As the worldwide United Methodist Church grapples with its doctrine on issues of sexuality and same-sex marriage, a Waynesville church has overwhelmingly voted to support inclusivity and love.

The First United Methodist Church of Waynesville conducted an exhaustive process in June where church members discussed and suggested changes to the single-page identity statement crafted by the leadership team. There were sessions before the statement was drafted, and three listening sessions leading up to the vote.

At the end of last month, a congregation-wide vote affirmed the statement with a 91 percent margin, said the Rev. Keith Turman.

“What we did was do a soul search of who we are as a church,” Turman said. “Now that we know that, we need to look at what that means and what would be the consequences.”

Turman said if the church split had been 60-40 or even 70-30, he would have had reservations about taking the next steps. But with 91 percent approval of those in the congregation who voted supporting full inclusion, the intent of the church is clear, he said.

The identity statement included four basic precepts: The church would 1) continue to be the living body of Christ; 2) would be guided by the Holy Spirit, committed to the Weslyan vision, scripture and informed by tradition, experience and reason; 3) resist evil, injustice and oppression and build a church affirming full participation, on an equal basis, of people of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and abilities and 4) stand against any discriminatory treatment, restrictions and penalties for any of the categories mentioned above.

“The members of FUMC Waynesville welcome all and love all. We are better together,” the statement concluded.

Turman sent out two detailed emails framing the issues that had led up to the identity statement.

The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline states those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) are welcomed into the church, but cannot be ordained into the ministry nor married in the church.

The issue is a contentious one that crops up every four years when delegates from Methodist churches across the world gather for a General Conference. It is expected to arise again at the 2020 General Conference.

Tipping point

To specifically address issues relating to sexuality, a special-called conference was held in St. Louis this February. Two-thirds of the U.S. churches backed a “One Church” plan that would have left LBGTQ issues to be decided congregation by congregation. However, those from other countries prevailed, with 53 percent of the delegates opting to stay the course.

In his messages to church members, Turman made it clear the vote taken in St. Louis threatened the core values held by many in the Waynesville First United Methodist Church.

“The leadership team at FUMC is convinced that we cannot move forward together until we do this hard work of clarifying our identity. Who are we? What kind of church will we be?” Turman said.

Waynesville FUMC is church of traditionalists, centrists and progressives, Turman said, and all have worked together for the betterment of the community and beyond.

Waynesville FUMC is involved in virtually every aspect of the community — from providing a child development center to a free after-school program for middle-school students to a youth “Music Makers” program serving students across the county. The church often provides classical music events free to the community and hosts multiple music events through the year. Missions are a huge part of the church, at both the adult and youth level. FUMC members are also an integral part of the community ministries to the less fortunate.

“That’s why we took time to listen to one another in love, with a desire to mutually understand each other in our differences. The division at the denominational level threatens our unity here at home,” Turman said.

The identity statement quoted the teachings of Jesus who said, “I have not come to condemn the world, but to save it.” It also discussed how Waynesville First United Methodist Church members had long worked together, condemning no one and treating all equally.

“We love this church. We strive together to be the hands and feet of Christ. In doing so, we make our church and community stronger.”

Michael Blackburn, the director of ministries at FUMC, said the identity statement was formed after “listening with love to 350 people who came together from all sides of the issue.”

“Our goal was not to walk out of this being a progressive church,” he said. “We worked really hard to make sure we were not leaving anyone out and we weren’t sure how it would turn out.”

Blackburn called the February decision a “tipping point” that forced Waynesville FUMC to begin the process that drove a proactive rather than reactive stance on the issue.

Those who disagreed with the statement and voted against it have already showed back up, and are still part of the church, he added.

Turman said the process wasn’t about leaving the Methodist Church or trying to be homogeneous, or even to change hearts and minds.

Church leaders estimated about 400 attended at least one of the listening sessions held prior to the vote. The typical Sunday attendance, including children, is 600.

“We didn’t want to keep guessing about who are we as a church. We needed to get a sense of the congregation,” Turman said. “Of the 91 percent vote, I think there were a lot who probably would have voted no, but want to agree to disagree. We don’t want to be a one-issue church.”

“Except we are a one-issue church,” Blackburn interjected. “Love is that issue.”

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