Leading United Methodists to a Faithful Future

Posted: July 27, 2014 by Matt Horan in Uncategorized

“A Gathering of Spirits,” by Jan Richardson (@janlrichardson)

In 1997, I was a senior in college at Florida State University.  I had been excited to hear that the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, of which my pastor was a graduate, was coming to give a series of messages over the weekend at our church, Killearn United Methodist, in Tallahassee, FL.  At that time, the president at Asbury was Dr. Maxie Dunnam.

Our whole college group, several of whom would eventually go on to work in a variety of roles in churches and other ministries–including some who would eventually go to Asbury and become pastors, eagerly filed in for the Friday night session.  It was an inspiring night for all of us, and we looked forward to more throughout the weekend.  Saturday morning was even better.

However, on Saturday afternoon, our lives changed.  A good friend and member of the college group committed suicide.  The entire group spent the rest of the day and night in shock, and the next morning, Sunday, we were eager to hear some word from God that would stop the world from spinning.  Dr. Dunnam learned what had happened and abandoned the weekend series–writing a new sermon that God used to meet us all where we were, and give us some comfort and peace.  After the sermon, we all flocked to the altar to pray, and Dr. Dunnam joined our pastor in praying for and with us.  He became a heroic figure to me that day.

A few years later, I felt the call to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church.  When I heard the call, I knew that there was only one seminary that I needed to visit.  I was going to go to the school where Maxie Dunnam was.  So I scheduled my trip to Wilmore, KY, and off I went.  I was following along with a group of fellow prospective students getting a tour, and the tour guide motioned and said that we were walking past the president’s office.  I looked through the open doorway, and there he was, Maxie Dunnam himself, sitting at his desk, writing.  I stopped walking while the rest of the tour continued.  I had to go meet him and tell him about that awful day in Tallahassee and how much his presence with us meant to me.  So I timidly tapped a knuckle on his open door, and he instantly looked up at me through his glasses with that wide smile.  There was not a hint of annoyance at this stranger who was keeping him from getting his work done.  He was instantly on his feet and across the office to greet me and shake my hand.  I hadn’t prepared what I was going to say yet, and he was upon me so fast I stammered a second or two to figure out what I was going to say.

He gave me a joyous, “Well hello there!”  The rest of the tour heard him, turned around, and started back in my direction.  I knew I only had him to myself another second or two.  I told him my story, and his countenance instantly fell, immediately remembering the day well.  He told me that he’d been in touch with my pastor a couple times since that weekend, and always asked about how all of those college kids were doing.  He said it was an awful day, and he’d been up late that night writing a new sermon, but somehow God gave him the energy to preach it the next day, and he’d been honored to be there with us.  I couldn’t have been any more sold than I was about going to Asbury, but if I hadn’t been by then, that would have sealed the deal.  He greeted the rest of the group as they joined us, and chatted with us for another 10 minutes or so, only interrupted by our tour guide needing to get us to our next stop.  I wonder how long Dr. Dunnam might have stood there in the hallway talking to us had we not been whisked away.  It seemed like there was no place he’d rather be.

As a Florida Conference candidate, I decided to attend the seminary’s satellite campus in Orlando, FL.  That was mainly to help keep us closer to our families and to the conference where I was hoping to be ordained, but I wonder if, subconsciously, I was influenced by the fact that the Orlando site is called the “Florida Dunnam Campus.”

During my time in seminary, I was pushed, pulled, and stretched in a hundred different directions.  Exegesis, Inductive Bible Study, Greek, Hebrew–dissecting the Bible became a way of life.  There were so many ways to study the Bible, so many forms of Biblical criticism we had to learn and practice, and so many perspectives on how the Bible is to be read–and plenty of books for us to read about each.  At one point I was sitting in class and had just had enough.  I raised a hand and asked, “We’ve gone over all the ways that different groups read the Bible.  When are we going to learn the right way?”

He had a white board marker in his hand, and he put it down in the tray, walked around in front of the desk at the front of the classroom, and sat on the edge.  He said, “You know, that’s a great question.  When you figure that out, be sure and let me know.”

I felt the blood drain out of my face.  I came to seminary expecting to leave with the “teacher’s edition” of the Bible, and a copy of the key to the vault that holds the answers to all of the hard questions of the universe.  I expected to leave with the ability to speak as an authority on all ethical, soteriological, ecclesiological, exegetical, and eschatological matters of of the universe.  I had been writing pretty big tuition checks in that hopeful expectation, actually.

As it turns out, what I was being given was an exhaustive education on all of the many philosophies and theologies that have been woven together over thousands of years to get us to the version of the Christian faith that we have today, along with pastoral care tools to help me not give out all the right answers, but instead ask the right questions in hopes of shepherding a congregation to discover their purpose and remain focused on the things that Jesus told us were the most important–that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

I have come to a place of peace over not ever getting a copy of that key.  In hindsight, I think having all of the answers would be a terrible burden, and I don’t think that I could bear it.  As I remember back to that terrible day in 1997, I recall that Dr. Dunnam didn’t preach a sermon full of answers to our questions.  He didn’t tell us why it had happened, even though we all arrived for worship that morning desperate to know.  He invited us to remember that God mourned with us, and that God is God at all times, both good and bad.  He told us that no matter what we said or thought or how angry we got, God could handle it, and would never leave us.

Dr. Dunnam has remained a treasured figure in my journey, even though we don’t always wind up in the same theological place.  It was my education at Asbury Seminary that led me to my beliefs on one such place–the issue of homosexuality.  Before seminary, I believed that it was wrong, sinful, and that people who were gay needed counseling to be healed of it, or else to live a life of celibate singleness.  I believed that saying it was anything other than sin would put us on a slippery slope where we could then say that anything we want to do isn’t a sin, even if the Bible says it is.  Today, however, I believe God has revealed something new to me through my time at Asbury, and it’s been confirmed by my experience in local church ministry.

The writers of the Scriptures clearly believed that homosexuality was wrong.  In the Old Testament, it is flatly prohibited in the plainest terms.  In the New Testament, it is listed as one of the symptoms of the fallen state of the world in which we live.  But I was taught that the exegetical task is to ask why, when, by whom, and to whom the Biblical texts were written; because we know that it was not written to us.  It was written in a certain context of time and place, by specific people, to specific people, to accomplish a specific purpose.

Then, having considered all these questions, our task is to prayerfully discern what implications this text has for us today, thousands of years later.

It is wrong for us to ask the historians, the prophets, or the writers of the gospels or epistles to account for all that we would ever learn or discover in the future when they were writing about their situation at their time.  It is not their job to do that–it’s ours.  They didn’t understand that the earth was round, they didn’t understand the geology of an earthquake, the physics of thunder and lighting, the meteorology of storms, or the astronomy of the sun, moon, and stars.  We can’t fault them for writing about firmaments and floodgates.

They did not understand the anatomy and physiology and biology and chemistry of conception.  We can’t blame them for assuming that a relationship that did not produce children is cursed by God for their sins or the sins of their parents.  We can’t blame them for believing it was lunacy to choose relationship that they knew from the outset could not produce a child.

They also didn’t understand the psychology and psychiatry of human development and sexual orientation.  We can’t blame them for being straight people who couldn’t imagine homosexuality being anything other than abominable.

None of these are their fault, and it’s wrong for us to expect them to account for it all in their writing thousands of years ago.  But we can hear the stories and letters and do the work and listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice as we pray and talk together in order to discern what this should mean for us today, all the while taking on the responsibility ourselves in accounting for new learning that has emerged since the Bible was written.

I know that this is not Dr. Dunnam’s position.  Dr. Dunnam has since retired from the presidency at Asbury, but I know that this is not the position of the current president, Dr. Timothy Tennent, either.  In fact, sometimes I wonder if I’m stupid to take a position contrary to men who have so many more degrees and much more experience than I.  But when I bring the issue to God, the words no sooner roll across my heart in prayer when the Lord asks, “Why would you even consider undoing the work I’ve done in you?”  I feel that, in order to stand before God someday having been faithful with what he’s given me, I am to stand where I am, rejoicing in the fruit of the Holy Spirit borne in the lives of church members both gay and straight, making them shining examples of the love of God and love of neighbor.

In fact, that fruit of the Holy Spirit that I see over and over again sometimes tempts me to react with anger when I read the writings of Drs. Dunnam and Tennent and others on the issue of homosexuality.  As a United Methodist Church pastor, I’m an automatic subscriber to a magazine called Good News.  It’s purpose statement is “leading United Methodists to a Faithful future.”   That sounds like a good thing to aspire to do.  Dr. Dunnam and Dr. Tennent have both written in it.

I have read Good News articles in years past that were helpful for local church ministry.  Now, however, it seems that you can’t turn a single page without finding at least one article about why the United Methodist Church should split over the issue of homosexuality.  Today (7.23.2014) on the front page of their website there are nine articles about it.  Nine.  Is nine articles calling for a split of the UMC the best strategy for “Leading United Methodists to a Faithful Future”?

There are many problems with splitting the United Methodist Church over the issue of homosexuality.  I don’t have time to discuss a list of those today (as it would probably have to include brainstorming a list of possible “United” puns that would appear in the papers the next morning if the split comes to pass), but really, there’s one in particular that’s bothering me after I received the most recent issue of Good News, where once again Dr. Dunnam and others advocated for splitting the denomination that I have really come to love.

The problem that disturbs me today is that I want to be a part of a denomination with a leader like the one who stepped into the lives of grief stricken college students with just a few hours notice to represent the presence of God for us in worship.  I want to be a part of a denomination with a leader like the one who hopped right up from important work to make sure that a tour group felt right at home, and who still had those college students from Tallahassee stored up in his heart years later.  That’s way more important to me than making sure everybody believes the same thing about this one particular issue.

I guess I’m hoping that those who are diligently working on a plan for schism will come to think it’s more important too.



Since it references him so prominently, I felt it courteous to send the draft of this article to Dr. Dunnam before posting it.  As a busy leader of the United Methodist Church (UMC) around the world, I didn’t anticipate that he’d have much time to read the blog of someone who needs a telescope to see the level at which Maxie Dunnam is engaged in the conversation about a split in the UMC.  However, he sent me a kind, thorough, pastoral response in keeping with the disciple and leader all of us know him to be.  

He highlighted a few of the ways that we disagree, all done out of a heart to encourage and support a fellow brother in Christ.  He also recounted the efforts he has made over the years to foster unity within our denomination, which was appropriate, as my article does not give him credit for those efforts.

Finally, he sent a copy of a blog article he wrote for an upcoming issue of the Confessing Movement Newsletter.  It is a humble plea to all of us to approach God in prayer and fasting over the state of the church–a hopeful call from a man who lives expecting our miracle working God to still work miracles today.  Reading it was an important reminder for me, and will be for everyone who reads it.  When it is published I will share on Twitter, and it will appear on the feed on the left of this page.

  1. jimharnish says:

    Thanks for sharing yourself in such an honest, genuine, and non-judgemental way. The young leaders you represent are the hope for to lead United Methodism to a faithful future. I’m grateful to be your friend.


  2. Exactly when, in your seminary education, did you learn that your thoughts and judgement are more important than all the collective years and minds, hearts and spirits, of those who have come before you. Your piece exudes arrogance! Please don’t sully Drs. Dunnam and Tennent with any insinuation that they have led you to this place. I, too, don’t want to see the church I have called my home, as layman or pastor for almost 65 years, come apart. (I continue to serve as a pastor in the Florida Conference on a part-time basis.) It is doing so, not because some may feel that schism is the answer, but because a few in a vocal minority are violating the trust placed in them by their church and refuse to live by the vows they have solemnly taken before God and the membership of The United Methodist Church. If schism comes it will not be because of those of us who believe in this great denomination. It will be because of those who refuse to live under the polity and governance under which they have sworn allegiance. To any who cannot do that there are many places of service in other denominations where their beliefs will be welcomed.


    • Matt Horan says:

      Hey Geary, thanks for your thoughtful comment on the blog article. I’d like to talk to you about it on the phone. I assume you’re on the conference clergy directory, so I’ll try and give you a ring tomorrow. Looking forward to talking further!


    • Matt Horan says:

      Hey Geary, tried you a couple times today but got a busy signal. Please email me at matthoran4@gmail.com and we’ll set up the conversation. Looking forward to it!


  3. jwlung says:


    Please tell me what we know about the “psychology and psychiatry of human development and sexual orientation” that leads you to reject the clear teaching of scripture.

    All of the science supports the conclusion that “homosexuality” is not innate. Period.

    There is no basis in Scripture or a christian understanding of the nature of the human person to support the notion that human beings are defined in their essence by their preferred mode of genital stimulation.


    • Matt Horan says:

      Thanks for your comment, JW. A thorough answer to that question might be a real snoozefest, which I try to avoid on my blog if I can. 🙂

      Perhaps a starting point could be that the APA’s years of research into the topic of human sexuality led them to remove homosexuality from the DSM IV, which lists all of the conditions the APA classifies as “disorders.” There has been a lot of research and debate and study that went in to that decision. Of course, the debate continues today.

      I think you may overstate when you say that “all of the science” concludes that nobody is born gay. I don’t think there’s conclusiveness either way, but I don’t think that really matters. The issue is not how they got that way, but whether or not living our their same-sex attraction somehow impedes a homosexual person’s successfully cultivating an intimate friendship with God that bears fruit in their life, and impedes God’s desire to offer them grace to invite them into that relationship. Obviously, people on both sides have chosen their camps on the issue and tend to find the facts they like best. That’s human nature, I guess.

      I don’t believe that humans are “defined in their essence” by the means you mention above. Apologies if the article gave you that impression.

      Lastly, I am not comfortable with the characterization of my treatment of the Scriptures. I don’t reject them at all. I do advocate for doing the hard exegetical work that needs to be done in order to discern together the best way to apply them in our lives. I feel that the notion of “just read it and do what it says” can make us lazy, which can cause us to fail to do the work and thus miss some real gifts that the Scriptures hold for us that don’t hover just at the surface.

      Thanks again JW. I’m glad for the opportunity to have constructive conversation on how we will live faithfully as a community that is a city on a hill and a light in the darkness.


  4. jwlung says:

    Thanks for your kind and thoughtful response.

    Your characterization of the process by which the APA revised DSM III is far from the facts as I understand them. The “debate and study” you describe took place within a task force so packed with homosexual activists that the only independent voice on the panel, then U.S. District Judge David Bazelon, resigned when he saw the direction the panel was taking. Homosexual activists and protestors took over APA conventions in 1970, 71, and 72 (sound familiar?) and many psychiatric professionals received death and other threats when they questioned the process. The decision was based upon no studies except a study by Elizabeth Hooker in 1957 that had been thoroughly discredited in the APA Journal in 1965.

    I don’t know any serious student of the theology and psychology of same-sex attraction who believes that the attraction is sinful and destructive of a person’s soul. Certainly celibate “homosexuals” are capable of intimacy with God. Our Discipline does not condemn anyone who has desires for members of the same sex.

    I know many former “homosexuals” who acknowledged their sinful “living out their same sex attraction” and cried out to God for healing who were healed. Is God Schizophrenic on the issue?

    I’m having trouble understanding where you’re coming from. You excuse the biblical writers for condemning same-sex sex as sin on the grounds that they did not have the benefit modern understandings of human development and “sexual orientation.” You reject the teachings of scripture on the same basis. Yet, you contend the science on the issue is “inconclusive.”

    I have no desire to change your mind on this issue. You’ve clarified some issues for me, and I hope you receive some insight from me. If you have not read retired Bp. Tim Whitaker’s article on “The Church and Homosexuality”, I hope you will. Here’s the link: http://www.flumc2.org/pages/detail/967

    Again, thanks for the response, and I pray God will bless you in your ministry.


    • Pat Rowell says:

      jwlung, concerning your comment for God to bless Matt Horan in his ministry, that was kind of you, however there is no way God will bless a ministry that openly purports going against His word. God is the same yesterday as He is today and will be tomorrow. He does not change with the times, neither does His word. If it were not so He would be contradicting Himself.

      Are we smarter than God, of course not. So to believe that we have been enlightened and know better than the scriptures which God Himself inspired is being the devil’s pawn.


    • Matt Horan says:

      Thanks for your response, Pat! I did appreciate JW’s note–it showed that disciples of Jesus Christ can still share brother and sisterhood and work together with kindness and a common mission to bring the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven, even if they don’t see eye to eye on every theological or exegetical matter. It was actually a prayer for God’s blessing, rather than a comment, an I’ll take all of the prayer I can get!

      I don’t know if there’s “no way” God can or will do something. Non of us will stand before God in the end and say “Ah hah! Just as I suspected!” We will all equally fall on our faces amidst the awareness of how we have fallen short of the glory of God, and we will all equally be picked up off the floor to stand in God’s presence because of his infinite grace. It’s wise to keep our eyes open for ways that God moves in ways that exceed our expectations or the limits we like to put on him.

      I do appreciate your call to be wise in my interpretation of the Scriptures. That is a push that all of us need to hear.


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