By Meagan Ewton and Todd Rossnagel
Delegates from the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church met on Feb. 20-22 to interview candidates for bishop and discuss matters relating to the 2020 General Conference, a meeting of the denomination’s top law-making body, taking place May 5-15 in Minneapolis.
A major part of the weekend was hearing about the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Rather than explain recently released legislation for the protocol, representatives of the jurisdiction’s College of Bishops focused on how and why they made the decision to support the protocol.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, bishop of the Louisiana Annual Conference, opened the presentation by sharing the thought process and reasoning behind the protocol.
“We recognized that this group had no authority except that the church could not continue the way it was,” Harvey said. “We could not continue the harm we were doing to each other; we needed a better way.”
She was joined by Rev. Junius Dotson, the chief executive of Discipleship Ministries and special guest of the upcoming Annual Conference in June in Louisiana. Both Harvey and Dotson, who were a part of the mediation process that led to the protocol, acknowledged that separation was not their ideal choice in addressing theological differences surrounding LGBTQ inclusion.
“I must tell you, that is not what I signed up for,” Harvey said. “I never thought I would be in a group that would be at this point, but it became very clear that [separation] was the next step that we needed to take.”
Dotson explored some financial aspects of the protocol, including the protocol’s allocation of $39 million to ensure ministries like Africa University would not be impacted by an interruption in funding during the separation process. He said the committee approached the financial implications of the protocol by examining what would be needed for new, healthy expressions of Methodism post-separation.
“We’re anticipating that there will be a need for a budget reset,” Dotson said. “There’s a need for innovation. There’s a need [to ask] how do we deliver general church ministry in the 21st century. This gives us a way and a timeframe that makes sense.”
Dotson also explained that LGBTQ inclusion, regional governance structure and the process of reformation are not addressed in the proposed separation legislation. The three items were covered in Article VI of the protocol’s initial agreement, but because they affect the post-separation UMC, they were not included with the separation legislation. He said those matters would be addressed by the post-separation UMC.
“The driving question behind Article VI still remains the same: how do we help each other get what we need? The only way this can happen is if we lay aside general conference thinking, which is often about exerting one’s will to create a winner-take-all victory,” Dotson said. “This mediation process was not about winners or losers. It was about how we could all get to yes, and how could we help each other get what we needed? It will take an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination, but we can get there.”
Members of the Louisiana delegation were in attendance, including the lead clergy delegate Rev. Brady Whitton who was struck by the diverse gathering.
"I have attended two gatherings in preparation for General Conference 2020 – a pre-conference briefing in Nashville, January 22-23, and the South Central Jurisdiction Gathering of Delegates in Oklahoma City, February 20-22," Whitton said. "At both gatherings, I was struck by the richness of diversity in the United Methodist Church – there were people from different countries and regions, people who spoke different languages and came from different cultures, people of different genders and sexual orientation, different skin colors, and ideological perspectives, etc. I couldn’t help but feel we are richer because of our differences. As I listened to talk of separation I was saddened, and, I confess, a little frustrated. While I know we are in God’s hands and that the Methodist movement will continue in new forms, I hope our commitment to unity in diversity will remain."
This trip to Oklahoma City may have been the first major trip for the delegation but that doesn't mean the delegation hasn't been forming as a group since elected in Shreveport.
Whitton explains that the delegation has been meeting regularly for team-formation, to fully understand roles, and, recently, to begin discussing the legislation up for debate at General Conference.
"We begin every meeting with a devotion, prayer, and Communion," Whitton shares. "While the room is often full of love, laughter and a bond that comes from our shared identity as Christians and United Methodists, there are also times of weighty listening and discernment."
The implications facing the Louisiana delegation and all delegates across the denomination as they gather in Minneapolis this May are serious and will leave a lasting impact for generations to come.
The weightiness is not lost on Whitton.
"While we are not always of one mind, we are of one Spirit," Whitton says. "We are diverse in opinion, but united in mission. Every member of the delegation wants what is best for the United Methodist Church and for the Louisiana Conference. What is good for larger conferences in different parts of the world or country may not be what is best for Louisiana. Our voice needs to be represented and heard. I also carry the weight of knowing I will be one of six people from Louisiana who will cast a vote that could have significant implications for the future of our church. I take this responsibility seriously and pray what is decided will honor God and produce the greatest good for God’s Kingdom and the Church."