In less than five months I and others from East Ohio will be at General Conference in Portland, Oregon. During those ten days we will be asked to vote on literally hundreds and hundreds of issues. My committee assignment is the committee dealing with local church property, including endowments.
But as you would expect there is one issue that has dominated the discussion so far. I have received emails, telephone calls and had personal meetings all on a single issue: homosexuality. This is a hot button issue, one that will make the national media no matter how the vote turns out. Few United Methodists don’t have an opinion on the issue and they all want us to vote their way.
This isn’t the biggest issue we face as a denomination. We have been in constant decline since the merger in 1968. We close churches every year. We lament sanctuaries without young adults. Our membership is about to hit a death tsunami, as Lovett Weems calls it. Our budgets are balanced because a decreasing membership continues to give an increasing amount to keep us in the black or endowments funded decades ago are being depleted to meet operating costs. The average pastor in East Ohio is 57 years old. That means that more than half of our pastors are likely to retire in 10 years or so.
But I haven’t had a single conversation about these issues. Answering these challenges will strengthen us and help us indeed make and mature disciples for the transformation of the world. These are the issues that today’s young people care about as they face an uncertain future of the denomination.
To believe that we will ever be a truly united denomination around the homosexuality issue is unlikely. Urban churches, rural churches, small-town churches all view this issue differently. In fact to think that everyone sitting in the same sanctuary having the same opinion on this is unrealistic, I believe.
This is the flagship issue because we choose to make it so. Much of this energy is us wanting to make sure that “our side wins” this vote.
What if the same energy that goes into this discussion were to go into becoming a church that young people are attracted to? Or making sure 11 a.m. on Sunday was no longer the most segregated hour of the week? What if we marched in protest of churches that can’t be bothered with mission? What if our District Superintendents and Bishops focused on churches that are inwardly focused instead of serving our communities?
Come May we’ll debate and we’ll discuss and eventually we’ll vote. It will make the New York Times again and probably the national TV news. Some will feel victory some, defeat.
But none of it will matter if we don’t get a handle on the things that truly factor into the future of our denomination.