The landmark church sitting on a Methodist fault line

SAN FRANCISCO — Glide Memorial United Methodist Church is famous for its lively standing-room-only Sunday services, which draw visitors from around the world. It’s located in the city’s downtown Tenderloin district, an area between shopping and office districts often teeming with hipsters and a large homeless population. Scores of people usually camp on the street, steps away from Glide’s entrance. 

The church tries to practice what it calls “radical inclusion,” welcoming all in the neighborhood and from elsewhere to come as they are to participate in its services, which it calls celebrations. At first glance, it sounds like every non-denominational evangelical church meant to appeal to millennials in a gritty but artsy neighborhood. But Glide’s use of “radical inclusion” extends beyond invitations into theology.

The church has been at the forefront of the gay rights movement since it hosted the first Council on Religion and the Homosexual in 1964. That puts them at odds with the global United Methodist Church (UMC), whose delegates from around the world voted in February to uphold a traditional ban on same-sex marriages and gay and lesbian clergy.

The vote has fueled speculation that the Methodists, who have 12 million members worldwide, are destined for a split. Only 53 percent of 800 church leaders voted against same-sex marriages and clergy, with a majority of American delegates voting in favor. Methodists currently make up the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S, with 6 million American members.

Glide’s trademark “inclusiveness” means pastors and speakers tend to use language similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous, which uses the vague concept of a higher power to avoid offending the sensibilities of people from outside Christianity or those who are non-religious. 

Courtesy of Glide Memorial Methodist Church.

Courtesy of Glide Memorial Methodist Church.

In 2018, Glide removed mention of UMC from its governing documents as a non-profit. To address their concerns that Glide had veered away from core Christian beliefs and teaching, the UMC’s California-Nevada Annual Conference reassigned the church’s pastors elsewhere in June 2018 and did not install new ones. When the district superintendent arrived and made the announcement, church members reacted in anger, according to Marvin White, Glide’s minister of celebration. 

“I remember her saying, ‘This is God’s house,’ and people shouted back, ‘No it’s not!’” White said. “It gave fuel to the idea that there is no God at Glide, which were some of the things that began to come out.”

UMC churches give a portion of their tithes and donations to the denomination, and the UMC reallocates funding to local churches and various ministries from global missions to a black college fund to UMC conferences and educational materials. With its own foundation and funding from outside the UMC and their local congregation, Glide is in a unique financial position. The UMC has been concerned about Glide’s lack of transparency in how they fundraise and spend their money. Since Glide has registered as a faith-based organization, it doesn’t have to publicly disclose its financial records, though most faith-based organizations of its size running social services do disclose.

In 2017, Glide received $4 million from the city of San Francisco. Over recent years, its spending on charitable activities has reportedly increased while its spending on church-related activities has fallen. Glide spent $5 million giving away free meals in 2017 and nearly the same amount on general administration in 2016, and less than $3 million on church-related activities for 2016 and 2017 combined, according to an audit by the San Francisco Chronicle

Still, the pastors’ removal was traumatic for the congregation, said White, who was a pastoral intern from 2014 to 2016 and asked to return in their absence. Many members have suffered various levels of personal trauma outside the church, and losing leaders they loved and trusted triggered issues around separation and abandonment, he said.

“It was hard to watch,” White said. “It was like watching the parents divorce and no one was watching out for the kids, and no one was showing up in a way that was attending to the souls in this community.” 

The California-Nevada conference’s leader, Bishop Minerva Carcaño, published a public letter outlining her concerns about Glide’s leadership. She said the church’s longtime pastor Cecil Williams, who retired in 2000, and his wife Janice Mirikitani were running things “in the background.”

It was during Williams’ decades-long tenure that Glide evolved into the unconventional community it has come to be known as. Its programs include serving between 2,000 and 3,000 meals per day and providing childcare for more than 100 children. “Harm reduction teams” do needle exchanges and train people to use Naloxone, the life-saving drug that counters the effects of opioid overdose. There’s also a ministry that addresses domestic violence.

Six months later, Carcaño announced the conference was suing the Glide Foundation board of trustees for control of the property, which belongs to a trust named for Glide’s founder, Lizzie Glide, a wealthy devout Methodist who donated the church property in 1929. Carcaño said in a note on the conference website that her team had tried to find an amicable resolution to the situation, to no avail.

“Due to the Glide Foundation’s blatant violation of the trust clauses that govern the life of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, we have been forced to file a lawsuit against the Glide Foundation,” Carcaño wrote. “Please know that we do so with heavy hearts, but with the commitment to be good stewards of our United Methodist Churches, ministries, and our witness.”

The lawsuit claims that the Foundation’s board committed “unauthorized and unlawful acts” that departed from the spirit of Lizzie Glide’s vision when she deeded the property to the UMC. The property was to be used to further “the religious and educational work of the [Methodist Church],” the lawsuit states.

It claims that the board rejected Carcaño’s authority when it refused to accept her appointment of a new lead pastor in May 2018, a month before she removed the pastoral team. It alleges that the board knowingly convened a meeting that the bishop nor her representative could attend because it was scheduled for the day of the conference’s yearly meeting, amounting to a “scheme to usurp the Methodist Church’s rightful authority” over the trust and its property. 

The board also amended its articles and bylaws to delete all references to the Methodist Church. The suit claims that was done surreptitiously.

The Glide Foundation filed a countersuit in February that argues the trust was intended to benefit “all people of San Francisco, not for the CNAC or the United Methodist Church.”

The foundation’s website describes its founder’s mission as establishing the church as “a house of worship for all people.” 

“My great-great-grandmother Lizzie Glide felt a strong call to serve others with compassion when she founded Glide almost 90 years ago,” Mary Glide, one of Glide’s trustees said in a statement about the suit. “As a Methodist, I believe Lizzie would be proud of the inclusive, loving work we’re doing today, and saddened by the actions of the California-Nevada Annual Conference.”

The legal fight is expected to drag on for the next few years, said James Lin, Glide’s senior director of mission and spirituality. 

Nonetheless, Glide’s various ministries have continued to function. Those are promises to the community that Glide must keep, Lin said.

The foundation counts Warren Buffett among its friends. He has raised about $30 million for Glide in the last 20 years.

White and a litany of guest speakers continue to preach on Sundays, though they aren’t sanctioned by the denomination. Attendance fluctuates, but has generally dropped from the average 1,800 per service that made Glide one of the Methodist Church’s largest congregations.

Whether the UMC allows Glide to stay in the denomination or Glide morphs back into Methodist-defined views on marriage and clergy remains to be seen. 

“It’s amazing that we’re still here, and it shows the commitment of all the people - staff, members of the congregation,” Lin said. “People in the community who we didn’t even know thought of themselves as part of Glide who came forward and said, ‘What do you need? How can I help?’”