General Information

For the first time since 1968, the Council of Bishops has called a special session of General Conference. In the United Methodist Church, General Conference usually meets every four years to perform the legislative tasks for the church, such as revising and updating the denomination’s organizational guidelines in The Book of Discipline. However, for the past 50 years, the UMC has been increasingly consumed and divided over the question of human sexuality in general and the role of LGBTQ persons in the church’s life. At the 2016 General Conference, it was clear that our denomination had reached a breaking point on the issue, and we were headed toward a denominational split. The gathered delegates asked the Council of Bishops to make one last effort to find “a way forward” so the UMC might not have to split. On February 23-26, delegates from all over the world will gather in St. Louis, Missouri to hear a report from the Bishops and decide on how the denomination will move into the future. 

GC2019 Blog

Blog Post #8- A final...final...post. 

Wednesday

March 6

A Few Answers To What Lies Ahead

 

United Methodists around the world had hoped General Conference 2019 would provide a clear path forward for our denomination. Unfortunately we remain in roughly the same position we were before the gathering, without answers to the most pressing questions. We left St. Louis knowing legislation will not provide a solution, but it was unclear whether 1) those the more conservative among us (led by the Wesleyan Covenant Association) would leave the UMC to form a new denomination, 2) leaders would begin negotiating how to amicably split into two new denominations, or 3) conversation between the theologically divergent groups would break down altogether. We now know #1 is off the table. 

 

The Wesleyan Covenant Association has announced they have no immediate plans to leave the United Methodist Church. However, the statement they released (http://wesleyancovenant.org/2019/02/28/statement-of-the-wesleyan-covenant-association-council-on-next-steps/) does suggest they are interested in the second option — discussing how to amicably break into different denominations. 

 

A portion of their statement reads: “To that end, we remain open to good faith conversations about the future of the church. We recognize irreconcilable differences exist, not just about human sexuality, but also around our understanding of the authority and interpretation of Scripture, and the nature of the church. While we remain deeply committed to its historic teachings on these matters, we are open to true Christian conferencing in an attempt to resolve our impasse in fair and equitable ways.” 

 

And so, an answer to one of our questions has been provided. The WCA is not leaving, but they seem to be open to negotiating a way through our “irreconcilable differences.” We will discuss all this and more at our March 13 Coffee, Dessert, and Difficult Conversation.

Blog Post #7- A final post. 

Tuesday

March 5

Here is the message/report I delivered on Sunday, March 3, following General Conference. 

 

As most of you are aware, I was a delegate to a special session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference this week. This gathering was called in an attempt to find a way for the Church to remain together in spite of our different biblical and theological beliefs on human sexuality — in particular, whether our LGBTQ members can serve in ordained ministry or marry in our churches. 

 

Two different plans became the focal point of the deliberations. The One Church Plan allowed each local church to decide for themselves who can be married in their building and each annual conference to decide who would serve in ministry. That plan would not have forced any person, church, or conference to violate their conscience. The One Church Plan was defeated by a 54.55% majority. 

 

The second plan, called the Traditional Plan, broadened the prohibitions and penalties against self-confessed, practicing gay clergy and same-sex weddings. It encouraged those who disagree to leave and form a new denomination. The Traditional Plan passed by a 53.2% majority. Almost all votes were decided by a 53 or 54% majority, a sign of what we already know: we are a divided church.

 

However, the Traditional Plan that passed was not the Plan that was proposed. Some of its petitions were thrown out by a standing committee before coming to the floor. The Judicial Council (the UMC Supreme Court) ruled 10 of its remaining 17 petitions unconstitutional. Prior to passing the plan, two unconstitutional petitions were amended. The Judicial Council will rule in April on their constitutionality. That leaves 7 petitions which passed, but none of them were the ones which bring significant change. The bottom line is that, even if the Judicial Council rules those two amended petitions constitutional, we remain pretty much exactly where we were prior to the General Conference. 

 

The enormous pain and anguish of being in a denomination where a 53% majority rules is clear to everyone. There are not adequate words to express the sadness and sense of betrayal over these decisions among the LGBTQ community who are members of our churches, as well as their parents, children, and friends. And everyone knows the hurt and sadness would have been just as intense if the One Church Plan would have passed. 

 

This clash is between two groups in our denomination who 1) do not share a common theological vocabulary regarding love, oppression, or justice, and 2) do not share a common interpretation of scripture. It is clear we can no longer have meaningful conversations in a legislative setting.

 

This General Conference was catastrophic to the idea that our denomination will find a way forward that is simple. Because core identity issues are tied up in the conflict, there are no “both/and” solutions. It should be noted that the One Church Plan that was defeated was not a progressive plan. It did not recognize and fully include LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. It allowed persons, churches, and annual conferences who are conservative to maintain their current practices. 53% of the delegates said they were not willing to live in community with those whose biblical and theological beliefs on sexuality differ from their own.

 

Some individuals and local churches who are more progressive are tired of this struggle and will be leaving the UMC. However, the great majority, while wounded by the result, are still committed to serving God through the United Methodist Church. They are even more deeply committed to working for the full inclusion of all persons. For instance, at the close of the Conference, leaders from the Western Jurisdiction stated they will continue to work for full inclusion and to strive to hold progressives, traditionalists and centrists together in our Church. 

 

However, two things should be noted. First, in the midst of everything else, a “Disaffiliation” petition passed. This “gracious exit” rule allows congregations who desire to leave a window in which to do so, without losing their property. This change was led by those who are more conservative. An affiliation of conservative churches called the Wesleyan Covenant Association is discussing the possibility of leaving to form a new denomination.

 

Which leads to a second observation. People are frustrated and aware that we will not legislate our way out of this crisis. Our own former Bishop Swanson suggested to our delegation members that the United Methodist Church needs a constitutional convention. Leaders on all sides of the human sexuality discussion are suggesting non-legislative summits be held to consider options.

 

The Wesleyan Covenant Association will host a large gathering on April 25-26. Called a convening conference, it is possible they might start a new, conservative denomination. We do not know how many churches would leave the United Methodist Church if that were to take place, but it would shift the conversation that has been taking place. Likewise, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a centrist and pastor of our denomination‘s largest church, announced their congregation will host a gathering after Easter to discuss the future of the denomination.

 

In a few months we will know the results of these gatherings. Their might be a new conservative denomination breaking away from the UMC, two entirely new denominations, or we might remains where we are for another 5 years. Time will tell. But no matter what happens, we remain the church of Jesus Christ right here, right now, caring for one another and serving this community.

 

Our church family will gather on Wednesday, March 13 for a “Coffee, Dessert, and Difficult Conversation” to discuss all these matters. Our Church Council has stated that no long-term decisions or vote on these issues will be held for at least 6 months, if such decisions are even necessary. We have plenty of time to pray, talk, study, and (most importantly) be in ministry together. 

 

However, 6 months is a long time. Even March 13 feels like a long time away for those who are hurting. Our staff and Council leaders are very aware that many in our church family are in deep pain today. The Traditional Plan passed with only a 3% majority, but it still feels like a statement was made. For the LGBTQ community, their family, and friends, it feels like the Church they love said to them you are incompatible with Christian teaching, and it would be best if you leave. That is not how we feel in this congregation. 

 

On Wednesday night, our Church Council discussed the importance of quickly communicating to the Oak Ridge community and those who are hurting. We have written a letter which we plan to publish in the Oak Ridger, reminding people that all people are welcome here. Members of the Council did not want you to be surprised, and in fact, they are in each of our worship services, so you will have the opportunity to express your thoughts to them about the letter I am about to read. I would ask our Council members to stand, so that if you desire to share your thoughts after the service, you will know with whom you should speak. Thank you, you may be seated. 

 

Dear Oak Ridge Community, and in particular our beloved LGBTQ friends and family, 

 

On February 26, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted by a 53% majority to continue to exclude members of the LGBTQ community from ordination and prohibit UMC congregations from marrying same-sex couples. Although more than two-thirds of American delegates voted against this decision, conservative delegates from around the world carried the day. 

 

First United Methodist Church, Oak Ridge wants you to know that we grieve the pain this ruling has caused so many of you. We want to remind you of OUR congregation’s welcoming statement, which passed in 2009 and continues to be our welcoming statement today: 

We embrace Jesus’ message that God loves and accepts every person. Therefore, we welcome all to share in the life and ministry of this community of faith. Our welcome knows no boundaries of age, race, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, economic condition, physical ability, or mental ability.  

 

We are not a perfect community, but we are determined to love God, one another, and our neighbors. We rarely agree 100% on anything, and human sexuality is no different, but there are a few things we do agree upon. First UMC, Oak Ridge is a safe place for all people. All people are welcome. No exceptions. That was true 10 years ago, is true today, and will be true in the future. ALL means ALL. 

 

Peace and Grace, 

The Church Council of First UMC, Oak Ridge TN

 

I had planned on preaching this morning from our Ephesians 4 reading, but I don’t have enough time to do the passage justice. I will simply say that when Paul lists the issues of that early church (lying, anger, bitterness, wrath, brawling, slander, malice) we are reminded the church has always struggled.  No congregation is perfect, and neither are we. We need to hear Paul’s calling:

 

 

Speak the truth in love; don’t let anger become an entry point for Satan; share with those in need. Only speak when it builds people up. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Live in love, as Christ loved us.

Blog Post #6- The Bible and Human Sexuality 

Thursday

February 21

In this week leading up to the official beginning of GC2019, many useful charts and commentaries are circulating around. Attached here is one of the more useful ones. (Thanks Harold Hartman for bringing it to my attention.) While not exhaustive in the details, this overview of the four plans to be discussed is useful as a quick reference guide. 

By the way, whoever created this PDF used the term “same gender” throughout the document. An important distinction to remember is that between gender identity and sexual orientation. Gender identity is about who a person *is*, and sexual orientation is about attraction to others (who you are vs. to whom you are attracted).

Blog Post #5- The Bible and Human Sexuality 

Tuesday

February 12

I recently led a Coffee, Dessert, and Difficult Conversation at our church on the topic of “The Bible and Human Sexuality.” It was an opportunity for 93 people from our church and  community to gather for some fellowship, hear the following presentation, and talk to those at their table. As is always the case, our goal in CDDC gatherings is to discuss (and inevitably disagree over) controversial issues, and yet treat each other with love and compassion. For those who were not able to be present that evening, I wanted to offer a written version of my presentation. 

 

The first place to begin a conversation in the church on human sexuality is with the topic of ongoing revelation. Anyone who studies the Bible quickly realizes that our understanding of many different topics has changed over the course of scripture. 

 

For instance, our understanding of the character and nature of God has changed. If we   read only the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), then we would understand God to be the Creator; God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Law-giver; and Redeemer of Israel. However, God reveals more and more of the divine character and goals in the Writings, Psalms, and Prophets. With the incarnation of Jesus, our understanding of God and God’s character grows exponentially. We still worship the same God; we are still monotheists. However, God reveals so much more about the divine nature in Christ than those in the Torah could have ever imagined. 

 

The same is true for many other topics. Our understanding of Satan shifts and grows over time. Likewise, there was not a belief in heaven and hell in the Torah. Those generations believed in Sheol, the place of the dead where all persons dwell when their life on earth ends. They believed in Sheol because they saw life through the lens of deuteronomic theology. That is to say, they believed God punishes evil people in this life and rewards good people in this life. While that theology dominates the Torah, the Writings and Prophets offered a different understanding to later generations — the belief that God rewards and punishes after death. 

 

The role of women is another example of ongoing revelation. In the Old Testament women were considered property of their fathers and husbands. By the time you reach the New Testament we have Paul making statements such as “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV) Of course the role of women continued to evolve from the days of Paul until today. Now we believe that women are fully equal to men, an idea not found in the early church. 

 

In other words, “ongoing revelation” continues to take place, as God continues to reveal more and more things to us. Jesus actually told us this would take place. In John 16:12-13, Jesus tells his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (NRSV) 

 

And so it has been in the church over the centuries. Every generation of Christians finds itself wrestling with issues arising from scripture. That is because there are times when things were stated as laws or commands in scripture that were not eternal laws of God but driven by cultural understandings of the time when they were written. Even Jesus had this experience. For instance,

 

“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:1-8, NRSV)

 

The Jewish religious authorities were quoting ancient laws. Jesus pointed out their interpretation of the Sabbath law was not divinely inspired; it was culturally driven. He was not throwing out the idea of Sabbath. He was teaching them their cultural understanding did not yet fully reflect God’s way of seeing the world. In the same way, Jesus reduced the 613 laws of the Old Testament to two: love God and love your neighbor. 

 

There are passages in the New Testament that instruct women to not go out with their head uncovered. That teaching made sense in the early church because walking around in public without a head covering in that culture was a sign that you were a prostitute. The great, great majority of Christians now agree that particular teaching (do not go out with your head uncovered) is not revealing a divine command but was culturally driven — and therefore we no longer have to obey the command. Rather, we have to obey the meaning behind the command: women (and I might quickly add, “and men”) don’t go out looking like a prostitute. 

 

There are many, many other examples of how the Holy Spirit through ongoing revelation has allowed the church to set aside all sorts of culturally driven rules that Christians at different historical times would have considered “set in stone by God:” women wearing pants, the concept of Limbo, women being ordained, divorcees being allowed to take church leadership positions, the use of contemporary music in worship... And those are only the obvious ones that have arisen in one generation! 

 

Of course, this brings us to the topic of human sexuality. Let us acknowledge that the understanding of what is acceptable and unacceptable regarding human sexuality has changed dramatically over the years. In Father Abraham and Mother Sarah’s day (Genesis 12-25) men had multiple wives and concubines. In fact, the issue of multiple wives continued throughout the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 3:2, Bishops were instructed to be the husband of only one wife. This is so deeply engrained in ancient cultures, Christian leaders on the continent of Africa tell us they continue to struggle to convince their people to have only one wife. 

 

When someone talks about the “biblical view of marriage,” we must admit there is not one single view offered there. Here is a handy chart someone made to discuss the multiple ways marriage is discussed in scripture. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which brings us to the topic of how the church today will be in ministry to and with LGBTQ persons. There are people who would suggest the Holy Spirit has revealed to the Church that God desires marriage to be a loving, covenant relationship between one man and one woman. There are others who would suggest the Holy Spirit has revealed to the Church that God desires marriage to be a loving, covenant relationship between two people. 

 

In both cases, people are drawing on the idea of ongoing revelation to make their claim. This is a very important point for us to grasp. All of us must resist the temptation to claim that “we are God’s people, and those who disagree with our view on human sexuality don’t love God or care about the Bible.” We all agree that God has revealed something to us about human sexuality; we disagree on what that is. 

 

And so, if we are to be faithful to scripture, we must strive to love one another in the midst of our disagreements. Every generation has struggled with similar issues; this is the issue of our time. May God help us recognize that we can disagree with one another and still treat one another with love, respect, and compassion. 

Blog Post #4- 3 Notes on the FOUR Plans

Tuesday

February 5

Note 1: 

In these weeks leading up to the called General Conference, a growing number of groups within the UMC are expressing their support for one of FOUR plans that will be considered by the gathered delegates. Those paying attention will notice that an additional plan has been added to the original three plans presented by the Commission On A Way Forward. 

 

That is because any person or group in the UMC can offer petitions for consideration by a General Conference. In the case, only petitions deemed “in harmony” with the purpose of this special General Conference (to find a way for the denomination to remain together in spite of our theological differences over human sexuality) will be discussed. And, as it turns out, one set of petitions, called “The Simple Plan,” passed that standard and will be considered in St. Louis on February 23-26. 

 

The Simple Plan was offered by the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus as an alternative to the One Church, Connectional Conference, Traditional and Modified Traditional plans. Drawing on John Wesley’s axiom “do no harm,” the Simple Plan calls for the elimination of all language in the denomination’s Social Principles and Book of Discipline that limits the role of homosexual people in the church. It allows for local congregations and conferences to continue with their own process of discernment without forcing them at a particular pace or a particular direction. 

 

This new plan is considered a long-short by most observers because it was not one of the three plans produced by the Commission On A Way Forward. For more information on The Simple Plan, https://um-forward.org/

 

Note 2: 

Speaking of the three original plans that have been proposed by the Commission, careful readers of the Frequently Asked Questions document I created have noted that in the “most likely scenarios” section, I did not mention anything about the Connectional Conference Plan. That is because the general agreement throughout the denomination is that plan has little to no chance of passing. If approved by the General Conference delegates, the Connectional Conference plan would require each Annual Conference within the denomination to approve a series of major constitutional amendments. Even if everyone agreed to those amendments, it would take at least four years to begin implementation of the plan. Yikes. 

 

Note 3: 

One of the facts often overlooked in conversation about the three plans is that when they were presented to the Council of Bishops (the group who created the Commission), that one of those plans received an overwhelming amount of support: the One Church Plan. While not unanimous, the active and former Bishops of the Church believe the One Church plan provides the best hope for United Methodism. 

 

If you are interested in learning more about the One Church Plan, visit https://onechurchplan.org/

 

Or, to get a glimpse of what the One Church Plan looks like, watch this video.

Blog Post #3-Admitting My Mistake

Monday

January 28

Over the last year, whenever I have discussed the upcoming GC2019, I have been quite honest in my assessment of what I believe will happen. I stated the following on numerous occasions: I believe the Traditional Plan will be adopted by the gathered delegates on Sunday afternoon/evening and the remainder of the time spent will be used to “perfect” that conservative plan. 

 

I based that assessment on two beliefs. First, African delegates comprise 30% of all voters and have voted in mass for the most conservative options at past General Conference. Second, while the number of progressive delegates from the United States has steadily risen over the last forty years, there are still enough hard-core, American  conservatives to create the 51% voting block necessary to pass the Traditional Plan. 

 

New information has come my way which suggests I have been wrong about the “inevitability” of that more conservative path. While I still believe the Traditional Plan may pass, I have new hope the One Church Plan has a fighting chance in the process. Again, two pieces of information have come to my attention that lead me to change my mind. 

 

First, the most prominent conservative caucus group, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, is having a serious conversation among its ranks about possibly splitting off to form a new denomination regardless of what happens at GC2019. There seems to be an awareness in that group that no matter what happens in 2019, given the growing cultural acceptance of LGBTQ folks, the issue of human sexuality is going to return in 2020, 2024, and at every subsequent General Conference in the future. As is true in any organization, no General Conference can pass legislation that future delegates cannot challenge or reverse. Some WCA folks think perhaps it is best for all to simply make the clear break now. The fact that more conservative wing of the Church is considering splitting, even if the Traditional Plan passes, has led more moderate conservatives to reconsider the positives of the One Church Plan. 

 

Second, a friend whom I trust has indicated that there is much more conversation among the African delegations than we have been led to believe. No doubt that the majority will ultimately vote for the Traditional Plan, but if even a small percentage of those voters moves to the One Church Plan, it can make a difference in the final tally.

 

And so, I admit my mistake. I believe there is much less inevitability in this process. Which leads me once more back to prayer and preparation. Let us allow God’s Spirit to continue to form us into faithful followers of Jesus Christ and our congregations into communities of faith that transform our world — regardless of what takes place at GC2019.

Blog Post #2

Tuesday

January 15

As most of you know, I am a delegate to the special session of the General Conference taking place in five weeks. (Actually, I was elected as a reserve delegate. However, following Rev. David Graves election to the episcopacy, I moved into the delegation proper.)

 

This past Saturday, the members of Holston Annual Conference’s General Conference delegation gathered to discuss various topics and hold a listening post for those who wanted to address the delegation. Not surprisingly — since the majority of UM church in our area have more members with conservative views than progressive views — most of the speakers offered conservative theological perspectives. I noticed a few themes repeated in their comments. Quite a few suggested the Bible is “clear” on the topic of human sexuality, and those who support changing our denomination’s current stance are knowingly disregarding the Bible. 

 

While I appreciated their sincerity, the fact is that good, faithful Christians disagree on what the Bible teaches about human sexuality. Major Christian denominations with highly-educated theological leadership come down on both sides of this question. It is unreasonable to suggest that those who hold progressive views on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination (including the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, Episcopal Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian USA, and the Reformed Church in America, UCC) have knowingly abandoned their faith and scripture. What IS reasonable is to acknowledge that followers of Jesus disagree on this topic. 

 

Given that possibility, one goal we should have is to explore the ideas put forth by those who disagree with our opinion. If you are a person with progressive views, make an effort to understand the theological and biblical beliefs of those who have a conservative perspective. If you have conservative views, make an effort to understand the theological and biblical beliefs of those who have a progressive perspective. Unless we can enunciate both sides of the discussion, then we are not in a position to engage in loving, Christian conversation. 

 

What the majority of people discover when they explore the ideas put forth on both sides of the human sexuality discussion is that their own views do not change. However, they come to realize that persons who hold different beliefs are not immoral or ignoring the Bible. When we understand that it is possible to honestly disagree over this complex topic, then we begin to see “those” people as our Christian brothers and sisters, who are relying on God’s love, Jesus’ grace, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, just like us. 

 

Are you able to explain both sides of this conversation? 

 

If you would like to explore one website among many that discusses the progressive community’s biblical and theological views, try https://covnetpres.org/resources/faq/

 

If you would like to explore one website among many that discusses the conservative community’s biblical and theological views, try https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/homosexuality/in-the-image-of-god-church-teaching-on-human-sexuality.html

Blog Post #1

Tuesday

January 8

The United Methodist Church stands on the brink of a major decision about its future. The UMC special General Conference (GC2019) will run from Saturday, February 23 through Tuesday, February 26, 2019. During that gathering in St. Louis, 864 voting delegates will decide how to address the issue of human sexuality in our denomination. 

We all know how sensationalist modern news outlets have become. I anticipate a great deal of skewed and misinformation will be shared in the coming months. My hope is this blog will provide you a source of trustworthy information and an opportunity to ask questions. As a GC2019 delegate, I will be updating this blog at least once a week until the Conference officially begins. Once in St. Louis, I plan on updating this blog as often as necessary to maintain an open line of good communication within our congregation. 


Please do not hesitate to use the link at the top of the page to ask questions about what is happening. In anticipation of some of the more frequently asked questions about what brought us to this point and what lies ahead, I've created a GC2019 FAQ document that I hope is helpful. You can download it here.

Blessings and Peace, 
Mark Flynn

Frequently Asked Questions

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