Yesterday, I was appointed for the 34th year in the United Methodist Church. The first time was in May of 1982, I was young, had absolutely no training and the then Kansas West Conference took a risk on a 23 year old who had a call to preach that was passionate, but perhaps not so directed. On July 1, I begin my tenth year as senior pastor at West Heights UMC. I am grateful, blessed and awed to still be in this church I love and experienced a call at the age of fourteen.
Before I really knew what it meant, I was a “feminist” and a “liberal” or “progressive.” I experienced grace as an awkward, uncertain child and youth. I knew that in spite of voices and pressure in the opposite direction I wanted to be pastor/preacher and share grace and love and faith that I had found. I refused to believe I should not be a pastor because I was a “woman” and it was too hard, or because the Bible said I should keep “silent” or be “submissive.” No one could ever explain in a way that made sense to me that I should pretend to be something I wasn’t in order to be accepted or loved. God loved me, in spite of my flaws, horrible failures and sins. Many tried and I just ignored them, I am stubborn that way.
For years, the United Methodist Church, as well as other denominations and religions have struggled to understand and affirm those we do not understand. In my time in the church, that has focused particularly on the homosexual community. For those who know me best it is no surprise that I have always been in support of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life church. The first time I stood toe to toe with a pastor I was still in high school. The pastor had preached about supporting the firing of teachers in the school system if they were homosexual. His point was that they would “affect” students in some way. I was furious, of course, I don’t think I was taken very seriously.
In 1988, at the General Conference in Saint Louis, I was pregnant with my son Joshua. I was to be ordained elder, but was at General Conference as one of the editors of the daily newsletter published by MFSA (Methodist Federation for Social Action). When the action of General Conference continued to affirm that “the practice of homosexuality was incompatible with the Christian faith,” I was crushed. When the protest happened on the floor of the conference, I struggled with whether or not to participate. I didn’t have full membership, I wasn’t ordained yet, but I looked at my friend, who was struggling the same way and together we rose to our feet. As we chatted later, if we were not willing to stand then, when we didn’t have our “union” card, we would always find an excuse not to be supportive or be counted. Knowing my district superintendent and bishop could see my action, I stood.
Every four years the UMC has struggled and continued to exclude incredibly talented people on the basis of their orientation. I have cried more tears over those decisions than I care to admit in public. I don’t want to seem weak or vulnerable. I have despaired that the church I have loved for so long would ever see, truly see people, particularly our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as persons of sacred of worth.
Fast forward to yesterday morning, June 13, 2015 at the Great Plains Annual conference. A petition was shared that if passed would be forwarded to the 2016 General Conference. The resolution in its original form is shared in this blog by Rev. Kent Little. Honestly, After so many years, decades really, I didn’t have any real hope that things would change. I am not really a cynic, but….but, it has been a long journey.
Yesterday, one of the pastors got up to speak in opposition of this petition. Dramatically he said, “if the Great Plains Conference supports this petition I will surrender my credentials.” I suspect he thought it would move many people to vote against the petition. Honestly, I would never bet my ordination on that. It was very manipulative and dramatic. Yes, I guess that is judgemental, but that doesn’t make it any less true. When the vote was taken and the annual conference voted to send the petition to the General Conference, he walked up on stage handed his name tag to the bishop, shook his hand and then kneeled, Tim Tebow style with his head in his hands and walked off the stage.
I understand differences in biblical critique and insight and understanding. God knows I, and many others, have hung in there with the United Methodist Church when we disagreed. I never threatened my local church, my district superintendent, bishop or annual conference. I never held them hostage to my understanding of scripture. I prayed, I cried and worked to broaden a deeper and more graced filled church. Others have left. Others have given up. Maybe I am too stubborn. Maybe I just not willing to give into despair and hopelessness.
Our history as a church has been fraught with tension and struggle for understanding and living into an understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ in every generation. Certainly not an exhaustive history, but in the 1840’s the Methodist Episcopal church split over the issue of slavery. People would “leave the church” if slavery was condemned. It took until 1939 for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (ME,South), the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant church to become unified.
Now, before I pretend that this was amazing, the only way for that to happen was to create a special “jurisdiction” for African Americans so they would not be appointed to white churches. The Central Jurisdiction remained until 1968 when the United Methodist Church was formed. People shouted, screamed, threatened to leave if we allowed “those” people to be part of our church, if we allowed full integration.
Then there is the whole issue around the inclusion of women in full leadership. I truly stand on the shoulders of all those who go before me. Without listing the entire timeline, women were not even seated at General Conference until 1922 in the Methodist Episcopal Church. They were granted licenses to preach as local deacons and elders in 1922 (without full voice and vote). In 1956, women, as clergy were granted full membership with voice and vote and pension. Up to that point they were not given a vote, even though lay women had the right to vote at annual conference. Every step of the way people threatened and screamed and cried that if we gave women equal rights…well what would be next?
The church needs to continue to live into where the Holy Spirit is leading us. Hostage takers will always threaten to leave, to withhold money and to have tantrums if not given their way. The tension of not agreeing is a holy moment. The petition passed at the Great Plains Conference allows for such differences and such tensions. Those tensions are not easy, but are necessary and promise to lead us into deeper faith and deeper understanding if we don’t draw lines in the sand. In our deep conflict to look each other in the eye and acknowledge we are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God.
I don’t know what the General Conference will do. After 34 years, I don’t pretend to know. I know I pray that I can speak words of hope and grace for all people. I am tired of turning down the opportunity to marry people who long to make a life time commitment because of what my church requires. I am not willing to harm my local church by breaking covenant, but I am saddened by not being able to be pastor to people I love and long to serve.
Today in worship our youth caravaners shared a song by Wailin’ Jennys called One Voice that made me once again be grateful that I have been called to serve, to love and to offer grace to all people. Still on the journey, hanging on to faith, I am graced to serve.