The story behind the story of “A Way Forward”

The Rev. Don Underwood reports to the North Texas Annual Conference on his participation in conversations on the future of the UMC at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, ORUMR photo by Charles Harrison

The Rev. Don Underwood reports to the North Texas Annual Conference on his participation in conversations on the future of the UMC at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, OR

Plano, TX — The first 8 days of the 2016 General Conference were dismal, said Tim Crouch, the leader of the North Texas Annual Conference delegation. Crouch was making a report to the North Texas Annual Conference gathering, meeting this week in Plano, TX, about what happened in Portland in May. From his perspective, it seemed like the General Conference had moved directly from the discouragement of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa to an equal amount of discouragement and mistrust in Portland.

But Crouch said things changed on the second Wednesday when the Bishops of the UMC were authorized by the General Conference to assume a leadership role in determining the future trajectory of The United Methodist Church through the approval of the Council of Bishops “Way Forward” proposal.

Crouch then turned the microphone over to the Rev. Don Underwood, a clergy member of the delegation, who offered a behind-the-scenes look at the process that led to the Council of Bishops statement on May 17 and the creation of the bishops’ proposal for moving forward.

Bishop Warner H, Brown, former President of the Council of BishopsPhoto courtesy of

Bishop Warner H, Brown, former President of the Council of Bishops

The story began, Underwood shared, when Bishop Warner Brown (San Francisco Episcopal Area), the outgoing President of the Council of Bishops, called together a group of 12 church leaders for conversation on issues around human sexuality and other issues that were pulling the church apart. The participants were intentionally chosen to reflect a spectrum of theological thinking and viewpoints on human sexuality in the UMC. “This group was ideologically VERY diverse, running the gamut from VERY conservative to VERY progressive,” Underwood said. However, he acknowledged that it was less diverse in regards to ethnicity, gender, global geography, and age. “This fact was acknowledged and discussed from the very beginning,” Underwood said, “and we often returned to it and discussed it as we considered various options for how to move forward.” Eventually, 4 additional bishops were added to the conversation, increasing the global diversity, but Underwood said that a diversity of age groups was missing. “I’m giving you a sense of these demographics,” he said, “because I’m fully aware that when a smaller group meets, it matters which voices are represented.”

What then transpired was a series of meetings which Underwood estimated to totaling 8-10 hours on the issues surrounding human sexuality in the United Methodist Church. Underwood characterized the tone of the conversation as respectful and represented the “apex of holy conferencing.”

“There was the acknowledgment from every person in the room that all the others were speaking from a faithful position as they interpret the Bible and the gospel,” Underwood reported. “The dialogue was characterized by utter respect for one another in spite of radically differing viewpoints. In all the hours we met, not once did we need to call upon the skills of the person who was trained in conflict resolution [JustPeace’s Stephanie Hixon].

As the conversation continued it became clear to all involved that the status quo could not continue. “The consensus among this group was that the time had arrived for a commission to be appointed that could guide the denomination forward, and that would consider ALL options for the future,” Underwood said. “Again, the tone of this was utterly respectful and mutually supportive, but there was an acknowledgment of what appears to be irreconcilable differences, especially between those on the far left and far right of the theological/ideological spectrum.”

It was at this point when the rumors that were swirling around the conference on Monday, May 17 began to emerge. Up to this point, the full Council of Bishops had not been informed of the conversations, even though the group was at this point leaning toward the Council offering leadership in creating the commission. “A number of options were considered,” Underwood said, “including a motion to the General Conference from this group. A consensus emerged, however, that the one group that has both standing and robust inclusiveness for such a task is the Council of Bishops.”

Bishop Bruce R. Ough (left) receives the gavel as incoming president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops from outgoing president Warner H. Brown, Jr. during the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore.

Bishop Brown was then charged with reporting to the Council of Bishops about the work of this ad-hoc committee, and his conversation with the Council led to the initial statement on behalf of the Council by Bishop Bruce Ough (the incoming president of the COB) that led to the request from the General Conference for the bishops to develop a plan for moving forward. That plan became the “Way Forward” proposal which was ultimately adopted and put in motion by the conference.

Underwood noted the historic nature of what the General Conference did in Portland. “The offering of the bishops to lead on what IS the theological/ecclesial issue of our time is historic,” he said. “The affirmation given by the General Conference in Portland to the bishops, calling forth stronger leadership, is historic. The cultural cross winds that our church and others are caught in are historic. How we navigate this moment will be pivotal.”

Underwood believes that the work of the commission will ultimately lead to change in the United Methodist Church, not just around the issues of human sexuality, but also the rule of the Book of Discipline in ordering the church, the structure and purpose of the General Conference, and the role of the American church in a global denomination. “These changes need not be seen as frightening,” he said, “and we should hear the voice of God calling us to ‘be not anxious.’”

“I am more than an optimist. I am HOPEFUL in a truly biblical sense of that word,” Underwood concluded.

“Our beloved Wesleyan tradition is, in America and around the world, the most vital of what we call the mainline denominations. It is a unique and irreplaceable theological tradition that is capable of speaking with enormous relevance to a rapidly changing world. Timing is now on our side. I believe that if we continue to receive strong leadership from our bishops, this is, in fact, a liminal moment through which we will pass as a stronger and more creative church, better equipped for witness and service and the making of disciples in the 21st century.”

Underwood included a list of the conversation participants in his report:

Bishop Warner Brown

Rob Renfroe
Maxie Dunnam
Tom Lambrecht
Patricia Miller

Mike Slaughter
Adam Hamilton
Tom Berlin
Don Underwood

Scott Campbell
Randall Miller
Matt Berryman

Patricia Hixon of JustPeace
Greg Bergquist, trusted lieutenant to Bishop Brown and scribe for the proceedings

Later: Bishop Bruce Ough and three Central Conference bishops.


Click here to read the full text of Underwood’s statement.


I’m a retired Elder in the United Methodist Church, the place I finally discovered grace after a lifelong search. I love writing, gardening, reading, asking questions and making connections between political and religious practices.

My husband and I jointly claim eleven children (as he says, “mostly by mergers and acquisitions!”) and twelve grandchildren. In between our own travels, we love to have them and many others come and stay with us a bit. We see so much of the heavenly grace in the offering of earthly hospitality.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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keithCharles HarrisonEric FolkerthPaul W.Leland C Collins Recent comment authors
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Eric Folkerth

An interesting companion to this story by Christy, and the comments of Don, is this video from Adam Hamilton, describing the process and what (at least on Tuesday morning) he thought was going to happen…

Charles Harrison

Thanks Eric. We had reported on this already and should have linked our video to it. Good catch.

Mike Thomas

What does the term “theologically conservative” mean? Does it only apply to people who oppose the ordination of homosexuals? What about people who oppose the ordination of women? Are they “theologically conservative” too? And if someone supports having women in the ministry does that make them “theologically liberal?”

Paul W.
Paul W.

I’ll assume your question is sincere. A theological conservative is one who believes the Scriptures, the creeds, and the doctrine of the church without having to change the normal meaning of the terminology. A theological liberal is one who holds to a “spiritualized” view of Christianity, e.g., by holding the view that many passages while not historically true are still spiritually true, and/or by personally redefining the meaning of doctrinal terms (resurrection, sin, salvation, etc) to honestly claim adherence to the creeds (even though their understandings may deviate significantly from traditional and orthodox understandings). Theological conservatives hold to a “high… Read more »


I have never quite understood the ordination of women being equated with the ordination of homosexuals. Last time I checked, the bible doesn’t consider being a female a sin. I think that one need only be theological alone to conclude that the bible considers homosexuality a sin. Same thing with divorce comparisons: I don’t think people purposely engage in getting divorced multiple times and celebrate their multiple divorces as a gift from God. We can debate the degree (severity) of the sin and what priority we as a church assign to it which would be a sober and honest debate.… Read more »


” it became clear to all involved that the status quo could not continue”
So the solution is to maintain the status quo for three more years and how much do you want to bet the final proposed solution will be the status quo?

Wes Andrews
Wes Andrews

If the Council of Bishops had publicly and transparently asked for this input prior to GC then I think that would have been fine, but in essence they did their own exclusive GC decision making without the voice of the duly elected delegates… If they had been a city council they could have been charged for ethics violations for meeting without public view… The work of GC is supposed to be completely transparent. Now I’m glad they asked some folk who trusted in Scripture to be in that SECRET meeting, but it wasn’t in any way above board or transparent.… Read more »

Creed Pogue
Creed Pogue

Is this narrative of THREE different perspectives truly based in reality?

Or, is there a broad majority in favor of retaining our current ordination standards and a minority in favor of changing them. But, that minority is split between an “agree to disagree” approach and those who insist that “all means all”???

That would seem to be a better explanation for the failure of the Hamilton/Slaughter motion in 2012 and the very narrow approval of the COB proposal to kick the can in Portland.


Thanks for posting this Christy. A rabbit out of the hat isn’t too impossible, right?

eric pone
eric pone

What I have picked up from the posters is this the committee should only consist of traditionalists. Can we just give these folks what they want and get on with it? Its not like the progressives will give up their don quiote like quest and its not like the traditionalists have the clout to change the conferences in the midwest, northeast or the western US. We will simply go on ignoring the rest of the GC. (Try getting GC to enforce it! Good Luck!!) So lets stop wasting money and just give them what they want to make them happy… Read more »

Leland C Collins

Twice as many US liberals as conservatives? Maybe I have an unrealistic view of the UM Church, but I think you are about 180% of base.VtYGZ


I would add to your excellent plan that every one on the committee would resign as a Bishop if their recommendation was defeated. It would focus the mind on a real solution.

Paul W.
Paul W.

I personally give kudos to Bishop Brown. The group he pulled together for these meetings does indeed fairly reflect each of the factions in the church. It sounds like he showed great wisdom in pulling this together. Hopefully, the commission the Bishops select will be similarly reflective of the church, perhaps by proportional representation from all corners of the UMC.

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