As Bishops of The United Methodist Church, we affirm that WE ARE OF ONE HEART in our desire to discern the mind and will of Jesus Christ for our leadership and the church. In the Northeastern Jurisdiction and around the world, we experience great diversity of thought and practice within The United Methodist Church. In partnership with Bishops from around the world, we will continue to lead collectively and individually to value and provide room for our diversity as United Methodists. – The Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
On May 4, 2018, I wrote to you about the Commission on the Way Forward’s work to identify a way forward for the church concerning human sexuality and, in particular, the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. This report will be presented to a special session of General Conference in February of 2019. In the email letter I indicated that the Commission was completing its work and their report would be translated into the official languages of General Conference and released by July 8, 2019. I regret that the plan has not yet been translated and is not yet available to the whole church.
The Commission with input from the Council of Bishops completed its work and sent the full report, more than 100 pages to the staff of the General Conference for translation and release to the church. In addition to the Commission’s report, additional legislation related to homosexuality has been sent by churches, individuals and groups and also must be translated. It will be months until the translation is complete.
What seemed appropriate to the Bishops, translate the one report by July 8, is unrealistic with the additional legislation.
I recognize how important this material is not only for the General Conference delegates but for all United Methodists as we seek to discuss, understand and pray for the way forward of our beloved United Methodist Church. I regret that a commitment was made that in hindsight was not realistic.
The Commission’s report outlines three proposals and their variations include:
- The Traditionalist Plan: Strengthen the existing language about homosexuality in the Book of Discipline and create swift and strong punishment of anyone that does not follow the Book of Discipline. It also provides exit plans for churches who no longer feel the United Methodist Church represents their values.
The Council of Bishops is not recommending this model because it will create disruption, church trials and pain for individuals and congregations that would distract us from our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Bishops also do not believe or want to encourage “exit plans” that encourage people to leave the church because they do not agree with an aspect of the church. The Bishops believe we are stronger and healthier through our differences, not by dividing the church.
- The Connectional Conference Plan: Create a Connectional Conference Model for the church which allows congregations to decide to be a part of one of three “branches”/conferences in the United States – progressive, centrist or conservative. Each of these conferences could modify the Book of Discipline and align church practices to their theology and understanding. Present annual conferences and even congregations could choose different “branches”/conferences.
The Council of Bishops is not recommending this model to the General Conference. A similar model was created in 1939 which separated a majority of African Americans and the rest of the church into distinct conferences. It was finally disbanded in 1968 and caused lasting pain to many in our denomination. It would not be helpful for us to be separate but equal, separating us by theology and segregating gays and lesbians. It would also require years to implement, maybe as many as 10 years and that would detract us from the mission of Jesus Christ and focus us on institutional matters. In essence, this plan creates three denominations within a denomination.
- The One Church Plan: Create a One Church Plan that allows:
- Congregations to decide their marriage policies.
- Pastors to determine who they will marry.
- Boards of Ordained Ministry and clergy executive sessions to determine fit and readiness for ministry.
The Council of Bishops is recommending this model to the General Conference because it preserves appropriate local decision-making and does not require congregations to think and act alike. It preserves our unity in the midst of differences, allows for contextualization and provides the least disruption to the mission of Jesus Christ.
This proposal represents the Bishops’ best discernment around these critical and sensitive matters. The Bishops request that you intentionally and purposefully pray for our church as we enter into this season of deliberation and discernment.
I recognize there will be United Methodists that will not be in agreement with the proposed plan by the Bishops. Some will find it hard to be in a church that allows discrimination against gays and lesbians. Others will not accept that parts of our denomination will allow congregations, pastors and conferences to make their own decisions about marriage and leadership for the church that may include gays and lesbians. I recognize the Bishops’ recommendation will generate different feelings and opinions. I humbly ask you to stay open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church and in your life. I hope that while we may not all think alike, we will all love as Jesus loved.
Regardless of the outcome of the 2019 Special General Conference, I pledge to you to be your bishop, a bishop of the whole church. The Special General Conference could adopt or modify one of the plans listed above or make no change at all. I cannot not envision United Methodists in Greater New Jersey not gathering and serving together in one Annual Conference. We are united in common purpose and we continue to be graceful in our disagreements.
If there is change, I will not make appointments or lead in a way that seeks to change your mind about homosexuality. Each of us arrives at various beliefs based on our experiences, understandings and convictions. If General Conference does not make any changes to our Book of Discipline, I will continue to lead in our mission and respect our clergy and laity serving contextually in their ministry with their community.
I call us to stay focused on our mission, to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to grow vital congregations to transform the world. Let’s not allow differences to deter us from serving Christ in and through our congregations. We have made great progress and God has a future with hope for us.
Thank you for being United Methodist, for your commitment to Jesus Christ and for your service to the church and the world. In the midst of the vast diversity found within our United Methodist Church, the Bishops continue to work for the unity of the church and long for each of us to BE OF ONE HEART in our desire to discern the mind and will of Jesus Christ for the mission of our church.
Keep the faith!
John Schol, Bishop
The United Methodist Church
of Greater New Jersey