Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Who controls orthodoxy?

If there's one word that gets thrown around more than any other in the church's ongoing debate about full inclusion of LGBTQ people, it's "orthodoxy." Those who oppose full inclusion (or, less pejoratively, those who argue that the Bible does not allow for same-sex weddings or LGBTQ clergy) argue that their position is the orthodox one. Implicit in this argument, and sometimes said aloud, is the idea that those in favor of full inclusion stand against orthodoxy. You can see more of this kind of thing here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here. In far too many of our conversations about sexuality, orthodoxy means nothing more than standing against full inclusion.

It's a shame that we have so narrowed the word "orthodoxy" in this way, for orthodoxy is a gift from God to the church. Orthodoxy, broadly defined and broadly understood, holds us together as believers in the triune God, such that we celebrate one church, one Lord, one baptism. Orthodoxy ties us to the early church creeds, so that more than simply being on the same page, as it were, we may be in mystical communion with one another, and with God. In the Nicene Creed (part of our doctrinal heritage as Christians, and printed in the United Methodist Hymnal), we declare:

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism
for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen

Orthodoxy, then, is about connecting us in one church, not about dividing us. It is certainly not about picking one issue to be the plumb line of faithfulness: particularly an issue not mentioned in the Creeds.

It has been absolutely remarkable, then, to watch the speed at which we've seen the term "orthodoxy" turn into something it has not traditionally meant. This narrow funneling of the term does not do justice to the wideness of God's mercy, nor is it faithful to the rich witness of the Bible. I will acknowledge the necessity of using Biblical interpretation to arrive at a position of full inclusion (more about this in a bit) but I will not cede that I am unorthodox. Never mind the fact that the ancient creeds don't actually mention the Bible; I see nowhere in the ancient beliefs about the Triune God where an argument about full inclusion of LGBTQ people stands in opposition to what the great councils of the church discerned to be good and true about Christianity.

I do not want to put words in the mouths of those who use the term "orthodoxy" to describe an opposition to full inclusion, but when I hear this term in this context, I find the speaker often actually means that he or she does not believe that God does new things outside of the knowledge base of those who wrote the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In other words, if it were true, the Holy Spirit would have told the original writers of scripture. Since the Holy Spirit did not do this, anything that stands outside the knowledge base of the original writers of scripture is unorthodox.

The problem with this argument is that this is never what orthodoxy has meant! Orthodoxy, throughout history, has meant a devotion to first principles of Christianity, in particular the creeds. Even G.K. Chesterton, the great Christian apologist, noted that "when the word 'orthodoxy' is used [in his book of the same name] it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed."

Nor is orthodoxy, understood in a Wesleyan context, anything resembling what we have warped it into, in the context of our debates over sexuality. We certainly believe scripture to be primary--in this way, I am an unabashed evangelical!--but nowhere in our founding documents do we pretend that God only speaks through scripture. Those who conflate "orthodoxy" with opposition to full inclusion sometimes point to the fifth Article of Religion of the Methodist Church, "Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scripture for Salvation," as guiding their understanding that no truth exists outside scripture. But read the article for yourself:

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Not only does the fifth Article of Religion not say that scripture contains all that is true about God, but it implicitly acknowledges that new truth may be discovered outside the scope of scripture, even as it declares that nothing necessary for salvation is found outside of scripture.

Relatedly, those who argue that orthodoxy stands in opposition to full inclusion say that the Biblical witness is clear, and that those of us who argue for the acceptance of the practice of homosexuality within married, partnered relationships are privileging experience above scripture. The argument goes that the problem with the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral is that we misunderstand the role of experience within it. Experience, then, is not about saying "I experience something else to be true, so the Bible must be wrong," but rather, "I live out the Biblical witness in my experience." Let me be clear: I have no problem with this critique of the quadrilateral! So often, in this individualistic culture, the only thing that matters is my own experience. Church, I believe, calls us to understand experience much more broadly.

And yet experience does play into my understanding of scripture, and our communal understanding, because each of us reads scripture through the lens of our personal experience. Far from being about my experience subverting or overwriting scripture, my experience colors the way I read the words on the page and the understanding I have therein. I can no more remove my own experience from the equation than I can give up my own name! I read scripture as a human--we read scripture, together, as humans--and my social location necessarily colors my reading.

Thus, I must necessarily interpret scripture when I read it. There is no other way for me to be faithful, as scripture cannot simply be implanted into my brain. It must pass from the ink on the page, through the air, into my eyes, through my optic nerves, into my brain, where it co-mingles with everything else lodged in there. You read scripture the same way. I pray that I may discern God's will through the scripture, but the very existence of the step between the writing of scripture and its presence in my brain--namely, my reading and comprehending it--means that scripture must be interpreted. To pretend that there is no interpretation necessary, as many fundamentalists do, is to miss the fact that those of us who read it tend to be human.

It is simply impossible to not interpret the Bible! We may disagree over the interpretation, but interpretation is a necessary part of following Christ, honoring scripture as primary, and expressing faithfulness to the historic creeds of the church. These are necessary practices in the service of maintaining orthodoxy, and they can lead to disagreements about how God is calling us to live in the modern world, but those disagreements do not necessarily mean that one side is faithful and the other is willingly otherwise. In other words, when people conflate orthodoxy with belief about a single issue not mentioned in the Creeds, what they seem to be doing is subverting the historic meaning of orthodoxy so that they may control what it means.

I cannot speak for all who believe in full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church, nor do I mean to put words in the mouths of those who cry "orthodoxy!" in these conflicts. If I am demonstrating unorthodoxy in terms of what "orthodoxy" has always meant (that is, being in agreement with the historic creeds of the church), I am open to being called out.

But if we are going to have this discussion--and it is time to have this discussion, Church--let us at least be fair with one another and refrain for assuming that everyone who disagrees with my position  or my side is, by definition, a heretic. That kind of argument has not exactly been good for the church throughout the centuries.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

General Conference: What now? #umcgc #umc

General Conference is over, thank God. The United Methodist Church is still, technically, United. We arrived as one church, and we leave as one church.

I am trying to decide how I feel about the last eleven days. I am having trouble describing this feeling. I'm sure I will have more to say in the coming days, but I leave General Conference with renewed love of the local church, renewed hope for the work of God, and utter confusion about what in Heaven's name just happened.

I have read a number of recaps about General Conference today. You can follow up here, or here, or here, or any number of places across the Methoblogosphere. There seems to be a sense of relief that General Conference is over. I certainly feel that relief, as General Conference has felt from the beginning like it was just something to survive. At a cost of $10,500,000 ($1,500 a minute, as Bishop Coyner reminded us), you'd think I would have had higher hopes than this. But for reasons that Darryl Stephens describes here, we're seeing a situation play out that had, in its genesis, no planning or preparation, nor did it give any thought to contextual structures for ministry.

So I'm leaving General Conference without any clarity about what the future holds, as we prepare to hear from the Bishops as to the make-up of their Commission on Human Sexuality and as we wait to learn if the scope of this commission will move beyond a theology of sex (something we desperately need) to discussing ways we may structure ourselves to continue our shared mission and ministry. We don't even know when we will gather next, as there exists a significant possibility for a called General Conference before 2020.

I do know that God desires a united church, but not a church that becomes so bitter that it can talk about nothing more than its divisions. I remain hopeful that the church may be unified, as I continue to believe that we are better when we are together, but this unity must be deeper than just our name, more significant than something we talk about to make ourselves feel better. And we must face the fact that we are deeply divided over matters of sexuality.

I also know that this issue of sexuality is not going to resolve itself. Rob Renfroe, the head of Good News, shared a very interesting video to wrap up General Conference. I do not appreciate the "battle" language he used, as it contributes to the idea that doing church is more like war than, you know, loving your neighbor or whatever, but he does acknowledge that those who oppose full inclusion of LGBT people are realizing that the full-inclusion folks are not going to leave. There was a petition offered at General Conference that would have allowed those who disagreed with the Discipline's stance on sexuality to leave the denomination; though it barely passed committee, it did not make the floor. If it had, I would have voted against it. I'm not going anywhere.

We don't need separate churches. We do need more flexibility in our church structures to allow for missional disciple-making. This flexibility is not going to come without the bishops' leading. If I am convinced about one thing as to our predicament as a church, it is that nobody within the voting bar can lead us out of the morass. Our bishops need to lead the way. If they don't, we're going to fall into a million pieces, as if someone took a hammer to a glass bowl. That's not a schism; it's a shattering.

This was a strange week, for sure. I leave with a certain amount of disgust, at the inability of good Methodist people to work out their differences, instead falling into childish name-calling or declaring war on the other "side," as if the only way for us to live is to banish everybody else.

But as someone who has worked for church unity, and who prays for it regularly, I also leave with a certain amount of hope. For when things seemed the most knotted up, God made a way. Perhaps it is but a stay of execution. Maybe it's a waste of time and money. But even if the crack in the wall is thin, and jagged, it's a crack, and it's enough to let in some light.

Friday, May 20, 2016

General Conference Day 11 #umcgc #umc

We arrive at our last day, and it is welcome. I am ready to go home, as is just about everybody here. This has been a much longer two weeks than I expected it would be. General Conference is hard.

Having tried, over the last ten days, to offer some explanation of what we have been doing--I hope this has been helpful to you--I want to share some thoughts as to the mood here as we enter the last, crazy day.

And let me first say that it is hard for one person to gague the mood. The thing that moves me might make you despair. The thing that worries me might excite you. So know that I'm speaking for myself here, but I'm not alone.

It is an interesting thing to be here, on the floor and in the stands, to follow along with what is happening on Twitter while having actual, face-to-face conversations with people involved in decision-making. Twitter certainly has a  feel to it, and it is (can be) complementary to what is happening on the floor, but there's a mood in the room that is viscous, that impacts everybody in one way or another. It's a weight that acknowledges that "if we don't get this right, with God's help, there's nothing that can be done."

That mood is why I believe so strongly in the ability of the Holy Spirit to move at General Conference. Yes, nearly everybody made up their minds months or years before stepping into the voting bar. But with such feelings stitching us together, unexpected things can show up. Possibility can arrive.

That said, there has been the sense, the entirety of the two weeks we've been here, that there's a shoe about to drop. I don't have enough experience at General Conference to know why this is the case. My strong suspicion is that the legacy of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa--when at the last minute,  the Judicial Council essentially negated all of the work that had been done for ten days--is that if you are not constantly on edge, you're going to lose. Of course, this makes everyone miserable and turns the General Conference into a hot mess. It's no wonder several delegates have passed out or ended up in the hospital (I am not kidding about this).

More than Tampa hangs over this assembly, though. There is a feeling among many delegates that while we have been spinning our wheels for the last two weeks, machinations have been happening behind the scenes to push shadowy agendas. If it all sounds very House of Cards, that's because it is. And if it sounds conspiratorial, well, it's a feeling that is born of General Conferences past, where behind-the-scenes action, brought to the floor on the last day, is passed by a General Conference that just wants to feel like it has done something. Anything.

We'll see. While I am sure we'll have the typical parliamentary attempts to undo what we've done--when you have 864 delegates, there's bound to be a few people that are less-than-charitable--I don't think we are going to see anything too crazy. On this last day of General Conference, we'll vote on the budget--projected to be $599 million dollars over the next quadrennium--and I suspect that the anxiety we've all felt this week will be made manifest in continual amendments and occasional grandstanding. In many ways, there just isn't time for many shenanigans, because we've done so little this week.

So we'll survive today, just like we've survived all ten days prior. I just have to think that surviving General Conference is a pretty poor way to spend $10 million dollars.

We will finish tonight, go home tomorrow, and enter pulpits and pews on Sunday. We will go back to the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And we'll do so with a new urgency, because if there is a way forward for the United Methodist Church, it surely is not going to happen at General Conference, but in our local churches.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

General Conference Day 10 #umcgc #umc

Hope is one of the most powerful words I know. When you've got it, hope can sustain you through incredibly difficult times. When you lose it, it's devastating. I will admit that during this General Conference, I have struggled with having hope. I have said to several people that I still had hope for the United Methodist Church, but that I was having to mine deep to find it.

There was a point, yesterday, at which I lost hope. I am not proud of this fact. I confess this as a sin.

We'd watched the Council of Bishops, responding to a call from the General Conference to offer a way forward for us (something the General Conference had never done before!), take seriously this call and propose a series of steps to help maintain church unity. Among their suggestions was a tabling of all legislation related to human sexuality during this General Conference and the creation of a Commission on Human Sexuality, to be appointed by the Council of Bishops, which would report back to the General Conference (likely a called session in 2018).

When the bishops presented their plan, there was hope. While the plan was light on specifics, it did present an actionable way forward. It also would prevent us from doing harm this General Conference by having a contentious debate we are not ready to have, on the worth of LGBTQ people and the legitimacy of their married relationships in the eyes of God. I say we are not ready to have this conversation because people are panicking at the intractable place in which we find ourselves as church, and panicking people do not make good decisions. The whole thing has felt a little like Lord of the Flies. I have been reflecting on the closing scene in that book (spoiler alert, I guess?) when the naval officer arrives at the island on which a number of stranded boys have been trying to govern themselves. The boys, who have been trying to act like adults but who have demonstrated the worst of human nature, take one look at the officer and burst into tears, so overcome by the knowledge of their own immaturity.

We've been facing our an acknowledgement of our own brokenness, and nobody likes to have to face that sort of thing. In fact, when presented with one version of the bishops' proposal, the General Conference voted it down. This was the point at which I lost hope. I thought, "that's it. We're done." We're going to split. Even if the bishops call a special session of the General Conference (within their constitutional rights), we'd use it to break apart. It felt like we'd spent the day swinging hammers rather than doing surgery, and I was certain the whole thing was going to break apart. The lowest moment, undoubtedly, was the accusation by a delegate that Bishop McAlilly was illegally signaling to delegates how he wanted them to vote. It was an unfounded accusation, and mean. If anything, it was an expression of the anxiety felt by the General Conference, aimed at the symbol of the church sitting in the chair.

We recessed. I tried to pray. I couldn't. I just despaired. We were broken, irreparably. God, forgive me. Forgive us.

Except, maybe, we weren't. After the break, Bishop McAlilly graciously led the Conference forward to discuss the substance of the bishops' recommendations. We assumed the recommendations had been defeated, but Bishop McAlilly ruled that the bishops document had not been voted on, and so a delegate stood to present the document as a motion. Speeches for and against continued. Some remarkable delegates--especially younger delegates--spoke in favor of the bishops recommendations. I thought there was no chance it would pass . . .

but it did.

It felt like a miracle, like we were being guided by the great cloud of United Methodist witnesses. I felt my late teacher Bishop Morgan's spirit in the room, and I saw his spirit in Bishop McAlilly, one of his mentees.

The Holy Spirit is at work. We have work to do as partners in this work, but the Spirit showed up in one of our lowest moments. As Frederick Buchner has said so eloquently, the Resurrection promises us that "the worst thing is never the last thing."

We have work to do as a church. I don't know how this is all going to end. But what we did, yesterday, was stop swinging hammers. There is a chance we can find a way forward that doesn't shatter the church. Perhaps we will still split. I pray we will not. But even if we do split at a called General Conference in the next several years, it appears that we will not shatter.

By way of confession, there was a point in which I lost hope yesterday. This is a sin. But God is bigger than my own penchant to despair. God is bigger than our divisions. And God is bigger than the United Methodist Church, and thanks be to God.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

General Conference is Incompatible with Christian Teaching: This Post is Probably Not About What You Thought It Would Be About #umcgc #umc

Every four years at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the issue of human sexuality gets the most play in the press. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church declares the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." Furthermore, "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" are not allowed to serve as clergy, and clergy are not authorized to perform weddings for same-sex couples. It is a difficult disagreement, to say the least.

Sexuality gets the most press at General Conference, and we are stretched to our breaking point by this debate, but different understandings of sex are not what is breaking us apart. Oh, this conflict sometimes gets framed as something more basic than sex, which is to say we have differing understanding of scriptural authority. But even then, scriptural authority is not what is breaking us apart, either.

For there is one more thing which the Book of Discipline declares to be incompatible with Christian teaching, and that is war. War, the Discipline says, "is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ." As Christians, we are called to "love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict" (emphasis mine).

War, of course, is what happens when diplomacy has failed. It's winner-take-all. It conquers rather than compromises. It leaves little room for negotiation. It just wants to win. In war, there is no way to win without the other side losing.

And call me crazy, but does this not sound a whole lot like General Conference?

Again and again this week, I have heard people talk about winning versus losing, as if what we were doing this week was warring rather than conferencing. "Oh, that side is just upset because they are losing." In the context of church work, friends, what in Heaven's name does this even mean?! When we are trying to discern God's will and do the faithful thing, how can we possibly talking about winning or losing? Did I miss the part of seminary where they talk about how there are only winners and losers in God's kingdom? Isn't faith about something more?

When we gather according to our traditional battle lines, there seems to be absolutely no room for flexibility. "If I am to win, you must lose." As an example of this, Chris Ritter from the Illinois-Great Rivers Conference shared a blog post the other night about how sad he was when his side won debates in the Judicial Administration committee. Now, I'm incredibly grateful to Ritter for everything he is doing to find ways for us to remain together as a denomination. Seriously, y'all: the sheer weight of the legislation he's written could break the back of a camel, and I have very high respect for him. In his post this weekend, though, he described what it felt like for his "side" to "win," through votes in his legislative committee. I want to quote a whole paragraph:
I feel no joy even though we accomplished much of what those of us under our particular steeple felt we must do in order to restore integrity. The fact that we are playing a zero sum game was obvious as I spoke with several from the other side.  They are deflated.  Their steeple could only gain by taking something from mine and that didn’t happen today.  But the game is far from over.  If they stage a coup, my steeple could still lose.
I appreciate the empathy, but I will be honest: I simply don't understand the argument here. It's not that I don't see what he is saying. I just don't understand why there can't be room for both of us--"both steeples," as he might say--to be in the same church, even with different understandings of church. Why is it that at General Conference, the only way anybody can feel like they are being faithful is for one side to get 100% and there other side 0%? Why must you lose for me to win?

So often, the argument is framed as integrity; if we say we're going to do something, the argument goes, I am harmed when you don't do it. But why? Why do those opposed to UMC clergy doing gay weddings have to absolutely nail those clergy who do them, in order to feel like they've won? Why must we view every election to our boards and agencies as a zero-sum game where winning is what matters and compromise is a dirty word?

I don't mean to make too much of this metaphor, but what I am describing--what I have witnessed this week from all "sides" of many issues--this is not conferencing. It is war. Conferencing is about finding God within our work, about seeing where we disagree and looking for God in the space between us, praying we are brought closer and knit together in love. War is about winning and losing, and hopefully just winning.

I also don't mean to belittle actual war, nor the violence done to many in the service of actual war. Obviously, General Conference will not come to this, and thank God.

But if war is the only other thing the Discipline deems incompatible, just what is it about war that makes it incompatible? Beyond the physical violence of the thing, war blinds us to one another. It does not allow for us to look for God in the space between us; so often, war literally blows up the space between us, such that by the time we're done, we're less likely to find a connection between us than a crater.

War also causes us to commit murder in the sense that Jesus talks about murder in Matthew 5, which is to say that when we are angry with our sisters and brothers, we cease seeing them as fellow children of God, fellow heirs to God's kingdom. In other words, when we are more concerned about winning at all costs than we are in honoring the image of God present in each of us (and acknowledging that there are some things about which we might be wrong!), we essentially murder the image of God which resides in the other, so that we see them less as fellow children of God and more as barriers that stand between us and that-which-we-want.

When there is no room for compromise--when winning is predicated on the other side losing, or said another way, when doing church is predicated on winning--there's no chance for progress. Nor is there change for unity. When we bring our legislative and tactical tanks and grenades to General Conference, the only question is who will be the last person standing after all the bombs have gone off. This is no way to win, and it is not much of a victory anyhow, for the collateral damage is going to be a nightmare.

This dynamic is why I am praying, deeply praying, for the work of our Bishops. If there is a solution to this morass, it may well come from our spiritual leaders. Our polity may not do much to honor them, nor their gifts and graces for leadership, but our Bishops have the unique perspective of standing above the battles (sometimes literally) and having a wider view. If we are to experience Christian unity, whatever that phrase means these days, it may come from those veterans who have been in the fight. After all, if you want to find someone viscerally opposed to war, go talk to some Generals. They'll tell you that war is hell, and that it is to be avoided at all costs.

Scripture tells us that we will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but that we ought not be alarmed. The end--the Resurrection and Reconciliation that comes through Jesus Christ--is still to come. The birth pains are real, but they are a necessary part of new birth. And for as scary as it might be to do a new thing, the Markan narrative continues, while we wait, we are not to suit up in order defeat "the other side" in battle, but rather to preach the gospel to all nations.

Friends, this is a worthwhile agenda. Therefore . . . well, you know.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

One Path Forward We Can Get Behind: An Alternative for Revitalization

As we continue at General Conference, there is an emerging possibility to do something meaningful to make disciples and revitalize our churches, and I am really excited about it. You may remember that this morning, the conference heard an amended petition from Financial Administration to carve out $20,000,000 for a Standing Committee on Strategy and Oversight, with little specific language listed as to who would be in charge of this fund. There were also significant questions as to the relationship of this fund to the rest of the church, such that the amendment was referred to the Judicial Council this morning.

There's a path forward I am excited about, one that recognizes the very real need for revitalization of our churches in the United States, but that does not involve unbridled, independent authority (nor does it require approval from the Judicial Council). Eight years ago, Path One was tasked by the General Conference to spearhead a movement of planting new churches across the connection. Eight years and over 1,100 churches later (!), it's time for a parallel movement of revitalization.

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Phil Schroeder has worked with Directors of Congregational Development across the connection (including Amy Wagner of Western Pennsylvania, Mark Ogren of Virginia, Amy Shanholtzer of West Virginia, and others) to craft a substitute amendment which will create a $10,000,000 fund to this effect, under the auspices of Discipleship Ministries and with diverse stakeholders and entrepreneurial church leaders. Called Path Two, this work area would focus on existing congregations, helping us reach new people who need Jesus, while acknowledging the vital gift of our existing churches. The legislation is below. You will note that it reduces the line item from $20,000,000 to $10,000,000 and adds important oversight, while acknowledging the very real need for revitalization of our churches in the United States.

As someone who has been involved in existing congregational development, and who takes seriously the call to make new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, I am excited about doing something this General Conference with real possibility for making new disciples. Let's do something meaningful this week! Keep an eye out for this substitute legislation.

Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth Path Two: Path to Revitalization
During the 2017-2020 quadrennium, there shall be a Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth work area called Path Two, directly responsible to the General Conference General Board of Discipleship. Membership of the Committee Path Two is to represent the best among diversity of the entrepreneurs entrepreneurial leaders of local church revitalization. Its purpose is to develop and implement a strategy to first slow the decline in worship attendance and professions of faith, and then to return them to positive growth within the jurisdictional conferences.
The strategy’s target is to arrest and reverse the decline by the end of 2024. The fruits from the work of the Committee Path Two during the 2017-2020 quadrennium goal must be sufficient to make the reverse and of this decline by 2024 possible. This achievement also depends upon successful deployment of strategies among the agencies and the annual conferences. The work of the Committee Path Two is to be incremental supplemental to the host of programs in place that those to be developed among the annual conferences and the program agencies. The Committee offers to the denomination an avenue by which entrepreneurs will have the platform for refinement of their programs and the funding to expand their collective works to a national scale. Such refinements and scale would be impossible without the platform and fFunding of the Committee Path Two will be established by carving out $20M $10M of the World Service Fund for said funding.

General Conference, Day 8 #UMCGC #UMC

I think I have put my finger on what is bothering me this week about the 2016 General Conference.

It's not the lack of progress for LGBT people (though there is that). It's not the talk of schism (though there is that). It's not the waste of money (though there is that).

The pebble in my shoe this week is this: in many ways, General Conference feels like the world's smallest church meeting.

So much of what we talk about at General Conference is small. The minutae of church law we are dealing with is necessary, in some cases, but it is small. The practical strategies we've talked about for disciple-making, inasmuch as we've actually talked about them, are small. Even the budgetary items we've discussed so far, significant though they are, are small when you look at the overall $600,000,000 dollar budget proposed for the United Methodist Church over the next quadrennium; the most audacious proposal I've heard amounts to all of 3% of that budget.

Everything we talk about at General Conference is small. I don't mean to demean the real conflict--the real fights--we are experiencing over full inclusion in the church. Nor do I mean to say that the decisions we make are not deeply important to the work of God in the world. But everything we have talked about so far is small, compared to the task that stands before us: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

To wit: I had dinner with colleagues tonight, heroes of mine, and our conversation centered on our frustration at the state of the General Conference. That's nothing unique; the same conversation was happening all over Portland tonight. And yet as I got on the bus, I noticed that few, if any, of the people on that bus would be affected by what we do this week. Some riders were homeless. Some were poor. Some seemed to have been on their feet for 20 hours of the day. Some had shopping bags with all their possessions contained therein. Some were young and rolled their eyes at me when I got on the bus in my suit. How is what we are doing this week at General Conference going to affect them? Will it affect them at all? Or are we experiencing the world's smallest (and most expensive) church meeting?

Also: somebody sent me an article tonight about a congregation of a different denomination, just up the road from the remarkable United Methodist congregation I serve. The church up the road had its last worship service two days ago, on Pentecost; the building is now shuttered and for sale. The congregation celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit with the closing of their doors. That's not an indictment of that congregation; it's a recognition of the cultural forces we're working against in the United States, and the weight of our task. Another congregation, one of our sister churches in the neighborhood, closed last year. They've torn down the beautiful, historic sanctuary and are building condos and shopping in its place. The neighborhood seems more excited about what is happening on that corner now than what went on in that church for years. And here we are at General Conference, talking about, I don't know, a few dollars and a few items on the consent calendar.

I could tell this story about many congregations in my area. In fact, the church I serve was just a few years away from being one of these stories, before it put on its boots and went out into the community--and the world--to make disciples. There are other churches in our denomination that are doing this important, sometimes painful, work. And yet we don't hear about these churches, nor do we dissect and learn from their practices. Instead, we argue over the scraps under the table instead of recognizing that the meal atop the table has actually been set for us.

I want to be a part of a church that recognizes that everything we do ought to be subservient to and funneled through God's mission for us: that we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. If it gets in the way of the mission, it's got to go. I want to be a part of a church that spends less time looking through a magnifying glass and more time using a wide-angle lens.

I am absolutely convinced that if there is a way forward for us, it is through the avenue of disciple-making. No, let me say that a different way. I am absolutely convinced that there is a way forward for us, and that the way forward is through the avenue of disciple-making. After all, we serve one Lord and celebrate one baptism. The more we are able to lay aside our differences and make disciples in our communities, such as they are, the more faithful we'll be to God's message and the more God's church will grow. The more we set aside our differences--not in a "stop talking about this issue" kind of way, but in a "you do what you need to do to make disciples in your community, and praise God for you" kind of way--the more we do this, the more God will be honored, the less upset we'll be with one another, and the more fun we're going to have doing God's work! This work is supposed to be fun! After all, we're presiding over Jesus's baby shower, not his funeral.

I still have great hope for this General Conference. I don't know what to make of the rumors of schism that always seem to infect this work; I pray there is a way forward for us to work together. But I do have hope.

We need not aim so low. We need not treat this work as if it is small. For, as always, God is calling us to something bigger, something new, something effervescing with possibility.

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