Something unusual happened one recent Sunday morning at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. It was the Sunday after Easter, and a group of eight middle school students had spent the past school year in confirmation class together, preparing to become formal members of their church. Their confirmation service was set to take place that day. But this year, the class made other plans: Together, the students wrote a statement rejecting their membership as an act of resistance. Two class members read it in front of the church. “While we love our congregation,” they said, as their parents and other members watched from the pews, “we believe the United Methodist policies on LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage are immoral.”
A clip from the presentation went viral on Monday, as evidence that “this generation will save us all”:
It was pretty clear from that snippet that the congregation didn’t recoil in outrage at the youth protest; a smattering of applause can be heard in the last few seconds. But the clip didn’t capture the completeness of the church’s support for the act of defiance. According to Kent Little, FUMC’s lead pastor, the class received a standing ovation. Then the church offered a blessing for each child, “affirming their decision and affirming their faith,” followed by a celebratory lasagna dinner. Little said that he has only had one or two young people in 27 years decide to opt out of church membership after going through the confirmation class. “To have them band together and say ‘No,’ that’s not a small thing,” he said. “We adults could learn something from that.”
This is a strange, sad time in many United Methodist Church congregations across the United States. At a large church conference in February, delegates voted to strengthen the denomination’s opposition to gay clergy and to same-sex marriage. Unlike many mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church has never formally welcomed gay clergy or sanctioned same-sex marriages. But in practice, the denomination offered individual congregations wide latitude in recent years. The triumph of the “traditional plan”—the name given to the proposal to crack down on queer clergy and same-sex marriage ceremonies in the church—changes that, threatening violators with suspension and defrocking. Last week, a Methodist court upheld the substance of the changes, which go into effect in January 2020.
The “traditional plan” raises the possibility that the country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination will fracture over an issue about which it had long tolerated a measure of disagreement. The American branch of the denomination is not clearly liberal or conservative: Elizabeth Warren, George W. Bush, and Jeff Sessions are all Methodists. The overwhelmingly white American church is also shrinking. The vote in February signified the gathering strength of the denomination outside the United States; the “traditional plan” was backed by a coalition from the Philippines, countries from Africa, and other countries where a socially conservative version of Methodism is growing. American evangelical Methodists supported the plan too.
Like many progressive Methodist churches, Little’s congregation is now figuring out whether its future lies outside of the denomination. FUMC is a large church, and it has a history of activism going back to the 19th century. Its leaders like to tell stories about the time the congregation apparently refused to pay a pro-slavery pastor the denomination assigned to it in 1858, and about its support of the Native American civil rights leader Standing Bear a few decades later. In 1997, the church’s senior pastor, Jimmy Creech, performed a “covenant service” for two women; in 1999, he did the same for two men, and was defrocked by the denomination. The next year, the church joined a network of “reconciling” Methodist churches that advocates for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people into the denomination.
In that context, the 2019 FUMC confirmation class’s decision to protest its denomination’s rightward shift is not a rejection of its own church, but an affirmation of what it’s learned from it. The church has a youth group specifically for queer young people, and it is hosting its annual “Pride Prom” in a few weeks. In its statement, the class cites the church as the source of the students’ convictions: “There are many things we have grown up appreciating about FUMC Omaha,” they wrote. “We have always known that gay families were just like any other families, [and] we are surrounded by peers with all gender identities … We appreciate that we have never thought anything was strange about women pastors. We have fond memories of singing in the children’s choir and watching the kites on Easter morning.”
Little said the class started working on this statement after the church conference in February. The students’ teacher, Tim Fickenscher, told Religion News Service that the idea started with two girls in the class, and he gave others in the class wide latitude to come to different conclusions. By the time Little met individually with each student, the customary conclusion to the confirmation class, all eight had decided they could not in good conscience join the church.
The class says in the letter that it will delay confirmations until it sees how FUMC responds to the “traditional plan.” In early April, the church council voted to withhold the remainder of the 2019 payments it would usually make to the denomination while it decides how to move forward. It also voted to continue hosting same-sex weddings and encouraging the clergy to officiate, in defiance of the denomination. The next step is to hold a series of small group meetings to start determining which path the congregation as a whole prefers. It could stay in the denomination and continue the struggle; disaffiliate and join another denomination, like the United Church of Christ; or become an independent church. “Those of us who want change and full inclusion, can we create something new? And how long do we wait for that to happen?” Little asked. “For a lot of people, the UMC is our home. How do you walk away from that?”