“It’s been an exhausting week,” said the Rev. David McEntire, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, speaking to his congregation during Sunday morning worship. “We’re kind of worn out.”
Like many of his fellow United Methodists, McEntire was left wondering about the future of his denomination in the wake of a strife-filled special international conference in St. Louis last week. To the surprise of many, more than 800 delegates from United Methodist churches in the United States and overseas rejected a proposal – the One Church Plan – that would have allowed gays and lesbians a wider role in the church.
Instead, in a close vote, an alternative plan – the Traditional Plan – was adopted that potentially will strengthen current rules that forbid “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained to any office and do not allow gays and lesbians to be married in its churches.
The newly approved plan will have to be reviewed by a church judiciary council before it can be implemented, and there is some question whether it will pass scrutiny, but the decision satisfied conservatives who wanted to maintain the church’s current policies and outraged progressives who were hoping for the adoption of the One Church Plan, which would have left decisions about the role of gays and lesbians up to local Methodist churches and regional conferences.
Bishop Ken Carter, leader of the church’s Florida Conference, headquartered in Lakeland, was a co-chairman of a commission that developed the One Church Plan, which proponents hoped would settle decades of controversy in the church. A majority of the United Methodist Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan, and reports indicated that a majority of U.S. delegates favored it also, but delegates from United Methodist churches in Africa, where homosexuality is taboo, tipped the vote to the conservative plan.
On Friday, Carter said in a live-streamed webinar that the church needed healing and expressed particular concern for gay and lesbian Methodists.
“I acknowledge the great harm people feel in the LGBTQ community. These are people in our families and leaders in our churches. We have made clear as a conference the worth of LGBTQ persons. I’m calling for mature spiritual leaders who will see people as people,” he said.
McEntire, 64, who was in St. Louis as a non-voting reserve among the Florida Conference delegation, spoke about the meeting, and the deep division in the denomination, delivering a heartfelt message during the worship service on Sunday.
“Some on both sides have left (the church),” he said. “If there is to be unity, it will not be found in a policy but in how we act toward one another. Whether you are a traditionalist or a progressive or a complex mix of both – which I admit I am – I have said over and over again that anyone who comes to this church will find welcome, grace, inclusion, healing, hope and love.” (View video from Sunday’s services.)
But McEntire alluded to the chaos at the St. Louis conference. He observed at close range the anger that boiled over, describing a scene that resembled a political protest rather than a Christian assembly.
“It was awful,” he said following the worship service. “There were people outside the arena, screaming vitriol at the delegates. Those were conservatives. Inside, after the votes, there were progressives screaming in anger. There were police there with police dogs.”
McEntire’s daughter, Molly McEntire, 30, a lay person who is the Florida Conference’s mission training and volunteer coordinator, was the leader of the Florida delegation. In Friday’s webinar, she expressed grief over the result of the meeting.
“To the lesbian and gay community, I’m extremely sorry for the harm that was caused. This is a time to reach out and build relationships and respond in a caring way,” she said. “Youth and young people … are hurting and questioning whether we belong in our communities.”
That sentiment was echoed by the Rev. Ian Campbell, 26, pastor of two United Methodist congregations in Lakeland – Trinity United Methodist and Highlands United Methodist.
“It’s going to be harder reaching people who are 45 and younger. As much as we want to be welcoming and open, these restrictions tell them we’re not,” he said. “I was hoping for a different result, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. … It doesn’t feel like this is the end.”
Arden Mitchell, 33, a married lesbian and member of First United Methodist Church, saw some hope in the outcome of the St. Louis conference.
“It’s hard to say some good came from it, but people are being very vocal. Church leaders realize the harm that has been done to gays and lesbians, which is neat to see. If anything, it keeps the conversation going,” said Mitchell, the daughter of a United Methodist pastor. “Although, it would be nice to know the denomination I’ve been part of all my life stands on the right side of history and faith.”
Despite his misgivings about the future of the United Methodist Church as a whole, David McEntire expressed confidence about the church he leads.
“I don’t know I have concerns. I have expectations that we’ll be a loving and caring congregation,” he said. “We’re not of one mind, but it’s important that we’re loving and welcoming.”