Keeping an Eye on the United Methodists

Several weeks ago I sat inside an auditorium in the mountains of North Carolina and paced. I rarely sat down, although the concrete floor did my back and hips no favors. I chatted with, hugged on and lamented beside a host of other progressive United Methodist clergy and lay persons as we watched the multi-day gathering. Here, on the grounds of Lake Junaluska, a gorgeous lake-side community, the Holston Conference of the UMC was engaged in its Annual Conference. The work of the conclave generally consists of committee reports, budget reviews and ordination services. But every four years the agenda also includes an election process for the delegates that will attend and determine the broader initiatives of the global church – General Conference.

Lake Junaluska

General Conference is held in the same year as the United States presidential elections; therefore the next GC will occur in 2020. Rarely are General Conferences held outside this 4-year cycle, but as we all know, this year (2019) was the exception. The world watched this past February as the UMC Special Session of the General Conference (SSGC) inflicted deep harm on our LBGTQIA+ colleagues, church members, community members, friends and family when it passed a plan that would not only affirm the discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline, but would also create a heightened punitive landscape for clergy and bishops who defied the rules and supported LBGTQIA+ persons in full and affirming ways. The delegates elected over the last month at Annual Conferences will be replacing those who participated in the SSGC vote in February.

Progressive leaders in the Holston Conference carried totes full of buttons, ribbons, stoles and stickers.

Many saw the February vote as a referendum on a more conservative and evangelical tone within the United Methodist Church. Highly conservative organizations such as the Wesley Covenant Association (WCA), Good News, and the Confessing Movement celebrated. Progressives and queer folk doubled down on their resolve to liberate the UMC. Both of those responses were expected. The centrists, however, found themselves in interesting space. Many had never had to publicly state their positions. Many recognized that their all-too-lengthy silence on the topic of sexuality had created an echo chamber. Many came to a realization that it was time to speak up and step forward in support for an inclusive church.

The results of this newfound energy has been evident. As of June 20, 2019, at least 75% of the newly-elected US General Conference delegates identify as centrist or progressive. A number of historically “traditional” conferences have elected full slates of centrist/progressive delegates. An historic number of LBGTQIA+ delegates have been elected. In Holston, where I make my home, we elected 12 delegates (6 clergy and 6 lay) with the split being 9 centrist/progressive and 3 conservatives.

Additionally, nineteen individual conferences passed resolutions that denounced the Traditional Plan or supported LBGTQIA+ leadership. Even more beautiful, many ordained people that the Traditional Plan says are ineligible to be ordained because of who they are.

While these numbers are hope-filled, there are obviously a host of other concerns that must be mitigated between now and next summer. We really won’t know whether the “Traditional Plan” will be overturned or not. There are simply too many variables to consider. Rev. Jeremy Smith, writer at Hacking Christianity, reminds us that the United Methodist polity structure remains “a gerrymandered system that will be very difficult to make more equitable.”

For now, however, we will continue to stand alongside our LBGTQIA+ kin and work our tails off to bring liberation and equity to all in the UMC. We have confessed the harm we have done and continue to do to our siblings and have covenanted to faithfully keep our baptismal vow to follow Jesus Christ in resisting “evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

May it be so.

Peaceful, public action at Holston’s Annual Conference where a timeline of UMC discrimination was displayed.
Peaceful, public action at Holston’s Annual Conference where a timeline of UMC discrimination was displayed.

One Year

It’s been one year since I walked out of my District Superintendent’s office and texted my husband. “It’s over. I’m done. I’m sorry.” I’d been removed from pastoral ministry for presiding over a same-sex wedding the previous November. I remember texting my husband, my pastoral mentor and my squad of friends in our group chat. I said something different to each of them, but the short and sweet message I sent to my husband is the one I remember most.

I was mad. I was sobbing. I was embarrassed. You see, I had left my six-figure corporate job only a few months earlier because I wasn’t able to fully engage in my call to ministry. I’d left a cushy and comfortable gig for an unknown path of work in the streets and in congregational connection. It had been a really big deal for me to walk away from such security. I’d promised my husband that we’d be okay. I’d promised him that my work with the church would be one of a few pieces of work that I’d bundle together in order to ensure that our mortgage still got paid and we didn’t default on any bills. I’d sworn that this leap of faith would not harm us.

It’s over. I’m done. I’m sorry.

In making a conscious decision to pastor people – in all ways, at all times, #365, I’d broken hearts in the churches I served. Some understood and were radically supportive. Some were furious with me. Some asked how they could help. Some asked me to quietly go away. Some called me courageous. Others called me dangerous. Some were desperate to not see me go. Others called me “capable of sabotage.” Some asked how they could support me. Others wished I’d never become involved in the church I loved. Sometimes the kingdom of God can feel like a bipolar existence…

It’s over. I’m done. I’m sorry.

I was forced to find courage where I had never had it before. Inside I was emotionally hemorrhaging and somehow had to triage my heart in a way that I could have conversations with people who weren’t at all happy with me. I was forced to report several death threats that I received online to authorities. I had to sit before church committees that consisted of people who once loved me and stand strong in the midst of their anger and unkind words. I had to tell my father, the conservative current patriarch of the family who taught me to love Methodism, that I’d been fired. My story was shared online by people who had absolutely no idea who I was or what the tone of my heart was. They said brutal things. I was interviewed again. And again. And again.

It’s over. I’m done. I’m sorry.


I spent time with the women who I married. I listened to their anger, their frustration and their tears. I cried with them. I heard the anger of my group of friends they wondered who could have possibly disliked me so much that they anonymously turn me in. Who lacked such a backbone and was such a coward that they were unable to make themselves known? Who disliked LGBTQ persons so much that they would seek the firing of a straight pastor as a form of punishment and then NOT have the guts to disclose who they are?

It’s over. I’m done. I’m sorry.

If you had asked me in the immediate aftermath if God was speaking into me, I would have said that I wasn’t sure. My wounds were screaming so loudly that, looking back, I might not have heard the voice of the Holy even if I’d been listening. I know that now. And yet, like the resilient people we are, the wounds began to regenerate and graft. I no longer felt the fresh rawness of hurt and instead felt the recognition of a hurt that once was – the phantom acknowledgement of a newly formed scar that would mark me forever. It remains tender but healed.

That is now over. I’m not done. I’m still sorry.

I spent this past week engaged in the ugly and unnecessary battle over human sexuality at the United Methodist General Conference in St Louis. There were times where I felt as if someone was yanking on my scar to a point of pain. I was convinced it would break back open. I was certain that they knew exactly how to poke at me in order to split my heart wide again. When I would be close to the breaking point, a public witness would spawn me to action. When I was close to tears, a strange arm would wrap around me and somehow ward off tears that were guaranteed to spill over my bottom lid. When I felt defeated, JJ Warren (or a cloned version) arose from the delegate floor to breathe life into me.

Each day I began to understand what had happened over the last 365. Like grief tends to do, one day you weep and another day you dance, never noticing the time in between that healed you into movement. I still struggle to figure out how the bills are getting paid each month. I still lament the friends who left my side, not yet to return. I desperately miss pastoral ministry in all its beauty and challenge. I also intimately understand that my straight, CIS privilege afforded me the capacity to break the rule in the first place.

It’s been one year since I was fired for doing the right thing. It’s been 365 days of waking up and realizing that I don’t have a congregation to pastor to. It’s been 52 weeks of Sundays, still showing up and worshipping alongside the congregations that I’m no longer able to serve. It’s been 12 months of mortgages, car payments, bills and prayers. But it’s also been thousands of hours of recognition that there is SO MUCH work still to be done. There are so many hearts who don’t yet see the humanity in all. There are so many Christians who would much rather quote biblical law than follow the example of the Savior they claim to serve. There are opportunities every day to lift up the voices of queer leaders of color. There are chances in every moment to acknowledge that I should be a follower in this work as much as I should be a leader. There are hearts yet to be changed. There is justice yet to be attained. There is hope yet to be fulfilled. As such,

It’s NOT over.

I’m NOT done.

I’m NO LONGER sorry.


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Words Matter – And the Words of the UMC Episcopacy Are Not Enough

We are mere weeks from The United Methodist Church convening in St Louis to discuss the overdue changes to the Book of Discipline. People are arriving at their camps of opinion with firm belief – most unwilling to budge or negotiate. In other words, the body of Christ has gotten ugly. Mean.

In an attempt to quell the fears of queer folk, our Bishops issued a letter of “strength for the body of Christ”. Some will believe that this letter is a good first step. I mean, when you are talking about decades of harm, “first steps” are always good, right? <insert eye roll>

 Here’s my problem. This letter uses language that is as centrist as is comes. It’s safe. It doesn’t challenge anything. Not to mention, it will make the episcopacy feel as if they have done their part in this battle. It sets them up to be able to say “But, we wrote a letter! We said we love them! We said we want peace!”

Here are my problems:

1. Confession does not equal accountability or repentance: The bishops “confess participation in the harm (they) have done to one another and to the LGBTQ community.” And yet, confession and repentance aren’t the same thing – not even remotely. In the bishops’ desperation to be done with the shame they know they partially caused, they confessed. But this letter appears that they’ve done so, exhaled and closed the book. This should be just the beginning of the conversation they are having, not the end. The lack of accountability in this letter causes me tears and anger pangs.

2. Safe space does not exist: There is no talk of the ways in which queer folks haven’t been SAFE in congregations for generations. That their very bodies have been in danger. That there have been no steps to mitigate or establish a precedent for how hate crimes against them are punished within the walls of the church. Sure, there are rules for general criminology, but we all know that the vast number of crime against queer folk in our congregations is either 1) unreported or 2) reported and then skewed so as to not highlight identity as the reason why.

3. The commitment is shallow: The letter states that the bishops “commit themselves to help people who disagree with each other to have conversations that include, honor, and respect people with different convictions”. How, exactly, do they intend to do this? Why should the previous actions of some of the very people responsible for the harm done to LGBT+ folks not be expected to continue? Why should some of the very bishops who helped to draft the even more harmful (hard to believe that’s even possible) Traditional Plan be trusted to commit to this kind of help? Is honorable and respectable conversation even helpful?

We have been having conversations for decades. We have been fighting for YEARS. We have been harmed and brutalized, minimized and chastised. We have been engaged in a fight for the rights for all while others have been doing their very best to shun and discriminate. We have been begging for visibility and equality in this denomination in ways that would embarrass the Christ we follow.

Yes, I’m tired.
Yes, I’m frustrated.
Yes, I’m mad as hell.
And no, I won’t give the bishops of the United Methodist Church a pass simply because they found it in themselves to extend a leafless olive branch to a body of humans who are worth the entire damn grove.

Are We Who We Say We Are? A Journal Entry From the Border

She stood, immersed in trauma, waiting for an answer. Her young son clung to her leg, visibly overwhelmed and scared. She carried only a small bag of food. Her son held nothing other than his mother’s trembling hand. Their eyes told stories that most of us would look away from. Their tears held years of violence. Their bodies shook with anxiety and their shoulders hunched with a sadness of those who had been treated poorly most of their days.

After a four-month journey from their home country of Guatemala, in what must have felt like a lifetime, they had traversed to the apex of the Sante Fe Bridge. The bridge joins Juarez, Mexico with El Paso, Texas. Two armed border control agents stopped them at that apex, demanding papers. If papers could not be produced, they were to head back into Juarez, where they would spend another night on the street. Another night. After so many nights.

It was divine providence that our group spotted her. One of the leaders of the team from Hope for the Border, our host organization, had a keen eye and immediately asked who among us had legal training. As we came to stand alongside her, this group of faith leaders who had traveled to El Paso for to learn, hold public witness and demand justice for migrants, we were unsure of exactly what to do. What we learned next would crush us emotionally and empower us spiritually. She was 4 months pregnant, as a result of sexual violence by a family member. Pregnant. A young, unwed woman. A woman who was fleeing violence at the hands of the powerful. A woman whose road looked so different from mine, but so similar to the one who carried our Savior.

Our work on the top of that bridge turned from support to advocacy within a breath. She was seeking asylum, fleeing the terror of her life. The United States border control agents responded with “sorry, we’ve met our quota. We are full. There is no room for you.” As we prayed with them and asked for a supervisor to speak with, time moved on. A supervisor appeared, with an attitude that was not forgiving. Three more officers joined, demanding that we all proceed down the bridge and leave this woman to reenter Juarez. Two spokespersons emerged from our group – Rev. Jacqui Lewis and Camilo Perez-Bustillo. With the wind of the Holy Spirit behind them, they spoke with the officers and firmly, but lovingly, demanded that the mother and son be allowed to enter Customs and Immigration and petition for asylum. This misfit group of collared clergy folk and justice advocates were not going to let them stay on the street for one more night.

Asylum is considered for women who are pregnant, so with much frustration, the border control officials finally agreed to allow them to descend the bridge and enter the Customs and Border Protection building. We showered the family with love and some cash, knowing that their future was still perilous. Three options were possible: 1) she was turned around immediately and sent back to Mexico; 2) she was detained, likely having her son separated from her or 3) she was put into a process to grant asylum whereby she would be transferred to a shelter to await a court hearing. Our hearts broke as they walked away. As they looked at us, one more time, with eyes so big and full of uncertainty.

If we are people of Jesus how does this NOT break our hearts?

People often say to me, “Anna, when did you become such an activist?” My answer is simple: the day that I started holding the stories of others and allowing those stories to shatter my heart. I can’t imagine the ways in which Jesus’ heart broke on a daily basis, but I can imagine a fraction of the pain. Our call to hold both public and prophetic witness in the face of heartbreak is the work that Jesus has called us into. If we are a people who take seriously the words of Matthew 25:29-46, then we can no longer do our work solely from a pulpit or keyboard. We must find ways to engage in the work of prophetic faith in public and sometimes uncomfortable ways.

I’m convinced that the work of the Church is nowhere close to finished. And I’m convinced that the words of Jesus have told us exactly how we are to be engaged in that work. But above all, I’m grateful for the witness of others, both those who have preceded us and those who stand alongside us in these spaces. Go now, let us ALL be about the work of Jesus.