Sarah Sumners, a 38-year-old member of the Board of Trustees for the United Methodist Church on Oconee Street in Athens, Georgia, poses for a portrait in front of the church on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. While there are other members of the LGBTQ community in the Oconee Street United Methodist Church, Sumners is part of the only nuclear LGBTQ family in the church and faces uncertainty about the future of her church in the wake of the recent decision to oppose LGBTQ clergy within the church. (Photo/Gabriella Audi, www.gabbyaudi10.wixsite.com/mysite-1)

After realizing she was gay during her college years in the late 1990s, Sarah Sumners separated herself from the Methodist church, finding that her sexuality and her faith wouldn’t be able to coexist.

She approached the church once again in 2009, but soon stopped going when her pastor told her he disapproved of her lifestyle.

It wasn’t until Sumners and her partner decided to settle at Oconee Street United Methodist in 2013 when they felt comfortable enough to become involved in the church again.

Three years later, the United Methodist Church decided to revisit its policies on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, which led Sumners to revisit her childhood dream of engaging in a ministerial position. But restrictions on LGTBQ clergy and marriages remained.

“It’s all this moving forward and then thinking that somethings finally going to change, and then all of a sudden the heart stops.”

— Sarah Sumners, Member of Oconee Street United Methodist Church 

At its 2019 Special Session of the General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri — comprised of an international body of delegates — the UMC voted to continue enforcing a ban on the ordination of openly gay clergy in its church and to enforce penalties for clergy who officiate same-sex marriages.

“[My partner and I] spent several years building our community here in the church and around us and felt comfortable being out,” Sumners said. “It’s all this moving forward and then thinking that somethings finally going to change, and then all of a sudden the heart stops.”

The “Traditional Plan,” which passed 438 to 384 in the Feb. 26 vote, outlines punishments for non-compliance. The first offense of officiating a same-sex marriage has a mandatory minimum one-year, unpaid suspension, while a second offense requires a clergy person to surrender his or her credentials.

Finding support

Oconee Street’s welcome statement invites members of all sexual orientations, so the UMC decision clashes with the church’s inclusivity.

Janet Frick, the chair of the communications committee at the church and a professor in the University of Georgia’s psychology department, said a “strong consensus” of the Oconee Street congregation advocated for the denomination to change its LGBTQ policies. But the push from progressives to move toward full inclusion was not enough to sway officials within the UMC.

For Sumners, who found a voice within her inclusive congregation, the biggest conflict exists with the UMC’s disapproval of her lifestyle.

“[The global church] says we really don’t support you and think that your lifestyle leads you to sin and don’t want you in our church for that reason,” Sumners said.

Despite this, other denominations have attempted to provide support. Students and religiously affiliated clubs are providing safe spaces for LGBTQ people at UGA.

The Presbyterian Student Center at UGA has hosted Coffee & Queeries twice a month since its founding in January. At Coffee & Queeries, people of faith discuss current religious issues in the context of their LGBTQ identities. Most identify as LGBTQ and come from campus ministries such as the PSC, the Episcopal Center at UGA and UGA Hillel.

Will Norman, campus minister at the PSC, said the Presbyterian center has been “open and affirming” since the 1990s. The center has taken a more outspoken position on LGBTQ acceptance during the last school year.

Norman hopes the PSC’s progressive stance will be “a conversation starter” for other ministries across campus, since not all religious student groups are as vocal about LGBTQ issues.

“The Presbyterian Student Center … is just this beacon of acceptance and hope for this campus that has been transformative for me,” Annabel McSpadden, co-founder of Coffee & Queeries, said.

A church’s future

One major on-campus Methodist student ministry, the Wesley Foundation, has not taken an explicit stance on the vote. Bob Beckwith, director of Wesley, said the organization has no comment at this time.

“Much of what was voted on at General Conference will take months, if not years, to be fully resolved,” Beckwith said over email. “No one knows the direction things will take.”

Provisions in the UMC’s decision must be reviewed and deemed constitutional by the church’s judicial body before moving forward. The constitutional provisions will not become official church policy until Jan. 1, 2020.

Sumners hopes the church avoids any kind of split between the disagreeing parties within the Methodist church.

“The talk of a split is upsetting because it’s certainly not what those of us who are more inclusive want,” Sumners said. “We want to be able to absorb this to some extent and continue to move forward, even with people in the pews and groups who don’t agree with us.”

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