As United Methodists wait for our delayed General Conference to reach a comprehensive separation agreement, it is important to remember that our church law remains unchanged in the meantime. Our clergy are still subject to the long-standing policies in the United Methodist Church’s (UMC’s) governing Book of Discipline prohibiting same-sex weddings and any clergy having same-sex partners or otherwise being sexually active outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
Much attention has been given to activist United Methodist clergy breaking the rules and facing no real accountability.
But there are a few recent examples from across the USA of clergy facing real accountability that have received much less attention.
It can hardly be over-emphasized that none of these people were forced to pursue ministry in our particular denomination. All chose to become United Methodist ministers after both of the key Discipline prohibitions were in place (against clergy performing same-sex weddings or personally having gay partners). All chose to promise to the church to uphold these standards.
The first two were both part of a longer group of activist clergy who in 2016 publicly vowed to abuse the authority given them to effectively encourage open defiance of our standards.
In the North Central Jurisdiction, Lauren Padgett had been a key organizer for the Illinois-Great Rivers Annual Conference’s chapter of the LGBTQ-affirming Reconciling Ministries Network caucus.
Then in June 2020, she took to Facebook (in a post later republished by the liberal UM Insight website) to complain of how our denomination’s standards effectively forced her to surrender her United Methodist clergy credentials, prompting her to transfer into the liberal United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination in which she now pastors. Rather than take responsibility, Padgett blames the 2019 General Conference for closing alleged loopholes in relevant church law and blames her bishop and cabinet for failing to turn “a blind-eye” to their own pastoral and accountability responsibilities to her. But Padgett’s years of admittedly “try[ing] to hide in the margins” obviously lack integrity, and this does not appear to be a case of anyone seeking to “hunt her down.” Rather, the realities of current church law and Padgett’s same-sex partnership, which she says was not terribly secret, forced her bishop in a situation where he could not have integrity if he simply affirmed her to continue in good standing.
As I have said before, restoration is always the hope of any accountability process, as it was with my own complaint in Iowa that ended last November. Padgett was apparently unwilling to let that happen here. But at least her removal from United Methodist ministry means the protection of our church from false teaching and immorality in leadership, about which the New Testament has plenty of warnings.
For her part, Padgett sees it like this: “Now, I am just grateful that I can finally be in a local church and not constantly worry and hide from the” judgment of others.
In the South, I know of another minister who had had several conference leadership positions, was a leader in conference-wide LGBTQ liberationist activism, and had pastored a congregation through its voting to formally affiliate with RMN.
Some orthodox clergy colleagues in her conference were upset to learn of social media celebrations of her wedding to another woman. Despite how, relatively speaking, both her annual conference and bishop are more liberal for the region, the official records show that she went on leave of absence not long afterwards, and then at some point between 2019 and now, she transferred her credentials entirely out of her conference into the Denver-based Mountain Sky Conference. Now she is no longer listed on the roster of clergy for her former conference, but she is listed by the Mountain Sky Conference as one of its clergy. (Efforts to confirm more specific dates and details with Mountain Sky officials met with limited success.)
This transfer has happened despite this minister not actually relocating from the geographic boundaries of her former conference, but keeping the same chaplain job she already had.
Mountain Sky is part of the Western Jurisdiction, whose bishops have long been in open rebellion against enforcing the Discipline. But this annual conference has been especially schismatic, even by Western Jurisdiction standards. Its bishop’s office is currently occupied by partnered lesbian activist Karen Oliveto, a matter of dubious legal standing. Before the announcement of the “Protocol” proposal for dividing up the UMC, leaders there have made clear their intent to lead the conference out of United Methodism to form their own denomination if they did not get their way at the next General Conference.
So the transfer of this minister into the Mountain Sky Conference has served to protect this minister from further accountability, but has also served to block the anarchy of the Western Jurisdiction from spreading further. Thankfully, she is not pastoring any congregation.
In the Northeastern Jurisdiction, a liberal caucus in the Upper New York Conference lamented in September 2019 that Lynnette Cole, a licensed local pastor and recent graduate of the UMC’s Wesley Theological Seminary, had her license revoked within a week after her wedding to another woman. The nature of our church law about licensed local pastors is such that it is easier to bring much more efficient discipline when they choose to blatantly betray their vows, as I have written about earlier.
Following the path of Padgett and others, Cole has now personally transferred into the UCC. She is no longer on the UMC Upper New York Conference’s appointment list (as she was last year), is no longer included in its clergy directory, and can no longer be appointed to any regular United Methodist congregation.
The situation is not quite as clean-cut with her congregation. Cole remains pastor of the small Schroon Lake Community Church where she has been since 2016. The Discipline clearly says that no “self-avowed practicing homosexual” can be a United Methodist minister or “appointed to serve” as pastor of a United Methodist congregation, even if s/he is on loan from another denomination. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) liberalized its sexuality standards, I recall even the liberal leadership of the UMC Council of Bishops publicly clarifying that the “full communion” pact between the two denominations made it easier for United Methodists to have a Lutheran appointed as their pastor, but not if s/he was in a gay partnership.
However, Schroon Lake Community Church is a federated UMC-UCC congregation. This can be a confusing category, as federated congregations are not quite the same as United Methodist congregations and not entirely separate. Specific details can vary.
I have confirmed that the terms of this particular congregation’s federated status are such that in this period of time, the pastor is supplied by the UCC, and neither the bishop nor any other leader in the UMC’s Upper New York conference have any role in appointing Cole.
It seems clear that whatever happens with our denomination’s coming split, this congregation will end up in a more liberal denomination than the main home for theologically traditionalist United Methodists.
Theologically traditionalist United Methodists take seriously New Testament warnings about a little yeast of sexual immorality – especially among leaders – leavening the whole dough of the church (1 Corinthians 5) and understand that elevating such bad examples is especially pastorally harmful to people who experience same-sex attractions. On the other hand, liberal United Methodists believe that our denomination’s current restrictions are harmful.
In recent months, despite some notable exceptions, various factors within and beyond the church had helped us see a bit of a dampening of our denomination’s recent conflicts over activist clergy violating the UMC Discipline and facing complaints.
The longer time is stretched out before the actual enactment of a separation agreement, the more difficult it may be to sustain even such an uneasy and partial truce.
In the meantime, United Methodist clergy remain subject to traditionalist standards on sexual morality, along with the enhanced enforcement requirements enacted at last year’s General Conference. Which means that they have no right to violate our standards before the next General Conference, completely deserve accountability if they choose to do so, and there is no integrity in pretending otherwise.
But rather than falling back into the cycles of action and reaction into which United Methodists were locked prior to the start of 2020, it would be in the interests of all major factions for us to move on with a clean, clear, gracious separation as quickly as possible. This would allow us each to be set free to pursue our contrasting visions of Methodist ministry, without any more fighting or being held back by each other.