The UM News Service has reported that I filed a complaint against the Rev. Anna Blaedel for violating the UMC’s longstanding prohibition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy, and that the Iowa Conference Committee on Investigation (COI) has certified a bill of charges.
Those interested in a three-minute summary of my perspective can scroll down to the italicized text, which I read at the COI hearing earlier this month.
But there is a bit more background.
I am grateful for the professional, non-partisan manner in which the COI completed its work. I am disappointed that Blaedel has since painted a misleading picture of what actually happened with this committee. The UMC Discipline is clear that the only decision before COIs is to judge “whether reasonable grounds exist to support the charges,” and Blaedel could hardly have been more blatant in publicly admitting her violation of our standards.
Recent reports have not mentioned such facts as that I filed this complaint way back in March 2018 (not expecting things to take this long!), and that I have repeatedly made clear my interest in dialogue seeking a just resolution and de-escalation of the conflict. If others are not interested, that’s not my fault.
Contrary to some claims, the complaint was never over Blaedel’s simply “being queer.” I would have no interest in sanctioning a clergywoman who found herself attracted to other women, but was committed to keeping her lifestyle choices within the boundaries of our church’s biblical standards.
Now I’ve been called names and misrepresented in all kinds of ways. A prominent United Methodist Communications staffer expressed his appreciation for another Iowa UMC campus minister displaying photographs of a burned-up Bible (burned by him?) in accusing the COI of having “torched the Gospel.” Representatives of the cabinet of my own bishop, Julius Trimble, endorsed an open letter denouncing me and offering Blaedel their fervent support.
I appreciate greater transparency in such matters, and have not been trying to hide. But for 17 months, I have sought to respect the process with the common understanding that such matters are confidential. Now that Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller has taken the highly unusual step of publicizing details of this ongoing case (including “outing” me as the complainant without any warning or consultation), Blaedel continues speaking publicly, and there is plenty of news reporting, I see no reason not to break my own silence now, presenting my own publicly untold side of the story.
It is no secret that I am committed to the historic, biblical Christian position, that sex is a gift for marriage between one man and one woman, and that all sex outside of this covenant is sinful and ultimately harmful for all involved. This is not merely “my” personal opinion, but rather is THE official position of the UMC and the overwhelming global ecumenical consensus today.
Of course, it is essential that this be understood within a wider Gospel framework. ALL of us are unworthy sinners (none worse than John Lomperis), in desperate need of the redemption only available through the blood of Jesus. Our churches must continue lovingly inviting and welcoming ALL people, including self-identified members of the LGBTQIA+ community, to this free offer of redemption. True salvation necessarily involves beginning a new life of holiness, for which we all need the church’s guidance and accountability.
No denomination as large and diverse as ours can be remotely functional without a clear system for “how United Methodists agree to live their lives together and ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’” That is the self-description of the UMC Book of Discipline, which all of our clergy have vowed to God and to the rest of the church to uphold. They made these vows as a voluntary, unforced choice. There is a proper process through which anyone may try to persuade a majority of General Conference delegates to change the Discipline.
By all appearances, Blaedel has gone out of her way to invite complaints, repeatedly publicly touting her open defiance of various Discipline standards. To her credit, she has generally not followed the well-worn path of trying to hide behind technicalities and loopholes. Instead, her approach seems to be to push the Discipline’s standards in the faces of those our church trusts with enforcing them, and then challenge these officials to, as someone said at a rally she and others held around the COI hearing, “break the damn rules!”
Our bishops are entrusted with a primary responsibility in responding when clergy veer out-of-control, seeking restoration wherever possible, while prioritizing the protection of those who can be quite vulnerable to harm from someone abusing the authority of ordination in undisciplined ways.
But too often we have seen our bishops choose to shift more of the burden of such situations onto others, in ways that are convenient for themselves.
In early 2015, Bishop Julius Trimble, then of the Iowa Conference, announced a “just resolution” in which he basically prevented the Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner from being meaningfully disciplined after performing a pastorally harmful same-sex union ceremony, in open defiance of our rules.
I have learned that this action of Trimble’s played a very direct and central role in provoking an evangelical congregation in that annual conference, Crosspoint UMC, to leave United Methodism. That congregation appears to be doing well, and has reportedly added a second worship service.
This handling of Sonner’s disobedience effectively resulted in a trade-off: avoid the short-term pain and conflict from seriously disciplining a lone covenant-breaking pastor, even at the price of permanently losing an entire congregation full of other United Methodists.
Did each of these departed Crosspoint UMC members matter less than Larry Sonner, because they were almost all “mere” laity?
Then at the 2016 session of the Iowa Annual Conference, Blaedel went to a microphone to suddenly announce her defiance of our Discipline’s biblical standards on sexual morality. There is zero credibility in claiming that someone who pulls such a publicity stunt did not expect to provoke a complaint process.
It is a matter of public record that after three faithful Iowa Conference pastors filed a complaint in response, Blaedel retaliated by using social media to “dox” information about these pastors’ names and congregations, stoop to a range of shaming and attacks on their characters, express support for vulgar and hateful comments denouncing them, and even openly encourage activists to disrupt the Sunday worship services of these three pastors’ congregations.
Blaedel also encouraged “Reconciling” leader Dorothee Benz to write a public response with the goal of, in the latter’s words, “ripping these men of privilege a new $%^hole.”
Is this really the sort of holy, self-controlled, loving, Christian language and behavior that the true “mainstream” of United Methodists expect of our clergy?
After all that these pastors went through, Bishop Trimble ultimately took the extraordinary action of just dismissing their complaint, letting Blaedel completely off the hook. And he chose to wait until his final day as Iowa’s bishop, August 31, 2016, for notice of his decision to be delivered, giving neither the original complaint filers nor anyone else meaningful time to respond to him before Trimble packed his bags and transferred to Indiana. The pain and negative consequences this made worse for others were no longer his problem at that point.
While Blaedel often portrays herself as a victim, I have not seen anyone in the evangelical renewal movement aim similar language or tactics against her as what she encourages against others. Had this ever happened, I would be the first to call it out.
I have no intention of “harming” anyone, and no one has informed me of any substantial “harm” that has come to Blaedel from my complaint. (Her recent scaling back of her campus ministry work had nothing to do with my complaint, but instead apparently reflects her own wishes to redirect her focus, and perhaps some struggles with her campus ministry’s financial support base.) Instead, she has so far eagerly used this complaint processes to gain a publicity for herself and as a hook in raising money for herself.
In contrast, after enduring harassment from all around the country, all three of the original complaint filers have now left United Methodist parish ministry. One of them has planted a new congregation outside of the UMC.
Once again, whatever his intent, Bishop Trimble effectively imposed a trade-off: driving out three faithful United Methodist pastors, including a church-planter, so that United Methodist congregations would be deprived of their gifts and graces in future rounds of appointment “musical chairs.” And setting a dangerous precedent of the Discipline’s prohibition of clergy engaging in “relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another [United Methodist] pastor” being callously ignored within the Iowa Conference. All for the sake of avoiding drawing a firm line against one minister’s reckless, destructive disregard for either the UMC’s standards or for the ministry of other UMC pastors.
Blaedel continued, in her own words, “flagrantly breaking the rules.” In June 2017, Iowa’s new Bishop, Laurie Haller, announced a “just resolution” for Blaedel’s having performed a pastorally harmful same-sex union ceremony, against our rules. Then in October, the UMC Judicial Council specifically said that if there was a record of Blaedel making “a self-avowing statement since that date” of September 1, 2016, then “the current bishop would have a duty to initiate proceedings under Discipline ¶362 in accordance with JCD 920 and 1341.” But despite this ruling and subsequent self-avowal statements, Bishop Haller did not initiate a complaint.
And so the covenant-breaking continued, along with the consequent harm, and continuing risks for United Methodist congregations, without any evidence of repentance and remorse on Blaedel’s part, even for what had been done in her name against her former “colleagues in ministry.”
So as a last resort, I filed the complaint in March 2018, making clear that I was only doing so “reluctantly, with a heavy heart.” The three pastors who filed the first complaint against Blaedel, and the seventeen Iowa Conference clergy and laity who filed a complaint against Bishop Trimble for his mishandling of that matter (a complaint that reached its own just resolution) have already made it sufficiently clear that such matters are of concern to numerous members of the Iowa Conference.
I figured I would be much less vulnerable to retaliation and abuse than anyone under the oppressive atmosphere taking hold in Iowa. Yet I was still living within driving distance of the Iowa Conference headquarters, and willing to participate in any meetings.
Within days, someone mailed me a rather obscene, genitalia-themed package.
But overall, while liberal, “inclusive” United Methodists will doubtless continue responding with all sorts of anger, hate, and false attacks on my character and my leadership of IRD’s UMAction program, it’s hard to see how it gets much worse than what they’ve already thrown my way.
I remain open to dialogue. But if Blaedel chooses to refuse any just resolution, then that means a church trial. As one Iowa Conference friend recently remarked, if Blaedel values the good of the Iowa Conference above herself, then she has a rather unique ability to spare it the cost and trouble of a church trial.
Of course, if others entrusted with enforcing the Discipline were to betray this trust by avoiding real accountability, then they would impose even more costs on the Iowa Conference than a single church trial.
We could then expect a newly emboldened Blaedel to continue recklessly disregarding church standards and her covenant obligations to other United Methodists. The harm, pain, and losses of people and finances would increase. We could expect God to raise up someone to file a fifth complaint, perhaps for the same offense, or perhaps for something else, like harassment, undermining other pastors’ ministries, or performing another pastorally harmful same-sex union. Or perhaps something related to Blaedel’s apparent dabbling in neo-pagan occult practices.
The last is in reference to how, while making her public case against the COI’s decision, Blaedel casually mentioned her personal practice of “tarot,” without elaboration. Tarot cards are a fortune-telling tool popular in some New Age and neo-pagan circles. Scripture has plenty of warnings against practicing divination (see Leviticus 19:31, 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:9-12; Isaiah 8:19; and Acts 19:19). Pope Francis recently called tarot cards idolatry. Apparently, Blaedel’s rejection of biblical authority is not limited to its teachings about sexual morality.
Church jurors could finally do right by the Iowa Conference and our church as a whole, stopping the chain of one draining complaint process after another. They can have the courage to finally say that NO clergy in our denomination, no matter how favored by some political factions, is above the law or is entitled to free rein to break our covenant all he or she wants, no matter how many people keep getting hurt along the way.
Let us keep this situation in prayer.
In the meantime, here is the statement I made at the COI hearing:
I am a longtime United Methodist, lover of Wesleyan theology, elected General Conference delegate, and someone who deeply loves our church.
There has been some protest of how I, like my former schoolmate Tyler [in reference to Dr. Tyler Schwaller, Blaedel’s advocate], don’t live in Iowa. But we’re a connectional church. We’re the same jurisdiction. I have lived all around the country, and been part of United Methodist congregations in six annual conferences.
It’s the same church that welcomed me when my questions were not welcome in a more conservative church, the church that helped me come to know Jesus, and the church into which my children are baptized.
For me, this complaint was never about saying no gay people are welcome.
We laity give A LOT of trust, that our system will only send us pastors who have been vetted as women and men who keep their vows and submit to United Methodist standards.
I have seen the great harm that comes when clergy break their end of the trust we have with them. I have seen congregations, including some of mine, devastated after being sent pastors who betray the trust of the Church.
Connectionalism embraces Paul’s teaching that when one suffers, we all suffer. Rev. Blaedel’s repeated choices of disobedience have directly or indirectly led to a lot of suffering. Pastors in this conference who challenged her previous disobedience got harassed and bullied. Blaedel’s ongoing disobedience and the lack of accountability have actually driven at least three faithful Iowa Conference pastors out of [United Methodist] parish ministry. Also in reaction to such disobedience, other Iowa congregations have lost people and money. Within days of my filing this complaint, someone mailed an obscene package to my home.
Is this really the sort of healthy, loving behavior and human flourishing we want to continue unchecked, with one violation after another, no matter how many people and churches keep getting hurt?
This committee’s role is only to look at the evidence, all within the statute of limitations, including Blaedel’s directly telling you, quote: I am, indeed, a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” Judicial Council Decision 1351 said that “clearly” a complaint would be needed for any self-avowal statement she made after September 1, 2016.
Yesterday, Blaedel’s own friend M Barclay wrote on social media, quote, “There is certainly every reason to declare the charges of Anna’s queer practice have merit” and that if the committee follows our Church’s policies “they’ll have to say ‘yes’ to the merit.”
No fair-minded observer could see any reasonable grounds for doing anything other than certifying charges. Any other result would be devastating for mutual trust, respect, and ability to work together.
Beyond this committee, the trial court would make the ultimate decision. Alternatively, I have repeatedly made clear my interest in dialoguing about seeking a just resolution, but have never been given that chance.
The decision before this committee could not be clearer. I know it’s hard to hear anger and protests. But we must never let anyone intimidate or peer-pressure us in to acting with anything less than the full honesty and integrity God expects in His church.