United Methodist ministers in Bloomington-Normal say the global church’s decision to double-down on its policy banning same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian clergy runs counter to their message that the church is welcome to everyone.
Some local leaders of the nation's third largest church wonder if the Methodist message of "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" still applies, while at least one pastor plans to ignore the church edict.
There are seven United Methodist churches in Bloomington-Normal with about 4,500 members, and there are lots of members on both sides of the gay marriage, gay clergy, and gay churchgoer questions. Area ministers now face the prospect of managing conflict as people have both disappointment and celebration over the decision.
“It’s a very big issue that the church is going to deal with for years to come,” said Kathy King-Nobles of First United Methodist Church in Normal.
King-Nobles and her husband Kent are pastors at First UMC, one of the largest Methodist churches in the Twin Cities.
She said the Methodist church has always been inclusive. As she watched a video feed of the UMC General Conference in St. Louis, she wished its global delegates had chosen another option, one that would have allowed individual churches and regional conferences to decide on their own whether to ordain or marry LGBTQ members.
“Even in this issue that we feel like the One Church Plan would give us an opportunity to live together as the United Methodist Church and have different perspectives, but giving people the latitude and the freedom to do what they feel God is calling them to do.
“That’s probably what’s been more frustrating to me than anything.”
The vote to essentially maintain the church's status quo was close, with an overwhelming percentage of support for the traditional plan coming from African churches, including countries where homosexuality is banned.
Tiffany Black is pastor of Morningstar United Methodist Church in Normal, a smaller church on Fort Jesse Road that draws about 50 worshipers each week.
Black said the dichotomy of the U.S. versus African split represents the challenge of being a truly global church.
“You add countries from around the world who struggle in a lot of areas we don’t struggle in and we don’t even know about in terms of just a general lifestyle there,” Black said. “They are going to have a whole different view on things, and somehow we have to mesh it all together.
“We’ve got to become a united Methodist church.”
Black is hesitant to predict whether this division will lead to a formal split in the church. She and others believe the Judicial Council, which acts at the UMC's Supreme Court, could still rule some parts of the vote unconstitutional when it meets in late April.
“Until the final thing is done, let’s not panic in any way, whether you are for it or against it,” Black said. “Unless I have a role to play in changing it somehow, there’s no reason to worry until we get to that point.”
Homosexuality Deemed 'Incompatible'
Methodist doctrine, which the leadership reinforced this week, states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The church as far back as 1972 formally acknowledged homosexuality and said homosexuals "are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured." This came decades before gay marriage became the law of the land in the U.S.
Pastor Kent King-Nobles said in the time that's followed, those opposed to gay marriage have become more vocal within the church.
“There has been a little bit of pushback and a growth of conservatism in the United Methodist Church,” King-Nobles conceded.
That along with a drop in Mainline Protestant church membership in the U.S. and growing African churches has enabled the traditional movement to gain strength against withering resistance.
Sara Isbell is pastor at Wesley UMC, the largest Methodist church in Bloomington. She was the one Bloomington-Normal delegate who had a vote at the conference.
Isbell struggles with the notion that matters of humanity such as acceptance of one's sexual orientation boils down to a legislative decision.
“To have to vote on that as a body, to have to vote 1 for 'yes' and 2 for 'no,' to me is not a helpful way to answer those questions,” Isbell said. “I want to handle those questions pastorally and relationally with people as children of God.”
Isbell likens the Methodist church's struggle over gay rights to that of slavery, an issue which split the church in the 1840s, and later over ordaining women.
“Every church still deals with racism, still deals with sexism, but we worked through those things at least in a structural sense, and I hope this will eventually be one of those that we look back on and say, ‘Boy that was a really tough fight, but we finally got to the other side.’”
Isbell suggested this will not be the last we'll hear about the issue.
Defying The Ban
Whether the UMC revisits equality at its conference next year or in 2024 remains to be seen, but some churches are taking the matter into their own hands.
Jennie Edwards Bertrand is pastor of Hope United Methodist Church, a small congregation of millennials who meet Sundays inside a bank building on East Empire Street.
She plans to defy the church's gay marriage ban.
“I fully intend to marry anyone who would like to be married and who are in love with each other,” Edwards Bertrand said. “If nobody showed up to church on Sunday, I would understand because the broader church has done harm.”
“I’ve been a United Methodist pastor for over 20 years, I have played by the rules, I have followed the covenant, I trusted that we were moving toward full inclusion. We did not.”
Driving Away Youth
Methodist church leaders say they are concerned the church's stance against gay marriage and gay pastors will further drive away young people, who already identify with organized religion far less than their parents and grandparents.
A campus ministry at Illinois State University called Merge holds worship late each Wednesday night. It's director, Roxy Twaddle, told a gathering of about 50 students in its converted gym worship hall during a recent service that the global Methodist church leadership does not represent their values.
“I am sorry. I am so sorry for the harm the church has caused you,” Twaddle said. “Whether you are LGBTQ+ or an ally, I apologize for the Christians in the world who are making decisions that directly harm each of you.”
Students sat wearing shirts with the words "Equally Loved" on them, and emphasis on the A-L-L in equally.
Twaddle urged the congregation not to lose faith.
“We believe the United Methodist Church did more harm during this conference than they have in over 50 years,” she pleaded. “We know none of you owe us anything, but please let’s work through this incredibly terrible season together, to build a better church for the generations after us.”
Twaddle called the vote a big blow to the Methodist church and will make it harder to recruit newcomers.
“It gives logical reason for millennials and the Generation X, Generation Z to pull away from the church,” she said.
Twaddle said she's especially disheartened for members of the LGBTQ community who attend Merge.
One is a member of their church leadership. Emily Lewis, a sophomore at Heartland Community College, said she was saddened to see the church uphold its gay rights restrictions. As someone who was born into the church, she now struggles to define what being a Methodist means but figures she can't leave now.
“We are going to fight back. We’re not leaving,” Lewis declared. “You are going to have to shut the door in my face a couple more times before I say goodbye because we are the church—the current students—I am the church. We will make a difference."
Other young Methodists say they aren't sure how the church stance against gay marriage and gay clergy will affect their spiritual journey.
Erik Slingerland of Goodfield is an ISU alum who plans to join the ministry, but now he's not sure the Methodist church is right for him. He said he has yet to process the decision and its impact on his choices.
“As of right now, the plan is to go through and become a United Methodist pastor and depending on how the next few years shake out will kind of determine what my career looks like,” Slingerland said.
Slingerland contends gay marriage is just one of many issues where a big tent church will have its differences. He hopes the church can come together and rally behind the causes where there's greater consensus.
“Not only with the topic of sexuality, but with topics about anything from climate change to political party affiliation, there’s a wide range of people. I don’t know if there’s any way to describe a stereotypical Methodist, because there are so many different ones,” he observed.
Greta Long, an ISU sophomore from Moline, helps with the weekly Merge services and is considering a life in ministry. She urged anyone who feels called to ministry to search their soul and be confident in what they believe, knowing the church—to her—will always be welcoming to all.
“You don’t have to be confirmed in our church. You don’t have to be a member of our church to take communion with us, to share that sacred act,” Long said. “That level of inclusion and the grace and overwhelming love that I’ve felt and been able to share with other people because of my role as a Methodist, that’s truly what Methodism is to me.”
Can two factions so diametrically opposed co-exist as one church? Kathy King-Nobles of Normal First United Methodist said that's what the One Church Plan would have fostered, though she wonders in today's political climate if there's room for disagreement anymore.
“The way our country is, it just seems to fuel that fire of division and people’s willingness to say, ‘If we don’t agree, then we shouldn’t continue on together as the United Methodist Church,'" she said.
Kent King-Nobles of First United Methodist in Normal said despite all the division over the vote, he's heartened by the passionate response he's seen from many young people in the Methodist movement.
He watched as young supporters of the so-called One Church Plan gather 15,000 signatures in a 12-hour period at the conference last weekend, though their efforts were in vain.
“Those young people, instead of saying, ‘That’s it, I’m leaving,’ they’ve said, ‘I’m going to try to dig deeper into the faith and work harder to make a difference to that no one feels like they are outside of God’s love.’”
Young people had little influence in determining the vote. Less than 7 percent of the delegates were under 35. The average age of Methodists is over 55.
Isbell predicts the vote will cause some to leave to church. She sees it as an ongoing challenge, not necessarily tied just to this decision.
“People have already left,” Isbell said. “In the past, gay, lesbian persons and their allies have left the church before this because the church was not open enough to them. Conservatives have left long before this because the church wasn’t conservative enough and it will continue to happen.”
Isbell and other ministers say their job now it to reach out to those who are most hurt by the church's actions.
The Methodist Church conference is looking into allegations that some delegates who voted in favor of the traditional plan may have been bribed.
You can also listen to the full story:
In a related interview, GLT's Charlie Schlenker talks with Dave Bentlin from the Prairie Pride Coalition, a Twin City LGBTQ advocacy group, about his reaction to the church's decision:
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