Episcopal Address | Special Session, October 26, 2019

I care deeply about each of you, and I care deeply about GNJ and the church. Today I come before you as a pastor. In 1982 I was ordained, and the church made me an elder. In 2004, the church consecrated me and made me a bishop. As an elder, I chose to be a pastor. As a bishop, I still choose to be a pastor.

In the last two weeks, I wept with someone who lost their job. I prayed with someone who was diagnosed with cancer. I talked with a clergy spouse whose husband died. I am a pastor.

At the same time, I am a bishop, and I care deeply about the people of The United Methodist Church and the people in our communities. As a bishop, in the last two weeks, I discussed financial challenges, staffing issues and how to evaluate our resourcing with our congregations. In my role as a bishop, I use a pastoral lens.

I choose to be a pastor of all our congregations and of all our people. I am hearing from many people right now who are concerned about our way forward.

A spouse of a clergy person wrote, “I am deeply concerned about what will happen. We have two sons in college and if my husband loses his appointment, I do not know what we will do.”

“I have been United Methodist all my life,” said one lay member. “It is in my DNA. Why would you even suggest that we divide or move into different expressions. How dare you betray me and the people of my congregation.”

A clergy person shared, “I invested my life in the United Methodist Church. My studies were all geared to be a clergy person. I have only served in The United Methodist Church. If the church splits and I lose my appointment, I cannot go and find another job easily. My training and skills do not translate to other professions.”

A lay woman said, “If there are changes to the Discipline, my friend Sarah said she will leave the church. She has been a good friend, and I would hate to see her leave.”

A young person shared, “My friends and I do not all agree about homosexuality, but we don’t understand the church judging LGBTQ people. We work and go to school with gays and lesbians; they are our friends and we don’t like the church judging them.”

“If The United Methodist Church dealt with racism and privilege, we would not be facing this challenge,” said a clergy person. “One more time African Americans will be passed over.”

A father with two daughters said, “The church will allow the wedding of one of my daughters but not the other daughter because of who she loves. It’s just not right.”

Others wrote,

“Our congregation is barely making it, and these conversations will tear us apart.”

“If we make this change, what will be the next change.”

“What happened to the church I grew up in. We were welcoming and accepting. Now we are getting harsh and mean spirited.”

“How is it that all of a sudden, the church can change what it has believed for more than two thousand years.”

“I do not understand homosexuality, but we should not treat gays and lesbians like we are treating them.”

And someone wrote to me and asked,

“Who do you think you are, God?”

The comments remind me of the work we are doing to turn the church outward and see everyone as a person and that everyone is valuable, a child of God.

There is truth to the assertion that if The United Methodist Church dealt with racism and privilege, today we would not marginalize or oppress others. There is mistrust today because we haven’t finished the work of privilege and oppression. We have not eliminated racism, sexism and classism in the church, let alone society. In the shalom community, in the kingdom of God, when one hurts, we all hurt. When one is held back, we are all held back from being fully human, fully a child of God. When one is discriminated against, we are all discriminated against. I pledge today that as we seek a way forward in one area, it will not diminish my leadership and efforts to continue to do the work to end privilege, oppression and discrimination.

As we face into our way forward ministry, there will be no winners today. All of us will lose something. There is nothing easy about our way forward. It keeps me awake at night, it sets me on edge during the day. It keeps me wrestling with my love for Jesus, my love for the church, my love for you and my calling to be a bishop and a pastor.

As the bishop of GNJ, I am a pastor of the LGBTQ community. And I am and will continue to be the bishop and pastor of all of GNJ.

Today, there are people among us, me included, that believe all people can have loving caring relationships. I believe a man and a woman, a man and a man, a woman and a woman can share love and make a home where God is honored.

Today, there are people among us, me included, that believe God calls people to ministry regardless of their ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientation. I personally have witnessed God using people in congregational leadership and as clergy persons regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national status and age.

I recognize we all do not share the same beliefs. Good people of faith will disagree. I have never found the people of the United Methodist Church to completely agree with any number of significant beliefs or policies within the church. I welcome and thrive in the midst of difference. I learn from difference and continue to be shaped by other ideas, beliefs and understandings. I also recognize that change is difficult – whether it be change within the community that affects the church or change within the church that affects the community.

Today in the midst of challenge and struggle to find a way forward, I choose to be a pastor as I serve you and the church as a pastoral bishop. Being pastoral is being graceful. Grace is not cheap; it is born through sacrifice.

Church trials concerning homosexuality are not graceful. Trials create division, pain and harm to the mission and witness of the church. Trials use valuable mission resources. Nothing good comes from trials. Trials hurt everyone. Trials of LGBTQ people and their supporters divide the church. Trials hurt the witness of Jesus Christ.

No trial ever stopped someone from being gay. No trial ever stopped someone from being Wesleyan. A retired pastor told me that he was “pushed out of the church” because he was gay and so he served in the United Church of Christ. He said, “I felt exiled, a refugee in a different country. Oh, the UCC was good to me,” he said, “but I am Wesleyan.” He told me that now that he is retired, he is worshiping with a United Methodist congregation, and it feels like home.

Trials push faithful lay and clergy people out of The United Methodist Church. Trials of LGBTQ people and their supporters push out United Methodists with valuable gifts that are needed and wanted by congregations — and I believe by God as well.

Today as a bishop who humbly claims his first calling as a pastor, I share with you that I will not forward complaints for trial against LGBTQ people who serve the church or those who bless gays and lesbians in marriage. I believe it is the pastoral action to take. The LGBTQ community should not live in fear of what the church will do to them because they pursue their calling or because they want to serve people, or because they seek God’s blessing because all people are of sacred worth.

I care about the church and believe that the church is in a vulnerable place right now. We face shifts that leave our leaders and disciples struggling to connect with the people in our communities about who is God, who is Jesus and why people need the church. For more than 20 years, we have been experiencing a decline in people and money.

Can the church handle more change?

I have found God works most powerfully through me when I am most vulnerable. I have witnessed that when the church has been most humble and outward, God has used the church for greater glory. I have witnessed that when we are most challenged, God is ready to work through the opportunities the challenges present. I have witnessed that in dying we are saved; we are resurrected.

While individually we may be challenged to live in and through change, the church of Jesus Christ has more often thrived when it has been humble, turned outward and prayerfully ready to see the opportunities God is presenting in the midst of the change. Change is not the issue. Who we will be in the midst of the change is the test of our faith.

Today the GNJ Way Forward Team is asking us for our prayers and space for our congregations to thrive. They ask for sacred space to allow congregations who are ready, to develop a covenant for ministry with LGBTQ persons.

At the same time, the Way Forward Team wants to provide room for other congregations to make covenants based on their convictions that will help their congregations thrive. And while each covenant may be different, each will hold sacred their commitment to God, to each other, their community and our connection together. I will support all of our congregations and their covenants.

Although the covenants may be different, some will affirm our present disciplinary standards, others will enter into new ministry with the LGBTQ community. I anticipate they will lead to stronger ministry as our congregations thrive in our shared mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

When developing a covenant, we invite you to ask important questions:

  • Who is God?
  • Who is Jesus?
  • Why do people need Jesus?
  • Why do people need your congregation?

If these questions lead you only to talk about homosexuality, there’s a problem. If the questions lead your congregation to better understand yourself, your community and how God is leading your congregation into the community to be in ministry with people, to see every person in your community as a child of God, then you are on the path. A Wesleyan path. A path I believe we can travel together.

LGBTQ United Methodists just want to worship and serve like all disciples of Jesus Christ. They want to be faithful in marital relationships. They want to offer their gifts to the church and the community. Rather than being seen as LGBTQ United Methodists, they want to be people like most of us in this room today who are not questioned about our sexuality, who are not somebody’s poster child of what a problem or issue looks like. They want to matter just like I matter, just like you matter.

The DNA of our LGBTQ family here today is United Methodist. If they wanted to be Calvinists, they would have joined the Presbyterian Church, but they want to be United Methodist. If they wanted to be Episcopalians, they would have joined the Episcopal Church, but they want to be United Methodist. Our sister denominations are worthy of joining, but they are not Wesleyan. Our people want to be Wesleyan and it is time, time to say their gifts, their lives are worthy of service and leadership in The United Methodist Church.

Today I shared with you my commitment to be the pastor and bishop of all of GNJ and how I will be pastoral in my leadership. It is at great risk and may be misunderstood, but it comes after prayer, listening, reading scripture and choosing the harder path.

Friends, we can make this work. We can be faithful to God and rely on God to lead us through this time. We can bless our congregations to thrive in ministry. We can create space for congregations to covenant with God to be in ministry with and by LGBTQ persons. We can support congregations who want to have graceful conversations about their calling and convictions. Just as the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 gave permission to Paul not to require new gentile Christians to follow all the laws, particularly circumcision, so too we can make way for congregations to create covenants that allow ministry with the LGBTQ community.

We can do this, because we are United Methodists from GNJ. We have sought to see people, people of sacred worth. Historically, we have been in the forefront of change within the United Methodist Church. WE are leading today, just like we have led in the past.

  • Ordained a woman in 1956, among the first in our denomination. Where? Greater New Jersey
  • Ended the segregated central jurisdiction in 1966, two years before general conference abolished it. Where? Greater New Jersey.
  • Created multicultural congregations long before others did. Where? Greater New Jersey
  • Started an Arabic congregation, the first in our denomination and started one of the first Korean and Filipino congregations. Where? Greater New Jersey
  • Overseen by an African American bishop, Prince Taylor, the first to serve a predominately white conference. Where? Greater New Jersey.
  • Started the third congregation of our denomination after Lovely Lane in Baltimore and John Street in NY. Where? Greater New Jersey, The Pemberton United Methodist Church.

We did all this not because everyone else was doing it, or everyone agreed we should do it, but because some disciples among us believed that time had come for us to be bold and sensitive, to be courageous and humble, to be convicted and searching. Those disciples who came before us knew that God would help us sort it out and God would see us through.

That time has come again for us to be bold and sensitive, to be courageous and humble, to be convicted and searching.

Today, I take my own step, and I invite you to take a step with me. I will not forward complaints concerning homosexuality for trial. I will not participate in the ongoing harm and division of our church. I will not participate in excluding faithful United Methodists, faithful and fruitful LGBTQ United Methodists from serving God. I will not prevent caring, loving LGBTQ people who in the United Methodist tradition want to enter into a covenant with God and one another.

I will lead to create space and room for all our clergy to be pastoral in their context and for all of our congregations to develop the ministry that will help them thrive in their context. I will lead and invite all of you to serve and lead congregations into the future by doing the following.

  • Recruit and develop transformational leaders.
  • Make disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world.
  • Grow vital congregations
  • Organize 3,000 people to pack a half a million meals on March 21.
  • Inspire students to receive Jesus Christ as their savior through IGNITE ministries.
  • Start new faith communities to reach younger and more diverse disciples.
  • Desegregate New Jersey public schools and address racism, oppression and inclusion.
  • Start an additional 20 Hope Centers.
  • Support all congregations to grow and thrive.

The Way Forward Team is calling us to take a courageous and humble step. A bold step and a sensitive step. A step of conviction and a step of searching. A step that recognizes differences among us. A step that says we may not all believe alike, but we can love alike and we can serve together. Let the love and service begin with us.