Lake Junaluska has hosted the Western North Carolina conference of the United Methodist Church for decades. For many of those years, its felt more like a family reunion than a convention. But this year was a little different.
Kids play in swimming pool on the edge of the lake while adults get ready for another long day of voting.
This is Robin Tate Uhl’s first annual conference at Lake Junaluska in Haywood County. She’s up for election as a laity delegate. That means if elected she would go to the May 2020 global conference to vote on policy changes. She spoke to over 2,000 people about why she felt called to be a part of the United Methodist Church.
“I just went up there and I just felt really empowered by the holy spirit to stand up and tell everyone that in the methodist church there is room for me an intersex woman lesbian to become a pastor,” says Uhl.
This year, delegate voting is more tense than usual. At its global conference in February, the United Methodist Church passed what’s called the Traditional Plan. It fortifies the church’s position that anyone who doesn’t identify as heterosexual can’t be ordained or married in the church by adding punitive measures to the Methodist Book of Discipline.
The decision hurt Uhl to her core. But she says it wasn’t as painful as when she was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Church at sixteen for being gay.
“It hurt but it wasn’t as traumatic. I’m older now. It didn’t hurt as bad so honestly it’s like breaking a bone the second time,” says Uhl.
Uhl says she still wants to be a Methodist minister for what is the third largest Christian denomination in the country.
The Western North Carolina conference spans from Greensboro to the western tip of the state. This urban-rural mixture makes the conference a microcosm of the Church says Pastor Kelly Carpenter. He has been a minister for about 20 years in Winston Salem. He’s also one of the organizers for Reconciling Ministries - a group that has been fighting for inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities into the rules of the United Methodist Church since the 1980’s. The Southern Jurisdiction of the national group has added over 2,000 new members since the Traditional plan passed.
Carpenter thinks it is very possible that the Methodist church will split next year.
“I think that other people are looking for a reversal of the Traditional Plan but I also think that we can’t go back to the status quo,” he explains. “We have to think about what kind of a church that we really want to be in.”
Talbot Davis is a part of the church’s Evangelical Movement. He has been the pastor at a megachurch in Charlotte for about 20 years. He says that there was zero fallout at his church after the Traditional Plan passed.
“Yes, it did not change anything that we have taught regarding human sexuality but because the widespread public disobedience to what we teach and what it means to be a United Methodist. That’s why the Traditional Plan enacted the kind of mandatory punishments that are involved,” explained Talbot.
While views at the conference on the Traditional plan fall across the spectrum, for queer Methodists it’s personal.
This is the sixth time that McKenzie Dillingham has been to Lake Junaluska as a laity delegate. She identifies as a lesbian and is a part of the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville. Dillingham hoisted an LGBTQ flag during the Reconciling Ministries’ Pride March at the conference.
BPR’s Lilly Knoepp says: “So what was it like to carry a Pride flag through the crowd here as we are waiting for the next vote?”
“I guess pride-full would be a cliche - but it really was,” says Dillingham.
After three days of voting, the conference’s chosen 40 candidates were all a part of the progressive camp. Melissa McGill, who runs communications for the conference, doesn’t want to describe this as a win for the progressives.
“In the church, we don’t like to say winning and losing. We are one body together and all of the parts are needed and as a conference we really recognize the deep divisions of this continued debate and want to acknowledge everyone in our conference,” says McGill.
The Western North Carolina conference also approved a petition rejecting the Traditional Plan put together by a national group called UMC Next. Whether that succeeds won’t be determined until next year’s global conference in Minneapolis.