I have heard the rumor that General Conference costs the UMC $1,500 a minute. Framed in terms of investment, this is problematic. What value are we getting from this investment? So far, we have changed little. The tinkering we have managed to date is nominal at best. No set aside bishop, no episcopal term limits, no great movement to anything new (or elimination of anything old). We just returned from a break, and the dominant comment people made to me was, “why are we even here? We will go home and nothing will have changed!” Personally, I think it is a bit too early to throw in the towel and assume nothing will change, but I believe the journey thus far is simply evidence that we lack confidence in the proposals brought forward. In short, the solutions offered don’t actually address the real problems in significant ways. And people would rather do nothing than invest great effort in doing the wrong things better.
One challenge to this year’s conference is the number of interdependent and conditional proposals, where the potential implications are incredible. One example I would offer — though not all these things have been approved — is the combination of the elimination of guaranteed appointment, the reduction of pension paid by conferences, the ease of placement on transitional leave for “missional appointment” reasons, and the desire to remove mandatory retirement age added to a goal of attracting 2,000 new young clergy into the denomination. The question I have is, “Why would young clergy be attracted to any organization that systematically erased many of the reasons why the organization might be attractive in the first place?” The claim is that we need to bolster clergy effectiveness. How these things add to clergy effectiveness is anyone’s guess. Better processes of credentialing and accountability make sense, but not the threat of punitive consequences. We need to offer incentives, not punishment.
As I listen to our conversations today, I am struck by the remedial nature of almost everything we are saying: how do we eliminate? how do we reduce? how do we restrict? how do we save (money)? how do we manage? how do we limit? The conversation is not about added value, but about cutting costs. And it is NOT about faithful stewardship! Don’t get me started on the waste, excess and poor use of resources. Every morning I arrive at the convention center and have to run a gauntlet of people passing out brochures, fliers, handouts, buttons, gew-gaws, knick-knacks, plastic garbage — and I have received seven “free” tote bags to lug all this refuse around with me. These are not the “official” printings and publications of the conference — these are from caucuses, affiliate groups, associations, agencies, etc. I cannot even begin to estimate the costs of the “necessary” publications.
What could we do with the $8m we spend on General Conference to create a new kind of church? How might this money shift from being an expenditure to an investment? Are there truly no better ways to do our busyness so that we might better attend to the business of God? I know it is not either/or, but even when it is both/and there is still need for prioritization and clarity. No matter how deeply we desire new results and deep change, if you process everything through the old system, outcomes won’t change. If your system is a meat-grinder and you have used it for year’s to grind meat, suddenly deciding you want to bake bread doesn’t mean you can simply dump flour, shortening, yeast and water in the meat grinder and expect anything better than a lumpy mess. Unless we are serious about changing the system for making decisions, we will use our current system to maintain the status quo.
It would be glorious if we would conference differently instead of continuing to conference as we have for so many years and just say we are doing it differently. As much as has changed since my first conference in Baltimore in 1984, no one would confuse it for anything else — the similarities far outweigh the differences. The concept of change is much stronger than the commitment to change. We say we can’t just keep doing business as usual, but we are working hard to keep things comfortable and familiar.
My personal preference would be that we would have fewer presentations and more time in prayer. I would love invitations into prayer and fasting for particular ministries and processes. I would like actual time in conversation with brothers and sisters around vision, vitality, cultural competency, the challenges of the global church, and our multi-faceted theological identity. I would love to feel that our focus was on creating a sustainable and meaningful future and not merely reorganizing our short-term needs. There is so much good in our church, and so much good we are doing for the world. May we keep our priorities straight and all ow space for the glorious wind of the Spirit to blow through this space.