GC 2012: Looking Back

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…

23 replies

  1. We also need some sort of true “petition” process. This thing of certain people submitting 20, 30, in some cases I believe a hundred or so petitions is ridiculous. I’m all for people having their say, but there has to be some mechanism to establish a petition as having some relevance and a degree of significant support before we start spending General Conference time on it.

  2. Dan-

    I wish you wouldn’t perpetuate stereotypes about Southerners as conservative, white males who want to ramrod anything through with crooked back room deals. That kind of stereotype over-generalizes and frankly, discounts the work of many southern white males of trying to correct an overall system gone awry. Let’s quit doing the us vs. them and concentrate on just the “us” since we’re all guilty to some point. That stereotype frankly ruined for me what’s a really good piece otherwise.

    • Problem is, those who took to the backrooms fit the model. Stereotypes aside, look at the people who brokered the deal, and look who wasn’t there. Stereotypes have a basis… Am I perpetuating it, or am I pointing out why they endure?

      • From an email from a young adult —
        “Stereotype! No Central conference delegates! No young people! Plan UMC scrambled to add a woman of color after the fact! Give me a break. You didn’t further a stereotype, you told a very embarrassing, very shameful truth. If good ol’ boys don’t want people to think poorly of them, stop acting like Huey Long.”

  3. Well Dan… honestly, if you knew plan a and b (and subsequently plan c) were out of order and unconstitutional, instead of telling a few people, you should have SHOUTED the house down. Instead, because many UMCers including you – AND including me – kind of fell asleep on the job, we wasted – wasted – wasted – MILLIONS! how good it was to see what will be the 1 millionth mosquito net on stage… how devastating it felt to realize we could have supplied another million+ by refusing to hold GC! I despair when I think what might of happened in, let’s say, Liberia – if we plowed the money into that conference we spent of General Conference. Shame shame shame on all of us.

  4. Please do not lose Dan’s message, because he used a stereotype. Fix the structure. Ask the thousands of local churches how they want to be supported as they go about the mission of the UMC. A few questions sent electronically may give, in a very short period of time, a good sense of what needs to be done. It might even involve tens of thousands of persons participating in developing a new structure and giving momentum to something very helpful. Adelante!

  5. Hi Dan,
    I appreciate your thoughts. The issues facing the church run far deeper than merely the restructuring of our institution. As you are probably aware, in the last two decades a new religious group appeared on the radar–those who identify themselves as having no religious adherency. In 1990, this appeared as a blip and has grown to be 16+% of the US population. This is inverse to mainline decline. Only 7% of this group are atheist while 27% believe in a personal God but do not connect to God in church. In the next 15 years, it is estimated that 25% of of the US population will be in this group. 50% of this group are under the age of 50. This is is also the age group is of focused concern for our denomination. (Statistics are from American Religious Identification Survey). Most often they identify themselves as ‘Spiritual but not Religious.’ I lift this up to say that our eccesial scrambling does matter two figs to this group. What is at stake is our integrity as a church. The question: “When are we going to talk about making Disciples of Jesus Christ?” is revealing and crucial, especially if we ever hope to regain our relevancy for an increasing population that finds us as un-credible. The Call to Action focused on a corporate (maketing) model. It was surprisingly lacking in serious theological reflection on both how God is working in the world today and how we understand ourselves as the body of Christ in the 21st Century. Instead of focusing our efforts on the ‘economics’ of Methodism, maybe we need to seriously and deeply need to start talking about what making disciples of Jesus Christ really means.

  6. Thank you for your thoughts during the convention. I was not there and am glad for your reports. Just another thing, at annual conference last year, I ask a service person about our group’s willingness to tip- not to impressive either.

  7. As a life-long Methodist of 50+ years, I was astounded at my reaction to the folowing assessment of the UMC by an ordained elder of 12 years standing who monitored General Conference from a distance:

    “After this General Conference I am seriously questioning the wisdom of joining The UMC in the first place. This church is dysfunctional. I mean, crazy dysfunctional, like one of those holiday dinners with my ex-wife’s extended family when somebody calls the police to break the whole thing up. …our debate about homosexuality should be an embarrassment to every mentally healthy Methodist regardless of what side of the issue they fall on. … We really need to disband any structure beyond the local congregations and start from scratch. Calling GC 2012 “Holy Conferencing” is like calling a naked jacuzzi party “Baptism”. No, we are not Westboro Baptist. Instead, we are Cristendom’s answer to The Jerry Springer Show.”

    I wasn’t offended–I laughed–it feels right on–it actually felt good to face the stark reality–along the lines of telling the empereor he has no clothes on. It makes me sad I am in agreement.

    If any leadership from The United Methodist Church is reading this: Hello! I’m here! Where do I go to learn about becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ! It’s what I’ve wanted to do all my life! I’ve discovered John Wesley and have fallen in love with what he has to say and with his method of practicing Christianity–as, as I have discovered in my surfing, have others–that is why we are hanging in with The UMC–we like Wesley!

    Oh, and by the way, The Wesleyan Church is a growing denomination; their General Conference is in a few weeks; they will not be dealing with the homosexuality angst; here is what they will be doing at their pre-conference:

    “PREQUEL to [The Wesleyan Church] General Conference ’12 (pre-conference): Join us for a discussion about re-engaging our Wesleyan distinctives within God’s mission.”

    And their their church wide focus this spring is:

    “SpringLife 2012–The Gospel Road: March 11-May 6, 2012. SpringLife is a free teaching series designed to help local church leaders cover the major mission of the church–evangelism and spiritual formation. ”

    Can somebody go talk to them?

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