Last week was a very bad time to be United Methodist. I am not United Methodist but I gave my heart to them years ago. Over the last 32 years of ministry I have spent the majority of that time serving as a pastor in United Methodist churches and as a chaplain at two hospitals connected to the denomination. Decades ago the Methodists graciously recognized my ordination and allowed me to serve as clergy all these years. I believed the connectional nature of the Methodist church was powerful and that we were together doing God’s work all around the world.
Last week’s General Conference vote broke my heart. The church actually voted that LGBQT persons could not marry nor be ordained. This is not a new stance in the UMC but change has been brewing for sometime and many of us were hopeful that something new, fresh and open might be finally born this time. Yes, it is complicated. Yes, it is not finished. It will likely drag out excruciatingly long and painfully as most things like this do. Maybe a new kind of American Methodist church will emerge from this. I pray it does.
There were so many words and feelings expressed last week. I found the hardest words to take were those who pointed out that the UM tagline Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors was a farce. What a black eye for the church. The vote and the politics around it hit me like a ton of terrible, messy, mud-coated bricks.
Lots of pastors made statements, videos, tweeted and blogged about it. I wanted to but I had no words that weren’t filled with anger and outrage. I told myself just to shut up for a while.
When I was 3 years old, my mom had a gorgeous baby boy. He had blonde hair, bright blue eyes and the best smile. I’m not sure what everyone else in my family thought but as far as I was concerned he was my baby. I watched out for him and held him close to me at all times. When he was three, I taught him to read. I thought I was a great teacher but it turns out Russell was a very bright individual.
Russ and I are like-minded, imaginative, share a similar sense of humor. Our childhood was filled with fun make believe. He was baptized, loved and a part of all the same church families I was growing up. We both flourished and found our voice in youth group, on youth trips and at youth church camps. When I began to perceive a call to ministry, I served as an intern at a church one summer, testing that call. Russell served in the same church internship a few years after me.
When he was in college, he bravely let our family know that he was gay. This at a time when it seemed like a stunning thing to do. Our family messily handled it, each taking in that news in our own way. In the end we loved our boy and were not going to let him go anywhere without us.
When he met his life partner we had a wedding. I officiated along with another clergyperson, an act that would cause me to lose my ordination credentials if I were really United Methodist. As I watched my mom and dad walk my brother down the aisle, I stared at the three through tears thinking just how far love will take you.
My dad spoke at the reception and quoted Forrest Gump’s mom, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.” He went on and said he didn’t know this was what our family would get but we are receiving it all with love and celebration.
Last week when the General Conference of the church I have served so many years made their awful declaration, I did not have anything to say because I was grieving in a personal and a professional way.
In the end I felt like the real words I needed were words of apology to my brother. If I worked for a company that poured toxic waste into a river and killed someone’s child, I would need to apologize. If I created a product that ended up causing cancer or other harm, I would need to apologize.
Can you imagine working for a denomination that openly voted to declare some of God’s children unfit? Using the very same scriptures that would have prevented me, a woman, from answering God’s call to preach and teach? The very same scriptures that declare slavery as a norm…the very same scriptures that prohibit divorce? Seriously?
When I apologized to my brother, he said simply “It’s tragic and bad for the church but love will prevail.”
The church could have had my brother and his gifts. Somewhere the church shoved him out and said “No thank you.” He is now the CFO for the global accountancy profession. It seems rising to the top of the international business world is easier than fighting the church. When those outside the church see love more clearly than those in it, I fear the church is doomed.
When I talked with two of my adult children about the church’s decision they both asked with hurt and dismay in their voices, “Why Mom? Why would the church do that? Does the church not know this is not what matters?” Again, I had no words to help them.
This is not an issue, a hot topic or something up for debate or vote. No one gets to decide the worthiness of someone else. This is my beloved brother. This is your daughter, your boss, your friend, your parent, your child, your nanny or grandchild. These are people.
United Methodist Church, you have broken my heart.
Dr. Cindy Ryan is a pastor, wife, mother of three, Mimosa/Mocha to Pace and Keller, sister to Richard, Russell and Cathy, breast cancer survivor.