The Rev. Judy Zabel is among Methodist clergy wrestling with an agonizing question: Should her Minneapolis church remain part of a denomination that recently reaffirmed its ban on same-sex marriages and ordinations of LGBT clergy?

It's a question haunting many of her colleagues across the state and nation, as they regroup following the United Methodist Church conference in February that exposed sharp rifts in the second largest Protestant denomination in America, and in Minnesota.

"It was heartbreaking," said Zabel, senior pastor at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, which long has embraced the LGBT community. "We are not going to change our stance. Churches like ours are asking, 'Can we live within a denomination whose core values are so different from ours?' "

The United Methodist Church is facing its most significant crisis in decades, not unlike divisions over homosexuality that have ruptured other Protestant denominations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, for example, voted to allow churches to perform same-sex marriages and to ordain gay clergy in 2009. The Presbyterian Church later did the same. The decisions led to departures by traditional churches.

Many Methodist leaders expected they, too, would soon open their doors more widely to the LGBT community. A UMC General Conference on sexuality in St. Louis in late February offered two main plans.

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. It would be an option, not a requirement.

To their dismay, a plan reaffirming the UMC's ban on homosexual ordinations and marriages was passed — and with tough new sanctions for clergy. Ministers who performed a marriage between two men, for example, could be suspended a year without pay for one incident, and stripped of their clergy status for performing two.

Bishop Bruce Ough, UMC bishop for Minnesota and the Dakotas, said he was deeply disappointed by the vote. He has no plans to tighten the reins on churches here, but acknowledges it's a dilemma.

"I'm not suggesting we're going to thumb our nose at the general conference," said Ough. "We have to decide what kind of church we want to be in Minnesota."

The vote was a jolt for LGBT folks in the pews. They'd come to recognize that many Methodist churches are welcoming places. Paul David Stanko, an openly gay musician at Spirit of Hope Church in Golden Valley, said his Facebook feed was abuzz with posts about the decision.

Stanko was surprised and discouraged by the news. But he sees a silver linking.

"We [Methodists] might be a little more rebellious right now," said Stanko. "Maybe this has rallied enough people to make a bigger statement."

Clergy are torn

Minnesota is home to 360 Methodist churches and 60,000 members. They are among 7 million U.S. members, most in the south and southeast, plus 5 million in Africa.

That membership breakdown points to a source of tension on issues such as LGBT participation.

Because the UMC is governed as a "global church," its policies are the same for a one-room church in Namibia as for a historic cathedral near Minneapolis' Loring Park. While pastors have discretion on some issues, on questions like same-sex marriage and ordination, they do not.

The African delegates voted overwhelmingly to keep the ban because many come from countries where homosexuality is considered a deviant, anti-Christian behavior and even a crime, said church leaders.

A third of U.S. churches also supported reaffirming the ban and the new sanctions. That reflects the diversity of the Methodist faith, whose members include Hillary Clinton and former President George W. Bush.

The two sides hold very different interpretations of what the Bible says about homosexuals.

Pastor Philip Schmidt of Lake City United Methodist Church, is among the local clergy who believe the traditional plan approved was compatible with Scripture. He wasn't surprised by the vote, in part because so many attempts to modify the church position on homosexuality over the years have failed, he said.

"Personally, as a pastor of this church, I have deep compassion for those who feel excluded because of their sexuality," said Schmidt. But, he said, "I anchor myself in what the Scripture has said."

A similar position is espoused by leaders of other Protestant denominations that do not ordain or marry homosexuals, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and Missouri Synod Lutherans.

Schmidt, however, said this is not a time of celebration for traditionalists.

"I'd say the most important thing to focus on at this time is unity," he said. "It's so easy at a time like this to be angry. We are all rowing together in the same direction to bring people to Christ."

Feeling 'homeless'

The vote comes as Methodists, like most mainline Protestant denominations, see ever-shrinking numbers of people in the pews. Leaders hope this doesn't hasten that trend. People like Olivia DeMumbrum show the challenge.

"I feel religiously homeless," said DeMumbrum, 24, who attends Hennepin Methodist. "I don't want to be part of a denomination that is not inclusive."

Methodist ministers have spent the past week meeting with staff, parishioners, and fellow clergy to ponder how to move forward. Many have spoken from the pulpit about their concerns.

Last Sunday, for example, Zabel devoted an emotional sermon pledging her commitment to embrace the LGBT community. She received a standing ovation.

That speech relieved church members such as DeMumbrum and Kristine Northrup. But Northrup still worries that the Methodist Church's reputation has been tarnished. She said her husband's first reaction to the LGBT vote was, 'What church should we go to now?' "

In Minnesota, at least, inclusive Methodists may not have to go anywhere. Last week, the Minnesota UMC Board of Ministry, which oversees the ordination of clergy, issued a letter reiterating that it would judge candidates based on its current criteria — and would not be adding provisions about sexual orientation.

Individual churches are discussing the painful possibility of breaking away.

"I hope that if we do have to split, it's as amicable as possible, said the Rev. Jeff Hansen of Spirit of Hope Church. "I don't have ill will toward anyone."

Meanwhile Bishop Ough has openly said he supports an inclusive church. He is hosting a clergy meeting Monday to explore how to proceed. Ideally it would be within the United Methodist Church, he said.

"But at this point, I don't see a pathway," said Ough.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511