Leading Albion’s United Methodist Church Despite an Uncertain Future
By SYLVIA BENAVIDEZ
For Pastor Leslee Fritz the needs of her congregation and neighborhood remain constant whether or not her church’s denomination splits over the role of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer) community in the church. Souls need to be ministered to, bills must be paid, and sermons must be written. As Pastor Fritz states, “On a day-to-day basis, we worry about how do we produce good quality worship, how are we in mission to the community, how do we continue to maintain our building? The practical reality of running a church is typically not a big debate about significant theological issues as much as you’d like to believe that’s happening.”
That doesn’t mean however, that issues that have major effects on a portion of the church membership aren’t in existence. They take time to evolve such as with the LGBTQ’s ability to serve in the denomination. Pastor Fritz a progressive in her theology, hesitates to represent the conservative side of the debate, but explains a complicated issue by stating, “The language that is most problematic for people who represent an inclusive theology says that the United Methodist Church believes that homosexuality is incompatible to the teachings of scripture. That is the language the progressive side of the debate want out.” In operational terms, that means that there is a prohibition against the ordination of openly LGBTQ people and against clergy performing same sex marriages.
“It’s been a conversation since that language got put in the Book of Discipline (the laws governing their church’s day-to-day activities) since 1972. Four years later was the first attempt to take the language out,” says Fritz. “The belief is that if you remove the language that says we believe this is incompatible that those other prohibitions that become rules, which govern how clergy are chosen and how clergy behave can also then change.” Even though the United Methodist church has been struggling with the issue for years the debate became significant again when in February 2019 the Council of Bishops called a special general session.The governing body of the church is modeled after the US Constitution. Pastor Fritz explains some of the governing structure by sharing, “Every four years, delegates from around the world, because we are a global denomination, set the Book of Discipline, which are the governing laws by which the church and pastors operate.-everything from how property is owned and how church communities are structured to how pastors are ordained.”The special session was called outside of the usual four year cycle of meeting because the debate came to the forefront in church government. Says Pastor Fritz, “It has been a discussion that has been evolving because the discussion in our society as evolved quite a bit over the last forty year plus on that issue.” She further stated, “It really became a significant fight last year.”
There is no doubt in her mind that the constant arguing over the issue is hurting the church. “It had become enough of an internal debate and discussion that it had to be addressed. At this point, we are as local churches and as a denomination doing harm to one another. It is the simple truth, no matter which side of the debate you are on, both sides have become very entrenched in what they believe to be both God’s intention and the role of the church and it has become an issue that is preventing us from living together peacefully and from focusing on the work of the church.”
Although the topic does not come up often in the church locally, Pastor Fritz did have someone come to her one week before the conference last year. “I had a congregant reach out to me and say ‘Why are we not talking about disaffiliating with the United Methodist Church like some other churches are?’ And I said disaffiliating to what?” The bottom line for Pastor Fritz is that “We don’t know if the church is going to become something we want to stay with or that we want to leave. We may end up in a place where we are the ones who stay.” She further shares, “And a week later the proposal came out where we would be the type of church who stayed.”
She further notes, “Action at this point in the local church is a bit premature because we don’t yet know what the path looks like.” In Pastor Fritz’s experience for most people, “There’s not a lot of debate and discussion going on what do we believe about LGBTQ people because, for the most part that’s a settled issue and wherever they are in answer to that question, they are not real moveable.” What concerns her most is how she can keep ministering to all members in her church. “People have already chosen to be in this place for other reasons.” She continues, “I am not shy about sharing my theology. For a lot of people they have already confronted that the leadership in their local church is in a different place theologically than they are and they have chosen, because of their connection to this congregation, because of relationships to fellow congregants, because of something they value here to remain here.”
And no matter where people are on the debate, she says, “They will always be welcome here as long as I am the pastor of this church.”
And no matter where people are on the debate, she says, “They will always be welcome here as long as I am the pastor of this church.” In the midst of this debate, Pastor Fritz chose to be commissioned in this denomination because she believes “wholly in the John Wesley and the Wesleyan way of approaching faith.” She has been a pastor in Albion for over 21/2 years now and what also concerns her is how we approach each other in disagreement. “We gotten to a place both within the church and certainly within our society where if I disagree with you on something, we have to hate one another. And we have to condemn wholly those with whom we disagree. That is not healthy. It also doesn’t reflect the reality in which we live.” She continues, “If you and I disagree on this issue, that does not make us evil. It means we have a disagreement on this issue. Chances are we agree on a whole lot of other stuff.”
…we are different and that at times we will disagree and that we share a common faith, share a common call to love God and one another.”
What is important Pastor Fritz says, is that “we can disagree with each other and that’s okay. We can still all worship God and love one another, and care for this community to the extent that we are capable. As leaders of of the United Methodist Church and church congregation, we have to figure out a way to live together, recognizing that we are different and that at times we will disagree and that we share a common faith, share a common call to love God and one another.”
This story is reprinted with permission from The Recorder.
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