Well, the time has finally arrived.
Those of us plugged in to The United Methodist Church have been either eagerly awaiting or anxiously dreading this day since the adjournment of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon.
The time, indeed, has come for the special called session of General Conference in St. Louis. There almost certainly will be television cameras and newspaper reporters on site to see what the people known as Methodists will allow regarding marriage of same-gender people and ordination of LGBTQ individuals.
It’s a discussion — some would say debate, others would say fight — that started in 1972 in Atlanta with a relatively innocent report to recommend some agreed-upon social principles to what was at the time a 4-year-old denomination. One statement in the proposed principles said: “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.”
According to United Methodist News Service, Russell Kibler, a delegate from South Indiana, stepped to the microphone and asked what was meant by “homosexuals would have their human and civil rights ensured.” The result was a vote to add “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Now going on 51 years old, the church is confronting the divisiveness often faced by large families with a wide variety of political and social views. It could get ugly at times, with words used to argue positions that demean people on the other side — intentionally or not. One of my fears is that when the TV cameras are shining on our elected delegates and episcopal leaders, we will look nothing like the Jesus so desperately needed by the people seeing the soundbites on the news and on websites around the world.
I have written before that I envy — I know, envy is a sin — the people who have a firm position on human sexuality. I grew up Baptist, with pastors who taught me the Bible says what it means and means what it says. I heard from the pulpit nearly every week about the wages of sin and how evil certain human actions condemned us to the lake of fire. Homosexuality was almost always included in the list of “don’ts” by my pastors.
I’ve told only my wife and a few close friends this, but it seems appropriate to share now. The only reason I didn’t pursue ordained ministry was that I didn’t want to be “that guy.” I didn’t want to be the person condemning others from the pulpit. That was the only kind of preaching I knew. By the time I joined The United Methodist Church for good in my mid-20s — thanks to a wife who pursued her call to ministry and preaching I heard from pastors such as retired Rev. Harold Peters about living out Christ’s commandment to love all neighbors — I was entrenched in a journalism career that allowed me to speak up for the marginalized and that allowed me a platform from which to push for justice.
I don’t have a vote in St. Louis. I’ll be seated far from the floor, in a press box designed for NFL game coverage, not for coverage of a church business meeting. But I want to offer a prayer for the delegates from the Great Plains and around the world as they begin what promises to be a difficult four-day stretch with the weight of more than 12 million United Methodists on their shoulders.
I start each day with a fairly simple prayer, one that I started saying each morning during a time when our newspaper was being barraged by critics for doing what I still think was the right thing. When I wake up, I thank God for sending Jesus — a part of God’s own being — to earth to suffer and die for me. And then I ask for three things: wisdom, strength and courage to face whatever I come across that day.
When I think of strength, I think of Psalm 28:7-8, which says, “The Lord is my strength and my shield. My heart trusts him. I was helped, my heart rejoiced, and I thank him with my song. The Lord is his people’s strength; he is a fortress of protection for his anointed one.”
I pray for the delegates to be given strength. The work they have done so far has been tiring. The days in St. Louis have the potential to be exhausting. These 864 representatives from around the world need the Lord to be their strength and shield as they do their work.
When I think of wisdom, I think of Proverbs 3:5-6, which says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.”
I pray for the delegates to be granted wisdom so they make the decision that aligns most with God’s will. I decided long ago not to pray for either a progressive outcome or a traditional outcome, but that God’s will would be fulfilled. That will take wisdom.
When I think of courage, I think of Romans 8:31-32, which says, “So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him?”
Finally, I pray for the delegates to have courage to vote as God has led them — whatever that result may be. I figure if God would love us enough to send Jesus to die on the cross for us, then God will love us enough to allow the decision to turn out as God’s will dictates.
Our communications team will be in St. Louis for the duration of the special session. We’ll have to roll with the flow of this unique event, but our plan calls for videos from Bishop Saenz each day recapping what happened, video work and podcasts from Eugenio Hernandez and David Burke from our communications team, and social media posts on our conference Facebook and Twitter pages from Jayna McFarland. I’ll provide some ongoing updates and a little commentary via my personal Twitter account throughout the four days of General Conference.
Our goal is not to sway you, but rather to inform you about what is going on in St. Louis.
You can view the livestream via a link from the conference’s website. We’ll have a link set up on our home page to make it easy to get to that and other content provided by our team and United Methodist News Service.
I love being a United Methodist. I love the tremendous ministry that happens across the country and around the world under the banner of the cross and flame.
My final prayer as I start to pack up my gear for St. Louis is that the Holy Spirit completely take over the dome in which our special session is taking place. I pray that people — myself included — who walk in with at least a little sense of dread walk out filled with hope because the Holy Spirit is so clearly at work today as much as it was in the time of the book of Acts.
The time has come.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He can be reached via phone at 785-414-4224, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Great Plains Annual Conference or the United Methodist Church. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.