Lily Moore and Rick Stiles aren’t trying to push members of United Methodist churches out of the mainline Protestant denomination.
Both are unhappy with the recent actions of the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, which elected its first openly gay bishop in July. The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, who is based in Denver, oversees the Mountain Sky Area of the UMC, which includes Montana.
Their goal instead is offer support to other Montanans who share their dismay, and to share alternatives for financial giving.
“What we’re attempting to do is provide a common group for people to help support their individual churches through the issues that are going on,” Stiles said in an interview.
The two are lifelong members of the UMC, active in their own congregations. Stiles belongs to Evangelical United Methodist Church and Moore is a member of First United Methodist Church.
They joined together to form Montana Wesleyan Methodist after the July election of Oliveto. That action violates the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of law, Stiles and Moore say.
Although the Book of Discipline considers all people of sacred worth, it calls the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. It also says that “self-avowed homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”
Those who elected Oliveto say she was the best person for the job. And though they realize her election was a pivotal moment for the denomination, they maintain that wasn’t why they elected her.
But Moore said the issue goes even deeper. At the 2016 General Conference in Portland in May, the legislative body of the denomination that meets every four years, a tense discussion over the issue of homosexuality led talks to be postponed.
Instead, the Council of Bishops created the Commission on a Way Forward, representing all sides of the denomination. Its goal is to scrutinize and possibly recommend revisions to the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality.
The 32-member commission hopes to finish its work by early 2019, when a special General Conference meeting will be called to vote on its recommendations. But two months after the 2016 General Conference, before the commission could make any recommendations, the Western Jurisdictional Conference elected Oliveto.
“People are very upset that the Western Jurisdiction did not give the commission a chance to finish their work,” Moore said. “And for them to break the rules and expect the members to go along and agree and to give money to them, that is when people are saying 'uh-uh.'”
Soon after Oliveto’s election, complaints were filed with the Judicial Council, the denomination’s highest judicial body, for a declaratory decision concerning same-sex church leaders. A decision isn’t expected to be rendered until spring.
Since Oliveto’s installation as bishop on Sept. 1, the bishop has taken seven road trips with district superintendents to visit churches and meet people. Some were glad she came, said David Burt, assistant to the bishop, and others “were upset with her election, and they let her know.”
“But she was still there willing to hear them,” he said. “That’s the thing, that she’s willing to be in dialogue with people, as I think a lot of us are.”
Montana Wesleyan Methodist began with a handful of Billings-area people who shared Stiles’ and Moore’s concerns, and a leadership team was formed. As they sent out emails and received phone calls, the group grew.
“We are adding people weekly as more people hear about this,” Stiles said. “I’ve been surprised at the reach that this seems to be getting from around the state.”
Some pastors who disagreed with the election contacted them, Stiles said, but requested their names not be added to the membership roles for fear of retaliation.
The Montana group held its first gathering on Nov. 12, with guest speaker the Rev. Walter Fenton of Texas-based Good News, an unofficial evangelical United Methodist organization that holds to the traditional understanding of Scripture.
Moore said they expected 20 to 25 people. Instead, 57 showed up at the meeting. They came from as far away as Livingston, Townsend, Miles City, Glendive and Powell, Wyo.
Among the crowd were a few pastors and many lay people. The meeting included an introduction to Montana Wesleyan Methodist, prayer, singing and Communion.
At the meeting, one person commented that though they had been part of UMC for 30 years, they had never felt so alone, Stiles said. They said the meeting convinced them to continue attending their church.
That’s important, Stiles said, because he’s heard from others who have left their congregations or have withheld their financial contributions in protest. There are ways to give money but designate it for the local church’s use only, he said — information his group is glad to share.
Two unexpected people also came to the meeting, Burt, whose office is in Billings, and Kama Hamilton Morton, district superintendent for the Yellowstone Conference of the UMC, who lives in Great Falls but happened to be in the Billings area.
Burt offered greetings from Bishop Oliveto to people at the gathering. Morton answered questions raised by attendees.
In an interview Tuesday, Burt said he appreciated the cordial welcome, but only found out about the gathering secondhand. In a difficult discussion like this, he said, it’s crucial for all voices to be heard.
“We want to engage in dialogue,” he said. “Without it, a lot of misinformation can go on, on both sides.”
Burt said he understands people are upset and want to voice their anger and concern. There are many ways to do that.
Those range from writing letters to denomination officials to sending petitions to the general and jurisdictional conferences, Burt said. Or they can seek to become voting delegates who attend those conferences.
He confirmed that some members have left churches in the Big Sky Area and others are withholding their offerings or designating them for local use only.
“In one of the smaller churches, one family gave about one-third of the annual budget and they left the church,” Burt said. “So that puts in jeopardy a pastor’s ability to stay.”
A special fund may be developed to help financially struggling churches. Other congregations, he said, have boosted their giving.
Of every $1,000 a church gives to support the mission of the UMC, Burt pointed out, less than $1 goes to support the bishop. With a drop in giving, other ministries within the denomination are impacted as well, he said.
Moore believes that is a natural consequence of moving forward with controversial actions that go against church law. Both she and Stiles are waiting for a decision rendered by the Judicial Council and eventually the Commission on the Way Forward.
In the meantime, they will continue to meet with others concerned with the direction the denomination is going, Stiles said. The next meeting will likely be on the third Saturday in January.
"First and foremost we're trying to keep the local churches intact," he said. “We’re focused on how to keep the United Methodist Church intact using the Book of Discipline we have now.”