Monday morning at 9:30, the FUMC staff meeting began with ‘God Sightings.’ After making the coffee, Michael Blackburn asked, “Where have we seen God this week?” As we began to share our reflections, an energy and excitement began to build in the room. We thanked God for thirty-nine preschoolers who graduated from our preschool on Friday morning, for the love and guidance these kids have received as they anticipate their journey into kindergarten. On Saturday morning, young and old together dispersed into our community for Impact Day, eager to make a difference, wanting to make the world better. On Sunday morning we honored our high school graduates, young women and men who have inspired us and served with us for years, now ready for their next journey, full of love and support from their church family. We recognized our summer interns, college students who will work together as a team to help us fulfill our mission to be the living body of Christ. And twenty Confirmands joined the church! They not only confessed their faith and committed themselves to the way of Jesus, they inspired all of us to join them in making our church a place where everyone belongs—where everyone has a seat at the table. We saw a glimpse of that Sunday night as community members who had been at the Friendship House Saturday morning to stock their shelves, have the opportunity to shower, and enjoy fellowship together over a hot cup of coffee and breakfast, returned to share a BBQ meal with us in the courtyard. We were filled with excitement on Monday morning, because we saw God in each other and in our community, and we could feel hope for the future.
But sadly, the United Methodist Church is in trouble. That shouldn’t be news to anyone who runs in Methodist circles like we do. We know about the decades-long drama that has unfolded at every General Conference since 1972, a legislative battle over full inclusion in the life of our church. This battle has caused deep pain for many people; especially LGBTQ people, who continue to find themselves on the outside looking in. We have allowed our theological differences on this matter to create such polarization; I have lost all hope that our denomination can bridge the gap and move into the future united. This makes me really sad. One of my strongest convictions is that the local church, when the local church is at its best, is the world’s great hope. More than ever the world needs a United Methodist Church that can offer a better way of going about it.
Of course that better way is the way of Jesus. Whenever people in the Bible talk about gospel (which literally means ‘good news’) they’re talking about the stuff that happens when Jesus is in the room. As the living body of Christ, our presence should spark similar conversations. On one occasion, Jesus was in a theological conversation with a group of religious people when they asked for his interpretation of the Scriptures. They wanted to know which commandment was the most important to God (Matthew 22:36). Jesus said that God’s great desire is love—not just that people will love God, but that people will love people. And the way Jesus went about his business, all people knew he loved them. All people. Not just some people. The way of Jesus is the way of love.
In my opinion, the 2019 General Conference failed us. Instead of moving us forward in the way of love, a bitterly divided delegation passed legislation that not only contradicts what it means to be United Methodist, it undermines our ability to live the gospel. I know that many of you share my feelings about this, but I also know that many of you strongly disagree with me. And that’s our big dilemma isn’t it? We’re left wondering how it’s possible for us to be the body of Christ together when we radically disagree on Biblical and theological matters. What are we going to do?
First, I want it to be very clear that although I have lost any hope of our denomination moving forward together, I have every hope that we can. I believe that First United Methodist Church Waynesville can be the church that shows the world a better way. If the General Conference had followed the advice of our bishops, they would have adopted the ‘One Church Plan.’ This legislation would not have decided anything for us. Rather, it would have given us and every other church in our United Methodist connection the freedom to live faithfully into each church’s identity and context. It would have allowed for our theological differences and our diverse interpretations of Scripture. It would have made room for all of us.
The Leadership Team at FUMC is convinced that we cannot move forward together until we do this hard work of clarifying our identity. Who are we? What kind of church will we be? We are a church of Traditionalists, Centrists and Progressives. That’s why we took time to listen to one another in love, with a desire to mutually understand each other in our differences. The division at the denominational level threatens our unity here at home. Since February’s General Conference and our response to it, families on all sides of this thing have decided they can no longer be the church with us. I try to understand their decisions, but I am very disappointed none-the-less. This is not a time for us to run away from each other. This is a time for us to carve out a way forward together. There may come a day for leaving, but it’s not this day. We have work to do. Bishop Will Willimon reflects on Acts 15 and the early church’s struggle to stay together: “Rather than do what churches often do on such occasions—flee from the fight, submerge our differences, or else storm off in a huff—the apostles demonstrate that the gospel has given them the resources to confront controversy without being destroyed by it.”
Very soon, our Leadership Team will offer a vision for our future—a way forward that will include all of us. This vision statement will be a working document—a dream to be shaped by the entire membership of FUMC Waynesville. Once the vision is shared, we will schedule listening sessions to allow for questions and clarification. It is extremely important for your voice to be heard—for every voice to be heard. On Tuesday, June 25, we will gather as a church conference. The conversations will continue and a membership vote is possible, but not a certainty. We are committed to a flexible process that will allow enough time for us to get this right.
So we need to prepare ourselves. First and most important, we need to pray. If you’re not quite sure how to go about that, you can borrow the prayers I’ve been praying: “Come Holy Spirit!” “Help me Lord Jesus!” As we enter this season of Pentecost, it’s good for us to remember that our only chance to get through this is to surrender to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Second, we need to ask ourselves some very important questions. What do we love and value about our life together at FUMC Waynesville? What happens to our community if we are no longer together? What needs to happen in order for me to remain a vital part of this living body of Christ? What are my non-negotiables, and why do I feel this way?
I want you all to know that I love you very much. We had courage to listen to one another in love. Will that same courage enable us to live with one another in love? I have great hope for our days ahead, and I’m glad I’m in this with you. I am proud to be your pastor.