Vote on a proposed split within the United Methodist Church (UMC) has been put on hold due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and social injustice within the United States.
The worldwide church conference has been scheduled for May 15 in Minneapolis, however, with the onset of COVID-19, the conference has been pushed back to the last few days of August and the first week of September in 2021.
At the heart of the split is whether same-sex marriages should be permitted and whether LGBTQ individuals should be permitted to become clergy. Traditionalist Methodists say no. More progressive members say yes.
Todd Seifert, director of communications for the Great Plains Conference of the UMC, said the move was based on health concerns.
“We also have worldwide people here, so struggles with visas and those types of things in a world that has COVID-19 going on in it is a nightmare,” Seifert said. “Everything was postponed until the available dates they could get with the venue for next year.”
Gering UMC pastor Seth Leypoldt said with the issues the world has been dealing with, it was easy to forget the conference had even been scheduled in May. He said a phone call from a parishioner reminded him.
“This pandemic has changed everything,” he said, “not on the issue of where the church is, but of really the response of the church, from how to have worship services to the services that we have to how do we reach out to people in the nursing home to funerals, baptisms, the whole gamut. I had completely forgot (human sexuality) was an issue until that phone call.”
While the postponement might give people more time for thought on the human sexuality issues, Seifert said the new issues on the forefront have taken priority for the time being.
“I think there are a lot of people who are trying to think through and prayerfully discern what the call might be for them on this subject,” he said. “But there is a reality with the pandemic that’s gone on, churches have had to make so many changes so quickly — to be online or to prepare again to meet in person with so many different mechanisms in place. People have been very focused on that.
“Then you bring into account the racial injustice things that our country is going through right now and the church’s response to that on the individual church level. I think churches have a lot going on. They’re preoccupied on things in ministry that they can do something with right now, which is caring for people who are ill or trying to make sure people stay healthy and speaking out on matters of racial injustice in whatever the context is within their communities.”
Leypoldt said the postponement of the conference has enabled a greater focus on the world’s situation.
“Honestly, it was probably the best thing,” he said, “because this pandemic has stretched and frayed and has tested all of us, our institutions, people, you name it. That really is the priority right now, so it’s probably the best thing.”
The pandemic and social injustice issues have capture the attention of people at the moment, but Seifert said he has no doubt that thoughts will return to the human sexuality debate, especially as the conference draws closer.
“In a lot of ways, the pandemic and the issues around racial harmony, or disharmony as the case may be, have really in a way brought communities and churches together to the point where they are really focused on ministry and things that they can do tangibly right now to help their communities in this moment,” Seifert said. “That may change three weeks from now, three months from now, and I’m sure the debate will come back up as we get closer to those dates. With it being more than a year away, people are not forgetting it, not ignoring it, but these other things require more immediate attention from the standpoint of people are ill, people are dying in the hospitals, and trying to keep people safe has a heightened risk.”
Leypoldt said the conversations will start again when the time is right.
“When there is a vaccine, when the virus dies out, then we can start talking about some of the other issues,” he said. “Nobody is talking about (human sexuality). I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with anyone within the church except to say, ‘you know, it’ll happen.’ We’ll have a discussion about it, but right now the priority is different.”
Still for some, the human sexuality debate remains front and center. Seifert said he respects that, but acknowledges that priorities change quickly.
“We’re not saying to forget about (human sexuality) by any means, but there is a reality when you have people in your community who are coming down sick or you have forced closures because of COVID-19 where people’s livelihoods are at stake,” he said. “You have people who are more at risk because they have risk factors that make them more susceptible to the disease, that obviously grabs people’s attention.
“In my opinion anyway, people recognize that. That’s something that they encounter all the time, or it’s in the back of their minds all the time. It’s more of a top of mind topic right now. It’s in the news. You can’t go anywhere without hearing about it, seeing it, whereas the human sexuality debate has kind of faded from the front pages. It certainly hasn’t been on the nightly news for some time because our country has been so laser focused on those two topics, and for good reason.”