TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Last year’s General Conference of the United Methodist Church brought together pastors and faith leaders from around the world, but storm clouds are brewing over a possible divide over LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage.
Five proposals have been submitted from groups within the 13 million member UMC, including the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation. This plan could allow traditionalists to form their own denomination, although no one is being asked to leave, proponents say.
Traditionalists oppose same-sex unions and the ordination of “practicing” LGBT clergy on biblical grounds. The group would receive $25 million from the UMC over a four-year period, and additional funds for others who wish to form different denominations.
The split stems from the conference’s decision to uphold the traditional view to ban same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy. This year’s General Conference is set for May, when delegates will discuss and vote on the plans.
Methodist pastors in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, have been gleaning information from the Oklahoma Conference before bringing the discussions to members. They attended a conference the first week of January, which included a clergy gathering and presentation by Bishop James Nunn, episcopal leader for the Oklahoma Area of the United Methodist Church.
“We got some information. Bishop Nunn gave an overview,” said Rev. Judy Deere. “Things are changing all the time, but we kind of have to wait to see what happens.”
Deere pastors at D.D. Etchieson Indian UMC of Tahlequah and was appointed director of the Cookson Hills Center last summer. She said she hasn’t met with church members because the topic hasn’t come up, but she has talked to some about planning conversations.
In a statement, Nunn said there are steps to be taken at the conference. Majority vote must be met, and amendments will probably be made.
“Many in the church are ready to move past the harmful debates and debasement of others. We believe that all people are of sacred worth, and we are called to make disciples of all people,” said Nunn. “No plan or separation will ever change the mandate for all Christians to love one another.”
Rev. Matthew D. Franks, lead pastor at Tahlequah First United Methodist Church, said last year’s conference taught him to take things in stride.
“Nothing is set in stone,” said Franks. “I will be praying, listening and discerning about what direction I need to go as a clergyperson and the direction I need to lead the great people of Tahlequah UMC.”
Franks said there will be “splintering within the UMC after this General Conference,” but he doesn’t know what it will look like.
“After last year’s conference, I find it healthier for me not to be consumed by the what-ifs, but to preach the word, love the people and serve the sacrament,” said Franks. “I am committed to doing all the good I can, doing no harm, and staying in love with God. All are welcomed to worship, fellowship, study and serve with us at Tahlequah UMC.”
Rev. Shana Dry is director of the Northeastern State University Wesley Foundation, and she said she will continue the ministry as it is now, regardless of decisions made in May.
“We are a ministry with open hearts, open minds and open doors, and that’s where we’ll continue standing. We will be welcoming to all and accepting,” said Dry.