Commission on The Way Forward

Members of the Commission on a Way Forward ended their March meeting with a letting-go prayer event in which they gave up control of their final report to the Council of Bishops, who officially received the final report at an April/May meeting in Chicago.

By: Christa Meland

In February 2019, at a Special Session of the General Conference, United Methodist delegates from around the world will decide how to move forward as a denomination around the issue of human sexuality.

A diverse “Commission on a Way Forward” that was appointed by the Council of Bishops has spent the past two years working to address the denomination’s differences on this topic.

The Commission members are:

  • Jorge Acevedo, USA, Florida, elder, male
  • Brian Adkins, USA, California, elder, male
  • Jacques Umembudi Akasa, Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, laity, male
  • Tom Berlin, USA, Virginia, elder, male
  • Matt Berryman, USA, Illinois, laity, male
  • Helen Cunanan, Philippines, elder, female
  • David Field, Europe, Switzerland, laity, male
  • Ciriaco Francisco, Philippines, bishop, male
  • Grant Hagiya, USA, California, bishop, male
  • Hortense Aka Dago-Akribi,,Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, laity, female
  • Scott Johnson, USA, New York, laity, mal
  • Jessica Lagrone, USA, Kentucky, elder, female
  • Thomas Lambrecht, USA, Texas, elder, male
  • MyungRae Kim Lee, USA, New York, laity, female
  • Julie Hager Love, USA, Kentucky, deacon, female
  • Mazvita Machinga, Africa, Zimbabwe, laity, female
  • Patricia Miller, USA, Indiana, laity, female
  • Mande Guy Muyombo, Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, elder, male
  • Eben Nhiwatiwa, Africa, Zimbabwe, bishop, male
  • Dave Nuckols, USA, Minnesota, laity, male
  • Casey Langley Orr, USA, Texas, deacon, female
  • Gregory Palmer, USA, Ohio, bishop, male
  • Donna Pritchard, USA, Oregon, elder, female
  • Tom Salsgiver, USA, Pennsylvania, elder, male
  • Robert Schnase, USA, Texas, bishop, male
  • Jasmine Rose Smothers, USA, Georgia, elder, female
  • Leah Taylor, USA, Texas, laity, female
  • Debra Wallace-Padgett ,USA, Alabama, bishop, female
  • Rosemarie Wenner, Europe, Germany, bishop, female
  • Alice Williams,USA, Florida, laity, female
  • John Wesley Yohanna, Africa, Nigeria, bishop, male
  • Alfiado S. Zunguza, Africa, Mozambique, elder, male
  • The moderators of the Commission are:
  • Sandra Steiner Ball, USA, West Virginia, bishop, female
  • Kenneth Carter, USA, Florida, bishop, male
  • David Yemba, Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, bishop, male

The commission forwarded two detailed plans to the Council of Bishops for their consideration: the One-Church Plan and the Connectional Conferences Plan. A third plan considered by the commission, the Traditionalist Plan, was later added by the bishops to the plans to be presented to the 2019 General Conference.

The Council of Bishops is recommending the One-Church Plan, but all three plans reported by The Way Forward Committee were reviewed and ruled constitutional by the Judicial Council of the UMC, and will be brought to the conference being held in St. Louis, MO, February 23 – 26 2019. The complete report is some 93 pages long. (Click here to access the complete report with detailed information on all the plans.).

Bishop Bruce R. Ough of the Minnesota Annual Conference offers this wisdom to United Methodist churches and leaders – both clergy and laity –  as they await the Special Session of the General Conference:

  • Do not make decisions before they are made.
  • Lead out of a convicted humility.
  • Be a non-anxious presence.
  • Be relational in your leadership.
  • Affirm all the voices and values.
  • Speak to the anxiety and fear.
  • Strengthen congregational resiliency by building
    • MC identity
    • biblical and interpretive fluency
    • missional commitment
    • the practice of respectful conversation
    • and strengthening your leadership team using resources such as The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, and God Unbound.

Bishop Sue Hauper-Johnson, North Georgia Annual Conference spoke about the upcoming General Conference at the 2018 North Georgia Annual Conference.  You are encouraged to listen to this as it outlines where members of the conference stand in general as well as her advice. View Video by Clicking Here.

Some Methodist Geography

The United States has 54 annual conferences, supervised by bishops in 46 episcopal areas. A handful of bishops preside over more than one annual conference.

There are 75 annual conferences in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, which are supervised by 20 bishops. Most of these bishops preside over more than one annual conference.

Annual Conferences are held at the conference level, like North Georgia. Ordained clergy and licensed local pastors all are required to attend theses annual conferences. For each church in a conference, the number of lay delegates is the same as the number of clergy appointed to that church. NFUMC has one appointed elder and, therefore, one lay delegate, and one alternate.

Jurisdictional Conferences are held every four (4) years, and are when bishops are elected. Each annual conference elects an equal number of lay and clergy delegates to jurisdictional conference. The number reflects the membership size of the conference. North Georgia has the most delegates.

North Fayette United Methodist Church is part of the North Georgia Conference (NGC), and the NGC is part of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the US UMC.

The United States has a total of five (5) jurisdictions:

General Conference brings together all of the jurisdictions of the UMC every four years.  Heretofore these General conferences have been in the United States, but as the United Methodist Church has grown dramatically outside the US, the commission assigned to pick sites felt that it was time to go international with general conference locations. As of 2016, 5.7 million United Methodists live outside the US, compared to 6.9 million in the US. Manila, Philippines was chosen as the site for the 2024 General Conference, the first held outside the US. The 2028 conference will be in Harare, Zimbabwe.

If you want to know about the world-wide United Methodist Church including membership, clergy, missions and ministries click here.

The Three Plans

by Dave Nuckols a member of the Commission, and Rev. Judy Zabe. Both Nuckols and Abe members of the Minnesota delegation to General Conference.

One-Church Plan (recommended by Council of Bishops)

This plan would allow for contextualization in different parts of the world (adapting some non-essential practices to different mission fields to maximize our witness and success in each place). It is based on the belief that we can be a church with a large enough tent for people to disagree about homosexuality and yet remain together as The United Methodist Church. It allows us to affirm that our unity and mission are more important than our disagreements.

Some of the key components of this plan:

It will neither affirm nor condemn LGBTQ persons. It would remove the controversial statement that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” that has been experienced as hurtful by gay persons and as alienating by younger generations.

It relies on pastoral discretion. Clergy would decide which weddings to officiate or not officiate. Clergy—through their normal Board of Ordained Ministry process—would discern who is fit and fruitful for clergy service in their annual conference. This plan would remove the current prohibitions without creating new obligations or affirmation. This plan should put an end to clergy trials that are damaging to individuals and to our public witness.

It respects local church wishes. As for weddings, no local church would be forced to vote. However, the church property would not be used in same-sex weddings unless the local church updates its local church policy to specifically allow it. And as for clergy assignment, bishops would take local wishes into account concerning who is or is not a good fit for their appointment. So, practically speaking, there would be gay weddings and gay ordination in some parts of the United Methodist world, but it would not be forced on local churches.

It protects clergy rights to individual conscience. The Book of Discipline would protect clergy who do not want to officiate same-sex weddings. Likewise, all would be allowed to follow their conscience in matter of ordination.

Pros of this plan:

  • Allows for contextualization in different parts of the U.S. (this already exists in Africa, Asia, and Europe).
  • More coherent theology for unity because it no longer assumes that human sexuality is the defining theological issue for The UMC.
  • No more clergy trials.

Cons of this plan:

  • Does not completely satisfy the progressives because it does not bar some kinds of discrimination against married homosexuals in some parts of the UMC.
  • Does not completely satisfy the traditionalists because allowing same-sex marriage in any form violates their particular interpretation of scripture.

Connectional Conferences Model (considered but not recommended by Council of Bishops)

The Connectional Conferences Model is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services, and one Council of Bishops, while creating different branches that would have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization, and justice.

In the U.S., the five geographically distinct jurisdictional conferences would be replaced by three overlapping conferences: one traditional conference, one progressive conference, and one centrist or “uniting” conference. Each annual conference would choose to be a member of one of the three connectional conferences based on their affinity to the conference’s theological stance on homosexuality.  Any local church that disagrees with the annual conference decision could vote to join a different branch conference.

Pros of this plan:

  • Makes a place for all three viewpoints within the UMC and yet creates enough separation that there is clarity for each position.
  • Conferences and local churches could make a clear choice on human sexuality and yet enjoy some of the missional advantages of remaining a global church.

Cons of this plan:

  • Creates a complex structure that is more congregational than connectional.
  • It would take years of administrative work to put this in place—there would be many constitutional amendments that would be difficult to ratify in annual conferences around the world.
  • Churches may split as they try to determine which branch they will join.
    Some traditionalists would still be upset that LGBTQ people are being affirmed in some parts of the UMC
  • Some progressives would still be upset that LGBTQ people are being discriminated against in the UMC.

Traditionalist Model (not recommended by Council of Bishops)

The Traditionalist Model would affirm the current Book of Discipline statement that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Boards of Ordained Ministry would still be prohibited from recommending LGBTQ candidates for ordination. Officiating same-sex marriages would still be a chargeable offense, and being a self-avowed and practicing gay clergy would continue to be a chargeable offense. 

The Traditionalist Model would demand increased accountability to the Book of Discipline—not only for individual pastors but also for churches, bishops, and even annual conferences, all of which could face punishment.

Pros of this plan:

  • Essentially preserves the status quo, which some want.
  • Requires no changes to our structure.

Cons of this plan:

  • It’s a plan for keeping the status quo; fighting will continue and it will compromise our mission with costly trials.
  • Plan is not a plan for unity; it tells the progressives to leave
  • We would likely lose most of our millennials and the next generations

Annual Conference 2018

During the conference, we were invited to go engage in spiritual disciplines. In four sessions across three days, experts from our Conference led teaching times on these practices. During these contentious times, when speaking truth to power is more dangerous than ever—but also needed more than ever—these disciplines are crucial to engaging in true dialogue. We can truly listen to others in love, and not anger or hate, if we practice these disciplines.

The sessions were:

Conversation with Country Dark with Gregory Ellison II, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care & Counseling, Candler School of Theology, Emory University 

Know Your Spiritual Type with Ellen Shepard, Senior Pastor of Stone Mountain First UMC and Director of Women, Theology & Ministry, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

My Life with Others Neighboring, Care of the Earth, and Hospitality led by Anjie Woodworth and Andy Woodworth, co-pastors, Neighborhood Church

Examen: Fasting led by Lahronda Little, M.Div. Ph.D student at The Laney Graduate School of Emory University

Fixed Hour of Prayer with Julie Boone, Senior Pastor, McKendree UMC

Lectio Divina with Millie Kim, pastor, Second Avenue UMC, Rome

Visio Divina with Tavares Stephens, Assistant Pastor, St. James UMC – Alpharetta

Four worship services anchored the conference, each planned by a different team of North Georgia United Methodists. 

Opening Worship

The North Georgia Conference opened with song, prayers, and praise. Worshipping in several of the languages of our diverse congregations, we heard Spanish, Swahili, Korean, English and ASL. We prayed out loud in the Korean tradition.

In the Opening Worship sermon, Bishop Sue gave the charge to “Go, be good Methodists!” Preaching from Luke 18:9-14, she called the North Georgia Conference to cross any boundary, go anywhere, desperate to love people. 

Acknowledging our shortcomings and natural tendency to categorize by who’s more righteous, more holy, more close to Jesus, she said, “We always want to measure up and put ourselves a little above. … But there is another way.”

“John Wesley realized there’s a method to break us out of this bondage,” said the bishop. “Prayer, reflection, time together in small groups and worship, all remind us that we are human and God is God. … We have the method, we just have to reclaim it.”

As Bishop Sue preached, local artist and United Methodist Sarah Glass began painting on an 8’x8′ canvas on the stage. She continued the work throughout the three-day conference, completing it just before the closing session.

Opening worship was planned by Rev. Eric Lee and Arturo Quintanilla of the Chapel Roswell congregation with music from Chapel Roswell Band and a choir of youth members.

Service of Remembrance

In a Service of Remembrance that was both solemn and celebratory, the conference remembered 27 clergy, 14 spouses, and 4 of the many North Georgia Conference laity who have faithfully served and taken their places in the cloud of witness.

“With great tenderness and tremendous joy we celebrate the many ways these lives have touched us,” said preacher for the service Rev. Elaine Puckett, retired. “Sometimes collectively as a part of this church that we all so dearly love.”

The service closed with the ringing of a bell for each of the honored dead and a single bagpiper processing through the congregation.

The service was planned by Rev. Dr. Bill Britt and Peachtree Road UMC staff along with Rev. Dr. Dana Everhart of North Georgia Conference Ministerial Services and featured musicians and choir from Peachtree Road UMC in Atlanta.

Ordination Service

In the Service of Licensing, Commissioning, and Ordination, preacher Rev. Dr. Byron Thomas of Ben Hill UMC empowered the congregation.

“You are not here by accident. You are here on business,” he said. “And therefore your worth does not come from anyone outside yourself. You were born in this world with intrinsic worth or value. If you did not grow up in the best of circumstances, it’s alright. God already incorporated into your very fiber worth and value.”

He confessed that the stakes are high and that everybody is not going to welcome you, “but your very soul has business in this world.”

At the close of the service, Bishop Sue invited anyone feeling a call to ministry to come forward to meet with the Board of Ordained Ministry.

The service was planned by Rev. Dr. Dana Everhart of the Office of Ministerial Services and Melodi Lovely of St. James UMC Alpharetta and featured the St. James UMC Choir.

Service of Sending Forth

Closing worship and communion incorporated Korean, Czech, German, Spanish and English languages. The stage was set with six large, lighted letters: J-E-S-U-S. 

Rev. Dr. Rodrigo Cruz of The Nett UMC was preacher for the service.

Speaking to the disagreements in our denomination, he shared several touching stories about his children.

His family has learned that belonging together doesn’t mean they will always get along. “That is a microcosm of our conference and our connectional system,” he said.

Cruz pointed out that this is not the first time in history when a group of Christians is wondering about the future. This situation draws him to Acts 20:22-24, when Paul writes that he doesn’t know the future, but “nothing is more important than completing my mission.”

“As we face General Conference, let me tell you one more time: ‘I don’t know what will happen,'” he said. “Church, there is a future and I know nothing about it.”

What he knows is that his mission is to go out and finish the work that Jesus started.

As a pastor of a growing new church, people often ask Cruz “what’s the future.”

“We’re meeting in my living room and people ask, ‘what’s the future for this church?’ We move into a high school and people ask, ‘what’s the future for this church?’ We move into our first building and people ask, ‘what’s the future for this church?’ This year we’re going to a second campus. ‘Pastor, what’s the plan for the future of this church?'” he said.

“Here’s the plan for the future of the church,” he said. “We are going to be obedient today.”

He called on the congregation not to miss what God can do today because of what God may or may not do in 2019.

Paul didn’t have the perfect plan to move forward, Cruz continued. He had to be obedient.  “We don’t have to be a perfect church to share a perfect savior,” he said.

The service was planned by Michael Cromwell of Hillside UMC and Cruz and featured music from the Hillside UMC Worship Band. The service closed with Holy Communion.


Reports, Awards, and Presentations

Through reports to the Annual Conference, members saw the reach of the United Methodist connection from our local communities, across our Conference, and around the world.

The 60th mayor of Atlanta and active United Methodist, The Honorable Keisha Lance Bottoms, greeted the North Georgia Conference and later spoke at the annual Laity Dinner. Her faith story was a highlight of the Conference for many.

We heard from related-agencies about the collaborative mission and ministry happening across our conference including:

  • United Methodist Children’s Home
  • Murphy-Harpst
  • Wesley Woods
  • Aldersgate Homes
  • Housing and Homeless Council
  • Camp and Retreat Ministries
  • Georgia United Methodist Foundation
  • United Methodist Connectional Federal Credit Union
  • Georgia’s UM Commission on Higher Education.

Russell Pierce, on behalf of Global Ministries, presented Bishop Sue with plaques recognizing the North Georgia Conference for being in the top 10 conferences for giving in four of six mission areas. The North Georgia Conference gave $1.7 million to disaster response in 2017, the second highest amount in the denomination. 

The North Georgia Conference Churches of Excellence in Outreach awards were presented to:

  • Carrollton First, Rome-Carrollton
  • Cornerstone, Lagrange                       
  • Douglasville First, Rome-Carrollton 
  • Jackson, Griffin
  • Northside, Atl-College Park                             
  • Oak Grove, Atl-Emory                         
  • Vinings,  Atl-Marietta The Harry Denman Evangelism Award was presented to:
  • Youth – Addison Franklin of Barrow Community Church in the Atlanta-Marietta District
  • Laity – James “Jim” Davis of Dalton First in the Northwest District
  • Clergy – William Seihwan Kim of The Korean Church of Atlanta in the Atlanta-Roswell District 

Chris Karabinos, the North Georgia Conference Scouting Coordinator, was presented with The Silver Torch Award. This high honor is awarded to an adult for exemplary service in scouting ministry. 

The Conference celebrated three young adults who will serve as Global Missions Fellows:

  • Kristi Painter of Hickory Flat UMC, Asti White of Trinity on the Hill UMC in LaGrange, and Julia Falgout of North Decatur UMC.

“These are shining examples of our young people, and our institutions of higher learning that form and shape our young people,” said Bishop Sue.

The North Georgia Conference had the honor of commissioning:

  • Global Ministries Missionary Didier Monga Wa Shakapanga of the North Katanga Conference.
  • Deaconess Cynthia D. Campbell of Bethel UMC in Smyrna. 

Generosity and Vitality

The Annual Conference celebrated and practiced generosity. 

The 5K run/walk was sponsored by the Conference Council on Youth Ministries. Proceeds went to the Youth Service Fund, a fund raised by youth, administered by youth, to support youth-led mission projects in our Conference.

Gifts to our Annual Conference special offering for the Ministerial Education Fund totaled more than $74,000. Donations are still incoming.

More than 4,000 UMCOR Kits were donated primarily by local UMW units in the Conference.

The Annual Conference Red Cross Blood Drive had 71 donors.

The total amount given for Special Sundays, General Advance Specials, World Service Specials, and other forms of directed benevolence (second-mile giving) in 2017 was $9.37 Million, up from 2016. 

The North Georgia Conference ordained 8 elders in full connection, 2 deacons in full connection, and commissioned 15 provisional members.

The Annual Conference passed a budget of $21,920,651 for 2019.

2017 Statistics

  • Membership: 357,015, a 1% decline from 2016. (7 of our 12 districts had increases in 2017.)
  • Worship attendance: 107,000 (average per Sunday).
  • Professions or reaffirmations of faith: 4,627 total.

Keith Cox, Conference Treasurer/Director Administrative Services shared that in 2017, North Georgia United Methodist churches had paid 94.7 percent of the apportionment budget, the highest percentage of apportionments paid in 16 years.

Continuing the Conversation: A Way Forward

The Conference heard several times about the Special Session of General Conference in 2019. Delegation chair Mathew Pinson shared that our delegation has been diligently preparing for the 2019 Special General Conference. Pinson’s prayer is for unity. “I pray for the unity of the church. Not unity for unity’s sake, but for Christ’s sake. Because I pray for the unity of Christ’s body in the world,” he said.

On Wednesday, members of the Annual Conference took a poll to gauge the feelings of the body as we look toward the special General Conference next year. The results showed both hope and concern about the future of the church, but a desire for unity from 70% of the attendees. Rev. Dr. Byron Thomas closed with his thoughts on the future. “There is nothing we can’t overcome through Christ.”

Bishop Sue addressed the Conference on Thursday, speaking from her heart about the future of the church. She began by asking all to consider how our decisions will affect people not yet in the church.

“Being conformed to Christ is my life’s goal and I hope your goal,” she said. “The church is to be a place where all gather in the grace of God and work together companions on the journey.”

We know that the church is not of one mind on the matter of human sexuality, explained Bishop Sue, and there is not a clear answer to this challenge. But, she continued, “There’s too much at stake to draw battle lines. I urge every church to be in conversation. To presume any sort of consensus or presume everyone in any church believes one way, I think, is naïve.”

She spoke to the unfortunate history of division in the church. More than 100 years ago we had disagreement over slavery and the church split. We had disagreement over segregation and created a whole Methodist polity around segregation for which we are still paying the price. For years the church struggled over divorce and remarriage, Bishop Sue said,

Our decisions over the next year are incredibly important. My request is, please start a conversation and discuss this and gain understanding. To really see the image of God in every human being requires us to see the image of God in every human being. That is the role of the church.

Bishop Sue shared an article from theologian Thomas Oden, “Do Not Rashly Tear Asunder.” The title comes from a John Wesley quote, “Do not rashly tear our United Methodist connection asunder.”

We don’t know what exactly the future holds, but Bishop Sue sees great hope in the large majority who desire to go forward together.