General Conference 2016
Those of us who have attended General Conference have surely noticed that on the most contentious of our issues (e.g., where we invest our money, time and witness; where we throw our weight on various social positions; with whom we stand on matters of injustice) – each time there is a divided vote (which, by my calculations, is 100 percent of the time), the majority of the Church says, “here is where we stand,” and a minority says, “But that’s not where I stand!” In other words, “You don’t speak for me!”
After this General Conference, many people are left wondering if the United Methodist Church will continue to exist beyond 2020 when we are next scheduled to meet again in Minneapolis, Minnesota (there is a small chance we could meet sooner…). We are mired in discord over whether homosexual practice is contrary to Christian teaching. And honestly, I have a hard time seeing any Commission called by the Council of Bishops creating a plan that will be satisfying to representatives making up the wide theological diversity represented in our denomination. The idea of schism is scary to many. In fact when the rumors of schism were flying about earlier this week, I was worried too. But over the last 24 hours, whenever I picture the cloudy future for the UMC, I keep going back to the image of our delegation holding hands and intimately connected with our friends from Liberia. And as I go back in my mind’s eye and recall everyone’s faces full of joy, I see HOPE and an amazing FUTURE as we cling to the message contained in the hymn we sang together.
General Conference has officially ended, but the decisions we have made and the conversations which took place are far from finished. Not only is there to be a discussion about human sexuality, with potentially its own General conference session to come, but all of the things we voted for, voted against, or tabled, will affect how we act and relate as Methodists, at least until the next General Conference. Likewise, I have made many friendships, faced a few hardships, & realized just how powerful our connections as United Methodists truly are.
I will offer a more complete assessment of GC after a few days of digesting all that was involved. On the last Sunday in May and on the first Wednesday evening in June I will offer information and talk-back sessions at the church (Peoria First UMC) on what happened, from my person non-infallible chair. And thank you for the prayers I sensed surrounding the proceedings, the planning, and all that was part of this raucous, blessed, contradictory, rip-shorting (and occasionally rip-snoring) event. Jesus is Lord and while an individual church or collection of churches occasionally may not be in good hands, underneath always are the Everlasting Arms...
I’ve only experienced two marriages (in depth) during my lifetime. My parents and my own. With all loving respect to may parents, their marriage reminds me of our General Conference session. There were periods of major disagreement and explosion, and then long periods of what I might call “false peace” – an unspoken agreement to avoid the problems in order to get along enough to function day to day. We call it “sweeping the problems under the rug.” At least a couple things happen when we approach conflict this way. 1) Problems are not resolved – just avoided, and 2) Intimacy is sacrificed on the altar of false unity.
So what do the delegates do at General Conference when sex is off the table? With the grand bargain struck earlier in the week with the Council of Bishops to offer specific leadership on this issue, demonstrators went home, media attention has lagged...and the delegates sent to a General Conference that costs $1,890 per minute began getting other things done.
My prayers for this General Conference were to get some clear direction on how to handle our differences, but it appears at this time it may not happen. However, a couple of verses have come to mind that I need remember.
In over 30 years as a pastor in this great Church, I have never seen any United Methodist body write such a BIG blank check for an initiative with so few details and no track record of success. After all, we’re Methodists. We got that name for a reason. I’ve seen more details outlined for a Confirmation retreat. But method was no hindrance to us on this vote. To literally bet the farm on such a sketchy process shows just how desperate we are to do something, anything to get out of the pain of decline and division we have felt for so long. I pray that it works.
I cried for the first time in a long time today… hard. My seat at “Table 10” just right of the center aisle in the General Conference plenary hall has literally provided a front-row view of our collective dysfunction in the United Methodist Church.
I offer these thoughts. (1) The conference asked the bishops to provide leadership on this issue. For the conference to ask for leadership one day and literally to reject it the next day would have been, well, odd. (2) All existing teaching of the church regarding human sexuality and morality remain intact. Over 50 petitions had been advanced seeking to modify the church's teaching; all of them failed in committee, so the outcome of this aspect of the bishop's offer was zero sum, or (to show off Latin) status quo ante bellum (status quo prior to the 'war'). (3) The same delegates for this GC would be at any other special GC held prior to 2020. I playfully suggested to some colleagues that US members should pay their own way to any special GC, since most of the votes for the added event came from them. I doubt there will be more demonstrations, since the GC action has eliminated any further need for debate or decision on this contested issue.
We kicked the can down the road, will likely spend a lot of money to meet again in 2-3 years, and have to do it all again then. On the positive note, we don’t have to do the painful deliberating about human sexuality at this General Conference even though we were elected to do so. And yet my hope is not in the bishops or this commission, but in Jesus, and his Holy Spirit can do anything. Thus, I have peace.
"Human anger does not work Divine righteousness," so says James 1:20. I dwell on the residual power of Pentecost(al) worship from our African brothers and sisters yesterday, and stories of courage and faith from all over the church. That is our mission. That is what matters most. That is what the denomination, and Peoria First, exist to do and are doing in many lives.
Lots of social and religious and secular media are focusing on the single issue of sex as though that is all that is happening, or the only thing that really matters. This wildly misses the point and the larger issues the conference is addressing on empowering training for clergy, making the path to leadership more rational, funneling resources to sources of life rather than dribbling them into dead end projects.
To frame what is happening as either a conservative takeover or a progressive temper-tantrum would be to both miss the point and indulge in the sort of self-indulgent blame-shifting that is so common in any divorce. We should refuse to soothe our suffering by skipping over the hard searching questions that can and should accompany such tragedies. We leaders allowed the church to arrive at this place both by sins of commission and omission. In spite of some notable successes, we have poorly represented Jesus together. Our apathy for each other allowed us to grow apart. Our distrust of each other was built into our polity in 1939 and 1968. Were we ever married or just living together?
For over 40 years, our global denomination has held rancorous debates around issues of homosexuality. At this point, many of our key leaders on all sides have decided it is time to end the fight. All the details have not been shared, but in broad strokes, the plan suggests a three-way separation. Those pastors and congregations on the far right and the far left would leave, and those pastors and congregations in the middle would stay. Specific definitions of “right,” “left,” and “middle” have not been shared.
So, what happened to get the rumor mill buzzing and created a feeling of panic across denomination? The following is my best piecing together of what generally happened along with my own interpretive lens.
Doing Biblical Justice is 1) Meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and 2) Righting wrongs done to the most vulnerable. Biblical justice is always directed toward the poor and oppressed. You never read about God fighting for justice and being a “defender of” the rich or the strong. Now this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about justice for ALL people. It just means that as a default, justice usually happens for the strong, rich, powerful and privileged.
Some of the possible ways forward for our denomination across the wide spectrum with brief explanation why they could or could not work.
I have had time to reflect on this demonstration and the events which have transpired since that day. It has barely been 48 hours, but tensions have remained high, rumors have flown, and persons have feared for the future of our church and our denomination. While I am not a person who fights for social justice by protests and outward demonstrations as this group did, I empathize with them and am proud of their actions. In the time between that demonstration, that visible cry for change and reconciliation, I have had time to recognize what truly matters for our church.
I joined others in Pentecost worship led by the combined African delegation. It was the most uplifting and Spirit-filled service I have known, all 2.5 hours of it (and those who know me realize that for me the Holy Spirit packs his bad, flips off the light and leaves the room promptly at 60 minutes). Not today...the Holy Spirit was on high octane and the singing, prayers, sermon and sense of connection was powerful. As to the time, one of the African bishops stood up at the end and apologized to the African members for such a short service! As he then gently said to the Anglo types in the room: You keep time but we make time. Oh yes.
Sisters and brothers, as I sit in General Conference, and think about it cost more than $1,000 a minute for conversations that go on ad nauseum, I have come to the conclusion this is what it takes to be a global church. As I listen to the debates, many of them come about because we do not understand the cultural context of many of our brothers and sisters. Even those from the USA. I believe we must find away to build community around the world before we come together as strangers for 10 days. We have got to find away for the world to become our parish. Any thoughts?
I long for the power of that Holy Spirit to rain down on the General Conference and break down the barriers that keep us apart, keep us from listening to each other, keep us from seeing each other as children of God. The hardest parts of this week for me have not been votes that didn’t go “my way,” but rather missed opportunities for connection, understanding, empathy and compassion, moments when, instead of listening, we erected barriers against those we didn’t want to hear. Moments when we chose “Babel” over “Pentecost.” I’m as guilty as anyone else; there are no fingers to point here. We are on the clock; we have deadlines to meet; we have so much legislation to get through, and no time for side-conversations. Besides that, it seems risky and impractical to take time out to do nothing more productive than to listen, to share our stories with each other face-to-face and recognize one another as fellow travelers on the journey toward truth. General Conference is set up for legislative process, not for community-building, and to be honest, we don’t really know how to do it differently.
The greatest conflict today for most delegates was the struggle of staying awake amid the tedium of petition review. Tomorrow is Sunday, Pentecost, and the 1000+ delegates and observers will fan out for worship in various churches...except for those going the tourist route to see some local sites. Next week all will gather to sift, sort, discern and vote. Will bishops have term limits? Will the process toward ordination or alternative ways of serving Christ in the church streamline? Will a proposal to shift $20 million from general church coffers into new church starts and innovative outreach survive the moans and wails certain to sound over such an approach? Stay tuned, and you best can do so by dialing Jesus in your personal time of prayer.
General Conference gets a bad rap. The litany goes like this: it’s long (with travel time it takes two weeks or more), it’s exhausting (delegates feel like they are in “meeting jail” from early in the morning ’til late at night, with little time to rest), it’s draining (many of the issues GC confronts are so emotionally charged, the debates are punctuated with personal stories of hurt and crowds of protesters who are not shy about their displeasure with certain church stances), and it’s expensive (one estimate was $1,500 a minute, although that figure likely does not include many hidden costs to delegates and observers). Sounds like the party everyone wants to crash, right?
Beyond the vote count, there remained deep appreciation for one another, and abiding agreement that in spite of our differences, we could, in fact, remain one in Christ and one in The United Methodist Church. It was profoundly gratifying to experience a contemporary fulfillment of Jesus prayer in John 17, “that they may all be one.” Our unity in Christ is greater than our deepest differences.
Most of the day was spent by delegates in various committees sifting the hundreds of petitions that have come from individuals, churches, interest groups and whoever else. I have been impressed also (as a first and only timer at a GC) with the care taken to ensure all petitions are read, discussed and treated with seriousness and respect. If there is any dark conspiracy to game the system by stacking the deck in this or that committee with religious hacks, I have not seen it, and I am glad.
If you’re a leader of any group of people, it doesn’t take you long to find out that sometimes you can have the best plan, but if you don’t communicate it well, you will unintentionally create fear, anxiety, frustration and maybe even distrust in the hearts of your followers. Everything may work perfectly in your head – you may even have it clearly outlined on paper – but when the details are not shared with those whom it affects, you will not create the kind of ownership needed for it to succeed.
I was the only American present at my table for our small group conversations. My fellow delegates were from the Philippines, South Congo, and Nigeria. We were asked to engage in conversation regarding our context and connection in The United Methodist Church. My eyes were opened to the differences which are present and should be acknowledged in our connection.
In today’s Episcopal Address, our former Bishop in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Gregory V. Palmer, hit those issues head on in a brilliant sermon that challenged the thousands of church leaders gathered in Portland as well as thousands more watching it by live stream around the world. He began with the one word the Spirit had deeply impressed on him from the moment he started to prepare that message: humility. He called it the cardinal Christian virtue and urged members of the Conference to practice it diligently with one another, counting others better than ourselves, as scripture instructs. Humility is the foundation for trust. When we refuse to assume we know better, and humbly listen to one another, we are much more likely to hear the voice of God through others. As humility builds trust, it also brings hope. It opens the door to believe that God can make a way when there seems to be no way.
The boredom, a word somewhat unfair in this setting, arose from completing the nitty gritty of preparation; the election of team leaders and sub-team leaders, the introductions shared among the various delegates on the sundry teams. I sit with Higher Education and Ministry and will look at the largest number of petitions fielded b y any group, related to clergy and education issues. At my table of 11 were folks from Congo who only spoke French (merci beaucoup, madam translator), one who spoke only Swahili, one from Atlanta, two from Washington DC, and seated next to me a reasonably effective church planter from Leawood, Kansas. We traded stories and hopes for the global church and, thus prepared, await tomorrow.
Remember that this conference is not about whatever external news media says. It is about Jesus. I sense lots of delegates from all sorts of places share that conviction, that passion, that faith.
I smelled heaven this afternoon. No, I didn’t walk by a Chicago style pizza place in Portland (if anyone knows of some good deep dish in Trailblazer country, please let me know). I smelled heaven during our opening worship service and it brought me to tears.
When it comes down to it, people will believe that homosexual practice is either an acceptable or unacceptable practice for Christians (and to be clear, I believe you can love Jesus, love Scripture and love the mission of the church and yet come to different conclusions, interpreting in different ways). I don’t think any act of General Conference will change how either “side” interprets the Bible or chooses to believe. However, we can all remember the Barrys out there and in the midst of our differences, we can treat each other with love (and if not love, then at least civility and respect). Please continue praying with me for our General Conference – that the way we go about disagreeing will actually be a testimony of God’s grace and love and not another obstacle to people finding it.
When folks who are jogging in upscale Nike shoes and folks who are sleeping nights in the park find a reason to care that United Methodists are gathering in Jesus' name and see the connection of the Jesus we proclaim with the lives they live (or endure), well, that is the main thing! Pray with me and for me that whatever else may happen, the main thing remain the main thing.
We come together with different languages and different ideas, of different ages and from different places, to do God’s mission. We come together as Methodists and while we may not all be of one mind, let us as one of the speakers today reminded us, be of one heart. Let us be in dialogue with one another, to come to place where we can communicate safely, and to conference with one another honestly and earnestly, no matter where we are from, who we are, or where we are headed after this.
As I walked through the building, you could feel the sense of anticipation. God is clearly stirring in his church. For a moment, I peaked in the massive auditorium while the worship band rehearsed for tomorrow’s opening worship service. I know from previous General Conferences that this is a must-see experience.
I have spent the last two years writing legislation, taking part in conference calls, and strategizing with both friends and detractors. Tonight, I want to be quiet in God’s presence. I want to be humble. I want to become like a little child. I want to be ready to engage with my brothers and sister and find holy ground amidst what might otherwise become a gaudy political convention.
This is God’s place. Not Portland or the O’Hare airport, but General Conference. It may not always feel like a place where the Holy Spirit can freely flow, especially amidst difficult decisions, harsh critics on either side of the aisle, but God works in the loud airports and conference centers as well as those quiet centering places like a double bed at the Downtown Marriott Waterfront. It is for God that I am here. The Spirit may not seem present, but my heart and mind is open to God’s call in my life and on all of our conversations at General Conference.
This year our Faith and Order Committee will discuss important legislation that seeks to add the Nicene Creed to our Doctrinal Standards, possibly change our mission statement, sharpen language in our “Theological Task” and clarify the expectations for those seeking ordination (yes, there are several controversial issues regarding sexuality and ordination). For a doctrine nerd like me, it will make for an exciting few days in legislative committee during week 1 of General Conference.
Due to the far-reaching impact of this General Conference, I’m inviting everyone to pray this simple prayer each day at 10 AM: Everlasting God, as you did at Pentecost, pour out your Holy Spirit on our General Conference in Portland. Guide every decision so your will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. For the sake of Jesus Christ and his church. Amen. You can pray this prayer wherever you are beginning Tuesday, May 10 and continue praying each day at 10 AM through Friday, May 20. We believe more prayer releases more power. When God’s people pray in unity, it delights the heart of God and creates space for God’s love to prevail and God’s will to be done. In very real ways, the future of our church rests on the prayers of its people.
We choose to not see each other as the enemy. I know and trust that she loves Jesus, the Bible and people at least as much as I do. If our denomination is ever going achieve a “Catholic Spirit” we must start with mutual respect and love and stop the divisive rhetoric that paints one another into categories of “heretic” or “hater.” In order for that to happen we must individually develop genuine friendships with colleagues on the other side of the fence and engage in difficult dialog seeking to understand before we are understood.
Many issues will be debated and decided including the role of the pastor, the “Imagine No Malaria” initiative, missionary support, the planting of new churches, the appointment of pastors, the accountability of bishops, the issue of human sexuality, as well as many other social and theological issues. These topics (and many more) will all be on the table. Many of these concerns to be addressed are the same issues that we face in our culture and world at large. And the sad reality is, we are as divided as a Church as we are in our nation and world. Virtually every contentious topic is presented in an “either/or” scenario and it’s hard to find unity. Maybe that’s why Jesus prayed so hard for his followers to be united in heart and mission.