Tuesday, February 19, 2019

2019 General Conference, Day -4: How You Can Participate in #umcgc

The special, called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church is just around the corner. Even in a normal General Conference year, it can seem like decisions made at the General Conference level happen *to* United Methodists rather than happening with input and participation from local churches and members. This year, with high stakes for our beloved denomination, that feeling is even more pronounced.

But there are a number of ways in which all United Methodists can and should participate in the General Conference process. The UMC website has put together a helpful list that I hope you'll check out. Let me highlight a few ways in which you can participate in the conversation.

The first--and most important--way to participate in General Conference is to pray. I know this answer sounds like a throw-away response. It is not. Prayer is the most important way anyone participates in General Conference, delegate or otherwise. As United Methodists, we believe that prayer has the power to change things. Offer to God your worries, your concerns, your hopes, your fears. As I have tried to spend a lot of time in intentional prayer in recent weeks, I find myself praying that the church would be one, as God is one, and that we would more closely live up to our calling as laid out in Micah 6:8: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. I also find myself praying that God would surprise us in St. Louis--and that the church would not be so focused on arguing with one another that we miss the surprise.

I hope you'll also pray for the enormous number of people it takes to put General Conference together, scores beyond the actual delegates. Pray for the bishops, the technical folks, the secretaries, the denominational staff, the observers, and the people most affected by the decisions that will be made. I would also ask you to pray for a special measure of clarity and stamina for those present. With such weighty matters before the General Conference--and such a contracted time frame--I do worry about the physical well-being of those who will gather.

The second way to participate is to follow the gathering, live. This is another good way to be in prayer for the conference, as it will give some context to the things for which you should be praying. Beginning Saturday, you can watch the live-stream at this link. Do know that Saturday's program is scheduled to be a day of prayer. Potential plans will begin to be ranked in terms of priority on Sunday, with further work Monday and Tuesday.

You can also follow along with the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtags #umcgc and #gc2019. Let me offer a few tips for following the conference in this way.

The blessing of Twitter is that it democratizes things, in a way, allowing people from all over the world to participate in an extremely important discussion and provide context, experience, and perspective. The problem with Twitter is that the democracy it creates is not necessarily representative. In other words, by giving everyone a voice, the General Conference Twitter stream is not necessarily representative of the feelings of the delegates, nor of United Methodists as a whole. If 2016 is any guide, there will be plenty of people who are not even United Methodist who participate in the Twitter conversation later this week. What's more--and I wish I were kidding about this--I would not be the least bit surprised if some of the Russian troll farms that have been in the news in recent years take the General Conference Twitter stream as an opportunity to lob rhetorical bombs and use the stream to divide us. There are also US-based accounts which use fictional characters and anonymous accounts to participate in the conversation without the integrity of acknowledging who is behind the arguments being made. It's my practice to mute any account that claims to be satire, parody, or anonymous. If you can't stand behind your words, you aren't helping the conversation.

I guess what I am saying is that I do find the #umcgc Twitter stream to be helpful--and I will be participating in it--but you need to take it with the proverbial large grain of salt. What's more, if you decide to actively participate in the feed, be advised in advance that General Conference brings with it very strong emotions. Of course strong emotions are involved; this is God's church we're talking about! As one of my former bishops liked to remind us, "tweet sweet." That is to say, participate fully, advocate as you feel led, but remember that there are real people behind those Twitter handles. The teachings of Jesus as to how we are to treat our neighbors don't get suspended just because the General Conference is in session. I try to follow my own advice about Christian communication, limiting my tweets to that which is true, kind, and helpful (acknowledging I do miss the mark sometimes). You might also find this short Twitter thread from the writer Kirsten Powers to be helpful.

National news coverage is a given during any General Conference year; this year, I expect there to be an out-sized amount of coverage. Be wary of news headlines, especially from secular news organizations, as they often misunderstand the nuances of religion. You'll find more nuanced coverage from organizations like the Religion News Service and our own, excellent United Methodist News Service.

I'm almost done, but let me say one word about direct advocacy with delegates whom you don't personally know, especially by email. This is just me talking, but I am just not moved by a bunch of versions of the same form letter. I probably get five of these emails a day, and they tend to be from the same small number of churches where, I suspect, someone has coordinated a letter-writing campaign. I do not mean to suggest I don't have interest in hearing from folks. I just mean that copy-and-paste campaigns don't really tell me much of anything about what the Holy Spirit is calling the church to do. At this point, the most meaningful thing you can do for those who will be going to General Conference is to pray for them. If you'd like to go a step further--and I would encourage you to do so--you might consider letting the delegates within your sphere know that you are praying for them to be sustained and inspired by the Spirit of God.

Finally, as you participate in this important time in the life of the church, there is one vital piece of information you must remember: despite moments where it may seem otherwise, the love of God is not up for debate. There is nothing General Conference can do to change the way God views you, nor the way that God views all people, as God's beloved children. It is true that the story of the church is the story of human fits and starts, but it is also the story of constant, constant divine love. No matter how things play out over the coming weeks and months, have hope: Jesus still reigns.

Friday, February 8, 2019

2019 General Conference, Day -15 #umcgc

I have been asked a few times about how one prepares for General Conference. Back in 2016, I wrote about what the election process looks like; since this year's delegates were elected at that time, I won't rehash that process here.

The process of preparing for this General Conference has been somewhat unique. While the top elected clergy and layperson serve on the quadrennium-long Committee on Episcopacy, most of us who serve on the North Georgia delegation assumed that our work would be done following the 2016 General Conference. The reality of the special called session, and the related decision from the North Georgia Conference to decline to reengage the election process and thereby send the 2016 delegates to the 2019 conference, meant that it was time to get the band back together.

Delegates do not just show up at General Conference without having spent a significant time in preparation. Each conference has its nuances, but all delegations spend significant time meeting, discussing, and praying about the work that will happen at General Conference. North Georgia, thankfully, takes the work of preparation very seriously, and so in addition to monthly day-long Saturday meetings in preparation for the 2016 conference, we have met regularly for similarly lengthy meetings in the days leading up to the 2019 conference.

The meetings preparing for 2019, I think, have been especially meaningful. Besides times of community-building, which is important, the delegation has engaged in meaningful conversation about where the denomination is headed, how our local churches are reacting, and how to hold onto a meaningful, just unity in the face of divisive forces. I am grateful to the chair of our delegation, Mathew Pinson, who brought in Ellen Ott Marshall, professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation at the Candler School of Theology, and the Rev. Hal Jones, President and CEO of the United Methodist Children's Home, both of whom have extensive experience in group dynamics and conflict transformation. While just about everybody on the delegation has strong feelings about all that has brought us to 2019, framing our time together around transformation--together--has been key.

On the personal front, the preparation has involved a lot of reading and praying. I have read summaries, of course, but I also feel that I have a responsibility to be familiar with the intricacies of each plan and petition, so the Advance Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA) has been a continual companion recently. The ADCA is well over 200 pages, with more than 100 pages detailing legislation and supplemental material.

What's more, the complicated nature of what the church is attempting to do at the 2019 conference means that reading the plans (as lengthy as they are) is not enough. There are constitutional implications, as the Judicial Council has noted, so I've been re-familiarizing myself with the Constitution of the United Methodist Church. There are, likewise, groups lobbying for various plans, and there is legislative strategy flying about related to how plans are rolled out. I've been in conversation with friends and colleagues across the connection about all that is to come. These relationships--all around the world--have been invaluable, as they have helped me broaden my perspective and helped me to see implications for the outcome of the 2019 conference beyond my own home conference.

Let me share just two more interesting dynamics about what preparation for this conference looks like. First, I've spent a significant time preparing my primary appointment, Decatur First UMC, for the conference. As a church with a diversity of viewpoints--but one which sits in an area known for its high population of LGBTQ persons--it has been an interesting season. I am really grateful to be serving such supportive churches (including North Decatur UMC) at this time, but I will be honest in saying that it has been particularly difficult preparing the churches I serve, because I am honestly not sure what I am preparing them for. We all know what plans are on the table, but we also know that the plans can (likely will) be amended, and so whatever emerges from the 2019 conference will certainly not look exactly like anything in the ADCA.

Second, it has been an interesting experience being on the receiving end of any number of emails from people in North Georgia who want the delegation to know that they support the Traditionalist plan and the "gracious exit' provision. I probably get four a day. Thankfully, most of these emails have been civil. I have noticed that much of the communication I receive comes from a small number of churches. What's more, I have received a number of emails that have been sent to only the voting delegates who will be present at General Conference (i.e. excluding those who will not be present). I find this dynamic fascinating, as--to my knowledge--there is no public document that lists only those who will be present. Until blogging and preaching a few days ago, I had not publicly shared that I would be a voting delegate. Only communication within the delegation has listed who would be going to St. Louis and who would not. The only conclusion I can come up with is that someone within the delegation has been involved in encouraging laypeople in North Georgia to contact the voting delegates with this particular message; to my knowledge, no one else has had the list but the members themselves. Of course it is well within the rights of folks within the delegation to share this information--and it is certainly no state secret that I'll be serving in this way!--but these specific dynamics help me understand the inspiration behind the email onslaught to be less-than-grassroots.

So, that's what the preparation has looked like. It takes a long, long time to be prepared for General Conference, and that's on top of--you know--the regular pastoral load. I'll be blogging more about the plans themselves in the days ahead. Stay tuned. And keep praying that God's will may be done.
Previous posts:
Less than three weeks until General Conference

Monday, February 4, 2019

Less than three weeks until General Conference #umcgc

I'm yanking the starter cord on this old broken-down blog in preparation for the special called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, now less than three weeks away. I will again be present for this session, which is in St. Louis, and as was my practice in 2016, I plan to blog each day of the 2019 session, and on occasion in the days before. I think it is helpful to pop the hood of the church every now and again and allow others--particularly the members of the remarkable congregations I serve--a view into how decisions are made at the denominational level. I also think that it is good to think through how our connectional relationships and public theology influence our daily lives as United Methodist Christians.

Having read back through my blog posts from the last round, I can see some differences between how I approached 2016 and how I am approaching 2019. Probably the most significant difference is that while there were two occasions in 2016 where I got to sit in as a replacement delegate for a day, this time I will be seated as a voting delegate the whole time. I am not quite sure yet what that experience will be like, but the gravity of the work the church is doing is not lost on me. I feel inadequate to do that work, of course, but then that's sort of the whole point of Christianity, so it's probably good that I acknowledge the inadequacy on the front end.

Another difference is that I am trying to spend as much time as I can spiritually preparing for General Conference. In 2016, it being my first conference, I had no idea what to expect. And while this special session is its own animal--one nobody has experienced before--I now have a little more perspective on the kind of spiritual and physical toll that the conference can take. I don't mean to suggest that I left the 2016 General Conference having lost my loyalty to the United Methodist Church or my faith in Jesus. It's just that the heaviness of it all, the occasional back-room dealings, the fact that much of what went on did not feel holy: it beat me up pretty good. For reasons that are both structural and related to the specific struggle that nearly split the church, I have described the 2016 General Conference as one of the lowest points in my spiritual life. It's not that I have never experienced personal tragedy; I could show you the scars to prove otherwise. It's just that when I have experienced personal tragedy, I didn't have professed Christian people--leaders, even!--tell me that I deserved it. What's more, my own spiritual discomfort is dwarfed by that of many of the LGBTQ folk who have been on the receiving end of this conversation.

For what it is worth, as we prepare for the 2019 conference, I am coming in with a sense of peace, because I know that General Conference doesn't get to decide who God loves (everybody, by the way), and because I am learning that when things seem the most knotted up, when it seems like there is absolutely no way forward, that is the moment that God makes a way. I saw it happen during the 2016 General Conference, as we suddenly agreed to let the bishops lead us through this mess, even when it seemed like the whole thing was about to fall apart. I definitely saw it happen during the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, as we elected five excellent bishops and experienced an honest-to-God miracle; if you are interested in that story--and on how I dealt with preaching in a dry season--you can listen to this episode of Dan Wunderlich's great podcast, Art of the Sermon.

I hope this series of posts is helpful and that it adds some context to the usually-entertaining but sometimes-toxic commentary that happens on Twitter around General Conference. In my next post, I'll talk about what the extensive preparation for General Conference looks like, both how our delegation has prepared and how I've been preparing, personally. In the meantime, in these final days before the General Conference convenes, I hope you'll join me in prayer: for our beloved United Methodist Church, for the 864 people who will be serving as delegates, for the LGBTQ folk who too often are treated as the subject of conversation rather than full participants within it, and--in particular--for those who have not yet experienced the life-changing and life-saving love of Jesus. The church exists for them, after all.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

A New Podcast for a New Season

I have not blogged much about the awesome appointment I received in June of 2017, partly because that new appointment has kept me busy, and partly because I believe you need to experience something before you analyze it. Now that things are settling out a bit in the new appointment--you can learn a bit more here--I hope to use this space to talk about what we are learning about church partnerships in the 21st century, particularly when those partnerships are formed from something other than small-membership churches. While the experiment has certainly had its fits and starts, we are still learning, which is exciting, and we are growing together in a time in which the Church simply can't afford more division; culture is divided enough.

This way of doing church has also allowed us the opportunity to experiment, and I want to share one such experiment with you. In the season of Lent, the clergy of the Greater Decatur Churches--those of us serving North Decatur and Decatur First United Methodist Churches--have put together a podcast that we are encouraging the churches to engage. Each week, a new episode is released which previews the scripture for the coming Sunday and features conversation (and even occasional light disagreement!) that we hope models how the church is called to be in conversation and live together.

You can listen to the podcast at this website, listen via Stitcher here, or subscribe to the iTunes feed at this link. The preview episode is embedded below.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Take Me To Church

I will confess that ever since its release, I have had a negative reaction to the lyrics of Hozier's hit song, "Take Me to Church." While I appreciate the social commentary related to the church's exclusion of LGBTQ people, I just can't get behind the conflation of religion and sex:
"She tells me 'worship in the bedroom.'
The only heaven I'll be sent to
Is when I'm alone with you."
Maybe I'm old-fashioned. It just strikes me as a little sacrilegious, is all. And it isn't terribly innovative.

That said, there's this video of Hozier performing the song at a concert in Paris that makes me cry every single time I watch it. He starts singing the song, and as he approaches the chorus, well, this happens:

I am not 100% sure why I cry when I watch this video. I don't think it is the subject matter, per se, though the fact that the song is a commentary on church seems an important detail. I suppose this is a powerful video for me because of the emotion involved, because the artists is so genuinely moved, because the radical generosity of the choir, because of the surprise.

This is how God works in our lives, isn't it? It is precisely when I am ready to give up on God that God shows up--every single time, though never in the way I was expecting. And it is because of that surprise that I am so moved by the power of God's love, because again and again, God takes my own despair and transforms it into capital-H Hope.

It is the surprise, I think, that moves me. Surprise, like the surprise that Mary sings about in the Magnificat:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For he has looked with favor on his humble servant.
It is the surprise of the cross, that the son of God would be executed as a common criminal, that while in his final hours and despite his great pain he would forgive the one being executed beside him, that he would forgive all of us. It is the surprise that befell Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, upon arriving at Jesus's tomb, only to find it empty. It is the surprise that despite our own best efforts, nothing--nothing--can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.

It is the surprise so evident in the face of the artist, that a choir would, in fact, take him to church. There is power in that kind of witness. You watch that sort of holy mischief, that sort of radical generosity, and you're liable to want to be a part of something like that. You may find yourself saying, without a hint of irony, "Good God, let me give you my life."

That’s church.

Friday, September 8, 2017

On Church: Episode 35, Disaster Response or "PLEASE DON'T GO TO FLORIDA UNTIL YOU ARE INVITED"

In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about the church's work in disaster response, particularly the best way to respond to disasters so that we don't end up getting in the way.

Monday, August 7, 2017

On Church: Episode 34, The Denomination and Me

In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about the relationship between the denomination and the local church, and they try to answer the question of just how much to talk about denominational issues at the local church level.