The Road Less Traveled (3).jpg

 September 23, 2022
 

It was a day that turned out to be as good as it could have been. It was a sad day, to be sure, but ultimately I think it was a good day.

 

As I shared with you on Sunday, last Saturday around 1,000 delegates from United Methodist Churches from all over the Central Texas Conference gathered for a specially called Annual Conference. The Annual Conference, which typically meets each year in June, is responsible for setting policy for the nearly 400 churches in the geographic area of which Ash Lane is a part. This special meeting was called to vote on the disaffiliation of 81 churches from our denomination. In other words, at the end of the day, 81 churches left the denomination. Some will become independent churches. Many will join other denominations.

So it was indeed a sad day, as we contemplated the departure of churches that have been a part of our connection for generations and colleagues with whom I have worked for years. A “divorce,” if you will, is never easy and, I believe, always something to grieve. But in some cases it proves to be inevitable and perhaps the most graceful decision that can be made. I believe this is one of those cases.

As I have shared with you, the split in the United Methodist Church has been brewing for more than a half-century. Over that time, the church has grown increasingly divided over its position on and response to people in same-gender relationships. Current church law prohibits any United Methodist pastor from officiating ceremonies celebrating the union of same-gender couples and prohibits the ordination of any self-avowed, practicing homosexual. That law also proclaims the practice of homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Over the decades, the church has become more and more divided over this language, with more progressive elements pushing for the church to be more inclusive and more traditional elements pushing for even stronger statements. Beginning in 2016, it became increasingly clear that the sides would not find common ground and that a split was inevitable.

The rub, as is all too common, was financial in nature. Any church is free to leave the denomination any time it wishes. The issue is the church property. While the members of a church pay for their building and property, the property itself is held in trust by the denomination. So if a church leaves the denomination, it walks away from its property as well.

However, under current church law, a window exists that allows an individual conference to establish a procedure for churches exiting the denomination to do so and keep their property. There are certain financial obligations those exiting churches must meet, but they are insignificant compared to the value of the property. That window is due to close next year, hence the sudden urgency for churches to leave, if that is their ultimate path.

I am very proud to serve in a conference and under a Bishop that made the decision to create that procedure and allow the graceful exit of churches that were headed that way anyway. Not only does it avoid the protracted and expensive litigation that other denominations have experienced in similar circumstances, but it allowed the division to happen with grace and dignity. Last Saturday, the vote for disaffiliation was taken in the midst of a worship service, where we all gave thanks to God for the ministry that we have shared and the future opportunities that await us. The day that I feared would be laced with anger and bitterness instead had a quiet dignity about it. The vote, when it was taken, drew no speeches from either side and was nearly unanimous.

Separation is never easy. Divorce is something to grieve. But I am grateful to Bishop Reuben Saenz and our conference leadership for recognizing that some things are inevitable. And when they are, everyone benefits by moving through it with love and grace, knowing that at the end of the day, Jesus is still Lord.

See you Sunday.