As the United Methodist Church becomes fractured over the treatment of practicing homosexuals, the Rev. G. Kevin Baker, senior pastor of Swansboro United Methodist Church, is asking his church family to be patient.
In messages to the congregation over the past few weeks, and in sessions called to discuss the future of the denomination and the Swansboro church in particular, Baker has urged parishioners to not be in a hurry about acting on strong feelings that could lead to “disaffiliation.”
That term as it applies to the country’s second largest Protestant denomination, with more than 12 million members worldwide, came into the vernacular with action at the church’s 2019 special session. At that session an “exit plan” or “disaffiliation plan” was approved.
The vote and measures introduced at that conference signaled a growing divide between Methodists in the United States and those in less-developed, more socially conservative countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, according to reporting by National Public Radio. In the U.S., 60 percent of United Methodist members say homosexuality should be accepted, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center.
According to the NPR article, church leaders believe that the action at the 2019 special session will lead to a vote at the next general conference that will remove from the discipline language barring ministers from presiding at the marriage of a homosexual couple as well as language barring the ordination of an openly gay person.
Baker said he is not so sure that language will be changed. Petitions to remove the language have been made in the past and they have failed. It is one reason he has called on Methodists to be patient and move with caution when considering disaffiliation.
Baker has signaled his intention to remain with the United Methodist Church. And, in meetings with church membership, has urged both caution about disaffiliation and hope that the congregation can remain intact.
“I don’t want you to make the decision based on me,” he said at an information session in July. But, he added, “I do hope we will not have a false sense of urgency.
“I love each of you without regard as to where you are on this issue,” he explained. “If we choose to continue, it doesn’t mean we have to agree.”
Baker provided background on the matter in writings to church members.
He said the first statement about homosexuality was included in the Book of Discipline in 1972.
“It affirmed the sacred worth of all persons and also put restrictions on who could be ordained,” he said. “Since 1972 this issue has been debated at every General Conference. The way things get added or changed in the Book of Discipline is a lot like the way things get added to the law code in our country – democratically and politically, and the process is often messy.”
Because General Conference is a legislative body, it is often impossible to predict what will or will not be changed, or to what extent.
Baker said the special General Conference in 2019 was called to deal with statements about human sexuality as it pertains to LGBTQ persons. In that session the “Traditional Plan” was passed and the current statements about homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of LGBTQ persons did not fundamentally change. Also at that session the “disaffiliation plan” was approved and added to the Book of Discipline.
So while the special conference did not ultimately result in changed language it revealed that a process of separation was likely necessary, Baker explained.
Through mediation, “A Protocol for Grace through Separation” was created, he said. It set aside $30 million for the Wesley Covenant Association to help fund “a new Methodist expression” and create a process for churches that disagree with the change to move their affiliation and property.
“It was to have been voted on in 2020,” Baker said. “The 2020 General Conference did not happen because of the pandemic and was postponed to 2022.”
But, in March, the Commission on the General Conference again postponed General Conference because those who would travel to the U.S. faced passport and visa backlogs and other things related to the pandemic, according to Baker. So the conference was rescheduled for 2024.
“This means, among other things, that petitions and legislation related to ‘A Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation’ and other related items have been delayed until then,” Baker said.
In spite of the delay, the Wesley Covenant Association announced it would launch a new Methodist denomination, called the Global Methodist Church. That happened on May 1.
“It is no secret that the United Methodist Church is deeply divided,” Baker stated in one of his writings. “We are divided over issues of governance, autonomy, scriptural interpretation, and inclusion. How shall we relate to one another? How much autonomy should the local church have? How do we read and interpret the Holy Scriptures? Who is welcome and how far does that welcome extend? These are all big questions with no easy answers.”
Following the Global Methodist Church announcement, on May 17, Bishop Lenard Fairley explained the NC Annual Conference’s requirements for clergy and churches to disaffiliate.
Under the process – that will be in place through Dec. 31, 2023, according to Jon Strother, district superintendent – as it is explained the rules established at the 2019 special session, a church can vote to disaffiliate. In order to have that vote the church council must request a church conference for the business of disaffiliation. Then the District Superintendent would schedule a church conference. Only members of the church in person could vote at the church conference. To disaffiliate requires a two-thirds majority of those present.
Under the current rules, a church can disaffiliate anytime before Dec. 31, 2023.
There are financial obligations for a church to disaffiliate. The formula is the same for every church: payment of the current year of apportionments, plus one additional year of apportionments (calculations vary but favor the local church), plus the church’s fair share of the pension liability of the annual conference (about 2.5 times the church’s annual apportionment payments). All the money must be paid upfront.
While Swansboro United Methodist Church has been openly discussing the coming changes, other churches have already begun the process of disaffiliation.
First United Methodist Church in Morehead City has requested a church conference, according to the Rev. Powell Osteen, senior pastor.
“We have a requested a church conference, at which the membership will vote,” Osteen said.
He made it clear that he favors disaffiliation.
“There are many of us who believe that our denomination and its leadership have broken covenant with us,” he said in a telephone interview. “That covenant is to be committed in faith and practice to the scriptures; to defend and teach them and to maintain obedience in the church.”
Osteen said he favors the Book of Discipline as it is written.
“The current Book of
Discipline is well written and faithful,” he said. “It is not being kept and taught by the leaders of our denomination.”
Osteen said this pertains to matters of Christology: who Jesus is, what He is, and why He did it.
“The present and future of the United Methodist Church appears to have strayed from classic Christian views and is preparing to be even broader, both on matters of Christology and on faithful living,” Osteen, with 37 years in the ministry, said. “There are those who are fixated on this as a battle over homosexuality. It is not. It is on Christology and Biblical morality.”
Osteen said those who favor disaffiliation disagree with the characterization of the proposed change by the Traditional Methodists.
“They would say ‘accommodating,’ we use the word ‘permissive.’ We believe that is a broken covenant,” he said. And, he added, “We want freedom for us to be faithful to our biblical tradition and morality and accountability. And, frankly, to let them have their way as well, but in different churches.”
As for why act now? Osteen is direct.
“Now, because, the 2019 special conference provided a way for disaffiliation, to provide a universal solution and path for disaffiliation,” he said. “The fact that we have not had a general conference – which many of us believe we very well could have had – and continued disobedience by bishops, we see no reason to wait.”
Osteen also said he believes that the 2024 General Conference may not take place. And there is another concern.
“Many believe the United Methodist denomination will close ranks and make it harder to disaffiliate,” Osteen said. “Others are hopeful it will be easier then, but many of us aren’t willing to take that chance or wait.”
When it comes to the vote in Morehead City’s First United Methodist Church, Osteen said, “I believe the majority will vote to disaffiliate.”
And if the church can muster the required two-thirds, that would suit Osteen.
“The best way forward for the people I’m serving now, is disaffiliation,” he said. “As pastor I personally believe my future service in and home is in the Global Methodist Church.”
Baker feels quite differently. He has said he will remain United Methodist.
“If you ever hear that the United Methodist Church and those continuing in the United Methodist Church are not deeply biblical, orthodox in their faith, committed to their covenant vows, striving to follow Jesus, and yearning to grow more in holiness of heart and life – please know they are not talking about me or the holy friends, colleagues, teachers and professors in the United Methodist Church that have shaped me over the years in my spiritual walk,” Baker said in one of his writings.
Though Baker has conducted straw polls among church members, there has been no call for a church conference.
Baker, with 28 years of experience as a pastor, said he might not agree with every official position of the United Methodist Church, but he said he affirms the UMC’s Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, Wesleyan theology “and our connectional way of being church.”
“I have been grateful for the big tent United Methodist Church, where people of different political convictions, theological interpretive lenses, and differences on how they read and understand the Bible are able to come together in shared worship, love, and in amazing outreach, service, and risk-taking mission in Jesus’ name,” he said.
Baker said that Methodists believe that faith “is both deeply personal and communal; that it both addresses life in the here and now and life with God after death; that Jesus cares not only about hungry and lost souls, but hungry and lost bodies that are experiencing pain, poverty, displacement and oppression.
“In short, I believe my best future as a pastor lies with the United Methodist Church. I also want to say that I believe not just my future, but Swansboro UMC’s best future lies with the United Methodist Church. In saying that, I do not mean to imply that we are all of one mind about human sexuality. Rather, I believe, based on the evidence of my three years here so far, that there is not an overwhelming sense among us that our church should organize primarily around having agreement on the issues of human sexuality. I simply don’t see it as the number-one driving issue for us in terms of what we give missional priority to, what energizes our conversations, what inspires our hope for the future, or what many have shared as their aspirations for our church.
“While I do not think we are all in agreement about human sexuality and what the church needs to look like in regard to welcoming and accepting LGBTQ persons, I nevertheless think that there is a growing consensus that we should not separate from the sisters and brothers in our church family and also from the larger UM connection over this.”
Both Baker and Osteen have expressed respect for one another. The current state of the United Methodist Church will not affect that, according to Osteen and Baker. In fact, the current state is nothing more than the ongoing evolution of the church, Osteen said.
“Methodism has history of refining and reforming through division,” Osteen said.