June 7, 2023
A Note from Pastor April
When I walked into the main hall of the Dayton Convention Center last week, I could feel the heaviness in the room. People were milling about the room trying to find a table where they could sit. Some were greeting old friends that they hadn’t seen in years. Others were sitting at the corners of the room with arms crossed, avoiding eye contact.
I immediately wanted to leave. As the morning began, I could feel my body growing more and more uncomfortable. I kept checking my phone and disengaging from what was happening on stage — anything to avoid feeling the heaviness of what was happening around me.
In the United Methodist Church, clergy and lay representatives from each church gather annually for a regional denominational gathering known as an Annual Conference.
Hilliard UMC is a part of the West Ohio Annual Conference, which encompasses about two-thirds of the state, including Toledo, Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Athens.
Annual Conference is a time for worship, encouragement, connection, caring for the overall business of our region, and voting on essential matters of governance.
It was our first in-person Annual Conference in 4 years. We gathered virtually on Zoom in 2020, 2021, and 2022. It was also our first time not gathering at Lakeside, a small Methodist vacation spot in northern Ohio. The Dayton Convention Center felt foreign, corporate, and uninviting.
Much had transpired since we last gathered. One of the looming items of business on our first day together was naming and approving the withdrawal of another 100+ churches who were choosing to disaffiliate from our denomination, bringing the number up to 172 churches in the last seven months.
This included so many of my clergy colleagues, many of whom had nurtured me and collaborated with me in ministry over the years. The reasons for their departures are layered, but a large part is theological in nature. They do not approve of an inclusive church that fully embraces and affirms the LGBTQIA+ community.
On the screen above the stage stood the logo and theme for this Annual Conference. It read:
Committed… Connected… Community…
The vibe in the room couldn’t have felt further from those words. This was a room filled with people who didn’t trust each other. We were disconnected. Some of us were choosing to leave. All of us were in pain.
Part way through the day, I stepped out of the convention center and returned to the house I was staying in with the other folks from Hilliard UMC. As I took some space to pray and meditate, it wasn’t long before tears began to fall. I was grateful for the work that many of us did a few weeks ago on our Weekend of Healing with Jenny Smith. It helped me to more quickly name what was happening.
I was grieving
When I first began my season of ministry in the United Methodist Church, I was filled with hope. I saw the power and potential of the church to be an agent for positive change in the world and to bring hope and light into places where it was most needed. I loved our history as United Methodists of being this beacon of love in the world since our movement began in the eighteenth century with John Wesley.
Surely, we could be the church that the world needed in this moment.
Over the last ten years, the battles, division, and debates about human sexuality in our denomination have risen to a place of intensity and hostility that had not been seen before. For all the time and energy spent debating this topic, we have not managed to find a path forward together.
Along the way, we have caused so much harm to one another. Our words and our actions have not embodied our ethic of love and grace. Our witness to the world around us has suffered. All the while, we have continued to ask our LGBTQ siblings to wait.
I was grieving where we had been.
I was grieving our inability to come together in ways that honored and loved all people.
I was grieving all the harm we had done along the way.
A More Inclusive Church
The next day we began to slowly work our way through the legislative recommendations that came before us. Two of those recommendations had to do with embodying a more inclusive church in West Ohio and the world. In the past, these recommendations have always fallen short of majority approval.
As these recommendations came before us this year, however, there was a shift in the air. People taking the microphone to oppose these recommendations began with sentences like, “I know I’m in the minority here…” One person shared that he was a conservative evangelical, who had recently had a “Holy Spirit moment” where he was guided to support inclusion. Moment after moment passed, and by the end of the day, we had not only passed both recommendations but had done so by a CLEAR majority. No paper ballot was needed.
You can read the original Recommendations HERE, on pages 88-90.
A Summary of all that was passed at Annual Conference is HERE.
Though our Book of Discipline still contains prohibitive language around LGBTQ clergy and same sex unions, the groundswell of support for these measures marked a significant turning point in West Ohio. The first recommendation declared the conference’s specific support to remove all prohibitive language from our Book of Discipline at our next General Conference in 2024. The second recommendation declared our conference’s commitment to work toward full inclusion for LGBTQ persons in the life of the church and a commitment to do no harm in the meantime while we wait for the Discipline to change.
We still have a long way to go.
There is so much healing and repairing that is needed.
The work to become the church that the world needs now… continues.
Leaving the Dayton Convention Center, my body felt different. Lighter. Grateful. And filled with hope.
Committed to Full Inclusion
This weekend, Hilliard UMC will celebrate our second anniversary as a Reconciling Congregation. This decision to be a place committed to full inclusion of all persons, especially those on the margins, continues to shape who we are.
On Saturday, we will be at the Hilliard Pride Fest from 12-3pm at Station Park. We’ll have a booth set up to chat with people about God’s love for them… no matter what. We’ll also just be present with our tee shirts and our smiles and our desire to share the goodness of God’s love. Come join us!
Churches like HUMC who have chosen to join this movement are on the rise. It is our hope that more and more people will continue to find love and acceptance in the churches in their community… until it is no longer necessary to designate whether a church is reconciling or not.
Until then, we will keep trying to be a part of the healing.
And hope in the promise of God’s love for us… no matter what.
With hope in the midst of grief,
The Rev. April Blaine