In an overwhelming vote of affirmation, Greater New Jersey Annual Conference passed a resolution that provides a way forward for congregations who are called to be fully inclusive of the LGBTQ community.
The recommendations (see inset) outlined in the plan call on GNJ leadership to support a covenanting process within congregations so that congregations can gain clarity about their ministry with each other and how they will serve within their congregations, communities and the conference.
The Special Session, held Saturday, October 26, was called specifically to receive a report from the GNJ Way Forward Team and consider their recommendations. The Team, which consisted of 36 people representing the diversity of Greater New Jersey, was created to identify how GNJ clergy and congregations could be in ministry with the LGBTQ community, particularly in light of recent changes to the Book of Discipline that adopted key pieces of the Traditional Plan that addresses ministry with the LGBTQ community.
In his episcopal address to the conference, Bishop John Schol took his own step in support of ministry with LGBTQ persons by stating that he will not participate in the ongoing harm and division of the church and will not exclude faithful and fruitful United Methodists from serving God.
“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 gays and lesbians who serve the church or those who bless gays and lesbians in marriage,” said Bishop Schol.
Bishop Schol’s address received a standing ovation, and UMNews reported that the resolution to go forward with the Way Forward recommendations passed with 80% of the delegates supporting it.
The recommendations called for congregations to make covenants based on their convictions that will help their congregations thrive. The covenants for each congregation will be different, with some confirming the current Book of Discipline, and others entering into new ministries with the LGBTQ community.
In preparing their report, the GNJ Way Forward Team learned that while some congregations are ready to move forward and are clear, many others are only starting conversations or have differing views about their ministry.
“When asked, ‘What challenges are your congregations facing?’ most answered that their biggest concerns included mission, worship attendance and finances. Those who responded with concerns over ministry with LGBTQ persons were concerned about divides within their own congregation and with their connection to the denomination,” explained Rev. Sang Won Doh, convener of the Way Forward Team.
To assist congregations, GNJ will be providing trained facilitators to help interested congregations develop covenants. Congregations who are not ready or in agreement can request facilitators to start Graceful Conversations to help provide clarity and build agreement for their ministry within their congregation. Covenants are voluntary.
At the Special Session Rev. Myrna Bethke, dean of the Cabinet, shared a cabinet covenant that outlines its commitment to congregations and clergy in the districts. The cabinet covenant includes guiding congregations to stay focused on the mission and ministry. The members of the cabinet also state that they will “appoint pastors that align with the congregations understanding of themselves and their ministry.”
Some within the conference, particularly Wesleyan Covenant Association members, have concerns over the Way Forward Report, and members filed five questions of law surrounding the recommendations. Bishop Schol will rule on these questions within the next 30 days.
Rev. Dr. Virginia Samuel Cetuk rose at the end of the session to bring a motion to the floor affirming the activities of the day. The motion, which also passed by an overwhelming margin, supports Bishop Schol’s declaration to not forward for trial charges arising out of ministry for or with the LGBTQ+ community as well as the Board of Ordained Ministry decision to disregard sexual orientation as a basis for recommending candidates for ministry.
Once the covenant is developed, it is to be shared with the district superintendent. The superintendent may follow up with congregational leadership with questions or suggestions for further refinement. Ultimately ,it is the congregation’s covenant and must be supported by the congregation.
By Saturday afternoon, 64 congregations had signed up to start the covenanting process. GNJ will start training and facilitators in November and start scheduling congregations for covenanting and Graceful Conversations in December. Congregations who start the process in December will be asked to report to Annual Conference in May to share their experience and learnings.