In the wake of the momentous and emotional Special General Conference held in St. Louis, several general agencies of the United Methodist Church (UMC) have issued formal, written statements in response. In other agencies, notable staff have expressed their own opinions publicly. The passage of the Traditional Plan was certainly a landmark moment in the history of the denomination. The official churchwide offices are created by General Conference to perform services that local congregations and annual conferences cannot, and they are funded through general church funds. Their goals are to carry out the programs adopted by General Conference and to provide “a common vision, mission and ministry for the entire global church.”
Jeff Walton has reported on General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) General Secretary the Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe’s press release. Displeased with the decisions made by the global legislative body, she wrote that “The 2019 General Conference brought unbearable pain to the body of Christ,” and that “The delegates’ resistance to hear and honor the presence and voices of LGBTQIA people has created a wound. The wound may one day be healed by the grace of God, but the scar left behind will be visible forever.” She hopes the church will see the error of its ways, adding: “Our prayer must be of repentance. We must seek forgiveness. We must call on Christ to heal all of the brokenness we have imposed on the body.”
Two leaders of The Connectional Table (CT), formed in 2004 “to discern and articulate the vision for the church and the stewardship of the mission, ministries, and resources of The United Methodist Church as determined by General Conference” gave a less partisan response. CT Chair Bishop Christian Alsted and Chief Connectional Ministries Officer the Rev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai issued a joint statement acknowledging the deep divisions within the UMC that are not going away. “We believe that, because of these fundamental differences, we cannot maintain unity as we have understood and practiced it in the past,” they said. They appear to view the differences in the UMC as so deeply irreconcilable that a split would be beneficial, a significantly different message than the common institutionalist position of preserving unity at all costs. But they were a bit vague in terms of firm commitments: “We are not suggesting any specific plan. We are instead pointing to the need to move forward in ways that address the current reality of our church.” United Methodists should seek after a unity that is not defined organizationally or structurally, they said.
Erin Hawkins, the General Secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) issued a statement accusing the General Conference of causing harm to LGBTQ people and tied it to the UMC’s history of racial discrimination. She wrote that “the action of the Special Called Session of General Conference to support the Traditional Plan serves as proof that our comfort with sanctioned discrimination and exclusion has never left.” She expressed sorrow for LGBTQ United Methodists, adding that her heart grieves for her LGBTQ siblings “who experienced the harm of continued rejection, insensitive and bigoted rhetoric, and emotional and spiritual disregard.” Not giving up hope, Hawkins asserted that “The struggle to end oppression in all of its forms and to realize the vision of full inclusion must continue.”
GCORR’s Board of Directors officially endorsed and affirmed their General Secretary Hawkin’s statement. President of the Board, Bishop Earl Bledsoe stated that they support her as she speaks “a word of truth about the sin of oppression that continues to plague our church as well as a word of encouragement for those who have been discouraged and wounded.” Bishop Bledsoe added that they “deplore the continued oppression exhibited by The United Methodist denomination.”
United Methodist Women, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding this year, spoke to its role in promoting unity across the church while acknowledging how difficult General Conference was. “The Special General Conference was difficult for all—even the Traditional Plan adopted may not be enforceable—but LGBTQIA sisters and brothers bear the brunt of the pain. United Methodist Women will continue to pray for our beloved church and stand in solidarity with all those who are in pain.”
In their statement, UMW wrote that the Traditional Plan encourages those who disagreed with the church’s stance on LGBTQ people to “leave the denomination and form a new expression of Methodism,” and that despite the many opinions held within their membership, “United Methodist Women stands together, committed to serving women, children and youth” and will continue to be a “creative supportive fellowship.”
Some notable general agency employees have made questionable personal but public responses. Rev. Junius Dotson, General Secretary of United Methodist Discipleship Ministries, helped lead the “UMC Next” Gathering. Despite being a paid leader of the whole denomination, Dotson has a prominent role in a group that asserts its “first course of action is to resist what we believe are unjust policies enacted by the General Conference and to apply pressure on the system.” Instead of honoring the decisions of General Conference, Dotson and other so-called centrists and progressives are looking for a “better way forward” than the Traditional Plan.
The Rev. Victoria Rebeck, Director of Public Relations for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), made the erroneous factual claim on social media that IRD is funding the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), in her words, “as they have other groups in their attempt to topple other churches.” After this was brought to the attention of GBHEM General Secretary Kim Cape by John Lomperis, Cape said “GBHEM does not have a position or opinion on the 2019 General Conference discussions or decisions. As servants of the whole global church, we stand ready to support the decisions made.”
As the dust continues to settle across the United Methodist Church, there may still be much more to see from the general agencies and their leaders. Let us pray that they may serve the global body of Christ well in these difficult and polarizing times.