Specific Conference

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?

14 replies

  1. It has been my long-held belief that our Vision Statement ought to be: Being Disciples for the Transformation of the Church.

  2. It is difficult at best to take someone else to a place you have never been. Be a disciple, lead and teach by example. It seems that Jesus had something to say about process!

  3. Wow, I feel in good company for a lowly pew sitter. After monitoring General Conference for the first time, including the myriad of views on Twitter, I have come to the conclusion the UMC can not function much longer with one central governing body. More people need input for their own part of the world. Shortly before GC started, UMNS had an article about how what happens at conference rarely impacts the local church. It is somewhere 1% of UMC’s are making decisions on behalf of the other 99% and the vast majority of the time those decisions do not reflect the values of the 99%. People in the pews are just not aware of what is in the Discipline and that decisions are being made at General Conference that are supposedly “binding” on them.

    In regards to “legislating morality” and the homosexuality issue; it hurt my heart to read a comment from a hurting mother who thought if General Conference approved full inclusion of homosexuals, then her son would automatically be welcomed at church with open arms. Obviously he has not felt welcomed in the past and I doubt legislation in Tampa would change that. All that mother will probably learn is how ineffective General Conference is at the local level.

  4. After monitoring GC2012,from the hinterlands, I no longer view the United Methodist Church as an ocean liner. Turning that around would be “easy”, it speaks to sameness of thought within certain parameters. I now see it as a very large square raft with umpteem oars in the water each rowing as they see fit.

    • Or, as I have described it: “trying to steer a battleship through Iowa when a hundred different people think they are the captain…”

      • that works too. I just wish the picture of the waterfall looming had not been painted quite so vividly last week. I was taught in driver’s ed the car goes where you are looking and the focus was very much put on the appraoching waterfall. I came across a good phrase last week: “Don’t fight decline, embrace smart decline.”

  5. Thank you, Dan. I’ve grown very appreciative of your insights into what is happening at GC and how we have very much lost the practice of doing spiritual things spiritually. It is breaking my heart.

    • Mine too. My head has been in the sand a long times in regards to the UMC. I recently read something about it is OK totake your laments to God.

  6. I think we — the UMC — need to be less of a democracy and more of a kingdom (of God).
    “Lord reign in me, reign in Your power
    Over all my dreams, in my darkest hour
    You are the Lord of all I am
    So won’t You reign in me again”

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