Members of the Commission on a Way Forward expressed gratitude at the opportunity to be part of the commission and they signaled hope for The United Methodist Church as they completed their meeting in Los Angeles on Thursday, March 22.
The 32-member commission has been meeting since January 2017 in various places throughout the global denomination to assist the bishops in their charge from the 2016 General Conference to lead the church forward amid the present impasse related to LGBTQ inclusion and resulting questions about the unity of the church.
The commission will present its final report to the Council of Bishops at the April/May meeting in Chicago. At that meeting, the bishops will decide what will be received and acted upon by the delegates to the special session of the General Conference set for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis.
“Sitting at the table with commission members, I see persons honest enough and humble enough to see the great challenge or impasse that is before us,” noted Rev. Helen Cunanan, clergy from the Philippines. “At the same time, I see so much commitment and passion to the work entrusted to us – passion for mission and ministry, passion for our forms and expressions of unity, passion for God.”
Cunanan said she was confident that, “with the Holy Spirit’s leading, I believe we can embrace together a way forward.”
For Dr. Aka Hortense, a layperson from Côte d’Ivoire, the commission was an opportunity to meet people who have the same love for Jesus Christ and who are all members of The United Methodist Church, but with very different experiences and differing positions regarding the question of human sexuality.
“By listening and through reflections I have learned – in all humility – that unity, which seems so simple in the church, is finally too fragile because each person has their own personality, their own cultural and religious context, their own education, their own life experiences, and their own truth.”
She noted that it was through prayer, Bible studies and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that members of the commission worked on a plan for the church that must continue to highlight “the importance of the mission to which Christ calls us as a global church. This commission has helped me cultivate the heart of peace and has put me back at the heart of the Christian faith.”
By reaching out to other groups and by giving great attention to traditional, contextual and progressive values, the commission members weighed input by groups and caucuses as they discerned the best proposals for a way forward in the denomination.
As part of reaching out to various constituencies, Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, one of the moderators, met with general secretaries of church agencies while Bishop David Yemba, another moderator, and other members of the commission gave an update to the Standing Committee of Central Conference Matters. Members of the commission also have shared with general agencies, jurisdictional committees, annual conferences and local churches.
“The purpose of these meetings includes initiating healthy conversations that educate, share information and invite people to think and dream about God’s preferred future for The United Methodist Church. Conversation serves to break down fear, build relationships, and helps us to collectively think about what is possible,” said Bishop Steiner Ball. “Conversation also serves to remind us that no matter what position persons or groups hold within the church, they love Christ, love The United Methodist Church, and strive to be faithful in service to God and to God’s people.”
Two other commission members, Rev. Julie Hager Love from Kentucky Conference and Rev. Tom Salsgiver from the Susquehanna Conference, have spent time talking to various groups and participating in meetings with groups in preparation for possible work that would be done at the 2019 special session of the General Conference.
Hager Love noted that the commission is filled with persons who deeply love The United Methodist Church and have worked together to find a way forward through prayer, worship, Bible study, dialogue, study and fellowship.
“While I have often referred to the work of the commission as the ‘hardest leadership work’ I have ever been a part of, and it is true, it is also an honor to be asked to be a part of the commission,” said Hager Love. “I am deeply thankful for our process and the persons on the commission who have given deeply of their time and energy. The prayer that has covered members personally, our work and our way forward has been deeply felt and appreciated.”
For Alfiado S. Zunguza from Mozambique, working with some of the best minds in the church gave him a sense of humility and desire to learn the complex nature of values, worldviews, and principles informing interpersonal and institutional relationships within the church.
“The journey has been a life-giving and eye-opening experience with many lessons learned. Being close to the end of our mandate as a Commission on the Way Forward, I have a feeling that there is more to learn, more relationships to build and more visioning to be undertaken as we continue to perfect the proposals that the Council of Bishop will have to offer the church for consideration,” said Zunguza, who serves as manager of leadership development and scholarships with Global Ministries.
He added: “The mission just started, and we need to continue building coalitions and sharing hope for a better United Methodist Church that will make all members proud of being part of this great denomination.”
As they discussed the possible ways forward, the commission members gave attention to traditional, contextual and progressive values, ensuring that as many diverse voices were given chances to be heard, said Bishop Ken Carter, one of the moderators of the commission.
“The values being discussed are grounded in deep listening to our global church, and are at the heart of the call of Jesus Christ to discipleship in the very different contexts where our people live and are in ministry,” Bishop Carter noted.
Contrary to some voices in the church that assume closure and that the work is already completed from particular perspectives, the commission indicated that there was still robust conversation taking place through the denomination. Bishop Carter noted, “The 32 members of our commission embody an astonishing diversity —living on four continents, laity, clergy and bishops, theological differences, gay and straight, urban and rural, multiple generations. And yet we are committed to a way forward for the church that has blessed us and blesses others through us.”
As it prepares its final report to the Council of Bishops, members of the commission noted that the UMC will continue to discuss the public and private mission of the church and the value of convicted humility.
“We are in a crucible together, trying to create something that does not yet exist,” explained Bishop Gregory Palmer, resident bishop of West Ohio Area and a member of the commission. “God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ sustains us through the ups and downs of the process that we trust leads to newness.”
The commission will present its final report to the Council of Bishops at the COB meeting April 29-May 4 in Chicago.
The Rev. Dr. Maidstone Mulenga is director of communications for the Council of Bishops.