Elk Grove UMC Adopts New Entry Point: 'Denominational Dissident, Local Member'

May 01, 2013

*By Bruce Pettit 

"So now we've become a "Fully Inclusive" Church… What do we do next?"
 
How often United Methodists long involved in the denomination's Reconciling movement have heard that inquiry? Enough, certainly, and the answers have been halting. Changing the General Church position is challenging.
 
Now Elk Grove United Methodist Church has come up with perhaps one of the most innovative answers. It was announced at workshops sponsored by the California-Nevada Conference Commission on Reconciliation on Saturday, March 16: allow new people, who may be staying away because the General Church appears hostile, to join the local church as a "Denominational Dissident, Local Member." 
 
Elk Grove adopted the new membership category at its All Church Conference in November. The Rev. Kathy LaPoint-Collup of Elk Grove UMC said that the local church currently has three such members, and other people have started the process. However, though they may participate in all ways locally, dissident members cannot be lay members to the Annual Conference Session, nor be eligible for ordination.
 
At the workshops held at Davis UMC, Elk Grove UMC announced a second innovation: requesting the California-Nevada Conference treasurer to re-direct to the Ministerial Education Fund, the 32% of its 2013 apportionments that would otherwise go to funding the next General Conference.
 
The Reconciling movement in the United Methodist Church seeks to reconcile Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Inquiring people to the church. And it seeks to reconcile non-LGBTQI folks to them, after a separation that has never fully healed since 1972 when the "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" line was made part of the denomination's Book of Discipline. Since then even more stringent additions have come —against funding any "promotion of homosexuality," against LGBT clergy ordinations, and against LG marriages occurring in UMC churches and presided over by its pastors.
 
Yet, because the western United States has so relatively few UMC members, and so few delegates to the quadrennial General Conference, it has never been able to effect a change in the official policy. Consequently, many in the west feel, it has been hard to recruit new regular members, even as the west itself liberates.
 
Some persons within the Cal-Nevada Annual Conference wrote to San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr. to express their concerns after hearing about the Conference Committee on Reconciliation's plan for the March 16 training. This prompted Bishop Brown to review, research and respond to those concerns. In a Feb. 19 letter to the organizers of the Reconciling training, Bishop Brown cited a 1999 decision by the denomination's Judicial Council that local churches are prohibited from labeling themselves as "Reconciling Congregations" or anything other than a United Methodist Church. Bishop Brown said that the day at Davis could not offer "training on becoming a reconciling congregation" – as was stated in its promotional materials. He asked that the committee change the name of the training day and the title of one of the workshops.
 
Although the Rev. John Oda, chair of the Cal-Nevada Commission on Reconciliation, ended up changing some titles in the day's event, two workshops on training how to become a reconciling congregation went forward – titled "Reconciling 101," led by Helen Roland of Davis UMC, vice chair of the Commission; and "Reconciling 201 – Kick Start Your Fully Inclusive Church," led by Rev. Oda, pastor of Lake Park UMC in Oakland.
 
Commented Oda: "I was disappointed that we were asked to change the name of our training and one of the workshops to be in compliance with the Book of Discipline. In my opinion all policies in the Book of Discipline which exclude people because of the sexual orientation or gender identity are wrong, absolutely and unequivocally wrong. They are outdated, immoral and wholly contrary to what Jesus has taught us about loving our neighbors. Despite the Book of Discipline, we are still able to create and support communities that fully welcome and celebrate the LGBT communities."
 
Signage Must Make It Clear
 
The Rev. Karen Oliveto of Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco had another recommendation on "what to do now" after becoming a reconciling congregation: make the decision public in a big way, by making it clear on a church's signage. There must be something like a rainbow image. "Otherwise LGBTQI persons will assume they are not welcome, because that is the overwhelming message the church gives."
 
Oliveto, in answer to a question, said she doubts she will see the removal of disciplinary language that "homosexuality is incompatible" in her lifetime, citing the rapid UMC growth in areas outside the United States, particularly Africa. "Structure needs to change so that we in the U.S. can create polity that will enable the U.S [part of the] church to thrive."
 
The Rev. Oliveto and Randall Miller, a professor at Pacific School of Religion, were featured in the PBS documentary, The Other Convention, that was shown at the start the day for the approximately 50 people attending the workshop. It underscored the agony and hurt the progressive delegates and supporters felt at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa as they saw the "incompatible" language affirmed again and again, when the General body voted down a simple concession on officially acknowledging a difference of opinion.
 
St. Paul's UMC in Manteca is also considering becoming a reconciling congregation. The Rev. Brandon Austin said he has been preparing the church for the process of deciding. The congregation will meet in small groups in the eight weeks following Easter. Austin will be leaving the church at the end of June, but said there is a group wanting to continue the conversation with the incoming pastor. "There is less of a need to feel confident about the vote than there is to feel the congregation has had time to share their experiences, be familiarized with the implications of becoming a reconciling church, and to experience the power of Holy Conferencing."
 
Jamie Michaels, campus minister at UC-Merced and a candidate for ordination in the UMC, presented an "Under the Age of 40" perspective. She led dialogue about how the Millennial generation can pose challenging questions to the movement. "We talked about today's young adults being less religious than any generation in history, but being just as eager for meaning, spiritual connection, community and prayer as other generations." With that eagerness, she said, the Millennials are poised to push the boundaries.
 
Eli Stephens, a transsexual man in the master's program in Christian spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union, led a workshop on urging the church to become familiar with all the variations of sexuality, and their labels, if it is to be fully reconciling.
 
Rev. Oliveto answered a question about why this movement is still necessary if the secular society is moving so quickly in its direction to likely be the force to change the church: "It is a part of the UMC's long commitment to social holiness. I want the generations who will follow us to find a church that will extend God's love and grace to them, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity."
 
*Bruce Pettit is a member of the Conference Commission on Reconciliation, and a member of Bethany UMC in San Francisco.