Every year, at the fall Charge Conference meeting, I am charged with the following task: “The pastor shall give a report on the state of the church.” It’s hard to believe another year has passed, and what a year it has been.
We began listening to one another with love. On four Wednesdays in January, we gathered for a series of important conversations—Listening with Love: Conversations about Same-Gender Relationships and the United Methodist Church. We created this program to prepare for February’s special session of the General Conference in St. Louis, which was convened to answer the question: “Should we fully include gay and lesbian people in our journey as United Methodists, specifically as it relates to marriage and ordination? This is a crucial conversation that we could not ignore. Our goal was not to change anyone’s beliefs or convictions. We simply wanted to create space for mutual understanding, in hopes of moving to a place where we could continue to journey together. So we gathered in small groups around small tables and engaged in courageous dialogue that helped us prepare for the outcomes of General Conference. We knew the General Conference had potential to cause much pain and division, and Tuesday, February 26 proved to be very painful and very divisive.
It was interesting, ironic and beautiful that Tuesday, February 26 was also Pancake Day. While our denomination was closing doors in St. Louis, FUMC opened its doors wider in Waynesville. For over six decades the church has cooked pancakes for Haywood County and each year raised tens of thousands of dollars for mission and ministry. The 2019 Pancake Day Committee asked two important questions: “How can we widen our embrace, so that everyone will come to the table?” and “What would happen if we made Pancake Day free?” We made Pancake Day free. The table was set, and thousands of people came. We were stunned and deeply moved by the diversity in the room. All day, from sunrise to sunset, people of every age, color, and economic status filled the room and their stomachs with joy. We knew the kingdom of God was near.
The results of General Conference left us concerned about our future. Many had hoped the One Church Plan would prevail, but that outcome would not have decided anything for us, it would have given us the freedom to live into our identity. So we decided to go ahead and do the hard work of determining our identity as it relates to the full inclusion of LGBTQ people. The leadership team locked itself into a room and hammered out a preliminary statement. That rough draft was presented to the congregation along with an invitation to attend one of four listening sessions, where the statement would be shaped and refined by the church. On the evening of June 25, the church voted.
Ninety-one percent affirmed the identity statement, which included the following: reaffirmation of our mission statement; renewing our commitment to follow Jesus in our Wesleyan vision of Christianity; declaring our commitment to resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people; and clarifying a commitment to include and affirm the full participation of all people. The members of FUMC Waynesville stated clearly that we welcome all and love all—that we are better together.
Not everyone agreed with the outcome, but our mission remains clear: we are the living body of Christ, welcoming all, growing in faith, engaging the world. There is room here for all of us. Our dream is to stay together—our prayer is that God will help us find a way. Much hard work remains. Some have decided to continue their faith journey in other places, while many others have decided to join us. The church continues to grow.
Our Sunday worship services are thriving, and music continues to be a strength that defines us. Sunday school classes and Wonderful Wednesday groups continue to grow in the number of opportunities and the number of people taking advantage of those opportunities. We continue in our commitment to form Journey Groups, small discipleship groups like those that fueled the early Methodist movement. Our programs for youth and children are growing faster than we imagined possible. The Child Development Center continues to be the standard for excellence, and our Congregational Care team goes above and beyond in caring for our members.
Whenever our community cries for help, FUMC Waynesville instinctively responds. So we now provide a food pantry, offer free breakfast, showers and clothing every Saturday morning for those in our community who need breakfast, showers and clothing, and we now open our church on dangerously cold nights so that families can have a warm place to sleep. The newly formed Creation Care Ministries will tackle the issues related to our being good stewards of the planet God has entrusted to us.
As our church has grown in every possible way, we have come to realize that our ministries within the church and in our community have significantly outgrown our giving to the budget. Our stewardship campaign, Rise Up, has helped us realize that giving to our annual budget has remained the same for the last five years, while our ministries show no signs of slowing down.
So we enter the season of Advent full of gratitude for the year we’ve had together, and full of hope that God will be with us as we meet the challenges and opportunities ahead.
I continue to marvel at the church you are, and continue to feel excited that we’re in this together. Thanks for a great year. Let’s chase after another one!