Texas’ members and ‘Conversation Partners’ Share Insight from the Commission on a Way Forward

Date Posted: 2/11/2017

Texans Leah Taylor, Rev. Jessica LaGrone and Rev. Tom Lambrecht are helping the Commission listen to diverse voices and obtain input and prayerful thought to foster unity and trust throughout the denomination.
“Our first Commission meeting left me both more discouraged and more hopeful than when I arrived. More discouraged because the struggles of our Church are so much more painful when they have faces. Sitting around a table for four days with 31 other United Methodists, I could hear in a very personal way how much we love the United Methodist Church, and how devastated we all are that she is not well. It’s clear that we are in gridlock and that what we have been doing is not working.” 
By sharing this reflection, commission member Rev. Jessica LaGrone is bringing the Texas Annual Conference into the room with her. Jessica is the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary and is an acclaimed pastor, teacher, speaker, and writer. A native of Texas, Jessica is an ordained pastor who previously served for nine years at The Woodlands UMC near Houston. Shares Jessica, “I left the first meeting more hopeful because it’s also clear that we are willing to do whatever is in our power to move towards a healthy and vibrant Church once again. I felt a real kinship with my new friends on the Commission in terms of our commitment to the Church and its future. There are strongly held convictions in the room but also cool heads and the ability to listen and the understanding that for anything to happen we have to work together.”
As commission members, Jessica and former TAC Lay Leader Leah Taylor have been prepping for this role for several months. "Meeting preparation and attendance is just a portion of the commitment,” notes Leah. “We have committed to hold each other, the moderators and the UMC close in prayer. I found that being away from home while dealing with such emotional issues had me clinging to the idea that there was a group of my co-workers and friends who were praying specifically for me in this role. Several times during the days of our meeting, my phone would vibrate and someone would have just texted me the word: praying.  I found that to be life giving!”
Also on the Commission is Rev. Tom Lambrecht, who resides in the Woodlands, Tx but is an ordained elder in the Wisconsin Annual Conference, where he served in pastoral ministry for 29 years in a variety of contexts, large and small. He serves as the vice president and general manager of Good News, an organization within the UMC, of which Woodlands UMC’s Rev. Rob Renfroe is president.
Tom approached the first meeting as a member of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church “with trepidation, if not fear and trembling,” he says. “The commission has an enormous and consequential task ahead of it — find a way forward to resolving the impasse between progressives and traditionalists over the church’s stance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It was somewhat gratifying that nearly every other commissioner at the meeting shared the same sense of the overwhelming challenge we face, yet remained open to the leading of the Holy Spirit to find that elusive path between the proverbial rock and hard place.”
Adds Tom, “With members from four continents, several ethnic groups, and a wide range of ages, theological perspectives, and multiple sexual orientations, the commission is indeed the most diverse body assembled in the church, other than General Conference itself. It will be a challenge for such a diverse group to come to agreement on a resolution of our crisis that allows us to move forward as a church. Strongly held, diametrically opposite views on essential matters will make consensus difficult. So far, the group is approaching the disagreements with goodwill and a desire to understand. As personal emotional investment comes to the surface, that goodwill will be tested, and the commission will continue to need the church’s prayers for a constructive relationship in the group that can lead to resolution.”
How were commission members selected?
The Council of Bishops worked together to select United Methodist leaders that would represent the denomination well from all parts of the connection geographically and from different points of view theologically.  
What is involved?
“Before our first meeting together,” shares Jessica, “we were all asked to read the Anatomy of Peace, published by the Arbinger Institute. It’s a story that illustrates how people of differing views can move toward reconciliation and peace. We also read a monograph by Gil Rendle, who is acting as a consultant to the Commission, called Reading the Signs. It was written especially about the current state of things in the UMC and the difficult task we face as a Commission.” 
What is the time commitment and goal?
There are six meetings in 2017 and three in 2018. Notes Jessica, “We’ll also be working to present the proposal we come up with to various Annual Conferences and groups leading up to a called General Conference in 2019. For me this was an enormous commitment and I didn’t take it lightly. It’s a great deal of time away from my ministry and my family, but the UMC is the Church that baptized, nurtured, and ordained me. The future of the Church is on my heart a lot, since I work with seminary students who are the future pastors, missionaries, ministers and lay leaders of the Church. I want us to resolve our current gridlock so that there will be a healthy and vibrant Methodist Church for my students and my children.”
Jessica was raised in the Texas Annual Conference at St. John’s UMC in Richmond, Texas. “I was baptized there and felt a call to ministry as I was growing up and while I attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, a United Methodist related school. I attended Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and returned to the Texas Annual Conference where I was ordained in 2005. I served as a pastor in the Conference, first at FUMC Pasadena and then at The Woodlands UMC.” While at The Woodlands, she began publishing books and Bible Studies with Abingdon Press, the United Methodist Publishing House. Adds Jessica, “I love to preach and teach about the way the Bible intersects with our everyday lives and needs. In 2014, I was asked to return to Asbury to serve as Dean of the Chapel, where I oversee the worship life of the seminary and am the pastor to the community. I love working with and mentoring seminary students. They are wonderfully called, committed and gifted, and the Church has a bright future in them!”
A member of Memorial Drive UMC, Leah Taylor joined The Texas Methodist Foundation as the Area Representative for the TAC after many years of serving the Texas Annual Conference and most recently as Jurisdictional Lay Leader.
Leah shares, “It was wonderful to see the diversity in the group of people gathered by the Council of Bishops to wrestle with the heart-wrenching issues that the UMC is facing world wide. There are people from the US, Africa, Europe and the Philippines; men and women; Bishops, clergy and lay; young and those who are not as young; as well as racial diversity. Most of us seem to have come with determination to do our best work for the church that we all love. In our first day of meeting and getting to know each other, there were tough moments. Tears were shed even as those who disagree were building relationships.”
Way Forward Commission Next Steps
Moderators plan to integrate the values of inclusiveness as the group shapes the covenant surrounding its work. Updates will be available via UMCom and a website (www.umc.org/wayforward) that includes the original proposal passed at the General Conference in Portland, Oregon; the mission, vision and scope of the commission’s work; and information about the commission members and moderators.  
Part of the task involves breaking into small groups that will be working outside of the Commission meetings, gathering data and information to bring back to the full group.  “Together,” explains Leah, “we created and agreed upon a Covenant that will govern our time together and the way we communicate outside of the meetings -- not only with each other but with those who are not on the Commission but are interested in what we are doing.” The “bottom line,” she adds, “is that this is very hard work, especially as we consider the many lives that have already been impacted by the polity of our denomination. Other denominations have already been through some of what we are facing, and I think there may be lessons that we can learn from their experiences. Most importantly, we must consider people -- and see their faces as we think, pray and work because what we do has significant consequences.  It’s a heavy responsibility and we are not are taking it lightly.”
Adds Jessica, “Meeting United Methodists from all over the world gave me a new perspective on our connection and our strengths. Our meals together were just as important as our work, and the variety of cultures and backgrounds made for some fascinating conversations. There were many intense and serious conversations, but also laughter and new friendships.”