Algoma, West Kewaunee United Methodist churches take stand on LGBTQ discrimination
ALGOMA – Two local United Methodist churches and their pastor have taken a stand against recent changes to the denomination's rules regarding LGBTQ members, which the pastor said are not only discriminatory but against the church's ideals.
March 31, the Algoma and West Kewaunee United Methodist churches voted unanimously to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization of more than 900 UMCs across the country that disagree with the denomination's longstanding rules that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve" as clergy, as stated in UMC's Book of Discipline, and barring clergy from presiding over same-sex marriages. The two local churches are two of 20 in the state, and the only ones north of Sheboygan and Baraboo in the network.
Those rules have, since 1972, been part of the Book of Discipline, basically the denomination's rule book for living a Christian life, but they were reaffirmed and penalties on clergy who violate them were made harsher in a special General Conference of UMCs around the world in February.
Under passage of what was called the Traditional Plan, a clergy person found in violation faces a year's suspension without pay for the first offense and loss of credentials for the second, effective as of 2020.
Then, in mid-June at the Wisconsin Annual Conference — a regional gathering of United Methodist churches from the Upper Midwest — Rev. Jennifer Emert, the pastor for both Algoma and West Kewaunee, co-authored a resolution to reject the Traditional Plan and apologized "for the harm it has caused LGBTQ+ persons, their families, their friends and the body of Christ."
It also resolved that if charges are brought against a clergy person regarding those rules, funds earmarked for ministry work will not be used for a church trial. The resolution was approved by the conference.
Emert said in an interview this week at the Algoma church that besides the Traditional Plan being discriminatory — media reports on February's General Conference said the legality and constitutionality of the rules was brought up — they also directly contradict the church's mission.
She also noted that in the resolution, which says in part that "… the first general rule that (founding leader) John Wesley gave the people called Methodists concerns 'doing no harm' … Methodists promise 'to resist evil, injustice and oppression …"
The denomination holds a worldwide General Conference every four years to consider amendments to the Book of Discipline, with the next regular one set for 2020, but a special session was called last February because of increased discussion and divided opinions on the LGBTQ issues.
Emert said in her interview that some delegates to the General Conference raised the issues of penalties three times for what she called "heterosexual sins" by the clergy, such as adultery, but all three were voted down with at least a 60-percent majority. The resolution says the denomination has "singled out LGBTQ+ persons for special punitive action while ignoring the clear biblical teaching on other matters …"
"It became clear that this had nothing to do with encouraging a higher level of holiness in the clergy but everything to do with discrimination," Emert said.
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Emert said several conservative donor groups, specifically the Institute on Religion and Democracy, worked to get the Traditional Plan passed over other plans that would have allowed individual churches to set their own guidelines for LGBTQ issues. She accused them of persuading the African delegations that the money to support their ministries would dry up if they didn't support the plan.
Other plans under consideration were the One Church Plan, which would allow individual congregations to decided LGBTQ issues themselves, and the Simple Plan, which would eliminate rules specific to the LGBTQ community from the Book of Discipline.
Concerns have been raised that the LGBTQ issue could divide the denomination. Emert noted that it's a worldwide church, thus it works within different cultures and ideals.
"My sense is because we are a global church, we have people doing ministry under the name United Methodist in very different geographical areas with very different politics, very different ways of life," she said.
Getting the word out
Emert came to the county churches last summer from Summerfield United Methodist in Milwaukee, where she served for the past 11 years of her 20 total in the ministry.
Summerfield voted to join the Reconciling Ministries Network several years ago, but Emert said the Algoma and West Kewaunee churches already were working to join the network under their pastor, Rev. Dr. Patricia Knutson, before she arrived. She said her related experience at Summerfield led to being called to the local churches to help.
"These two churches had done a lot of the prep work to become Reconciling churches before I came here," Emert said. "It has to be a majority vote (of the church's congregation) to join. In our case, it was unanimous for both churches, which is almost unheard of."
Emert said the network doesn't provide much material gain, mainly educational resources, but it's also more than just a political statement.
She compared being part of the network to the movie "Green Book," last year's Oscar-winning movie in which the title book, which did exist, served as a guide for traveling African-Americans to find lodging, restaurants and entertainment that would serve them in places that practiced discrimination. LGBTQ Methodists coming to a new location can check the network's website to find churches that welcome them.
"If someone is moving to the area, or someone is visiting the area, they know where to look for us," Emert said. "(The network) has a variety of resources … but I think the main goal is to get the word out."
The churches have taken other steps. Part of the requirements to join the network is that the congregation must write a unique welcome statement that's inclusive to both the LGBTQ community and in general; the Algoma and West Kewaunee statement, printed on its weekly program, reads that it "serves God's creation and the love of Jesus by embracing and honoring all cultures, all genders, all sexualities and all abilities."
The Algoma church also has a multicolored outdoor sign that reads, "Our Doors are open 2 All Really All."
Emert said some new people have joined the congregations since they joined the Reconciling network, but it'll take more than that and the welcoming sign outside the door to help LGBTQ members feel welcome.
"We have seen some new faces, some who have stuck," Emert said. "People have all kinds of different reasons to feel excluded from the church. I think this gives folks an opportunity to suck up a little courage and say, maybe I can go back to church.
"But if they're staying away, I don't think any banner we put outside is going to convince a person that the church is a safe place to be. It takes relationship building."
Emert said she's not sure how many people in her two congregations are LGBTQ, but one of them has a same-sex couple in a leadership role. She said her year in Kewaunee County has shown her she shouldn't be surprised at their stance against the new rules.
"Looking at the demographics in the area, I think you find a lot of very conservative churches to choose from, but not a lot of choices on the progressive side," Emert said. "I think that made it easier for (the congregation) when the decision came down in February.
"My experience with Algoma is, it's such a beautiful location, folks here have lived in a wide variety of locations, have a broader base of experiences, and that tends to reduce our prejudices."
As for the next steps, the Wisconsin conference not only passed Emert's resolution but also a petition calling for the Simple Plan to be implemented, which she said means it will be on the agenda at next year's General Conference. Emert said the conference also elected a "100-percent progressive, inclusive" slate of delegates for the North Central jurisdictional conference as well as the General Conference.
She said she thinks much of the work to rescind the changes of the Traditional Plan will have to do with educating congregations about them. She feels many aren't aware of the changes, or at least what the changes mean, so she's planning a speaking tour this year.
"(The tour will) go to a variety of churches around the state," Emert said. "People can talk about their experiences, process their thoughts in a safe environment."
She also believes as local congregations and jurisdictions become aware of the changes, that a movement is building to rescind them.
"There's a wide tidal wave within the United Methodist Church in resistance to the Traditional Plan," Emert said. "People all over say this is not the church I'm in, not what I believe, not what I stand for, not what I choose to be part of."
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Algoma, West Kewaunee United Methodist churches take stand on LGBTQ discrimination