An article about a Pittsburgh centered Sexual Wholeness Seminar appeared in the March 2007 newsletter
for First United Methodist Church of Pittsburgh. Since I first learned of it two weeks ago, over two dozen people from around our Annual Conference have written, emailed, called, and/or met with me trying to understand and make sense of this article… especially since I am the chair of the conference’s Nurture Team. Even the bishop himself has been a part of that group wanting to have conversation in this matter.
In a matter of less than 20 days I’m scheduled to have major surgery… I can no longer afford to have large portions of my day spent addressing somebody else’s words and opinions. As a fellow friend likes to say regarding the work we all do on the conference level, “It’s important to remember that this isn’t our day job.”
While I am not trying to offer offense, neither am I trying to offer defense for other people’s words. Therefore, here, in one setting, is my “take” on the events and comments.
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So how did this all get started? I started as Nurture chair in September 2006. The day I was to go to my first conference council meeting I got word that it was cancelled. Someone at the conference center level of leadership stated that there wasn’t really anything important that we needed to meet for. The next month a conference center employee was buried in the morning, so again, the evening meeting was cancelled.
During that next month (November), I was contacted by one of the planners of the seminar, who explained that he had been directed to contact me by the conference center since it was my team who was entrusted with some monies for ‘other nurture initiatives.’ The verbal description of the event planned seemed to be both biblical and within the stated policy of the United Methodist Church, so I wasn’t too worried and agreed that his group was welcome to submit more details about their plan and we would consider the request at our upcoming meeting. I was particularly pleased to hear that the organizers had already met with the bishop and had a sense that he was ok with such a seminar as long as it wasn’t just an excuse to try to force reorientation on homosexuals. The leaders assured me, as they said they had the bishop, that this was NOT a goal anyone had in mind.
I contacted the conference steward to double check the accuracy of the claims I had just heard (about being refered by them) and discussed the availability of funds for specific projects such as this. I was encouraged in both.
The next day I wrote to all Nurture Team members that I had contact information for, alerting them that at our upcoming meeting there were budget requirements that we needed to discuss and that we had a request from a group asking for financial support. On November 27, 2006, the Nurture Team met. There were few people in attendance, but the conversation centered on the fact that our annual conference entrusted Nurture with funds to try and initiate ‘other nurture initiatives’ and it was great that someone wanted to actually do something. Yes, we could support that… although our specific financial help would basically be buying food and beverage for participants.
That evening, at my very first conference council meeting, when it was my turn to report, I shared the basics of what our team had discussed and specifically reported that we had voted to give $800 from the 2006 budget and $800 from the 2007 budget to this event scheduled for 2/24/07 on sexual wholeness.
Nobody said a word. No questions. No concerns. No discussion. Not even the conference staff representative. Not even the bishop.
When the brochure came out, I was particularly watching for the way the event was presented… to see if it honored the alleged request of the bishop. I saw nothing that suggested forced re-orientation for homosexuals and was impressed that the word ‘homosexual’ didn’t even appear. What the brochure called for was an equipping for those who minister to people who have experienced pain because of the sexual abuse, pornography, same sex attractions, or addictions.
Frankly, I’ve known people who have suffered great pain because of their struggles with each one of those things… I thought it was well worded. Offering help for those who have had pain… but not offering condemnation for those who have not… just focusing on those who have struggled.
I called the conference center and verbally signed off on the event as nurture chair. And thought it was a done deal. The event was held. It was well attended. The food was great. The discussions and the presentations focused on compassion and how to minister to people who came to us with pain from their personal struggle. I thought it was remarkably well done! In fact, I’ve already blogged about the article I wrote for the conference newspaper. CLICK HERE TO READ THAT BLOG ENTRY.
THE PHONE CALL
In the midst of all of this, there was another group that was asking for money from Nurture for a clinic on evangelism. This is already in the budget the annual conference had passed long before I stepped into the position, so, again, I wasn’t very worried about it. Following conversation with that group’s leadership, I was asked to see if the bishop would be able to attend, and if so, would he like a chance to speak.
So I called the bishop’s secretary and passed on the request. About a week later, I received a call back from her saying that the bishop would be unable to attend the evangelism clinic but would like to have conversation about it before the event occured.
I asked a couple of the leaders of the clinic if we had somehow missed a step and described the secretary’s phone call to me.
Within a few days, I had been contacted by several people asking if the bishop were upset about the evangelism clinic or was this some kind of residual from the sexual wholeness event. I assured them that the bishop’s invitation to meet was in regards to the clinic and I was certain it was probably going to result in some quote for me to read saying he regretted not being able to attend the clinic.
FIRST UMC: PGH REPORTS
The day before my scheduled meeting, a leader of the sexual wholeness event stumbled onto the newsletter I mentioned from First UMC in Pittsburgh… This is the article:
Sexual Wholeness Seminar
by Pastor Bob Wilson
A whirlwind of response occurred when our congregation learned of this seminar which included in its publicity the following sentence: “You are invited to a one day seminar that recognizes the pain in our pulpits and pews that results from sexual abuse, pornography addictions, same-sex attractions and sexual addictions.”
One result was the following e-mail exchange between Bishop Bickerton and Pastor Bob Wilson
Dear Bishop Bickerton,
As you can imagine, when our congregation learned of the Sexual Wholeness Seminar, I found myself coping with many varied responses. For most of those responses I can offer pastoral support and direction. However, I need assistance in regard to the inquiries I am receiving about the place of the Annual Conference in this event. The fact that the Conference Nurture Team has given seed money has significantly shaped the response of First Church people. . . .
Greetings sisters and brothers at First Church,
I have been made aware of your concerns surrounding the Sexual Wholeness Workshop. I did not know until after the fact that the Conference Nurture Team had provided seed money and that the brochure had been sent in the Conference monthly mailing. Both actions were inappropriate and caused a degree of hurt that could have easily been avoided.
The Nurture Team acted in isolation from the Conference Council. I am very concerned about how we do and don’t hold each other accountable as we seek to maintain appropriate checks and balances in the implementation of the ministry of our conference.
The hurt this incident has caused to a significant and valued part of our body is intolerable and embarrassing to me as our leader. Please know that I remain committed to being a Bishop for this whole conference.
May God’s richest blessings be yours. Know that the congregation and the ministry of First Church are valued and appreciated as “The journey continues. . . ”
Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton
As events unfolded, Tracy Merrick was invited by the Workshop Leadership to speak to all present. Tracy effectively communicated to the body areas of common ground and why dialogue is important and needs to continue. He concluded with a clear and firm statement that there are many, like himself and the congregation of First United Methodist Church of Pittsburgh, who believe that homosexual orientation and relationships are not a sin, but rather a part of God’s diverse plan.
Both Tracy Merrick and Pastor Bob Wilson were present at the workshop. Either one is willing to share with you their reflections on the day.
THE MEETING WITH THE BISHOP
My world was jarred by reading the bishop’s words “The Nurture team acted in isolation” and that our actions were “inappropriate,” “intolerable,” and “embarassing.”
When I met with the bishop, he stated that he meant the ‘misunderstanding’ about the communication breakdowns were inappropriate, intolerable, and embarassing. Also, he said a major concern was the division that he felt came about because of this event. The hurt created was intolerable and embarassing.
When I outlined what I had done in trying to NOT act outside of the proper channels, I then asked what I did wrong… so that I could do it better next time. He looked at me and said, “you did nothing wrong.” And then he again referred to a ‘broken’ system where people don’t bother showing up for meetings and so people miss major pieces of information and then blame and accusation start to fly around.
I shared that in reading his comments to First UMC it sounded like he personally was taking me to task as the Nurture Team chair. He claimed he didn’t mean it to be and then apologized to me.
He stressed that there were so many areas of ministry that we could all agree on that we really should be focusing on those areas.
I’ve waited to see how the bishop cleared this up with First church, but nothing at all appeared in their April newsletter. Meanwhile, as I said earlier, more than two dozen have called, written, or personally approached me asking if the bishop was simply lying or what? Was he caving in to political pressure? Was he betraying some hidden agenda? Was he really taking a stand against the Discipline and the Bible? Were the folks at First Church considered more important than the ‘rest of us?’ If so, then how could he claim to be committed to being bishop for the whole conference?
Some talked of letters to all annual conference laity and clergy members. Some talked of formal meetings. Some talked about general & jurisdictional elections… especially since the bishop has asked for ‘no politics’ in our deliberations this year in these areas.
MY CONCLUSIONS… THUS FAR…
I’ve tried to suggest that this probably isn’t so black and white.
I do not think the bishop was lying. I think that night when I was presenting my report about this event, I think his mind wandered. Apparently so did everyone else. Why would I have anything important to say? I honestly believe him that he didn’t hear anything about this from me.
I don’t understand the accusation of division… the event called for an equipping of compassionate outreach to those who seek us out and self-report their own pain and struggle. Where’s the division there?
As for only doing the ministries where we all agree…
–I’ve seen the national news show leaders of the general church United Methodist Women marching in a parade supporting all abortion with a banner flounting the United Methodist name… and that’s NOT our stand…
–I was in a meeting (conference council again) where our Witness Team bragged about $10,000 going to a lobbying group… and I know the disagreements created when those lobbying positions are formed…
–The facilities of United Methodist sites have been used for same sex unions and yet we don’t all agree on that topic…
In each of those situations I’ve been informed that we are a large and diverse church with many opinions and yet room for all… So why would this event be different? Exactly where is the ‘intolerance?’
I don’t think anyone seriously wants us to only support ministries where everyone agrees.
FINAL THOUGHTS FOR TODAY
All of a sudden, I seem to be the enemy of some and the darling poster child for others… and yet I do not belong to any church political faction. I’ve never been to an Evangelical Connection meeting nor to a Methodist Federation for Social Action meeting… although I share concerns with both groups. When Annual Conference rolls around, I don’t go to ANY of the factional groups… I just work with the conference secretary behind the scenes… I strongly believe that we can discern God’s will as a conference… not just as factions who push for our stand. God WILL reveal Himself through the assembled conference… but will we let Him? When Annual Conference meets (or General Conference meets) and discerns God’s will, can we then abide by that group discernment… or do we just go back to our corners and plot our strategy to get our own way next time? Is THAT the accountable way? Is THAT really allowing God to speak through the conference?
I have tried to be faithful to ALL who might have a concern… and somehow feel like a scapegoat.
I have tried to serve in this role as Nurture chair with integrity. I have made calls, written letters and emails, and done A LOT of driving over A LOT of miles to be faithful to be in accountable communication. I have even driven to the conference center (about 2+ hours drive from where I am appointed) for a conference council meeting in January of this year when it was cancelled and yet no one had alerted me. I am trying to ‘work within the system.’
Finally, I have struggled with this posting. As another friend likes to point out, I am an expressive who enjoys being at peace with people. I don’t like people thinking badly about me or disapproving of what I do.
But I cannot afford the time to have people keep calling to have me explain someone else’s words.
I simply need the facts to be out there so that I can on with my ‘day job’ and then focus on my own personal health.
Because the church has a mission… and infighting, accusation, and suspicion is not it.