Some 1,400 attend 'Courageous Conversations'

From the Mid-Maine District gathering. Photo courtesy of Barb Lemmel.

April 05, 2019

What are you still wrestling with?
What do you need to move forward?
What do you still need to resolve?
Those questions were posed to United Methodists in New England at a series of “Courageous Conversations” events created to allow people to unpack the 2019 special session of General Conference and share their thoughts and feelings.
The decision by the 2019 General Conference to uphold the church’s stance that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and to strengthen enforcement of the bans on same-sex unions and ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy was not supported by most New England United Methodists.
An estimated 1,400 people attended the 10 events held around the Conference between March 7 and March 24, 2019. Most conversations had many more attendees than were expected.  
The Cabinet created the vision for listening sessions in all the districts using the Courageous Conversations process from the Rev. Dr. Scott Hughes, director of adult discipleship for Discipleship Ministries. 
The organizational team for the Courageous Conversations drew from the team that has facilitated Circle Process at Annual Conference sessions with additional members to ensure representation from the LGBTQAI community, of both lay and clergy, and from as many districts as possible. 
Rev. Barb Lemmel, who led the organizing team (see the list of members below), said the Courageous Conversations process is very similar to Circle Process in helping people talk across difficult topics, but is based around how adults can listen and learn from each other.
“I think [the conversations] did really fulfill a hunger from people to be heard. My sense is that folks came in very good spirit,” she said. “It felt like it met a need.”
Dr. Hughes helped work on the outline for the events and conducted an online training for the facilitators, who were recruited by team member Rev. Tom Bentum. Rev. Lemmel noted that because of the overwhelming attendance at most events, people who had facilitator experience were asked, onsite, to lend assistance.
Participants were told at the outset that these gatherings were “brave spaces.” Rev. Lemmel described brave space as a place for “speaking our truth bravely and also bravely hearing other people’s truth that might not please us.” People are asked to speak with concern and compassion for others, but participants are alerted that they may hear things that are displeasing or even offensive to them.  
The gatherings were scheduled for two hours; the time included a short worship, a video from the New England Conference delegation to General Conference 2019, and discussion of the following questions in randomly assigned table groups:
  • What has been your reaction to the special called General Conference? 
  • How do you think the actions of General Conference will affect you and your congregation and ministry? 
  • What does the way forward look like to you? 
Participants were also asked to give written responses, submitted anonymously, to the questions listed at the top of this story. Answers were wide ranging, but some themes emerged; examples of those can be found below. 
Rev. Lemmel said it’s important to note, however, that the majority of participants were those who were disappointed by the passing of the Traditional Plan, and the gatherings did not fully represent the views across the Conference.
What are you still wrestling with?
“What will this mean for upcoming youths in The UMC if we are not able to make changes and accept all?”
“Is there really any way as a global church, we can find a way to remain united?”
“What happens to gay or lesbian pastors who are actively serving? Please do not punish them. God chose them as he did us.”
“How to communicate with those who don’t agree with me.”
What do you need to move forward?
“Prayer. A forgiving heart.”
“I believe the Traditional Plan is best and am feeling unheard and persecuted because my opinion is different from the majority.”
“I need to know that the Conference will help churches & individuals navigate these times.”
“Assurance that we will not discriminate pastors and churches and congregations that disagree with the majority.”
What do you still need to resolve?
“Can I remain in a denomination that intentionally discriminates against people, or do I need to leave?”
“How can we claim to be ‘inclusive’ if conservatives are not able to express their view?”
“The whole ‘church’ supporting it financially. Why should I?”
“Why we don’t live up to our motto [Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.]?”
In addition, there were questions about the Judicial Council process, the implications for pensions and other assets, and the legal ramifications of schism. 
Rev. Lemmel said the Courageous Conversations were designed as a “first step,” and organizers were clear that these events were not about developing action plans. 
But the desire to take action was another theme that clearly emerged from the responses: 
“Can we collaborate with like-minded congregations and do something?”
“What do individual churches need to do?”
“How we can have a dialogue and then act on it. What is the plan of action?”
What those actions might be will likely be shaped by the upcoming decisions from the Judicial Council. The Traditional Plan is on the two-item docket for the council’s next meeting April 23-26, when the nine members will consider the “constitutionality, meaning, application, and effect” of that plan and of Petition 90066 regarding disaffiliation of local churches that seek to leave the denomination.
The Mid-Maine District will host a gathering to unpack the Judicial Council decisions on May 5 in Brunswick. (Click the link to learn more). If other similar gatherings are planned, we will update this story and share that information through the Conference’s weekly newsletter
Also note that the deadline for submitting resolutions and petitions regarding the actions of the 2019 General Conference for consideration by the Annual Conference has been extended to May 1, 2019. 
Courageous Conversation team
Rev. Tom Bentum
Steve Dry
Rev. Barb Lemmel
Rev. Jim McPhee
Pastor Myung Eun Park
Rev. Jill Colley Robinson
Rev. Erica Robinson-Johnson
Rev. Beverly Stenmark
Pastor Alicia Velez Stewart