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Clergy session vote highlights LGBTQ divide (UM News)

June 13, 2022

The Florida Conference clergy session last week decided against approving an entire 16-person slate for advancement on the track to becoming ordained elders or deacons. The decision roiled the conference, reverberated across The United Methodist Church and underscored the denomination’s conflict over full LGBTQ inclusion.

Clergy session approval is required for those seeking provisional membership, an important step toward ordination and full conference membership.

Like some other U.S. annual conferences, the Florida Conference clergy session traditionally votes on a whole group of provisional membership candidates.

Florida clergy of different perspectives about LGBTQ inclusion agreed it was the presence of openly gay candidates in this year’s group that caused the session to fall just short of the required 75 percent vote for approval — something that’s usually routine.

Many in the Florida Conference and beyond saw the vote as a cruel injustice, postponing advancement for candidates who had put in years of preparation and been recommended by the conference board of ordained ministry, as well as by a local church and a district board.

The 16 candidates can be considered again at a future clergy session. But given the vote last week, the concluding service, which was billed as a service of licensing, commissioning and ordination, only featured candidates for ordination and licensing.

Earlier on June 11, the conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution apologizing for harm to those candidates, including delaying their careers and upending what was to have been a celebratory day with family and friends.

Two of the 16, Kipp Nelson and Erin Wagner, confirmed for UM News that they were the openly gay candidates at the center of the debate, though not by name, during the June 9 clergy session.

“It’s heart-wrenching to be one of the unnamed LGBTQ people in the room who’s being discussed. That’s a really uncomfortable place to be,” said Nelson, already a licensed local pastor serving St. John’s on the Lake United Methodist Church in Miami Beach.

Nelson, who began his journey toward elder ordination in 2015, added that he was “feeling the weight” of the entire group getting blocked for what he described as “hate for us LGBTQ people.”

Wagner, a social worker and outpatient therapist who is on the deacon track and graduated from Boston University School of Theology, said she was “heartbroken” for all the blocked candidates.

Though clergy session debate focused on two gay candidates, a third, Anna Swygert, told UM News that she has been open about her same-sex orientation, although not active on social media about it. She said she wanted to be grouped with Wagner and Nelson.

“It is particularly important, because there is so little LGBTQ representation in religious spaces, to have examples of LGBTQ people living out their calling,” said Swygert, who is working toward ordination as a deacon. She currently is assistant director of a hospital-based palliative care program for adolescents, as well as  director of community engagement at the Gator Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist ministry at the University of Florida.

Though most of the Florida Conference meeting was held at Florida Southern College, the clergy session occurred at First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, which Swygert grew up attending.

“This took place in the sanctuary of my home church … the place where my parents were married, I was baptized, I was confirmed, my father’s funeral was held, and his cremation (remains) site lies,” she posted on Facebook. “It was indescribably painful for this battle to be fought in my home.”

The Florida Conference clergy session’s vote was much discussed on social media and was protested at some other U.S. annual conference meetings late last week. The UM Young Clergywomen’s Collective posted an open letter criticizing the vote.

“We are clearly a long way away from learning what it means to embody (Methodism’s founder John) Wesley’s first General Rule: ‘Do no harm,’” the letter says.

“I could not believe that some clergy would affront the Book of Discipline by disrespecting the work of the local churches, the district superintendent, district committee on ministry and board of ordained ministry who really know each candidate, see the fruit of their ministries and affirmed their call,” said Bonates, a native of Brazil, who serves as associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables, Florida.

Bonates, who went to Asbury Theological Seminary, described himself as theologically orthodox but said he is “being transformed” by the example of LGBTQ colleagues.

“I work with one of the candidates, Kipp Nelson, and his testimony, his love and service towards others made me realize God has a purpose for his life,” Bonates said.

Nelson himself pushed back against the argument that clergy conference members were bound by the Book of Discipline to vote against approving him and the others.

“This is a justice issue, and there are countless examples in Scripture when rules were broken for the sake of justice, and Jesus modeled that for us better than any other,” he said.

Carter reported to the conference that the clergy session had a first vote of about 70 percent for approval. The clergy agreed on taking a second vote, but the result was about 72 percent in favor, a handful of votes short of the needed margin.

The United Methodist Church has faced division over LGBTQ inclusion for decades, with increasing defiance in the U.S. of restrictions on same-sex weddings and ordination.

“We are reflecting on a process that will not do more harm and that will truly serve the candidates, the annual conference and by extension the mission of the church,” Carter told UM News. “We will listen to a number of stakeholders in exploring a clergy session in the nearer term.”

The bishop noted at the June 11 service, which was livestreamed, that the controversy had attracted attention well beyond Florida.

Nelson, Wagner and Swygert stressed that many had reached out to them since the clergy session.

“The level of support I’ve received, both in the immediate aftermath and in the ongoing impact, has been a true gift,” Wagner said. “It is because of this love that I am able to remain faithful to my call.”