General Conference, which meets every four years, is United Methodism’s highest legislative body for all matters affecting the United Methodist connection. It is the only entity that has the authority to speak and to make decisions for the entire denomination. That may strike some of you as woefully impractical. What corporation, after all, would ever be able to be survive and thrive if its primary governance body included one-thousand people and met only once every four years?
And yet, for all of the practical and strategic questions that may be raised in any conversation about General Conference, I am deeply grateful to be part of a denomination whose authority is not centralized. No single leader, or bishop, or committee has the authority to govern our church. Rather, our portion of the Body of Christ finds its governance in a praying, searching, sometimes-quarrelling, frequently-doxological quadrennial body called the General Conference. It is this historical priority of “governance by conferencing” that has enabled United Methodism to retain its emphasis on both communal discernment and communal responsibility.
Just recently, from April 24th until May 4th, the United Methodist General Conference took place in beautiful Tampa, Florida. I was honored to be part of Western Pennsylvania’s delegation to the conference. (If you are interested in reading my daily blog posts from the General Conference, they can be found here.)
The dust has settled in the aftermath of General Conference. Delegates from our global church are back home, continuing in their ministry and resuming their individual journeys. Tables and chairs in the Tampa Convention Center have been reconfigured. Electronic voting keypads have been collected and returned to the rental company. And the United Methodist Church is left with its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I am still processing things as I reflect upon my experience of the 2012 General Conference. What follows are some of the reflections that my processing has inspired thus far. If you have no interest in reading these reflections, I completely understand. No hard feelings. But if you have an interest in things United Methodist and would like to experience the perspective of a colleague in ministry and brother in Christ, I encourage you to read on.
1. The highlight of General Conference for me was the manner in which it manifested the truly global nature of the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist central conferences around the world are growing, and that growth found vibrant expression in the General Conference. Every meal, elevator ride, and bathroom break afforded to me an opportunity to have a conversation with a delegate from Africa, or Europe, or the Philippines—or Texas! As wonderful as the churches of Western Pennsylvania are, we struggle mightily with the challenge of building congregations that are authentically multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi racial. By contrast, at General Conference, every worship event, every line at the buffet, and every plenary debate bore witness to the fact that the days of a monocultural ecclesiology are long gone. We are a church of many faces, many voices, many colors and cultures, many contexts and perspectives. In many ways, we are still adjusting to this reality, and our growing pains as a denomination should come as no surprise. But here is the point: It is essential for us to be able to look past the frequently-lamented “decline” of American United Methodism in order to celebrate the fact that, globally speaking, our church is in rapid growth mode. I see this as nothing less than the work of the Holy Spirit, continuing the miracle of Pentecost. General Conference placed an exclamation point upon this theological truth.
2. Much has been made of the Judicial Council’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of the restructuring plan known as “Plan UMC.” As I see it, this was an example of our church’s connectional polity working at its best. The General Conference had approved the plan with good intentions but also with a great deal of uncertainty and meaningful debate. Then came the call for a Judicial Council ruling on the plan—which, in my opinion, was a necessary expression of our shared commitment to accountability. The Judicial Council faithfully did the work that we asked those women and men to do, coming back to us with the ruling that Plan UMC was not in alignment with the spirit and the parameters of our constitution, especially concerning the boundaries of our denomination’s system of governance.
Unfortunately, some were quick to label the Judicial Council’s decision a “defeat” for the General Conference, or at least a clear indication that the General Conference had failed in its effort to discern a plan for restructuring that would help the church in its future ministry. Such reactions, however, are far more grounded in the narrative of secular politics than they are in the church’s story. In my viewpoint, the Judicial Council’s ruling simply helped us to discern things more comprehensively, to slow down, and to recognize that we were not ready to embrace fully in our practice what we had tentatively embraced in our voting. Beyond this, the Judicial Council’s ruling has helped our entire denomination to grasp what some have long believed: That moving into major structural change without a clearly demonstrated commitment to theological renewal, to building consensus, and to cultivating durable trust would allow the proverbial cart to move way ahead of the horse to which it is connected. In my viewpoint, this is not a failure. This is discernment. (It is worth noting that, after learning that Plan UMC was unconstitutional, the General Conference approved the downsizing proposals that our General Boards and Agencies had, on their own, proposed. This makes clear that our denomination is not afraid of structural change, as some have suggested. We may simply be afraid of change that is hastily-crafted and strategically questionable.)
3. The removal of the covenant of appointment security (and the lack of interest in debating the matter on the plenary floor) came as a surprise to me. Some lay delegates dismissed the issue as (to borrow the words of one lay person), “an issue for pastors but a non-issue for the larger church.” Some clergy delegates took a more prophetic angle in their willingness to part with appointment security, pointing out that nowhere in Scripture does God’s call to ministry come with any guarantees (including the guarantee of a pastoral appointment). Other delegates were far more pragmatic in their approach: “Why should pastors be guaranteed a job when no other profession makes similar guarantees?”
Personally, I still have some concerns about what it will mean to have an itineracy that is not accompanied by security of appointment. I am concerned about who is left most vulnerable in such a context (especially our women clergy and our clergy of color, many of whom have been given opportunities to engage in ministry only because of the encouragement and protection provided by appointment security). I am also concerned about what the absence of appointment security will do to the metaphorical “heart and soul” of our appointive process. Having said all of that, I would simply assure all who are reading these words that the Bishop and Cabinet in Western Pennsylvania are committed to practicing very careful and compassionate stewardship over these new realities. We are, after all, in this journey together. Part of that togetherness is taking care of one another. (In the fall, it may be that the Judicial Council will rule that the removal of appointment security is unconstitutional as well. If this happens, we will readjust. If it does not happen, we will readjust. The common denominator is readjustment!)
4. The theological divide that currently exists in our denomination concerning the issue of homosexuality found frequent and painful expression throughout the General Conference. I heard whispers (and sometimes outright cries) for division and schism, both from those who advocate full inclusion and those who desire the continuation of the church’s current stance. I do not believe that we will ever be able to build consensus around issues of structural change and “calls to action” until we find a way to bridge this division that will not go away and that is far more complex and multi-layered than any other issue that the church currently faces. It will not be enough simply to ignore those who desire full inclusion. Nor will it be sufficient to dismiss those who refuse to abandon the church’s long-standing teaching related to human sexuality. We somehow have to find a way to name the divide, to bridge it in a way that honors the integrity of people on both sides, and to cultivate a theological climate that makes room for a holistic Christology in which both sides can stand together in shared ministry and respect. If we resist or ignore or reject this challenge (as many are eager to do), we will face a future of divisive church trials and an immobilizing resentment on both sides of the divide.
Interestingly, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter (two of the most widely-known pastors in our denomination) presented to the General Conference a proposed new paragraph to our Book of Discipline that, in my opinion, would have gone a long way toward helping our denomination to incarnate a spirit of peacemaking on this issue. It was a well-crafted and theologically solid acknowledgement of the divide—one that would have helped us to bring our Book of Discipline into alignment with the theological climate of our current church. The proposal was soundly defeated. Perhaps that defeat was the result of a collective resistance to acknowledging the realities at hand. Or perhaps the defeat had more to do with a stubborn refusal to allow two United Methodist “rock stars” to have too much of a voice. Irrespective of the motive, our denomination is without a clear way forward on this issue, and that troubles me.
I am simply continuing in my prayer that those who advocate full inclusion will dare to consider the possibility that those on the other side are not automatically “homophobes.” Likewise, I am praying that those who support the church’s current stance will dare to consider the possibility that those on the other side are not automatically “heretics.” Bridge-building, I think, begins with these simple but crucial acknowledgements.
5. As blessed as our denomination is, General Conference made clear to me that we are an angry church. Sometimes the anger is palpable, and it comes from different directions. We are angry at our bishops for what we are quick to interpret as their hunger for greater authority. (“No set aside bishop for you!”) We are angry at our Boards and Agencies for using so much of our denomination’s money. (“We want you to do the same amount of work but with one-third the size of your team!”) We are angry at the pastors we deem ineffective. (“Step right this way to a transitional leave!”) American delegates are angry at foreign delegates for having such a significant voice. (“Why should THEY have such a voice when WE put so much more money into the denomination?!) Foreign delegates are angry at American delegates for their insensitivity. (“Why are THEY acting like the church revolves around their interests and preferences?!”) Delegates from the different American jurisdictions are angry toward one another. (“Why does the Southeastern Jurisdiction get its way all the time just because it has all the big churches?!) Those who choose to wear or not wear rainbow stoles are angry. (“Why are you shattering the unity of the church by wearing—or not wearing—a rainbow stole?!”) Young delegates are angry at older delegates. (“You tell us we have a voice but you won’t let us use it!) Older delegates are angry at younger delegates. (“We’ve tried to empower you but you’ve turned it into a sense of entitlement!”)
There is a place for righteous anger in our denomination, to be sure. Too often, however, the anger I encountered at General Conference was not a prophetic response to anything in particular but a preconceived resentment that became an a priori hermeneutical lens. When I would walk into a room at General Conference, there were times when I felt that the initial response to me was not “Let me embrace you with an agapic love just because you made the effort to show up” but rather, “I can’t wait to find out why I can be angry at you because I know that you must be up to something!”
If you know me well, then you know that it is not in my nature to be pessimistic or disparaging. I do not offer these observations in order to demean a church that I deeply love. Rather, I offer the observations for the purpose of naming an often-unholy anger that I believe extends from General Conference to Annual Conference; from Annual Conference to District Conference; from District Conference to individual church pews. It is an anger that, if left unnamed and unchecked, will prevent us from experiencing the joy of our salvation and the love that Jesus makes possible. Furthermore, chronic and habitual anger does not make us a very fun group of people to be around. (One cashier at the Convention Center snack shop put it this way, “For folks who are supposed to know Jesus, you folks sure seem awfully grumpy!”) Uh, yeah. Precisely.
6. I would be remiss if I did not comment on the manner in which social media impacted the spirit of General Conference 2012. I am a committed user of Facebook and Twitter and see them as potentially (though not automatically) redemptive instruments of connection, illumination, and playful absurdity. Throughout General Conference, I followed the Twitter feed closely, eager to learn from what others were saying about the happenings of General Conference. In that regard, I celebrate the way in which social media enabled General Conference to become a globally participatory event.
And yet, I continue to believe that there is something terribly dangerous about affording to people the opportunity to broadcast immediate opinions without accountability and without attentiveness to context or communicational nuance. Too often, I saw Twitter comments throughout General Conference that seemed less concerned with the illumination of truth and the cultivation of communal discernment and more concerned with hasty criticism and impulsive snarkiness. Immediacy is simultaneously a blessing and a struggle in this case. It is a blessing to be able to weigh in on issues about which we are deeply concerned. Immediacy, however, can also breed the kind of narcissism that compels us to believe that all other relational concerns are to be subordinated to the urgency of our own opinions and our eagerness to broadcast them.
I am certainly not the social media police (nor do I aspire to join that particular force). But I do hope that the clergy and laity of our great church (including yours truly) will grow in their attentiveness to both the great potential and insidious danger that are inherent in resources like Facebook and Twitter. At times, the conversations around General Conference were meaningfully broadened because of social media. At other times, it felt like our holy conferencing was diminished or even trivialized by the cyber-spatial onslaught. Like all forms of communication, social media demands a commitment to Christ-honoring stewardship.
So, here we are: The United Methodist Church, ready for another quadrennium of ministry. In some ways, General Conference equipped and prepared us for that ministry. (We do have a slightly-amended structure and greatly-amended budget, after all.) In other ways, General Conference simply opened the door to deeper conversations that are yet before us.
Through it all, I am grateful for our portion of the body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. I am grateful for the way in which our church creates a variety of unique and important balances—like the balance between personal piety and the pursuit of social justice; and the balance between making disciples and transforming the world; and even the balance between prayerful solitude and holy conferencing. As I write these words, I remain convinced that the United Methodist Church offers the best and most comprehensive theology and ecclesiology for this day and time. Where General Conference helped our denomination to become more fully the church, thanks be to God! And where General Conference held us back or muddied the waters, may God forgive us and help us onward.
It is still all about Jesus—which means that it is all worth the struggle.