By Christa Meland
Director of Communications
Minnesota Annual Conference
LANSING, Mich. -- At a virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) Conference Nov. 10-11, delegates elected by their respective annual conferences created and overwhelmingly approved a covenant naming their commitment to anti-racism work and LGBTQIA+ inclusion.
Approximately 250 delegates participated in an official Zoom meeting, and others from across the 10-conference jurisdiction watched it live online. Delegates spent the majority of their time together on three big topics of conversation—dismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership, and the future of The United Methodist Church.
On Nov. 11, by a vote of 135-32, delegates approved a “Covenant to Build Beloved Community” developed by a six-person writing team determined by the heads of the NCJ delegations. The covenant, written using United Methodist baptismal vows as a framework, calls on the jurisdiction to work to end racism and to create a culture that welcomes and affirms LGBTQIA+ people.
Specifically, the covenant calls on the NCJ bishops of color to convene all BIPOC delegates to discuss how to begin to address trauma in communities of color, requests the Mission Council to report on how their budget incorporates anti-racism work, urges all members of the NCJ to avoid pursuing charges for LGBTQIA+ clergy, and requests that episcopal leaders dismiss charges related to LGBTQIA+ identity or officiating same-gender weddings. The covenant also stipulates that the Mission Council must designate NCJ funds to work with conference anti-racism teams to create a racial analysis at the local church and conference levels—and to align annual conference budgets with antiracism work and intentional efforts geared toward people and communities of color.
“The shaping of our covenant was based on our baptismal covenant, and baptism isn’t an ending; it’s a beginning,” said Rev. Carol Zaagsma, a clergy member of the Minnesota Conference who was on the writing team. “This covenant represents a new beginning for our North Central Jurisdiction, and I think it shows that grace and love are stronger than the challenges we face.”
Rev. Andy Call, a clergy delegate from the East Ohio Conference, also sees the covenant as a step forward for the jurisdiction.
“For the last two-and-a-half years, The United Methodist Church has been defined largely by the voices of those preparing to leave,” he said. “The North Central Jurisdiction took steps this week to articulate the values of the jurisdiction going forward that I hope will inspire those who have been left out or left behind.”
IGRC clergy delegate Eric Swanson shared how the Covenant resonated with him. “The five priorities across all the groups showed anti-Racism and inclusion at 1 and 2 by a wide margin with a general amicable separation at 3 and the rest below the top 3 in a wide pool with lower vote totals by and large. The top issues in the church are the top issues in our NCJ geography. We identify with what separates us in the world and the body tried to express that and bring hope to these areas.”
Lay delegate Steve Schonert from Olney First UMC, expressed disappointment in the Covenant in final form.
“I will be interested in seeing how many of the 26 small groups mentioned the passage of the Protocol in their priorities,” Schonert said. “I am not sure I understand why passage of the Protocol is receiving high marks in other conferences, including fairly progressive ones, while in our jurisdiction, it was not even mentioned on the covenant.”
The Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation was a negotiated agreement reached in December 2020 by various caucus groups and bishops. It is part of the legislation to be considered by General Conference. It has not been tested by any legislative process.
Regarding amicable separation, the document encourages conferences and local churches to strive for reconciliation and understanding. But for churches that “may feel called to a different future in the faith,” it stipulates that annual conferences should “use existing disciplinary and conference provisions to accommodate local congregations seeking disaffiliation.”
“The amicable separation, I feel, was beyond the Protocol in part because it has lost favor among many and because waiting continues to cause harm on and by all sides,” Swanson said. “I was very glad to see an addition of evangelism, as the DNA of our shared Wesleyan history is born in that tradition and we all need to find life in that life-giving work. This was hard and imperfect work and at the end of the day I believe that it passed by such a large margin because many believe that we must do hard work for the sake of the Gospel.”
The covenant requests the Mission Council, in conjunction with the NCJ College of Bishops, “develop an exercise for NCJ delegates to engage in conversation to understand the impact of homophobia, transphobia, sexism and heterosexism within United Methodist Churches during the next meeting of the jurisdiction.”
The writing team that developed the covenant waded through 54 pages of comments from delegates in order to find out was particularly important to them. The five key priorities identified from those discussions, which shaped the document, were: anti-racism, inclusion, amicable separation, regionalism, and connectionalism.
Nitza Dovenspike, a lay member of the Iowa Conference who was also on the covenant writing team, said the team kept coming back to baptismal vows as they approached the document and reflected on how to renounce some of the forces of evil in our midst. “It gave us the power to do the work of anti-racism in the spirit of building beloved community,” she said. “We all have baptism in common.”
She personally is grateful that the delegates lifted up anti-racism work as a priority and as a call to action. “We recognized the importance of actionable recommendations to continue the journey on eliminating racism,” she said after the covenant was adopted.
Delegates spent more than two hours discussing and refining the covenant before approving it. NCJ bishops were formally asked at one point to weigh in on whether some of the specific language about LGBTQIA+ individuals and same-gender weddings—namely, the call to avoid and dismiss charges related to them—restricts the rights of bishops or other leaders from upholding the Book of Discipline and thus is null and void? The bishops have 30 days to respond.
In addition to approving the covenant itself, delegates also voted 131-31 to affirm the recent Council of Bishops document called “A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church” and 128-31 to affirm “A Call to Grace,” an open letter that all United Methodists were invited to sign.
“Covenanting to Build the Beloved Community, we look to 2024 with promise,” the covenant stated at the end. “We pledge ourselves to God’s call upon our lives, to each other, and to the future of The United Methodist Church.”
(IGRC Director of Communication Ministries Paul Black contributed to this report)