Leaping Before Looking: Liberal Indiana United Methodists Stand with Tarot-Practicing Lesbian Activist Minister

on August 26, 2019

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.

Oh my.

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.

  1. Comment by David on August 26, 2019 at 7:24 pm

    “We know better. We are more enlightened.” We gave up executing people for witchcraft over 300 years ago. Sadly, this still continues in African countries that send delegates to the General Conference. I am not accusing UMC members of these atrocities, but belief in witchcraft is widespread, even among Christians. After all, witchcraft is mentioned in “the Word of God” and therefore must exist and is the cause of human woes. All persons are due equal human rights, but not all cultures are equal.

  2. Comment by diaphone64 on August 26, 2019 at 9:47 pm

    Many of these African cultures also support polygamy. Will your “equal marriage/ordination rights” be extended to polysexuals too, or just the “orientations” currently popular?

  3. Comment by Steve on August 27, 2019 at 7:04 am

    I would say that a culture whose birthrate is below replacement level is kidding itself if it thinks its superior to a culture that at least is able to perpetuate the species. Also, I’m sure the number of people our culture kills unjustly (I won’t offend people by going into particulars) dwarfs those killed for witchcraft in Africa. There are plenty of witches openly and proudly practicing witchcraft in this country, to paraphrase Darth Vader, I think they would find your lack of faith disturbing. Further, the Bible does not maintain that witchcraft is “the source of human woes”, it has a much more nuanced approach than that. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witchcraft_and_divination_in_the_Hebrew_Bible
    My impression is that witchcraft is an alternative belief system incompatible with Christianity. An allegedly Christian cleric shouldn’t be engaging in witchcraft any more than the president of Coke should be seen drinking a Pepsi. Ditto paganism, ouija boards, tarot cards.

  4. Comment by Steve on August 27, 2019 at 7:29 am

    See also:

  5. Comment by David on August 27, 2019 at 9:05 am

    Obviously, there are groups that claim to be witches in the US, but how many Americans think they have supernatural powers? Generally witchcraft is dismissed as silly nonsense. While the Bible may not specifically blame witches for misfortunes, many Africans, like the good people of Salem, believe this to be the case. A biblical “witch” might be better translated as “poisoner” according to some.

    Birthrates are more tied to economic conditions than “culture.” When the need for more farmhands declined, and most people worked in agriculture until the 20th century, the birthrates declined. In my own family tree, it is somewhat shocking to see the number of children in earlier generations. Whether or not the world would be better off without the human race is a good question.

  6. Comment by Steve on August 27, 2019 at 9:31 am

    Seems to me you have totally arbitrary notions of better or worse. Post Darwin, the one absolute atheists should agree on is that life is a game, and the winners, and in this amoral framework the only absolute is survival, typically obtained by being fitter or more adaptable. By that standard our culture, economy, however you want to slice or dice it, is kidding itself if it thinks its superior. We are on a downslide and headed for extinction mainly because we went from the self sacrificing WWII culture to a selfish me first 60s culture.

  7. Comment by David on August 27, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    We are more likely to go extinct because of some new plague, drastic change in weather causing starvation, or a meteor strike. Some estimates give 99.9% of all species have gone extinct despite being judged to be “good.” The survival prize is more likely to go to roaches than humans.

  8. Comment by Steve on August 28, 2019 at 10:39 am

    The “extinction” I was speaking of what not of the species, but of our allegedly superior culture. Demographics is destiny. We have a birthrate below replacement level. Africa has a birthrate above replacement level. Therefore they (and/or various other peoples of various other lands and cultures) will replace us. As regards Africa, I saw a chart indicating they will have a population growth greatly exceeding anywhere else, approaching the total population of China in a few decades.

  9. Comment by JR on August 29, 2019 at 9:30 am

    Interestingly, the whole ‘replacement theory’ is one that is often cited by white supremacists. Are you sure you want to be in that same space?

    It’s a load of bunk in the first place (the Roman Empire didn’t fail because of a low birthrate – what it (and other similar empires throughout history) did best was to successfully integrate others into the Empire as it expanded). In the list of why Rome fell, low birthrate isn’t there. https://www.history.com/news/8-reasons-why-rome-fell

  10. Comment by Steve on September 5, 2019 at 11:51 am

    I was using the term “culture” pretty abstractly, but mainly speaking to David’s suggestion that American culture was superior to African for the given reason that people are executed for witchcraft there. I’d say that’s an argument that any white nationalist would have no problems endorsing. But this argument is hardly limited to David; now that African Methodists have the majority of votes at the Convention, liberal American Methodists are trying to segregate themselves into an American, largely white expression of Methodism (separate but equal anybody?). I look forward to your comment where you passive aggressively suggest they might be white nationalist too. Maybe you’re projecting?

  11. Comment by Steve on September 6, 2019 at 9:52 am

    Also, here’s an article about an article from the famously white nationalist newspaper, The New York Times, which pointed out that there is increased immigration to compensate for reduced birthrates.
    Our economic system (much like nature) abhors a vacuum; missing people will be replaced. Social programs (including Social Security) depend upon having a workforce to support those that do not work. The more pronounced the decline in birthrate, the more pronounced this effect will be.

  12. Comment by Steve on September 6, 2019 at 10:11 am

    Hm, looking at that article, maybe its not the right one, don’t seem to be able to find one, maybe this one from the notoriously white nationalist Washington Post will do:

  13. Comment by Steve on August 28, 2019 at 10:18 am

    Great, yet another “what’s the point, let’s just give up” argument. These allegedly sophisticated arguments are actually cheap excuses for lives of leisure, laziness and liquidation of the birthright our parents obtained at great cost, consuming everything, leaving nothing for future generations.

  14. Comment by Palamas on August 29, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    “Whether or not the world would be better off without the human race is a good question.”

    I think God has already answered that one. However, since you don’t like His answers on many other things, why should this one be any different? The really interesting question is, why does someone who so obviously doesn’t believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or who thinks Him a liar, feel compelled to peddle his fish here?

  15. Comment by Bob Volk on August 27, 2019 at 7:43 am

    The only weapon the left has is ostracization. They are losing power everywhere and they know it. Hence the temper tantrums.

  16. Comment by MikeS on August 27, 2019 at 2:44 pm

    The one thing that the Left is skilled at is institution-capture. Could it be that the time for institutional religion has passed, and that Christians should meet as independent small groups and house churches that cannot be subverted? Tarot-reading ‘ministers’ cannot take control of a million small house churches; but a large flabby denomination with millions of members is seen as a sitting duck for infiltration and subversion.

  17. Comment by Mike on August 30, 2019 at 9:36 pm

    MikeS, that is an interesting thought! Thank you for raising it. I will have to think on that one. You may very well be right.

  18. Comment by Lyn on August 28, 2019 at 6:21 pm

    Yes the occult is a real evil; to deny it is to deny Satan. He is loving the way some methodist have lost their way and are bending more his way than the Lord’s. As for the president of the methodist women-they have long went the way of radical liberals and I have encouraged my district and conference to NOT send any funds to the national office. The national office does not reflect the beliefs of the vast majority of methodist women. I would much rather specifically send my $ to a cause I believe in such as our local women’s shelter, our pregnancy advocacy center, local food pantry, etc. There are many causes that are in dire need of funds in our local communities without sending to the radical national methodist women to spend as they are pushing their own agenda.

  19. Comment by John Smith on August 29, 2019 at 6:27 am

    The first mistake was in thinking this was a disagreement that could be rationally resolved. Completely wrong mindset. John is wrong. John must be punished, reeducated and reassigned. “Pour encourager les autres!” If the UMC can be intimidated into enforcing the new BOD as well as it enforced the old one then most of the problems will solve themselves.

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