Drawing the Circle Wide - Report of the Welcoming Task Force
By: Kathy Barker
“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together . . . All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the church together!”
If you’ve attended worship for the last couple of months, you’ve witnessed as Zach has led our children in discovering what it takes to build a Just Church: a community that celebrates that God knows us by name and claims us, a safe place for everyone to express their feelings, a community that shares what we have, a community of new beginnings, a community that reminds us that when we leave the church building we enter God’s world to continue to do God’s work, a community that continues to make the circle wider to intentionally welcome all. Clearly, this message of what church should be is a good reminder for all folks at St. John’s, children and adults alike.
Friends, in our striving to be a Just Church, St. John’s has the opportunity to advocate to make the circle wider to include all of God’s children. In October 2016, the Church Council named a Welcoming/Reconciling Task Force which was charged to address the following questions:
1. How do we work to communicate and advocate for a church that is fully inclusive?
2. What specific steps do we undertake?
In 2009, St. John’s formally adopted a welcome statement that expresses what St. John’s had lived out long before, and has lived out since, its endorsement. This statement which we proudly post on our website, social media, worship bulletins, and throughout the church states:
St. John's welcomes everyone. Our hearts, minds, and doors are open to people of all ages, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, gender identities, theological identities, economic status, disabilities, and sojourn on the way to recovery and wholeness. We are a diverse community whose discipleship to Jesus Christ is demonstrated through our deep commitment to servant ministry. Welcome Home!
Our task force, consisting of Dawn LaFon, Janet Hall, Sara Holmes, Kathy Barker, Rae-Anne Pitts, Jennilyn Gibson, Walter Mischke, and Linda Mischke, discussed and discerned with great care how to best address the above questions from Church Council. We agreed that the members of St. John’s should vote whether the congregation will reaffirm its welcome statement and join Reconciling Ministries Network as a reconciling congregation, and the vote should occur during the first half of 2017. We reported our recommendations to Church Council in January, and the recommendations were unanimously approved in March. This church-wide vote will occur May 14 and May 21.
The Church Council considered this in 2009, and the Welcoming/Reconciling Task Force felt that it was time to reconsider it. Since 2009, we have witnessed our recovery ministry develop and grow. The reality that there are LGBTQ people who have struggled with substance abuse as a result of the pain of rejection from family, friends, and church due to their sexual orientation or gender identity lends an extra level of responsibility to a congregation such as ours which works to be a community of healing and wholeness through recovery. In addition, last year at the UMC General Conference in Portland, OR, the topic of LGBTQ inclusion in the UMC was discussed. As in previous General Conferences, the discussion was harmful and painful to the LGBTQ people and straight allies who witnessed it. From that pain, United Methodists throughout the connection, including here at St. John’s, doubled their resolve to work for full inclusion of LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church. It’s great to be part of a welcoming congregation at the corner of Peabody and Bellevue, but we should ensure that that welcome extends beyond our corner so people from Memphis to Madrid, Managua to Manila, Milan to Milwaukee, and Mobile to Mount Kilimanjaro have a safe, welcoming, inclusive place to serve God and neighbor. Affiliating with Reconciling Ministries Network allows us to join with an ever-growing community of over 800 congregations and communities just like St. John’s who want the UMC to be a church for all of God’s children.
The Welcoming/Reconciling Task Force agreed what seemed to be lacking in 2009 was a clear understanding of what Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) is and is not, the work that it does, and what it would mean to be a reconciling congregation. The task force agreed that the emphasis prior to the vote should be on educating the congregation on these topics. To facilitate in the discussion, we have several resources. First, we have included a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on the St. John’s website that you can find here. Second, each of us on the task force are happy to answer any questions and speak to any group, Sunday School class, or gathering. Finally, St. John’s will be hosting Helen Ryde, the Southeastern Jurisdiction Regional Coordinator for RMN, during the weekend of April 29-30. Helen will speak to St. John’s about RMN after worship on April 30 during a lunch that is free of charge, and she is looking forward to answering all questions. We are thrilled to welcome Helen to St. John’s and will be blessed by her presence among us!
Finally, I would like to express what a blessing it is to work with Sara, Jennilyn, Janet, Dawn, Linda, Rae-Anne, and Walter on this task force. When asked why an inclusive church matters to them, these are their responses:
“I joined St John's 30 years ago because all were welcome here. Because of our mission statement and the work of this committee, I hope all will continue to be welcome & to feel welcomed.” ~Dawn LaFon
“My interest in this task force stems from the belief that Jesus excluded NO ONE, EVER! As his followers, can we do less? Full inclusion is our moral and Biblical imperative and reflects the love of God.” ~Linda Mischke
"My journey to conviction for an all-inclusive reconciling church has spanned many questioning years. It has necessitated changed attitudes. Two basic firmly rooted convictions sum up my conclusion: the all-encompassing love of God; the right of every person to enjoy all the privileges available to any other person." ~Walter Mischke
Blessings as we live in the Light and Love of Easter,
On behalf of the St. John’s Welcoming/Reconciling Task Force