in my heart that there was no place for me or for other traditionalists in the future they envisioned.


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17 11 2022
Jason D Greene

Thank you for this excellent piece. God bless you on your journey forward in faith. I was a “traditional leaning centrist/moderate” for years. I was hopeful that we could somehow stay together. Last fall, I came to the conclusion that we could not. God led me to become fully committed to a traditional reading/understanding of scripture and church teaching on human sexuality. In December, I will become a Free Methodist pastor, and the church I serve will become a Free Methodist Church. I am grateful for clarity, grace, and the ability to love those with whom I disagree. Jdg

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