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Split over LGBT issues shakes United Methodist churches in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene

The Revs. Carol Noy, Heather Seman and Steve Michael pray during a morning service at the Community United Methodist Church in Coeur d’Alene on Sunday, March 3, 2019. It was the church’s first Sunday service since a conference of United Methodist leaders and lay members voted to tighten restrictions on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy, declaring homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
The Revs. Carol Noy, Heather Seman and Steve Michael pray during a morning service at the Community United Methodist Church in Coeur d’Alene on Sunday, March 3, 2019. It was the church’s first Sunday service since a conference of United Methodist leaders and lay members voted to tighten restrictions on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy, declaring homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

The United Methodist Church, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, is poised to formally split after years of infighting over LGBT inclusivity.

A 16-member committee of bishops and other church leaders announced Friday they had agreed to spin off a “traditionalist Methodist” denomination that would uphold bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT clergy.

The plan was hammered out during three two-day mediation sessions at law offices in Washington, D.C., the New York Times reported. But it won’t take effect unless it is approved during the church’s general conference in May in Minneapolis.

“I think it’s important to remember that this is not the final decision,” said the Rev. Heather Seman, who leads the Community United Methodist Church in Coeur d’Alene, which embraces LGBT people.

“We have a sign outside that says, ‘All are welcome. All means all.’ And that’s serious. We mean it,” Seman said.

She’s been a pastor at the church for 14 years. Sunday services, she said, draw about 150 people.

While it’s often discussed in private, she said, the topic of LGBT inclusivity has been a constant source of anxiety among churchgoers.

“We’re hurting people who are part of the LGBTQIA community, and we’re also hurting people who have been United Methodists their whole lives,” Seman said. “We have a lot of people who we love, who are really caught up in the middle of this.”

The panel that approved the separation plan included church leaders from the United States, the Philippines, Europe and Africa, where churches tend to be conservative and same-sex marriage remains illegal on most of the continent.

In the United States, “we have the opportunity to look at it in a way that we couldn’t if it were illegal,” Seman said.

The Rev. Gregg Sealey is the superintendent for a United Methodist Church district that spans from Eastern Washington to the Montana border, overseeing pastors at 45 churches. He’s one of five superintendents in a Pacific Northwest conference that participates in church affairs at the national level.

Sealey said the churches he oversees represent a wide array of opinions, and he noted that members of the same congregation don’t agree with each other on every issue, including LGBT rights.

“In my experience, all these congregations – even the ones that have diversity of opinion – they have somehow figured out a way to love each other and to be in church together, even if they disagree,” Sealey said.

“My focus is trying to hold local congregations together with that spirit of unity, and figuring out a way to live out our faith and to serve our neighbors, no matter what happens,” he said.

Yet the schism in the United Methodist Church is undeniable.

During a special off-year general conference in February, 53% of church leaders and lay members voted to tighten restrictions on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy, declaring homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

“In reflection, after the last general conference, I think it’s pretty widely recognized that there will have to be some form of separation – hopefully an amicable separation, but some form of separation,” Sealey said.

‘Our faith rests in God’

The Rev. Mark Haberman, an ordained deacon at Seman’s church in Coeur d’Alene, stands to be personally affected by the division over LGBT inclusivity. He’s belonged to the United Methodist Church for all but six years of his life.

“I was born into the cradle of Methodism,” the 63-year-old said.

His father was a longtime clergyman, as were his uncle and aunt – one of the first women to serve in Methodist ministry.

“So if there’s anything that’s a part of my family DNA – who I am – it would be the United Methodist Church,” Haberman said.

But when Haberman was in his late 30s, his marriage with his wife ended. By 2000, some in the church knew he was gay.

“I was kind of partially in and partially out, and the pressure was on … and it was really going to be impossible for me to stay there in that employment,” Haberman said.

After seven years with the Coeur d’Alene congregation, he left and began working for a social services agency, Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington in Spokane.

He did not return to the church until 2006, when he was asked to help find a permanent music director.

Two years later, he was prepared to leave again, unwilling to keep his partner – now his husband – a secret from other churchgoers. But Seman, the pastor, led a process to gain the congregation’s support to keep him around.

“The congregation said, ‘Mark, we know you. We have known you for almost 10 years. We may not all be of like mind, but you don’t have to leave over this.’ And they allowed me to withdraw my resignation,” Haberman recalled.

In June 2018, he was reinstated as a United Methodist deacon.

“I was in good standing,” he said. “And I went through a process of doing some writing, some reflecting, two different levels of interviews, three levels of votes, and my clergy orders were restored.”

Under the stricter restrictions adopted last year, however, Haberman’s status as a gay clergyman leaves him open to punishment from higher-ups in the church.

He speaks about it anyway.

“Ultimately, our faith does not rest in a denomination,” he said. “Our faith rests in God.”

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