It has recently been widely publicly reported that I filed a formal complaint against the Rev. Anna Blaedel in the Iowa Conference for violating the United Methodist Church’s longstanding ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy.
I actually did this back in March 2018. Now 17 months later, the Iowa Committee on Investigation (COI) has just certified a bill of charges for a possible church trial.
Since most of those now commenting don’t understand the full story, I am breaking my silence and encouraging people to get the facts here.
Among those commenting are some liberal clergy in my own Indiana Conference, who organized an online manifesto to decry the “unjust” traditionalist standards of the UMC Discipline, “unequivocally denounce” the “violent tactics” and “tyranny” they blame on me and IRD/UMAction (without being entirely clear what they mean), vent their anger that I got elected as a General Conference delegate from our conference, “stand in solidarity with our sibling in Christ, the Rev. Anna Blaedel,” and judge that they “can only assume” that I filed this complaint without “any intent toward biblical resolution.”
The statement also portrays it as obvious and undebatable that “hateful” motives must be driving anyone who actually supports wants our denomination’s biblical standards on sexual morality to be upheld.
Signers go further, by apologizing for their “complicity” in “hav[ing] fostered an environment that allows for” me to have filed this “hateful” complaint while being part of the Indiana Conference. I’m not really sure how else to read that other than displaying a rather totalitarian attitude of lamenting that one individual with a traditional Wesleyan perspective who wants our clergy to be held accountable to that biblical standard is “allowed” to be a lay member of a congregation in our annual conference.
Some of this appears to come from the context of sour grapes over our last annual conference’s elections among the laity, representing over 99 percent of our conference. A significant majority of lay delegates were backed by evangelical caucuses. This certainly did NOT come from a lack of energetic efforts by the signers of this manifesto. (Clergy elections were a different story.)
It is worth remembering that this year’s Indiana Annual Conference featured debate on a much more mildly worded petition to oppose our church keeping the very standard Anna Blaedel is accused of violating, and that a majority declined to support it, despite the vote being scheduled late in the session after many evangelicals had gone home. In other words, this “Hoosier Response” rather demonstrably represents only a minority perspective within the Indiana Conference. (Delving further into on the details such debates at our conference would take its own article.)
As a delegate, I have an obligation to respectfully listen to a range of voices within my Conference. While I will always vote my values, I have a responsibility to remember and be respectful of the minority in my conference who believes differently, including those who actively opposed my election while prominently wearing their anti-IRD pins, and to seek to treat them as I want to be treated.
What is especially tone-deaf about this “Hoosier Response to the Complaint Filed against Rev. Anna Blaedel” (Hoosier being a nickname for Indianans) is its being endorsed by not one, not two, but four elite clergy members of Indiana Bishop Julius Trimble’s own Extended Cabinet. They serve as Bishop Trimble’s representatives, especially since he renamed his district superintendents “conference superintendents.” With a few notable exceptions, Bishop Trimble has largely “stacked” such leadership roles rather disproportionately with those who share his liberal views.
So now several of Bishop Trimble’s top representatives are publicly denouncing me as uniquely blameworthy for what is actually a situation that Bishop Trimble himself unnecessarily worsened and dumped on others. And by continuing a rather exclusive concern for coddling covenant-breaking clergy, these bishop’s deputies are continuing the same patterns through which Bishop Trimble bears significant responsibility for driving off four faithful pastors and an entire congregation from the Iowa Conference of the UMC.
(Doubtless some serving under Bishop Trimble’s appointment or otherwise seeking to gain favor will now fall over themselves to decry my naming these already well-known elephants in the room.)
This declaration was organized by two pastors in our conference I’ve never met in more than a cursory way. In addition to the bishop’s deputies, signers include a majority of our conference’s General Conference clergy delegates, several other liberal members of our conference’s clergy elite, and the national President of United Methodist Women. Among the other signers were the Revs. Sandy Harlan, a former conference staffer who signed twice, and Darren Cushman-Wood, a prominent liberal pastor whose current appointment led to the name of “Indianapolis Plan” on which he and others across the spectrum have been working. (The full list of clergy and lay co-signers, searchable via Ctrl+F, is available here.)
The bottom of this declaration makes clear that it is being used to gather emails for two caucus groups, the Indiana Room for All Coalition and the Reconciling Ministries Network of Indiana, and to raise money, particularly for “the Room for All Resistance Fund.”
Apparently, organizers saw no irony in claiming the high ground of “room for all” while suggesting that our denomination should have no place for traditionalist believers who want to see our biblical standards upheld.
Our own former Bishop Mike Coyner, despite his own outspoken hopes for liberalizing the Discipline’s standards, memorably describing pledges by privileged, predominantly white, American United Methodists to defy the Discipline’s sexual-morality standards while they remain on the books “as a kind of ‘neo-colonialism,’” which amounts to telling the growing number of General Conference delegates from the Global South, “We know better. We are more enlightened. We have more experience leading the church. We do not trust the decisions of a church which is no longer US-dominated.” (Bishop Coyner’s paraphrase, not mine.)
None of these people I mentioned ever sought to directly engage me for dialogue about what they think is my great sin, before publicly denouncing me… for allegedly not seeking to engage directly with Anna Blaedel per Matthew 18.
Filing my complaint was in no way contrary to Scripture or the UMC Discipline. The declaration’s scolding me on the alleged basis of Matthew 18 simply does not match the actual facts of this case, including my previous interactions with Blaedel and her team.
Had any of these folk bothered taking their own advice, I would have been happy to share, in the context of respectful dialogue, that from the beginning of this 17-month process, I have repeatedly made clear my interest in dialoguing with Blaedel about seeking a just resolution. If others in the process refuse to even begin talking to me about such things, then that’s on them.
In any case, the declaration makes clear that the real issue is signers’ vehement opposition to our denomination’s clergy standards, regardless of how exactly they are applied or by whom.
If any organizers are hoping that this will somehow intimidate me to back off from this complaint or from more generally insisting on accountability, they obviously don’t know me very well.
I can take this sort of blowback.
But a much bigger concern is what sort of example the declaration is setting, particularly by endorsers who are pastors or conference leaders, for how we handle disagreements within our churches.
Church folk disagree on numerous issues. Is the best approach to avoid any opportunity for respectful dialogue with someone with whom you disagree, and instead have your very first resort be to publicly denounce this person to others, even to the point of assigning nefarious motives, even without getting your facts straight? Would this “Indiana Room for All Coalition” model for disagreement be healthy for our Indiana UMC congregations seeking to be grace-filled Christian communities? Do the pastors and conference leaders promoting this approach not see how they are setting an example with wider implications for our congregations, beyond one issue?
This seems to be another example of the “LGBTQ liberation trumps EVERYTHING” mindset setting in among many liberal United Methodists. Yes, opposing the complaint does fit with advancing the LGBTQ cause. But is this cause worth advancing by any means necessary, even when that makes otherwise reasonable people disregard their own professed core values about how church life should be?
The declaration apologizes to Blaedel for alleged “harm” done to her and her ministry by my complaint. But it does not specify what substantial harm has been done to either, and ignores how so far the complaint has yielded much more stardom than martyrdom for Blaedel.
I certainly have not heard of Blaedel facing anything like how her own followers, with Blaedel’s open encouragement, subjected multiple other pastors to harassment until they were basically bullied out of United Methodist parish ministry.
Is this really the sort of approach to ministry that Bishop Trimble’s representatives and other liberal leaders in Indiana believe our denomination needs more of—at least when practiced by LGBTQ ministers? Even if the price was a bit higher, like driving out eight congregations and as many pastors? 18? 80? Is there any limiting principle?
The “Hoosier Response” insists, in very broad and unqualified terms, that Blaedel “ha[s] responded to God’s call on [her] life and served faithfully for many years.”
But no basis is offered for such a confident endorsement.
What of encouraging the harassment, the vulgar language, the hateful comments, and the obscene, genitalia-themed mailing? What about Blaedel’s openly encouraging disruptions of traditionalist pastors’ Sunday worship services? Most United Methodists I know would describe this sort of thing as bringing out the worst in people.
What of Blaedel’s apparent dabbling in the occult with tarot cards?
By what standard can all such things be counted as “faithful service”? How is any of this characteristic of being an effective minister of the Gospel, in campus ministry or elsewhere, if any such ministry must include serving as a role model of an exemplary Christian life?
Some declaration signers have previously expressed support for liberalizing church standards on homosexuality within a framework of keeping the sexual ethic of celibacy and singleness and faithfulness in monogamous marriage. But has every individual organizing, promoting, and signing this declaration first taken time to verify if Blaedel is legally married, even though I have never seen her described as such?
Can all of the above be swept under the rug of insisting that because Anna Blaedel has become a sort of poster child for the cause, we MUST follow the lead of the “Hoosier Response” and believe that she has been “serving faithfully” through all of this?
Perhaps some who hastily endorsed the declaration may now have the humility to reconsider having their names listed (whether once or multiple times) and seek a more constructive approach. Probably others will read this, decide that they don’t care, and dig in their heels.
In the bigger picture, we can sadly expect growing tensions in our denomination between now and the May 2020 General Conference. May we all gently challenge ourselves to work hard at treating those with whom we disagree with the same level of respect and consideration with which we would want to be treated, acknowledging that we can ALL be tempted to sin in this area.