Some of you have asked me the $64,000 question: what will The United Methodist Church be like in 2024? For those who don’t know, 2024 is significant because that is when the next General Conference of the UMC will be. If you don’t know what a General Conference is, it is the worldwide gathering of UMC delegates elected to represent their Annual Conferences and make decisions for how we do life together as United Methodists. This Conference happens every four years (except for 2020 due to COVID-19). It’s how we make the church laws that have become our Book of Discipline. I don’t know that anybody knows the answer to the question of what General Conference will do in 2024, and I don’t want to do any harm by guessing, but in my discussions with some folks, it’s come to my attention that we might be served by a little bit of a monologue on both what this denomination could look like and what it will not likely look like.
I think folks’ primary concern is probably about what changes to the UMC’s Book of Discipline might be coming. I don’t know if there will be political will to do any of this in the next General Conference in 2024, but one can hope.
- I do not think it’s likely that the Book of Discipline language about homosexual clergy and homosexual marriages is changed in 2024. I’ve seen and heard folks saying that the language will change (along with a whole spectrum of other changes) in 2024 because so many Traditionalist churches will be leaving the denomination. That is not true for several reasons, the primary one being that General Conference is made up of delegates elected from their Annual Conference. These delegations consist of United Methodist laity and clergy, and, if you are elected to General Conference as a delegate – whatever theological camp you might find yourself in – it is unlikely that you leave that delegation. Not to say that there will not be some folks who have left the denomination and cannot participate, but I think those numbers are being vastly overstated. The language of the Traditional Plan that passed in 2019 will likely still be in place after 2024. That language may or may not change in the 2028 General Conference, when I expect that something that resembles the One Church Plan will be passed for at least the United States. I do not know that to be a certain thing. No one really does. If you aren’t familiar with the One Church Plan, it was the plan endorsed as a way forward together by the Council of Bishops and others in 2019, but it did not pass as legislation by the General Conference. It would have allowed for the following:
• The Boards of Trustees of local churches like Mt. Zion to be able to determine their own policies for marriage ceremonies for people of every sexual orientation.
• Annual Conferences to be able to set their own policies about ordaining self-professing, practicing homosexual clergy members of their respective Annual Conferences.
• Allow pastors to decide for whom to preside over a marriage ceremony regardless of their sexual orientation.
The ability of this plan to take hold in the UMC in the United States depends on the ability of the General Conference to put forward legislation that allows for regionalization. This leads to the next point.
- I do think that the UMC is headed toward some kind of regionalization that allows Annual Conferences and Local Churches to set policies for their ministry that enable the growth of the Kingdom of God in every context represented in the constituency of the UMC. Whatever that might look like, it will make it such that the UMC resembles something more truly global in nature and makes it such that the United States can properly contextualize its ministry for the United States. Here’s what that means for the debate on the inclusion of homosexuals into the full life of the church: each region would be able to set its own policies. Here’s what regionalization does not mean: the content of the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church will not be changed, our belief in Jesus Christ as fully divine and fully human will not change; our belief in our ability to share in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ will not change. There’s no pathway to change those things in our Book of Discipline, but regionalization would likely result in a change in the language of the Book of Discipline on the inclusion of self-professing, practicing homosexuals into the full life of the church in the United States via policies that resemble the One Church Plan.
- I think that it’s likely that General Conference will put into place some sort of extension of Paragraph 2553 to be available for churches that no longer can be in the UMC in good conscience. I think this because many others share the conviction that it is not wise to hold churches in the denomination that do not want to be in the denomination. It does not do any good for the Kingdom of God. At the same time, I thoroughly believe in the trust clause because it ensures a connectional relationship within this denomination. Paragraph 2553, the paragraph of the Book of Discipline that allows for churches to leave the denomination over disagreement on the inclusion of self-professing, practicing homosexuals was the most gracious way we could think up to let folks go who need to leave and cannot be in a Big Tent of United Methodists with various theological stances on the inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks into the full life of the church while still honoring the connectional responsibility that we have together. I join others advocating for a gracious exit for such situations, even knowing that it will make the UMC smaller and poorer in the short-term.
- I don’t think that there is any political will to change the Book of Discipline to include any language that would force a church to accept a self-professing, practicing homosexual as their Pastor if the church was not ready for it, or to make a local church allow for their property to be used in a marriage ceremony for a homosexual couple, or to make a clergyperson preside over a marriage ceremony for anybody that they cannot perform that ceremony in good conscience. The Bishop of The North Georgia Conference, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, has said explicitly on several occasions that she does not want to send gay clergy to churches where they cannot bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. It’s not in anybody’s best interest to send gay or lesbian clergy to Traditionalist churches.
- Here, then, is really what I think this comes down to: is Mt. Zion UMC Atlanta or any other local church willing to be in a denomination where others disagree with their theological stance on this topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion? This topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion is the latest one where we have had to answer that question together as a denomination, but it wasn’t the first time we’ve had to answer questions about inclusion – we’ve had to for topics like the inclusion of women clergy and whether it was acceptable for Bishops to be enslavers – and it might not be the last time either. But that is the question that you have to answer. The question isn’t whether the church could accept a gay or lesbian pastor tomorrow, next year, or 10 years from now. Rather, the question is can you be in a denomination that has debate and disagreement and the freedom to disagree on this specific topic? I’d add this: every one of us has a line that we cannot cross in terms of being together in the same denomination. My line, I think, is belief in the Triune God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit; baptism in the name of the same; a non-Calvinist understanding of theology (though I wouldn’t say that Calvinists are not Christians, just that they would be better suited in a different denomination); a theology of sacrament that allows for an open table at Holy Communion because it’s a converting practice; a Wesleyan understanding of grace as prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying, a grace that does not coerce us into loving God back but allows for real, meaningful human responsibility; and there are more, of course: an understanding of Scripture that takes seriously the claim that it contains all things necessary for salvation; a belief in the resurrected Savior and the resurrection of the body and the saints, and the life everlasting. To be short, the things in our Apostles’ Creed, the things in our Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith in the constitution of our church. That’s my line. What’s yours? I know our answers might differ. But it’s a question you need to answer before October 9th, when we will vote on whether or not we should pursue leaving The United Methodist Church over LGBTQ+ inclusion.
If you need help walking through the process of answering that question, please reach out to me and schedule a time for us to talk through this. If you know where your line is and you believe the UMC has crossed it, know that I love you and I am honored to be your pastor even when we disagree. I have hopes and dreams for the UMC that are best expressed in face-to-face conversations. I’d be happy to share them with you, but here I’ve tried to give you my best guess as to what is likely and unlikely to happen in the future of the UMC. In so doing, I have tried my best to follow our first General Rule: “First, do no harm.” May the Lord bless you and keep you. Amen.