It’s been a whirlwind of a month for the United Methodist Church. Our General Conference convened and adjourned and nothing changed in regards to our position on matters of human sexuality. Our position remains as one that excludes the LGBTQ community from full inclusion in our denomination, but this leaves many of our churches in a curious position.
From my experience at least in our conference, most of our local churches do not have clarity on where they stand on matters of human sexuality. They know that the denomination has been debating it for decades, and they know that the culture in which they exist is seeing significant shifts, and the combination of the two has created a lack of clarity for many local churches. From my experience we have largely avoided talking about and coming to any clarity on matters of human sexuality because doing so may “blow up the church”. But what if the church is already crashing?
As the future of the UMC is uncertain, I, an appointed clergy person charged with shepherding a local congregation am left asking, “but what about my church?” As I was watching General Conference proceedings a couple weeks ago my 13 year old son asked me what I was watching. I told what it was and what they were debating and his response was “they’re arguing about that? That’s dumb.” He then asked me if his gay friends were welcome and safe in our church. The best answer I could give him, “I think so.”
In the span of 40 years of debate, another 2-4 isn’t much, but to a 13 year old, it’s an entire season of life. Today’s teenagers are living in a world where a certain degree of inclusion is assumed in most institutions, and I think our local churches owe the LGBTQ community the truth about where we stand. Sure, the denomination is in some limbo, but the local church doesn’t have to be. Local churches have been in a holding pattern, waiting for the denomination to tell us where to land, and our planes are running out of gas, or perhaps already have and we’re coasting on fumes. We’ve got to land somewhere soon.
I believe a lack of clarity on matters of human sexuality is symptomatic of a lack of theological, missiological, and ecclesial identity in the local church, and that lack of clarity impacts our ability to grow in spiritual vitality and reach new people. We cannot wait 2-4 years to gain clarity on which new people we will reach and how we will reach them. These matters of human sexuality are not an isolated issue. Our view of Scripture, our ecclesiology, and our entire ways of being the gathered and scattered community are wrapped up in them, and because of that, we simply cannot wait to start to have the crucial conversations about where we’re at as local congregations.
How we do that? I’m not an entirely sure, and I know I need wisdom in how to do so, but what I am certain about is that I believe in the power of the local church above all else. Our conferences and our denomination are only as strong as the local church that makes them up, and the local church is getting lost in the debate. So we can debate General Conference proceedings, and we can argue in our Annual Conferences about all kinds of global and national issues all day long, but until the local church gains clarity about who it is, it will not rise to renewed vitality and the trajectory the denomination as a whole has been on for decades will not change.
Yes, the denomination will still have limits placed on us as clergy in what we can and cannot do, but I believe we must step into what can do. It’s scary waters for me. I don’t want to blow up my church! I love my church! I really do. I’m one lucky guy to be appointed where I am. But I’m tired of circling, and I’m not sure how much longer we can do it. I am beginning to believe that we as pastors of local churches need to step into those scary waters. Let’s take the lead in bringing some of our own clarity. Is it possible that this what our bishops appointed us to do anyway? What are we waiting for? We may not be able to get all the answers, but we can get more than we have now.
The time for clarity at the local church level is now. “I think so” is no longer an acceptable response. I do not want to advocate for polarizing us further, but I do believe that churches that have clarity on matters of human sexuality (like our Reconciling congregations) are a step ahead of the rest of us. They know who they are. There’s no question about who is called to be a participant in God’s mission. And the same goes for our more conservative congregations. They know who they are, and if my 13 year old son asks them if his gay friends are welcome and safe there, he will get a much more clear answer than “I think so.”