For years, Methodist Theological School in Ohio has been accepting of LGBT students and faculty members. But officials at the progressive Delaware seminary — about 30 miles north of Columbus — now expect some students to leave after the denomination it is affiliated with decided to continue a decades-long ban on LGBT clergy members and same-sex marriages in the church.
"This will affect attendance in all our United Methodist seminaries, I believe," said Jay Rundell, MTSO president. "Anyone really in the last generation of seminary students would have very different worldviews on human sexuality than what we decided."
The decision in favor of what was dubbed the "Traditional Plan" was made at a special United Methodist Church denomination-wide conference in St. Louis that ended Tuesday.
Although the Traditional Plan was approved by more than half of the 864 conference delegates, the future for the denomination and local churches is unclear, as the denomination's court must see if it is consistent with the United Methodist Church's constitution. Earlier Tuesday, the council had said that some parts of the plan were not constitutional, but only one part was fixed before the plan passed.
The judicial council is expected to discuss the plan at its next meeting in April. If the council approves it, it won't go into effect until Jan. 1, 2020. It is also possible that the entire plan could be ruled unconstitutional and not be put into effect, according to a spokeswoman for the United Methodist Church.
"If the Traditional Plan passes, many students and prospective students will decide there is no place for them in this denomination," said Kimberly Ingram, director of ministerial services in the church's Western North Carolina conference. She was at the national conference Tuesday on behalf of 13 Methodist seminaries, including MTOS and United Theological Seminary in the Dayton suburb of Trotwood.
"The United Methodist Church will soon lose an entire generation of leadership in the United States," she said.
Rundell said colleges and universities affiliated with the denomination are questioning whether they can stay with a church that puts them "out of step" with their own policies.
"We still are with the United Methodist Church, but it's frustrating," Rundell said. For students, he said, it's a question of whether the church can be relevant for them.
The denomination has about 12.5 million members globally, including about 7 million in the United States who tend to be more progressive than their counterparts abroad.
A pastor and delegate from Liberia, the Rev. Jerry Kulah, was in favor of the Traditional Plan, saying the denomination in Africa is growing by “leaps and bounds” because of its commitment to “biblical Christianity,” which supports marriage as between one man and one woman.
“The church in America cannot be living one way and the church in Africa living another way,” Kulah told the Religion News Service.
During the conference, the United Methodist delegates voted down several plans for how the church could move forward — including one that would have allowed LGBT clergy members and same-sex weddings but not required acceptance of either by churches. The Traditional Plan keeps the denomination's book of discipline as it has been since 1972, while also strengthening discipline for those who defy it.
Some United Methodist Churches in central Ohio go further than just welcoming LGBT people and have been defying the decades-long rules by hosting same-sex weddings and having gay or lesbian clergy members.
The Rev. Jeffrey Mullinix, pastor at Maynard Avenue United Methodist Church in Columbus, is gay and married. He told The Dispatch that he fell Tuesday on the way to the conference and was taken to a hospital, but later was present when the Traditional Plan was approved.
"I was sore and bruised and scraped up by the fall, and I think emotionally, that would describe how I felt as well," Mullinix said of the vote. "I felt beat up. There was anger."
Grove City United Methodist Church has members who are traditional and others who are progressive or LGBT themselves, although it has decided to obey the book of discipline, said the Rev. Dennis Mohler, lead pastor.
"It wouldn't have mattered how things would've turned out; we would've been hurting," Mohler said. "We are so divided, the hope of coming to some kind of unity or conclusion is far-fetched."
Other local churches aren't sure where they go from here. Many are waiting to hear from West Ohio Bishop Gregory Palmer, who is to speak in a broadcast Saturday.
"Epworth United Methodist Church will continue to be who we are, which is a welcoming congregation of all people," said the Rev. Jennifer Casto, pastor of the Northeast Side church.