Empty Seats Along the Way

Empty Robes on Empty Seats

There were sixteen empty seats in Branscomb Auditorium on Saturday. They were the seats in which this year’s class of Provisional Elders and Deacons should have been sitting. There was an empty robe on each seat and the card with their name along with the words the Bishop would have said as they knelt for commissioning.

These are the same seats in which I sat 52 years ago when I was received into what was then called Probationary status. It’s an important step in the multi-year process that leads to ordination in The United Methodist Church.

By the time candidates reach this point they have received the approval of their local congregation, the District Committee on Ordained Ministry, and the Board of Ordained Ministry of Florida Conference. They have completed the academic requirements and have submitted sermons, personal information, and written responses to questions about theology, church polity. Their sense of God’s call to ministry has been affirmed by each of those bodies. But they aren’t done yet! Provisional means they continue to be supervised by these same bodies, will be engaged in on-the-job training through the Residence in Ministry program, and will demonstrate their abilities as they serve in ministry prior to being ordained and received into full membership in the Annual Conference.

The Clergy Session of the Annual Conference must vote by a 3/4 majority for them to be commissioned. But when the vote was taken (by secret ballot) last week, 72.7% were in favor, seven votes short of the required majority, because two of the candidates had identified themselves as being LGBTQ. The result was that the entire group was not commissioned. That’s why there were empty seats in the auditorium.

Two days later the entire Conference (clergy and laity) approved a resolution that apologized for the harm that was done and supported these candidates as they continue in the process. You can read a full account of the event here.

The Journey Goes On

The United Methodist debate about homosexuality officially began in 1972 , the year I graduated from seminary and received my first pastoral appointment. I understand and respect why some faithful colleagues could not affirm these two candidates. For many years I would have voted with them.

But like Peter in his relationship with Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48), I’ve come to know too many faithful followers of Christ, some of whom have been called to and gifted for ministry, who also happen to be gay. With Peter, I have to say, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I ? Could I stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)

When Bishop Ken Carter came to the place in the service where the commissioning would have been, he said to the Board of Ordained Ministry and these candidates:

“I grieve the harm you have experienced.
I am committed to the support of your callings …

I would have gladly commissioned each of you, and gladly appointed each of you …

“And in this moment I want to say that the body of Christ is beautiful, even in its brokenness.

Robert Frost memorably said, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” While some of my friends and colleagues will choose a different road, the 72% who voted for these candidates confirm that The United Methodist Church will go on toward becoming a more inclusive community. One day the empty seats will be filled. And one day, by God’s grace, the roads we follow will find their way into the wholeness of God’s Kingdom and love.

Grace and peace,


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15 thoughts on “Empty Seats Along the Way

  1. Jim, I’d like to add this post to a group of articles UM Insight is publishing regarding the Florida clergy vote. Hope that’s OK with you. — Cynthia

    1. Please support the spirit and provisions of the Protocol, so you and so many others can live into your vision for the UMC. Let us go in peace with a blessing in a way that is fair and amicable.

      1. Jamie: Because of our long friendship, I really do regret to see it come to this. B
        ut I am ready to bless y ou on your way when the Conference Trustees and University Carillon reach a fair and amicable settlement. Bless you. Jim

  2. We were headed to or from NC for Grandson Evan’s hs graduation when this horror happened; Susan sent word. The body of Christ may be beautiful even in its brokenness, but the Florida Annual Conference is ugly in its brokenness. Most of us have matured, including most of FAC delegates, to accept homosexuals and other “deviant” sexual practitioners as children of God worthy of respect. In my view the action take was shameful. Whatever else is true, if these men and women are genuinely called and undertake the work to becom pastors we must respect them and their calling. The apology was certainly appropriate. Now I’ll read your message in full. lfw

    Sent from my iPad


  3. And I am sure at least 7 of those who voted “ no” plan to leave the denomination and will be gone by the time these candidates are ordained, so they won’t encounter them anyway. Scorching the earth as they leave.

  4. Not trying to be critical Jim, but in our Annual Conference, we have always approved each candidate separately. In my opinion, which is just that, an opinion, this could have been done in Florida and yes, I’m one of “those” who holds to a more orthodox and traditional perspective, I think the Board of Ordained Ministry was wrong in deliberately violating our Book of Discipline. I have always appreciated and valued your writings and used them extensively in our congregation and, even though I’m orthodox in my theology, I’m pretty liberal politically, and usually find myself agreeing with your perspectives much more than I disagree. Blessings to you. Jeff Reed.

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Jim Well stated and Thank you for doing this. Have a blessed week and see you and Martha soon. SHALOM, Tom Mc


    1. Tom, encourage conference leaders to let us go in the spirit and provisions of the Protocol. Then you can have the UMC you long to have.

  6. When my son chose to work as the receptionist at the gay and lesbian office of a university while he was studying, I assumed this was his way for telling me he was gay. I had to face the question head on, “What is to be my response?” After much speculation and prayer, I realized the taught prejudices, not my common sense, had ruled my thoughts. I prepared to tell my son I loved him no matter what he was prepared to share. When I arrived and asked to visit his office, he explained he had to quit as not only those who came to the office, but his professors as well, were constantly inviting him to LGBT affairs and he had to consistently inform them he was straight. He added he never had met a more caring group. When I asked him why he took the job, he responded, “It paid more.” He had no prejudice. He taught me a lot.

  7. Mary Scott Singer June 15, 2022 — 8:23 am

    Thank you for clarification Jim. My prayer is that soon folks who have been Called by Good will be able to do the work they are destined to do.

  8. Jana Lynn Almeida June 16, 2022 — 7:05 pm

    God created us all and I am sure God aches too – that free will thing
    God loves us all too jla

  9. Jim,
    You and I were ordained deacons together in 1970 by BP James Henley. After two years pastoring in Dade County I left the United Methodist Church and was ordained in the Episcopal Church. After a full ministry ending with service as Dean of St. Pauls Cathedral in Buffalo. my wife and I retired to Wesley Chapel near our grandchildren. We had our own journey toward full inclusion of LBGTQ persons in our church and I have followed the travails and struggles within Methodism. I read about the sad events at the Annual Conference. I pray that this impending separation will happen with minimal rancor and strife. Time to move forward as God guides us all.

    Allen Farabee

    1. Allen: I remember you well. You graduated from NE High School with my wife, Martha Hayes. I kept up with your ministry through your father, one of the members of “The Greatest Generation” in Florida Methodism and a gracious mentor to me. I’ve followed the struggles in the Episcopal Church through friends and our daughter who married into an Episcopal (now sadly Anglican) congregation on John’s Island, SC.
      We retired from Hyde Park after 22 years in Tampa and moved to Longwood (Orlando) for the same reason–to be close to grandchildren. I would enjoy getting together to share our stories. Let me know if you are heading through Orlando. I still make trips to Wesley Chapel to have work done on our cars at Ferman Jeep. My email is jharnish1947@gmail.com. Let’s keep in touch. Jim

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