Ask A Theologian: General Conference Outcomes

Written By Boston Avenue

Ask A Theologian

Advice from Boston Avenue's Theologian In Residence

What do you think about the actions taken at the just-concluded United Methodist General Conference?

Response:

My first response simply is: Dear Friends, it has been a painful, expensive road to get here. Yes, I am with those who celebrate that our denomination has officially changed our positions regarding marriage, ordination, and sexuality, removing exclusions of LGBTQ persons. GOOD! There are countless persons who so identify, and their families, that our stance has injured. We’ve lost many good clergy to other denominations. Not a few persons took their lives, unable to escape the moral disgust of church people who saw/see them as an “abomination.” There are longtime clergy friends who are friends no longer, one party or the other feeling betrayed by the actions the other took. I am glad to move forward and argue about something else—which we surely shall! I am also glad to move forward without the acrimony, charges of apostasy, and dueling positions claiming to be on God’s side. I am glad my LGBTQ clergy, church friends, and fellow allies do not have to live either elsewhere or as members of the UMC’s loyal opposition.

And, as we in Oklahoma are painfully aware, The United Methodist Church lost a quarter of our congregations nationwide, more in our section of the country.

One other expense is who we think about who we are. We the church should feel the pinch when we recite creeds that claim the church is one, universal, holy, and apostolic. These are ancient “marks of the church.” One might claim, and I am more and more likely to join the position, that these marks belonged to the aspirations of the imperial church, the official church of the late Roman Empire. That was the church where the emperor could and did define who and what words were “in” or “out.” Unity was emperor-defined. Surely, from the demise of the Roman Empire, the division into East and West, and then in many multiples from the Reformation and into the modern era, making the claim that the church is one is possible only for those who posit there is somewhere a “real” yet invisible church. I do not.

My second response is: we’ll see what the outcomes are. The United Methodist Church today is less than half the size in the U.S. that we were when I was a kid, when we were among those who defined “the mainline.” My doctoral adviser once told me: “Here is my take on the Methodist Church. You used to run the show. You don’t anymore. No one has told you.” Well, he said that 30 years ago. In the intervening years, more of “us” have heard that message. But we still sometimes talk as if we are mainstream religion. Statistically, as a church of about 5 million people in a nation of over 330 million, “mainstream” is an impossible word to justify. What is the position of The UMC, or our congregation, vis a vis our culture? How much supporter, how much critic? These are essential questions worthy of argument.

My third response is: while general church boards and agencies have been shrinking in personnel since the 1960s, we are in the midst today of a radical restructuring and downsizing. The General Conference approved a greatly reduced budget, citing the aftereffects of the pandemic and disaffiliations. There will be fewer bishops covering larger territories. The operating budgets of the 13 United Methodist seminaries will require scouring congregations for dollars to replace cuts and will increase pressure to reduce the number of seminaries. Graduate seminaries, along with thousands of church buildings and structures, were designed and enlarged for a church-friendly culture that no longer exists.

Our Theologian in Residence

Gary Peluso-Verdend is the President Emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Since 1993, he served at Phillips as a program director, the dean, development executive, president, and founding director of the Center for Religion in Public Life. For five years (2000-2005), he was the director of church relations at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. Gary retired from Phillips in February 2023.

Gary is a retired ordained elder in The United Methodist Church (Northern Illinois Conference). He earned his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1991. He attends Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa where he teaches adult church school classes frequently.

Gary serves on the board of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice and on working groups for the Braver Angels Alliance in OK and Compassionate Tulsa.

He and his wife live with their daughter in Tulsa, in the fourth (and last) house-in-need-of-updating they have owned. Gary’s three grown children and their families live in the Chicago area.

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