HUNTSVILLE — The 2023 Conference of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church ended on Saturday. It was a much-observed event as it was unclear what direction the embattled group would take, having lost over half its membership recently due to disaffiliation by member churches over cultural issues like the church's position on homosexuality.

While this topic seemed to be settled on Friday, with the resolution to remove language restricting homosexual behavior from the church's Book of Discipline passing by a vote of 236 to 151, at other times, the group didn't seem so sure of where it was heading, with some even suggesting that now was a time to try just about anything.

"We are in an era of innovation and experimentation," said Rev. Suzanne Katschke, Executive Director of New and Renewing Churches, a UMC organization. "If you ever wanted to throw spaghetti against the wall for ministry to see what sticks, now is the time."

Katschke referenced an event she attended once where the unspoken theme was "none of us know what we're doing right now," and cited this as a possible way forward for the struggling Methodist conference.

"We need to admit that we don't have all the answers," said Katschke. "We can figure it out together."

During what appeared to be a challenging time, a pastoral team was brought in to minister to the conference. A husband-and-wife duo, Drs. Jack Levison and Priscilla Pope Levison, professors from Southern Methodist University, seemed to be experimenting at times. Levison gave a lesson on how to give a testimony and, to the sighs of people in the audience, turned up a graphic of a person sitting on a toilet and then suggested practicing it while using the bathroom.

It was an unorthodox talk in which he called a priest's collar a "dog collar," later called the Bishop's crozier a "holy something," and discouraged what he called talking about "victory" through faith, and instead encouraged listeners to be angry with God.

"Practice it when you take a crap," he said.

Still, others seemed more aware of the gravity of the moment.

Debra Wallace-Padgett, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, urged everyone to look forward amid the conference's troubles.

"All is well," Wallace-Padgett said during the State of the Conference address on Thursday morning. "We're not carrying bagga,ge but we're leaning into the future."

Rev. Ron Schultz, Executive Director of the Office of Ordained Ministry, added to this note of positivity, claiming these were sobering times in which the group now found themselves.

But Schultz did not think there was any reason for discouragement.

"No more stinking thinking," he said, a phrase he claimed was from Celebrate Recovery.

The North Alabama Conference is the local organizational body for the United Methodist Church. Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett presides over the Annual Conference, which is made up of eight Districts in north Alabama. It meets once a year.

Allen Keller can be reached for comment at

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