Bishop Bruce R. Ough anoints attendees during the opening worship service at General Conference 2019. Photo by Chris Daniel, North Carolina Conference.
Grace and peace to you in this season of Eastertide.
As you know, the Judicial Council recently ruled on legislation passed at General Conference 2019. While nearly half of the Traditional Plan remains unconstitutional, some provisions were found to be valid as church law and will take effect in January 2020. (Read this explanation for more information about what passed and what it means.)
For many, this ruling ripped open the deep wounds sustained immediately after General Conference in February. It has re-awakened the hurt experienced by those in the LGBTQIA+ community. My heart is heavy as I acknowledge and lament this harm. Others welcomed the affirmation of traditional marriage and current language related to human sexuality. These differing responses reflect the depth of our division as a denomination.
Each of us has our own convictions about human sexuality based on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—and in the Dakotas, we have created space for each other’s beliefs and different ways of doing ministry that are relevant for our unique contexts. We don’t agree on everything, but we have lived as a covenant community under the big tent of United Methodism, rooted in a Wesleyan understanding of the gospel and the “catholic spirit,” loving and supporting each other and pursuing our shared mission of making disciples. Grace pervades our understanding of Christian faith and life. The actions of General Conference and the Judicial Council rulings do not change who we are as the Dakotas Annual Conference or who we are in Christ.
My dream, which I shared at a recent all-clergy gathering, is this: I dream of a church that is colorful, diverse, and full of love. I dream of a church that is passionately evangelical and transformative in its mission. I dream of a church that is deeply Wesleyan and wonderfully welcoming. I dream of a church that freely and boldly provides space for all who are gifted and called by God. My dream is no less big and bold today than it was before the Special Session of General Conference. I believe that dream is still possible, but not in the shape and form that I had worked for going into the Special Session. God can breathe new life into dry bones.
Although none of us knows exactly what is to come, I can tell you this:
• We will devote time at our upcoming annual conference session to consider our identity as an annual conference, and seek clarity about how God is calling us to be the church and therefore what is next.
• There are movements underway—here in Dakotas and across the country—to create new expressions of United Methodism, and it seems likely that the denomination will change significantly in the next few years. I am paying close attention to these efforts and commit to staying in close conversation with those involved so that I can prepare our annual conference, our congregations, and our leaders for whatever may be next. The 2020 General Conference will be in Minneapolis, and there is certain to be legislation to help clarify and enable one or more paths forward. Potential scenarios that I am aware of include:
• I believe the best way forward for the Dakotas Annual Conference is to stay together and stay strong in this in-between time. I believe we are called to hold and live out of the radical center that God loves everyone. I am committed to being a bishop who opens the church to all peoples, nations, and races as stated in our baptismal vows. That includes the full inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community. At the same time, I am committed to keeping the doors of the church open to all faithful followers of Jesus even as we have differing understandings of how we live out our ethic of love. This is the Wesleyan “catholic spirit.” I will always call us to respect one another and live with an attitude of convicted humility in the midst of our difference. In this season in which we do not yet know how the global structure of The United Methodist Church will change, I ask us as Dakotas United Methodists to continue to hold to our center in Jesus, to stay strong and to stay together so that, whatever comes, we can continue the good work we are doing to be a church that boldly and compassionately reaches all people with the love of Jesus Christ.
In the days and months ahead, I implore you to be the leaders and the church God is calling us to be. Remain true to yourself while also committing yourself to respectful conversation with those who hold different convictions. Clarify your identity and values as a congregation. Reflect on how you are called to be in ministry with the LGBTQIA+ community. And most importantly, stay laser focused on our shared mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.