Let’s Not Repeat St. Louis

By Rob Renfroe –

General Conference 2020 is less than a year away. There is much work to do if we are to avoid a repeat of St. Louis when we gather in Minneapolis. Legislation that can end our fighting needs to be written in the next few months to be properly before the Conference. And then those of us supporting it must work hard to promote it and convince those who want to continue our nearly fifty-year self-destructive battle that there is a better way.

The conversations that need to occur among conservative, moderate, and progressive leaders must be honest, direct, and built on reality. An enhanced traditional plan was passed in February, and in April it was ruled constitutional by the Judicial Council. Our dialogue about the future needs to begin there. The Traditional Plan is not going away. In fact, unless a way for amicable separation is devised in the next few months, traditionalists are likely to have the time and the votes in Minneapolis to close even more loopholes and strengthen accountability to our covenant, which of course would be unacceptable to centrists and progressives. The clock is ticking. The truth is we do not have the luxury of squandering time with wishful thinking, name-calling, or an unwillingness to admit where we are in the aftermath of St. Louis.

It does not help the conversation for centrists and progressives to act as if GC 2019 did not occur. Some, though they were against it when they thought they might pass the One Church Plan, are now floating solutions similar to the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP). The models they propose would place United Methodists in different central conferences or jurisdictions leaving us, they believe, as one church but with different sexual ethics and practices. Had they supported such an option before St. Louis, there might have been room for a discussion. But St. Louis happened. The most respected leaders of the centrist movement charged us with bringing a virus into the church that would make it sick, harming the witness of the church, bribing African delegates, and with being a politer version of the hateful and despicable Westboro Baptist members who shouted vile homophobic slurs at the delegates each day in St. Louis. It is hard to understand why those with such a low opinion of us would want to remain united to us. And, for the life of me, I cannot think why we would want to embrace a faux unity with persons who despise us. Conversations about how a plan similar to the CCP might work in 2020 are simply a waste of time. Almost no traditional U.S. delegates will vote for such a plan and neither will most of the delegates in Africa or The Philippines.

Neither does it help when centrist leaders misrepresent what we traditionalists believe. The Rev. James Howell, senior pastor at Meyers Park UM Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, told the traditional members of his congregation that those of us who supported the traditional plan “aren’t your conservatives – the people that you know and love and work with. … This traditional plan, its goal is clearly to stamp out homosexuality from the church and to stamp out even those who are sympathetic to it. … They wish to be rid of centrists, of moderates, certainly progressives, even thoughtful conservatives. It’s sad. There is a real meanness to this – severe penalties that are imposed on anybody who … doesn’t act severely towards the LGBTQ community.” Of course, that’s not who we are and that’s not what the Traditional Plan does. And Howell knows it. When centrist leaders purposefully vilify us and lie about our views, it makes real, honest, meaningful conversations – the kind we need to be having right now – very difficult. 

It also hurts our dialogue when centrist leaders distort the numbers. Mark Holland, the Executive Director of Mainstream UMC, has written repeatedly that two-thirds of the UM Church in the U.S. want to change our position on sexuality. I’ll give Rev. Holland the benefit of the doubt and say that he actually believes this. It is usually accepted that close to two-thirds of the U.S. delegates to General Conference voted for something other than the Traditional Plan. But does that mean two-thirds of the people in our churches favor changing our definition of marriage? Of course, not.

One-half of U.S. delegates to GC are pastors who as a group are much more liberal than the laypersons they pastor. Holland even has a partisan joke he likes to tell, “What do you call a Democrat in a Methodist church in Kansas? Pastor.” As the former mayor of Kansas City and a Democrat, Holland is attempting to use levity to point out that pastors all over the country tend to be more liberal than their congregations. But liberal pastors, numbering in the tens of thousands, elect the pastors who go to General Conference which are fifty percent of U.S delegates. Our laity, roughly  six and a half million in number, are represented by the same number of delegates at GC. Using the vote at GC to determine the percentage of United Methodists who want to change our sexual ethics is, to put it charitably, a very flawed methodology.

A more accurate understanding of where our U.S. membership stands is found in the results of a recent United Methodist Communications survey in which 44 percent identified themselves as “conservative-traditional.”

Not only is it incorrect to state that two-thirds of U.S. Methodists want change, it is also completely dismissive of our brothers and sisters in Africa, The Philippines, Europe, and Asia. Do we discount the votes of our brothers and sisters around the world because they are not “our kind of people”? The Rev. Mark Holland has carried his thinking to a very sad, shocking really, conclusion and has argued that there are five reasons for the UM Church in America to rid itself of other United Methodists around the world who are “both fundamentally disconnected from and disapproving of the culture of the United States.” It is rich in irony that progressives who are so often critical of American culture now want nothing to do with delegates around the world whom they perceive to be “disapproving” of our culture.

We simply do not have time to spend misrepresenting and demonizing those who see things differently than we do. It’s time to stop playing games, trying to get the upper hand and putting forth plans that have no chance of passing. People of good faith must decide NOW if we want to repeat St. Louis or if we want to create a solution that stops our fighting and the damage that has been done to the church.

A pastor friend of mine had a member in his church who ruined his marriage, his relationship with his children, and his finances through years of alcoholism and drug addiction. By God’s grace he finally got clean and sober. As the years passed, he began to wonder if maybe he could drink again in moderation. His life had been working and he was in a very different place than when he was an active alcoholic. After all, had it really been all that bad? He took some time to think about how low he had sunk, how many people he had hurt and all the mistakes he had made. He then placed a sign on his front door that he saw every day before he stepped out into the world. It simply said, “Yes, it really was that bad.”

St. Louis. Some time has passed, but please remember. Yes, it really was that bad. No, we can’t go back and do the same thing all over again. We should never sink that low or hurt that many people ever again. And honest conversations among people of good will need to happen now to make sure we leave Minneapolis excited about the future rather than condemned to repeat the past.



  1. I think you are right. Not in your theological approach, but in that the lots have been cast and all that’s left is to divvy up the clothing.

    I’ll leave you to it. I don’t plan to return to a Methodist church once my commitments this year are done (which would be Pentecost). I have doubts on returning to ANY church after this debacle.

    And to be clear, it’s not because of the way the vote went. While I expected it to go the other way (I was in my own echo chamber on that, I guess), it’s the behavior of the Church before, during and after that has me walking. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve been sorely disappointed that the moments when I’ve felt the hand of God as a Methodist have been wholly overcome by the lack of grace and love and forgiveness exhibited by so many people that call themselves Methodist.

    • I am sorry for your sentiments. American secular society is no better and in fact much worse. It is because of God’s grace and eternal love that so many UM clergy and laity are resolute and determined to uphold the historic doctrines of the Christian faith, the texts of the Bible, and the historic legacy of Methodism as promulgated by Charles and John Wesley not to mention so many other faithful men and women.

      God’s will has not changed nor has his divine will. Human society and popular opinions are always in a state of flux and when the church of Jesus Christ tries to accommodate and replicate the same values and morals of any given human society it begins to loose its particularity to divine truth and opposition to falsehood in whatever guise it presents itself.

      • I find it hard to respond to you here without doing so harshly.

        Thus it is better that I simply acknowledge that fact and move on.

    • Rev. Jezreel J. Saceda says

      This is sad. If only we can think more of what we can give to our church than what we can get, then, maybe, we’ll find it in our hearts to stay. Yes, we are divided and yes, there are unbecoming attitudes, but we can stay and pray. We can stay and be an instrument of love and reconciliation. We can stay and continue to share amongst us and outside of us the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. God bless us all.

  2. Douglas Roller says

    I have heard Adam Hamilton recommend trying to harass conservatives out of the church and withholding apportionments to show disapproval of the decision.
    “By their fruits you will know them” is true; I believe it is also true that their character will be revealed by the methods they use. I do not believe Godly results can be achieved by unGodly means.

    • It would be helpful if you could point us to where Adam Hamilton says these things. Thanks!

      • Doug Roller says

        I apologize that I cannot find the exact quotes. I read it in a report of one of the meetings of Progressives/Centrists which was held after the February Conference. As I recall, the method of harassment was to be unending resolutions at annual and general conferences to make it impossible to conduct business. This would seem to mirror the tactics used on the last day of the February conference.

  3. May I suggest …

    Is this really an issue regarding same sex unions (marital or otherwise) or is it about what the written Word of God has to say about sin? Are we focused on a specific when we might ought be considering a broader perspective?

    Scripture repeatedly tells us to “flee,” “avoid,” “abstain from” sexual immorality. Call it “homosexuality,” “adultery,” “fornication,” or even “beastiality,” “sexual immorality” is what it is, sin. As is thievery, gossip, drunkeness + according to Paul.

    Can we just STOP the name calling and the finger pointing and realize what the truth of our divisiveness really is? Some recognize the Scriptural perspective of “sin,” others do not. Are we a people of the Word or are we not?

    I? Am.

    • Jeanne Devine says

      So would you favor imposing the same strictures and penalties in the Traditional Plan to all forms of sin enumerated in the New Testament? If so, fine. Consistency would be a good corrective to the Traditional Plan’s laser focus on homosexuality. I doubt any members in good standing would be left in the UMC.

    • Peter Jermey says

      I think that the trouble is that there is no agreement on what is sinful in this context

      Some believe its a sin to be gay
      Some believe its a sin to be gay and in a relationship
      Some believe that relationships for gay people are no more sinful than those for straight people.

      Your understanding of this will depend on your social group/geographical location, favoured translation of scripture and experience of life.

  4. Robert A Combes says

    it seems that we as Methodists have forgotten the words on page #410 in the Hymnal. The message is being proclaimed once again, that is the reason for Christ

  5. Phil Brewster says

    It seems that both sides of the divide are operating without a clear understanding of US laity opinion and values. I suspect that Pastor Renfroe is right that at least a plurality of the people sitting in the pews are deeply frustrated that the clergy and hierarchy of the US church do not hold their same values. Modern polling techniques and the easy-to-define population of US UMC membership data certainly provides the opportunity for rigorous and accurate polling. I for one would like to know by US totals and by conference, what percentage of laity support gay church marriage and ordination of gay clergy. I would like to know how that percentage differs from opinion in the UMC clergy and seminaries, both nationally and by conference. I would like to know what percentage of the laity wants leave the UMC under the traditional plan. UMC Communications certainly demonstrated it has the capability to hire polling contractors as evidenced by the poll done before the general conference. It is important to note that polling is not the same as voting and church laity may eventually have to vote on these issues. Polling in Africa and the Philippines may have to be accomplished manually. I would think bishops, governing agencies, and pastors would want to know what the consensus of values is among the laity before any restructuring decisions are permanent. The decision-making process of UMC is appears increasingly as “inside baseball” and those in the pews are effectively left out. In my opinion both sides would want want hard data at the critical juncture.

    • Absolutely agree that those of us in the pew are on the outside of this discussion. I’m just sick of the whole mess. My problem with many progressives is not what they believe but their intolerance of and anger at those of us who disagree with them. I am stunned that they are viewed by many as being a viable expression of what it means to be a United Methodist. Plus, I am no longer in synch with my local church because it keeps blowing in the wind with whatever pastor or staff walks in the door. Most recently we went from a pastor who hosted a Bible study by Marcus Borg and supported the concept of liberation theology to a pastor who feels blessed that she was able to attend the Billy Graham School of Evangelism. It is absolutely insane for the person in the pew!

  6. Dave Nuckols says

    Rob, you write “The truth is we do not have the luxury of squandering time with wishful thinking, name-calling, or an unwillingness to admit where we are in the aftermath of St. Louis,” and you proceed to engage in wishful thinking, name-calling and unwillingness to admit your own mistakes whilst blaming others. The five-or-so major “sides” all made major mistakes. I certainly did myself. Today, there is little mutual understanding and charity towards others’ differences. The mutual recriminations and misrepresentations will make amicable separation very difficult. Even if suitable legislation can be crafted, it will be for naught if we can’t understand, trust and love each other. Let’s work on that at the same time.

  7. Jim Wolfgang says

    JR, I do hope you pray long and deeply before leaving the United Methodist Church, or as you alluded the body of Christ in general. We likely do not realize that when we leave the church because we are frustrated about someone we have actually put them closer to God than we are. Be certain that nothing comes between you and the Lord, not wealth, politics, emotions, nothing! The United Methodist Church is not perfect because it is made up of imperfect people, just like every other part of the body of Christ. The church is your Christian family and like any family, a healthy dose of tolerance and forgiveness allows us to move past the rough patches till we can regain our balance. Pray that God will guide us through our differences and have the faith to wait for the answer.

    • Hi Jim,

      I appreciate the advice. I’ve been heavily involved for years, and I’ve really found a great deal of benefit from being so involved.

      But I cannot in good conscience and through my understanding of Christ simply wait this out.

      If I cannot in good faith bring a neighbor to church because of the actions of the UMC and the unwillingness of my church to stand up and say that those actions are wrong – well, then I should not be sitting in that pew either. And I shouldn’t be ‘going through the motions’ in missions, youth ministry, etc.

      I’ll visit a Reconciled church, because I can.
      I’ll even visit another denomination.
      I just don’t feel like either of those is going to stick.

      And maybe someday the rock I’m standing on won’t feel so lonely.

      I hope, for my wife and kids sake, that Jesus leads me somewhere that I can find that fire again. Right now I’m deeply depressed by all of this.

  8. I posted the article on the UMC clergy Facebook page to elicit dialogue, but the majority of comments were that progressives would fight for the denomination. Some, even as they denigrated and demonized traditional views, still said we needed to stay together which was nonsensical to me. I truly hope this is not representative of general views in the progressive camp. The UM-Forward group met this weekend and judging from photos this is what I saw:
    Track 3 work group: Birthing holy/wholly new connection—huge crowd
    Track 2 work group: Movement from in between and through in/out—sizeable group
    Track 1 work group: Resisting from within: small group

  9. Mary John Dye says

    It is correct, I believe, and more Christlike to stop vilifying others who disagree. That is no way to treat brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. But it is head-spinning, Brother Renfroe for you to say so without any acknowledgement or confession that you —and Good News have consistently been the villifiers, those who misrepresent and denounce. I was in Wilmore when Good News began. Dear family friend were part of that beginning. I have read and heard your fiery—and often very unfair portrayals of those you oppose. Good advice to tone down the rhetoric. Hardly convincing until you can give such advice with humility, confession and repentance.

  10. Peter Jermey says

    I think if TP supporters don’t want gay people and allies to be removed from the UMC then you need to keep saying so publicly, because that is the impression that you gave us. Saying gay people cannot marry or be ordained is not a welcoming statement so if you want to welcome gay people then you need to actually say it.

    Communication is key and if TP people only use negative rhetoric against gay people then we won’t feel like you want us in your churches

    • I agree that in fighting the fight traditionalists have not done a good job of clearly explaining where they stand on sexuality and why. However I question if it would even be possible to clearly state the traditionalist view with any sort of positive impact. I have experienced being blasted and demeaned because I simply stated that I disagree with the progressive perspective and it would happen even when I included an acknowledgement that people are free to disagree with me and I will defend their right to do so. And there is probably another reason traditionalists and their verbiage that sometimes comes across strong: I have been monitoring this since GC2012 and every time traditionalists took a firm stance on anything dealing with this they were summarily ignored by leadership. And it did not help when, after the WCA clearly stated the feelings about the One Church Plan, Bishops trotted it out as the be all to end all. Bottom line is progressive leaning leadership has not shown any respect for the traditionalist perspective; in fact, I would have to say they blatantly ignored them. So form that perspective I do not blame traditionalists for feeling like they had to “yell” to be heard.

      • You mention that people were free to disagree with you and you would defend their right to do so. That is what the One Church Plan allowed. It allowed disagreement, the Traditional Plan does not.

      • Peter Jermey says

        I can suggest three things

        1. Admonishing TP advocates who go further than your stance. I didn’t hear it in context, but I know that a progressive delegate had to complain about another delagate calling for lgbt people to be drowned. If you disagree with this sort of OTT violent rhetoric then don’t just assume that lgbt people know that – speak out against it.

        2. Not supporting plans written with deliberately vague language, such as the TP. If you have a nuanced view then that will be lost unless the language you use is detailed and accurate. Don’t just assume that others know what you mean – we don’t even agree with your theology so how would we know what you mean by “self avowed homosexual”?

        3. Demonstrate some positive speech/action – if the TP is all you have to say to lgbt people then all you have to say is negative and you can’t really complain about people assuming that you are an anti gay person.

        4. Actually talk to gay people in your church (and other lgbt people) and understand what the TP says to them

        Those are my suggestions about how you can oppose gay marriage and ordination without coming across as simply hating lgbt people

  11. This entire debate is so clearly spoken of in the Word of God. Satan prowls around and finds willing accomplices in those who do not know the Word of God, nor do they want to now the Word of God. Jesus is the Word, the Word became flesh, the Word dwelt in the world and the world did not recognize Him. True believers read Gods’ Word, believe God’s Word and strive to be obedient to God’s Word. God has not redefined any sin, and particularly not the sin of one man lying with another man, as a man lies with a woman. All sin violates the Word of God, we should strive to avoid all sin. We should not advocate bringing any sin into the body of Christ and then even going so far as to make that sin acceptable in our church leadership’s behavior. God admonishes us to be holy because He is holy. Living in sin is not holy. We are told to resist the devil and he will flee, we are told to hate evil, we told to go and sin no more. Trust Jesus, obey His commands, and take your cross daily and follow Jesus. Do not follow man.

  12. Rev. Renfroe states “ Legislation that can end our fighting needs to be written in the next few months to be properly before the Conference.”

    I kept reading to see what he proposed to end the fighting, but I didn’t see his solution.

  13. Gary Bebop says

    Anybody still asleep and in denial about what Progressives think of Traditional Plan support and what they intend for GC2020 should read Rebekah Miles’ May 20 UM Insight piece. It’s classic pasquinade, intended to scorch and humiliate and belittle. There are no kind words or thoughts here. She uses supercilious scorn and fantastic parody to portray the Traditional Plan as cockeyed nonsense and its authors as pursuing a monstrous delusion down a rabbit hole. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the last day antics of GC2019 will not be repeated in 2020.

  14. Traditionalist – Conservative -Progressive – Liberal – Moderate -Centrist.

    What label for the word of Jesus Christ?


    • You want to kick all the divorcees out of the UMC?


      Care to silence all the women while you are at it?

      • I would have to refer you to Jesus on that with relation to his spoken word as recorded in the Bible.

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