WHY I AM LEAVING MY CONFERENCE

jen2011_150BY REV. JEN STUART

Rev. Stuart is the Associate Pastor at First UMC, Austin.  She recently wrote this letter to her congregation to explain why she is transferring from the Southwest Texas Conference to the Pacific Northwest Conference.

I joined this church on Valentine’s Day 1999. My husband and I came with a curly-haired two-year-old daughter and lots of questions about God, marriage, and life in general. We found a community that held us and cared for us during the most trying times of our lives and celebrated with us during the good times. I have learned about trust, speaking the truth in love, and the cost of discipleship. It is the lessons that God has taught me through this church that give me and my family the strength and courage to move across this great country in order to best follow God’s call.

When I started seminary six years ago, I was so excited about the ordination process. I knew I had finally found my calling and I loved my job here and could not wait to be ordained. I adored going to Annual Conference each June to sit and learn with my peers about the work of The United Methodist Church in the Southwest Texas Conference. But this last June my confidence in the direction of the Conference was shaken.

Last spring, the Austin District Committee on Ordained Ministry recommended my classmate, Mary Ann Barclay, who is on staff at University UMC, to be a certified candidate for ministry. But at the Annual Conference session, the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry voted to remove her name from the list of certified candidates without meeting with her. Why? Because Mary Ann was gay.

Make no mistake, we have GLBTQ clergy, but they know they must stay closeted. Mary Ann’s honesty disqualified her from being treated with dignity and respect and being judged on the merits of her abilities and the fruits of her ministry. So Mary Ann’s humanity, her intelligence, and her passion and love for God are dismissed and she is treated as if she is unworthy of the Board’s time and attention.

I walked into the clergy session at Annual Conference a little late on the first day to find the pastors voting on whether to sustain the Board of Ordained Ministry’s action regarding Mary Ann. Unbelievably, a very slim majority of the pastors in this Conference voted to sustain the Board’s action, because the Discipline still says that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” I was shocked and appalled that we would treat a child of God in this manner.

Now I have an amazing ability, it’s a gift really, to put aside unpleasant facts and situations that I don’t want to deal with. Some might call it avoidance. I like to think that I do not perseverate on things over which I have no control, but God would not let me ignore this.

I had been working on my commissioning papers for months, but as the deadline neared, I was finding it increasingly difficult to answer some of the questions, in particular the questions about polity and the Discipline, in the ways that I knew I needed to in order to be commissioned. It is understood that if you are theologically progressive you should keep your answers short and sweet and lie by omission about your feelings on the Discipline and homosexuality. I was also taking a class on ethics last fall. One of the questions was, what do you believe and what are you willing to sacrifice in order to stand behind that belief…and I started feeling sick. Literally.

Then the verdict came down in the Frank Schaefer trial and for some reason, probably again my ability to ignore unwelcome facts, I was stunned. I wondered if the United Methodist Church still had a place for people like me. I am called to pastor artistic people. I am called to encourage those with the gifts of song and poetry and painting, and for all of history a large part of that population has identified as gay. For perhaps the first time in recorded history, we are part of a country that is making it safe to be gay, and affirming their God-given rights to love each other, yet my beloved church refuses to see this, and I cannot help but mourn this deeply. How can I continue to ask people to join a church that does not afford them the same rights that it gives to so many others? What does it say to them that I can marry murderers and any other kind of sinners, but the sin of loving someone of the same sex is so evil that I would lose my credentials if I affirmed their love?

So I prayed and talked to my husband, and my children, my friends, and my bosses, and I prayed some more, and in the end I decided that I could not in good conscience be ordained in the Southwest Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. Not when they won’t even meet with gay people. This is not a decision that I make lightly. I’ve been United Methodist since my birth and I will not give up; this is my church too, but I must make vows with integrity. We have been fighting over the words that were inserted into the Discipline in 1972 my entire life. It seems apparent that the majority, as history has shown time and time again, will not afford the minority the same rights that they enjoy.

So I have found a place in the Western Jurisdiction where the Bishops are standing by the clergy who dissent from this policy and where district superintendents and many clergy are practicing what we call “biblical obedience.” I love Bishop Dorff and I cannot blame him for his stance when over half the clergy in this Conference clearly support what the United Methodist Discipline says in this matter. I do not wish to make sacred ordination vows in a place where I cannot clearly speak my mind about the equality of all people in the eyes of God. Thus my family is moving to the Pacific Northwest Conference where Bishop Hagiya has been vocal about his dissent from the Discipline in these matters. I honestly do not know if this will make one bit of difference to anyone other than my own family. I do not expect that all of you will agree with me and that is okay. I have to live with myself and right now I feel very strongly that God is calling me to make this stand. It may do absolutely nothing in the fight for full GLBT inclusion in the UMC, but it is what I am called to do. There are many others that will continue to work on the ground here in Texas.

I am very aware that there are many other issues that the church must deal with, but none of them involve excluding a wide swath of the population from ministry and marriage. I really never expected to be an activist. I have no wish to leave behind all of my family and friends. I am not gay.

I am so grateful to this church for your prayers and support, because I need them. I would not be the person I am today without all of you. This church has brought me face to face with Jesus more times than I can count. Being here has given me the courage to make the decision I have come to today, knowing that God is with me and that this church family will continue to love me even if you do not agree with this decision. First Church will always have a place in the hearts of the Stuart family.

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29 thoughts on “WHY I AM LEAVING MY CONFERENCE

  1. God bless you and your journey, Rev. Stuart. I imagine had I made it to my ordination exams, I would have been faced with the same struggle. I attended Saint Paul School of Theology in KCMO from 2002-2006 and graduated in May of 2007. I am thankful for the education I received there, especially for that which was not strictly part of the curriculum. I had many LGBTQ friends and one straight roommate whom I assisted in organizing an advocacy group. Of course, it could not be an “officially sanctioned” organization, but I believe it was of great benefit.
    I was discontinued from the Iowa Annual Conference in 2012 – the “official” reason being “not ready for ministry.” The actual reason, however, is because I have ADD and my mentor, who was a strong advocate and member of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, retired the previous year. The next round of exam interviews I was told I was being discontinued. I find it hard to believe there’s no connection.
    Did I make mistakes? Certainly. But I do know that there were parts of my ministry that were effective, especially when it came to grief counseling.
    I pray that you find a welcoming home in your new Conference. As for me, I’m just floating around like a lost soul, not having been able to find gainful employment – especially in light of what I feel is God’s call on my life. But I have been convinced that the Church truly is the only human institution that shoots its wounded.

  2. I’m glad you are standing up for you beliefs. Too bad Texans can’t seem to get with the times and the true heart of God.

  3. Blessings on you as you make this change, Jen. I hope some in your conference hear your words, and respond in loving ways to your discernment and decision.

    (from a retired member of Cal-Pac in the Western Jurisidiction)

  4. Thanks for your honesty and for taking the time to write so articulately about your struggle and decision. And welcome to the Western Jurisdiction.

  5. Good for you. Karen and I are coming home to Austin Texas and we look forward to helping the SWTC into the world of full inclusion. I only hope that the passion for our GLBTQ brothers and sisters translates into a similar dignity and respect for our desperately poor brothers and sisters.

    1. John I have heard so many wonderful things about you and Karen. Welcome home! If you are looking for a church home that cares about all of God’s people I know that you will love the people of FUMC Austin who work in ministries of mercy and justice for all God’s people.

  6. I would love to send you a copy of the sermon I was allowed to give on Dec. 22, 2013 at the Arnold Mills United Methodist Church, in Cumberland, R.I. where I am but a parishioner (with a very brave pastor!) My e-mail is xxxxxxxxxxxx if you are interested! You have taken a brave stance, and joined the ranks of many of us who wish to follow Jesus, and know it IS all about LOVE! Thank-you for your letter,
    Blessings,
    Jo-Ellen Tramontana

  7. Welcome to the Pacific Northwest! The Langley, WA. UMC (my church) is a reconciling church that proudly and graciously welcomes ALL to our fellowship. In fact, we recently conducted the first gay marriage for two wonderful men who are loved and supported by our congregation. May you find peace and fulfillment here is some of God’s most beautiful country.

  8. God bless your ministry, your courage, and your love of every human. I am a 4th generation Methodist….my great, great grandparents converted from the Southern Baptist Church for a reason.( or two). I have no doubt that if my great-greats, my greats, my grandparents, and my parents were still alive, they would stand up and cheer for you. Thank you. Blessings on your move, and your family as you continue God’s work.

  9. So proud of you! As a gay closeted clergy in the Western Jurisdiction, you give me hope! Thank you. All of us gay UMC clergy thank you!

  10. As one who worked in the Southwest Conference I am not surprised……I left the church knowing that I was a good “pastor” of many and also knowing it was my calling after realizing that I was not accepted. The church, which was my home, in one moment supported me and then turned on me quickly. The Pastors that were my mentors also turned quickly from being supportive to the ones that no longer speak to me. There a handful of folks that are still Rev. that I will not name in fear that they may receive repercussions that support the GLBT community and I am so thankful. BUT, I wonder day to day where I would be today if I was still allowed to be the pastor that I should have been.

  11. People are not perfect. Do not despise small beginnings. You are exactly where you need to be right now! Love includes people, it does not exclude people. God is love. Educate, educate, educate.

  12. I struggle with staying in the Church – I would not support any organization that discriminates – and here I am – a member. I wish you peace and love in your decision. Please know you are not alone.

  13. I came to faith as an adult. Being exposed to the Southern Baptist tradition, I clearly knew that wasn’t for me. I church shopped for quite a while before I chose the UMC as my place of solace. I am emotionally and spiritually exhausted by all of the judging that is going on in our country and wonder how many people we have alienated from our church doors in the name of righteousness. Especially from the ones I look to for reconciliation in all spiritual matters. I want to ask them all, what is it about Mark 12:29-31 that you don’t seem to understand? i will pray for you my Sister during your time of transition. Thank you for your courage. Many Blessings to you and your family.

  14. My partner and I may just have to come to the Pacific North West for you to marry us! Im a life long methodist, Church of the Servant, in OKC, and will not give up the fight for acceptance……..Bless you and your family and may you enrich the community in which you share your love of the lord!

  15. Years ago, I sat in a UMC Worship Commission meeting and the subject of Reconciling Church was first brought up. I was appalled at the thought that any Christian church would turn away anyone who had faith and was looking for a place to worship … especially a UMC church. I found out that in our church, a few sons and daughters had been asked, over the years, to leave our congregation because of their sexual preferences. We worked and lobbied our congregation and became a reconciling church within the next couple of years. It was not an easy persuasion, but if no one takes a stand, there will be those who are excluded from our church. Some times you have to do what is necessary to get in position to make changes. Yes, it is political, but what is not these days. If you never get in the Texas Council, how can you encourage changes?

    We need to change the Doctrine not ignore it. The best to you in your move, but I wish you could have stayed and stood up for the GLBT folks.

  16. As a lifetime United Methodist with a 44 yr old gay son (who is a wonderful young man & undeserving of the hypocritical standing of a so called church of God) I have not attended a worship service in the church since moving to Georgia in 1997 because of their stance on the LGBT community. My entire life I had always felt pride in our church as one of open arms, non-judgmental actions…unlike many other religions I have found….especially here in the South. But that is not true & until there are more people who are willing to take a stand such as you, it won’t change…..at least until the older generations of clergy are no longer here. And hopefully by then there will be enough of the young people still attending & not having been totally alienated by the hypocrisy altogether. I congratulate you on doing the “right” thing. I always ask myself “what would Jesus do?” & I feel confident you are doing what he would approve of!! God Bless!

  17. As a Local Pastor in the Western Jurisdiction, I support you in your discernment of the Bible’s teaching regarding equality for everyone. Welcome to the Western Jurisdiction.

  18. May God Bless you for your honesty and integrity! I know that God will work through you in your ministry to heal and bless many people. You are not alone in your fight for the soul of our beloved denomination. May God continually give you the strength to keep fighting the good fight.

  19. I am a male to female German transsexual, now 48 years old, having been a single parent of 4 kids – and I started transitioning in April 2013. Profs. Rice Friberg and Gavrilets published their theory on epigenetics widely ignored especialy by churches around the globe which explains why homosexuality, transsexuality intersexuality and heterosexuality ARE ALL STANDARD POSSIBLE OUTCOMES OF NORMAL HUMAN FETAL DEVELOPMENT once it is conceived in the mother’s womb.
    For the first time in history ever is there reliable scientific explanation why homosexuality, transsexuality intersexuality are not some kind of “sin” but a possible normal development for every human to be born. So hats off to all of the ministers who stand up for all of those people who struggle with a life they have not chosen for themselves, just because society and especially churches won’t grant them the right to be loved by the creator- just as much as every other human being. Once people got tortured for claiming that the earth orbits the sun, I believe this is something similar here only 500 years later with a different issue. Just as Jack Hoffmockel wrote in his reply I also found it to be true for us transsexual people: we are just as much in need of acceptance and of the need to be loved by the creator as anybody else – maybe even more, because it’s so hard to understand why this is happening to us – we only know it does – and the only way out of this dead end street is to transition, otherwise we’ll never, ever be happy – and we could use the support and love of churches and church members to walk that path and feel accepted and loved while doing so – unfortunately we’re being “gunned down by the churches more than we’re being helped” as Jack put it. And gay/ homosexual people – find themselves in the same situation.
    So thank you Rev. Jen Stuart for standing up to your believes, may your action make people start putting their believes to the test and may it find many followers to let us humans grow closer together no matter what color, sexual preference or gender we are – all part of creation loved by the creator.

  20. Jen is a wonderful pastor and an even better human being. How many of us compromise our beliefs every day? I commend her for her bravery and her commitment to remain true to herself. God has fully expressed what unconditional love should look like with Jen. She has always opened her arms and her congregation to any and everyone. Jen and Life in the City have been a source of strength for my wife, for me, and for our marriage. God is truly working through Jen. May her journey towards truth never end and the light of the Lord in her heart never be extinguished or dulled by anyone.

  21. Pastor Jen, we applaud your strength of conscience and character, and wish you and your family the best in your move to the Northwest Conference. We treasure Bishop Hagiya and his support for this truth.

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