First United Methodist's Journey of Becoming Reconciling Church Just Beginning
Even after a years-long process, Rev. Norma Lee Barnhart says the church is just beginning to demonstrate its welcoming of gays, lesbians and transgenders.
A new sign on the east wall of First United Methodist Church makes a simple statement: "All Are Welcome." It's something one might expect any church to say.
It's a welcoming gesture for all who read it, but it carries an additional significance. The sign, hung on Easter Sunday, is particularly speaking to the gay, lesbian and transgender community.
The congregation of about 500 parishioners at First United Methodist has been in conversation for several years about becoming a reconciling congregation.
"After enough people were talking about it, we began to form a task force and started talking about the process," said Rev. Dr. Norma Lee Barnhart.
For the United Methodist Church, the process of becoming a reconciling church begins with an organization called Reconciling Ministries Network. According to its website, RMN is "Mobilizing United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love."
Churches interested in becoming welcoming to gays and lesbians need to provide education for their congregations through classroom work and messages from the pulpit.
"We held a series of classes on Sunday afternoons and invited the public," Barnhart said. "We used a curriculum that talks about the scriptures that are used to speak against homosexuality; how to read the Bible, how you look at it historically, contextually, literally, metaphorically; how the Bible contradicts itself; and how we use it as a yardstick, if you will, for the faith in our lives."
The turnout wasn't as large as she would have liked, about 35-40 people at any given time, but it started a conversation.
"What that did was open the floodgates—people who heard the statement from our Discipline that says 'homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,' " she said. "Some people said, 'Our Discipline says that?' "
The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline specifically states that "all persons are of sacred worth" and people of any "race, color, national origin, status or economic condition shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments …" While it states, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" it does, however, affirm the church to be in ministry to persons of all sexual orientations.
The Book of Discipline is a policy book for the church that gets changed every four years at a general conference, Barnhart said.
"The general conference is in April this year. We're hoping there will be some changes made," she said.
Barnhart knows the Elmhurst church, alone, is not going to be able to change the Discipline.
"There are certain things the Discipline says we can't do; pastors still can't do civil unions," she said. "But we can be welcoming. There are over 400 churches across the country that have done the study, gone through the process to become reconciling."
A process of engaging the congregation in discussion concluded last October, when parishioners at the Elmhurst church voted on the initiative.
"The church was filled. People came that hadn't been to church in awhile," Barnhart said.
Some conservative Methodists initially had trouble making a decision, but it ended up passing overwhelmingly, she said.
"I think we had only like seven people who voted against it."
Some of those who didn't agree with the homosexual lifestyle still voted to be welcoming, she said. Two people who voted against it have decided not to attend the church anymore.
"I spoke with them afterward and explained to them that all were welcome, including them. Even people who take the scriptures literally and believe what we're told those scriptures mean—which some of them don't have anything to do with homosexuality—that it was open for them, too," she said. "No one is telling you to change the way you think about homosexuality."
While her church voted to become welcoming, the Methodist community as a whole does not have consensus on the issue. It's reminiscent of what the Presbyterian Church went through about a year ago, when it changed its constitution to allow people who are openly gay to be considered for ordination.
"Our conference doesn't agree," Barnhart said, adding she hasn't heard of any opposition toward her church's initiative.
"Some (outside the Methodist church) have commented that they think it's a good idea, that they tried it at their church but it didn't work," she said.
She doesn't know, or need to know, how many of her parishioners are members of the gay and lesbian community. She said it's probably a small percentage. It was mainly the straight people speaking out for gay rights, she said, adding this is a "justice issue." She hopes it brings some new faces to the church.
"We're not asking, 'Are you gay or straight?' We don't assume people want to come and make an announcement about their sexuality. It doesn't matter. We just want them to know this is a place they will be welcome and they won't hear any disparaging remarks about who they are."
As for the significance of putting the sign up on Easter weekend, Jodi Parins, head of church council, said an Easter banner that listed Easter services from Ash Wednesday through Holy Thursday was up on the wall previously, but it had blown down in a big wind.
"We used the opportunity to put this up," she said.
A lot of people are looking for a sign, Barnhart said.
"This rainbow says this will be a safe place for me to go," she said.