Several hundred LGBT United Methodist leaders from across the nation are convening in Minneapolis this weekend to explore options for their future in the Methodist church that recently voted to continue banning LGBT marriages and ordinations.
A Minnesota delegation on Monday is heading to the first major national conference of Methodist leaders who will debate the best way to invent a more inclusive church. And a new opposition group simply called "Minnesota Methodists" is coordinating a statewide response to the LGBT restrictions, including hosting town hall meetings, fundraisers and protest petitions signed by more than 200 state clergy and hundreds of parishioners to date.
"We're trying to figure out what the future of this denomination in Minnesota will look like," said the Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard, a St. Paul pastor and a coordinator of Minnesota Methodists. "We're working on building a movement."
The flurry of organizing comes in response to the February decision by the United Methodist Church (UMC) general conference to continue its ban on same-sex marriages and ordinations of LGBT clergy and to tighten sanctions against clergy who violate them.
Minnesota's delegation and the majority of U.S. delegates voted in favor of a "One Church" plan that would have allowed individual pastors and regional bodies to make decisions on LGBT marriages and ordinations.
Initially disappointed, even shocked, by the February decision, church leaders across the nation are organizing resistance campaigns and doing major outreach to the faithful. Churches are publicly proclaiming their opposition, posting rainbow banners outside their buildings and on their web pages. Churches from Mankato to Detroit Lakes have hosted speakers and discussions on the options before them.
A busy week
Minnesota is home to 360 Methodist churches and 60,000 members. It is the second largest Protestant denomination in the state, where many Methodist churches have welcomed the LGBT community for years.
Lake Harriet United Methodist Church in Minneapolis is among them. This weekend it is hosting a packed house of more than 300 Methodists who are LGBT and/or people of color from around the country.
The event is part of a new movement called UM-Forward that is working to coordinate and explore a specific response from "marginalized communities." The Rev. Tyler Sit, a Methodist minister from Minneapolis, is among organizers.
"There are three tracks," said Sit. "People who want to resist from within. People who want to create something new. And a hybrid. This is the same discussion going on around the country."
Indeed, the same questions will be debated this week in Kansas City at the first nationwide gathering of Methodists from every conference — or regional body — who oppose the LGBT restrictions. It is being organized by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the 22,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection outside Kansas City, who has become a national leader of the opposition movement.
"It will help bring together different voices, figure out where we are on the same page, and explore what a more cohesive movement would look like moving forward," said Tollgaard, pastor at Hamline Church United Methodist, who is participating. "There are so many questions."
Progressive religious leaders across Minnesota have been busy, too. Their organizing hub is a website called MinnesotaMethodists.org, and clergy including Tollgaard and the Rev. Judy Zabel of Minneapolis are coordinating it.
At least a half-dozen churches so far have invited speakers from the group to talk to their congregations. Path of Grace UMC in Maplewood, for example, hosted an overflow crowd early this month.
"People wanted to know, what are our options … and what is the bigger picture moving forward," said Martha Hobbs Rice, the church's community outreach director. "And they wanted to know what other things were afoot in the U.S."
Protests, practical questions
Path of Grace is among dozens of churches making public protests. It's preparing to post a rainbow banner outside its building with the words "God Loves All People, So Do We." Hamline Church United Methodist displays a long outdoor banner with the words "All Means All." First United Methodist in Duluth put up a sign saying "A Place for All. No Exceptions."
While these early organizing efforts have focused heavily on education and outreach, practical considerations also are at play if a church splits from its denomination.
At the February UMC conference, a "dissimilation" option was approved that allows a breakaway church to take ownership of its building provided it has no debts or liens, or makes arrangements for them to be assigned to a new entity.
The church must also have paid its denominational giving for the year it leaves and the next, and pay a prorated share of the denomination's unfunded pension liability.
But there's a whole lot more to this equation. Any church that wants to leave must negotiate a separation agreement with the denomination, and it must be approved by a general assembly of the denomination, said Cindy Gregorson, director of connectional ministries for the Minnesota UMC.
That agreement would include an array of financial considerations. For example, who is to retain the art, religious artifacts and other items of value inside a church? Do they transfer? And would it be free, or for a negotiated price?
"It says churches may take their building," said Gregorson. "But it doesn't say how it happens."
Gregorson has a busy month ahead. She'll be hitting the road to nine cities across Minnesota to meet with Methodist leaders who will be attending the UMC state conference starting June 18 in St. Cloud. The conference will vote on legislation dealing with how to be an "inclusive church."
"Things are shifting and changing," Gregorson said. "We don't know the shape of the [global] church of the future. But we are clarifying our identity and how we will be at this moment."