Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson talks with members of the United Methodist Church during a town hall meeting at the Hillside United Methodist Church in Woodstock Sunday, March 1, 2020. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Bishop at town hall: There will always be a United Methodist Church

Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson made two promises during a packed town hall meeting of United Methodists to discuss the future of the denomination.

First, there would always be a United Methodist Church and, secondly, she would never ask any pastor or congregation to go against their conscience on the issue of human sexuality.

“Satan’s greatest weapon,” she said is to have a divisive issue that “has us at each other’s throats.”

More than 800 people attended the town hall at Hillside United Methodist Church in Woodstock.

The denomination is threatened with a split over the issue of ordination of LGBTQ clergy and whether a pastor can perform same-sex marriages. It’s an issue that is decades old among United Methodists, but appears to have come to a make-or-break point for the world’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

Haupert-Johnson, who said she values diversity, wants all people to feel welcome and included in the United Methodist Church, which she compared to a big tent. She assured those gathered, however, that she would never ask a pastor to violate their conscience to perform a same-sex wedding or force a congregation to accept LGBTQ clergy.

“We’re better together,” she said. “It’s all hands on deck time.”

At the same time the denomination is struggling with this issue, the Bible Belt is eroding, she said, and outside the church walls there are people who have not found Jesus Christ, younger people who don’t think religion is relative in their lives and the needs of people in the community grow.

» Related: After years of debate, do United Methodists have a path forward?

In 2019, United Methodists at a special meeting voted 438 to 384 in favor of the “Traditional Plan,” which reinforces — and strengthens — opposition to same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing gays. At times the debated turned ugly between those who pushed for strong punitive measures for pastors who performed same-sex marriages and for the ordination of “practicing” LGBTQ clergy.

“There are no winners in a close vote,” she said.

Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson talks with members of the United Methodist Church during a town hall meeting at the Hillside United Methodist Church in Woodstock Sunday, March 1, 2020. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Photo: Steve Schaefer

After the meeting, Haupert-Johnson said she got 40 emails from churches that signaled they would “be happy” to accept gay or lesbian clergy.

There are several proposals on the table regarding the issue.

One, called the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation,” has gotten the most attention because it included input from bishops and advocacy groups on all sides. It lays the groundwork for what happens with such things as property, pastor pensions and outside ministries.

Legislation that aligns with the protocol will be considered at the upcoming meeting in Minneapolis, although it’s unclear if it has enough support to pass.

» Related: Emotion-filled sermons at United Methodist churches follow divisive vote

The United Methodist Church has more than 13 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S., and more than 467,000 United Methodists in Georgia.

At least four proposals guiding the future of the denomination have been floated for the 862 delegates at the General Conference to consider. That number does not include proposals from individuals.

There are also other proposals for various issues that the denomination will consider at the General Conference in Minneapolis in May.

Richie Cullom of Kennesaw was worried about the future of the North Georgia annual, especially if conservative congregations decided to leave the denomination.

“We have an opportunity to embrace the future and be more relevant in society by being centrist,” said Cullom, who identifies as a centrist progressive. “Bishop Sue wants to keep a United Methodist Church and grow disciples for Christ.”

He said it wouldn’t bother him if his pastor performed a same sex marriage or identified as LGBTQ.

Harold Dakin, a Woodstock retiree, said he’s more conservative in his thinking.

“Periodically churches have to go through something of this nature for different reasons,” he said. This time, the issue getting the most attention is human sexuality.

Does it matter to him?

“It wouldn’t bother my wife, but I have questions,” he said.

Other town halls in North Georgia

March 8: Peachtree Road UMC, 3180 Peachtree Road N.E., Atlanta ; 2 p.m. 

March 22: Madison First UMC, 296 S. Main St., Madison; 3 p.m. 

March 29: Fayetteville First UMC, 175 E. Lanier Ave., Fayetteville; 3:30 p.m. 

April 19: Trinity at the Well UMC, 814 West Ave., Cartersville; 3:30 p.m. 

April 26: Gainestville First UMC, 2780 Thompson Bridge Road, Gainesville; 3 p.m.

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