By Rick Wolcott*
Many clergy and laity from the East Ohio Conference are among the 3,000 registered observers sitting in the bowl of The Dome of the America’s in St. Louis, Missouri taking in the worship services and legislative action of the Special Session of General Conference. The session was called to receive and act upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward and recommendations from the Council of Bishops to address a way forward for The United Methodist Church on the matter of human sexuality.
“I am here because this is a critical and important time in the life of The United Methodist Church. I felt strongly that I could be part of the support process for our East Ohio delegates, but also for the delegates from around the world,” said the Rev. Jerry Krueger, pastor at Boardman First UMC (Mahoning Valley District).
“This is an important moment for our church and I want to be here as a witness. I am also here to lend support and encouragement to our delegates,” said the Rev. Andy Call, clergy alternate delegate and lead pastor at Church of the Saviour UMC (North Coast District) in Cleveland Heights.
During the day of prayer that opened General Conference on February 23, a listening session was held with seminary students and members of the Commission on a Way Forward to understand the commission’s work and to learn about the process of General Conference.
The Rev. Cara Stultz Costello facilitates a United Methodist polity class with the subtitle General Conference at Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO). She brought 12 students with her to be part of the listening session and to observe the four days of General Conference.
“I have such great hope for the Church because of what I am learning from these students. We’re on this journey of watching how the Church stewards its process together and, in the meantime, we’re learning how to steward our own souls in the midst of this conversation,” Stultz Costello said.
“I’m prayerfully hopeful that God’s love shines through everything that happens this week,” said Ed Kovacik, a last semester MTSO student and a part-time local pastor serving Toronto Riverview UMC (Ohio Valley District).
Michael Farmer, a third-year MTSO student serving Bolton UMC and Vine UMC (Tuscarawas District) as a part-time local pastor, said, “I am hopeful that we will experience a Pentecostal moment where, even though we might be speaking something differently, we’ll all know and see God’s face by looking at each another and we’ll know God’s love and forgiveness is for all and not just for some.”
“Our God is good and gracious. Our God has created, affirmed, and called LGBT Christians into marriage and ministry. God will find a way to affirm these things with or without The United Methodist Church,” said Harlen Rife, pastor of Pearl Road UMC (North Coast District). “Even better, our God is powerful enough to pull prophetic witness out of an institution like The United Methodist Church. So, I have hope and faith in our saving and transforming God.”
“I love being present at these family reunions of The United Methodist Church in my role as a French translator. It has been a beautiful way to be connected with our global church over the years and to help us have ‘ears to hear’ one another even when we may speak different languages,” said the Rev. Sharon Seyfarth Garner, an Elder serving in extension ministry in East Ohio. “As we journey through the next few days, my deep prayer is that we will continue to have ‘ears to hear’ the still small voice of God in whatever may come.”
“This is a historical moment and an opportunity to live into being a more-inclusive church,” said the Rev. Benita Rollins, superintendent of the Tuscarawas District. “Clergy and lay back home need to know that worship and prayer times have been Spirit filled and hope filled, and that the day after General Conference the mission of the church will continue to be to make and mature disciples of Jesus Christ for the worlds sake.”
On Sunday all 864 delegates met as a legislative committee to prioritize the order in which the body wanted to consider the legislative petitions submitted for General Conference. The body chose pensions and the Traditional Plan as the first two petitions to consider, followed by two disassociation petitions. The One Church Plan, recommended by the Council of Bishops, was prioritized fifth by the delegates.
“I’m disappointed that the body did not honor the recommendation of the Commission on a Way Forward or the Council of Bishops,” Call said. “I felt that the most faithful response would have been to work in that legislation first. Nevertheless, only the General Conference can speak for the church, and they have set their direction. I pray for wisdom and discernment as they make their way through a difficult legislative task to chart a way forward in the next 48 hours.”
“This special session is a defining moment in our church. Whatever the outcome, it will clarify who we are and who we are not as a covenant community,” said the Rev. Steve Court, director of Connectional Ministries for the East Ohio Conference. “Voting for priorities allowed the body of the conference rather than a small leadership to set the agenda. It helps to assure that those issues which matter to the greatest number of people are addressed. I am hopeful that the decisions made will be conducted in a way that allows us to leave as sisters and brothers in Christ who love and respect one another.”
“I am here as I love the church of Christ,” said the Rev. David Whitt of Celebration UMC (North Coast District) in Euclid. “The prioritization process yesterday appeared to be fair. I hope to return to communicate to others that we must move toward the future with hope, justice, and faith.”
“In our larger denominational family, we may disagree at times with the vision or direction chosen to accomplish our mission, which is engaging peoples’ lives with the message of Christ’s transforming love, so that lives, and the world, may be transformed. Yet there is much of Christ’s work for the people called United Methodist in which to still engage,” Krueger shared. “I pray we move into our future acknowledging our differences but keeping Christ and his transformative love in our daily prayers, vision, and work.”
“The typical response to whatever is going on in our culture and in our world is to go into our own echo chambers in our own corners and our own sides of the line and I know that the world is watching us and I think that God is giving us an opportunity to provide a different kind of witness, where we can have our differences and stay together for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ,” Stultz Costello said.
Seyfarth Garner said, “It’s important to remember that even after General Conference is over, God will still be God and we will ALL still be God’s beloved. And, that is Good News indeed!”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.