Virginia United Methodist Conference Reflection

United Methodist Annual Conference Relfections: Andrew Ware speaking from the podium. Annual Conference logo on the left side with words, “United as One in Mission”
Written by: Andrew Ware
June 23, 2023

It Has Been A Journey

In 2019 The United Methodist Church doubled down on how it would treat people of LGBTQIA+ identity. Not only would they continue to fuel hate-filled rhetoric towards this community, but they would also double down on punishing many who sought to create a truly loving space for them as well. 

Mere weeks before these decisions were made, I had gotten a phone call that I would be ordained as an elder in full connection at the Annual Conference in June 2019. This was the culmination of an almost 10-year process, and at the time I was overjoyed by the fruit being born of my call into ordained ministry. When the votes were counted at the Special General Conference, I was left wondering what it would mean to get ordained and serve in a church that held such hurtful views against people who identified as LGBTQ+ and allies that supported them in the church. 

Thanks to some great leaders in the church I was convinced that there was greater good for the Kin-dom I could do in staying than in leaving and admitting defeat. While I was tired and worn down by the hatred and vitriol spewed by traditional viewpoints, I knew that this was not what God had planned for the people called United Methodists.

Since this act of the General Conference, I have spent the last 5 years advocating for a more inclusive church that not only welcomes all persons into the walls of their church buildings but invites them to be their full selves while they are there. I believe the church can be a space to express who you are and to serve in leadership according to God’s calling, not based on who you love.

Annual Conference 2023

As I traveled to Roanoke for this year’s Annual Conference I had a lot of the hurt and pain of the last five years swirling in my mind. Under our previous episcopal leadership, there was a lot of harm caused within our conference. Harm that needed time, space, and healing.

For those who are not deeply knowledgeable about the United Methodist Church, Annual Conference is a regional body, overseen by a Bishop. I serve as a pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference, which encompasses all but the Southwest area of Virginia (west of the Radford area). Every year an Annual Conference is held and decisions are made for the contextual ministry of the regional area. These decisions are not matters of doctrine, but instead how the doctrine of the church can be embodied within the given regional area.

The Annual Conference gathering session can be attended by anyone interested in coming, but the voting membership is made up of all the clergy and an equal number of the laity for each clergyperson (this involves lay members being appointed from each church and some at-large delegates to help cover retired clergy or clergy who do not serve a local church). This means that decisions are made with both the clergy and lay (that is non-clergy) perspectives offered.

Moving beyond the structure of the Annual Conference, the yearly gathering of all these clergy and laity becomes a springboard for greater discussions of change in the United Methodist Church. I walked into Annual Conference knowing this would be the case and expecting discussions to get heated as we tried to have holy conversations around several topics. 

While the matter of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church was not specifically up for discussion, it had been at the center of much of the harm that was needing to be healed moving forward as siblings in Christ together in the Virginia Annual Conference.

We had a time during our clergy session (*this is a time before the conference when all the clergy gathers together for business that pertains solely to the clergy. It is a closed-door session due to the personal nature of some of the matters discussed) where I began to see some of the healing begin to occur in our Conference Two clergy who had been brought up on charges for officiating weddings for LGBT couples were given opportunities to speak to their experiences in this process. Both offered messages of pain but also hopeful eye drawn towards healing in our churches

However beyond this moment, there was not much else mentioned on this subject. We did have an opportunity to discuss a plan that would create global regional bodies to allow social issues like LGBT inclusion to be made more contextually. However, the overall nature of the Conference seemed to be driven less by partisan bickering and more by a sense of moving forward in ministry together.

How Did It Go?

As I reflect, one consideration for this was new episcopal leadership (Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson), who I thought led us wonderfully, offering a calming and comforting presence while also not putting up with much nonsense. I think another aspect that led to this feeling, was the fact that in the last year, we have had over 100 churches and a significant number of clergy from the furthest traditional side of our denomination disaffiliate. With both of these in consideration, I found myself constantly reflecting on how “smooth” this year’s conference was.

This was my 15th Annual Conference (honestly not sure how to process that number), 6 as a lay member and 9 as a clergy, and it was the quickest we have gotten through all of our business.

While we finished quickly, I would not say we rushed through anything. There was plenty of time for discussion and only one moment where we needed cut debate while there were still folks who wanted to talk.

As I mentioned in my last article (click here for my pre-conference thoughts), I think that the church needs to learn how to have political discussions within it’s walls/boundaries. The inability of the church to address important matters of social connections leaves us in a state where we are reactive out of what we know instead of proactive in creating systems healing, equity, and justice. 

I was pleasantly surprised at this Conference. We had conversations around inclusion, advocacy, fair clergy compensation, transparency, and celebrated the ministry of persons of all ages as we discerned our ministry together. While my experiential perspective is that of a white, cis-gender, heterosexual male, I felt that being an ally at this conference session was more of a supportive role rather than a comforting one. Instead of picking up the pieces of broken hearts, I sought to create space for voices to be heard and room for healing to take place. 

Going Forward

Is the restrictive language still in our Book of Discipline?

Yes, but hopefully not much longer.

In 2024 the General Conference (the body responsible for doctrinal decisions in the United Methodist Church) will gather together, and the hope is for the harmful language to be removed. This would create a more contextual and natural understanding of social engagements across the entire denomination. 

For now though, my hope continues to reside in the presence of the Holy Spirit I felt this last weekend. I was touched by words Bishop Sue (yes she has given us permission to call her this) used to describe much of the consternation we have had in our Conference over churches disaffiliating. During this time, when many on the traditional side are causing harm on their way out of the denomination, other traditional-minded pastors want to stay. They want to continue in this great body of ministry together, and while they may still have theological issues with people who identify as LGBTQ+, they are willing to exist in a denomination that allows for a contextual understanding of ministry together. 

Bishop Sue, said she has no qualms with traditional pastors, and in fact, she stated that we need them. We need traditional, we need progressive, we need centrist. We need people from all matters of thought, and all perspectives, but what we do not need is hatred and vitriol being spread through God’s Kin-dom.

We can disagree, but we cannot demean the humanity or calling present within each and every person across creation.

As we had holy conversation this last weekend, this is what went through my mind. I hope that others in the space felt it too. Healing takes time, and we are not there yet, but I think we are on a good road to making our way there. 

Author

  • Andrew Ware

    My vision as the RunninRev is to build community and faith relationships through running and self-care. I have become an advocate in the church for clergy care, and helping clergy prevent or recover from burnout. I see my primary outreach to the community as building these communal structures through running and having fun together on the run.

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