Amid LGBT debate, Michigan churches weigh future

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
“Royal Oak First, like most churches, isn’t of one mind, but it sure is of one heart, and that is: ‘God loves everyone,’ ” said Jeff Nelson, pastor of Royal Oak First United Methodist.

When Robin Oesterwind started attending Royal Oak First United Methodist Church more than a year ago, she was overjoyed to find a spiritual home that welcomed her and other worshipers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The house of worship remains inclusive today, but that stance could someday force its leaders and congregations statewide to decide whether to leave or stay in America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination.

In February, the United Methodist Church approved a plan that bolsters the faith’s controversial restrictions on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy. 

The faith’s progressive and centrist members nationwide have been mulling the next step. Michigan Methodists also are exploring a response, a debate which could emerge during their annual meeting scheduled to begin this week near Traverse City.

Though leaders stress a decision has yet to be determined for the state’s 130,000 lay members and 750-plus active clergy, churchgoers like Oesterwind believe change is unavoidable.

“For me, church is community and connection, and a place where love can be made absolutely real — not fear-mongering,” said Oesterwind, who came out in her 40s about four years ago. “I’d like to see churches stand up across the board and say: ‘This is not OK and we’re not going to be part of the community that demonizes people for who they love and who they are.’ ” 

Discussions about the future for the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church have been growing in the three months since delegates at a global gathering in St. Louis voted, 438-384, for the Traditional Plan, which strengthens bans on LGBT-inclusive practices. A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed it but were outvoted by American conservatives teamed with most of the representatives from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.

A disaffiliation plan also was passed that provides guidelines for congregations seeking to split from the United Methodist Church, which formed in a 1968 merger and claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the United States.

While other mainline Protestant denominations have embraced gay-friendly practices, the UMC still bans them, though acts of defiance by pro-LGBT clergy have multiplied. Many have performed same-sex weddings; others have come out as gay or lesbian from the pulpit.

Enforcement of the bans has been inconsistent; the Traditional Plan, slated to go into effect next year, aims to toughen discipline against those engaged in defiance.

Opponents of the plan have launched an initiative, UMCNext, that is pursuing the best path forward for those who share their views. Bishop David Bard, who leads Michigan’s Methodists, and others from the state conference were among hundreds who attended a three-day meeting in Kansas last week as part of the effort.

The group committed to a four-point plan, including resisting discrimination and working to eliminate penalties in the Methodists' Book of Discipline regarding LGBT people, and called for participants to return to their annual gatherings to “organize and mobilize others in ways appropriate to their context,” coordinators said. 

Allies previously floated options that included forming a new domination or staying and resisting from within enough to convince conservatives to leave, according to a blog post by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a convening team member.

Bard left the Kansas event optimistic but notes the church’s prospects remains unclear, and dialogue likely will continue through the next UMC general conference in May 2020. “It’s really my sense that if that’s going to be a productive general conference, there will at least need to be some sort of broad road map for the future presented there.”

None of the estimated 830 churches in the Michigan Conference have officially declared intentions to depart, although at least one has sought more information on the dissolution process, Bard said. “I think moving into the future, the United Methodist Church will take some kind of new shape and form. And what exactly that looks like, I can’t predict at this point.”

The uncertainty looms over the Michigan Methodists’ meeting in Grand Traverse County expected to draw nearly 2,000 attendees.

“Generally our annual conferences are very joyful, with lots of celebration of ministry,” said the Rev. John Boley, clergy assistant to the bishop. “We intend to do that … but the elephant in the room is the state of the denomination.”

Some measures slated to be taken up during the event aim to offer protections and clarity.

One motion calls for a non-binding “straw poll” asking conference members if they prefer an all-encompassing church body or one guided by the policies under the Traditional Plan.

“That’s really important,” said Deacon Laura Speiran of Clarkston United Methodist Church, who chairs the Michigan conference’s board of ordained ministry. “We don’t have a good handle on where people stand.”

Another motion requests that no Michigan annual conference funds back “background investigations, complaints, just resolutions or clergy trials pertaining to LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage, except in cases of allegations of infidelity or abuse.”

The Rev. Vaughn Thurston-Cox, pastor at Mulliken United Methodist Church near Lansing, authored the legislation thinking of divisions among worshipers as well as the LGBT-identifying youth and colleagues he believes were harmed by unwelcoming attitudes. “I do not consider myself a crusader, but silence is complicity,” he said. “I simply cannot stand aside and let this be someone else’s problem.”

Ric Huttenlocher of Clarkston, who is attending the annual gathering for the first time, favors reaching a resolution for his church and others across Michigan, but believes “there’s a longer path ahead of us. Our future is really in the local church and how we continue to remain in ministry with each other.”

The conversation about the next page for Michigan Methodists also is reverberating in congregations.

This summer, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Rochester Hills plans a service where attendees can strategize as well as share their vision and hopes, said its pastor, the Rev. Scott E. Manning.

Since the perceived rejection of a marginalized demographic is so personal, acquaintances have threatened to leave Methodist churches altogether, he added. “This is not an ‘issue.’ We are talking about people’s lives.”

Signs posted at the parking lot outside Royal Oak First United Methodist Church in Royal Oak, Mich. on May 26, 2019.

Shortly after the Traditional Plan passed, Royal Oak First United parishioners posted a large sign outside the church to show support for inclusion, said the Rev. Jeff Nelson. They also helped raise thousands of dollars for two groups that help LGBT residents, Affirmations and the Ruth Ellis Center. Next month, attendees plan to join the Ferndale Pride event. 

“The decision in February was devastating for a vast majority of our members,” Nelson said. “Royal Oak First, like most churches, isn’t of one mind, but it sure is of one heart, and that is: ‘God loves everyone.’ ”

Orchard United Methodist Church in Farmington Hills has held services geared toward LGBT members and hosts meetings for a group that supports transgender residents, said the Rev. Amy Mayo-Moyle. The church boasts nearly 700 members, and not all desire a split, she said. “We’re looking to see what happens down the road. I think we want to continue to be part of a connectional church, whatever form that ends up to be.”

The Rev. Kevin Smalls, who leads Southfield’s Hope United Methodist Church, recalls that the February vote prompted one member to stop attending and others welcome his stance on forbidding homophobic remarks at the pulpits. However, the pastor notes some in the largely African American congregation “don’t buy into the gay lifestyle,” while others seek more focus on all people who face discrimination or unequal treatment.

Smalls said he does not advocate divorcing the denomination solely for issues related to sexual orientation alone but believes “the church is in the middle of a conversation that we have to work through. ... We believe that God made everybody. As a result, He has the best plan to love people, and at the end of the day, that’s what we have to figure out how to do.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.