To no one’s surprise, one of the world’s largest Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church, voted 53 to 47 percent to begin strictly enforcing an existing ban on LGBTQ clergy. The alternate proposal was for each church to decide for itself what position it would take on LGBTQ issues. But the conservatives prevailed in not allowing any level of generosity to exist within the denomination. And if you listened to the testimony, I mean not any level of generosity.
This will be a mess for Methodists. It will probably split the denomination in two. I feel so badly for all of my brothers and sisters who have remained loyal to the Methodist Church. Leaving the denomination will not be easy. And I’m not just talking about the emotional turmoil of leaving. The legal turmoil will be equally unsettling.
Most Protestant denominations own the buildings in which their churches meet. They control the seminaries, the ordination processes, and the pensions of their clergy. Untangling from a denomination is no easy feat. This will be a long and nasty divorce.
The next few years will be difficult for progressive Methodists, and the rest of us in more liberal Christendom will do everything we can to help.
It is important, however, to put this decision into its larger context. The United Methodist Church is just one mainline Protestant denomination among many. And none of them exert the influence on American culture they once did. Their influence has been replaced by the evangelical churches, and most particularly, evangelical megachurches.
The vast majority of megachurches are not a part of any denomination. They are independent. Their buildings are not owned by a denomination, and each local congregation makes its own decisions on matters of faith and doctrine. Therefore, when these churches finally decide to become open and affirming, it will happen quickly. There will be no long legal fights or denominational schisms. They will just decide.
A few churches of influence will make the decision, and the rest will fall in line. The leaders of these churches know that when it comes to LGBTQ issues, the culture has already moved on. Gen Xers and Millennials yawn at the conservative anti-gay agenda. Gen Z is so over it. It’s the Builders (those born before 1946) and Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) who keep stoking the flames of conservative ire. And their days in leadership are numbered.
What happened in St. Louis is the last attempt of a conservative generation to maintain its power. The vitriol in their rhetoric shows their fear. Change is coming, and they are terrified of it.
There has never been a more important time to be vocal, particularly in dealing with America’s most influential churches. America’s megachurches want to avoid the kind of debacle that played out in St. Louis. They will do almost anything to avoid publicly stating their position on LGBTQ issues. That is a sign of their acute knowledge about just how untenable their position is. Their pastors want to close their eyes and pretend the problem does not exist. We are the voices that will force the issue. We may not be able to affect the vote of the Methodist delegates, but we can be the voice demanding honesty in all those evangelical churches of influence.
The typical evangelical pastor spends 90 percent of his time with other evangelicals. He doesn’t have many LGBTQ friends, because they are not in leadership at his church. He thinks he can keep ignoring the issue. But he can’t. His parishioners know plenty of LGBTQ people, and they know we are all as normal as morning sunshine. Everybody knows it but the pastor.
I know these pastors. Their people come hear me speak at corporate training events, TED talks, and women’s conferences. Their people like me. They can’t understand why I can’t preach at their church. The day is coming, just around the bend, when these guys will have to answer their own emboldened members. The days of sticking their heads in the sand are over.
In answer to the question of why I can’t preach at their church, these guys will have to say, “Because I am behind the times, and she makes me uncomfortable.” That’s not going to go over with Millennials and Gen Z. It’s why they are already leaving the church, questioning its relevance. If these guys weren’t pulling from the smaller evangelical churches in town, they’d already be in trouble.
The good news is that when these church leaders finally decide to do the right thing, they will not have to battle a denominational headquarters or church hierarchy, like our Methodist friends. They will take their cues from the other independent megachurches, and when one of those churches moves on LGBTQ issues, the dominos will fall. It may take five years, or it may take 10. Down south it’ll take longer. But the die has been cast.
If you are a Methodist, and/or an LGBTQ person or ally, this week’s decision by the United Methodist Church is a disappointment. But in the greater scheme of things, it is just one setback in what is an inexorable march toward the greater good of full inclusion of LGBTQ people into Christ’s church.
I, for one, am glad to be on the front lines. And for all the disappointment they experienced in St. Louis, I imagine the 47 percent of those Methodists who voted for local church autonomy on LGBTQ issues are feeling the same. They will not be silenced. They will proudly preach the inclusive message of Jesus. This was a setback, but we are all moving inexorably in the direction of the Gospel, the good news that God loves all people, just as they are, no change demanded, no love withheld.