Dear Kessler Park Members and Friends:
What follow is a longish summary of what has just taken place this week as the North Texas Conference met in Plano, Texas. I can’t apologize for the length. Because, honestly, a LOT happened, and you need to know about it.
Let me start at the very end, because it illustrates the overall point, and my feelings about the whole thing.
Near the end, as we transitioned to the closing worship service, Bishop Saenz made made a seemingly off-the-cuff remark. He quipped about how a friend once shared with him that at annual conference it feels like we “leave a little piece of our soul in the room.”
When he said this, I must confess to you, I laughed out loud and slapped my hands on the pew in front me.
(so loudly, it startled my nearby colleague Rev. Mary Beth Hardesty Crouch…)
I laughed, I had this reaction, because this IS ABSOLUTELY how annual conference has often felt.
For thirty-plus years, I have attended annual conferences, and often have left feeling like I needed to take shower, because of the raw and ugly politics, or that I needed to spiritual bandages for my wounded soul.
The Bishop sincerely spoke a truth that was perhaps bigger than he even meant: It *does* often feel like we leave a little piece of our soul at Annual Conference.
But…NOT THIS YEAR.
Not this year.
And in that moment, I sincerely wept a few tears of joy and memory.
This year felt fundamentally different, in incredibly hopeful ways. In part because of the non-anxious leadership of our new Bishop, Ruben Saenz. Bishop Saenz masterfully led a thousand delegates through hours of complicated and potentially thorny conversations. And he did so with patience, humor, and without one visible shred of personal fear.
Beyond this, among our delegates, there was also a remarkable camaraderie among lay and clergy…rural and urban….liberal, conservative, and moderate.
There appears to be great joy that we are moving past a painful few years of disaffiliations, where church members were sometimes pitted against one another…and where baldfaced lies were told about the future of the United Methodist Church (and even about some of us personally!).
This week, it appears to me those who remain United Methodist in North Texas are ready to boldly move forward under the aspiration to be a “One Church” denomination.
Some years back, a small group of us led an effort to encourage the North Texas Conference to aspirationally live as a “One Church” Conference. This meant, we would be a denomination that made space, true space, for everyone…that became a “big tent” and respected theological, cultural, and contextual differences.
Despite fierce pre-opposition at the time (even from friends) that “One Church resolution” overwhelmingly passed at that previous annual conference.
I bring this up now, because I was deeply moved by the number of times it was referenced in THIS annual conference.
Regarding “Resolutions”…..some folks don’t like them. But, I have always said, “Annual Conference resolutions are like weather balloons.”
(Or, they can be…)
If the process is managed well, resolutions allow an Annual Conference to “check the weather” among the delegates…to understand where their neighbors in other churches land on important issues of the day. They are “aspirations” about how we intend to behave toward each other, and in our mutual ministries, in our various settings. It doesn’t mean everyone agrees on everything. It doesn’t mean that the margins of the votes at the Annual Conference would mirror the votes in the pews.
But as we can see from that “One Church” resolution process, a good one can reverberate down through the years, and become embedded into our spiritual DNA, and our personal behavior, in terms of the language we use to speak to one another, and also the way we TREAT each other.
And as pertains to that “One Church” resolution, I could not be more proud of this.
At the 2023 Annual Conference, we heard exciting reports about new United Methodist Churches that are being founded in towns where the old churches have left for the GMC.
We celebrated the ordination of KPUMC’s own Kurt Maerschel.
We talked about powerful ministries led by women and ethnic minorities. We talked about amazing ministries in our small towns and cities.
We talked about disaster relief, through UMCOR and our local efforts.
The BISHOP…yes, the Bishop in his address…noted the ministry of our churches who marched in the Pride Parade.
Said another way: we moved into a celebration of the true “One Church.”
But, what impressed me the most is how our delegates moved through THIRTEEN resolutions —some of which have to do with incredibly fraught social and cultural issues— and we did this with respect and without rancor.
My feeling of many years is even more strong now: Many lay persons feel disempowered and helpless in the face of large, cultural issues. They feel like their churches don’t speak out enough on important issues of the day. I understand *why* churches do not speak out…because there is often pushback and a cost.
So, this week, the North Texas Conference considered “weather balloon resolutions” on potentially conflictual issues such as LGBTQ rights, Trans families, Gun Control, and Abortion.
In almost any other year, any ONE of those could occupy hours of time and discussion…perhaps days. The North Texas Conference considered all these resolutions, and patiently moved through all of them in a matter of a few hours.
I did not sense frustration in the room over this, or a “Let’s just move on…” moment.
Quite the opposite, both in committees and on the floor, our delegates took this work seriously.
Again, these resolutions do not officially change United Methodist Church law. But…they DO help us self-understand who WE are as an annual conference, and they send important messages to all of our greater North Texas neighbors that United Methodists passionately urge all Christians to take the issues of the day seriously, and through the lens of our faith.
OK…so what did we approve?
What follows is a discussion of various issues. I’ve put the titles in boldface/double asterisk, in case you want to those that interest you most.
And, I should note: ALL OF THESE passed with either unanimous or 99% vote of the body. (That is not a typo…)
** RESOLUTION ON FURTHERING THE CONNECTION
First, my clergy brother, Rev. Edgar Bazan, and our conference lay leader, Kim Brannon, offered a resolution that summarizes the “One Church” attitude I have just described here:
“The United Methodist Church will continue to engage in respectful dialogue to understand differing perspectives of ministry in an effort to maintain unity and work towards resolving differences in a manner that is consistent with its mission and core values while upholding its orthodox doctrine and practices…that this body affirms the commitment of The United Methodist Church to remain diverse and contextual across the globe, embracing all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or any other form of differentiation, as full and equal participants in the life and work of the Church.”
(I believe this resolution passed unanimously…)
** RESOLUTION SUPPORTING MEMBERS OF THE NORTH TEXAS CONFERENCE EXPERIENCING DISAFFILIATION
“…we, the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, pledge to foster an inclusive environment that welcomes diverse perspectives and promotes dialogue and action to support The United Methodist Church as a big tent denomination in all our efforts moving forward.”
This resolution named just how hard the past two years have been in many local congregations.
Again, note the clear reference to a “One Church” vision, where all who can walk “hand in hand” with others, are welcomed.
** RESOLUTION SUPPORTING THE REMOVAL OF DISCRIMINATORY POLICIES
My friends, I will now spend some significant time discussing this specific resolution. If this doesn’t interest you, skip ahead. But I know that it DOES interest many of you….and it deeply matters to me personally.
This resolution, which was supported by our General and Jurisdictional delegates, FLEW THROUGH….with absolutely NO negative or halting discussion. It was approved by 99% of the delegates.
The North Texas Conference overwhelmingly said that we aspire to:
“…a more diverse and fully welcoming UMC is a testament to a more complete image of God, which includes persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities; and a more diverse and fully welcoming UMC allows all United Methodists to offer their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, as followers of Jesus, to further Christ’s mission; and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God calls and includes all persons into the life and leadership of the Church, transcending the limitations of human categorization; and the current language in the Book of Discipline places limits on Christ’s teaching and example of God’s universal love; and the current language in the Book of Discipline falls short of embodying the spirit of John Wesley’s simple rules to do no harm, do all the good we can, and love God; and legislative changes to the Book of Discipline would reduce barriers and allow movement toward wider diversity and inclusion in our United Methodist Church
“BE IT RESOLVED that the North Texas Annual Conference supports the removal of all discriminatory policies and harmful language related to sexual orientation…”
The resolution then cites the disciplinary lines where the language ought to be changed.
So, let me pause here. Because this very resolution has been part of the thirty year struggle of my ministerial career.
Sit back, and let me tell you what what I felt as this resolution passed…
— I thought about Gene Leggett, Ed Upton, and several other still unnamed Methodist clergy who lived in fear for decades, for their careers and ministries.
— I thought of John Thornburg (I will be calling him this afternoon…).
— I thought of Nancy Kruh, who in the late 1990s help Northaven UMC publish a book with the obviously “too soon” title of “Finishing the Journey.”
That book was sent to every General Conference delegate one year.
— I thought about those early years at Annual Conference when we wore reconciling stoles, and were angrily told “you are being divisive.
(Btw: this was sometimes said by folks I saw proudly wearing an RMN stoles this week!).
— I thought about DOZENS of lay persons —many of them with deeply painful personal stories of rejection by their churches and families— who over a period of two decades volunteered themselves to meet with our North Texas Conference delegates. Not once, but after/before every General Conference for 20 years (To their credit, the delegates often made time with/for them over lunch or in their offices…)
This was a powerful movement of personal Christian lay witness —sometimes risky, and always vulnerable— to personalize the sharing the story of God’s working in their lives; only to have General Conference often kick them in the gut once again year after year.
— I thought about good and faithful people I have known who have left the United Methodist Church over the years —thousands of them— because of this Disciplinary language.
— I thought about those who have passed on from this life without seeing this change…Jack, Cody, Ed…dozens more I know personally…
— I thought about my friend and mentor, Rev. Bill McElvaney, whose last great act, just before his death, was to preside over a marriage of two gay rights icons and friends. I thought about times he privately shared with me his own struggles to even stay as a retired UMC clergy, given the harm our denomination was causing.
— I thought about some very lonely years, when there were only two RMN churches in North Texas, and how we all walked around feeling like there was a target on our back.
— I thought about Sid Hall and all the long conversations we used to have —he in Austin, I in Dallas— to bridge the miles and often keep each other from despair.
— I thought about the *many* clergy over the years, who at many Annual Conferences, would sidle up to me privately (like they were sneaking into a liquor store…) and tell me, “My heart is with you, but I cannot speak out where I am…”
— I thought about an awkward exchange between myself and a colleague on the floor of a District Conference, over the right for LGBTQ persons to be fully welcomed as members, no matter the view of the pastor. (That pastoral brother has now come a looong way, in fairness to him…)
— I thought about the sometimes politically and theological conservative people who would come to confidentially come to my office to ask how they could support their gay or lesbian children; and how they were ultimately helped by RMN churches, PFLAG, other groups, many pastors… and how THEY often became powerful Christian witnesses to the power of true Christian repentance.
— I thought about the many churches who have now formally joined the Reconciling Movement, and the dozens more who never will but are deeply supportive.
— I thought about all those clergy colleagues who in the past decade have now performed Same Sex weddings…some of whom would be considered theologically moderate-to-conservative.
— I thought about the years when those of us who performed Same Sex weddings did so under the actual threat of being defrocked and losing our ministries and callings…how we discussed this threats with our spouses and children, preparing *them* for the possibility that we could literally lose our jobs.
— I thought about the good folks of Kessler Park, and how they have patiently held their breath for so many years; hoping and trusting that pastors like David Carr, Tim McLemore, Wes Marguder, Kay Ash, and myself were not lying to them when we promised them “things really will change…”
— I thought about the times an unnamed Bishops *yelled* at me; that I being “divisive,” and accused me of trying to destroy the UMC.
— I thought of older White men who in the 1990s told me “I will never support changing the Discipline,” only to themselves later sit in General Conference committees trying *desperately* to do just that.
Finally, one more very old memory flashed back to me…. a time way back in 1994…when I was a pastor just two years out from being ordained an Elder…and we held a clergy meeting to talk about gay people.
A very young-me, for some reason, felt called to speak out at an annual conference clergy meeting where were discussing queer people (outside of their presence, of course) and how the North Texas Conference would choose “define them.”
(Yes. Define them. Yes, without their comment or input…)
I later journaled about that moment….which helps me today recall
a) that it really happened and
b) what was said, and by whom…
According to my journal, at that meeting held at FUMC Denton, Revs. John Thornburg, Jack Soper, Lee Carey, De Wiksten, Mark Thurman, and Janice Virtue all spoke against the resolution on the floor.
(I hope you will note: This is such a small a cadre of voices —so few the number of churches that they represent— that you can trace more than half of these through a single progressive church at one point or another of their careers…)
I got up to speak, and talked about the hypocrisy of singling out gay and lesbian people; about the sheer ugliness of “defining” them solely based on their sex acts. (That’s what the proposal that day was…)
When I sat down, I noticed that the people on either side of me had quickly moved away…I now had a pew space ten feet wide on either side of my seat.
Weeks later, in May of 1994, my District Superintendent took me aside after a district meeting and said the following to me, pretty much verbatim:
“Well Eric after we were done, I went over to the Bishop and said ‘I didn’t like the tenor of his comments”…To which the Bishop replied ‘I didn’t either.’”
I left that 1994 meeting with my DS, thinking seriously that I might have just ended my career. I can still recall the fear that coursed through my veins, the shame of being reprimanded by my superiors…but also the resolve that God calls us to speak out prophetically, even if it’s costly.
Of course, as we now know, this fear would turn out to be overblown.
And so…. on Tuesday afternoon, June 13, 2023 —as the North Texas Conference approved removing the harmful language in the Discipline by a margin of 99%— my mind raced quickly through all these memories.
Especially that prior vote in 1994….of how overwhelmingly the clergy of 1994 had *voted in* language harmful to LGBTQ people.
And as all these thoughts raced through my brain, I thought…
“How far we have come.”
And how many unacknowledged tears, how much pain, how much deeply hard work, led to this moment?
They cannot all be named. But they live in the heart of God.
This resolution is aspirational, of course. The General Conference still would need to act to remove this language
But based on the experience of the young-me in 1994…did I ever imagine 99% of delegates would vote to remove that language?
No…I could have never imagined what happened in Tuesday, on the floor of the North Texas Conference.
We have come so far that not only did we pass THIS resolution, we also passed two additional ones in the same area of social justice for the LGBTQ community….so lets move on now.
(and thank you for tolerating this long recitation of my memories…)
**A CALL FOR JUSTICE AND EMPOWERMENT.
Our self-defined Queer delegates put forward a powerful resolution, which was supported by our General and Jurisdictional delegates, which said the following:
“Supports and amplifies the queer delegates’ call to justice and empowerment for the LGBTQIA+ community throughout the North Texas Annual Conference, within and beyond our local churches, districts, departments, centers, and committees. Implores our Bishop to resolve in a timely fashion through a the disciplinary process of just resolution any complaints against clergy regarding their sexual orientation or the officiating of weddings of LGBTQIA+ persons; Aspires to become a United Methodist Church in which LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered throughout our life, mission, and ministry together.”
How far we have come from 1994, when a group of mostly CIS gendered, White male clergy talked ABOUT LGBTQ/Queer people *outside* their presence or input…to this time when this resolution, submitted by them, passed with roughly 99% support!!!
**RESOLUTION ON TRANS YOUTH AND FAMILIES
My dear friend and clergy brother, Rev. Geoffrey Moore, submitted a resolution on trans youth and families. It got respectful debate, even from folks who are perhaps wary or not-fully understanding of Trans persons and their cultural situation.
It reads in part:
The NTCUMC: “oppose the criminalization of individualized best-practice, evidence-based, life-giving care for trans youth; and… our will be safe places for trans children, youth, and their families where they may find physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual safety and support; know respect, affirmation and dignity; and experience the abiding love of God; and while we acknowledge the obligation our clergy have as mandatory reporters (¶341.5), we do not, because of our convictions…consider gender-affirming care child abuse and will not report it as such.”
Again, this passed with 99% or greater support.
(82 delegates signed on ahead of time as cosponsors of this resolution, including KPUMC’s Pastor Kay and myself….)
The day after annual conference I read news that the Southern Baptists are *again* banning women clergy.
In OUR setting, three of our remarkable clergy women — Revs. Becky David-Hensley, Jessica Wright, and Katie Newsome— put forward a resolution in response to recent laws passed by the State of Texas.
Among other things, it said this:
“Be it further resolved that we call upon the elected leaders who represent us to oppose the universal ban on abortion in the state of Texas and to strike down laws currently in place that restrict our observance of the United Methodist Social Principle ¶161.K.
(Note: ¶161.K reads: “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers…”)”
This resolution, again, passed with more than 99% of the delegates. 127 delegates —including KPUMC’s Pastor Kay and myself— signed on as initial cosponsors.
** GUN VIOLENCE
In response to the many mass shootings of the past year —but especially the shooting in Allen— seven pastors of United Methodist churches in and around the Allen area cosponsored a resolution on gun violence, and issued a call for ACTION.
I will say that I was especially moved by the witness of our clergy brother, Rev. David Lessner, an Allen native, who spoke passionately about his personal connections to that shooting…and also confessed his previous hesitancy to speak out on social issues.
It was a powerful model/example for clergy everywhere to remember that our people want/need us to show moral courage in the face of important issues of the day. And, I will note: it is an incredibly hard and courageous thing to do in a cultural context like Allen.
In the resolution, the North Texas Conference said:
“…we support elected leaders who are willing to represent us by taking action on gun violence by engaging in meaningful conversation and working across party affiliations regarding gun safety legislation toward a goal of reducing the gun violence Texans experience. Toward this end, we also support the advocacy work of Texas Impact; and
United Methodists in North Texas will choose one or more ways to “advocate at the local and national level for laws that prevent or reduce gun violence, including:
• Universal background checks on all gun purchases
• Ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty
• Ensuring all guns are sold through licensed gun retailers
• Prohibiting all individuals convicted of violent crimes from purchasing a gun for a fixed time
• Prohibiting all individuals under restraining order due to threat of violence from purchasing a gun
• Prohibiting persons with serious mental illness, who pose a danger to themselves and their
communities, from purchasing a gun
• Ensuring greater access to services for those suffering from mental illness
• Establishing a minimum age of 21 years for a gun purchase or possession
• Banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and weapons designed to fire multiple rounds
each time the trigger is pulled
• Promoting new technologies to aid law-enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote
**SUPPORT FOR THE CHRISTMAS COVENANT
Finally, this resolution is “Inside Baseball” for Methodists, but arguably one of the most important steps still ahead of us.
As we’ve mentioned several times, all of these resolutions are “aspirational” in nature.
But this last one urges the General Conference to create a “regional” framework that would (among other things) allow US churches the same freedom on social issues that churches in other parts of the world now enjoy.
It will be an important step at the 2024 General Conference level. As with all the other resolutions, this one passed with almost unanimous support.
Friends, thank you for reading whatever portion of this incredibly long summary that you did. Again, I can’t apologize for the length. Because I feel it’s important for you to be able to gather a sense of the gathering.
For these past several years, I have been telling all of us at Kessler Park my own sense of where the churches in the North Texas Conference were.
(Perhaps you recall us discussing this at a series of potlucks these past few years…)
It is gratifying to see that this “hunch” is so clearly being affirmed by the actual “weather balloon” votes of the Annual Conference.
We have more work to do, especially at the General Conference level.
But this week, more than one person said to me:
“Eric, it’s a new day in North Texas.”
And I will say with them: It most certainly is.