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.


  1. Hey Dalton,
    Thanks for this! Well said my friend. I hope you are well.


  2. Excellent response -- your thinking matched my reaction to Langford's writing. AND I agree that the global conversation was the one we weren't having that kept us from being able to do anything else. I will be sharing part of your thoughts in my "reporting back" event on Saturday. Thank you!

  3. Excellent article, Dalton. I have re-posted it on UM Insight as a reply to Andy Langford's article, which is also reprinted there.

    Cynthia Astle

  4. Dalton,

    So, I speak French-- at least passably. This has gotten me involved in some teaching and publishing work with GBOD in Kinshasa, DRC.

    But I am still learning Congolese French-- which is a bit different in grammar, sentence construction and even preferred vocabulary than the Parisian French I had learned. I am sure I often come off sounding either stilted or stupid there-- and I am always grateful for the graciousness of those with whom I am seeking to teach and learn.

    This means that while I can converse with folks, if they start speaking more rapidly, or there is other noise going on, I often just can't keep up. And after a few hours teaching or conversing there, I am totally exhausted.

    The work just to stay tracking in this version of French remains a significant challenge for me.

    I am no dummy.

    I simply am not immersed in Congolese culture with its (actually!) many, many languages 24/7/365.

    So I guess I get it in my body-- literally-- what it must be like for my Congolese or Ivorian sisters and brothers to try to make sense of the work of General Conference, which is always conducted in English by default, and so always running at least a half sentence behind for them if they are relying on the voices they hear in their headphones of the excellent interpreters we hire. (And they are excellent!)

    Those of us who speak English and have never had an immersion experience in another culture-- as you have, one that speaks English, as I have, one that speaks version of French-- have no idea just how much we really DO need to slow down and break our sentences and ideas into more easily digestible pieces if we want others from other cultures and languages to understand what we are saying-- and not wear our or give up.

    Seriously, it's a matter of basic human kindness-- toward all of our sisters and brothers, wherever we may hail from, whatever languages or cultures we may come with.

    And so an idea for next time that might help us do that-- an idea one of our interpreters shared with me-- headphones for everyone. Everyone speaks in one's own first language, and everyone listens for an interpretation in one's own first language in the headphones.

    We might get less done... but maybe, just maybe, we'd feel better about each other, having compassion on each other, as we work to get it done.

  5. Good comments everybody. I've received a few on facebook and twitter as well--some that say that I am underplaying the impact that large apportionment bills have on our smaller churches. Perhaps. (I have the pleasure? of serving as our district statistician and am at least familiar, if not immersed, with the issue) I do know that there are many churches who struggle to pay their apportionments--especially churches that work closest with the poor. However, as has been noted many times, the proposed changes at GC would have saved an average congregation something like $200 over the next four years. So the logic stands, I think.

    Taylor--the translation issue is a really, really important one. I wish I had been thinking of it while writing the original post! On a practical level, it added to the confusion (non-English-speaking delegates were a half-sentence behind, unable to ask questions, not understanding idioms, etc). On a theological level, it adds to the poor hospitality those of us in the US have shown. Your suggestion of having everyone wear headphones is a really helpful one. It would be a sign of good faith that we really do want to build relationships, and that we aren't setting non-English-speakers against English-speakers. As a side-effect, I suspect it would frustrate those English speakers among us who want the central conference delegates to vote our way, but who do not want to particularly engage them in relationship. I'd actually argue that the system you are calling for is vital if we are going to show any kind of good-faith effort at actually involving the central conferences in the life of the church.

    But while I TOTALLY agree with this suggestion--really, it has got to happen--I don't know that it fixes the issue. Cultural context is bigger than language, and while I believe with my very fiber that I worship the same God that my Congolese sisters and brothers worship, I also acknowledge that the church looks different in our contexts, our way of governance (for better of worse, part of church) looks different in our respective contexts, even God looks very different. A US-centric Book of Discipline written in Swahili is still US-centric.

    I'm just thoroughly convinced on the need for a US central conference. I actually think it will be better for the US and for the (current) central conferences, as it will allow for cultural expressions of United Methodist Christian faith and give added "nimbleness" (to use the GC buzzword) to larger church structures. I just wonder about how such a system can be explained/sold to central conferences already very nervous about the loss of American dollars . . . and more conservative conferences in the USA who see such a move as a power-play over sexuality.

  6. Dalton,

    You wrote excellently. However, I think you inadvertently minimized and thereby also fall into the trap that others at General Conference did in underestimating our brothers and sisters from the Central Conferences, particularly from Africa. What I mean is that, what I found during General Conference was that delegates from both the liberal and conservative sides discovered that, in fact, the African delegates came prepared with their own views on what the important issues were, at least on issues they were concerned with. Yes, you are right that there were some issues that didn't particularly affect them and so were not as knowledgeable to vote. However, you shouldn't be mistaken. It is one thing to say they should not be manipulated, but another to go further and admit that they could not be manipulated this time around. Again, I know that was not your intent, but I felt it necessarily to clarify that, since you omitted that particular point, which is understandable when you had to respond to as much as you did (and very well at that). That was one of the big "Aha!" moments, I think, that U.S. delegates from across the spectrum really received from GC2012. Aside from that, however, you offered a logical and very well articulated response to Langford, who in all honesty was inversely very illogical, though I try to be charitable. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Daniel (Indiana Annual Conference)

  7. Great engagement with Andy's article.

    I'm left with a few thoughts:
    1. Everyone seems to jump to the idea of a Central US Conference as THE solution for us as a global church. While perhaps this is the best idea, I feel like we should all seek to think creatively about other ways this may be done. After all, in 2008 the UMC basically rejected the idea of the US separating itself by large numbers.

    2. I'm assuming we have GC in the US still because of money issues. But in the near future perhaps having it in Africa will help readjust the US-centric nature of it. We could even as Taylor suggested have all English speakers using headsets and have worship that reflects African contexts.

    3. One issue I've encountered regarding a US Central Conference is the question: what does "allowing for cultural context" in the USA really mean? Is sexuality contextual? Are stances on war contextual? Are spiritual requirements for leadership contextual? Or are we just referring to structures and pensions? You noted the lack of trust in the UMC, and I believe that people are rightly wary of what "allowing for cultural context" means because its vague natures enables it to be a tool used for the purposes of every caucus group.