February 27, 2019

Kingston Pastor Watches Methodist LGBTQ Deliberations

By Donald Gilpin

Jessica Winderweedle

A special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) met in St. Louis over the past four days to determine the future of the UMC in regards to same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.

Jess Winderweedle, lead pastor of Kingston United Methodist Church, and her congregation have been following the proceedings closely. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Winderweedle lives in downtown Princeton with her wife. She is currently in the process of becoming ordained as a full-fledged minister of the church.

The conversation over the ordination of LGBTQ persons and the decision for clergy to perform same-sex weddings is one “that has been ongoing for the last 40 years in the UMC,” Winderweedle says, “and many Methodists are concerned that what may result in the end is a split within the denomination.”

Winderweedle, who has been part of Kingston UMC for several years and pastor since 2016, went on to note, “throughout my time at Kingston UMC, I have known it to be a place of wide welcome, despite the ongoing conflict within the UMC regarding LGBTQ persons.”

In the context of the contentious conflict at the General Conference, she added, “I believe that the story of Kingston UMC tells an important counter-narrative that could provide hope for members of our community.”

The Kingston UMC congregation voted unanimously on February 10 to adopt a Statement of Welcome, including a “welcome to people of all genders, all gender expressions, all sexual orientations and identities.”

In St. Louis more than 800 delegates from around the world — half clergy, half lay people — have been considering several plans, attempting to work towards unity, rather than a schism, in the church.

Official UMC policy since 1972 has stated that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The church does not permit same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons, but enforcement has been inconsistent.

“Some people have been trying to change that language to make our denomination more inclusive for all,”

Winderweedle said, “and the other side of the debate wants to double down on those rules and the consequences for violation of those rules.”

Though reluctant to make any predictions about the outcome of the conference, Winderweedle is hopeful that the debating factions can come to a peaceful resolution by the end of the gathering.

“The thing that scares me the most is that nothing will change. The current state of things is a tense state of limbo for a lot of people,” she said. “There are a lot of queer people in the ordination process, myself included, and we never know what to expect from committees and folks in that process.”

She mentioned that locally, and in New Jersey in general, she has felt strongly supported, but LGBTQ people in other areas of the country have experienced discrimination. “It’s no way to live to be in this constant state feeling like your very existence in the church is in protest,” she said. 

Winderweedle continued, “There are certainly Methodists pushing for full inclusion for LGBTQs. I have felt very supported by my district, my conference, and my bishop in pursuit of ordination, but I know that others have not all felt that. There are folks who are engaging in a kind of civil disobedience right now and helping to push the denomination forward towards a wider welcome.”

Fearing a schism in the UMC “that would be heartbreaking,” Winderweedle reiterated her hope for unity, “real unity — not we’ll call ourselves unified but remain embroiled in these arguments year after year. That’s not real unity.”

Winderweedle emphasized that her Kingston congregation has been closely watching the UMC conference in St. Louis “because there are people in our congregation whom we love and want to support, but also the younger generation of Christians is really interested in issues of justice and inclusion, and it’s a no-brainer for us that we would be engaged in that conversation.”

She went on to point out that “there are folks in this church at all points on the theological and political spectrum, but I have experienced it to be a congregation that’s willing to come to the table together and talk about tough issues and pray together and respect one another.” 

She expressed her hope that the larger UMC gathering could follow that example. “It’s my hope for the UMC that we would find a way to be inclusive and to leave space for these conversations.”

At press time yesterday, Winderweedle noted that “everything is still very much up in the air,” as far as the outcome of the UMC conference is concerned, but “the wind is blowing in the direction of the General Conference voting to adopt a more conservative plan.”

Winderweedle mentioned that there is a handful of LGBTQ people in her congregation and that it’s a young congregation with about 70 percent age 30 or under, including many students from Princeton Theological Seminary and Princeton University.   

She said that although there are people in her congregation with widely varying beliefs on how to interpret the Bible on many issues, including homosexuality, “as a pastor I’ve tried to make sure that there’s an open space for everybody to participate in this conversation.”

She continued, “Anyone who’s willing to uphold the dignity of all persons and to love and respect each other as Jesus taught us to, anyone who’s willing to do that is more than welcome to be a part of this community and a part of this conversation. I think it’s the task of the church to serve as an example of how to work through disagreement and conflict in that way.”

Kingston UMC (kingstonmethodist.org) is located at 9 Church Street in Kingston, where worship is held at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.