Steamboat Methodists consider leaving denomination over LGBTQ exclusions
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In his sermons and conversations with members of his congregation at the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, pastor Tim Selby preaches foremost about the love of Jesus Christ, which he believes does not discriminate.
But, in recent months, he admits to feeling angry over decisions the global United Methodist Church has made over restricting who is accepted within the denomination, predominately LGBTQ individuals.
At an annual conference in February, delegates from around the world voted to uphold the church’s ban on LGBTQ clergy and add punitive measures to churches that hold same-sex weddings.
The decision was, and continues to be, contentious — so much so that Selby and other pastors believe it will lead to a formal split in the entire, global denomination. The vote narrowly passed with a 53% majority, and more than two-thirds of U.S. churches supported the One Church Plan, which would have eased restrictions on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages.
Delegates from Asia and Africa, where congregations are steadily growing and where views on marriage and sexuality are more conservative, tilted the scales against the U.S. churches, which have seen a decline in numbers over recent years.
In his “State of the Church” sermon to the New York Conference of Methodist churches, Bishop Thomas Bickerton said the two competing sides, and the denomination at large, have reached an untenable position.
“It is time for a new model and a fresh way,” he said. “It must be a way that provides a pathway for those who embrace a more traditional, conservative approach to ministry and also provides another pathway for full inclusion of all God’s children.”
Selby predicts such a division could come as early as next year. Like Bickerton, he believes the February vote puts the Methodist faith out of touch with many followers’ beliefs, including the vast majority of his own congregation. They are taking a stand.
“We are not going to abide by the exclusionary parts of the Traditional Plan,” he said.
The ban on LGBTQ clergy particularly affects the Mountain Sky Conference of Methodists, of which the Steamboat Springs church is a part. Karen Oliveto, who oversees the conference, is the United Methodist Church’s first openly lesbian bishop. She could face punitive measures or a dismissal under the Traditional Plan.
But according to Selby, the bishop was unanimously elected to her position and still holds strong support among the churches within her conference.
In the past four weeks, Methodist church leaders across the state and country have convened in larger, regional meetings to consider how a split would play out among global churches.
Ahead of a May meeting among churches in the Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses the Big Sky Conference, bishops from the region explicitly favored the One Church Plan in a news release. They also urged people to join a movement rejecting the Traditional Plan, which Selby said continues to gain momentum.
Other regions support the restrictions on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages.
Rev. Kevin Baker of Olney, Maryland, speaking at a convention in the Baltimore-Washington region, argued the Traditional Plan does not reject the LGBTQ community but affirms the word of God.
“The narrative that I know is that we want all people here,” Baker said, “but that we see that God calls us out of behaviors that are not in line with his words.”
In preparation for a split, delegates at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in February approved a measure to allow churches to “disaffiliate” from the denomination, without giving up the property on which the churches sit.
“You can leave now, but it’s expensive and kind of difficult,” Selby said.
The measure requires disaffiliating churches to pay their share of the denomination’s unfunded pension liabilities for retired clergy, among other costs. They would need to continue those payments for a year following disaffiliation, according to Selby.
Disaffiliation also requires approval from two-thirds of a congregation, which could be difficult to meet in churches that are more divided over LGBTQ issues.
Rather than individual churches disaffiliating, Selby predicts entire conferences or jurisdictions may leave the denomination. If enough U.S. churches side with the One Church Plan, as the February vote suggests, it may actually be the conservative churches that disaffiliate.
While the future of the denomination remains unclear, Selby believes the previous month’s events will eventually lead to progress. He just hopes the divide does not cause followers to lose sight of their faith.
“Methodists have been good at valuing the gifts of all people,” he said. “Hopefully, we will keep that going.”
In recent sermons, Selby has likened the current struggle among Methodists to that of explorers Lewis and Clark, who unexpectedly encountered the Rocky Mountains on their journey west and had to re-route their course.
“We are sort of off the map right now, and we need to adapt and find ways to really do great work,” he said.
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