Conference Table models way to discuss controversial issues

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference Table models way to discuss controversial issues

Sept. 7, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0541}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — As United Methodists we don’t have to agree on every subject, but we should respectfully agree to disagree without degrading each other.

That’s the rationale behind the upcoming Conference Table on Christian Conferencing Sept. 23.

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder addresses delegates at the 2006 annual conference event last June during discussion on resolutions dealing with homosexuality and church membership. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-430.

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of the Florida Conference’s Connectional Ministries office, said this Conference Table will model how to civilly discuss controversial issues, using homosexuality and church membership as the focus of discussion. The goal is that churches and groups can use that process in the future to discuss difficult issues facing the church.

The session stems from the difficulty delegates had at this year’s annual conference event in discussing and voting on resolutions related to homosexuality and church membership. The catalyst for the resolutions was a recent Judicial Council decision (No. 1032) that affirmed pastors do have authority to approve or deny membership, addressing the case of a United Methodist pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference who refused membership to an openly gay man attending his church. The pastor was placed on a yearlong involuntary leave of absence by his clergy peers, an action upheld by his bishop, but a previous Judicial Council decision (No. 1031) effectively reinstated him.

Delegates approved a motion made by Burkholder to table voting on the resolutions and give the Conference Table the responsibility of developing a process of Christian conferencing that can be used to discuss the issues addressed by the resolutions and others.

All laity and clergy are invited to participate in the session, but before they do, the Conference Table planning team is asking people to do several things to prepare: be in prayer the week before the session and review several documents, including what the team is calling ground rules for Christian conferencing. The rules lay out the expectation that discussion will be grounded in a respect for and sincere desire to understand other people’s points of view.

The Rev. Brett Opalinski, pastor of Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach and a member of the planning team, said there is value in that.

“I do think there is merit in learning how to talk about our diverse theological and spiritual viewpoints,” he said. “First, as United Methodists, we are united by our faith in Jesus Christ, not by agreement on any particular issue or even opinion. In addition, learning how to live together in our diversity is a spiritual exercise to gain a fuller understanding of how God is working in the lives of others, even those we disagree with, and in the church.”

Burkholder said differences should not divide us as United Methodists.

“I believe that we are all called in and through our lives to give witness to the presence and vision of the Kingdom of God,” she said. “One of the important ways we do this is through the honoring of our differences. How can we honor our differences if we are unable to talk with each other in humble and respectful ways?”

The Rev. Jamie Westlake, a member of the task team, said “something’s got to give” considering the way United Methodists converse with one another about Biblical, spiritual and theological issues.

“I’m planning a hot-topic series in October,” said the pastor of Cypress Lake United Methodist Church in Fort Myers. “I’m going to talk about abortion, poverty, war, homosexuality, and we should be able to talk about these issues without saying if someone doesn’t agree with us, they’re going to hell. There should be a wide moral berth from a theological perspective.”

The Rev. Mark Becker, pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, said there are a wide range of potentially divisive issues in front of the church today and there is no better time than now to learn ways to effectively communicate with each other about them. Also a member of the planning team, Becker said he thinks theological perspectives are exceptionally hard to discuss.

“People are very sincere in what they believe, especially in the church,” Becker said. “Those beliefs are closely held and are dear to us. What we need to know is there is truth to what both sides are saying.”

Opalinski said it’s all a matter of perspective.

“The United Methodist Church, as we all know, can be very polarized, but I have seen firsthand the community that can be formed when United Methodists from different perspectives treat one another with respect and speak kindly of one another,” he said. “Even though they may not agree, people will begin to put a name and a face on the other person, and that has made a world of difference. No longer is the person with an opposing viewpoint seen as an enemy, but as a friend who happens to think differently about this particular issue. I think how well we do this in the future will be a measurement of our spiritual health.”

Planning team member Alice Williams, a member of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, said it is important to learn the proper way of talking about hard subjects. She said people are sometimes leery of getting into difficult conversations for fear of alienating or hurting the other person’s feelings. “Homosexuality is only one of the issues that we, as a church, need to address. We want to use this time to come up with a forum so that everyone feels heard (when issues are discussed).”

The goal of this Conference Table is to develop a process that enables people to leave a discussion with a better understanding of where the other party is coming from, Becker said. He said the purpose is not to be able to resolve Biblical, spiritual and theological discrepancies, but to learn ways of talking about the topics.

“So many times everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening,” Becker said. “Emotions start to well up and people are less inclined to listen.”

Burkholder said there is sometimes a tendency for United Methodists to forget their common bond. “As Christians we easily forget that we are brothers and sisters in Christ who need each other,” she said. “We objectify those who disagree with us as ‘the other’ and even as an ‘enemy.’ When we do this, we move God from the center of our lives and replace God with our own egos.”

Westlake said politics are often part of the issue, adding his views have a tendency to lean toward the conservative side of issues. “If you’re a conservative you shouldn’t be labeled as a bigot,” he said. “I also don’t think the church should look like Hannity & Holmes (debate-driven talk show on FOX News Channel featuring controversial issues and newsmakers with hosts Sean Hannity taking the conservative viewpoint and Alan Colmes as liberal counterpoint).”

Whether the church is debating abortion, homosexuality or other hot-button matters, Becker said the church must learn to talk with and not at one another.

“We have to get Christian conferencing down first,” he said. “It’s so fundamental to who we are. We have to do this before we can hope to address other issues.”

Adds Williams: “We need to make sure that everyone feels heard. This Conference Table will not be the end result of whatever happens there. It will be just the start. I hope it will improve as we become more experienced in dealing with issues.”

Opalinksi said he is looking forward to the session. “I hope to learn more about the people who think differently than I do. I hope to learn how their faith journey has led them to where they are, and indeed that they will learn why my faith journey has led me to where I am.

“On a larger scale, I hope that this will be a model for how we, as an annual conference, will address other controversial or divisive issues. I do believe that this is a much better venue than the floor of annual conference for learning how to treat one another with respect and love and, in the end, learning how to work together, even on difficult issues, rather than tear one another down.”

Burkholder said her own expectation for the Conference Table is that it will facilitate constructive conversations “that will take place in multiple settings throughout the conference.” “What specific outcomes that emerge from these gatherings I believe we have to entrust to the work of the Holy Spirit among us,” she added.

Opalinski added a final thought. “It is an opportunity for us to put into practice Paul’s words, ‘faith, hope, and love remain ... but the greatest of these is love.’ The moment we cease to talk with one another respectfully and with great care, we have failed at a core element of our discipleship — love of neighbor,” he said.

The Conference Table will be held at First United Methodist Church, Lakeland, at 72 Lake Morton Drive. The session will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with registration at 10:30 a.m. Lunch is provided at a cost of $7 per person. Individuals may register online and view the suggested readings at More information is also available at

The gathering will be web cast live for those who are not able to attend. Interested individuals may enter the webcast on the day of the event by visiting the conference Web site at and clicking on the webcast button. Spanish and Creole interpretation will also be available at the gathering.


This article relates to Florida Conference Christian Conferencing/Conference Table Gatherings.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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