What happened at 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. Grace Han was among the ten people representing the Virginia Conference. We asked her to share her experience.

Since I’ve come back from the UMCNext gathering, I’ve had many people ask me about my thoughts on what happened and what’s next for the United Methodist Church. I’ve searched for the perfect words, only to find they remain elusive.  So, here are some imperfect thoughts from an imperfect person about an imperfect church. Let’s pray and hope we can all move on towards sanctification!

1. Change is slower than most of us would like. Healing is a process and rebuilding takes time. This is frustrating, but a reality.

After General Conference 2019, I was incredibly discouraged by the state of the UMC and its future.  By passing the Traditional Plan, we became a church that prioritized rules and punishments at the expense of our beloved family in Christ and continued the harm done to our LGBTQ+ members, families, and allies.  Not only did we take a step in the wrong direction, it was clear that our church was broken -- and that there was no obvious way to move forward together. Heading into UMCNext, I was impatient for a concrete plan for our denomination and our churches. The type-A personality in me wanted to walk away with a 5 point plan with firm deadlines that were solution oriented.

What I realized last week is that healing is a process and rebuilding takes time. UMCNext was a long, intense, and sometimes difficult gathering. But it was a hope-filled one. It made me realize the power and diversity of our connection and I was hopeful for where God is calling us next. We agreed that God’s Holy Spirit isn’t done with us yet, and that God will breathe new life in our dry bones. UMCNext was the start of a conversation, not the end. Now the real work begins and I’m hopeful that we will be faithful to that call.

2. What’s strategic may not be satisfying.

Ultimately the work was too contextual to have just one direction. We identified at 2-pronged approach that would allow us to stay within and actively reform the church on the one hand, even as we negotiate some form of separation in order to create something new on the other.  

This “both-and-approach” isn’t satisfying, but it’s strategic. What was clear at our gathering was that there wasn’t a one-size-fits all solution.  The reality is that what is next in San Francisco is going to look different from what is next in Virginia, which is going to look different from what is next in Alabama. But the goal is to move towards the same goal--towards a fully inclusive church-- and we were all united on that goal.  While there may be different approaches, I was encouraged by the unity of the convening team and our group that we would all move together as a body in the same direction.

3. It’s easy to hate. It’s much harder to build and plant and grow.

I’ve heard some criticism of UMCNext. This work isn’t perfect or easy, but it’s necessary. And what we need most of all is to be willing to work together.

One of the most valuable aspects of UMCNext for me was having some of those conversations. Much of our time was spent in table discussions with people from different annual conferences and backgrounds. I really valued the opportunity to talk more directly with Methodists from around the connection, to hear what brought them there and to share in our hopes for our churches. The relationships built up during those times really reinforced the power of our connectional system and I really appreciated that time together.

4. Ultimately I’m hopeful for what’s next.

My hope is that we can be faithful to the ministry God has called us to. As difficult as this conversation has been and will continue to be, it will also empower us to move on towards sanctification to live more fully, more honestly, more faithfully into God’s mission.  I hope we can be a fully inclusive and diverse church, one that affirms the full humanity and gifts of all God’s children--LGBTQ+, persons of color, persons with disabilities--because that’s what it means to be God’s church. I hope that like the Parable of the Talents, we will use the gifts and talents given to us to multiply God’s blessings. And when that time comes, that our master will be able to say to us: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share in your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21)

Grace Han is an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference and serves as the Lead Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA.  As the daughter of pastors and missionaries, Grace grew up all over the world, as well as across the U.S. before calling Virginia home. Grace is a graduate of Yale Divinity School.

Rev. Grace Han