My church embraces LGBTQ members
By Nina Dove • Guest Columnist
When I walked into a Reconciling Ministries meeting at my church (First United Methodist Church of Waynesville) four years ago, I had very few expectations. The Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) is an organization devoted to promoting the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQIA+ persons in the church. Having been raised in a church with a large percentage of retired ministers, and retirees in general, I was cautious about our chapter of RMN; I assumed, walking in to the room, I would see primarily young and middle-aged adults, and perhaps one or two crotchety homophobic elders only there to voice their dissent. Not that I thought that people over 65 were incapable of being open-minded, but to some extent I believed the stereotype that older people, especially religious ones, would refuse to accept gay people.
I was shocked to see 20 or so people, most my grandparents’ age. That night, I realized people I’d seen in church my whole life, or worked with on community mission projects, had been quietly living their lives as gay, lesbian, or transgendered or were fervent allies of the queer community. I was shocked at the amount of love and support in the room, especially when some retired clergy denounced on spiritual terms the passages in our Book of Discipline (bylaws) that prevent “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to be married or become ordained. Being in that room, in conversation with those people, destroyed my stereotypes and revealed a diversity I hadn’t noticed before.
The clauses against homosexuality have been in the UM Book of Discipline since 1972 and debated ever since, culminating in last week’s vote by a specially-called Conference. In the lead-up to the conference, my church held a series on Wednesday nights called “Listening With Love.” I joined about 150 members, dividing up into roundtable discussions dealing solely with LGBTQIA+ inclusion. People with conservative, progressive, and moderate stances on this issue sat at tables together and were able to voice their personal experiences without fear of being harassed. Primarily we were there to listen deeply to each other, to set aside stereotypes and really see each other.
I was at a table with three other teenagers and four retirees, making disagreement seem inevitable. However, I was again shocked to discover that we all had very similar stances on this issue, despite the age gap. After one teen shared about the isolation they felt being gay in the church, an older participant shared her sorrow for her own adult child, who was experiencing that same isolation in their congregation. While not every table had as much agreement as ours, I still saw positive, civil conversations, and it gave me hope for the future of our denomination.
Then, this past Tuesday, February 26, instead of accepting the Council of Bishops’ more inclusive plan, the international delegates at the Special Conference voted by a slim majority to double down on the penalties against LGBTQIA+ in the church, and those who would minister to them. I had to face the fact that the broader United Methodist denomination voted to uphold oppression.
This decision has left many people angry and hurting in unimaginable ways, especially the members of the LGBTQIA+ who have been told by their denomination that God does not value them equally — something that women and minorities also once heard. Many fear that this was the final blow, and that people will leave the denomination.
However, despite the fury and fear, many are still hopeful for the future of the church. This Sunday I watched our gay members be loved from the pews and from the pulpit. I was privileged to hear from several gay and lesbian members of my church, who agreed that the decision made at general conference does not reflect their experience in our church. The congregation I choose to belong to is one that fiercely loves, protects and celebrates each of its members. Our church not only opens its doors to everyone, but also walks out those doors to serve the larger community of Waynesville and beyond. Our church accepts and supports them completely and will continue to do so.
I don’t know what the future holds for the United Methodist Church, but I’m still hopeful. This past conference was a wake-up call for many on how serious this issue is, and I am optimistic that there will be an increase in support for the LGBTQIA+ community in the church. In the meantime, the gay and lesbian members of our church are steadfast in their commitment, and if they are not leaving, neither will I.
(Nina Dove is a Senior at Tuscola High School. She is an active member of organizations that promote the inclusivity of LGBTQIA+ persons both in her school and in her church. She also is a member of her church’s praise band, where she plays piano and sings.)