United Methodists began arriving early Thursday for a three-day annual conference at the Classic Center in Athens.
The gathering is expected to draw 2,000 Methodists and comes at a time when the denomination is going through a split that revolves around a long-simmering debate about same sex marriage, ordination of practicing gay clergy, differences in biblical interpretation and distrust of leadership,
Ginger Golden, a lay leader from Mossy Creek UMC in Cleveland, Ga. came with three others from her church.
She came to the conference, her second, “mostly to get some clarity about the direction of the church and I want to hear everyone’s viewpoint on why it should be this way or that way.”
Golden sat eating lunch at a nearby hotel with her friend and fellow church member Sally Crowe.
“I think clarity is a good word,” said Crowe, who also wanted to learn more about the future of the conference and the denomination and where she fits in.
Crowe said while LGBTQ members should be welcomed in the pews, “just not in the pulpit.”
Still Crowe is optimistic about her Church.
“I don’t have any reason not to be optimistic…I come in the spirit of optimism.”
Golden said her church is not one that wants to disaffiliate during the Nov. 18 special called meeting.
For her part, she wants to stay United Methodist.
“I’ve always been a Methodist. I plan to stay a Methodist. I don’t know where else I would go.”
A Cobb Court Superior Court judge recently ruled in favor of 185 or so churches that want to leave the denomination. The churches sued the former and current bishops, trustees and others after the conference temporarily suspended the disaffiliation process.
The court said the conference could not prohibit its member churches from taking a vote on leaving the conference. A special called session will be held Nov. 18 to vote on disaffiliation.
Churches seeking to leave the denomination fear it will become too progressive, although at its 2019 General Session, delegates voted to continue to ban same sex marriages and ordination of non-celibate gay clergy.
The conference will include worship services, task force reports — including one on inclusion and advocacy — along with ordination of new clergy and the posthumous ordination of the Rev. Marita Harrell to full elder.
Harrell, 57, was a senior pastor at Connections at Metropolitan United Methodist Church and a DeKalb wife and mother of two when she was stabbed to death in 2022, allegedly by a man to whom she was ministering.
Only a few weeks before she was killed, she imagined her ordination, said the Rev. Terry Walton, executive assistant to the bishop and an elder, who preached during the service of remembrance.
“Terry, I look so forward to the day when my aging parents can witness my ordination.”
Harrell’s husband and two daughters stood on stage near Dease for the special ordination moment.
They received the stole signifying the office of elder to a standing ovation.
Attendees will also hear about the conference’s first online-only new church start.
Delegates consists of clergy with an equal number of laity, representing every church in the conference.
Currently, the conference has 700 churches and about 320,000 lay members
This year will also be the first time Bishop Robin Dease, who was elected last year, presides over the meeting.
“As we gather in Athens, Georgia, it is my earnest prayer that God will visit God’s church pouring out the holy spirit so that we will be one in Christ Jesus and nothing will sway us from our true mission and vision,” Dease said in a message released last week
Speakers include the Rev. Dr. Terry Walton, who will preach the Service of Remembrance at 2 p.m. Thursday; Retired Bishop Alfred Norris will preach the service of ordination at 7:30 p.m. Friday; and Dease will deliver the sermon during the closing worship at 10 a.m. Saturday.
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