Editor's note: This article was updated Feb. 23, 2016, to include additional comments.
LAKELAND – With General Conference 2016 less than three months away, delegates are preparing to grapple with proposals that could dramatically reshape the global church.
In Florida, 18 elected delegates – nine clergy and nine lay members – are studying and praying for guidance as they look forward to the 10-day gathering of the global church that occurs every four years. Alternates and jurisdictional delegates also are boning up on issues expected to come before them.
Florida United Methodists who attended a General Conference listening session pass around a prayer bead medallion intended to help church members pray for delegates and others involved in the 2016 event. Photos by Susan Green.
Saturday, the delegation invited United Methodists from across the Florida Conference to share what’s on their hearts and minds. Ten speakers from various parts of the state responded to the invitation, and more than 70 people attended the delegation’s General Conference Listening Session at First UMC, Lakeland.
More than half the speakers addressed the United Methodist position on same-sex marriage and the eligibility of homosexual individuals for ordination.
Divestiture of United Methodist pension funds in companies or locales that don’t follow the church’s social justice principles – particularly the recent investments in companies doing business in Israeli-occupied Palestine – was the second most often discussed topic for speakers at the listening session.
Before inviting speakers to step forward, Rev. Debbie McLeod, pastor of Mandarin UMC, Jacksonville, and co-convener of the Florida Conference Connectional Table, let the audience know that delegates would listen but not respond to remarks or discuss their positions on topics expected to come to a vote at General Conference.
Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, North Central District superintendent and first-elected Florida clergy delegate, encouraged the crowd to follow legislative action with the anticipated live-streaming of the event May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon.
Currently, the denomination’s governing document, The Book of Discipline, describes the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and clergy, from pastors to bishops, vow to uphold church policies outlined in the discipline. Practicing homosexuals are not eligible for ordination, and clergy are prohibited from officiating at same-sex weddings.
The six speakers who addressed same-sex marriage were evenly split on whether that provision of the discipline should remain unchanged, and at least one speaker on each side of the issue told an impassioned story about a friend or relative who was gay and how that shaped their views.
Retired pastor Brent Byerman spoke in favor of more uniform ways of holding clergy accountable for upholding The Book of Discipline, saying he favors proposed legislation that would set forth mandatory penalties for violations and establish a global panel of jurors to hear complaints against bishops.
Margie Yansura, a member of United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches, said her grown children in their 20s and 30s are accustomed to a community that accepts lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) individuals in “all facets of life.”
“Let us open our hearts and love all God’s children,” she said.
Rev. Dawn Liphart read a statement written by Rev. Clare Chance, pastor of Avondale UMC, Jacksonville, who had signed up to speak but was unable to attend the session. The statement called for legislation that would “allow for geographical and cultural flexibility,” so that conferences and individual congregations could set their own policies for clergy responding to LGBT individuals.
Rev. Tamara Isidore of Friendship UMC, Clearwater, speaking to a crowd at the Florida delegation's Listening Session, expresses confidence that delegates will discern God's will for the church during General Conference 2016.
Retired pastor Guy Weatherly of Brandon suggested that whether the Discipline stands as is or is changed on the issue of homosexuality, some proponents will win and others lose, and the issue will continue to interfere with the church’s mission of making disciples of Christ.
“How do we silence debate and go on about the business of making disciples of Jesus?” he asked. “Stop the war and … find a peaceful way to divide.”
Susanne Hoder of Punta Gorda, a co-chairperson of United Methodist Kairos Response, was one of two speakers who asked delegates to support a resolution calling for increased screening by the church pension board of companies doing business in the Israeli-occupied West Bank outside of Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
Kairos Response, described by Hoder as a global organization 2,500 strong, wants the church to stop investing in companies believed to be profiting from Israeli-backed housing starts in the occupied territory, where human rights violations have been reported.
Hoder noted that the church has in years past called on other entities to boycott businesses profiting from Israeli expansion in the West Bank. The church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits blocked and divested from some investments in January, but overall the number of companies selected for the board’s portfolio that are doing business in the identified territory has “skyrocketed,” Hoder contended.
“Our group feels it is time for this church to look in the mirror and say, ‘Are we really doing all we personally can do to hasten an end to this occupation?’”
Dr. Judith Pierre-Okerson, Miramar United Methodist Church, advocated for eight resolutions regarding social responsibility, including:
- Provision of guidelines for measuring whether an industry’s presence will benefit a community in a just and sustainable way;
- A new resolution, “The Criminalization of Communities of Color in the United States,” which calls on the church to actively work to dismantle systems of institutional racism, and
- “A rather lengthy resolution” that brings forth important background information on environmental health issues, which Pierre-Okerson believes can be used as a teaching tool for the church.
Rev. Tamara Isidore, pastor of Friendship UMC, Clearwater, was the last speaker of the session. She said she didn’t sign up to speak until hearing the comments of others.
“It is a trick of the enemy to keep us trapped in one subject,” she said. “It is my prayer that … God will find room in our hearts and minds to speak God’s truth.”
Christ will guide His church, Isidore added.
“I am not scared, and I am not going to let anything scare me,” she said. “He will have the last say in the end, and His word is revealed to us every day and He will continue to do so.”
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.