An LGBTQ+ Perspective on UMCNext

Editor’s Note: The UMCNext conference was held May 20 – 22 at the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. As United Methodist News reported, those present spent three days wrestling with options to create a more just and inclusive church future. Over 600 United Methodists attended UMCNext, with every U.S. annual conference sending participants. Mark Elder was among the ten people representing the Virginia Conference. We asked him to share his experience.

Those of us going to the UMCNext gathering had no idea what to expect.   I wondered if maybe the conveners would present a framework for a strategic plan to correct the hurtful actions of 2019 General Conference, and the 600+ of us in attendance would be spending time fleshing out the details.  Instead, it was a true grassroots, bottom-up movement and conversation that led to a consensus around a two-pronged strategy to simultaneously resist & reform, and at the same time, envision a new thing for our denomination.  I can understand why the outcome was unsatisfying for many.  But let me share some insights and take-aways that gave me, and might also give you, hope.

 History was made.   It was historic to have leaders and participants from the centrist and progressive spectrums of our denomination in dialogue together at such a pivotal and uncertain moment regarding the future of Methodism.  There was true diversity in the room with respect to age and gender, but also a noteworthy presence of LGBTQ+ individuals and People of Color.  The organizers were intentional to ensure that traditionally marginalized voices were heard.

 Holy work was done.  John Wesley promoted Christian, or holy, conferencing as a means of grace and understanding.  It is the inspiration for our Annual and General Conference structure.  I witnessed meaningful and intimate holy conferencing occurring across 70+ tables, each comprised of eight people, personally and regionally diverse.  As my table’s facilitator, I was honored to listen and contribute as we grappled with difficult questions about the future of the church we all love so deeply.  I had never before participated in holy conversations like this at a denominational gathering.

 We were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  Throughout our time together, we heard powerful testimonies that called out both current and decades-old discrimination and marginalization of way too many groups of individuals within the UMC. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. We recognized the sin of racism as being at the heart of many of the other divisions rooted in our differences and “isms.”  Naming these things that divide us was powerful and an important step to ensure that whatever new thing we create intentionally addresses and avoids repeating these forms of discrimination.

 I was affirmed.  As a gay man, the first time I ever truly felt embraced and affirmed in worship as the person God created me to be was at my first Reconciling Convocation in the 1990s. Surrounded by other LGBTQ people, parents of LGBTQ kids, and allies, I felt a freedom and release that is indescribable.  I have been blessed to have many similar experiences in my home church since we became reconciling six years ago.  At the UMCNext opening worship, I felt the same affirmation I experienced at that Reconciling Convocation so many years ago.  But unlike the experiences at Convocation or my home reconciling congregation, the difference was the make-up of the gathering:  straight people who perhaps have never worshiped side-by-side with so many openly LGBTQ+ individuals, or people from congregations that have not taken a stand or publicly proclaimed their welcome for everyone.  If you doubt a new thing is possible or that we can be a church for all God’s beloved children, I can proclaim that it is indeed possible and that I saw a glimpse of a new thing at UMCNext in Kansas City.

Mark Elder is a member of Fairlington UMC in Alexandria, where he currently serves as Reconciling Ministry Chair, on Staff Parish and Missions, and as lay delegate to Annual Conference.  Professionally he is a Medicare and health policy expert for the federal government.  He is a cradle United Methodist and son of two retired Methodist clergy.

Mark Elder