Missionary Conferences: A More Just UMC? [Guest Post]

As previously mentioned, there’s an overabundance of straight white men talking about schism and unity in the United Methodist Church…myself included. So to round out those perspectives, we’ve featured a series of voices of LGBT Methodists who find themselves “talked about” but rarely “listened to.”

To continue this series, the following is a guest post by Sean Delmorea member of Lexington UMC in Lexington, MA and a past delegate to the 2012 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference. Delmore critiques the current proposals and makes one of his own.


Structure and Schism: The Missionary Solution

By Sean Delmore

As a member of the New England Conference who also is queer and transgender, I know that powerful change already is happening in The United Methodist Church. My own conference extends an invitation to clergy candidates across the connection who have been deterred by institutional discrimination, New York Bishop McLee showed us a powerful new way of being church together, and the Western Jurisdiction made a prophetic Statement of Gospel Obedience.

These examples sing of transformation. I believe real change happens BEFORE rules catch up to lived reality. If we can live in the tension without flinching long enough, I think unforeseen, radical change could be realized.


However, there IS urgency to stop deep harms of exclusion, unemployment, poverty, violence, and health inequities caused by anti-LBGTQ animus & fueled by our Book of Discipline’s “incompatible” language. Some changes can’t come fast enough.

Yet calls for schism fail to address the fact that LBGTQ people will continue to be part of every future denomination. My employer, home life, & local church all stand united against the kind of exclusions found in our Discipline. This context of unequivocal inclusion makes me feel a moral imperative to stand with LBGTQ people & allies who struggle in contexts where it’s much more dangerous to be LBGTQ. Indeed, some of our churches are in contexts where simply being SUSPECTED of being anything other than straight can imperil a person’s life.

In order to stand with LBGTQ people throughout The UMC, I must stand with The UMC as a whole. For me, that’s a strong “no” to schism.

What about the current proposals for structural change?

  1. The Slaughter/Hamilton proposal shifts us to a congregational polity and creates a “schism of identity” by eliminating defining aspects of our relational identity.
  2. Turning the U.S. into a Central Conference: for pro-LBGTQ people, this can be appealing because Central Conferences are permitted to make changes to the Discipline to reflect contextual, missional needs (provided nothing is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules. See ¶543.7). A critique of this plan is that something similar was approved at the 2008 General Conference, but it required changes to our constitution, and the Annual and Central Conferences failed to ratify it as required.
  3. The Jurisdictional Solution would divide the U.S. into two nation-wide jurisdictions: one “more progressive,” one retaining “the present language” of the Book of Discipline. This proposal perpetuates the idea that congregations, lay members, and clergy all fall neatly into one of two “opposing” categories; would require even greater changes to our rules than the “U.S. as Central Conference” plan (especially since U.S. Jurisdictional Conferences are not presently permitted to change the Book of Discipline); and would still require Annual and Central Conferences to ratify any changes.

There’s got to be an achievable structural change that is also more just.

An Achievable Solution within our 2012 Polity

Here’s the interesting thing:

Central Conferences aren’t the only ones presently empowered to change the Discipline….

Missionary Conferences may as well.

That’s right: the Discipline already includes provisions for Missionary Conferences – which may be based in the U.S. – to adjust the Book of Discipline according to missional needs. ¶588 reads, in part:

“Missionary Conferences shall have the same rights as those given to the central conferences in ¶543.7, .8 to make such adaptations regarding the ministry and ordination of ordained ministers as the effective use of indigenous leadership in the missionary conference may require.”

I would argue that adaptations regarding the ministry of effective indigenous leadership includes changes far broader than rules on ordination.

Missionary Conferences are designated as such for reasons including “its particular mission opportunities” and “its unique leadership requirements.”

Flip open your Book of Discipline and begin reading at ¶585 to learn more about Missionary Conferences. Some highlights:

  • Creating one does require the approval of General Conference, but not ratification by Annual and Central Conferences.
  • They CAN overlap geographic bounds with Annual Conferences
  • They elect lay & clergy delegates to General & Jurisdictional Conferences

Missionary Conferences: A More Just UMC?

Let me be clear: I wouldn’t argue for a LBGTQ Missionary Conference (segregation, yuck!). Rather, the question is: what adjustments to the Book of Discipline does any given mission field require in order for The UMC to more effectively be in ministry there? Can we think about structural change proposals through the primary lens of what would best serve local communities, rather than what would resolve our internal disputes?

The creation of more missionary conferences in the U.S. could provide opportunities to break out of an emphasis on maintaining the institutional church, and allow us to refocus on mission throughout the U.S.

It also could be a powerful move of solidarity with Central Conferences, standing against the colonialism of our Annual & Central Conferences format.

Some questions:

  • What could happen if we asked every Annual Conference to become one or more Missionary Conference(s)?
  • What would be the practical and spiritual implications?
  • What if we focus on mission in word and deed, in name and lived reality?

Obviously this could be a risky strategy that would require humility, but I like that it provides new options that fit within our existing rules AND has the potential for passing the necessary voting bodies.

What do you think?

  • How might such ideas be grown into achievable plans?
  • Are there other options our structure chats have yet to engage?


I’d really really like to hear responses to this proposal…Thoughts?

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  1. Jon Altman says

    I just keep wondering what the response of those who insist on prosecution will be. Since I actually can’t fathom what the motivation is, I can’t really predict a response. The other question is, can those who insist on prosecution be outvoted?

  2. John Thomas says

    I think calling the Hamilton-Slaughter proposal “Congregationalist” is extreme.

    I do not believe the Judicial Council will uphold allowing central conference (their annual conferences) and missionary conferences to ordain LGBT people under the current Book of Discipline.

  3. ycposter27 says

    Doesn’t sound legit at all. This is a total misunderstanding of the current sense of missionary conferences, and the reasoning behind their creation. Part of the reason that creating missionary conferences doesn’t take ratification by the Annual Conferences is that there’s no constitutional element that directly affects those conferences, whereas changing the status of Annual Conferences does. This idea is a pretty nonsensical stretch.

    • Dalila Cruz says

      I agree that having everyone in missionary conferences is not a solution. The reasons for missionary conference status is clearly spelled out on the Book of Discipline and is neither just or realistic.

    • Sean Delmore says

      The Book of Discipline says that there may be strategic, regional needs for missionary conferences. This proposal may not fit with common perceptions that missionary conferences are “meant for” non-white communities in the U.S. However, my geographic region includes the most white and most secular states in the nation, who also have strong, clearly defined cultural identities – are these not regions in need of a missionary focus?

      Also, to clarify: eliminating an Annual Conference does not change our Constitution, and does not require ratification by Annual and Central Conferences. Rather, Jurisdictional Conferences are charged with (re)drawing boundaries. So General Conference approves the creation of missionary conferences, and where applicable, a Jurisdictional Conference would redraw boundaries (though I think in many regions it would make strategic sense to have both Annual and missionary conferences).

      • Carolyn Frantz says

        I agree with previous posters that the purpose of missionary conferences appears not to apply in is situation (TGBLQ inclusion). However, I appreciate your creative approach to a problem that seems intractable and deadlocked. Your post has made me really think about what missionary conferences are- and why they are. It appears that all our missionary conferences exist to serve disadvantaged persons and are supported with Advances (they are not expected to support themselves); two out of three are specifically for Native Americans. I’m unclear as to why Native American members require their own conference other than that they would struggle to support themselves, and that is an expectation of ACs. What does separate leadership really do for them? Perhaps this is simply a way to allow tribes to find ways to stay together within the Christian belief structure. Further, why is it better to provide outreach in this fashion rather than including these folks in our ACs and reaching out to them as fellow AC members? Is this another example of ingrained classism and/or racism? I’m not saying the missionary conferences are bad, I’m just wondering what purpose they are really designed to serve and whether they actually do what they are designed to do. Despite the ongoing oppression of Queer folk in the UMC, it would be more difficult to make a case that progressive folk should get their own missionary conferences because they are economically disadvantaged. In any case, I think that this proposal and the paradigm of missionary conferences themselves deserve further thought and prayer.

  4. Nathans says

    Great post! You said something at the beginning that I think is a very apt description of the UMC’s current predicament:

    “I believe real change happens BEFORE rules catch up to lived reality. If we can live in the tension without flinching long enough, I think unforeseen, radical change could be realized.”

    While I like your proposal and think it is worth discussing, it still suffers from the same problem that the Hamilton/Slaughter “A Way Forward” suffers from:

    1) Pro-reconciliation people like you and me believe someone’s sexuality is a part of their God-given identity. We believe that LGBT inclusion will eventually be universally accepted and that it’s another example of God continuing to shape and guide his Church––something he’s been actively doing throughout church history (the early church’s acceptance of Gentiles, the Protestant Reformation, the condemnation of slavery, the acceptance of women as church leaders, etc). This is why most pro-reconciliation Methodists believe we’re on “the right side of history” and are trying to find a “third-way” proposal to slowly help the United Methodist Church make this inevitable transition without the denomination breaking apart.

    2) Anti-reconciliation people believe homosexuality is a sin one chooses to engage in and that it’s incompatible with the Christian lifestyle. Paul instructed us to “not conform to the pattern of this world,” and these Christians see themselves participating in the long tradition of Biblical heroes who refused to give in to the sinful culture of their day. Most traditionalists will reject all “third-way” proposals for the same reason they would reject a proposal for full reconciliation––because they believe homosexuality is a sin, and acquiescence of any kind would be tantamount to “[conforming] to the pattern of this world.”

    Therefore, none of the proposed legislative solutions meet the needs of both groups. We still seem to be stuck between two choices:

    a) Either we satisfy the traditionalists by maintaining the status quo and buckling down on policies that discourage the sinful practice of homosexuality (which would result in the continued oppression of LGBT people, driving them from the church and God),

    b) Or we move for full inclusion of LGBT persons and acknowledge that being LGBT is just as incompatible with the Christian lifestyle as your gender or age (which would drive traditionalists to break from the UMC and group into destructive, theological echo chambers that would continue to oppress LGBT people).

    There are several examples in the four gospels where the teachers of the law test Jesus with questions that seemingly have only two possible, unsatisfying answers. In Matthew 22, Jesus is given the choice of either paying taxes to Caesar and submitting to the authority of Rome over God, or not paying taxes and risking arrest for subverting the authority of Rome. Jesus’ response shows that paying taxes and honoring God’s authority are not mutually exclusive. In John 8, Jesus is given the choice of either obeying the law and stoning an adulteress, or granting her mercy but disobeying the law. Jesus responds in a way that causes the crowd to empathize with the woman and grant her mercy. These are just two examples of Jesus being presented with a false dichotomy, and in both instances he recontextualizes the question by adding God to the equation.

    So how would Jesus respond if he were asked to solve our current predicament? How can we lovingly help our Christian brothers and sisters who are fearful of reconciliation to see and understand that there is nothing to fear from affirming LGBT peoples while we also continue to love and affirm LGBT peoples? Because any solution short of that is going to leave someone feeling hurt and betrayed by their church.

    In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul has some great advice for dealing with these types of conflicts while answering a question about eating meat sacrificed to idols:

    ”We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.”

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that it’s got to include unconditional love and understanding for those we disagree with. Trying to solve this problem by manipulating or amending the Book of Discipline will not change the hearts and minds of our fellow Christians. Don’t forget that they need our love and support just as much as our oppressed LGBT brothers and sisters.

    • Sean Delmore says

      I agree that this is not a solution to broader challenge of differences around what we believe about healthy human relationships and love. Along with many others who are braver and stronger than I, we continue to intentionally be in relationship and hopefully transform hearts and minds along the way.

      At the same time, I have held literally dozens of LBGTQ United Methodists in my arms while they sobbed, sharing their stories of homelessness, unemployment, family rejection, and loss of faith in God – all problems rooted in the church’s “incompatible with Christian teaching” language. People are being profoundly harmed, and in the case of injustice so great, I look to advance equality along many fronts as possible.

      One thing that I like about the missionary conferences idea is that isn’t really about LBGT equality – it’s about a (re)focus on mission that is responsive to the contextual needs of the mission field. Some mission fields would require a pro-inclusion stance, others not. At some point, how many United Methodists really want to stand in the way of a movement toward mission?

      • says

        Yeah, it’s that last point that you made that’s really got me running this around in my head, Sean. I don’t hear you suggesting — in fact, I think you explicitly rejected — the idea of a “LGBT Missionary Conference.” Rather, you’re suggesting that a particular region, such as New England, might have particular missionary needs (not necessarily financial — the Discipline has language about financial support but makes clear that it’s up to the conference to submit a financial request and GBGM to approve that financial support). This is well-founded theologically, sociologically, and strategically — see any of dozens of authors writing about the end of Christendom, the re-definition of mission, the church’s response to secularization, the interaction between emerging adults and spirituality, etc. It goes deeper than divisions over human sexuality and gender expression and addresses the unique challenges of the church in different parts of the U.S.


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