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Local Methodist leaders eagerly await General Conference

The Rev. B.T. Gilligan is pastor of Nixon United Methodist Church. Butler Eagle File Photo

For members of the United Methodist Church across the world, both priests and laity, this week has been circled on the calendar for the past four years.

Tuesday, April 23 marks the start of the United Methodist Church’s first General Conference in five years, when the conference convenes in Charlotte, N.C. The conference had been postponed three separate times due to COVID-19.

This year, the stakes are higher than ever, because the conference will cover several pieces of legislation which could drastically change the future of the church. These include decisions on LGBTQ+ inclusivity, as well as a regionalization plan which would allow different regions of the UMC to interpret the church’s code as they see fit.

“This is probably the most important meeting that we’ve had in United Methodist in decades,” said Pastor B.T. Gilligan of the Nixon United Methodist Church in Penn Township.

For those close to the process, such as David Janz, the General Conference marks the climax of a yearslong period of uncertainty for the wider church, which has seen hundreds of member churches disaffiliate due to fundamental disputes over the interpretation of church dogma.

“The issues the General Conference will be considering have been ongoing for a number of years,” said Janz, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church on East North Street in Butler.

One of the issues at stake during the conference is the church’s once-traditional stance on LGBTQ+ rights, which is the key reason — according to USA Today — more than 7,600 churches within the UMC have chosen to disaffiliate.

Many of the churches that split from the UMC ended up joining the more conservative Global Methodist Church, including the Harmony-Zelienople Global Methodist Church on North Pittsburgh Street in Zelienople.

However, Gilligan’s church did the opposite, serving as a “lighthouse congregation” for UMC members whose churches disaffiliated but who wanted to stay within the UMC.

“My hope is we'll see the big pieces, especially our social principles, be updated, and our plan for regionalization to be confirmed at this General Conference.” Gilligan said.

“I hope more than anything that the conversations at General Conference do not turn ugly,” Janz said. “I hope the Conference delegates can stay attentive to what Jesus as the Lord of the church is saying and doing among them right now.”

One of those delegates, Mallory Miles, hails from Butler County, and is attending the conference in person as a provisional delegate on behalf of the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist Church.

As a provisional delegate, she will not be able to vote on the important legislation. However, simply being there is an honor for Miles.

“I am very excited to observe and be in the room where big and important decisions are being made to shape the UMC,” Miles said. “Even though I won’t be voting, it is not a responsibility that I take lightly and it is an honor to support my colleagues that will be actively voting.”

Despite the political drama of the past few years within the UMC, Miles still sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We have the opportunity to pass legislation that allows us to move past the pain and grief of disaffiliations and into a new future where the UMC can be a safe and welcome place for all called to ministry, and for churches to be able to do ministry in their own context,” Miles said.

The Rev. B.T. Gilligan is pastor of Nixon United Methodist Church. Butler Eagle File Photo

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