By Frank Billman
“For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendents.”
Based on the above promise from God, the theme for Aldersgate 2010 was “Unleashed.” “Prior to the conference, God lovingly challenged us to recognize that if we ask an infinite God to be ‘unleashed’ in our lives, the reality is that he may choose to answer our prayers at the conference in a way that goes beyond our finite comprehension, understanding, and experience,” said Jonathan Dow, executive director of Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM). “I believe he did so.”
Numerous attendees testified that the power and presence of God were noticeably “kicked up a notch,” as Chef Emeril would say. Written testimonials after the conference confirmed the observation. “We came away greatly encouraged. This event has given new meaning to the word renewal,” wrote one lay couple from Michigan. “I came dry and empty. I leave filled and refreshed,” wrote another. “This is my first Aldersgate and I am amazed by the unleashing of the Holy Spirit on his people. I have never experienced church like this!”
Held July 14-18, the national family conference was held in Charleston, West Virginia, and sponsored by Aldersgate Renewal Ministries, an affiliate of the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD). With more than 1380 registrations, the attendance reflected an increase of 24 percent for the adults and for the youth at The Gate youth conference from the previous year.
Bishop Ernest Lyght welcomed Aldersgate 2010 to the West Virginia Area annual conference. Bishop James Swanson of the Holston annual conference attended the entire conference with his wife and preached at the Sunday morning Holy Communion service. United Methodist clergy, the Rev. Terry Teykl, the Rev. Candace Lewis, and the Rev. Stephen Handy also spoke at the conference.
New this year was an opportunity for 15-minute appointments for people to receive healing prayer or personal prophetic words. The available time slots were filled before the main conference even began.
Also new was a young adult artist who painted as the Spirit directed her during worship. She completed two paintings during the conference.
For the first time, the General Board of Discipleship offered advanced Lay Speaker credit for Lay Speakers attending a prescribed track of conference sessions. Over 60 Lay Speakers took advantage of this new opportunity.
During his keynote, the Rev. Randy Clark, a pastor/evangelist who has preached all around the globe on revival and the power of God, invited people who needed healing to stand and then asked people around them to lay hands on them and pray for their healing. More than 130 people testified that it was their first time praying for someone to be healed who was then healed.
Since the conference, testimony from clergy reflects the fresh impartation for ministry they received at the conference. In response to the question “How has the conference helped you in your spiritual journey?” a pastor from Pennsylvania wrote: “Renewal. Revival. Equipping. Empowering. New vision. New determination. More anointing!” A pastor from North Carolina wrote: “To be able to see and experience the presence of the Holy Spirit among so many other United Methodists is so very encouraging to me as a United Methodist minister.”
The youth facet of the conference, The Gate, created an atmosphere where young people were challenged and equipped to minister through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Aldersgate 2011 and The Gate 2011 will be held July 28-31, 2011, in Dayton, Ohio. More than 500 people have already pre-registered, a 45 percent increase in pre-registrations over 2010. To learn more about Aldersgate 2011 and other ministries, call toll free 1-877-857-9372 or visit www.AldersgateRenewal.org.
Frank Billman is the Director for Church Relations for Aldersgate Renewal Ministries.
By Linda Bloom
Ten years ago, the Rev. Greg Dell was put on trial by the United Methodist Church for performing a same-sex union ceremony. Since then, a few states have legalized gay marriage and some mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, now accept non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy.
The United Methodist Church, however, has remained firm in upholding its traditional stance that homosexual practice “is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In a November 2, 2009, decision, the Judicial Council, the church’s highest court, struck down a resolution from the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference that said the church is divided on the issue.
“The effect of the Baltimore-Washington resolution is to negate the church’s clearly stated position,” the council wrote.
In looking to the future, the question is whether the United Methodist Church is separating itself from other, more liberal Protestant churches on this issue, or whether the momentum toward gay rights will lead to an eventual shift in church policy.
Dell, for one, is not expecting a change any time soon. “If we’re not the last holdouts, we’re going to be very close to that,” said Dell, who was convicted of the offense but returned to his position as pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago after a year’s suspension. He retired early two years ago because of Parkinson’s disease.
A policy since 1972. The denomination’s top legislative body, the General Conference, first took a stand on the incompatibility of Christianity and homosexual practice in 1972. Since then, Dell said, “the General Conference has moved steadily to more and more explicitly conservative positions.”
The voiding of the Baltimore-Washington sexuality statement is the latest example of how the denomination continues to uphold its official position. Earlier in 2009, the church’s top court overturned resolutions from two California conferences supporting clergy who perform same-gender marriages.
Many rejoice that the church is not abandoning its stance.
“I believe that the position of our church is faithful to Christian teaching,” said the Rev. Eddie Fox, head of world evangelism for the World Methodist Council. “We are called to faithfulness to the covenant which is expressed in the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.”
But Dell and other advocates for change see these actions as tragic. A church with “a wonderful history of being involved in and advocating for social justice movements” is now “ignoring the pain it causes” to a segment of society, he said.
Strong advocates. A survey taken in 2008 among senior clergy in seven mainline denominations showed United Methodists were among the strongest advocates of traditional church policies on marriage and ordination, ranking below only their colleagues from American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
The 2008 Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey, conducted by Washington-based Public Religion Research, found that two-thirds of United Church of Christ clergy support same-sex marriage, but only one in four United Methodist respondents favored the practice.
Seventy-two percent of Episcopal clergy back the ordination of gays and lesbians, compared to 32 percent of United Methodist pastors. Eighty percent of Evangelical Lutheran clergy support gays and lesbians as lay leaders, compared to 51 percent of United Methodist leaders.
The Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a movement supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender United Methodists, believes church members are simply lagging a bit behind their Protestant counterparts.
“The United Methodist Church in the United States clearly follows the trajectory towards inclusiveness mirrored by our North American sister denominations—the UCC, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches,” Plummer said. “Our timing may differ, but God’s dance with us will be the same.”
Staying true. The Lutheran Church in Sweden is now allowing same-sex marriages in its churches, noted United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted, who represents the church’s Nordic and Baltic Area. Lutherans in Norway may do the same.
But Alsted believes United Methodists must stay true to themselves. “I don’t think we should try to define ourselves in terms of other denominations,” he explained. “I think we should try to discern what we think is right for us as a church as we understand the biblical message.”
He would like to see less debate on homosexuality in the future. “It seems to me we are directing far too much energy and resources into that question, and it is putting our focus in the wrong place,” Alsted said. “We should focus on what we need to be about as a church.”
Fox argues that the United Methodist Church, which represents about one-third of world Methodists, “is not out of step” on the homosexuality issue.
“You’ve got to look at the world church,” he said. “What we hold is very much in keeping with the expression of Christian faith around the world.”
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
By Rob Renfroe
Good News unequivocally affirms the United Methodist position regarding marriage as stated in The Book of Discipline: “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” As Christians, we United Methodists believe that marriage was one of God’s good gifts given to humanity—not just to the Church, but to all persons. Consequently, we are concerned how marriage is defined not just in the Church but in civil society, as well. And our General Conference has wisely defined marriage, religious and civil, in line with the historic Christian understanding that is founded upon the Scriptures.
As the issue of gay marriage was being debated at the General Conference in Pittsburgh, one African delegate made the statement: “When your ancestors brought the Gospel to us, you told us that godly men had only one wife because marriage was one man and one woman. And now some of you are telling us that marriage is one man and one man or one woman and one woman. Did you lie to us when you brought us the Gospel? Did God lie to us? Did God change his mind?”
Even after the recent decision regarding Proposition 8, the United Methodist answer is: No, God has not changed his mind. Marriage is still one man and one woman.
We look forward to our Episcopal leaders in California, where the recent decision was rendered, fulfilling their office by defending and promoting our UM position regarding marriage. As always, we count on our leaders to be compassionate as they speak the truth, but we do expect them to speak the truth.
By Rob Renfroe, President and Publisher of Good News.
By Heather Hahn
A federal court’s rejection of California’s same-sex marriage ban is receiving condemnation and praise from United Methodists.
One thing both sides agree on: The ruling only adds to the longtime debate on how the church ministers to gays and lesbians.
“It certainly won’t mitigate the tension,” said the Rev. Norman Carter, a retired Arkansas pastor and member of the Confessing Movement, an unofficial United Methodist group that views homosexual acts as contrary to Scripture and Christian tradition. “I think it will just perpetuate the battle.”
The Rev. Karen Oliveto, likewise, expects homosexuality will once again be a topic of contention at the next quadrennial meeting of General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, in 2012. She serves on the board of directors of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life.
“As a church, I think we’re going to continue to struggle with this issue,” said Oliveto, pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. “I know every four years, people say, ‘Why does this issue keep coming up?’ … The reason why the issue keeps coming up is that gays and lesbians are in our pews.”
Civil vs. religious. Vaughn R. Walker, chief judge of the Federal District Court in San Francisco, struck down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. Proposition 8, also known as the California Marriage Protection Act, passed in November 2008, with 52 percent of the state’s vote.
He put a temporary stay on the August 4 ruling, which means the state of California cannot start issuing marriage licenses immediately. Appeals of Walker’s ruling are expected—perhaps all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In his 136-page decision, Walker differentiated between the concerns of religious groups and civil society.
Marriage in the United States, he wrote, has always been a civil matter. Granting gays and lesbians the right to legally marry does not require religious bodies to change their policies with regard to same-sex couples or require religious officiants to solemnize such a union, he said.
“A private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples is not a proper basis for legislation,” Walker wrote, spelling out that decision in all capital letters.
Religious debate. The debate within the United Methodist Church is a different matter. For United Methodists on both sides, marriage is not just up to the government but a part of God’s plan.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, affirms “the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.”
Linda Bales Todd, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, pointed out that the denomination does have “a very clear statement” in its Social Principles supporting “certain basic human rights and civil liberties” for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.
However, the United Methodist Church opposes same-sex unions and forbids its pastors from performing such ceremonies or allowing them to take place in United Methodist churches. The church’s Book of Discipline states that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“In terms of marriage, we’re very firm on it just being between a man and a woman,” she said.
Teaching church ethics. United Methodists on both sides of the issue agree the church’s stance should not depend on the mood of the country.
“The church has to find a way to retain our commitments no matter what the culture is saying,” said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, retired chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a founder of the Confessing Movement.
He believes that a reason more young people support gay marriage is that “the church has not been faithful in teaching what we believe and what our positions are.”
The Rev. Thompson Murray, pastor of Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a supporter of same-sex marriage, agrees that the church needs to talk about relationships.
“I feel so clearly the church should be in the business of encouraging faithful, healthy relationships—not just traditional relationships,” he said.
Still, the legalization of same-sex marriage in various jurisdictions including Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., has complicated the issue for church leaders.
If California again joins that number, the Rev. Glen Raley, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Los Banos, California, fears he will face increasing pressure to officiate at unions he sees as a clear violation of Scripture and church teachings.
“We need to get back to the authority of Scripture,” he said. “We need to get back to the idea that our Discipline is not just something written frivolously. It’s something to adhere to. It gives us a stand.”
The Rev. Kathy Cooper-Ledesma, pastor of Hollywood (California) United Methodist Church, said a congregation member dropped by the church nearly in tears after the Aug. 4 ruling. The man and his partner of 26 years had been married civilly in 2008 and he was overjoyed to see Proposition 8 overturned.
Cooper-Ledesma wants to uphold her ordination vows to follow the Book of Discipline, but she admits that it’s a struggle.
“There is pain and injustice to say to a couple that I can baptize them, offer them communion, bless their home, baptize and confirm their children, and officiate at their funerals … but cannot marry them because they are of the same gender,” she said.
The subject of same-sex unions has surfaced every four years at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference gathering. Delegates have consistently voted not to change the Book of Discipline.
Heather Hahn is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter. Linda Bloom contributed to this report.
Lively, vital churches come in all sizes, locations, and settings says a new study commissioned by the United Methodist Church, but they consistently share some common factors that work together to influence congregational vitality. That means what works to make those churches energetic and growing can likely work for other churches too.
Dynamic churches with high attendance, growth, and engagement tend to have inspirational topical preaching, lots of small groups including programs for children and youth, and a mix of both traditional and contemporary worship services, including contemporary music and multimedia in contemporary services. Other factors include effective lay leaders, rotating lay leadership, pastors who work at developing and mentoring lay leaders, and length of pastoral appointment.
An essential finding of the research was that it’s the combination of factors that contribute to vitality, rather than any one or two.
“We’ve taken a data-driven approach to identify what works for thriving congregations large and small, both rural and urban, all over the U.S.,” said Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, chair of the denominational Call to Action committee that engaged the global consulting firm Towers Watson to conduct the study. “While there’s no silver bullet, we believe these findings can lead to vitality for many more congregations.”
“Lively churches offer more than one style of worship. They work hard to make preaching interesting and relevant. They encourage more lay members to take on leadership roles. They start small groups and keep them going,” Palmer said. “If more churches do these things, we believe we will see measurable positive results over time.”
Robust and comprehensive research on data from various sources using proven data collection and analysis techniques was conducted in order to gain highly statistically reliable information about the cluster of factors that lead to congregations being more vital as evidenced by selected vitality indicators.
The process included interviews with stakeholders across the United Methodist Church, group meetings, and surveys targeted at different stakeholder groups. In addition, data on attendance, growth, and engagement from over 32,000 United Methodist churches in North America was analyzed.
The second body of research was a system-wide operational assessment of the connectional church which looked at how the denomination is currently using people, money, and processes at the district, annual conference, and general church levels.
The report concludes that the church is “confronting a ‘creeping crisis of relevancy’ of both internal and external origin” and “although the crisis is being influenced by financial duress, it is not foremost a financial crisis.”
The study indicated some key areas where improvement is needed including:
• More clarity and understanding about the denomination’s mission, culture, and values
• Less perceived organizational “distance” between and among the foundational units of the church
• Better defined leadership roles, responsibilities, and accountability; and improvements in trust
• More standardized management processes and reporting systems
• Utilizing opportunities for improved affordability and effectiveness.
“It’s important that we align our culture, structures and processes in ways that support vitality in congregations,” said Palmer. “The findings confirmed that there are key areas that need improvement. The steering team and many others share a commitment to address these elements as we enter the next phases of our work.”
This is a special report from United Methodist Communications.