(RNS) — United Methodists across the U.S. have protested the global denomination’s crackdown on LGBTQ members in all kinds of ways.
But now a group of teens in a confirmation class at a historic United Methodist church in the Midwest has taken the unprecedented step of refusing to join the church.
Eight teenagers, aged 13 and 14, who make up this year’s confirmation class at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb., stood before the congregation on Confirmation Sunday (April 28) and read a letter saying they do not want to become members at this time.
The teens said they took their stand on principle because they believed the denomination’s vote to uphold and strengthen its ban on LGBTQ ordination and marriage to be “immoral” and “unjust.”
“We are concerned that if we join at this time, we will be sending a message that we approve of this decision,” the confirmation class wrote.
“We want to be clear that, while we love our congregation, we believe the United Methodist policies on LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage are immoral,” they said.
The eight teens received a standing ovation. As is customary following confirmation, the church treated the youth to dinner: lasagna and salad and a gift of journals for each teen.
Since the February vote at a special session of the General Conference in St. Louis, some Methodist churches across the United States have protested through newspaper ads. Others rallied in front of their church administrative offices. Still others voted to withhold their annual dues, called apportionments.
But this is the first known refusal to join the church at the end of confirmation, a formal rite of passage that includes education in the faith. Traditionally, confirmation classes spend a year learning about Christianity, the history of the United Methodist Church, its social principles, its polity, and what it means to be a member.
They then decide if they want to join the church as members.
In keeping with First United Methodist of Omaha’s history of confronting its denomination’s policies, the Rev. Kent Little, pastor of the church, supported his young people. “Myself and our associate pastor are in full support of their decision,” he said. “We’re proud of them. It’s not an easy thing to do to resist.”
The congregation, which predates the establishment of the state of Nebraska in the 19th century, now has about 350 active members.
In 1997, its then pastor, Jimmy Creech, performed a same-sex blessing for two women on church grounds. After a church member complained, Creech was put on trial and defrocked.
More recently, the church council voted to host same-sex weddings should its clergy choose to perform them and to withhold funding, or apportionments, to the denomination for the remainder of the year.
Even supporters of the church’s LGBTQ bans acknowledged that the confirmands’ decision was novel.
“I’m not aware of anything like that having occurred,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group that supports the ban on LGBT clergy.
Referring to the confirmation class’ joint letter, Boyette said he’d be “surprised if they wrote it themselves.”
But Tim Fickenscher, a retired junior high school teacher who taught the confirmation class, said the adults had little to do with it. (The confirmands did not want to speak individually to reporters but only as a group.)
The idea originated about a month ago, Fickenscher said, when two girls announced they didn’t want to join a denomination that denies LGBTQ full rights.
Fickenscher explained what that meant. For one, they wouldn’t be allowed to vote at churchwide meetings. He also made it clear that others in the confirmation class may have different opinions.
But in the end, the other youth decided they, too, wanted to join in the protest.
“It was a very thoughtful, well-discussed decision,” Fickenscher said. “We tried to give the kids as much latitude in decision-making as we could.”
On Friday, the United Methodist Church’s top court upheld most of the February vote regarding LGBTQ.
The Judicial Council also ruled that a clergy member who performs a same-sex wedding will face a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and a loss of credentials for the second.
The new rules will take effect in January 2020.
The council also upheld an “exit plan” that allows churches to leave the denomination with their property over decisions made at the special session.
That is something First United Methodist is considering.
Little, who came on as pastor in July, said the church council voted on April 2 to hold small group discussions about whether to remain in the United Methodist Church. He said the church would consider three options: staying and continuing to resist church rules in solidarity with LGBTQ people; affiliating with another denomination such as the United Church of Christ, which gives LGBTQ people full rights; or becoming an independent, non-denominational congregation.
In the April church newsletter, Little wrote that “a significant part of the church of my youth and the church I have fought so hard for these last 27 years of my ministry died in St Louis this past February.”
But he said he would remain as pastor as long as the church would have him.