Dear General Conference Delegates From Around the World,
I’m writing you today about issues of LGBTQ inclusion, which will be before you at General Conference in Portland. My message to you is not just that “It’s Time,” but that “It’s Past Time.”
The Clock Has Stopped. You Can Restart It.
My first message is that the clock is not “ticking” on issues of LGBT inclusion in the Church. The clock has stopped. Your calling —the one I hope you will accept— is to restart the clock. I hope and pray that by your actions at General Conference, you can give LGBTQ United Methodists, their allies, and Progressive United Methodists across the nation, some hope.
You see, for years, we had hope. For years, we have clung to the belief that “people’s hearts will change” on the issues. And, frankly, people’s hearts have changed. In the United States, they have. The hearts of American United Methodists have changed on this issue. And this, we celebrate.
We know that many of your hearts have changed on the issues, and we know that this is a genuine movement of the Spirit of God. It’s God’s Spirit at work in your life. And for this, we say, “Thanks be to God!”
We understand that the vast majority of American United Methodists are supportive of change, and would support either “full inclusion” for LGBTQ persons, or some form of “local option” where these decisions would rest with the local church.
But we need actual change, not just aspirational beliefs. Positive change on the issues, not just a theoretical future “restructure.” Because another four-years without change is not tenable for the future of the Church.
I am hearing some of you say, “If we just get restructuring, then we can change.”
On this, I must say two things in love:
1) We don’t have four more years, and
2) No legitimate restructuring plan can happen without a ⅔ constitutional vote. And that, politically, is not possible…no matter how theoretically wonderful any restructuring idea is.
The Mission Field and the Church of God Has Shifted
God’s Holy Church has already moved on from this issue. Almost every other mainline protestant denomination in America has made some accommodation on the issue of Same Sex Marriage(1).
That doesn’t mean that they all “agree” on the issue. It means they have doctrinally “agreed to disagree” for the sake of their unity.
Let me personalize this down to the “mission field” of the church I currently serve. In our neighborhood (Often called “Near North Dallas” or “Preston Hollow”) four out of the closest five churches to us are now allowing for same sex marriages. (There is actually a fifth-out-of-six, but they cannot be named, publicly…)
In our little neighborhood, the closest Disciples of Christ… UCC… Presbyterian… and Baptist (that’s right, Baptist) Churches are allowing same sex marriages. Here’s a little graph I created to show where they are located. (We are the congregation in the circle, near the top…)
Friends, this graph keeps me up at night. Because it’s the clearest representation that the “mission field” has changed. Preston Hollow is not, by any means, an ultra-conservative or extremely liberal neighborhood. But our neighborhood has changed.
I’m well aware that the mission field has not changed in every neighborhood, and maybe not in your neighborhood. I get that. That’s why I am personally on record as supporting the “local option.” I understand that not every church, theologically and culturally, can currently be at the place of full inclusion.
But if we truly believe in contextual ministry, we must then acknowledge that the context of our mission field has changed in many places. And if we really believe in reaching that mission field (as we say we do), and if we intend to hold together the denomination as it currently is, then we must find some accommodation on issues of LGBTQ inclusion…some “local option,” at the very least.
Because, if not, our denomination will hemorrhage members on the left. Unlike the theological right, there is no unified plan of “80 Churches” set to leave the denomination. So, perhaps you think we have more time. But you are mistaken.
Because there will be hundreds of churches that will slowly die, over time…accelerating at a speed we have never yet witnessed. There won’t be 80 leave in unison. But there will be hundreds die a slow, painful death.
We’ve Already Lost Membership
What has gone unnamed for years by the moderates in the UMC is that the denomination is already undergoing a “death-by-attrition” on the left. After every General Conference, our own congregation loses membership. Thanks be to God, we have always been able to rebuild it. So far.
But since Obergefell, our congregation has seen both a decrease in worship attendance, and also a decline in giving. Some of this can be tied directly to the UMC’s lack of change on the issue of same sex marriage.
I fear that process will accelerate. People across the nation will vote with their feet. Inaction is action. The banks of the river that is the United Methodist Church will continue to slowly track to the right, over time.
If that’s what you want…if you seek for us to eventually only be a center-right denomination, then don’t change on the issues. “Stay the course.” Because the current “course” will guarantee a more conservative denomination, four years from now.(2)
Reframing, Or Ignoring, Issues Never Works
Yes, we have a fantastic “brand” as the UMC. But no amount of rebranding, or avoiding the issues will be acceptable to young couples —gay and straight— in the future.
A progressive, 40-year-old straight couple, even as early as later this year, will not seek out a United Methodist Church, given their other options. (See the above graphic, if you don’t believe this…) We have straight young couples who visit us all the time, who make it clear that they checked us out ahead of time, and came because we we were welcoming of LGBTQ persons.
Some of my dearest friends in ministry have said, “Eric, let’s just reframe this…let’s just stop talking about LGBTQ issues so much…”
I would LOVE to. Trust me, I would. Let’s just do ministry. Let’s just stop talking about all this. I agree.
To than end, I have not personally mentioned LGBTQ issues from the pulpit in a single sermon since last June. (As Stengell said, “You could look it up…”) Contrary to the perception of some, we don’t talk about these issues all the time at Northaven.
But Dear General Conference Friends,
In asking us to stop talking about these issues at all? You are asking Progressive People (gay and straight) to effective play the Wizard of Oz…and pretend that “Ironic Process Theory” is not a real thing.
Don’t know what “Ironic Process Theory” is? It’s the theory that the more groups try to not talk about a sticky issue, the more those groups cannot help but think about them.
It’s just like that scene in the Wizard of Oz, where the Wizard tries, one last valiant time, to keep up the illusion of all the cool things he can do…smoke, fire….big green face on the screen…
“Pay no attention to that doctrine behind the curtain…” you say…“Look at the good stuff we do on racial justice!”
“Pay no attention to that doctrine behind the curtain…Look at the good stuff we do on economic injustice!”
“Pay no attention to that doctrine behind the curtain…Look at the good stuff we do on immigration!”
“Pay no attention to that doctrine behind the curtain…Look at the great local mission stuff we do!”
In other words:
“Look at everything, or anything else, except LGBTQ issues….”
The problem is, psychology has demonstrably proven that this never works.
Delay won’t work, because the clock has stopped.
Diversion doesn’t work, because “Ironic Process Theory” is real.
And, either way, future young people (gay and straight) will not wait around for us to explain why we cannot change for either of these excuses. They have other options.
The Only Path Through Is Through
The only way through a tough problem is…through a tough problem.
We’ve got to address the issues on the issues. Reframing our mission might have worked in 2008 or 2012. It does not work in 2016. Because the clock has stopped ticking.
Look, I know the path is hard. I’m salient that the path may well be impossible. I understand that there are many angry people on the right and the left. Furthermore, I understand that moderates often feel caught in the middle.
So, I’m asking you to do this: Be the Church you want to see in the world. Leadership always means leading a step ahead of where your people are. I thank my Baptist friend, Rev. George Mason, for this insight.(3)
And if, as most of American United Methodist do, you are support some kind of way forward on issues of LGBTQ inclusion, find that legislative path. On the issues, and not just through delay or diversion.
It’s not just time. It’s past time. And only you can restart the clock.
I will be praying for each and every one of you each day.
(1)Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, UCC, ELCA…in short, every other mainline denomination that we have always most closely identified with, save the Southern Baptists.
(2)Hint: Conservatives have known this for years…
(3) BTW, his congregation is studying whether or not to allow Same Sex Weddings in their sanctuary. If approved, it would mean two Baptist Churches in Dallas, Texas will have made this move before any United Methodists.