UCC ‘feels like home’ to departing United Methodist congregation
“The more we learn about the UCC, the more it feels like home.”
That’s the mood right now at Houston’s historic Bering Memorial Church, according to its senior pastor, the Rev. Diane McGehee. The congregation will soon leave the United Methodist Church for the United Church of Christ.
After a months-long process, the UCC’s Houston Association voted yes May 15 on Bering’s request for membership. A final step will come June 1, when the UMC’s Texas Annual Conference votes on the departure.
“It’s probably one of the most emotional moments I’ve had in the UCC,” said the Rev. Lynette Ross, a UCC minister in Houston who took part in the online Association meeting. She said the vote was unanimous among some 45 delegates taking part. “I was a former member of Bering and left the United Methodist Church to answer my call to ministry. Seeing them come into the family is a profound gift.”
‘Ready to connect’
Bering is the first church from another tradition to join the UCC’s South Central Conference since Cathedral of Hope, Dallas, in 2006. It will bring 287 parishioners with it — though McGehee said the congregation’s unofficial membership is “closer to 500.”
The church is even running a five-week online class to prepare members and friends for the switch. Its title is, “Learn More about the UCC: History and Polity for Beginners.”
“We are ready to settle into our new home and connect deeply with the UCC community both in Houston and beyond,” McGehee said. “There is an excitement bubbling up at Bering that I have not seen in a long time. The Bering community is enthusiastically embracing this new thing that God is doing.”
At the same time, McGehee said, “there has been deep grief.” The church had tried, without success, to get the UMC to welcome LGBTQ people as a matter of churchwide policy. And while Bering is glad to join the UCC’s Open and Affirming family, “leaving a 173-year relationship is not easy,” she said.
The move has been a long time coming, in two ways.
‘Harm must stop’
First, debates about “full inclusion” of LGBTQ people — resulting in a fracture in the UMC — have dragged on a long time. “Bering Memorial Church has stood for 49 years for full inclusion of the LGBTQ-plus community in the life of the church,” McGehee said.
The UMC’s official position is that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” As enforced by the Texas Annual Conference, that stance “is causing soul-level harm to people both within the congregation and the larger community,” she said. “That harm must stop.”
Bering has many “unofficial” members precisely because of that UMC doctrine, McGehee said. “There are many LGBTQ-plus persons, family members and allies who offer their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness to Bering and have faithfully done so for decades.” But those same people, though deeply supportive, “cannot bring themselves to join the church,” she said. They don’t want to “commit to a denomination that continues to label their lived identity as LGBTQ-plus as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.'”
Some “official” members have left the church for the same reason, she said.
Bering “can no longer in good conscience remain affiliated with a theology of incompatibility,” McGehee said. Doing so, she said, harms “persons and families loved by God and made in God’s image in all their identity, including their sexual-orientation and gender identity.”
And, second, Bering is no stranger to the UCC. Among its friendly connections with UCC partners over the years, Bering has:
- Worked with Houston’s First Congregational Church, UCC, “on justice issues related to full inclusion, immigration, refugee resettlement and racial justice.”
- Done similar work with the Houston Faith Leaders Coalition, to which McGehee and First Congregational’s pastor, the Rev. Jon Page, belong.
- Hosted meetings of the Houston Association of the UCC.
- Welcomed to its staff a UCC member who belongs to St. Peter United.
- Kept up longtime friendships with Ross and the Rev. Dawson Taylor, senior pastor of Naples (Fla.) UCC.
- Supported, along with other UMC and UCC congregations, work in the Philippines with Houston-based Together in Hope, which McGehee directs.
The turning point came in February 2019, when the UMC “re-enforced its stance of ‘incompatibility,'” McGehee said. Bering’s leaders decided to explore options and were “particularly drawn to the UCC’s focus on justice as integral to the gospel and the work of the church, as well as its open and affirming stance.”
She said they approached Page and the Rev. Don Longbottom, the Conference minister in South Central at the time, “about the UCC being a possible fit for Bering Memorial Church.” They spoke with others, too — Taylor and Ross, as well as the Rev. Sid Hall of Trinity Church of Austin, affiliated with both the UMC and the UCC. In December 2019, Taylor preached at Bering and joined Longbottom and Page as guests at a congregational meeting. The topics, McGehee said, were “similarities and differences in theology, ecclesiology and polity, and how Bering might fit within the UCC.”
Bering became “a church in covenant development” with the UCC in February 2021, said the Rev. Campbell Lovett, South Central’s interim leader. The process connects a church with a local Association — the body that, in the UCC, handles the standing of local churches. Then, “a UCC partner church is recruited to journey with the new congregation,” Lovett said. “In this case, First Congregational Church and its pastor spent time with Bering’s leadership and transition team.”
He emphasized the careful nature of the process — aided by Bering’s historic relationships “with local UCC folk as laborers in many of the same vineyards.”
“We need to be clear that this was not a disgruntled congregation simply looking for a new home, but one that has felt a kinship with the UCC for decades,” Lovett said. “Their former pastors and many of their lay folks have been a part of mission projects, study groups and ecumenical partnerships. They have a natural fit with the UCC because of their strong commitment to LGBTQ-plus action, advocacy and welcome.”
‘History of community ministry’
The UCC gains a congregation with a history of service and activism, dating back to its 1848 founding by German immigrants. Its health ministries are just one example. The church:
- Formed nursing teams during the yellow fever and flu epidemics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
- Helped fund the construction of Houston Methodist hospital.
- Created AIDS ministries in the 1980s — including funding adult day care, dental and hospice services for people with HIV.
“Bering continues to be a vibrant, active, fully inclusive, reconciling community, committed to bringing the good news of the Gospel to all people, but especially those who have been pushed to the margins,” McGehee said. She noted its wide range of ministries, including work with homeless young adults, undocumented immigrants, foster and adoptive families, people struggling with addictions and more.
“It is clear to me that mission and community engagement are more important to a congregation’s identity than their denominational affiliation,” Lovett said. “Bering has had a long history of community ministry and mission that dovetails well with the UCC’s polity of congregational autonomy and covenantal connection. They definitely will have freedom to serve without restrictions, while choosing to be in covenant with others for collegiality, support, solidarity and service.”
Assuming the UMC conference votes to release Bering on June 1, the UCC association will hold a special liturgy of welcome for Bering at 3 p.m. CDT June 6, Ross said.
The new relationship is “a gift for them, but it’s just as big a gift to us,” she said. “Their commitment to mission and service and inclusion is inspiring to our Association.” She said she and Page were exchanging text messages during the meeting. With his permission, she shared one of his comments aloud with the rest of the participants: “It’s so easy to get in our heads that we have to sacrifice members and churches because of our values,” Page wrote. “To welcome a new congregation because of those values moves me so deeply.”
“We have been supported with prayer and care through the discernment process by congregations and leadership within the UCC and we are deeply grateful,” McGehee said. “We have been warmly received and welcomed, as well as having received financial assistance from UCC congregations and members.” Specifically, she said, Bering needed funds “to satisfy future pension obligations to the UMC” — without which Bering couldn’t leave.
The association also voted to grant McGehee ministerial standing in the UCC. That, too, is pending a vote of release by the UMC on June 1.
McGehee said Bering remains sensitive to Methodist colleagues who will fight on in what are known as “Reconciling Ministries.” “And we leave concerned for those within the UMC who are still being harmed,” she said. “But we are processing that grief, leaving in forgiveness and grace, and eager to be about the work that God has called us to in this next chapter in Bering’s history as members of the UCC.”
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