Greater Northwest Area invited to Table Talks to discuss a Way Forward for the UMC

Bishop Stanovsky
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky leads communion for the Table Talks facilitator training training held in Portland in early March.

Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky is inviting United Methodists in the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Conferences to participate in Table Talk conversations on human sexuality, the upcoming report of the Commission on a Way Forward and special called session of the General Conference in February 2019. The conversations will be held in various settings across the Greater Northwest Area.

Early in March, 47 leaders from the three conferences were trained to convene these conversations in a worship-full context. In her invitation to these leaders, Bishop Stanovsky shared that the United Methodist Council of Bishops is encouraging similar “conversation in each annual conference to further our life together around matters of human sexuality and church unity.” This facilitator training allowed them to experience and offer feedback on a model for conversation that they will take out to other groups across the area.

Noted worship designer and leader Dr. Marcia McFee resourced attendees at the training held at Christ United Methodist Church, west of Portland, Oregon. Worship is an essential element of how we work together as the Church and McFee was brought in to offer creative guidance and insight. Nancy Tam Davis, Pacific Northwest Conference lay leader, and the Rev. Donna Pritchard, Senior Pastor at Portland’s First United Methodist Church and Commission on a Way Forward member, also provided facilitation and insight.

Trainees gathered with a spirt of curiosity, hopefulness, and anticipation. Bishop Stanovsky, Pritchard, and others offered insight to participants on the state of the larger church’s conversation before they experienced the time of meal, worship and conversation that they are being asked to replicate and lead.

What to Expect at Table Talks

The Table Talk design allows for a safe place for conversations about topics that may be difficult or divisive. According to McFee, “Surrounding the conversations in worship is a way to ground ourselves in the story of our faith and our own hearts.”

Before entering discussion, participants will be invited to commit to a simple covenant. In short, the covenant asks them to: (1) Stay Curious, (2) Be Kind, and to (3) Listen with the same amount of passion with which they want to be heard.

Rev. Carlo Rapanut, Alaska Conference Superintendent and a member of the design team asked the questions, “How did Jesus deal with conflict?” Then citing Luke 22:14 he pointed out that, “Jesus would start a difficult conversation by gathering for a meal.” So most of the Table Talk sessions will include some sort of meal time to allow for connection and conversation.

Table Talk
Jan Nelson, OR-ID Conference Lay Leader, shares with other facilitators at the training.

Facilitators learned that there isn’t a specific outcome expected from the conversations, but rather that there be a forum and process for respectful dialog. According to Stanovsky, “Table Talks aren’t an attempt to make everyone think or believe alike. But they are an opportunity to ask if our differences need to drive us apart? Or is there a way that we can honor one another, stay together, and continue at one table, in one conversation as we continue to seek to understand God’s will?”

Oregon-Idaho Conference Lay Leader Jan Nelson is one of the facilitators. She reflects that, “There are many issues that we avoid discussing even with our friends and families. It’s important for us in the church to model a way to talk about things that divide us. In this way, both laity and clergy can be witnesses to God’s love.”

While it is intended that all Table Talks provide a place to grow in understanding, each conversation will take on a certain character of its own. It is intended that they take place in districts, church clusters, ethnic caucuses, and within other groups and existing networks. Some Table Talks may include 40-50 persons while others may be relatively small in number. The questions and beliefs of participants will inevitably shape the conversation to some degree as well.

The Commission on a Way Forward

Commission on a Way Forward logoThe Commission on a Way Forward was proposed at the 2016 General Conference by the Council of Bishops “to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.” The proposal was approved, and a 32-member commission was named in October of 2016. You can learn more about their composition, vision, and how they are structuring their work here. The Bishops have also called a Special Session of the General Conference to be held be held February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri limited to acting on the report from the Council “based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward.”

In December, the Commission on a Way Forward filed a report with the Council of Bishops outlining three “sketches” or possible models for how the denomination might move beyond the current impasse regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ persons. The Commission met again in January to continue its work on these sketches after receiving input from the Council. Following the most recent Council of Bishop’s meeting, it was reported that there are two plans under consideration.

How to participate

Dates for Table Talks will be published as they are made available on the Greater Northwest Area Website. They will also be on their respective Annual Conference calendar. If you don’t see one near you, check back later as more may be added.

Claremont explores move to Oregon

In a July 6 letter to the Claremont School of Theology community, and subsequent press releases from Claremont School of Theology (CST) and Willamette University, it was announced the schools have entered preliminary conversations on the possibility of housing Claremont School of Theology, one of 13 United Methodist Seminaries, within the campus of United Methodist-related, Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

In June, Claremont President Jeffery Kuan announced the school was facing serious financial difficulties. The school website indicated that without an infusion of $50-90 million, remaining on the current campus in Claremont, California will be cost prohibitive. Kuan cited campus maintenance costs and the rising cost of higher education as key reasons to seek a new direction and embed within another institution.

Steve Thorsett
WU President Steve Thorsett

“Willamette and CST are both excellent schools with much in common – a focus on quality, and a mission to educate students and prepare them for lives that contribute to and transform their communities,” said Steve Thorsett, President of Willamette University. “Embedding CST at Willamette is an exciting opportunity to bring CST’s progressive approach to theological education to the Northwest, strengthen both institutions and support Willamette’s role as a liberal arts university with strong graduate programs.”

The proposed partnership offers opportunities for dual degree and co-curricular programs as well as expanded course opportunities for undergraduates. Both institutions cite shared values of diversity, Methodist heritage and academic excellence as key values. For CST, the move would provide financial stability in a time when it is experiencing increasing graduation rates.

Greater Northwest Area Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky has been kept informed of the process by Presidents Kuan and Thorsett. “Claremont School of Theology is a vital, generative center of thought, faith and innovation”, she said in response to the announcement. “It pushes the boundaries of inclusive community in every way.  If the proposed move proves to be feasible, the Greater Northwest Area would welcome CST into the ‘neighborhood’ and eagerly explore the many ways the United Methodist conferences and the school can benefit from and enrich one another.”

CST President Jeffery Kuan

No specific timeline has been set for completion of the due diligence process and possible relocation. Kuan shares that “Any full-time student who begins a program in Fall 2017 should be able to finish coursework in Claremont, California.” CST will retain its name in any embedded relationship, and may continue some type of presence in Southern California in addition to its existing online programs.

Claremont School of Theology has been in the city of Claremont since 1957. Prior to that it was located at the then Methodist-related University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It was originally founded in 1885 as the Maclay College of Theology in San Fernando, California. Claremont School of Theology is fully recognized and approved as one of thirteen University Senate-Approved theological schools of The United Methodist Church, with close relationships with other Protestant denominations, especially the Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

What would become Willamette University was founded in 1842 by Methodist missionaries as the Oregon Institute, a school for children of missionaries and settlers. In 1849, the first meeting of the Oregon-California Conference, held at the Institute, officially recognized it as a Methodist school. In 1853, it was chartered by the Oregon Territorial Legislature. The University housed the Kimball School of Theology from 1906 to 1930. Willamette was also a partner in the Northwest House of Theological Studies (NHTS) formed in 1998 by the Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Conferences and housed at First United Methodist Church in Salem. Claremont School of Theology and Methodist Theological School in Ohio provided faculty and accreditation for NHTS which closed in 2010.

If the partnership moves forward, CST will join two existing graduate offerings at Willamette: the Atkinson School of Management and the Willamette Law School.

Additional Resources for this story:

President Kuan’s letter about financial Challenges

President Kuan’s letter about partnership with Willamette University

CST Frequently Asked Questions about the proposed relocation

Willamette University Announcement

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