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.
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
The 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.