CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to The Book of Discipline as The Book of Disincline. This story was updated Feb. 25, 2019, at 10:19 p.m.
With the United Methodist Church's top leaders gathered in St. Louis, Missouri, this weekend, local Methodist churches and their congregations have been preparing for the decisions that will be made in the coming days — ones that could rock, or even split, the denomination.
The United Methodist Church's top legislative assembly is meeting Saturday through Tuesday to determine where and how homosexuality fits into the church. Leaders and representatives from churches across the world will vote whether to allow gay clergy and whether clergy can perform same-sex marriages, as well as how to handle the schism that many predict this will cause among the faithful.
Despite the impending vote, local Methodist leaders say it's been business as usual.
Becky Hall, the executive director of Christ United Methodist Church in East Brainerd, said the debate hasn't really affected her church's operations.
"We've tried to just keep on doing what we do and not let this issue slow us down with our mission work and outreach and discipleship, and not let that take over as the church's purpose," she said.
No matter the vote, Hall said, the church's doors will be open the following Sunday. However, the 29-year church staffer who will serve as one of Chattanooga's two delegates at the General Conference said she does anticipate that some people will leave the denomination in the wake of the vote.
At the heart of the ideological conflict, according to the Associated Press, is an official UMC policy, dating from 1972, asserting that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
No other topic, or vote, has been as important as this one, said the Rev. Tim Jones, longtime pastor and director of communications of the Holston Conference. The conference, led by Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, covers the eastern third of Tennessee and goes north to Radford, Virginia, and south to Wildwood, Georgia.
"Nothing has been as big as what this is," Jones said. "The debate is whether to allow homosexuals ordained in ministry and whether or not homosexual unions or marriages can be performed in the local churches. ... We do know that no matter what happens out of this, we do expect people to leave the United Methodist Church."
One of the proposals would remove language defining homosexuality from the church's law book, The Book of Discipline. This proposal, called the One Church Plan, leaves decisions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy up to local bodies and individual churches
In contrast, the proposed Traditional Plan would affirm the bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."
A third option, the Connectional Plan, would create three branches of the church reflecting the different approaches to LGBT issues. One branch would maintain the current bans, another would expect all its clergy and regional groups to support full LGBT inclusion, and the third would neither forbid nor require the inclusive practices.
The Holston Conference elected 16 delegates to debate these plans, and several other variations, alongside more than 800 other delegates from across the globe this weekend.
"Everyone's anxiety is heightened," Jones said. "There's a big question mark. No one knows exactly what the outcome will be."
After delegates were elected last year, they spent time meeting with individuals and congregations and preparing to represent the conference.
Jones notes that each delegate is expected to "vote his or her own conscious," but delegates agreed it was important for them to understand how their community feels about the issue.
The Holston Conference held 12 information sessions and meetings, during which they invited people to come and ask questions or speak to the delegation. Community members have also had the opportunity to send email messages to the delegation on a weekly basis, sharing their thoughts.
Bob Lockaby is one of Chattanooga's delegates. He and his wife have been members of Ooltewah United Methodist since 1985. Though he's prepared for this weekend's vote, he said it isn't something that a lot of people are riled up about at his church.
"No one is really worked up about it, except during those times that there is an opportunity for legislation to be discussed," Lockaby said. "For most churches in the Holston Conference, this is not a topic that is being talked about on a daily or weekly basis."
Ooltewah United Methodist leans more conservative, or traditional, as does much of the Holston conference, Lockaby said.
Across town in St. Elmo, anticipation of the results of the General Conference looks much different.
"For a lot of people in my church, this is not an issue; this is their life, this is their family, this is their vocation," said the Rev. Gary Ihfe, pastor at St. Elmo United Methodist Church.
The church has a history of paving the way for progressive Methodists in Chattanooga. Its congregation, which Ihfe says is committed to being accepting and inclusive, has a large number of LGBTQ members.
In 2018, Anna Golladay, who was an assistant pastor at St. Elmo United Methodist at the time, had her license rescinded after she performed same-sex marriages. The incident left a rift between some congregants, Ihfe said, even compelling some to leave the church.
"It did send some people away; they felt like they or their families were not valued by the United Methodist church," Ihfe said. "But so many more people stuck around and became closer to each other and came closer to our church and it was really inspiring as a leader."
Since the controversy and then the calling of a special session of the General Conference to address the issue, Ihfe said his congregation has not spent too much time focusing on the debate, though the church did hold a meeting earlier this month to talk about the history of decision-making in the Methodist church and possible outcomes of the conferences.
"We met to [talk about] a big picture of the issue for the members of our church and give them some history on how things have changed and progressed in the past few decades," he said. "We got to hear, and then we discussed some of the possibilities that could happen, why people were wanting each of those, what that might mean for us."
Ihfe said his church doesn't have a specific plan for the potential outcomes of the vote.
"At our church, we haven't spent a lot of time focused on this meeting because it's all out of our control," he said. "We don't really have a plan. There are too many variables we couldn't really control or predict. Instead, we're talking about why we have been focusing on our mission as a church."
That mission, Ihfe feels, is a more important topic for debate or special-called sessions.
"As a denomination, we have said 'This is who we want to be, this is what we want to spend our time on' — caring for the poor, asking care of children and vulnerable people. And yet, what we've been doing is focused on this issue. We haven't had called general sessions on eradicating poverty, we haven't had called general sessions on the rising violence and wars between nations, we haven't had called general conferences on a lot of things that we have said are important."
Lockaby and Jones also both said they have heard from individuals that they could potentially leave the church, but Jones noted that even among churches that lean conservative, there's the belief that the denomination is strong together.
"There is still balance on trying to determine the Biblical stance on homosexuality and the call for us to treat one another as our neighbor. Even within a conservative platform and mindset, there is a larger consensus that we are still better together," Jones said. "There are some pastors that have stated they have felt like their church would leave according to the outcome."
Lockaby doesn't think there is a single outcome that would not cause a divide among Methodists.
"There is no result of our work that is going to make everyone happy ... there will be many unhappy people no matter what happens across our denomination, that's just the reality of it," Lockaby said.
He has heard individuals say they oppose the One Church Plan and will leave the church if it passes. He hopes if it does, then the UMC will pass rules making it easier for individual congregations to leave the denomination.
"My hope is that we could come out of this General Conference with a greater sense of clarity," he said.
Despite differing opinions on the potential outcomes, many across the denomination and in Chattanooga hope a decision made this weekend will allow churches to move forward.
"There's a hope that this will be a time that we can move forward and stop arguing. ... We all turn to the same Scriptures and we all offer up the same Lord's Prayer and we're hoping that we can get some resolution so we can get back to living together as United Methodists," Ihfe said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.