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Methodists plan vote on church split in ’21

YOUNGSTOWN — A decision on a United Methodist Church denominational split now will wait until next year.

A General Conference was to meet last month to vote on the church’s proposal, called “A Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” Church leaders from around the globe have unveiled a plan that includes a split within the denomination over gay marriage and gay clergy.

The decision has been sidelined by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing restrictions on large gatherings.

The Rev. Abby Auman, district superintendent of the Mahoning Valley District of East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, said the conference has been “firmly” rescheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021, “as much as anything is firm right now.”

There are 60 United Methodist churches in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. Ten districts make up the church’s East Ohio Conference.

The General Conference, which consists of more than 800 delegates from around the world, will vote on the split, Auman said.

The conference is the policymaking body of the worldwide UMC and determines the denomination’s future direction.

Previously, the conference voted to strengthen bans against same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. It voted for rules affirming a long-held policy that the practice of homosexuality conflicts with church teachings.

Last December, the separation proposal was signed by a 16-member panel that began meeting in October. The panel was formed following the discovery of an impasse within the church regarding LGBTQ issues.

The separation would enable a relationship between the LGBTQ community and the church.

Included in the proposal is an amicable separation in which conservative churches will form a new denomination while retaining their assets. The new denomination also would receive $25 million.

An additional $2 million will be escrowed for potential denominations that would form based on the outcome of the decision.

WORSHIP CHANGES

While the vote on separation has been delayed, the church has focused on immediate issues since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March.

Auman said local churches are working with their communities and making adjustments.

At West Austintown UMC and Newton Falls UMC, the Rev. Jeff Harrison and the Rev. DeWayne Smith, respectively, said one change that has happened is in the way worship is occurring.

In Austintown, for example, there has been what Harrison calls a “drive-thru ministry,” where members of the clergy can drive through for different occasions, such as Palm Sunday.

The pandemic, Harrison said, “is a way for us to adopt and adapt during this time.”

He said he’s noticed that his clergy and the community have taken to looking after one another in trying times.

People are “more charitable” and “caring” toward one another, Harrison said.

“If anything, this time it’s been a time to sit and reflect, to continue how to care for one another. To put aside differences and focus on each other,” he said.

In Newton Falls, Smith said prayer chains have been offered by members.

For those facing a crisis, Smith said they are seeking his guidance as well.

“What I’ve seen in the community is, the community finding ways to come together.”

His wife, Linda, even began calling clergy members to check in, seeing if they needed anything, he said.

There is also a drive-thru worship in the church’s parking lot, he added.

Both churches have participated in serving meals to the community.

In Austintown, 3,000 meals have been served over the last 12 weeks in weekly dinners, which Harrison said will continue through June.

The meals aren’t just run-of-the-mill spaghetti and meatballs.

“We have done pulled chicken … fish and chips,” he said, noting that everything is homemade, and about 250 meals go out weekly.

There were once five sites through Newton Falls where families of students could get boxes of food for five days, but Smith said the process has been consolidated to one site, making it a more efficient process.

Smith said there will be a way through this pandemic.

“We have to remember God is still in control no matter what happens. As long as we remember that, we’re going to make it through.”

afox@tribtoday.com

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