By James Michael Nichols
When the Rev. Mark Thompson resolved to come out of the closet more than a decade ago, he was 50 years old.
Thompson was a pastor of a United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan, with a wife and three adult children. But he had reached a spiritual impasse in which he could no longer deny his true identity. The year was 2008.
He said some church leaders were supportive of his coming out as gay, while others encouraged him to remain in the closet. In order to continue his ministry, he took a vow of celibacy to operate within the limitations of acceptable behavior dictated by the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline. After he retires in 2020, Thompson said he hopes to eventually marry a man with whom he can share his passions, love and interests for the remainder of his life.
“I’ve realized that I am the type of person that needs to be in a loving relationship with a partner or husband,” Thompson, now 61, told NBC News. “I long for the time when that will become reality for me. The loneliness of each day and night is continuing to bring death to my spirit; I remain single so that I can continue to work within the UMC to bring about change.”
Thompson is just one individual within an expansive, diverse group of LGBTQ United Methodist Church leaders who have made enormous personal sacrifices for their faith. He, and countless others, had previously hoped that a vote during a special session of the UMC’s general conference last month would change the course of the church’s relationship with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
The vote, however, not only strengthened the church’s ban on openly gay clergy and same-sex marriages, but also increased penalties for future violations. Thompson, and multitudes of United Methodists in attendance, were gutted.
“I don’t know if surprised is the right word, but just continually disappointed,” said JJ Warren, 22, whose impassioned speech at the conference went viral. Warren, a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, is the process of being ordained as a pastor in the United Methodist Church.
“I think a lot of people are rightfully responding with a lot of remorse, and people are questioning whether they should stay in this institution that has reinforced its conservative policies,” Warren explained. “What I’m encouraging other people to do is stay the course, because when we’re sharing our stories, we’re no longer issues, right? We’re people.”
“The UMC has not seen the last of the queer community.”
Bishop Karen Oliveto
What passed at the special session of the conference is known as the “Traditional Plan.” Many progressive United Methodists were hoping for the “One Church Plan” to pass instead, which would have allowed individual religious institutions to make decisions about their own policies regarding LGBTQ issues. A third plan, the “Connectional Conference Plan,” received minimal support by comparison.
The UMC is the second largest denomination of Protestantism in the world, trailing only the Southern Baptist Convention. The church’s global reach has molded the governing church body into a culturally rich and expansive institution. While 60 percent of United Methodists in the U.S. believe homosexuality should be accepted, Americans only make up 56 percent of the general conference delegates. About 30 percent of the church’s members live in African nations, many of which still consider homosexuality a crime.
With 864 delegates in attendance, the “Traditional Plan” passed by a narrow margin of 54 votes.
“To see a global body of countries where homosexuality is still illegal only vote traditionally by 54 votes — I mean, that’s pretty amazing to me,” Warren said. “The hard part is we’re wrestling with being a global entity. So my hope, and what we’re trying to get out there, is that we can continue in this community together and we can continue seeking justice around the world when we’re together — and we do that by sharing our stories.”
Some jurisdictions of the UMC, including the Western Jurisdiction, which covers a large swath of the western U.S., and Germany, have stated that they will pursue the “One Church Plan” and continue to ordain church leaders regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in the history of the UMC, sees the general conference vote as not indicative of the values of the church.
“There is a message of love and grace within our tradition that transcends any rule made by General Conference,” said Oliveto, who hails from the church’s Western Jurisdiction. “And no matter how hard they try to legislate us out of the denomination, babies will be born into United Methodist families who will grow to love God and the church and seek to serve as clergy. Some of these will realize they are queer, and then a new expression of justice seeking will begin. The UMC has not seen the last of the queer community.”
This shared sentiment among Oliveto and other progressive United Methodists presents a critical moment for the culturally diverse UMC. Individual jurisdictions and church bodies must now decide how they will grapple with the “Traditional Plan,” parts of which have been declared unconstitutional by the church’s judicial counsel. The conversation as a whole raises questions as to the future of the larger church body, and the place of LGBTQ folks within it.
“It feels as if a new expression of Methodism is being born,” added Oliveto, who is bishop for the UMC’s entire Mountain Sky Conference, which covers all of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, along with a small portion of Idaho.
Church leaders are also concerned about what impact this vote — and the ensuing media coverage — will have on LGBTQ youth, many of whom already associate rejection or intolerance with the governing philosophy of the United Methodist doctrine.
Alyss Swanson, a transgender woman who serves as a church deacon in Northern California and also works as a pastoral psychotherapist, sees this firsthand in her practice. She considers herself heavily invested in the work of reconciliation with the UMC, having returned to it eight years ago during her coming out process and now serving as a coalition organizer of reconciling churches.
“I could’ve gone to like a UCC (United Church of Christ) church or some other open and affirming church, and my days would be much happier, perhaps, but what drives me is the harm that’s being done to our youth in particular and the LGBTQ community at large,” she said. “Forty percent of all the homeless youth are queer, and we only make up 7 percent of the population.”
“As a therapist, I deal with it daily,” she added. “Kiddos that come in and can’t share with or don’t feel like it’s safe to share with their parents what’s going on for them. Some having suicidal thoughts, because they just don’t see any hope.”
The UMC, and churches in general, are dealing with a lack of engagement from younger generations at least partially due to conservative policies — and that is nothing radically new. But the reality is that implementation of the “Traditional Plan” could create an even more dramatic rift between younger people and the UMC in the years to come.
A new expression of Methodism emerging from the debate surrounding the “Traditional Plan” — and the dramatic displays of solidarity emerging from affirming church bodies — could, however, present a different story, particularly after the United Methodist Judicial Council meets to decide the constitutionality of the “Traditional Plan” in April.
“LGBTQ United Methodists are welcomed, in my view, to stay among the congregations and work to bring about change,” the Rev. Thompson said. “It is uncertain how that change will come about. It might include birthing something new that will be able to stand free of the restrictive nature of the current Book of Discipline.”
“For those who do stay, I strongly encourage each of them to gather often with like-minded people, find supportive places to worship, talk openly with allies about the pain, anger, depression and any other feelings,” he added. “One of my mottos is: ‘When life gives you shit, make fertilizer out of it and grow.’ We are in this together, so hang tight and hang on for a wild ride that will bring forth new growth.”