PROPOSAL FOR A RESPONSE TO GENERAL CONFERENCE 2019

BY ST. STEPHEN’S UMC

St. Stephen’s Committee on Church and Society and friends

March 26, 2019 (updated April 18, 2019)[1]

Background and Rationale

In February a special session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference met in St. Louis to reconsider the church’s position on human sexuality.  It was called by the Council of Bishops to consider the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward about how to deal with disagreements in the denomination over current language in the Book of Discipline, which states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, prohibits the ordination of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) clergy, and prohibits clergy from celebrating the marriage of LGBTQ couples. 

General Conference voted by a 53 to 47 percent margin to retain this language and to adopt provisions that would strengthen their enforcement.  By a similar margin (55-45 percent), it rejected a plan supported by a substantial majority of the bishops that would have provided annual conferences, ordained clergy, and local churches freedom to decide whether to marry and ordain LGBTQ persons.  The Discipline also calls for the protection of the human and civil rights of all persons regardless of sexual orientation, and implores families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay people.  The General Conference did not address these statements.

Some in St. Stephen’s agree with the decision of the General Conference.  Others find the decision hurtful and have serious doubts about whether they can remain in the church.  Many of these same people are disappointed in the response they have seen so far from St. Stephen’s.

St. Stephen’s has experienced controversy over LGTBQ issues in the past, but in the main we have dealt with our disagreements by avoiding the issue.  In large part, this strategy worked: it has facilitated a vibrant Christian ministry to a large, ideologically diverse congregation.

We, the undersigned believe, however, that St. Stephen’s can no longer remain silent on the UMC’s stance towards LGBTQ persons for two reasons.  First, though the details are cloudy right now, structural change in the larger church around differences on LGBTQ issues seems inevitable, possibly resulting in two or more denominations.  St. Stephen’s should begin the work now to develop a common understanding of where the congregation stands on these issues to be prepared for these changes.  Second, and more importantly in the near term, are the requests by congregants for a clearer response by St. Stephen’s to the General Conference’s decision.   They argue that a refusal to make a clear response is itself a decision and that their voices should be heard before such a decision is made.  And many feel like they need a clear congregational response to the General Conference’s decision in order to decide whether they can remain with the church.

For these reasons, we propose that the church enter into respectful, loving conversation with a goal of developing a congregational statement of response to the results of the General Conference.

Proposal

We propose a three-step process for this conversation: first, a church-wide survey to give us a snapshot of our views and a starting point for subsequent discussion; then second, a process of facilitated conversations among small groups of church members to give voice to our common values, as well as our differences.  In the third step, the results of these conversations will be used to shape a final statement.  We envision the final product will be a written statement that not only agrees with or disagrees with the result of the General Conference, but more generally expresses our attitudes towards LGBTQ people, and towards difference and diversity in our congregation and the community.  This statement will be presented to the Church Council for its consideration.

Step 1: Survey

Attached is the written questionnaire we propose using for the survey.  We developed it after reviewing several other surveys on LGBTQ issues and General Conference 2019 conducted by local UMC congregations.  The survey also reflects input from St. Stephen’s members who are experts in opinion surveys and comments received at the Church Council meeting on March 27, 2019.  The questions the survey asks are narrow in focus and aimed at generating the congregational response discussed above.  First, it gives respondents a chance to register their opposition to the survey by asking whether or not they wish to take it.  Second, it asks respondents to identify themselves as traditional or progressive on the issue, and whether they desire to be in a church with diverse viewpoints on the subject.  “Traditional” and “progressive” are defined in the terms used by the Book of Discipline: whether the respondent believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  Third, it asks the respondent whether he or she agrees with the decision of the General Conference.  Finally, it asks the respondent how important it is that St. Stephen’s embrace his or her position on the issue.  The questionnaire also contains free-answer questions—one on how St. Stephens should move forward and a general request for comments– which other churches have said provided very valuable feedback.

We envision that the questionnaire would be made available electronically to everyone on St. Stephen’s general email lists (i.e., the Thursday general church email list; the youth email list; and the children ministries email list).  Paper copies would also be made available between services on a particular Sunday, though respondents would be cautioned to answer only once.  A short response time would be provided: the email would go out Friday, and all responses (paper and electronic) would be due on the following Monday.  The survey would be open to each member and those who regularly attend who are of confirmation age (sixth grade) or older, and the survey contains a request to identify to which of these groups  the respondent belongs.  The intent is that responses would be made on a per individual rather than per family basis.  It also asks the respondent to identify his or her age range.  We believe that these demographics may give additional insights that could help the conversations going forward.

In order to maximize the trust in the results, we believe that they should be circulated as quickly as possible after the survey is administered, if possible with the next weekly Thursday email and certainly by the following Sunday.  We believe that exact percentages should be reported—this provides transparency and communicates a level of trust in the congregation that will be essential to fostering the honest conversations required in Step 2.  This is a practice that other local congregations have followed and none have reported divisiveness as a result.

Step 2: Congregational Conversations

To help interpret the results of the survey and obtain more nuanced and qualitative information from the congregation about General Conference 2019 and our values concerning LGBTQ persons  in our community, we propose a series of small group listening and discussion sessions be held, led by a facilitator.  This would allow us to collect thoughts and impressions from church members that could be compiled to develop a set of ideas about our common values, as well as our differences around LGBTQ issues.  We envision scheduling a series of meetings at different times over several weeks.  They would be limited in size to help ensure all participants have a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the discussion.  Sufficient meetings would be scheduled so that anyone who wanted to participate would have a reasonable opportunity to do so.

Step 3: Drafting the Statement

We propose that the Church Council select a small drafting committee of approximately 3-4 volunteers to use the information learned from the survey and the congregational conversations to develop a draft congregational response.  Once a draft is completed, it would be published to the entire congregation, which would have the opportunity to provide feedback and comment.  The drafting committee would then make any revisions it believed necessary, and submit a final draft to the Church Council for approval.

We believe that the statement that ultimately emerges from the process would be just the first step in a larger conversation in the church about the kind of community that St. Stephens is and aspires to be.   We intend to develop programs in the future aimed at developing the trust and the techniques needed to have these deeper conversations. 

Communication

Transparency about the goals of the project and the procedures used is essential to building the trust needed for the success of the project.  We propose a three-pronged communication strategy for rolling out the project to the congregation.  First, if the project is approved, we recommend that a short written statement signed by lay and pastoral leadership appear in the next weekly email and bulletin explaining the project goals and process.  Second, on the day the written survey is handed out, an announcement in church should be made again explaining the project and its goals.  Third, a page should be created on the website which would contain these explanations, a copy of this plan, the survey questionnaire and results, a timeline for the project, and other materials explaining the project.

The congregation should be regularly updated about the progress of the project.  The survey results should be made public as soon as they are compiled.  At each subsequent step, reminders will be published about meetings and other ways to participate.  Once a draft statement is prepared, it will be published and the congregation will be notified of opportunities to respond to it.  Finally, public reminders will be communicated by appropriate means of all church committee meetings at which the project is discussed, with explicit invitations to the congregation to attend.

Proposed Timeline (best estimate, but may change as events unfold)

March 27—Church Council Approval of Proposal

April 26—GC2019 Response Webpage up and email survey sent out

April 28—Written survey available in church

April 29—Survey period closes

May 5—Survey results published in bulletin and on website

May 8-22—Small group meetings

June 3—Draft statement published for comment

June 12—Church Council considers draft final statement

Submitted by

St. Stephen’s Committee on Church and Society:

Gary Klinger, Chair
Cathy Liverman, Lorac Lawton, Mary Morrison,

and friends:

Ed Baird, Wendy Baird, Tom Bradley, Jerry Taylor


[1] This proposal was approved at the March 27, 2019 Church Council Meeting, with an allowance for revisions to be made to the draft survey to reflect comments of the congregation and as approved by the Chair and the pastors.  The update to this document reflects those changes. Back to Top