Okay, following a surreal April (Korea, a week on the road in-state, two weeks at GC in Tampa) I took a week off to reflect, reconsider, and to hack my way through a rotten chest cold. Now I am back to review what the heck happened at General Conference — at least from my point of view. Anyone who reads my blog knows I wasn’t overly surprised at what happened. I was a little surprised that Plan UMC went through as easily as it did from the floor, and I made a commitment to work with whatever happened, but there was no surprise or shock when judicial council ruled it out of order. The original three weren’t in order — why should a hybrid of the three be any different. I was one voice among hundreds trying to raise questions and concerns before GC, and they were summarily ignored. This could not have gone another way. Then IOC proposal was slapdash and based on spurious outside “help” and Plan B and MFSA were reactive and incomplete (which I said all along, so I am not taking “cheap shots” now). The MInistry Study fared little better, for many of the same reasons. We can’t just make this stuff up as we go along. And when the emphasis shifted from discerning a strong future to southern backroom politics, everything fell apart. The white good ol’ boys learned a new lesson this year: their day is done. We are a new church, and slapping together an old political machine to try to run it isn’t going to fly. The southern voting block is strong enough to STOP just about anything, but it is not strong enough to ram anything bad through.
So, if backroom manipulations and narrow-minded command-and-control thinking of the over-the-hill gang won’t cut it any more, what will? First, let’s acknowledge the handwriting on the wall. We have a very serious decision to make before we return to the conversation of restructure: who are “we?” Are we a global church committed to working as one? Then we need to go ahead and reorganize to give both power and authority to the southern hemisphere? Are we a global confederacy, where separate but equal needs to emerge so that each region can decide for themselves what polity, policy and governance will prevail. Are we open to all God’s children or merely some? If we welcome our gay and lesbian siblings into God’s church, we will need to be working together in significantly different ways. If we are a missional society organized for the good of all, that will mitigate our current structure designed for the good of “us” to the exclusion of hundreds of categories of “them.” Will we continue to ask outsiders to define us by secular measures and standards or will we reclaim our authority and integrity to become what God calls us to be instead of Madison Avenue and corporate America. See, these are not the questions we wait to answer AFTER we restructure — these are the questions whose answers we restructure around.
My education continued at this General Conference as I spoke in-depth with one of our delegates from the Congo. He helped me to see that our global delegates have learned how to play the game of legislative religion as well as, if not better than, we complacent northerners. Regarding the “homosexuality issue,” he noted, “as long as we can keep this a moral issue, we never have to change. How many times have you heard, ‘our people back home told us, if you support the gays, don’t bother coming back!’ at this conference? No, as long as we do not make this an economic issue, we have no reason to change our minds. But you will find that on the day our position threatens the financial support we receive, you will discover in us a new willingness to talk.” He laughed and smiled. “You Americans think we are like children, that we are backwards because we take the Bible seriously and believe in demons and evil spirits, but I tell you, I have two Ph.D.s. In most conversations, I am the best educated one there, but you think us superstitious and simple-minded. We use that to our advantage!” Whether this gentleman was speaking for anyone but himself, I don’t know, but I do know that the savvy and sophistication of some of the non-U.S. delegates is seriously underestimated.
I heard again the mix of gratitude and frustration over “Imagine No Malaria,” from African delegates. There is great joy and celebration that infant mortality due to malaria has been cut in half. Saving the lives of children is a stupendous, good thing. The frustration comes from the fact that is transfers one difficulty to another rather than solving a problem. Where lack of food and clean water is a problem, malnutrition, bacterial infection, and even starvation are on the rise. Youth violence is on the rise. Less and less food is available to more and more people. Birth control education lags behind, placing some families in jeopardy as they grow too fast. One delegate told me, “the cost of raising a child is so very much higher than the cost of saving a child’s life — we need (help with) both.”
The spread of United Methodism in Africa and the impact that occurs between church and various African cultures makes focus there a priority. Most of what we debated and argued at General Conference related primarily to the North American/U.S.-centric church. This cannot go on much longer — it is a case of the tail wagging the dog — or, more appropriately the tail of one dog wagging a different dog! Our cultural contexts are so foreign that it becomes almost unimaginable to speak in terms of a single “united” church.
Something else that truly needs to change is the horrific stewardship exercised by our church to hold General Conference. I noted the Sodom and Gomorrah/Las Vegas trade show feel to Cokesbury and the Board and Agency displays (except for UMW — good show!), but I also had an experience where I made a wrong turn and ended up on a loading dock at the Convention Center. Before me was a 2o foot high mound of clear garbage bags filled with UM flotsam and jetsam. A convention center employee say nearby, so I asked, “Is this all from us?” “Yup,” he answered. “Not the worst I seen, but not the best.” Walking along the river walk of an evening, newspapers, brochures, handouts, etc. all sullied the walkway and plastered the hurricane fence. How’s that for a witness? We may not be able to make a decision, but boy can we generate trash!
Okay, a last gripe, then I will finish on a high note. On the next to last day of General Conference (eleven days into the conference…) one of my table mates from Sierra Leone leaned over to me and asked, “Aren’t we here to talk about making disciples? When will we get to talking about that!” This woman’s keen observation summed up the conference and the state of the church for me: we spent 8 million dollars, not to talk about our mission, not to strategize or prioritize, not to reflect theologically or discern collectively, and certainly not to envision a transformed world. No, we got together to talk about ourselves and who should get to be in charge. We voted, moved, amended, substituted, referred and deferred for hours… and sang and prayed for minutes. We talked around issues, and at one another ad nauseam… but talked to one another very little. I cannot imagine that one delegate left this conference with a stronger understanding of, a better sense of, or a deeper commitment to making disciples for the transformation of the world than when they arrived. If anything, they left more confused, disillusioned and disgusted than before.
But (and here is the high note) we have such GREAT POTENTIAL. There is faith, there is hope, and there is promise in our church. I was deeply impressed in almost every case by the way our episcopal leaders ran the plenary sessions. I enjoyed the messages our bishops preached in worship. I saw glimmers of our potential and our greatness from time to time, but we lodged them in a structure designed to bury them. I don’t know what the answer is to our structure problems, but I do know that our current General Conference process is not a good way to address them. We need a radical change in our way of making decisions. We will never redeem trust, increase our credibility or return to relevancy as long as we continue to use an outdated poor process (yes, I am talking Roberts’ Rules) on all the wrong things in all the wrong ways. The image that comes to mind is taking all the ingredients to a cake and throwing them in a dirty garbage can left in the sun and wondering why what you end up with doesn’t look like the picture on the box…