What a Split Within the Methodist Church May, or May Not, Mean Locally

Guest Column by Rev. Geoff Helton

Last week national and local news outlets ran stories about an impending split within the United Methodist Church. The Spokesman-Review ran the headline: “A Rift That Won’t Heal.” I’m writing to you today to explain what is happening and what this means for us locally.

The truth is that the global United Methodist Church is hurting and it has been hurting for a long time. For decades we have been deeply divided on issues of human sexuality and the inclusion of LGBTQ persons. On the global level, even at the national level, we have been unable to live with one another in harmony in the face of these differences.

The stories that have run in the last two days are only a part of the most recent wave of negotiations and plans to try to navigate the UMC through the mess we’re in. Last week it was announced that a small, secret group of bishops and other leaders from a wide variety of perspectives had been meeting and had negotiated a plan for separation. This group was not commissioned by General Conference or any official body of the UMC, and many leaders in the United Methodist Church were as surprised by yesterday’s press release as you and I were. General Conference, which meets every four years (except for special-called sessions), is the only body that can make these changes. General Conference next meets in May of 2020.

What this group of 16 leaders proposed was a plan of separation that would allow the Wesleyan Covenant Association and other strong conservatives to leave and start a new denomination. It also allows for strong progressives to leave and start their own new denomination. If you want more specifics about this plan, you’ll find the press release from the UMC Council of Bishops here. But, this plan is by no means final! This was a small group of people who took it upon themselves to try to find a way through the impasse we’re in. They’re also not alone. This is not the only plan out there. I’m aware of at least nine different plans that are being proposed to General Conference. The big news is that the plan announced yesterday has already garnered wide support from the Council of Bishops. If history tells us anything, however, it’s that the General Conference rarely follows the recommendations of the Council of Bishops or even its own task forces and commissions. So there’s no telling what may happen in May when General Conference meets.

So what does this mean for my church – Audubon Park United Methodist Church? Well, our bishop and the leaders of the Pacific Northwest Conference, of which we are a part, have committed to ensuring that our churches and their members can be who they feel called by God to be. This means that churches and pastors in our area will not be forced to oppose or support same-sex marriage. It also means that churches in our area will not be forced to accept an LQBTQ pastor. Our bishop, leaders, and delegates to General Conference are actively working to ensure that this vision for our area can continue.

Audubon Park UMC is a place where all are welcome and a diversity of perspectives is present. As a church, we have members with different opinions about human sexuality and so many other issues. We are democrats and republicans, progressives and conservatives. But at Audubon Park Church, we have all found a church family that loves and supports one another through these differences and at our best, we learn from one another even though we sometimes disagree. We are united by our belief that all people need the love of God. Our pastors and our Core Leadership Team are committed to ensuring that our church is a place where all people can come to know the love of God and the support of a caring community.

So, I would encourage you not to get too preoccupied with what may happen, but let us trust God’s grace and love in the face of an uncertain future. Let us continue to treat one another and everyone we encounter with the same love and grace that we have received from God.

About Geoff Helton

Rev. Geoff Helton has served as Lead Pastor at Audubon Park United Methodist Church since July 2013. He also regularly teaches as an Adjunct Professor in Whitworth University’s Theology Department.

Pastor Geoff is an eastern Washington native, growing up in nearby Kennewick, WA. He graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in Religion and is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary with a Master’s of Divinity (M.Div) and a Masters of Theology (Th.M) in Old Testament. Geoff was ordained an elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference in 2012

He met his wife Meagan in Hebrew Class at Whitworth. She currently works for Whitworth University in the office of Continuing Studies. They have two daughters: 7-year-old Elizabeth and 4-year-old Rebekah.

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