The United Methodist Church (UMC) General Conference, the denomination’s legislative body that meets every four years, is currently underway in Portland, Oregon. For self-avowed “MethoNerds” this is a highly anticipated event akin to watching the Olympics. Meanwhile I’m doing my best to keep my distance from the happenings there.
For six years I worked in the public policy and advocacy office of the UMC, the church into which I had been baptized as a teenager. My position was one coveted by many and for good reason. I got to write, speak, and travel the country, connecting with congregations and training people of faith in advocacy for women and girls. But I was also required to witness the political infighting of General Conference in 2012, which left me in tears and with little hope for a more just, compassionate church.
After that experience my work in the church began to lose its luster. The daily grind of halfheartedly upholding an institution that didn’t align with my theological values, especially around LGBTQ inclusion and abortion care, took its toll. And my life circumstances changed dramatically: I moved from DC to North Carolina, got married, and had my daughter (without any paid time off, which is another matter needing attention.) As a breastfeeding mom of a newborn, many of the aspects of the work that once appealed to me—constant travel, trainings, speaking engagements—were now logistical nightmares. I decided it was time to move on.
Now that I’m no longer officially part of the church bureaucracy, discerning my relationship with the denomination has been a real struggle. Having peeked behind the curtains of the institution’s top leadership I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of the vicious political jockeying and childish territoriality that makes the U.S. Congress look cooperative and congenial by comparison. Feeling jaded and pessimistic about the future of the church, I decided to try reconnecting with a local congregation in the hopes that I might recover some of the faith I’d lost in the institution over the last few years.
As I work mightily to create a comfortable bubble in which I can heal from the wounds of that time, there are forces at work bursting it. In recent months I’ve received more than a handful of calls and emails from fellow Methodists eager for my input on strategy around reproductive health and rights. In many ways I feel like I’m in that post-break-up stage when I try to mask my annoyance when well-meaning friends keep bringing up my ex: “Did you know what so-and-so is up to now?” Actually, no. I’m trying to move on from that time in my life. What I need is space.
Of course the UMC isn’t my ex-partner, and asking for distance from General Conference at a time when so much is at stake is unreasonable—and really unconscionable. The UMC is a monstrosity of an institution with policies and practices that have global implications. When the denomination’s harmful statements on sexual orientation and women’s health hurt my sisters and brothers, I can’t look away entirely. But what is my role supposed to be? How do I navigate the fact that I have my own denominational wounds that need healing? How much do I continue to sacrifice for an institution that turned on me during my time of great need?
Honestly I don’t know the future of my participation within the UMC. I’m still trying to redefine this messy relationship. So during this General Conference I’m doing my best to support those I love and advocate for justice on my own terms, but I also have to honor my need for separation. My stepping away creates a necessity for new advocates to step up and take charge. I just pray that they are ready and willing.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer, and educator who inspires intentional communities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good. She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website www.kateyzeh.com.