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The United Methodist Church just held a historic vote in favor of LGBT inclusion. Here's what that means for the organization's future

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Bishop Karen Oliveto is retiring in a few months as a United Methodist bishop.

Oliveto was emotional saying those words aloud. As the church's first openly gay bishop, her path was not always certain.

"Every day of my ministry, I've had to wonder, is this the day my ordination will be taken from me?" Oliveto said.

That is, until this year's United Methodist General Conference, the church's global legislative body, voted to overturn every ban on LGBTQ people. The historic changes include a new definition of marriage as a lifelong covenant between "two people of faith," rather than solely between a man and a woman, and a repeal of its ban on LGBTQ clergy.

The General Conference also struck down a 52-year-old stance on homosexuality being "incompatible with Christian teaching."

"To hear someone say, 'we need to repent of the harm we've done.' I didn't realize my body was waiting for that," said Oliveto.

The changes, which are effective immediately, open new doors for LGBTQ members. One 24-year-old, who wished to go by J.M., is working toward becoming ordained as a deacon in the United Methodist Church.

"We have been here and we have been fighting, and our fight has been worth it," they said. "It shows that progress can happen and has happened."

J.M. said they felt they needed to navigate around their identity as part of the LGBTQ community and not address it directly until the General Conference.

"Queer kids … the church once told them 'you're loved,' but then made that love conditional when they started to question their sexual orientation or gender identity," said Oliveto. "They're going to hear, 'We love you. We want you to be who God made you to be.' That is huge. Lives will be saved."

The General Conference overwhelmingly supported the end of anti-LGBTQ church laws, after more than 7,600 mostly conservative congregations chose to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church by the end of last year. That equates to about a quarter of U.S. Methodist churches.

Those U.S. congregations were able to leave because of a 2019 special General Conference that passed a plan for congregations that wished to depart for "reasons of conscience" regarding human sexuality.

There was widespread joy and celebration at the General Conference that concluded on Friday, but there are still global members, including those from central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, who do not stand by the new changes. 

Some African delegates protested after the vote on changing the church's stance on marriage, according to the United Methodist News Service.

Reverend Jerry Kulah, a delegate from Liberia, said at the rally, "We do not believe we know better than the Bible."

The General Conference also passed a constitutional amendment known as worldwide regionalization, which means many congregations that disagree with the church's new, inclusive stance on LGBTQ people will likely be able to make adjustments that fit their beliefs.

Regional conferences could customize parts of the Book of Discipline, which outlines church laws, instead of needing to conform to judgments dominated by the U.S. That includes the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members.

The regionalization amendment must receive support from at least two-thirds of annual conference voters, who are part of local governing bodies. The votes will likely not be finalized until late next year.

Even with regionalization at play, some congregations may choose to depart the United Methodist Church.

Many congregations that left by the end of 2023 joined the Global Methodist Church, which launched in May of 2022 and has rules against LGBTQ ordination and marriage.

Keith Boyette, a former United Methodist Church member who is overseeing the Global Methodist Church during its transitional period, said the Global Methodist Church now has more than 4,500 churches, about 90% of which are in the U.S. It will hold its General Conference in San Jose, Costa Rica in September.

Boyette does not think regionalization will be helpful for the United Methodist Church.

"I believe in the long run, there will be a decline in the membership of the United Methodist Church because of the decisions it has made," he said.

But Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, the president of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, is confident regionalization has the ability to strengthen the church.

"It allows for a more contextualized ministry in order to address the specific social and cultural contexts," she said.

Malone recognizes that some congregations still may decide to leave following the decisions made at the General Conference. But she also believes that "others will come home," she said. "That some were waiting and have left for a season."

As the church moves forward, Malone said there is a renewed spirit of hope with the stance that all people are fully welcomed into the total life of the church.

As Oliveto reflects on the changes and prepares for life beyond the ministry, she said, "I feel like I'm leaving the church better than I found it."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article misstated Bishop Tracy Smith Malone's name.

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