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Bemidji Methodists ponder church's future

The Rev. Rob Kopp of the Bemidji United Methodist Church speaks about the church’s general conference vote in late February to strengthen a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-gender marriages and how it relates to the local congregation. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—Bemidji Methodists are considering their congregation's future after a polarizing decision by the denomination's governing body.

Members of the United Methodist Church's general conference narrowly voted in late February to strengthen a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-gender marriages, doubling down on a longstanding policy that had already been a cause for tension between conservative and progressive elements of the denomination's estimated 12 million members.

Members and staff at the Bemidji United Methodist Church said they're speaking among themselves and weighing their options as the dust settles from the headline-grabbing move.

Church members who spoke with the Pioneer uniformly disapproved of the 438-384 vote, and many indicated it doesn't gel with the church's "open hearts, open minds, open doors" slogan.

"I believe that we should live up to our motto," said Randy Burg, a longtime parishioner. "And truly open our hearts, minds, and doors to all people, and recognize the value of love solemnly declared and commitment solemnly declared in whatever form it takes."

On paper, the Methodist church hasn't allowed LGBTQ clergy or same-gender marriages since 1972. But enforcement was uneven, which created a "don't ask, don't tell"-style arrangement for churches across the United States, according to the Rev. Rob Kopp, who's led the Bemidji church since 2015. Despite the ban, openly gay pastors have headed congregations, and others, regardless of their own sexuality, have presided over gay marriages in one capacity or another.

The vote last month would add harsher punishments for violating the prohibition, but general conference voters also approved an "exit plan" that could help congregations leave the denomination "for reasons of conscience." The denomination's Judicial Council—think Supreme Court—is reviewing the stronger punishments and could rule that they don't adhere to the denomination's constitution. Beyond that, the New York Times reported Thursday that at least four ballots at the general conference weren't cast by authorized voters, among other irregularities, and church leaders may call new votes.

Becky Leuben, who chairs the Bemidji congregation's Staff Parish Relations Committee, said "core" church members have been speaking with one another and with members of the broader congregation here to find a consensus of some variety. Congregation leaders in Bemidji have started a sort-of investigation to find out how far the church can go and still be part of the denomination, she explained.

"To not be reconciling and inclusive is hypocrisy," Leuben said. Members of the relations committee were set to talk about the general conference vote at their regular meeting Thursday.

For about a year before general conference members convened, Bemidji parishioners considered becoming a "reconciling" congregation, which means the church here would expressly welcome LGBTQ people while remaining under the United Methodist umbrella.

Leaving the denomination outright is one option, and it's been floated by congregations across the country in the wake of last month's vote. But Bemidji Methodists stressed that it's one of many on a spectrum, and Kopp said that their options—splitting along with a segment of other Methodist congregations, for instance, or becoming a reconciling congregation—are fluid as congregations and segments of the church weigh their options, too.

"By and large, we're trying to work things out so that we still continue to be in some kind of connection with each other," Kopp said. "There are moments when it feels like we're just splitting up as a denomination, end of story. 'Everybody, it's been nice knowing you.' But, more often, it's like, 'wait a minute, this has been too good of a thing'... It's a very uncertain time."

Kopp is the self-professed "face" of the Bemidji congregation, but stressed that he wants any decision about its future to come from congregation members. He nonetheless said he signed a letter from Methodist clergy to Bruce Ough, bishop of the Minneapolis-headquartered Dakota-Minnesota Area of the United Methodist Church, that rejects the general conference's outcome.

"We will not abide by the restrictions placed on LGBTQIA+ people and their allies," the letter reads, in part. "The 2019 General Conference marked the death of the United Methodist Church. We cannot undo the harm done, and yet we are not defeated. The Spirit is breaking forth in new ways and cannot be contained by legislative structures and conference proceedings. In Christ we know that with death comes resurrection, and that love always prevails."

And across Minnesota, Methodists are pondering what to do next, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported this week.

Several national church leaders are calling for a split — and even a three-way split, leaving the original church, a liberal spin-off, and a conservative branch.

Rev. Judy Zabel, a pastor at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church who was a delegate to the general conference, called the split "a real possibility. It's very sad. God has called us to live in unity, in bonds of peace."

"This intractable difference is harming our mission. We may find people who find this untenable. Some will leave the church."

Rev. Maria Furness Tollgaard of Hamline Church in St. Paul said the new policy could drive away younger parishioners, who are more supportive of gay marriage. "This is a whole new generation of harm we are causing," said Tollgaard, who performs gay marriage ceremonies.

If the Methodist church does split apart, it would be similar to the split of the nation's Lutheran churches in 2010 over similar issues.

"This morning, my heart is heavy, discouraged, and wounded," Bishop Ough wrote in a letter to area churches.

"In particular, I lament the harm that has been done and will be experienced by our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. To you I say 'You are not the problem.' You are of sacred worth. Our failure to hear you, or see you, or respect you, or include you is the problem."

What will not change, vowed the Rev. Amy Jo Bur of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Mendota Heights, is her commitment to welcome everyone who walks into her church.

"Minnesota tends to be a welcoming place," said Bur. "Minnesota in general is quite unhappy with this."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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