November 8, 2019
Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
As your bishop, I have tried to keep you informed, help you understand what the future might hold, and engage you in prayer and healthy Christian conversation about the huge divide that exists in our beloved Arkansas Conference concerning matters of human sexuality. These efforts will continue, as will my determination to act with as much fairness, compassion and integrity as I possibly can.
Two things have been foundational for me as I have done this. First, I choose to believe that all persons are acting from places of deep faith conviction. Second, I intend to shape our way forward in the Arkansas Conference so that as many congregations and pastors as possible will thrive as much as possible.
I have discovered time and again, however, that building on this foundation to find our way forward is no easy task in our deeply divided church. What is more, it seems to become increasingly difficult with each passing day. Two recent events illustrate this.
The Bishops of the Western Jurisdiction have issued a “Safe Harbor Declaration.” It is a statement of intention that formally articulates how they are going to address matters related to LGBTQIA+ persons. Their intent is to welcome and fully involve LGBTQIA+ individuals in the life of the United Methodist Church by marrying, ordaining and not following the process mandated by The Book of Discipline if any complaints are instituted.
At the same time, there is considerable conversation in the broader church, including among some bishops, concerning a “moratorium” on church trials. This essentially means pressure is being placed on bishops to refrain from processing formal complaints according to the church’s judicial process in ways that could lead to church trials.
When these two intentions are combined with the actions of annual conferences, statements of individual bishops and advocacy groups talking about the possibility of leaving, it should be abundantly clear the United Methodist Church already is fractured and broken, even as we remain structurally intact. Unless people of good will take proactive steps that transcend the legislative process, I fear we are headed to a General Conference in May 2020 in Minneapolis that will be even more painful than what occurred in February 2019 in St. Louis.
This is why I believe it is time to craft a consensus across the great divide in our church to develop a process that will allow multiple new expressions of Methodism to emerge. I am not certain what this might look like. But I think it is crucial for those who hold differing visions of the future to come together to explore new possibilities. This intentional action will help us avoid further fracturing. It will be a witness to the world about how a healthy and loving Body of Christ deals with real-life issues. And, perhaps most importantly, it will allow the Holy Spirit to use our present crisis as a means of reaching more people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through multiple expressions of Methodism than we currently are. Just to be clear, this way of thinking is not new for me. It is why I articulated support for the Connectional Conference Plan prior to the 2019 Special Called General Conference.
In the meantime, I want to remind you again of how I will carry out my leadership role. I will continue to uphold the sacred vow I made when I was consecrated as a bishop to faithfully administer The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. This means I have no intention of “rushing to trials” because the hoped-for outcome in every complaint is to reach a just resolution if at all possible. It also means I will not ignore, intentionally slow down or stop the processing of any complaints.
It hurts my heart that in my 41st year of full-time ministry the church which awakened me to Jesus, embraced me, nurtured me and has given me the privilege of serving is broken and battered. But my faith in the resurrected Jesus means I know this is not the end of the story. Christian unity is alive and well, even if structural unity in the United Methodist Church is not.
Jesus’ disciples who disagree can still reach across the divide to talk and pray with each other. Congregations that have divergent theological understanding can still join together to feed the hungry and care for the poor in their communities. All of us can still pray that God’s will shall become just as real on earth as it is in heaven. And who knows? One day the Holy Spirit may once again bring us together in ways we cannot yet imagine.
As always, I look forward to talking and praying with you about our future regardless of your hopes and dreams, because who you are and what you hold in your heart matters to me.
Grace and peace,
Gary E. Mueller