Building the welcoming church
The past year has been an exciting and successful one for Methodists in New Directions (MIND). We doubled our membership to 400 and widened our outreach with an e-mail list that has grown to over 700. With Bishop Richard Wilke headlining for us, our annual conference witness gave us unprecedented visibility in the New York Annual Conference (NYAC). At the same time, we intentionally shifted more of our focus to the slow, hard work of congregational development, an emphasis that will continue in the coming year. As we build on the work of the past year and increase our coordination with both the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) and Church within a Church (CWAC) we believe we are on the threshold of MIND’s most powerful and transformative year ever.
The theme MIND developed for the 2008 annual conference session – “we talk the walk, let’s walk the walk” – led us to a useful formulation of the framing idea that grounds all of our work, but most especially our congregational development work: WELCOME. We are about building the welcoming church, about reflecting God’s radical, all-encompassing Welcome in our lives and ministries here and now – walking the walk. It’s an idea that is as concrete and simple as thinking through what makes a gay person who walks though our doors one Sunday feel welcome, and as expansive as imagining what a welcoming Book of Discipline would look like.
Sharing our stories
MIND participated in the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) Called to Witness program with a training session in February, attended by 45 people. The “All Means All” training was geared to build support for the proposed amendment to the UMC constitution that needed the approval of an aggregate two-thirds majority of all annual conference votes to pass (Amendment 1 would have changed the constitution to say “All persons upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection”). The core of the training gave people a set of skills to help them identify and share personal stories effectively with others.
We modified the Called to Witness training to tie into MIND’s congregational development work and used it to add to the ranks of those who had already signed up to volunteer to share their stories with other congregations. In all, we have three dozen people committed to helping our congregational outreach work in this way.
The more immediate work in support of Amendment 1 culminated in the NYAC annual conference session passing the amendment by a better than two-thirds majority (it failed nationwide, however). Our work to pass Amendment 1 was one piece of a full four-day schedule of witness and protest. Dozens and dozens of volunteers worked in the months before annual conference as well as during conference to make it our most visible witness ever.
The hub of our presence was the MIND table set up throughout annual conference in the arena where the plenary sessions and worship services were held. It was staffed by volunteers at all key times and was constantly buzzing with people coming to get resources, check the schedule of events or find out more about MIND. Our theme of welcome was highlighted through posters that said “welcome” in over 40 languages and copies of welcoming statements from NYAC reconciling congregations. The colorful, creative display mirrored our energetic, joyful and unapologetic presence, which stood out for all who attended the annual conference.
The conference business included the passage of two petitions addressing LGBT concerns. One called for the conference to work for marriage equality in New York State, and the other to support those who cannot in good conscience subscribe to the anti-gay proscriptions of the Book of Discipline. Their passage adds to the already substantial and longstanding official reconciling record and witness of our conference.
Regular conference business was suspended for a special dialogue session on the third day. This time, established by a petition passed at the 2008 annual conference at the initiative of MIND, MFSA and the conservative Wesley Fellowship, set aside 90 minutes for presentations, small group discussion and an open-mike period. We chose to make our opening presentation a collage of stories that lifted up the lived experiences of welcome and particularly unwelcome of LGBT Methodists, their parents and pastors. By all accounts, the MIND presentation was powerful and moving.
Visiting Bishop Richard Wilke preaches inclusion
The highlight of MND’s witness, though, was Bishop Richard Wilke’s presence and advocacy on our behalf. A mainstream figure in the UMC, Wilke is well known, universally respected and much admired for his co-authorship of the popular Disciple Bible Study. His presence at MIND’s invitation was powerful and his message of full inclusion undeniable. He was our guest speaker at MIND’s annual lunch; Rev. Gil Caldwell introduced him and among those in attendance was NYAC Bishop Jeremiah Park.
After MIND had invited Wilke to be our speaker, Bishop Park reached out to Wilke as well to invite him to preach the sermon at the culminating ordination service on the conference’s last day. After years of imploring our conference leadership to include some kind of official acknowledgement of the exclusiveness of the ordination ceremony, for our bishop to invite MIND’s guest speaker to take center stage at that event was a significant development. Introduced in that service by MIND’s own Rev. Richard Parker, Wilke twice in his sermon lifted up the need to welcome gays and lesbians – probably the first time those words were ever spoken from the pulpit at a NYAC ordination service.
As in past years, MIND also coordinated two acts of witness that focused on visibility for the cause of LGBT justice in the church. The first was our “t-shirt day,” when hundreds of people wore the trademark purple MIND t-shirts (“closed doors, broken hearts, we mind”). The second was the armband witness, offered for the fifth year in a row. The armbands are blue to symbolize tears: tears of joy as we celebrate with those being ordained, and tears of sorrow as we mourn with those also called by God but rejected by the church. Once again it was a powerful, moving and above all hopeful sight to see so many blue armbands on the white clergy robes as they processed into the arena at the beginning of the service.
Beyond annual conference: the day-to-day work
MIND’s annual conference work is our most visible effort, but the heart of our work is in living more fully into God’s radical welcome the other 361 days of the year. As noted, this past year we have turned more of our attention to doing that through our congregational development work. We established a congregational development committee, which worked with a number of individual churches to help them assess and take the next steps in building a welcoming community. Our involvement included sending speakers to meetings, offering advice on the reconciling process and brainstorming with individual pastors one-on-one.
As part of this work we also started to collect and recommend resources for churches and clergy addressing issues around homosexuality and church inclusiveness. We purchased and compiled six sets of resources that were personally hand delivered to each district superintendent by a team of MIND members from his or her district. We asked the DSes to make these available to clergy in their districts who might be searching for such resources.
As we have in past years, MIND marched in the annual New York City Gay Pride March and coordinated annual Gay Pride services at three local reconciling congregations. We also held the second annual MIND picnic, and later in the summer, an all-day leadership retreat to help us discern direction for the coming year.
MIND continues to expand the circle
In 2010 we will continue our congregational development and outreach efforts. We are coordinating once again with RMN in sponsoring a Called to Witness training program; this year we will fully integrate the training into our organizational work.. MIND has also initiated an effort to plan a symposium on hate crimes, bringing together the many different communities affected by this kind of violence; we are in an ongoing process of building a diverse planning team to spearhead this project. Our growing membership is being matched by a growth in our organizational infrastructure, including plans for a MIND Web site, and increasing longer-term strategic planning. It is an exciting period for us.