Trial of the Century


When I was a naive college freshman at Messiah College in the hills of Central Pennsylvania, I was told on my very first day that United Methodists were all going to hell.  The reason–as it was explained to me by another college freshman– was that “United Methodists ordain women and are even considering ordaining homosexuals!!”

That was 1983.

In 2018, the subject of ordaining homosexuals is splitting the United Methodist Church and the official stance of the denomination per The United Methodist Book of Discipline is:  “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian Teaching.  Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. (Paragraph 304.3)

On August 11, 1998, the Judicial Council (modeled after the Supreme Court) of the United Methodist Church ruled that “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”  They warned that Clergy violating this prohibition can, according to the Judicial Council, be charged with violating the order and discipline of the church. They can be tried in a church court, and penalties upon conviction can include loss of ministerial credentials. 

I didn’t even know about this.  I didn’t keep up with all the stuff at the General Conference level at that time, I confess.  I was a young mother in a stressful associate pastor position, just trying to be in ministry without losing my soul.  So I also didn’t realize that before 1996, there was no specific admonition against performing same-sex ceremonies for homosexual couples.  The Book of Discipline said that homosexual conduct was “incompatible” with Christian teaching, but did not prohibit clergy from performing same-sex unions.

In 1996 they took care of that.  The General Conference added that admonition to the Discipline:  “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”  Clergy who were previously offering such ceremonies of blessing (since gay marriage was not legal) could now have “charges” brought against them.

Since I didn’t know about this, I was unprepared for the news that Tom and Ben were so excited to share.  They called me and Larry to have lunch with them at Carlos O’Kelly’s in Grand Island.  They said that they wanted to meet with us together.  But when we got there, we realized that they had an agenda.  From their inside sources in the Conference, they heard that a man named Jimmy–a pastor who had been brought into the Conference to serve First UMC in Omaha (which already irked a lot of pastors)– was going to perform a same-sex union ceremony.  In the Church.  Apparently he had called The Omaha World Herald to give them a heads up.  (The Omaha World Herald was always anxious to get some dirt on the UMC at that time)

Ok, I thought.  Big deal.  Tom and Ben were so excited about this news.  Tom especially, was always eager to include me, as if he were bringing me into his circle of People Who Heard Things First.  They emphasized the importance of this news.  This was big, they said.  Jimmy was protesting the General Conference’s action in 1996.  He was daring the Powers That Be to do something about his action.  There are guidelines for church trials in the Discipline, but no one had ever called for one.  If “charges” were brought against a pastor–say for sexual misconduct–Bishops usually dealt with it by simply defrocking them and moving on.  No need for a trial.  They didn’t want all that attention brought to the denomination.

But this was different.

Ben was practically salivating at the idea of being able to bring charges against Jimmy.  Ben was very conservative and always ready to damn anyone who didn’t agree with him, but THIS!  This would give Ben an opportunity to get some power and notoriety.  Unfortunately, as the news was shared on the “inside track”, many pastors were eager to be the ones to bring charges against Jimmy as soon as the union happened.

And they did.  Jimmy was open with the World Herald as to the date, time and location of the same-sex ceremony.  First United Methodist Church in Omaha.  Almost as soon as the ceremony happened, pastors eager to bring righteousness back to the denomination filed official charges.  The Bishop had to choose just one, however, and respond.

It was decided that there would be the first-ever Church Trial.

Thank God we didn’t have social media back then, but the Trial got a lot of news coverage, as was Jimmy’s intent.  It was all over the local papers on the front page. The Conference was in an uproar.  Pastors and laity alike calling for Jimmy’s head.  Others were supportive of Jimmy.  It quickly split the Conference.  Pastors like Tom and Ben were hoping to be called to be in the jury pool, to be in the center of the storm.

No such luck.

I received my letter from the Bishop at the Church telling me that (lucky me) I was to show up at First UMC in Kearney on a certain date to be part of the jury pool for the Trial.  I was not to tell anyone where I was going or why (with the exception of my senior pastor– as if I could keep it a secret from him!).  I was to go to Kearney, prepared to stay for the duration of the Trial.  I was not allowed to tell the church members where I was going.

Tom was clearly frustrated that he wasn’t “called.”  However, he assumed that I was called because I was “young and female,” which may be true.  Or maybe the Bishop knew that Tom was chomping at the bit to be at the center of it all.  I was not.  I had no desire to be a part of it at all.

It’s funny how when you’re immersed in something big, like the death of a loved one or a church trial, you think the whole world is also immersed in it as well.  How could they not be when it is consuming your whole world?  Larry and Sarah followed me to Kearney to support me and have dinner with me.  Sitting in Whiskey Creek in Kearney that first evening, I looked around, surprised that people were going on with their lives.  Didn’t they know what was going on down at First UMC in Kearney?  The storm that was brewing?

Jimmy’s defense “lawyer” was a United Methodist clergyman who then taught full-time at Nebraska Wesleyan University.  The “prosecutor,” appointed by the Bishop, was a full-time clergy who served a church in Lincoln..  The Trial was held in the gymnasium of First UMC in Kearney.  The process they went through to select the jury was very similar to secular trials.  We were all asked a variety of questions like, “Do you know or are you related to anyone who is homosexual?”  They wanted to make sure we weren’t biased either way, but I knew for a fact there were many that just lied outright in an attempt to be chosen.  Few people were unbiased on “the homosexual issue.”

I just wanted to go home.  I had no desire to be part of this circus.  I was certainly not raised to be in the center of controversy.  I was raised to play along, be nice, be invisible.  This was all against my nature, and my anxiety level was out of control.

The Trial had already gained national attention, though the press was prohibited from being in the gym during any of the proceedings.  They were allowed in before and after.  CNN was present, along with a variety of other news agencies.

I was selected as an Alternate to the jury, which meant I had neither voice nor vote, but I had to stay for the duration of the Trial.  Tom was in the “audience” every day, unwilling to miss a thing.  The jury had a special parking area.  We had a room where we were supposed to hang out during recesses, and we were escorted in and out of the gymnasium each day so we couldn’t interact with the press or anybody else.  We weren’t supposed to interact with the “defense team”– which was anybody testifying for Jimmy, including pastors who were normally our friends.  I was too scared to step over any lines, but I know my jury mates ignored the rules and sought out their friends.

We were put up in a hotel in Kearney, and again instructed to not watch any news or read any papers that covered the event.  Mary kept me informed via text (on my flip phone) as to the climate in Aurora.  People had seen my face on the news and realized where I was.  Some were angry that I was there (as if I had a choice).  Some were concerned for me.  Mary wanted the daily scoop.  I was glad to have the outside contact and support, in addition to my nightly calls to Larry.

We were given lunch each day in a room off by ourselves in First UMC, but I could see the “others” across the way.  The proceedings were ridiculous.  Everyone was acting like we were in a real courtroom.  Jimmy’s defense person was actually a professor in law, so he knew what he was doing, but the rest was a bit silly– if I’d been sane enough to be amused.  There were people in the audience with T-shirts in support of Jimmy, signs and placards, and of course others on the “other side.”  CNN and all other news stations present were hovering outside.  I saw all the trucks outside with their satellites every morning when I pulled into my space.

It was an event that divided people and made the other side the enemy.  Anger and tension was very high and palpable in the air.  I was anxious and often scared.  People assumed that if you were Against Jimmy, you were Against Homosexuals.  If you were For Jimmy, you were for Homosexuals.  But there was another camp that was silent.  There were those of us who were supportive of equality in the Church for gays, but not so enamored with Jimmy.  He came across– to me– as arrogant and self-focused.  He said in his testimony, “you can’t prove it was a homosexual union ceremony.  It could have been a blessing on friends.  You don’t know they were lesbians and I’m not going to tell you because that is pastor-member confidentiality.”

The charge was simply that he performed a same-sex union.  It was clear that he did.  He bragged to the papers that he did.  I didn’t understand why that was a question.  The other charge was that this act was a violation of the Discipline.  

He was compared to Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr.  But he didn’t seem willing to face the consequences of his actions toward justice, as his heroes did.  He was saying it could have simply been a friends’ blessing.  His defense was simply that no could even prove he did it.  Huh?

The back and forth of the testimony and the “lawyers” was a headache, right out of a crime show.  It was ridiculous.  Both sides played with words and twisted meanings.  Back in our recess room, we had Tylenol and Antacids in bulk, along with lots of unhealthy snack food.  We all had sick headaches at the end of the days.

One evening after another long day of proceedings, I came back to my car and there was a note on my windshield that read, “With pestilence and with blood I will enter into judgment with him; and I will rain on him and on his troops, and on the many peoples who are with him, a torrential rain, with hailstones, fire and brimstone….. Jesus.”  It was written in red.  20 years later this would not have freaked me out as it did then, but at the time, I was terrified.  I looked around, afraid that someone was watching me.  I ran back into the building and caught a security guard and showed them the note.

“Oh, sorry, we knew about those.  We sent the youth out there this morning to remove them.  I guess they missed your car.”  Uh, yeah.  I hurried to my car and unlocked it quickly, jumping inside.  Kearney is not normally a high crime town, but I was terrified.  At the time I wasn’t familiar at all with Kearney.  I went to the hotel and went straight to my room and called Larry.  I was trembling.

My friend Don Bredthauer testified on Jimmy’s behalf, as his associate.  I didn’t get a chance to talk to Don, and I didn’t feel confident to cross the lines at the church to speak with him.  I felt ill, wishing I could apologize to him for even being a part of this circus.  But I couldn’t.

As the jury deliberated, the other Alternate and I literally had assigned chairs in the corner of the room where we had to stay as the others talked.  We were told that if someone should suddenly collapse with a heart attack, say, that we had to be ready to step in and be up to date on the proceedings.  So I sat in my chair, frustrated and angry.

I could feel it.  I knew this was a significant moment for the UMC.  I knew that whatever happened would continue to deepen the rift in the denomination.  We jury members were angry that we’d been saddled with this responsibility.  The whole denomination was “watching.”  We didn’t feel we deserved this pressure.  Those who could speak expressed that rage and sense of injustice at the position we were in.  Nobody in this situation was trained or prepared in any way for any of this nonsense.

To the question, did Jimmy conduct a homosexual union ceremony, the verdict was 11,  yes; 2 no.

To the second question, did he violate the order and discipline of the church, the verdict was 8  yes, 5 no.

Thus he was “acquitted.”  After the vote, the room was silent.  I could feel the storm coming.  I knew this was going to blow up.  There was no easy way for this to go forward.  The entire jury, even the ones who voted “no” felt the huge weight of the coming days.  As we were ushered out of the room toward the gym to share the vote, I stopped a security guard.  I told him I was an Alternate, I didn’t have any vote or voice, so technically I wasn’t an active member of the jury.  Could I please leave?  He asked someone and they gave me permission to leave.

I didn’t want to be in the room.  People would cheer and celebrate and I didn’t feel like there was anything to celebrate.  It was a mess.  It would have been either way.  The damage had already been done.  I could feel the tension building.  I didn’t want to be there amongst the cheering.

I snuck past the crowds and the press waiting outside.  There was no one in the parking lot as I got in and drove away in the pouring rain.  Larry and Sarah were waiting for me in my hotel room and planned to spend the night with me.  I knew that no matter what happened I wasn’t ready to go back to Aurora.

I burst into the room and turned on the T.V.  The verdict was shared and the room erupted in a mixture of cheers and boos.







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