At Hampton conference, Virginia Methodist must confront change

Bill Pike Guest Columnist The Virginian—Pilot and Daily Press Thursday, June 16, 2022

On Thursday, the 240th session of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church opens at the Hampton Convention Center. Courtesy of COVID-19, this will be the first in person gathering in two years.

I’m attending as a district delegate from Richmond. This is my fifth annual conference. I’m a rookie compared to other attendees.

The template for the conference is predictable: singing, preaching, special presentations, project highlights, pastors retiring, new pastors blessed, closing some churches, and delegates asking questions and debating assorted topics.

And then we have the elephant in the convention hall — the United Methodist Church’s marathon wrestling match over same-sex marriages and the ordination of openly gay clergy.

This isn’t the first time the Methodist church has been conflicted. Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon wrote in the Jan. 16, 2020, edition of the Washington Post about the split in the 1840s over slavery.
Before the pandemic, churches in America were struggling. Churches faced multiple challenges: declining attendance, financial loss from the dying members of the “greatest generation,” facility upkeep and perhaps the most troubling — a resistance to change.

Change is never easy. Yet, for methodical Methodists, change can be difficult to embrace. I’m an imperfect, lifelong Methodist. Change is difficult for me too. However, I’m afraid if Methodists can’t change, we will continue to miss opportunities to help people.

To me, this extended spat about congregational and clergy sexual orientation is not about meeting the needs of people in church communities. No, this quarrel is really about pennies, real estate and the endless complicated doctrines of the Methodist Church.

For a variety of reasons, Methodists have been unable to resolve this issue. Yes, like a divorce, splitting a church is complicated. But, how much longer can church leaders continue to drag this issue out?
From my perspective, the longer we procrastinate, the more the message becomes that Methodist leadership cares more about the pennies, the real estate and its doctrines of protocols than it does about helping people in our communities who are different.

Clearly, this matter is not going away. The gap of our divide is too broad. Attempts to diplomatically narrow this gap haven’t been productive. I’m not optimistic that any compromise will satisfy either side.

In March 2019, I had the privilege to attend the National School Board Convention in Philadelphia. Arch Street United Methodist Church was an easy walk from my hotel. Before convention sessions started on Sunday, I attended the 8:30 a.m. service.

As I found a seat in the chapel, I read with interest the morning bulletin about today’s services and activities in the life of the church. One announcement caught my attention: “At the 11 a.m. service, LGBTQ members and constituents will be ushering.”

After the service, there was an invitation to join the group at a local restaurant for brunch. The topic for discussion during the brunch was “If The Church Were Christian.”

I wonder what the response would be if that topic was on the agenda at the 240th gathering of the Virginia Annual Conference?

Swirling silently, in this longstanding conflict is an unspoken agenda item — morale. A weariness is present among pastors, their staffs and congregations. I question whether the leaders of the Virginia conference comprehend how challenging life is in the trenches of church work.

A while back, I cut this quote out of a newspaper: “The only sense that is common in the long run is the sense of change, and we all instinctively avoid it.” — E. B. White

Methodists can no longer avoid change. Failure to change contradicts our motto: “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”

Do we really want to be known as the church with “closed hearts, closed minds, closed doors?”

Photo by Bill Pike

Bill Pike is the director of operations at Trinity United Methodist Church in Richmond.

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