The Methodist Church divides

Trevor Soderstrum
Trevor Soderstrum

It was a pivotal moment in my life and I wasn’t even a part of it. It seems like another lifetime. I was the lay pastor of a small Methodist church in the middle of nowhere. A wonderful little place filled with wonderful people.

Every year in order to continue, I had to seek renewal before a group of ministers from the district. I run on Norwegian time, which means if you aren’t 10 minutes early, you are 20 minutes late. When I taught college, I was so early I sometimes flipped the lights on in the building.

So, needless to say, because this annual meeting was being held in a church, in a town I was not familiar with, I actually showed up before the female candidate that I was to follow had arrived. Finding the church basement, I visited with one of the few clergy that I knew. He offhandedly mentioned that they were very excited about the young woman who would be meeting with them before me. She had excelled in her first couple of years in seminary. They envisioned her as one of the future leaders in the church. Her interview would probably go quickly.

I found a seat. The only thing separating me from the committee was one of those folding wooden dividers that are often used to divide a large basement into smaller rooms. The only problem with them is a person can actually hear everything going on in the other side of the wall.

Flipping through the book I brought, I barely looked up at the young, slender 20-some-year-old seminarian as she was escorted into the room.

The meeting did not go as planned. I need to emphasize that these individuals gathered there were wonderful human beings. Many, if not most, were liberal in their outlook. The normal questions were batted back and forth, but for some unknown reason I picked up a flutter in the voice of young woman whose face I had barely seen.

Her grades were at the top of the class. Her reviews were outstanding. Then she dropped the bomb. She felt the need to publicly say she was a lesbian. It was like one of those record scratching moments. If she had just stayed quiet, everything would have been fine. I am sure that if she had come out privately to almost everyone present, she would have been embraced as a sister in Christ. Heck, she could have even lived with a partner in her future parsonage and everything would have been fine. Who is to say what happens in the privacy of one’s home?    

If she had just kept her mouth shut, there would have never been a problem. She simply said to those judging her that day that she could not proclaim the Truth, while she was not truthful about who she was. The Book of Discipline was clear. There was no wiggle room even if most of those gathered there had wanted to find it. She could not be a pastor in the United Methodist Church. I made the mistake of looking up from my book as she exited the room. She was a complete stranger to me. A painting of an innocent man on a cross behind her framed her broken and shattered face. Even a lifetime later that image is still burned into my mind.

One of the pastors beckoned me in. I asked for a few seconds, making an excuse that I needed to use the restroom. I went out to the bushes behind the church and vomited everywhere. I prayed about that moment for two years, avoiding anything to do with the larger church, before I left the ministry. I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

That pain, that woman’s face, is going to be seen on a lot of good people’s faces the next few months and years as the United Methodist Church goes through what the Lutheran church went through a few years earlier. Individual congregations will vote on which side of the homosexual issue they are on. COVID, which in its own way killed church attendance, put this great division off for a few months. People will take stands. Feelings will be hurt. Votes will be held. Some will find new churches to attend. Many will simply stay home. Winners will celebrate, even though in reality everyone will have lost. There will be a lot more empty spaces in the pews on Sunday morning. Who will be left standing in the shadow of the cross of that innocent man?

Correction: Two weeks ago, I erroneously wrote that Bob Dole was in the 20th Mountain Division. He was in the 10th Mountain Division. I used an advanced reader’s proof copy of a book that had not yet corrected this mistake in its editing process when researching the article. I probably found the only typo in the book. The fault was mine. I apologize.

Moral: Sometimes being a cheap Norwegian can come back to bite a person on the backside. (The proof copy was $50 cheaper.) Please do not relate this moral to the 11-year-old or her mother. I recently promised them that if the book I am writing about a Story County trial in the early 1950s becomes a bestseller (doubtful) that I will take them on a tropical vacation to the Caribbean. I then priced said trips. Needless to say, chest pains were experienced. What could possibly go wrong trying to find a discounted vacation to a Third World country?