Tuesday, May 15, 2012

United Methodist Church General Conference wonk-fest

I don't know Andy Langford. I have read (and really appreciated) some of his stuff, I respect his work on the Connectional Table, I hear he's a great pastor and a good leader. I also acknowledge that he's a five-time delegate to General Conference, and I am but a second-year provisional member of the North Georgia Conference (and an associate pastor, to boot!). Maybe I should just shut up here and let things go along without trying to get a word in.

But that's not really who I am, and I want to respond to his recent blog post about the state of things post-General Conference (and, in turn, several other post-mortems I've been digesting).

I followed General Conference very closely, as I think a lot about institutional-type things. I am especially interested in how institutions and structures affect the local church's charge to make disciples. I have seen, among many delegates (especially those for whom this was not their first rodeo) a deep resentment--in some cases, a hot anger--at the institutional roadblocks to change. For some, it was liberal delegates who prayed for everything to stay the same. For others, it was as if General Conference was held hostage. For others, multiple constituencies hijacked the agenda to avoid talking about other difficult issues (sexuality, of course, being the main culprit). Still others blame the Judicial Council, as if the JC should have just gone along with the body because the vote was 60%, which is 10% more than 50%!

Forgive me for sounding glib, but there is one thing not being discussed--and perhaps we are all just trying to be polite . . . but I will get back to that. I want to first respond to Langford's post, because it contains within it a couple of things I am either having trouble understanding (legitimately possible) or that I am having trouble swallowing (because I find problems with the arguments presented). I suppose you could say that I disagree with that which he presents as the diagnosis and the cure.

First, there is this:
The single greatest institutional problem that hinders effective congregations is our general church agencies.

I have heard this argument in a couple of different places, and I must tell you that it makes absolutely no sense to me. I am not even really sure how to analyze it. Truly, the biggest institutional problem we have is our general church agencies?! To take the argument just a bit further, Langford seems to be saying that the institutional problems of clergy effectiveness, young clergy recruitment, the lack of an open itineracy for women and people of color, confusion about our doctrine, the increasing expectations of District Superintendents and Bishops, the issues surrounding numerical decline in the United States, a lack of clarity about how cultural contexts affect theology and polity (not to mention problems with the fact that the Central Conferences have say in the General Conference in ways that General Conference does not in the Central Conferences), structural issues of mistrust . . . all of these are smaller institutional problems than our general church agencies? None of these issues keep us from our mission more than our general church agencies?

I just don't understand it. If the biggest problem your church has is the size of its institutional agencies, you probably aren't getting into enough trouble.

I just don't get it. I know there is frustration at the way our agencies can sometimes function. I share the frustration. I have NO IDEA what an associate general secretary is, nor how that position relates to me in the local church. It is clear that some reform is needed. But to say that these agencies are keeping us from having effective congregations is to pass the buck in a very serious fashion. If a congregation member in the church I serve is not performing well in the secular workforce--if sales are down, for instance--its natural to blame corporate. There seems to be no difference in the church.

Perhaps the Judicial Council would have, in fact, rendered any of the three proposed plans unconstitutional. This does not mean that they will keep anything from changing. Just because I do not want to paint my car black does not mean that I am oblivious to the fact that my car needs painting.

The only way I can possibly understand this argument--that the general church agencies are keeping us from having effective congregations--is that somehow our apportionments are too high and the money that goes to fund these agencies is keeping us from effective ministry. I know better than to believe that conference apportionments are some trivial amount; the church I serve will pay over $225,000 to the larger church this year, and that is on top of building a new sanctuary, paying clergy and staff, keeping the lights on, paying our district apportionments, and doing our best to put the rest of the money into ministry. This is not chump change, but it also is not keeping us from being a vital congregation.

If we want to go after the institutional barriers to having effective congregations (or, if I may re-frame the question just a bit, the barriers to being an effective Church), why don't we start looking at the way we appoint ministers? Why don't we start looking at the way we expect accountability from laypersons AND clergy? Why don't we gamble and send promising young clergy to somewhere other than churches dying on the vine, in the hopes that somehow, that dying spirit will not rub off on our clergy? There are signs of hope, of course, but there are also institutional barriers. I value the wisdom of those who are far more experienced in this (which counts just about everybody, to be honest), but as Bishop Willimon has said, how can you expect the system to change when the people running the system are the ones who have most benefited from it?

I have told you about my problem with the diagnosis. We made made it to the "cure."

Before General Conference, I spoke with a group of young clergy fearful about the future of our denomination in the United States.  I reminded these passionate young women and men that change rarely comes from the top but from the bottom.  The 2012 General Conference proved this point.  Is it time for pastors and laity in local congregations who seek to save our movement to reassert their leadership and cease funding a system that has led to our denomination’s decline?

Perhaps, he says, the answer is that we ought to to stop paying (at least most of) our apportionments. We ought to "reassert [our] leadership," for (as he says later) "we are not accountable to a system that seeks 100% payment of financial apportionments for a dying system."

I am not even quite sure how to engage this issue, because as I have seen a couple of folks say on Facebook, I fear that "if it is all about money, we are already too late." I don't know that we are too late, but I fear that if we are talking about withholding apportionment money for political ends (just, though they may be in the eye of the withholder), we are already operating under two very different paradigms of church.

Yes, the local church should be vital. Yes, the local church is where ministry is primarily done. Yes, it is the local church that cuts my paycheck and gives me office space and a phone number. Yes, it is a local church to which I am appointed. But when we start talking about local churches taking stands against the denominational body (the agencies, and by extension, the General Conference), we are already operating out of a FAR different model of church than what I read in the Book of Discipline and what I have studied throughout my seminary career. And lest it seem as if I am living in the theoretical rather than the practical, I will note that it is, in fact, a FAR different model of church than I see lived out in my own context, where (even as a larger congregation) we rely upon the general church to inform our mission priorities, to credential our ministers, to support our seminaries, to formulate our doctrine, and on and on and on. I am all for leadership--and God knows individual churches have taken difficult stands against the denomination in brave and courageous ways--but explain to me how withholding money from the general church does that? How does keeping MORE money for MY church in MY context show sacrifice? How does it do anything but assert the local congregation as the unit in the church with all the power, bishops and boards and district superintendents and oversight and theology and connectionalism be damned?

I hope I do not sound out of line here, but there is a fundamental issue at stake, and we seem to do little but talk around it. Does the local church matter more than the general church? And if so, why do we bother with the general church?

I don't mean to single out this one article, truly, and I don't mean to single out Andy Langford who, as I have said, is a faithful leader--and one of whom we should be proud. But for all the red flags raised in his article and others, the issues being talked about as roadblocks (young people on Twitter, the judicial council, GC hijackers and hostage-takers, the Council of Bishops, everybody but Jesus Himself, to be honest) seem to be dwarfed by one very specific, clear, measurable issue.

40% of the General Conference was made up of delegates from the central conferences.

Mark Tooley would probably tell you that I am singling out the Central Conferences because I think they are comprised of savages who have not come around to my own way of enlightened thinking. Nonsense. Not two months ago, I was in Uganda working in the East Africa conference with Bishop Daniel Wandabula and Dean Rev. James Mwoho.  I spent three years with United Methodist Volunteers in Mission before my current appointment, and it has been my pleasure to be in relationship with all kinds of folks in all kinds of cultures. I count as friends people who have served the church faithfully in the central conferences of the United Methodist Church, some of whom were central conference delegates at the 2012 General Conference. Do not dare try to paint me as someone who believes that our African and Asian and European United Methodist brothers and sisters are savages. These are my friends and colleagues you are talking about.

I should also note that I believe, 100%, that our sisters and brothers in the central conferences deserve equal representation at General Conference. We ought to be in conversation, in fellowship , in relationship. But this is not what we are doing.

We are not in relationship with our sisters and brothers from the central conferences when we simply tell them how to vote so that it fits our agenda. We are not in relationship with our sisters and brothers when we use them as an argument for our own jurisdictional proportional representation (however legitimate that argument may be on its own merits). We are not in relationship when we used the growth in Africa as ammunition against changing cultural norms in the United States, as if God only blesses those who are the most faithful (c.f. Adam, Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, every other human being in the Bible).

Those of us in the UMC of the US are using the central conferences. We are expecting them to vote on many, many matters which do not affect them, and we expect them to go along with our plans without asking too many questions. Besides the fact that this is completely unwieldy (I will agree strongly with Andy Langford on this point), it is unjust. I am less concerned about the balance of money than I am about the fact that those delegates from the Central Conferences were forced to vote on many things that they did not understand. It is not that the delegates did not understand the issues because they are savages, or less than me, or any of the other pejoratives that have been painted on folks like me who raise this issue. The delegates do not understand these issues because they do not live in the culture of the United States.

When I was in Uganda, we were invited one day to participate in a prayer service led by the teachers of the school at which we were working. At one point, we were instructed that we would have a time of testimony. No one really spoke at first, but they all looked at me as I was leading the team and as they all knew I was a pastor. So I stood and read some scripture and offered some thoughts, and everybody sort of half-smiled, looked a little confused, but let me go on until I was done. And then the American missionary, who had been in Uganda long enough to have an idea of some of the cultural norms, stood to speak, and she said, "I am thankful to be alive, I am thankful for my family, I am thankful for the sun and the rain, and I am thankful for the new car that has been bought for me by churches back in the United States so that I can continue to serve God." And then she sat down and a teacher stood up and said, "I am thankful to be alive, I am thankful for my family, I am thankful for this school, I am thankful for the sun and the rain." It went on like this for a few minutes, each person (other than me) using the same formula in her testimony.

Well, I've been in ministry long enough to know how to offer testimony, but because I do not live in the cultural context of Mukono, Uganda, I do not understand how testimony is done in that context. I did my homework on Uganda, I spoke with many folks who had been there, I emailed back and forth with just about everybody in the episcopal office. I was ready for the trip, but I did not understand testimony. It is not that I am stupid (I hope!). It is not that I am less than, or that I am a savage. It is that I live in my own cultural context.

Now, imagine this kind of scene on a larger scale--say, nearly 1,000 decision-makers--with far larger consequences. We expect the folks in the Central Conferences to not only understand issues of polity that are outside their own cultural contexts (good luck to my brothers and sisters in the USA trying to understand issues of polity in a Ugandan context!); we expect the folks in the Central Conferences to understand larger cultural, sociopolitical contexts. You and I live in these contexts. We speak this cultural language. For most of us, it is our first and only language. For 40% of General Conference, this was not so.

And we don't seem to care, unless it helps us win a vote.

Of course the legislative committees were a mess. Of course the floor of General Conference was a mess. We  had 400 guests in Tampa, and rather than show them the hospitality that--I will remind you--Jesus commands, we asked them to vote on things that they neither understood nor needed to understand. So we cobbled something together, despaired when it was overturned, and blamed everybody but the 60% of us who fail to recognize that in the name of trying to create a global church--and in the name of trying to be culturally sensitive--we have in fact even more strongly perpetuated the notion that the US is the dominant culture by refusing to create a US central conference. By saying everyone else gets to adjust for cultural context, we are acting as if we have none, as if we are the context against everything else ought to be measured. Frame it however you will--but the Discipline is US-centric. Until we change our Discipline and structures to allow for cultural context (recognizing that yes, even the United States has a cultural context), we're going to be stuck.

There is a way forward. It will just take work. We have four years to get busy. With God's help, may it be.