A Saturday Church (Reflections on General Conference)

As many of you know, I have just returned from the special General Conference session in St. Louis as a reserve/alternate delegate from Indiana. I was privileged to spend a full day on the floor as a voting delegate, and the rest of the time I sat with friends and colleagues as we watched the proceedings unfold. It was an emotional, exhausting, and heartbreaking time for many of us. Why?

Because the church that we keep hoping will open its doors just a little wider has decided to still keep them shut to some. If not actually shutting doors, at least sending the message that not all are really welcome…or they may be welcome…but just to a certain extent. The General Conference voted to pass the “Traditionalist Plan.” This plan not only re-affirms the UMC’s stance on “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and disallows same-sex weddings and open LGBTQI clergy, but also adds more restrictions on top of the already existing rules.

Another interesting note is that we have spent millions of dollars on special commissions, conversations, this meeting, etc after asking our Bishops to lead us. They recommended the One Church Plan, which would have allowed clergy and local congregations to choose in which direction they would go regarding LGBTQ clergy, weddings, ordination, etc. We asked, as a denomination, for our bishops to lead us. Yet we did not listen. But I digress…

I should add that currently, 60% of the Traditionalist plan is “unconstitutional” under our church law, which means that the plan that actually passed may end up looking a lot different than it is now. There is still a lot of unknown in all of this.

The plan, however, seeks stricter accountability for clergy who violate the existing rules, and, in my understanding, seeks to ask anyone and any church who doesn’t hold these beliefs to exit the denomination. There is prediction of a mass exodus to come of moderate to progressive churches. Our young people will leave. Clergy will be fed up. Those looking for a church home and an experience of Christ who are LGBTQ will turn away.

Under this plan, clergy and bishops could be asked to leave if they do not adhere to a particular way of thinking and practicing ministry. Open hearts, open minds, open doors? Take those signs down. It’s long overdue.

In Nadia Bolz-Weber’s wonderful new book, Shameless, she speaks of the shame that the church has placed upon people around sexuality in general, and how we must begin to change the narrative for church to be a place where people uphold one another and affirm one another for who we are, sexually or otherwise.

She says, “So often, rather than being the place where people can be unburdened by this heaviness (of shame), the church chooses to be a place where even more weight is piled on.”

This is basically what the UMC has decided to do. We have piled on the rules, the shame, and the harm of others who just happen to be of a different sexual orientation. We have become so obsessed with church law and our narrow interpretation of the Bible, that we have become the Pharisees. We have again nailed Jesus to the cross.

The way I see it, the UMC is currently a Saturday church. What do I mean by this? We are in the tomb. This decision of the General Conference and the way things went down, the harmful words that were said, the ways in which we dealt with sensitive topics and HUMAN BEINGS..well, that was Friday…the day of crucifixion. Now, many of us feel in the dark, awaiting the light of resurrection. We are a Saturday church. Where and how will Resurrection come? That is the question I am wrestling with as a clergy person, as a woman, as a mother to a young child, as a friend who has many wonderful LGBTQ persons in my life. What kind of church do I want my son to grow up in? Not a church that closes its doors, but a church where there is room for everyone to serve, love who they love, and lead, no matter who they are.

At this point, my hope is in the reminder that the body of General Conference and the decisions that are made are not the same as the local church. As one delegate said from the floor, “Thank God that this is not the place where disciples are made.” And she is right. On Sunday, I will stand in the pulpit and give a word to my congregation. We still have work to do, things to learn, people to serve. Church goes on, disciples are made, we continue to love people.

There is a lingering question in the back of my mind, however: Is there still a place for me here? In the UMC?

My fear is that the stain of the latest decisions of the General Conference will continue to equate the cross and flame with hypocritical, judgmental, homophobic Christianity. This is not the Jesus I know. This is not the church I want.

So now I wait in the darkness for some light. I’m not sure when it will come. But I know that it will. Sunday can’t be too far from now…

In the meantime, I want to say that no matter where I end up serving as a pastor, that I will never stop fighting for full inclusion of LGBTQI persons, and will be a welcoming and affirming pastor to all, including those who will disagree with me theologically or practically. No church law or flawed institution negates the fact that Jesus SEES each and every person created in the image of God, and so should the church. It’s time to do away with the shaming, the condemning, the “love the sinner, hate the sin” nonsense.

No matter where I end up, whatever church I serve, I want you to know that you are a child of God. You are equipped to lead, serve, and BE you as you are- no matter who you love or how you identify yourself. Don’t let anyone or any institution tell you otherwise.

And one more thing for my LGBTQI brothers and sisters: I AM SORRY. I’m sorry for the harm that the church as caused you. I’m sorry that we have let you down. I’m sorry that it just never seems to be enough. I hold fast to the idea of resurrection. And I hope you do, too. Love to all as we sit in the darkness of Saturday together.

In Christ,
Jill

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