First UMC Austin joins Reconciling Ministries Network

First UMC Austin

The First United Methodist Church of Austin, Texas, voted Sunday, Feb. 10, to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, a group actively opposing the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.

The UMC’s official position, stated in the Book of Discipline, is that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The UMC does not allow “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to be ordained as clergy and does not allow clergy to officiate at same-sex unions.

“To remain silent in the face of these rather graceless and unbending prohibitions implies consent to them, and such implied consent we are no longer willing to give,” said the Rev. John Wright, senior pastor at First UMC Austin.

A supermajority of 357 members of the church who attended a church conference voted for joining Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN).

“We all know gay people who love God and desperately want to join the church in worship and service,” said the Rev. Barbara Ruth, co-pastor at First UMC Austin and wife of Mr. Wright. “This is about making a public witness that we want the language in the Discipline changed.”

First UMC Austin is the fifth and largest Methodist congregation in Austin to join RMN, and about a dozen others are not affiliated, according to a First UMC Austin press release. First UMC Austin had 1,850 professing members at the end of 2011, as reported in the Southwest Texas Conference 2012 Journal.

Even though it is joining RMN, First UMC Austin will not perform same-sex unions.

“We will work to bring the general church’s policies into greater conformity with Christian teaching, as we understand it,” Mr. Wright said. “However, we will continue to abide by the current provisions of church law until such time as they are changed.”

Reconciling Ministries Network has not received an official statement from First UMC Austin about the vote. But First UMC Austin would rank seventh in membership among the network’s churches, according to 2010 statistics, said Rachel Harvey, associate executive director.

Glide Memorial UMC, in San Francisco, is the largest, with more than 12,000 members.

Currently, RMN includes 373 churches, 41 campus ministries and 120 communities, such as Sunday School classes and United Methodist Women units, Ms. Harvey said.



Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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  1. Does abiding "by the provisions of church law" include obedience to Judicial Council Decision 871?

    A local church or any of its organizational units may not identify or label itself as an unofficial body or movement. Such identification or labeling is divisive and makes the local church subject to the possibility of being in conflict with the Discipline and doctrines of The United Methodist Church. The ruling of Bishop Alfred J. Norris is reversed."

    • “The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.” – Bishop Melvin Talbert

  2. According to the Journal of the Southwest Texas Conference, of those 1850 members, 5 are Black and 29 are Hispanic, whereas Blacks and Hispanics make up 43% of the population of Austin. Homosexuals make up 6% of the population.

    Since First UMC is committed to correcting the injustice of cultural alienation and exclusion, then it should apply seven times the resources it applied to the Reconciling cause to correcting the very obvious ethnic bias within its congregation rather than exacerbating that bias by holding votes that attempt to make its own cultural idiosyncrasies normative not only for itself, but for the whole church.

    • jpfeagins your use of the congregation's racial diversity to express your opposition to the church's decision is both ignorant and appalling. they are two seperate issues and who is to say the church is not addressing the racial diversity issue anyway? your implication that the smaller GLBT community, even if you oppose GLBT people, deserves less attention than the larger minority racial population is the exact opposite of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Might I remind you Jesus teaches us " …whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." – Matthew 25:40

      also your reference to being gay is a "cultural idiosyncrasy" is unfounded. gay people are not a culture. they are real tangible people and regardless of whether you think of them as choosing to be GLBT or not denying people the right to salvation based on man made assumptions is both hateful and sinful. nonetheless, I will continue to pray for you and others like you. good luck, grace and peace.

      • The opposition is not to the outcome, but to holding a vote like this in the first place. They make people who agree feel more welcome, but potentially lose the opportunity for differing views to continue growing and learning from the experience of others. The reference to cultural idiosyncracy is not about homosexuality (which I believe is innate), but the culture of the church itself. Why do you find concern for the lack of racial diversity appalling? How can you pray for others "like me" if you don't know me?

        • I DO NOT find the concern of the lack of racial diversity appalling, you are twisting my words and that is not appreciated! I find your use of the lack of racial diversity to condemn a vote for this or any other issue appalling. You are using race to support your position of suppressing a vote. Not only is the use of race to support your condemnation of voting appalling but your condemnation of voting to begin with is appalling.

          Play semantics all you want with your wording but we know what you are referring to by "cultural idiosyncrasy" in the context you used the term. You stated the church was making matters worse in regards to cultural bias by "holding votes that attempt to make its own cultural idiosyncrasies normative not only for itself, but for the whole church". The vote was held to state the church officially welcomes GLBT people in the church. In that context what other "cultural idiosyncrasy" could you be referring to other than GLBT people. And the vote was held for that particular congregation, not the church as a whole.

          If you believe homosexuality is "innate" (natural that is) then what is your problem with a congregation, or the church overall for that matter, voting to welcome GLBT people in the church with the full rights and privledges of the church?

          As far as me praying for you and others like you Rev. Feagins, I don't have to know you to pray for you. Just as I don't have to know the many homeless or other marginalized people I pray for every night. Just as I don't have to know the people of the world whom I pray for peace, compassion, and healthy wholesome lives for every night. Just as Matthew 5:44-45 calls us to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven". It's what we do as Christians Rev. Feagins. We pray for each other regardless of whether or not we know each other.

          Grace and Peace …

  3. rajennings says:

    Wow. I'm a little surprised by jpfeagins' comments. As a member of Travis Park United Methodist Church, a Reconciling congregation in San Antonio, I know firsthand that Reconciling congregations are as diverse, or more diverse, than other populations. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between being diverse and being Reconciling except in an extremely positive way. Valuing inclusiveness, the members of my church have diverse ethnic, class, gender, and sexual identities. Moreover, we are absolutely committed to social justice in all areas. I suspect that First UMC will become more diverse now that it is Reconciling. When our message is that we do not welcome LGBT people, or, to use that horrid, ugly cliche, that you "love the sinner but hate the sin" (ugh), what we are really telling people is that we reserve the right to discriminate against any people who are different than we are. As a college instructor, I know that professors who teach LGBT studies are precisely the same professors who introduced ethnic and Third World studies into the college curriculum during a historical moment (the late twentieth century) when white male straight professors wanted nothing to do with diversifying the curricular canon, since to do so would "dilute" the "achievements" of western civiliation. So I'm really having problems understanding jpfeagins' comments.

    • rajennings: Thank you for your response.

      I cited Conference Statistics to illustrate that what happened there was an expression of cultural homogeneity, not diversity. Hence the "supermajority" vote – most everyone agreed on something that is essentially cultural in nature – sexual norms. Admittedly, there are Reconciling churches that also embrace ethnic, gender, and class diversity, as yours notably does (with 15% non-white membership), as there are conservative churches like NW Hills in San Antonio (with 38% non-white members).

      The concern for cultural diversity, however, remains.

      In our context, there are people, many, many, Christian people and persons of other faiths, many of whom are persons of color, who hold traditional views about human sexuality – views that are canon theology in most Christian denominations.

      The vote sent a simple message. One view is right, the other is wrong. This is quintessentially an act of passing judgment. Votes like this seek purity, not diversity, seeking to build solidarity among those who think alike, not reconciliation among those who differ.

      I find it interesting that you condemn the cliche "love the sinner but hate the sin" as horrid and ugly. Do you love people who hold this view, but hate the "horrid, ugly cliche" that they espouse? We are rational and loving people when given a chance. Peace. JPF

      • In regard to the cliche "love the sinner but hate the sin," my personal experience has been to hear it spoken thoughtlessly and callously by persons who have made up their minds about homosexuality and are completely dismissive of the human needs and emotions of LGBT people. When I hear the phrase, I do not hear love or kindness or compassion. Indeed, that thoughtlessness permeates much of the discourse of those who disapprove of homosexuality. The superficiality of the discourse suggests a lack of familiarity with LGBT people and their lived lives.

        While it is true that some people of color have "traditional" (disapproving views about homosexuality, many others do not. In fact, communities of color are among the most accepting communities of LGBT persons. I know because I am a resident of the Westside, and most of my neighbors are Mexican American. In addition, I teach at a community college where most of the students and many of the faculty are Mexican American. Indeed, I specialized in ethnic and Third World studies as a graduate student at UT-Austin, where most of my associates were people of color. In addition, I am a board member of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, a multi-missional organization that devotes itself to issues affecting people of color, the working class, women, and LGBT people. I do not accept for a moment the premise that most people of color are "old-fashioned" or "traditional" in the sense that they approve of discrimination against sexual minorities. Clearly, President Obama, for example, has indicated that he approves of same-sex marriage and supports an end to discrimination against LGBT people Likewise, Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio approves of LGBT equality (as does his brother, mother, and many other Mexican American politicians and activists). Indeed, this past weekend, I had the privilege of hearing Rev. Gil Caldwell, a United Methodist pastor and veteran civil rights activist who was present at the March on Washington in 1963 and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, speak of his strong support for LGBT equality.

        • If you're at San Antonio College – I encourage you to drop by the Methodist Student Center. The diverse group of students that hang out there are really nice and have found a way to love everybody without ideological labels or litmus tests. Ask for the director. He likes to visit in person better than online. 😉

          • rajennings says:

            Well, I'm not sure. If someone at the Methodist Student Center brings up the topic of homosexuality for any reason, and the (compassionate, I'm sure) response they hear is that homosexual relationships are wrong, etc., then that seems very much like an ideological litmus test. I heard that message growing up. Not often–I liked my preacher, and I think it was only because he was pressured by some church members that he would occasionally bring up the "sin" of homosexuality in his sermons–but I heard that message. An anti-homosexuality message has a way of influencing people to behave badly–to snicker, to make jokes, to smile awkwardly, to distance themselves….. No, my family as I grew up was not made to feel welcome in our church, because my sister was a lesbian. And what if a student wishes to bring a partner to the Student Center–to hold hands with that partner or smooch the partner's cheek or tell long, funny stories about how they met their partner and how they're looking forward to getting married and spending the rest of their lives together? Because if anyone voiced opposition, well, in my view, that would not be "really nice." I'm not interested in that.

  4. I totally own that this is picky but it seems odd to name him as the senior pastor and her as a co-pastor "and wife." Might as well strive for accuracy and give their titles as listed in their own publications and online – Rev. Ruth is Executive Pastor of Administration and Rev. Wright is Senior Pastor of Preaching and Worship. They were formerly co-pastoring with both as senior pastor but transitioned into these titles in the last year. He's also "her husband." Let's not take steps back in gender roles while reporting on a step forward in sexual ethics.

  5. John Feagins,

    Dear friend, I was shocked to see your comments about 1st UMC Austin's vote to affiliate with RMN. As you know, RMN affiliated congregations are some of most ethnically diverse in Methodism. And that's no accident. People who are discriminated against know that a congregation who sticks its neck out on something as controversial as homosexuality, is also going to welcome people inclusive of race, ability, class, etc.. All the people of color in my own congregation have come since we affiliated with Reconciling and they came because they knew that there was a good chance they'd also be welcomed. Of course, that's not always the case, but it is in more circumstances than not. If you look at the RMN congregations in NY,New England, California, Chicago, etc., and even here in Texas, you'll find that they are often the most interracial of all the UM congregations. This is by design. that is, if you take Jesus' statement in Matthew 25 regarding "least of these" with any seriousness. Racism and heterosexism are different in their manifestations but share a common denominator of having a particular group in power that assumes that its own kind is the norm and then institutes systemic policies–even uses the scripture for justification–to maintain those prejudices and exclusionary actions. I was surprised and disappointed in your remarks. Martin Luther King once remarked that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” A generation before him, another Martin, Martin Niemöller, commented on that same mutuality of oppression and the tendency for good Christian people to remain silent when push comes to shove. The UMC has taken a direct action through its polity in excluding LGBTQ persons and their families–naming them "incompatible with Christian teaching." As such, LGBTQ Christians are the only targeted excluded group in the UMC. And, because of that, their exclusion requires a deliberate and vocal response of Christ's inclusive gospel. Congregations that publicly vote to align with RMN are doing just that. Affiliating with RMN does not mean those churches become one liberation issue churches; Rather, their public statement of inclusion interrupts a systemic sin by the church in vocally supporting those our beloved church vocally excludes. This does not exclude other efforts they make in other areas of inclusion. Ask 1st UMC in Austin to tell you about their homeless ministry and justice work among the poor, for instance. Their welcome is wide; your comments reflect that you don't know anything about the congregation you ridiculed. You are my friend. I care about you. However, this comment of yours is misinformed and hurtful to the courageous straight allies at 1st Church and the many LGBTQ Christians celebrating that their church sees them, loves them, and welcomes them into the Body of Christ.

    Sid Hall, Sr. Pastor, Trinity UMC in Austin

    • Dear Sid et. al.

      It is very convenient to infer that my opposition to congregational membership in the RMN (which is a political organization) is a manifestation of exclusion, bigotry, homophobia, and other evils. This is one reason why I oppose congregational membership in it. Those who oppose will face the same rhetorical insinuations and inferences in attempt to coerce their allegiance or punish their defiance.

      I agree with your definition of systemic bias: "…a particular group in power that assumes that its own kind is the norm and then institutes systemic policies–even uses the scripture for justification–to maintain those prejudices and exclusionary actions." I oppose votes like this because they satisfy this definition.

      My concern with "cultural idiosyncrasy" is not, as one reader inferred, a reference to homosexuality but rather to the dominant social class and culture in the church. This vote was not controversial nor was it divisive- as evidenced by the vote margin. It addressed the exclusion of persons who are already proportionally representative in voting church membership.

      This vote did not happen in a vacuum. Why hold this vote now, on the eve of Unification with a smaller, more conservative and Hispanic conference? What message does it send those pastors, those churches and the people in their communities? Does it proclaim that all people are welcome, or that all people who agree with the agenda of the RMN are welcome?

      The venerable Reinhold Neibuhr says it better than I ever could:
      "Since liberal Protestantism is, on the whole, the religion of the privileged classes of Western civilisation, it is not surprising that its espousal of the ideal of love, in a civilisation reeking with social injustice, should be cynically judged and convicted of hypocrisy by those in whom bitter social experiences destroy the sentimentalities and illusions of the comfortable."

      • Dear JP,

        I can't help but wonder if you are aware of two facts:
        1. That more people of color are out lesbians and gays than are white people ( .
        2. Latinos are slight more supportive of LGBT folks than the rest of the population (

        Given the reality that its not true that people of color are inherently shunned by lgbt inclusion and its not true that lgbt are all white, how can a vote to state explicitly a safe place for lgbt do anything to work against the unification with a hispanic conference? And how could this vote work against better race relations than for it? I am confused.

        • My remarks relating to unification were based upon what I heard delegates from the RGC to the unification process say in an open meeting – that their people were more conservative on that issue and could "walk out" of annual conference if bullied by a majority at annual conference about it. In response a member of an RMN congregation responded "Well, if the number of African delegates at General Conference continues to increase, there will be others who leave the denomination as well."

      • Please, a few questions for you jpfeagins. Please explain why you think RMN is a political organization. Also, Why do you oppose votes that allow a congregation to have a voice, a way to say "we think the Book of Discipline is wrong in excluding people"? Because it is controversial? If that is so, then perhaps we should never have held a vote on racial segregations, which split the church decades ago?

        I am also curious why you speak of racial groups and the LGBT community as separate, when obviously they intersect. The same percentages of lesbians exist in the Hispanic-American community as do in the white-American community, yes?

        Have you read a Reconciling statement that has been voted on by a UMC? Congregations who choose to affiliate, usually craft beautifully inclusive statements that welcome all people, not just LGBT, although this group is specifically called by name, because the gay individuals are specifically called out as "incompatible" by the language in our laws.

        • Thanks for the questions, and I apologize for the delay in response. I had major surgery.

          The RMN is a political organization. Its goal is to change the polity of the UMC by political means, mobilizing and organizing at the grass-roots level in order to elect delegates to General Conference who favor their agenda. The same is true of the Confessing Movement.

          If you read my remarks, I stated that the decision at FUMC Austin was not controversial. It passed with an overwhelming margin. A controversial decision at FUMC would be, for example, the hiring of an evangelical ethnic minority person to the church staff who held traditional views on marriage (yet was tolerant and loving toward others who differed with this viewpoint).

    • Thanks, Sid, for such a cogent response to John. I'm not surprised by John's commentary because I've heard it many times before. It's become a mainstay in our culture to try to make the argument that not tolerating those who are intolerant, who will not dialogue, who are not prepared to have rational arguments based on, in the case of the "clobber" passages, historical critical study that has long been an established practice in Biblical studies, is somehow to be guilty of the very intolerance that we speak against. The argument is just so much nonsense. No one in the United Methodist church would tolerate racial bigotry or misogynist remarks. Does this make us intolerant? Does this mean that we're not welcoming of all people? At some point, the church needs to take a stand for what's right, for justice, and while that may appear to some to be intolerance, I would suggest this is a use of that word that is wholly without meaning.

      • The denial here is amazing. "Wholly without meaning?"

        Is it inconceivable that in some instances ideological bias (left or right wing) can serve as a front for class or cultural bias? We don't tolerate racism and misogyny in the UMC?

        We need to talk, preferably in person. I'd list examples here, but its not the right forum for it.

  6. Hmmm… There is absolutely nothing Christian about hatred, bigotry or discrimination. Distorting the gospel of Jesus Christ to justify homophobia is The Abomination!

  7. What this really comes down to is what is the primary function of our Church. And our primary function is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the global transformation of the world. I don't see how becoming reconciling and welcoming more people to be disciples prevents that, in fact I see it as making a church more faithful to its primary purpose. Unless of course you don't believe that Jesus wants LGBT persons to be His disciples…

  8. ericfolkerth says:

    Congratulations to FUMC, Austin for this exciting decision. The reality is that many Sunday School classes and affiliate groups of the church have been fully supportive of reconciling values for a long time. In a sense, it's not at all surprising they've come to this decision. FUMC, Austin was my home church throughout my college years, so I am very proud of them.

    But, as the pastor of Northaven UMC, who affiliated with the the Reconciling Movement back in 1996, we are deeply pleased and proud.

    And I would like to point out that many of the church identifying with the Reconciling Movement in Texas are strong, vibrant, growing congregations, putting to rest the lie that Reconciling Churches are not growing and vibrant.

  9. methodistpie says:

    It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out. I was reading the pastor's very well written blog about the State of First UMC Austin. He seems to acknowledge decline and the possibility that may have at least some linkage to the movement toward becoming a Reconciling Congregation. That acknowledgement takes some courage in its own right. I personally believe we'd do well to stop throwing the language of "hate, bigotry and discrimination" around. This kind of wedge language only hardens hearts. Which is not to say there's not plenty of wedge language on the other side of the argument. I don't see much evidence, anywhere, that embracing the "Reconciling" philosophy results in anything but decline and will be fascinated to see what happens in this congregation.

    • rajennings says:

      Speaking of my own personal experience, I can say that I left the United Methodist Church in the late 1980s in large part because of its policies and practices in regard to LGBT people. I returned only when I found a Reconciling congregation. I would not have returned to a Methodist church in which the teaching was that homosexuality is wrong or that LGBT ordination or LGBT marriage were wrong. Why? Because I have loved ones in my family and among my friends who are LGBT. I can see that their sexuality is a gift from God.

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