A perspective from Pastor Sungho Lee (Concord UMC, Cal.-Nev. AC)
Last year, we had a “holy conferencing” session at our annual conference. Annual conference delegates were mixed in small groups. No one person was from the same church in a group. Clergy and lay were all mixed. The purpose of the holy conferencing was to share honest opinions about the human sexuality.
I was in a group where one of the group members shared her frustration. She wore a rainbow stole and was very outspoken. She said, “I do not understand why some people do not accept the LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters. God is love. We should love everybody. What part of the love don’t they understand? Why are they so stubborn and legalistic? Can anybody help me at least to understand them?” Then everybody in the group looked at me. I was the only Korean American pastor in the group. Korean Americans have a diverse spectrum of opinions on that issue, but people believe that “all” Korean Americans are traditionalists. That belief is simply not true. However, I can say that I understand both progressive and traditionalist positions.
I told her this story. I am serving a congregation with many elderly citizens. When I walk with them, I have to slow down. If I walk at my natural pace, I would be walking alone, leaving many of my church members behind. They would shout out to me, “Wait for me, Pastor Lee!”
I have felt this way many times at our annual conference and general conference. Our progressive brothers and sisters are walking faster when they talk about human sexuality. Our traditional brothers and sisters walk slowly when they talk about LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters. We walk at different pace on this issue. This issue does not mean that progressive brothers and sisters are more progressive in all areas. On another issue, illegal immigration, suddenly some of the so-called progressive groups became so defensive and did not want to allow undocumented foreigners to come to the USA. Some of them wanted to build a wall and not a bridge. I can tell that we are all fast-walkers on some issues and slow-walkers on some issues. Traditionalists are fast-walkers on evangelism, but progressives are slow-walkers on that issue. Some progressive groups oppose proselyte type evangelism. We all have our preferences. When we value unity, however, we need to slow down or speed up to walk with others with a different pace. We all know that God guides us toward full inclusion of all persons. We know the direction of this walk. However, it is the pace of the walk that matters. Sometimes, I want to say to my progressive brothers and sisters on this issue, “Wait for me, I am out of breath!”
When I gave my story, she opened her eyes widely and smiled. “You are the first person who makes me understand why they are so stubborn! They are out of breath! I walked too fast for you! I am sorry. But can you speed up?” We all laughed in the group. Our secretary recorded what we said.
After the Holy Conferencing session, I thought about the Exodus walk. I read Exodus and Numbers. I wondered how the Israelites could walk in the wilderness together. When I read the Bible, I found that God had to stop the walk many times so that the slow walkers could catch up and continue the journey with fast walkers. The pillars of fire and cloud sometimes stayed for many months. In this way, they were able to walk together for 40 years in the wilderness. That example has been our journey together in the United Methodist Church for the last 40 years. Now we have come to the point of decision making. We arrived at the Jordan River, figuratively speaking.
Recently, UMC leaders have met and have proposed a Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Our traditional brothers and sisters now say, “Progressive colleagues! Please go first! I will catch up later.” This idea was expressed in the 2019 General Conference as a “Gracious Exit.” Now, they signed the protocol and want to walk at their own pace. The protocol is a modified version of the “Gracious Exit.” This protocol does not mean that our traditional brothers and sisters stop their journey. This protocol does not mean that our progressive groups are superior to our traditional colleagues. On some issues, the progressives walk faster than the traditionalists, but on some issues, they want to walk slower than the traditional group. It simply means that we walk at different paces, but we will walk together until the end as one body.
When the Israelites arrived at the Transjordan, the Gadites, the Reubenites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh decided to stay there. Moses was angry at them first, thinking that they did not want to be a part of the journey and that they wanted to discourage the whole nation. However, when Moses found out that those two and half tribes were still willing to journey together until the end of the journey, Moses allowed them to have Transjordan and gave the kingdom of King Sihon of the Amorites and the kingdom of King Og of Bashan. (see Numbers 32)
I interpreted the Finance Agreement that the protocol suggests as the agreement between Moses and the two and half tribes concerning the “land of Transjordan.” The Methodist denomination pursuant to the protocol will use the money to vitalize the new Methodist denominations. Whether we are on the east side of Jordan or on the west side of Jordan, we will work together. The protocol allows ecumenical support between the post-separation UMC and the Methodist denomination pursuant to the protocol. Boards and agencies will be shared by Methodists of all expressions.
This protocol, a compromise, is one way how we keep unity with diversity. If adopted, some groups will stay at the Transjordan. Some groups will cross over the Jordan River and move to the land of Canaan. Different areas will be assigned to different groups for God’s mission and ministry. Everybody has a difficult job to do. However, I am confident that we all can “make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world” in this new structure!
Rev. Dr. Sungho Lee is an ordained elder and full member of the California Nevada Annual Conference. He is now serving as the pastor of the Concord UMC in Concord, CA. He was the former president of the National Association of the Korean American United Methodist Pastors Serving Cross Racial Appointments (NAKAUMPSCRA). He graduated from the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary with the Master of Divinity degree and from the Northwestern University with a Ph.D. in the area of the Hebrew Bible Interpretation. He is married to the Rev. Dr. Hyesung Lee, who is the pastor of the Brentwood Community United Methodist Church in Brentwood, CA and a Ph.D. in the New Testament Interpretation. As a co-author of the Longing to Meet You, a small group leader training book published by Abingdon, Rev. Dr. Sungho Lee is working with the Korean Ministry Plan (KMP) to train small group leaders all over the world. He believes that a small group is the place where disciples of Jesus ware born and made for the transformation of the world.