Oakland United Methodist Church in Charles Town, WV was a vibrant ministry- and discipleship-oriented congregation only a few months ago. Oakland- About Us 2017 Today, most of the congregation has left to form the independent Wesleyan Oakland Community Church, and Oakland UMC is just a shadow of its former self. How did this happen?
Around the beginning of 2013, Oakland Church’s Administrative Board (which functions as a Church Council) began discussing our growing concerns regarding several issues in the United Methodist Church. We recognized that the presenting symptoms we were noting – approval of homosexual behavior, promotion of abortion, a BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) attitude toward Israel, and resolutions urging the celebration of “evolutionary scientific thinking” in worship services – seemed to be part of a larger problem, particularly in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
In 2014 our Senior Pastor, Rev. JoAnne Alexander, retired to help save Oakland UMC money on her pension, and she became a church hire rather than an appointed retiree. That summer and fall a few families who were upset at the UMC’s support for the Religious Coalition on Reproductive Rights approached our leadership and announced that were considering leaving the church over the growing heterodoxy and disobedience to scripture they were observing in the UMC. At this point, we formed a new church with a legal and financial structure distinct from Oakland UMC, as well distinct trustees, secretary, and treasurer. This church was given permission by the Oakland UMC board to meet on Monday nights at Oakland, and agreement was reached whereby the same message would be preached at both churches, so that members from Oakland UMC were able to still attend church even if they needed to miss Sunday worship. This church was named Oakland Community Church. We also began mentioning these issues to our District Superintendent, Rev. Edgardo Rivera. In one tense charge conference, several of our members asked him about the things that concerned us, and District Superintendent Rivera informed us that no one else was raising these concerns to him.
In 2016 BoD language regarding homosexual practice – a bellwether or “presenting symptom” of a much deeper divide – appeared to be affirmed at the 2016 General Conference, only to have the Council on a Way Forward (COWF) formed to discuss what was already biblically clear. We took note and formed our own “commission,” a task force of about 10 members of our Administrative Board to study the issues affecting the “way forward,” and to make recommendations to the Administrative Board. The early reports out of the COWF seemed lackluster to us, given that they reiterated the options everyone already knew we had: To keep our current, orthodox language in the Book of Discipline and to enforce it, to let every church and pastor decide the issue for themselves, or to split into three separate sub-denominations. We began to consider what might happen if Option 2 or Option 3 were chosen. We had been told there would be a gracious exit regardless, and we knew that if Option 2 were chosen, we would certainly want to take the exit. The more we discussed things, the more we realized that, although homosexuality was a bellwether, it was not the only problem facing the UMC. We knew that disobedience to the Book of Discipline’s standards on sexuality was likely to continue if Option 1 (the “traditional option”) were chosen. For example, a Methodist Church in our conference was used to perform a same-sex wedding between two lesbian students at Wesley seminary in the fall of 2017, and a UMC clergy member officiated at the wedding). Finally, we knew that Option 3 would leave us in a mess that would take years to resolve due to the need for constitutional amendments. At the same time, it became increasingly clear through reports out of the Council of Bishops and the Council on a Way Forward that the favored option was option 2 – one that we could not in good conscience support. We also were given reliable information that the “gracious exit” we’d been told about was no longer on the table.
To add urgency to the situation, Pastor Kent Tice was retiring at the beginning of 2018 (again, only to save Oakland UMC the money they were paying into his pension). In a letter to Bishop Easterling at the end of 2017, Kent had requested both to retire to help Oakland UMC’s finances and to be appointed at Oakland as a retiree until we learned the results of the 2019 special General Conference. He didn’t want to leave Oakland without trusted leadership at a time when so much was likely to change in the UMC. The Bishop granted the request to retire, but mad no response regarding the request for a continuing appointment at Oakland. In view of the facts that 1) GC2019 was only ever intended to resolve the issue of homosexuality and not the other theological issues we were seeing in US conferences, 2) we would be losing our long-term pastor just before GC2019, and 3) we realistically no longer expected a “gracious exit” if option 2 were chosen (which seemed increasingly probable), our administrative board voted unanimously on December 5 to bring the issue to the congregation for a vote to determine how they wanted to proceed. If the congregation voted to leave, we decided to approach the Baltimore-Washington Conference with the results of the vote and request to be allowed to leave, negotiating as necessary to reach a solution that we hoped could be satisfactory to both parties. If that failed and the Conference decided to play hardball, we decided that we could live without our building and assets if need be, and resolved to leave the building behind, ending our individual memberships in the UMC. If the congregation voted to stay, we knew that several families were planning on leaving anyway.
Before this issue could reach a vote, however, some members (including a disgruntled trustee who had previously voted more than once at our Admin. Board meetings to bring this to a vote before the congregation), called the District Superintendent and provided (mis)information regarding our activities. The members called the District Superintendent to complain, and provided a copy of our vote announcement. The Sunday before Palm Sunday, Conrad Link (a District Superintendent in the Baltimore Washington Conference) arrived to sit in our service and a Q&A session we had planned for the congregation (Our District Superintendent, Edgardo Rivera, was apparently unable to come.) Kent Tice explained to Conrad that we weren’t just trying to walk away with the building through a legal fight. The next Sunday, in order to quell some confusion and infighting instigated by the small cadre of people who wanted to stay, and in order to address the misinformation that was being actively circulated regarding the Board’s decision by people who were not present at any of the meetings nor even on the board, JoAnne preached a Palm Sunday sermon that also managed to explain our reasons for wanting to leave. This sermon is present on Oakland’s Facebook page as a Facebook live video, which you can watch here: https://www.facebook.com/108343323472/videos/10155539364863473/
The Baltimore-Washington Conference was watching, however, and used this sermon as their excuse for what they did the next Sunday on Easter, shocking many visitors and members alike.
The members of Oakland UMC, rather the members of the Administrative Board, received a letter from the chancellor of the conference. Letter to Oakland UMC Administrative Board The communication that the church was not trying to leave through legal wrangling apparently got lost in translation as did the intent of the vote. The vote was to ensure that this was the will of the congregation. It was not a vote to leave so much as a vote to enter into the process of disassociation from the denomination as per the Book of Discipline with the hopes of reaching a negotiated solution that would be equitable to all. Instead, a letter comes from a lawyer threatening legal action before the process could actually begin. Oakland UMC had transmitted it’s intent to work within the process of the conference and try to negotiate an amicable separation. The conference responded with legal threats. Of course, this is my opinion based upon Oakland’s story and the information on the situation which I have been given.
There you have it, the first part of the story, in their words. I hope that you took the time to look at the booklet that is linked in here that does a wonderful job of explaining who Oakland UMC was, as well as the sermon that is also linked so that you might understand better what has transpired. There is of course more to the story, much more, but this is the start of it. Let those who have ears, hear.