A debate as old as time is how change happens. Is it people inside a system who use their influence to move the ball forward or is it more external, when people step out of the system or situation in order to challenge it? The answer of course is yes. And your orientation to the question is probably shaped by how much influence and authority you feel like you have.
As a church, we’ve been on this journey with the question of LGBTQIA+ inclusion and our denomination (the United Methodist Church or UMC). Language in our book of rules (called The Book of Discipline) says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. It was the leadership of Dr. Carver McGriff, who was our Senior Pastor from 1967 to 1993, that led St. Luke’s to believe and practice something different. Since then, this has shaped our identity as, “an open community of Christians,” and led to the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ folks in the life of our church. And it’s meant a wide welcome to everyone as an expression of how we understand God’s grace as making room for us all.
Every four years the UMC meets to change its Disciple. In 2018 we were hopeful (after years of attempts) that this harmful language would be removed. When that didn’t happen, Pastor Rob and our leaders committed to bold actions to try and bring about change from the inside – withholding our financial support to the denomination, asking us to write letters, and working to elect voting delegates who shared our values. And where we saw success was in getting new leaders elected to go to that every four-year meeting – including Pastor Rob.
Since that time, we’ve discovered that our other efforts had limited impact, and in terms of financial support, could even hurt other shared ministry – supporting new churches being created for example. And yet, many who call St. Luke’s home and love our church have named that we’re clearly at odds with our denomination and have wondered if to live our values we need to consider making a change from outside of the UMC. Our Governing Board still believes we can do shared ministry (globally for example) by staying connected to our denomination but that we are ready to step outside of the current rules, on marriage especially, to live consistent with St. Luke’s long-held values and theological understanding.
When I studied abroad in college, my first Sunday in New Zealand I walked to the local Methodist Church. Going inside, I noticed several rainbows around. Later I discovered that this little congregation back in 1985 had hired a gay minister – when the church rules didn’t allow this – and forced the Methodist Church in that country to change from the inside. That bold step of defiance (or faithfulness) of that small church was the catalyst for change inside of New Zealand Methodism. And it helped pave the way for political change that came later that allowed for marriage for all.
Sometimes the church leads the change from the inside, and it ripples out. And other times the change begins on the outside and takes much longer to work its way in. As we enter Pride month, we’ll be sending a survey to listen to questions you have as we consider what God is calling us to do. And together, we’ll take steps forward to change – in the direction of more faithfully living our values.
These are hard conversations, but they point to the value of Christian community. It challenges us from the inside and out to reflect the love and acceptance we find in Jesus Christ to the best of our availability. I pray this context is helpful. While we’re on this journey as a church, how to hear and respond faithfully to God is also a personal journey we all are on. And for change and greater faithfulness to happen for us, we need one another.
Offering grace and gathering people,
You can learn more about St. Luke's here and visit stlukesumc.com/pride to get involved.