Nearly 300 United Methodists gathered in person and were joined by over 50 online sites around the world as the Uniting Methodists movement met November 13-14 at Impact UMC in Atlanta. The Rev. Olu Brown, lead pastor at Impact, led the planning team and convened the gathering.
Two days of worship, theological reflection, panel presentations, small group sessions, and fellowship marked this first gathering of the Uniting Methodists, who say: “We’re a church that holds together both an evangelical desire to lead people to Christ and a passion for justice. We hold together an emphasis on both grace and sanctification. Our church includes moderates, conservatives, and liberals, and we know that we are stronger because of it.”
In welcoming the group to the North Georgia Conference, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson affirmed the vitality of the church’s ministry that is strengthened by unity. The Rev. Jasmine Smothers, lead pastor of Atlanta First United Methodist Church, opened the conference with a rousing exhortation to “Get up, help carry the mat, make the way clear, and bring everyone to Jesus” as she preached from Mark 2.
At the center of the two-day agenda were lectures by Dr. David N. Field, Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy and a research associate of the Research Institute of Religion and Theology at the University of South Africa, who is also a member of the UM Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward. The lectures, based on Field’s book Bid our Jarring Conflicts Cease, grounded the gathering in the way John Wesley centered Methodist tradition in loving God and loving others. He demonstrated Wesley’s way of affirming essential theological convictions while allowing space for diversity of practice and individual conscience. Field stressed that United Methodists are drawn together around the center of God’s love—rather than by any sort of “boundaries”—so that everything United Methodists do is measured by its connection to that center.
A panel discussion and small group conversation focused on the work of the Commission on a Way Forward was led by Commission members Tom Berlin and Jasmine Smothers, with additional comments from home missioner Helen Ryde and president & publisher emeritus of The United Methodist Publishing House, Neil Alexander.
Another panel discussion included the Revs. Melissa Maher from Houston, Jason Wellman from Columbus, Ohio, and Stan Copeland from Dallas, who shared stories that led them to where they stand today. Copeland said, “The United Methodist Church cannot be brought to our knees by a culture of polarized ideologies and bow at the altar of divisiveness. If we ever hope to live into our mission and vision of ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,’ the ‘world’ is going to have to see us as relevant and different from its warring factions.”
In other major presentations, Mike Slaughter, retired pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC, underscored the authority of the Word (logos) revealed in Jesus in relationship to the written words of scripture. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., preached on the parable of the weeds and the wheat, reminding her hearers of the deadly danger of the UVT (Us-vs-Them) virus. Justin Coleman, senior pastor at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, concluded the event by leading the Wesley Covenant Service.
Participants found hope in the gathering. Josh Bell, pastor in the Florida Annual Conference, said, “As United Methodists, we are involved in the messy process of discerning how we will move forward together in a renaissance of faithful, fruitful, charitable Methodism. I believe the Uniting Methodist gathering in Atlanta was willing to wrestle with the complexities of the conversation in gracious and faithful ways, while seeking to articulate a centrist approach to a polarized conflict. As a pastor, I felt challenged to create space for these complex, difficult, necessary conversations within my local congregation.
Melissa Drake, clergy member of the Iowa Annual Conference and a member of the Uniting Methodists coordinating team, advised participants, “It’s time for all of us to pick up our corner of the mat and build uniting networks one-on-one with individuals who hold views that are different from our own, to resource vital conversations about how we can live and thrive in our diversity in local churches, communities, and our annual conferences.”