What would it take to move us from the “general” to the “specific?” We have been told by our bishops that this General Conference is not about preserving the institution — but if not, what is it about? We are here, primarily, to plow through literally hundreds of legislative petitions to change our Book of Discipline and other key non-disciplinary articles of polity and doctrine. We are talking about credentialing, orders, structure, complaint processes, insurance, pensions, who to allow into leadership and who to get out of leadership. We are setting numeric goals for numbers of pastors and number of churches and numbers of dollars. Are we talking about prayer? Are we talking about fasting? Are we talking about a more rigorous and intentional study of scripture? No, we don’t have time to talk about content and context, just structure and polity. We do talk about “discipleship,” but the definition by which we mean it still isn’t clear. We keep being promised celebrations, but many of them are infomercials instead. There is much to celebrate at General Conference, and I do not offer anything but praise for the excellent work we do, but these celebrations of our faithful witness are such a small percentage of our time and energy here.
What would a Specific Conference look like? Well, the theme would be “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” Oh, wait, that is our theme. But the content and process would be “Holy Conference.” Oops, that is what we are supposed to be doing… We would be focusing on our future, not simply mitigating our present. Well, that is what our leaders SAY we are doing, but the evidence doesn’t support the claim. The critical difference would not be in what we do, but how we do it. To date, we have been invited into no more than five minutes of prayer for the decisions we are making. The encouragement to “spiritual discernment” has been all but absent. “Holy Conversation” has been an agenda item, but not an ethos governing our whole time together. Worship has been as much about promotional performance and information sharing as it has been a focus on God. The busyness of the church has been our focus; not the business of the church.
A Specific Conference would focus on identity and purpose. It would not ask, “How can we do what we are doing better?”, but instead would ask, “What is the need of the world for our witness as disciples of Jesus Christ?” In other words, what are the outcomes that God needs us to produce as the church, and what must we do to effectively and faithfully pursue and fulfill God’s will? This would mean that long-held practices and institutional structure would be secondary to future needs (all grounded in the historic priorities and values of the church, i.e., mission, evangelism, service, social justice; and, the very best of Biblical interpretation for our governance and guidance). An example for today might be: each of our jurisdictions might become regional U.S. central conferences, moving much of the administrative decision-making to the jurisdictions and allowing the General Conference to focus much more on missional priorities and vision for the future. Anything that might shift our focus from the management functions of institutional leadership to the visioning and futuring functions of organizational leadership is a step in the right direction. (My distinction between “institutional” and “organizational” is the difference between “fixed” and “adaptive,”/”reactive” vs. “generative.”) Then, when we gather as a global body, it is to focus on our witness to the world and our impact on the lives and beliefs of our brothers and sisters.
Let me be clear: we need organizations and we need decision-making processes, but form follows function. We are not working as effectively as we might, nor as spiritually as we need. We are caught with a foot in two worlds, and we don’t know which way to step. (And establsihing a study group to bring a proposal back to the next General Conference is NOT what I have in mind.) Do we continue to fit our work to the structures and processes we have been using for decades or do we modify the structures and processes to match the world in which we live? This is our ongoing tension — do we expect the world to change to fit in with us or will we change to meet the world where it is with the good news of Jesus Christ that it needs?