After eight months of confirmation classes as an introduction to United Methodism, a group of eight junior-high students at an Omaha church said they don’t want to join the denomination until people of all sexual orientations have the right to marry in the local church and serve as pastors.
The Omaha First UMC youth made a statement during services at what was to be their Confirmation Sunday, April 28.
“We want to be clear that, while we love our congregation, we believe that the United Methodist policies on LGBTQ+ clergy and same sex marriage are immoral,” the statement read.
“They’re very much aware of what’s going on in the church, and what process we’re in the middle of,” said the Rev. Kent Little, the church’s senior pastor. “They want to stand in solidarity with LGBTQIA persons in The United Methodist Church.”
Little said the students began to become concerned after the special session of General Conference in February, when the Traditional Plan — prohibiting practicing LGBTQ pastors in the denomination and forbidding clergy to perform same-sex weddings — passed by the delegates.
An outline of the students’ statement was read to the church council in early April, Little said, in the same meeting where the church said it would defy the vote and allow same-sex weddings in its church and allow its pastors to officiate at such ceremonies.
Little said the decision came as a surprise to those not on the council. Parents of the students were notified of their intentions several weeks earlier.
“It was received with a lot of tears and a standing ovation from the congregation,” Little said. “Then we had a blessing for each one of them affirming their faith, affirming their courage and their conviction to say, ‘Not yet, until everybody’s included.’”
Most of the statement was written by two members of the confirmation class, Little said.
Although two of the confirmation class members led the charge for not joining the church as members, individual decisions on whether to join were left with each student.
“One of the things we wanted to make clear in the class was that if somebody chose to be confirmed, they would not be ostracized,” Tim Fickenscher said.
Fickenscher, who has been teaching confirmation classes for nearly 30 years, said the decision during the special session in February upset many of the students.
“We talked quite a bit about the decision, and they were pretty angry about it at the time,” he said. “They went with it somewhere where I wasn’t prepared to go, but I wasn’t surprised.”
Fickenscher said he made it clear to the students it was their right to refuse to join the church.
“The choice not to join was a postponement,” he said. “The confirmation ceremony we did was a ‘not yet’ confirmation. We went through the same process we would have gone through for confirmation, it’s just they chose not to join now.
“All eight kids chose not to join, and it was absolutely their choice,” Fickenscher added. “They were given the options and chose to operate as a group.”
Fickenscher was youth director and confirmation class teacher in 1997 when Omaha First UMC’s pastor, Jimmy Creech, performed a same-sex blessing for a lesbian couple on church grounds. After a complaint by a church member, Creech was put on trial and defrocked.
“I’m sure we had lengthy discussions about it, but the choice of not joining wasn’t discussed at that point,” he said.
Little and Fickenscher said the students would not speak further to the media unless as a group, and that no individual interviews would be conducted.
Although Fickenscher said some editing might have been done by the parents, the sentiments and words belong to the confirmation class of four boys and four girls.
“Our congregation has enabled them to feel this way,” he said. “We have an incredibly supportive congregation, and a number of the members have been through this before with Jimmy Creech.”
Little said he admired the group’s courage to take a stand.
“That’s not an easy thing to do, when the tradition of the church is that you go through this process and confirm your faith and join as a full member,” he said. “When you have seventh- and eighth-graders choose to stand up and say ‘No, we’re not going to do that until the church is open to everybody,’ that’s not a small thing.”
Little said the decision was not forced upon the youth by himself or any other staff member and denied an online claim of “politicizing” the students.
“These are youth that we trust,” Little said. “If they had joined the church, there wouldn’t have been any questions. They are youth that we believe are old enough to understand the faith and understand what that means to live out their faith in a just and right way. Yet we had folks questioning and saying, ‘Obviously the adults are the ones that did this,’ etcetera.
“We trust their faith and their stance, whether they would have joined or not,” he added. “That’s what confirmation is about.”
David Burke, communications content specialist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.