A Pastoral Letter to Epworth Following the 2019 General Conference of the UMC
To the church of God that is Epworth, to those who are sanctified in Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As most of you are aware, representatives from around the worldwide United Methodist Church gathered these past few days in a specially called “General Conference” to discern a possible way forward in the midst of deep divisions that exist in the church about whether and how to include LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church. I watched nearly every minute of General Conference online. As it unfolded, my heart sank, because it was increasingly clear from my vantage point that “Big Tent Methodism” that has operated under the slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” was being dismantled by General Conference. It very well may be the case that some of you who have also been following General Conference have a different assessment of what happened at General Conference. I respect that. I decided that the best way to communicate with you all about this was an ancient form, a pastoral form that we are all familiar with – an epistle.
First I want to say to you all that I love each of you very much and it continues to be one of the great privileges of my life to call myself the pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church. I know from my life with you these past three and a half years and from our “Epworth Family Conversation” last fall that we have a range of convictions about this issue. These are convictions born out of love and fidelity to Scripture and I respect them. During that conversation, I shared with you all my own conviction that LGBTQ+ persons should be able to participate fully in the life of the church, including marriage and ordination. I appreciated the grace and love that we showed to one another and that you showed me during that conversation and since.
It has long been a theme within my preaching and a core conviction of my heart that in our age of hyper-partisanship and division that the church can and should be a place where we decide that loving one another, our community, and our God is more important than the convictions that divide us. It has been my sense that you all have embraced this vision of being a “Big Tent” kind of church. This is because of your love for one another – a love that has unique texture at Epworth because many of you have lived through significant church splits and you know the cost that they bring upon the church. A gracious love for one another with whom we may disagree on significant issues is a better “way forward” than dividing our church. I am grateful that you have embraced this way of being for our church. I do not believe that anything that has happened at General Conference will or should change this spirit of a “generous orthodoxy” within our church family. Let’s continue to love one another, our community, and our God first.
However, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be unaware – the United Methodist Church as we know it has reached a pivotal moment in its history. At General Conference, the United Methodist Church passed a modified version of the traditional plan that continues to prohibit gay and lesbian persons from being ordained and clergy from conducting same sex weddings, but that adds weightier consequences for violations. There are additional troubling aspects of this plan and at present, I am still trying to understand their full implications and rulings on this plan by the Judicial Council. Additionally, the General Conference clearly rejected the “One Church Plan” recommended by the majority of the Council of Bishops. This plan was a compromise born out of the Way Forward Commission, a body of Methodists drawn from different parts of our global church as a way that we could all exist together as one church, despite our divergent convictions. The General Conference also rejected other compromise plans intended to hold the church together. This is all very disappointing to me and I suspect that it is to many of you as well. Furthermore, the General Conference passed an exit plan advocated for by many traditionalists who wish to leave the denomination. While I understand their expressed intent is to make this “gracious exit” available to all, I am concerned about what it means for the United Methodist Church in North Alabama. Whatever its intent was, the combination of a relatively easy exit for traditional churches who have the conviction that the plan is not traditional enough or lacks enforcement mechanisms, while also leaving the remaining churches with the traditional plan is a worst case scenario from my perspective.
It is far too early to tell what the implications of all of this will be. Churches, institutions, clergy, lay persons, bishops and ministry partners from across the theological spectrum that were once part of the United Methodist Church may now choose to disaffiliate themselves from our church. New forms of Methodism may emerge. This may have been the case regardless of what General Conference passed or did not pass. I cannot predict how all of this will transpire, except to say that future Methodist history books will have long chapters devoted to this season of our collective lives. At this point, I am also unsure where my own path will take me in this season. But please know that it is my sincere hope that it is to remain as your pastor for the foreseeable future.
I understand that the focus for most of you is on our local church, Epworth. The structures and machinations of the global Methodist Church may not touch your life in the same way that your local church does and not everyone is carefully following the minutia of our church’s governance. Perhaps all of this may seem overly dramatic to you. I understand that. But I do want you to know that I will continue to lead Epworth in a way that I believe respects people from across the theological spectrum, including our LGBTQ+ family, progressives allies, faithful moderates, and loving conservatives who oppose same sex marriage and ordination based on their own convictions and Biblical interpretations.
I know that many of you who love and respect me, but are inclined to support a “traditional” understanding of same-sex marriage and ordination may question how I can have the convictions that I do given Biblical references that do not seem to support intimate same-sex relationships. I do wish to address this, because I want you to continue to have confidence that my preaching and teaching is based on Scripure (primary), experience, tradition, and reason. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection (UMC) in Leawood Kansas has written a concise explanation that expresses well what I believe. It is available here: https://www.adamhamilton.com/blog/the-bible-says-it-that-settles-it. I strongly encourage you to read it. Even if you do not agree with it, I hope it helps you understand my theological and exegetical perspective as your pastor.
At our “Epworth Family Meeting” last fall, the vast majority of you indicated that you would like the opportunity to gather again after General Conference to discuss what happened at General Conference and its implications for our church. I’ve had the opportunity to share with you my heart as it relates to all of this and I want to extend to each of you the opportunity to do the same at a follow-up “Epworth Family Meeting.” I propose that we do this on March 10th at 3pm in the Fellowship Hall. I hope you will join me.
I will be attending, along with several key leaders from our church, a called “Leadership Summit” on Saturday to receive an update and guidance from our bishop. Information from this meeting will be communicated in worship on Sunday.
Lastly, I want to make clear that so long as I am pastor at Epworth, all people will be welcomed and invited to participate fully in the life of the church, as has been the case since my pastorate began in 2015. I know you will continue to join me in welcoming all people.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
Pastor Todd Noren-Hentz