One of the distinctive things about the United Methodist Church is how connected we are to each other from one church to another. For example, my husband Erik and I grew up in United Methodist churches over a hundred miles apart; we met and got to know each other at events that brought together UMC youth from across the Northwest. Today, I regularly meet with a dozen or so pastors of other local United Methodist churches to see how we can support and encourage one another and how our churches can work together. In July, we got together with other UMC folks from the Tacoma area to worship at Cheney Stadium and then to enjoy a baseball game together.
Annual Conference is one of the main places where we connect. At Annual Conference, pastors and other church folks from our regional area - which covers all of Washington and the panhandle of Idaho - meet to gather, worship, learn, and make decisions. There have been times when Annual Conference has focused on making controversial decisions and lost its focus on gathering, worshiping, and learning, but in recent years the focus has shifted and brought us together in God. This year, we met for four days that were filled with worship, conversations about how God is moving in our churches and communities, presentations from inspiring and challenging speakers, and holy decisions.
The picture above is from the Young People's Worship Service - a service planned and put on by young people (including myself). The biggest face in the picture is of John Helmiere, the pastor of a community in Seattle called Valley and Mountain (check it out here). John is a friend of mine; he graduated a year ahead of me from the same seminary. He gave us a message of hope - a message that was repeated throughout Annual Conference. God is alive and moving, and we have the chance to be a part of that life and movement!
In the past couple of decades, the biggest decisions that our Annual Conference has made have been around questions of sexuality. The United Methodist Church officially condemns homosexuality, saying that it is not in accordance with God's plan for humanity. There are no restrictions on membership in the UMC, but "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" are prohibited from being pastors, and same-sex unions are not allowed. This attitude is contrary to how most Pacific Northwest UMC leaders see God acting. Many of our pastors and church folks see the Holy Spirit calling LGBT folks to ordained ministry and to marriage, and see the UMC's official stance as going against God's call.
The UMC is a worldwide, connectional church, growing especially in Africa and Asia - places where questions of sexuality are usually answered with a "no" to LGBT folks, and sometimes with violence. Because of the worldwide nature of our church, it is unlikely that the UMC's stance on homosexuality will change in the near future.
This is painful for many in our Annual Conference, and it prompted two decisions this year:
First, the Annual Conference officially supports marriage equality and encourages people in Washington to support the Marriage Equality Act.
Second, a resolution was passed which is called "Response to the Spiritual Crisis Caused by the Requirement to Discriminate." This resolution encourages pastors and churches to act according to their conscience over the rules of the UMC, since God sometimes calls us to break the rules. It also points out that the general atmosphere of the UMC in the Northwest is an atmosphere of inclusion and equality.
If you would like to read more about this year's Annual Conference, check out the Conference website here. You can also read my reflection on one of our speakers, Diana Butler Bass, and her claim that we are in the midst of a spiritual awakening, here. If you have questions or want to talk about any of this, feel free to shoot me an email or give me a call (206-551-5424, email@example.com).