The Rev. Jia Starr Brown stood before congregants at Park Avenue United Methodist Church two weeks ago and announced she was resigning as associate pastor following a complaint that she violated church policy on gay clergy.
“I cannot count the tears that I have cried,” Starr Brown told the congregation. “The burden of being out as an LGBT clergy person in a congregation that does not fully and openly affirm my inherent dignity and worth as a child of God has become more than I am willing to bear.”
That agonizing morning underscored the painful impact of a schism within the United Methodist Church over LGBT ordination and marriage. But the church is considering a new proposal that would offer a path forward, allowing individual churches to decide whether to be inclusive.
Under the proposal, pastors such as Starr Brown would be free from complaints and penalties. Churches that support LGBT rights could hire and retain LGBT clergy and marry LGBT couples without risking sanction. Churches that don’t support inclusion would have an option to leave the denomination and start one that is more traditional.
Most Minnesota Methodist leaders are embracing the plan.
The proposal is one of several expected to be considered during the 2020 United Methodist General Conference in Minneapolis in May. It reflects a growing understanding that the public schisms and personal hurt represented by situations such as Starr Brown’s are not healthy for the denomination.
Bishop Bruce Ough, UMC bishop for Minnesota and the Dakotas, last week announced he will not process any complaints against LGBT clergy or clergy who perform same-sex weddings during “this fragile time” leading up to the conference. Ough said he has received just one complaint, against Starr Brown, and asked that no further complaints be filed.
“This is a difficult and heartbreaking time,” said Ough. “I acknowledge and lament the harm that many are experiencing as we navigate this unprecedented season in our denomination.”
The Rev. Wesley Gabel belongs to the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a theologically conservative movement in the UMC. While he agrees with the denomination’s current ban on LGBT clergy and marriage, he agreed that the repercussions were becoming unhealthy.
A key strength of the new proposal is that it was a compromise ironed out by parties on all parts of the theological spectrum, Gabel said.
“A lot of traditionalists thought, ‘We don’t want to put people on trial,’ ” Gabel said. “ ‘Our call is to help people come to Jesus Christ. That diverts us away from the healing.”
Methodism is Minnesota’s second largest Protestant denomination, with about 60,000 members and 360 churches. There are about 7 million members nationally.
The UMC schism over human sexuality is not unlike divisions that have ruptured other Protestant denominations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, voted in 2009 to allow churches to perform same-sex marriages and to ordain gay clergy. The Presbyterian Church later did the same. The decisions led to departures by traditional congregations.
Although Methodists have been debating LGBT inclusion for 20 years, the issue came to a head last year. That’s when the UMC General Conference, including growing membership from the southern hemisphere, voted to tighten sanctions on LGBT ordination and marriages. A minister who performed a marriage between two men, for example, could be suspended for a year without pay for one incident, and stripped of clergy status for performing two.
The decision was embraced by traditional Methodists. But the new sanctions rocked progressive Methodists, who comprise the majority in Minnesota. A new group, called Minnesota Methodists, was formed to begin the process of “creating a vision” for an inclusive church.
The group’s co-founder, the Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard, of Hamline Church United Methodist in St. Paul, was among the pastors who shared news of the new proposal with their congregations last Sunday.
“The headlines were misleading because it sounded like it already happened,” Tollgaard said. “I told the congregation it was a proposal. It had to go through the judicial and legislative process. But I’m hopeful.”
The plan has several key features. It would provide an immediate end to processing complaints against LGBT clergy and clergy who perform LGBT marriages. Churches that want to remain part of the UMC would not have to vote to stay within the denomination, avoiding potential congregational conflicts.
It would create a new traditional Methodist denomination, with a $25 million startup grant. Churches that want to join could do so within a certain time frame.
Jeremy Brantingham, a longtime member of Park Avenue UMC, is one of the two parishioners who filed the complaint against Starr Brown and two of her supervisors. He said he felt compelled to do so because the Methodist church explicitly states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It bars LGBT clergy.
“The Bible clearly speaks against certain behavior,” said Brantingham, who no longer attends Park Avenue Methodist. “And the Book of Discipline is the church’s response to it.”
Bishop Ough declined to comment on the Starr Brown complaint, noting it is a confidential human resource issue. However, he said, “I am personally thankful for Jia’s leadership and her ministry … and I wish her the very best as she embarks on a new chapter of her life.”
Meanwhile, Ough’s office has posted information about the new plan on its website, and is planning a series of meetings around the state. Faith leaders on both sides of the issue are fielding inquiries from clergy and congregants.
Starr Brown, who was not available for comment for this story, told her congregation that she would step down at the end of this month. No further plans were mentioned.
The Rev. Judy Zabel of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, said situations such as Starr Brown’s need not have happened. She’s pleased that the new plan is “gaining strength.” She, like other Methodist leaders, acknowledge it will be painful to separate as a denomination, but inevitable.
“It’s not perfect, but it is a way forward,” Zabel said.