Utah’s United Methodist pastors ‘disappointed’ over LGBTQ vote, but will their congregations bolt?

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Rev. Rusty Butler and the congregation at Christ United Methodist Church were awash in rainbows during Sunday services, March 3, 2019 in a show of solidarity for its LGBTQ members. Last week in St. Louis, international delegates for the UMC voted to continue the faith’s ban on same-sex weddings and ordination of LGBTQ clergy. Many pastors and congregations in Utah and the U.S. were disappointed by the vote, which could ultimately cause a split in the ranks.

In the coming weeks and months, there will be an air of uncertainty hanging over the meetings and worship services of Utah’s United Methodist churches as members await the fallout of this week’s international vote to maintain the faith’s ban on same-sex weddings and ordination of LGBTQ clergy.

“We are disappointed with the vote,” said Pastor Dennis Shaw of Hilltop United Methodist in Sandy. “My congregation, by and large, wanted to see a change; they wanted to see the exclusionary language go."

More than half of the 800 delegates at the church’s special session in St. Louis voted in favor of the so-called Traditional Plan, which called for keeping the LGBTQ bans and enforcing them more strictly.

Had an alternative proposal — called the One Church Plan — been approved, it would have left decisions about same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy up to regional bodies and would have removed language from the church’s law book asserting that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

“Essentially [we are] where we were before General Conference,” said Shaw, who pointed out that the UMC is a global denomination. About 43 percent of the delegates in St. Louis were from foreign countries, mostly Africa, and those representatives overwhelmingly supported the LGBTQ bans.

“It’s not who we are in the Methodist Church in the United States," Shaw said, “and it’s certainly not who we are in the Methodist Church in Utah. It’s problematic."

Shaw said his congregation believes Christ’s message is more inclusive. “Jesus was touching the lepers, and reaching out to those on the margins of society,” he said. “We don’t see [Jesus’ message] as exclusive; we see it in an inclusive way.”

Formed in a merger in 1968, the United Methodist Church reports about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S. While other mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopal and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches, have embraced gay-friendly practices, the UMC still officially bars them, even though acts of defiance by pro-LGBTQ clergy have multiplied and talk of a breakup has intensified.

In recent years, the church’s enforcement of its LGBTQ bans has been inconsistent. Some clergy members have conducted same-sex marriages or come out as gay from the pulpit, The Associated Press reported. In some cases, the church has filed charges against clergy who violated the bans, yet the denomination’s Judicial Council has ruled against the imposition of mandatory penalties, which typically called for an unpaid suspension of at least one year.

The Traditional Plan would require stricter and more consistent enforcement.

The Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, pastor at Salt Lake City’s First United Methodist Church and Centenary United Methodist churches, attended St. Louis conference. She said that if any churches were to defect, they would be the conservative ones — not the progressive or centrist churches in the U.S.

She said the conservatives already have put “major pieces in place” to start a new denomination called the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

“Their effort to break us apart backfired,” she said. “It really galvanized the progressives and the centrists and gave us more resolve.”

Tracy Hausman, pastor at Park City Community Church, has received more than 80 emails and texts from congregants concerned about the vote and what it means for them.

“Let me assure you that nothing will change when it comes to our church’s commitment to work for love and inclusion of all people within our congregation, our community and around the world,” she wrote in a letter posted on the church website.

Rusty Butler, senior pastor at Salt Lake City’s Christ United Methodist Church, said his congregation shares similar concerns.

“A lot of people are feeling grief,” he said. “I certainly am, especially for the young people. The Traditional Plan is simply more punitive than what we have been living with" for decades.

Butler said now that the church’s legislative branch has taken action, the vote will be considered by UMC Judicial Council, which will deem whether it is constitutional. That should happen in the next few weeks. “At that point in time," he said, “local churches will have a better idea about what will unfold.”

No matter the outcome, Butler said his church will continue to be a safe haven for LGBTQ members. Butler wore rainbow colors — an LGBTQ symbol of pride — to services Sunday and several congregants did as well to show their support.

“We will be public in our resistance to the idea that LGBTQ people are less than,” he said. “And we will continue to do same-sex weddings and unions.”