During a meeting last week, an administrative board of the United Methodist Church (UMC) voted to include “non-binary” as a third gender category on statistical forms used in U.S. churches. By a 17-1 margin, members of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) decided to list a non-binary option starting with the 2021 collection year.
Currently, the form asks pastors to list the number of congregants according to “the gender with which she or he identifies”—and lists two choices: female or male. Names of individual members aren’t listed, and that won’t change when non-binary is added.
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Some Members Feel Excluded, Say UMC Clergy
Christine Dodson, vice president of the GCFA board and treasurer of the denomination’s North Carolina conference, tells UM News that pastors have been calling to ask how to handle the two-option question about gender. “Quite frankly,” she says, “I’ve had a pastor tell me, ‘I’m not going to force a person to choose one or the other when they have told me how they identify.”
GCFA’s chief communications officer, Sharon Dean, reports that “some annual conferences and some other organizations are already using a third choice.”
Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the California-Nevada Conference recommends including a definition of non-binary on the form. “I know for me, it’s been a journey of learning,” she says of the move toward expanded gender identity. Another board member urges pastors not to try to guess when it comes to the gender identification of congregants.
A board member from Norway suggested adding the non-binary option, but only UMC annual conferences within America will be impacted. “We currently only collect local church statistics in the U.S.,” says GCFA chief financial officer Rick King.
Pastor Who Voted No: Are We ‘Creating More Angst’?
The only “no” vote came from the Rev. Steve Wood, who leads a UMC church in Georgia. “I’m appreciative of the recognition of all God’s people,” he says, “but I am also cautious that we are making a decision that appears to affect less than half our global constituency.” Wood adds, “I’m just wondering if we are creating more angst than we are creating benefits, so I have to speak against it.”
The Rev. M. Barclay, the UMC’s first openly transgender and non-binary deacon, applauds the addition of a third gender option but says it’s only a start. “While it will take much more substantial change in policy and practice for the UMC to be a positive force in the lives of queer and/or trans people,” says Barclay, “I celebrate the effort of those who are striving to honor the existence of non-binary people in their communities. Lives depend on this seed of change being nurtured in all contexts.”
GCFA staff say the addition of non-binary to statistical forms doesn’t violate any tenets in The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy guide. That guide notes that “the practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching” but doesn’t say anything about the ordination of transgender or non-binary people.
The pandemic delayed the UMC’s probable schism over LGBTQ issues, bumping the next General Conference to 2022.
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