United Methodist Church members in Lafayette and around the world are still reeling after a group of church leaders announced a proposal to divide the church over acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer clergy members and congregants.

A group of 16 church leaders, including Louisiana Conference Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, released a signed proposal Jan. 3 that called for a separation over LGBTQ ordained clergy and, more broadly, the role of LGBTQ people in the church.

The Rev. Jon Tellifero with Covenant United Methodist Church said acceptance of LGBTQ people has been a hotly contested issue within the church over the last 40 years, but it’s become especially divisive within the last 16 years. One of the troubles is that the United Methodist Church operates worldwide, with some areas stridently traditionalist and others more progressive.

Tellifero has been with the church for over 30 years, working as a pastor in Kentucky, Texas and predominantly Louisiana. He served in parishes in the north and central regions of the state before moving to Lafayette in July.

He said the divisions can be seen in local regions too.

Opinions about sexuality and morality can’t be swayed by legislation, he said, making it difficult for the church to find a uniform answer to a personally divisive issue.

“United Methodism has always been a denomination that’s sensitive to the people it serves,” he said. “How can you be for the people in a divided house?”

The proposal would allow for the establishment of a traditionalist denomination of the church that would split off from the core United Methodist Church. The proposal was put forward in response to an ongoing legal firestorm that began when an openly lesbian pastor, the Rev. Karen Oliveto, was named a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction, which covers the western United States, in 2016.

In 2019, the UMC tried to resolve the conflict with a special session. Rules barring LGBTQ leadership and support for or participation in same-sex weddings were reaffirmed and in some ways strengthened, according to the UMC's main website. Instead of creating unity, it deepened the divide, Tellifero said.

“If we were trying to make peace, we made it worse,” he said.

In their framework for a split, the 16 UMC leaders proposed setting aside $25 million to be paid out to a new traditionalist denomination over four years. Another $2 million would be set aside for additional denominations that may develop out of the split.

The proposal isn’t a done deal. While the Methodist leaders represent diverse groups from many of the UMC’s key regions and movements, the church’s General Conference, which is meeting for its quadrennial convention in May, is the only group that can speak for the church and make consequential decisions.

Even so, the group provided a framework for how a potential split would operate. Different levels of the church’s organization – including regions abroad, regions in the United States and individual churches – could vote to break away with the traditionalist denomination or another group. The voting thresholds required for each group to split differ.

Tellifero said he was heartbroken when he heard about the proposal to divide the church. He said he has loved ones on both sides of the issue and the proposed split means the church is deciding it’s not possible to respect and affirm one another despite differences. 

Though the pastor knew conversations around the position of LGBTQ members and clergy in the church were ongoing, he didn’t know this proposal would be put forward.

“I was very sad. The reason we’re here is because we have not figured out a way to talk together,” the pastor said. “For me, to see us having to own the fact we have to separate and go to our own corners breaks my heart, because there’s an abbreviation I live by: TEAM, together everyone achieves more.”

Tellifero said he spoke to his congregation about the possible split on Jan. 5 and urged them to love God and their neighbor and to not let the possible chaos consume their congregation. He said he won’t be discussing the legislative issues from the pulpit often but will be speaking about the proposed split personally and in small groups.

He said now is the time for Methodists to reflect on their values and determine their individual convictions. Then, the church will need to begin deciding as a body what possible paths forward exist.

Though sad, Tellifero said the split could produce positive consequences.

“I believe some very good things can happen. We’ll be able to do some new things we weren’t able to do in the past,” he said. “I think it’ll help all the churches, both progressive and traditional, to focus on caring for people and loving God without the distraction of legislative debate.”

He said it’s unclear what to expect moving forward until the General Conference meets in May. Considering the uncertainty, Tellifero said he was proud and relieved to have Louisiana Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey involved in the decision making process.

Harvey was elected to serve as the Bishop for the Louisiana Conference in 2012. She leads over 480 churches across the state, including over 70 congregations in the church’s Acadiana district. The state is broken into six geographical districts, according to the Louisiana Conference’s website.

Harvey is also the Council of Bishops president-designate and will take over as leader in May at the General Conference; the council is the church’s executive branch.

On Jan. 3, Harvey released a statement on the Louisiana Conference’s website encouraging followers to read the split proposal “carefully with an open heart and imagine even greater possibilities.”

“I am confident that God is doing a new thing in the United Methodist Church and its people,” Harvey wrote. “The work is not perfect but again I trust that the Spirit will intervene and fill the gaps.”

The local leader released a YouTube question-and-answer video on Tuesday addressing central questions around the possible split. The UMC will also host a live streamed panel discussion on Monday with members of the split proposal’s mediation team to further elaborate on the plan.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com