Commission on a Way Forward initial report

After six meetings held over ten months, the Commission on a Way Forward, presented its preliminary report to the Council of Bishops (“COB”) earlier this week.  At its fall meeting, the COB considered the report’s merits, which included sketches of three models for proceeding forward, but did not express a preference for any one of the models. The Commission will submit its final report to the COB at the latter’s spring meeting to be held from April 29 to May 4, 2018.

As the COB recently made clear, it regards the Commission as an ad hoc advisory panel.  The COB reserves final say on the proposal that will be put before an unprecedented special General Conference scheduled for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.  The COB must publicly share the legislative details of its proposal no later than July 8, 2018.  Ultimately, United Methodist delegates from around the world will have the power to approve, amend, reject, or substitute with another plan whatever the COB puts before them.

A Word from our Pastor

Dear Church Family,

At the 2016 General Conference, that body created a Commission on a Way Forward. That group is made up of a diverse membership from across our broad denomination. They are routinely meeting together to address the conflicts within our denomination on the issue of human sexuality and to present their suggestions for how we can or cannot live together as a denomination because of those differences. Since that group’s formation, there have been several instances across the country where pastors, and even Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences, have acted outside of the standards of the Book of Discipline, typically with the issue of human sexuality. Our Judicial Council, our denomination’s Supreme Court, has routinely ruled that those actions are out of bounds but the implementation of any accountability lies within the special Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences, and not with the General Conference. Typically, those regional bodies are not always quick to act or to discipline.

Our Administrative Council has been talking about these issues for some time. That group will continue to seek God’s leading and will stay consistently updated on this process. We will list that full committee in an upcoming January newsletter if you would like to talk with anyone in that group. Pat McNulty is our current chairperson and he will also serve in 2018. He would be a good resource for you. I have talked with multiple Sunday School classes, and with many church members privately, about this process already. I would be very glad to talk with any class, small group or church member.

I am very thankful for our Bishop’s leadership and for his commitment to our doctrinal standards and to upholding the Book of Discipline. Please be praying for him, for our Administrative Council, for the Commission on a Way Forward members and for our denomination.

Admittedly, it is difficult to wait through these many months. True to form, we Methodists have set very methodical processes for working through these issues. I am trusting the Lord with this and I know that you will be faithful to be praying over this long period of waiting. 

Rev. Barry Male
Madison UMC Senior Pastor

A Letter to the Annual Conference from our Bishop, Rev. James Swanson

To my sisters and brothers of the Mississippi Episcopal Area,

I am currently attending an Active Bishops Learning Retreat that began at the conclusion of our Council of Bishops (COB) Fall Meeting. The majority of our time together during the COB was spent receiving a preliminary report from the Commission on A Way Forward. The official report of what was presented and discussed during our three days together is in the press release following my statement. I ask that you read that document carefully and prayerfully. Please be aware of the following points.

We did not receive a final report from the commission. We did receive three sketches of organizational structures we might use given our expressed differences on the issue of The UMC’s relationship with LGBTQ persons. 

The Commission on a Way Forward is still hard at work and needs our continuing prayer.

I ask that after you read the press release that you pause and pray for us to be what Jesus prayed in John 17 – that “we would be one.”

Bishop James Swanson

Pastoral Letter from the Council of Bishops


Council of Bishops’ Press Statement/Response to the Way Forward Preliminary Report

Placing emphasis on the values of unity, space and contextuality - all for the sake of mission – the Council of Bishops (COB) is exploring sketches of three models as possible directions for a way forward for The United Methodist Church over LGBTQ inclusion.

With the mission of God through the risen Christ at the core, the bishops this week received an interim report from the Commission on a Way Forward that offered three sketches of models that would help ease the impasse in the church, noting that the power of the Holy Spirit trumps and guides all the church’s activities. The Commission serves the COB, helping prepare the COB to fulfill its mandate to make a recommendation for a way forward to the General Conference.

Just as the Commission did not express a preference for any of the models in its interim report to the COB in order for the bishops to fully do their work, the COB is also not now expressing a preference for any model, while engaging deeply with them and the implications for their church and their leadership. This will provide the space bishops need to teach and engage leaders in their episcopal areas.

After receiving the interim report of the sketches of the three possible models, the bishops engaged in prayerful discerning and offered substantial feedback to the Commission, but did not take any vote on any of the sketches.

The moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward noted that the values highlighted in any one model also live within the fabric of the other models.  Values expressed by any one model are not exclusive to one or absent in another.  The values that may be associated with the identity of any one model are there because it may be a value lifted to a higher level of preference or differentiation among the models. 

“Operate with a heart of peace and an openness.  All three models grew out of mission, vision and scope.  Each one of these models connects to a story and experience that is represented in this body,” Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, one of the moderators told her fellow bishops.

She added: “As we talk about it, let’s be respectful of each model.  When we speak about one of the models in a less than respectful way, we are speaking of someone’s experience or someone’s conscience. How we talk about these models is important because they are representative of where people are standing and how people are experiencing the church.”

The Commission and the COB acknowledge the interaction between the values of unity, space and contextuality, and the tension this interaction often creates, as part of what completes the UMC as a denomination rather than what divides it.

The Commission shared sketches of three models, with the awareness that the Commission and the COB are not restricted to these sketches and are open to learning, listening and improvement. It is likely that additional models or sketches may emerge as this process continues. Here is the summary about the sketches of the models presented to the bishops:

One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.

Another sketch of a model removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization.  This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.

A third sketch of a model is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.

Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church.

Each sketch includes gracious way of exit for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

The values underlying these proposed models are found in two documents: The Mission, Vision and Scope document, which was affirmed by the COB; and the Status Report of the Commission, released in July 2017. As part of the ongoing discernment within the church, resident bishops are being equipped to lead discussions in their episcopal areas by emphasizing the values of the proposed models as found in these two important documents.

The Commission will process the feedback received from the bishops at the Lake Junaluska meeting and will continue to welcome further input from members of the church through conversations and discussions with their respective bishops on the strengths and limitations of each model. The basic resources for these conversations were shared in a handbook with the bishops, and this handbook will be available on the Commission on a Way Forward’s website as a PDF.

The COB and the Commission have a series of meetings scheduled for early 2018 designed to continue the preparations for the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019. This includes Commission meetings in January and March; an additional COB meeting in February before a final report is discussed at the May meeting of the COB.

The COB is committed to prayerfully seeking God’s future for the UMC and continues to invite the entire church to be engaged in praying for a way forward. “Pray for the work of the Commission and for the bishops as they continue to discern God’s plan for the future of the UMC; a future that shows love for all of God’s people and a future with hope,” said COB President Bishop Bruce R. Ough.