UMC pastors again celebrate connectionalism, look optimistically to the future

February 28, 2023
By Alan Wild

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Uncertainty. Anger. Loss. Grief.  Those are among the most powerful and prevalent emotions that Kentucky’s United Methodist clergy are experiencing during this season of debate and disaffiliation.

About 60 pastors who are planning to remain in the denomination gathered Tuesday, Feb 28, at Christ Church United Methodist in Louisville for a day of worship, fellowship, support, and strategizing. About a dozen others had registered for the gathering but were unable to attend.

“What are we going to do now?” Rev. Dr. Eric Bryant, senior pastor at Christ Church, asked during the opening devotional, which focused on recent uncertainty – particularly early in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining traction. But this was not the first time that God’s people have faced an uncertain future, he reminded those gathered, reading from Isaiah 43, which focuses on the Lord’s promise of victory.

The lost friends, trust, and sense of security in a season of disaffiliation can be unsettling, but “God has something to say about all this,” Bryant said, adding that the question is not what we will do now, it’s what God will do now.

Tuesday’s gathering was the second of its type by the pastors committed to staying with the UMC. Much of what was covered came out of the first gathering, held in October at Broadway UMC in Bowling Green.

The sessions that followed Bryant’s opening devotion were organized along three general themes: “Getting Through It,” opening worship and a session led by Rev. Dr. Leanne Hadley, a Christ Church associate pastor; “Getting to It,” celebrating Holy Communion in the church’s spacious sanctuary; and after lunch, “Celebrating Our Ecclesiology Through Witness and Connection,” a sessions especially focused on missional priorities in the Kentucky Annual Conference after June 2023, when an unknown number of churches are expected to disaffiliate.

Hadley’s session dealt with a time of processing grief, recognizing that pastors have needed to shepherd their congregations through this season, often setting aside their own needs and concerns. She cited the Angel Gabriel’s message in the Old Testament book of Daniel, during another time of uncertainty for God’s people. She urged the clergy gathered to “take off your pastor’s hat, take off your robe, and just be present.”

The four questions she asked were followed by short, informal discussions around the tables set up in the Christ Church fellowship hall. She asked them to consider:
  • What is keeping you up at night?
  • What emotion has surprised you the most?
  • What do you fear the most?
  • One word to share with their table on how they are feeling. Although those responses tended to be across the board – some said they are at peace despite the current climate of uncertainty – the majority of the words shared via a “word cloud” projected in the room were uncertainty, anger, loss and grief.
The group moved to the sanctuary for Communion, which was led by Rev. Leigh Ann Maynard, another Christ Church associate pastor. Again, the focus was on pastoral care.

“I don’t know about you, but this has been a time when the words have come with difficulty, if they’ve come at all,” Maynard said.

During the afternoon session, moderated by Rev. Caleb Wheat, pastor at St. James in Bowling Green, the mood turned sharply proactive, as the pastors looked to the future of the conference. Wheat cited Philippians 4:4-7 and Paul’s words for the church at Philippi:

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

Wheat cited the earlier concerns about being tired and worried about the future – noting that many pastors’ future appointments hinge on discernment votes that their churches are taking – he focused on four missional priorities that came out of the October meeting in Bowling Green.

“In all of this, there is so much to be excited about what the Lord is doing among us,” Wheat told the group, before inviting other clergy members to briefly speak about the four priorities, which was followed by more table conversation:
  • “Strengthening the connection,” prioritizing the clergy knowing each other and working to build trust together.
  • “Sharing key missional areas,” focusing on partnering in ministries that ensure Kentucky children, youth and college students thrive physically, mentally, and spiritually.
  • “Reaching new people,” focusing on planting new faith communities and caring for members of disaffiliated churches who wish to remain UMC, a group informally dubbed the “remnant.”
  • “Celebrating and communicating our theology,” drawing heavily on a recent statementl to the conference from Bishop Leonard Fairley concerning the disaffiliation process in Kentucky. It involved a three-pronged focus: theological, ecclesiastical, and witness.
Wrapping up the session, Wheat noted that a lot of the conversations around these areas are already underway on conference teams, among them the Board of Ordained Ministry and New Church Development. (Many churches that are likely to remain in the denomination are likely to become key anchor presences in different areas across the conference.)

During the brief closing worship service, the pastors – who had been provided index cards earlier – were invited to write down what they thought the activities and actions should be to help strengthen missional priorities and what the priorities they felt drawn to. There appeared to be at least a few tears shed – tears of happiness and gratefulness – and as he prepared to give the benediction, Bryant called it a “great blessing” of the day. He especially cited district superintendents present and the entire Bishop’s Appointive Cabinet, noting the heavy burden they have borne during this season.

Bryant cited the same benediction that Maynard had given after Holy Communion, something that a member recently gave at one of Christ Church’s worship ministries: “Be reminded when you leave this place, you do not leave alone. Jesus knows where you are.”

Summarizing the day later, Bryant said: “Today was a wonderful example of holy conversation in the Wesleyan Tradition. We worshipped and shared the sacrament. We inquired of ourselves and one another, ‘How is it with your soul?’ We imagined what connectional ministry will look like going forward.”