LAKESIDE, Ohio - More than 2,000 members of the United Methodist Church's West Ohio Conference gathered in this Lake Erie resort town for their annual meeting, dealing with an agenda that included ordination of ministers and votes on resolutions supporting fair trade and setting pension benefits.
One item that normally would be a relatively routine affair became a hotly debated contest: election of a treasurer.
The reason: The nominee, Bill Brownson, is openly gay.
Mr. Brownson, 46, a graduate of Tinora High School in Defiance, received a bachelor's degree from the Ohio State University and an MBA from Fisher College.
He had been unanimously recommended by the conference's Council on Finance and Administration, which had sorted through 56 applications and interviewed finalists from around the nation.
The debate over his nomination showed that the United Methodist Church, like many religious bodies, is not united on issues involving homosexuality.
The denomination's constitution bars the ordination of gay or lesbian ministers, but has no such ban on laypersons.
Speakers at the Lakeside gathering for and against his election each had three minutes to state their case, and each side gave concluding statements.
The Rev. Jeff Greenway of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, told the crowd that since Scripture and church law deem homosexuality to be sinful, electing an openly gay man to a prominent church office such as treasurer would, he said, "expose the fault lines of discord, disunity, and distrust" among United Methodists.
The Rev. Roger Grace of Columbus, among those who supported Mr. Brownson, said the denomination's constitution, or Book of Discipline, does not bar gays from serving in nonordained positions, and that he believed the nominee was "the right person with the right skill sets."
After several speakers gave impassioned but polite speeches, the voting members cast their ballots. While waiting for the results, Bishop Bruce Ough told the audience in historic Hoover Auditorium that whatever the outcome, applause would be "inappropriate."
After ballots were counted twice, Bishop Ough announced that Mr. Brownson's nomination had been approved 948-920.
Mr. Brownson told the conference that many had told him that the discussion "was not about me" but about the church and its stance on homosexuality.
He said he was "at peace" during the months of debate, saying he found strength in a Bible verse, "Romans 14:8, which reads, 'If we live, we live in the Lord. If we die, we die in the Lord.' So whether you live or die, you belong to the Lord. That is the case for me," he said.
Mr. Brownson told The Blade afterward that he applied for the treasurer position "because I thought I was well-suited for the job and the needs of the conference at this moment in time."
He said he had expected some opposition but was surprised by the intensity of debate.
"I would be less than honest if I didn't say some of the discussion about sexual orientation has surprised me. I knew there would be some; I didn't expect the degree of it. So the feedback was much greater than I thought. I mistakenly thought that the focus on the issue of service and homosexuality was broadly confined to clergy."
He added that "the conversation was certainly civil, and I thought it was all in all respectful."
As for those who cited the Bible in condemning homosexuality and opposing his election, Mr. Brownson said, "There's nothing that I can say that's probably going to change the minds of folks that have made up their own minds on their own readings. I find it hopeful that different people come to different conclusions about the same passages."
He said he learned to take criticism in stride after running as a Republican for a seat on Columbus City Council in 2008. He finished seventh out of eight candidates, he said, but called it a positive learning experience.
The West Ohio Conference treasurer position is a four-year appointment and the recommended annual salary is $79,385.
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More than 2,000 members of the United Methodist Church's West Ohio Conference gathered in this Lake Erie resort town for their annual meeting, dealing with an agenda that included ordination of ministers and votes on resolutions supporting fair trade and setting pension benefits.