GC2016 — Day Nine, Wednesday

Is a global gathering of thousands of “members” for a two week legislative meeting a community?  General Conference does not feel to me like community.  It could be.  We are baptized to the same faith, confessing the same God and Savior, believing in the Spirit of God to be present in our midst.  We all connect to the Cross and Flame, talk fluent Methospeak and Wesleyanisms, and proudly support the work of UMCOR.  We have many things in common and even agree on about 65% of the Holy Bible.  Sounds like the foundation for a promising community.

But healthy community is much more than holding common beliefs and practices in common, and employing common logos and language.  Community demands rapport, respect, empathy and profound regard for others.  Community demands a commitment to a common good that supersedes and transcends any individual agenda, or the interests of only one segment.  This is what is missing at General Conference.  Everything that makes for communal health is absent from our gathering.  Instead of real rapport, we have a tenuous tolerance for members of our spiritual family with whom we disagree.  Respect is reserved only for those who agree with us, or, rarely, for those who disagree with us in an unthreatening way.  True empathy — the ability to place yourself in not only another’s shoes, but even in the shoes of someone you don’t care for — is replaced by a superficial sympathy.  We are sorry for people who aren’t smart enough to agree with us.  In cases of our deep divide over human sexuality, not only is our regard not profound, it is disguised as thinly veiled contempt.  I cannot fathom a way to defend any of our modes and methods of disagreement as “Christian.”  It is disturbing to read comments from observers outside our denomination.  “Hypocrisy,” “judgmentalism,” and “hate” come up very frequently on the feeds of people analyzing our process so far.  Yes, sure, it’s not the whole story, but does it really matter?  People around the globe are describing our behavior as a body with these terms.  Like it or not, it is our witness through the law of unintended consequences.

Not that anyone would pay much attention, but I have three proposals for The United Methodist Church between the end of General Conference 2016 and the beginning of General Conference 2020.  These proposals would be assignments for practice and preparation in local churches and annual conferences in this four year period.

Proposal #1: We will make consensus conversation processes normative during the four years.  We will learn how to have true Christian conference and civil engagement on a regular basis.  We don’t improve from Annual Conference to Annual Conference, General Conference to General Conference because we don’t use such processes regularly.  Every time we come together and try to use consensus processes and interactive small groups, we do them poorly because they are so foreign to us.  To make interactive engagement practices normative means we will practice and get good at them in preparation for the next General Conference.

Proposal #2: We will formalize positions and document the various positions and perspectives, giving fair and equal opportunity to explain and defend our respective beliefs.  We will allow people to express their feelings as well as their thoughts and we will encourage our congregational leaders to share the full panorama of perspectives through learning opportunities.  Most people still confess to being ignorant of the full range of arguments and perspectives.  Of course, this would focus on human sexuality, since this is such a critical issue, but it would be a process to apply to any key issue or disagreement.  We would use a formational approach to information, leading to transformation and radical Christian education.

Proposal #3: We will develop a prioritized Haustafel — a German word meaning “New Testament Household Code.”. In German scholarship, it was discerned that there were formal structures and expectations for family and household in the Mediterranean context during Paul’s ministry.  What we can learn from such organization is that healthy household differentiate essentials from non-essentials.  What are the absolute most important rules and expectations to keep a family healthy and strong.  What things are less important?  If we can arrive at a short-list of “house rules” we all agree are vital, then this is where we focus, and we simply let go of the things that are least important.  In dozens of forced-choice exercises, prayer, healing, serving, mercy, justice, and compassion head the values lists; specific behaviors and beliefs still make the list, but way down out of the top ten.  Our baptismal covenant is to work toward the vision and will of God for creation and humankind.  Working for has power to transform, working against keeps us in bondage.

I am not saying this is THE answer or that it will fix anything.  However, it is a proactive, intentional and strategic approach to bringing us into meaningful engagement.  I disagree with people who say we have tried everything and now is the time to separate.  I don’t believe we have ever made this our priority, and I do not believe we have made a decisive and sustained attempt to transform our divisions.  We keep doing the same badly designed and poorly executed exercises and believe they will get us where we need to be.  Amateur hour is over.  It is time for us to get serious and actually prove whether we want reconciliation and healing within our part of the body of Christ or not.

5 replies

  1. Some thoughts on your proposals:

    “Proposal #1: We will make consensus conversation processes normative during the four years. We will learn how to have true Christian conference and civil engagement on a regular basis. … To make interactive engagement practices normative means we will practice and get good at them in preparation for the next General Conference.”

    Where is this “practice” to take place? I read “These proposals would be assignments for practice and preparation in local churches and annual conferences in this four year period.” And, what if, as has occurred in the past, one side or the other begins to “feel” they are being slighted and starts acting out? This sort of thing has been our normative for years in the local churches which then extend to Annual Conference, and subsequently to General Conference.

    I certainly understand and appreciate your point, but if we have such a hard time in a local church setting where folks are pretty similar (most of the time), how can we apply it to the larger church when cultures and needs differ so greatly?

    Lest you think that I’m totally against moving in such a way, I’m a kind of guy that says, Aim for the moon. You may not get there, but you’ll get a lot further than if you don’t aim at all.”

    “Proposal #2: We will formalize positions and document the various positions and perspectives, giving fair and equal opportunity to explain and defend our respective beliefs. We will allow people to express their feelings as well as their thoughts and we will encourage our congregational leaders to share the full panorama of perspectives through learning opportunities.”

    Again, we have a hard time doing this. Over the years I’ve been a clergy member of a conference, we’ve offered a number of opportunities to learn about various positions and understandings, feelings and beliefs. They have been poorly attended – not just by laity, but also by clergy. The mindset I’ve experienced was expressed by a lay person in one church I served as he declared “I’m not going to attend that class. I already know all I want to about God. I don’t want to know anything more.”

    I certainly felt sorry for this gentleman. Not only could he have gained in his own learning, but he would have greatly added to the discussions we were having because of his own experiences and beliefs. One has to wonder why he developed that mindset, what caused him to frown so highly on the opportunity of continuing to learn.

    There have been materials printed to aid in understanding different positions. When we’ve had the floor discussions at Annual Conference, I’ve had members say, “Oh, I didn’t read that. I didn’t have time…” etc. How do we create the climate in which learning can occur for these issues?

    “Proposal #3: We will develop a prioritized Haustafel — a German word meaning “New Testament Household Code.”. In German scholarship, it was discerned that there were formal structures and expectations for family and household in the Mediterranean context during Paul’s ministry. What we can learn from such organization is that healthy household differentiate essentials from non-essentials. What are the absolute most important rules and expectations to keep a family healthy and strong.”

    Ah, but this is one of the areas of greatest misunderstanding and lack of trust. We cannot agree on “essentials.” So we keep adding more rules and more rules until life is quashed. For instance, by the Discipline, there are certain rules we are to follow if we want to start a new faith community/church. What I’ve seen is growth when those rules were broken. If the rules were kept, the process often took too long and the potential withered away. But the rules were put in place because some believed that the risk of starting a new church required rules to follow in order to protect the greater good of the denomination. (I think this falls into the “essential” category if we really want to start new faith communities.)

    Many will say that we should all affirm the “essentials” that Wesley lifted. But I’ve heard disagreement and argument over these. And, given the current state of affairs in our denomination, do you think that we could actually agree on “essentials”? Most of the time, I’m an optimistic person, but not as it relates to this.

  2. I can’t say that I’ve read the words “hypocrisy”, “judgementalism”, or “hate”, but I have read the idea of schism. That truly disturbs me. I honestly believe God is doing something new, but I don’t think the UMC GC is listening.

  3. I have so appreciated your blogs over the last nine days. I know it has been a trying time. I am concerned for the Church. And based on what I’ve heard and seen, am thankful I am not in Portland to witness first hand. Disillusionment could surely set in. I just wanted to thank you though. Because what is happening is very important and will have impact which ever way we go. -M

  4. This and the next post are reminding me of some “essentials” i’ve been thinking about in light of participation in a task force in the Wisconsin Conference. ISTM that “clergy covenant” is a term few are willing or able to define. i think it’s been set up as a red herring. Our “covenant” is not an agreement with a contract (or selected statements from the DISCIPLINE). Rather, it is based in baptism (and this is the base for our ministry together as clergy and laity). Our unity is God-given, grounded in baptism and affirmed as we (again, both laity and clergy) converse with one another about our call to ministry. Our connection is forged and affirmed in relationship, and the relationships are deepened and broadened in ongoing conversations about the call to ministry and the way that call interacts with the flow of life around us. Accountability comes not by DISCIPLINE (or any particular set of rules) but rather within the relationships “we” (clergy and laity alike) nurture and enhance by speaking honestly with one another.

    Just my opinions… And i need to thank colleagues for bringing “call” to my mind.

  5. Hmmm interesting, but again, too little too late. You cannot keep oppressing people without repercussions. From what I see it is clear that the body continues to want to exclude GLBTQ people. While the votes get closer, the outcome remains the same. While you maintain that people are uninformed, I find that increasingly hard to believe every 4 years. I believe it is the will of the majority to continue to exclude (whether spiritually, cultural or racia). There is sense or reason to this kind of entrenchment other than hard hearts. And with a declining membership, and young people totally not interested in the kind of Godly love that we model, I say why not just call it. Let the cards fall where they may. Now that would take bravery, and just might bring us to our knees and to a point where the Holy Spirit will have something to work with.

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