Out of the darkest moments of her life, the Rev. Caryl Griffin Russell began thinking about how systems change. The retired Methodist minister and former nurse lost her 22-year-old daughter in 1997 after a preventable exposure to a virus in a research lab.
Rather than seek retribution for the loss of her daughter, Griffin Russell worked with research labs and other organizations to improve biosafety standards and training around the world. Her family's work grew into the Elizabeth R. Griffin Research Foundation, now a part of Georgetown University.
The process of systemic change is messy, it takes time and it takes people working together, Griffin Russell said.
The 75-year-old lives on the eastern shoreline of Watts Bar Lake and uses the home she shares with her husband as "safe sanctuary," a place where people carrying varying ideologies and from many walks of life can visit to work, reflect and learn. The retreat space features a dock, screened-in deck, a fire pit and hundreds of books, from Michael Crichton thrillers to James Cone theological analyses.
A rainbow flag hangs near the entrance, representing in a way the other system Griffin Russell is seeing to change: Her church.
The United Methodist Church and its congregants have waited more than two years to formally split. Disagreements over the denomination's approach to the LGBTQ community brewed for decades but came to a head in 2019 with a controversial vote on whether to uphold the denomination's stance against the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and the barring of same-sex weddings. The denomination's general conference, the formal process necessary to approve a schism, has twice been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While organizations and their leaders, certain in their theologies, stand ready to lead Methodism in the coming years, many churches and ministries throughout the Southeast have yet to officially take sides. Their options involve whether to remain in the United Methodist Church, which will become open and affirming of the LGBTQ community, or join the new and more traditional Methodist denomination, create their own denomination or spin-off into an independent church.
Many Methodists, while acknowledging the pain of division, see the split as an opportunity to address a topic that had remained unresolved since the denomination's founding.
"It breaks my heart to see us struggle with it," Griffin Russell said. "But at the same time, that's part of the darkness, not being judgmental, giving grace, coming into a deeper understanding are all an important part of our journey."
A DENOMINATION SPLIT
The United Methodist Church passes legislation through its General Conference, a meeting every four years in which smaller regional conferences send an equal number of clergy and lay people as delegates.
Members of the church are to follow the denomination's "Book of Discipline," which states, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." It bars gay marriage and members of the LGBTQ community from serving in the church. However, in recent decades, some individual churches became open and affirming on their own, creating a piecemeal approach in the denomination to LGBTQ inclusion based largely on geographic location.
The denomination looked to address questions of LGBTQ inclusion in 2019 during a special session of its General Conference in St. Louis. Of three potential plans introduced — including full inclusion of the LGBTQ community among clergy and their ability to perform same-sex weddings — delegates voted 438-384 to adopt the Traditional Plan.
The plan strengthened the denomination's stand on LGBTQ issues and increased enforcement mechanisms. Delegates from Methodist churches in the United States largely voted against the Traditional Plan but the proposal was carried with the votes of some American Methodists and significant support from international Methodist churches, including delegations from the Philippines and regions of Africa.
Regional conferences throughout the United States rejected the plan, furthering predictions of a split in the church. In January 2020, a 16-member group of clergy and lay people announced the "Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation," which would allow traditional churches to create a new denomination with $25 million in United Methodist funds and keep established church properties.
If regional conferences or individual churches do not wish to remain with the United Methodists, they can vote to disaffiliate.
That separation plan was scheduled to be officially enacted in May 2020 at a General Conference in Minneapolis. The meeting was delayed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic and, in February 2021, delayed again by the pandemic until August 2022.
Reconciling Ministries Network, a coalition of affirming churches and organizations across the country, said the delay was the right decision, although "these are painful decisions that prolong oppression."
In the years since the Traditional Plan vote, churches on both sides of the spectrum have left the denomination upset over the lack of action.
Some Methodists launched the Global Methodist Church, a more conservative denomination that will continue to allow the ordination of women but maintain the view of marriage as only a union between a man and a woman.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is leading efforts to build the more traditional denomination. Walter Fenton, vice president for strategic engagement at the association, said the organization does not know how many churches will join the Global Methodist Church after the split but they are confident there will be widespread interest.
"The Global Methodist Church will be a theologically conservative church rooted in Scripture and the time-honored confessions of the Christian faith, and passionate about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in grace-filled words and deeds," Fenton said in a statement.
The historic Epworth United Methodist Church sits near the Toccoa River in North Georgia. On a given Sunday, the population in the pews adds up to around 35 people. The unincorporated community of Epworth, around 200 residents, supports the church, which was founded 156 years ago as the first Methodist church built in the state after the Civil War.
Several years ago, church members noticed a lack of services and resources for children in the area with developmental disabilities. What began as a series of programs for area youth grew into the North GA Autism Foundation, a nonprofit offering job training and social skills, as well as support classes for families.
Tripp Ritchie, executive director of the foundation and chair of the church's administrative council, characterized the church members as "rule followers," especially when it comes to the church's Book of Discipline. The church is part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
"We kind of believe in, it seems to me, that the scripture itself provides its own best defense as we're going through this," Ritchie said. "And that approach then, I think we're gonna probably align with the more traditional, which I don't really think is traditional. I think it's consistent."
The church's pastor, the Rev. Byron Ahrens, said scripture offers a clear and consistent approach to addressing a variety of social concerns — including the LGBTQ community — and Methodism emphasizes scripture as the authority.
Like Ritchie, Ahrens sees the church's current discipline as "historic" and "consistent" and something that should be maintained. That does not mean the church is not welcoming, he said. The church will welcome anyone who wants to come.
"They're going to love everybody as family and we're going to minister to them from a pastoral sense, but we're not going to overwhelm," Ahrens said. "We don't have the authority or I don't have the authority to change what Scripture says. But we don't take one part of Scripture and beat up on somebody."
Cheri Harr, 70, grew up a "cradle Methodist" in Southern West Virginia and East Tennessee. She began attending St. Elmo United Methodist Church around 2012, when the church reopened after a devastating fire.
She was drawn to the inclusive nature of the church, something that can feel rare in Southern churches, she said.
"I'm at a point in my life where I want to be a part of something where I can be who I am," Harr said.
Harr married her wife in the St. Elmo church in 2017. People close to her, including her wife, have been hurt by the church for being who they are, she said. Churches are supposed to help people spiritually, Harr said.
"The God of my understanding is all about love. Unconditional love. Period," she said. "I don't know what else there is."
The St. Elmo congregation is one of two Chattanooga-area churches that are part of the Reconciling Ministries Network. Jan Lawrence, executive director of the network, is optimistic the split will not create a binary environment for congregations. The United Methodist Church, as it will exist after the schism, will be able to focus on reaching its full potential and address long-standing issues, she said.
"The United Methodist Church will be a church where people can be on a journey," Lawrence said. "It will be a church where people can come with lots of different perspectives. But you have to recognize when you come into that church, that you are coming into a church that is inclusive, that is anti-racist and that focuses on social justice."
'TIME TO REFLECT'
As Griffin Russell approached her second decade in leadership in the Methodist church, she had to put her theology into practice.
Her stepson, a devoted Christian and active member of church ministries, asked her to perform his wedding with another man. Her stepson was in a committed, monogamous relationship, she said.
She knew what the Book of Discipline said on the topic but she also knew the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians was long-debated in the denomination. She knew the theological arguments for greater inclusion in the church, the scripture-based rebuttals to the "clobber passages" as they are referred to among LGBTQ advocates.
In 2018, Griffin Russell performed the wedding. She was never disciplined by the denomination for it and, in 2019, she retired from the church.
She said she hopes others in the Methodist tradition will use this time to consider, or reconsider, their beliefs.
"We grew up having things hammered into our heads about certain theologies. And now this space, to me, is a gift to the United Methodist Church because it's given people time to think, time to reflect, time to study scripture," she said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.