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.