Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Innkeeper's Lament

The Innkeeper's Lament

Every good story needs a villain, I suppose, so at least in that way, I understand. Cinderella had the wicked stepmother, Sleeping Beauty had the wicked fairy Godmother, Peter Pan had Captain Hook. You apparently need somebody who is either wicked or whose hand has been eaten by an alligator to set the mood, to start conflict so that the story progresses. So it isn’t so much that I resent the fact that somebody’s got to play the villain in this story--I get that--but more so that I don’t understand why it’s got to be me.

I mean, for one, let me tell you how hard it is to be an innkeeper in first Century Palestine. It’s not like we have electricity to turn on the no vacancy sign out front, so people are knocking on my door, waking my family at all hours of the night, knocking and knocking. Tell me, do you answer your door in the middle of the night? When somebody pounds on your door in the middle of the night, do you feel good about that? No! So you can understand how I wasn’t really happy when these two kids knock on my door at two in the morning or whatever it was, and he’s agitated because they don’t have a place to sleep, as if that’s my problem, and she’s breathing really heavy and grabbing his arm so tight you can almost see five small bruises start to form on his bicep. Look, I really didn’t have room that night--you want me to have kicked out that nice family who paid for a whole week up front just so I could house these kids for half a night? But you better believe that when I realized *why* she was breathing so heavy, *why* he was so agitated, that I *definitely* wasn’t going to put them up for the night, because all I need is a screaming baby around this place rattling my guests. I mean, sure, this ain’t the Ritz, but the one thing we have going for us is that we have no screaming babies. I ought to put that on my business card. Besides, I’m still sort of smarting from that one time I let the pregnant couple stay because they caught me on a particularly soft day, and I will spare you the details of the cleanup that was involved, but suffice it to say that my wife calls it “the day we had to set fire to the linens.”

Everybody likes to pick on the innkeeper, like I’m some horrible person. I’m just a working Joe like you, got a family to feed, a business to run, got to keep my customers happy and I certainly can’t run them off on the very rare night that the inn is full. What do you think this is, the salvation army? I’m just trying to make a buck like the next guy. What would you have me do? Bend over backwards to help every teenage couple who bangs on my door in the middle of the night claiming to be pregnant with the son of God?

I actually thought I was doing them a favor, letting them use the stable out back. I could have just straight up sent them away, but I do sort of feel bad for these kids. They can’t be more than thirteen or fourteen, and it’s a cruel world out there for teenage parents, and with this census thing going on, with the king requiring everybody to register, you can’t imagine things ending well for these two. Honestly, I’m not even sure this girl is going to last the night. It’s cold. Childbirth is dangerous, especially without a midwife. I have a sneaking suspicion that her husband, such as he is, is not the world’s foremost fourteen-year-old expert at emergency c-sections.

So all I am saying is that I did feel bad for them, let the record show, and I thought I was doing them a favor letting them use the barn out back. No it wasn’t a room in the inn, and yes, the animals were there, but I did not send them away, which I had every right to do. So if you ask me, I don’t deserve to play the villain in this story. I deserve a medal, a plaque, some sort of proclamation that declares December 25 Innkeeper Appreciation Day. Instead, when there’s a play, when the kids get dressed up and reenact the whole deal, I get played by the one kid everybody is afraid will forget his *one* line so when Mary and Joseph knock on the door, he just shakes his head no and points to the back, and everybody boos.

I’ll tell you who the *real* bad guys are: the stinkin’ shepherds. I mean, seriously, those shepherds *stink*. So I’m minding my own business, trying to sleep after the girl finally gives birth out back, and all of a sudden these shepherds come out of nowhere and gather out back and all of a sudden, the whole joint smells like a skunk blew up a stink bomb inside a rotten egg. You probably picture the shepherds looking all beautiful, and lovely, and clean, “and lo, the angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and everything smelled like Irish Spring.” No! These guys literally sleep next to animals all night. They literally lay down next to sheep, every night of the year. They eat things they find on the ground, they shower, like, never, and they straight up stink. I can’t have that kind of thing around my inn. I have a reputation to uphold, a business to run, and after all of it, these guys show up and stink up the joint. Nope. Not going to play that game. So feel free to argue that *I’m* the villain here, but first, go sit next to a shepherd for five minutes, if you can bear it, and then come talk to me.

I’m just a guy out here trying to make it, trying to keep food on the table, and so before you decide I am the one who messed up, ask yourself this question: would you have done anything differently? Who would you have kicked out of the inn to let these two kids in? Do you make it a habit of letting strangers into your house in the middle of the night? I seriously doubt it. So lay off me a little, why don’t you?

No, wait, let me apologize. I really don’t mean to be so defensive. For as tired as I am of being treated like I was the one who forced the baby to be born outside, like they are unclear about what recreational activities lead to someone becoming pregnant, that’s not really what upsets me the most. Treat me how you want to treat me. I’ll get over it.

But what I can’t get over is this: I can’t seem to shake the feeling like I missed something, like I got left out, like everybody else got to play but nobody picked me. Maybe that sounds childish. It feels a little childish. But it’s real. It feels a little bit unfair, like just because I was looking out for me and mine, like you’d expect, just because I was doing the thing you would expect any good businessperson to do, I missed something pretty spectacular. And I just have to wonder: what if I’d ignored the logic that tells me that my business is the most important thing. What if I’d not prioritized the well-being of people I love over people I don’t know. What if I had made room?

So, sure, call me the villain. I don’t care. I’ve got bigger problems, like wondering what I’ll do if I ever get another chance at welcoming God into my house. My God, I hope I get another chance.

Friday, December 9, 2016

On Church: Episode 26, Evangelism

In this episode of the podcast, Dalton and Matt talk evangelism: why Dalton loves it, why Matt doesn't, and why they ultimately agree about it anyway. (Here's a hint: we might just start calling it "Bob.")
 

Monday, November 28, 2016

On Church: Episode 25, Cleaning Up Messes

In this episode, Dalton and Matt talk about that most wonderful of pastoral tasks, cleaning up messes. In fact, the only thing clergy may be better up than cleaning up messes are making their own. Take a listen.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Evangelical Conundrum

For several years now, I have considered myself an evangelical. I’ve not always thought of myself this way, but it is a term that does represent my upbringing in a nondenominational church. Now, I serve a denomination that considers itself to be both mainline and evangelical, which is a pretty find needle to thread.

And for several years, I have had to argue, at times, with those who do not believe I deserve to be called an evangelical. I was too focused on social justice, or I had too loose an understanding of Biblical interpretation, or my politics did not align with the Moral Majority, or I struggled too much with the idea of inerrancy: never mind the fact that I chose to go to seminary at Emory, where I would argue that the announcement of the death of God was quite premature.

I have also argued, at times, with those who claim evangelicalism as being little more than ascribing to a specific political platform or rigid set of doctrines; I believe evangelicalism to be a richer tradition than this.

I realize now that the evangelical conundrum is this: do we prioritize purity or breadth? That is, is it our top priority as evangelicals to defend the purity of the faith, thus leaving some people out of the family, or is it our top priority to spread the Gospel as far as possible, even if the message gets muddled every now and again, like a game of Telephone?

In other words--and forgive the limits of these metaphors--are we called to be couriers or defenders? Yes, we are called to be both, but there is a sense in which each of these sensibilities runs headlong into the other.

As for me, I have a tendency to believe that being a courier requires more courage than being a desk-bound defender. A courier risks broken relationship, being labeled an almost-Christian. It is easy to hide behind a computer and accuse everybody else of being heretics. It is more difficult to go out and do the face-to-face work of making disciples.

But then, others would say that the army loses a whole lot more soldiers than UPS loses couriers. Faith requires limits, after all. I can still hear my seminary professor Luke Johnson reminding us that if the Biblical canon were not closed, we would not be able to do the work of Biblical interpretation, for we would have nothing to protect us from completely going off the rails.

I tend toward the courier side of things because it is the nature of my personality to deliver. It is also in my nature to question whether boundaries are in appropriate places, or whether we’ve just marked the lot at the corner of the driveway because that’s how it was marked when we moved in. But that's my personality. It is a reflection of the way God made me, but it does not stand in opposition to the way God made you.

I wonder: if much of my own understanding of what it means to be an evangelical is driven by the makeup of my personality, how much religious infighting is just personality conflict masked as Truth?

In other words, what if we're both wrong, and the missing ingredient is actually humility?


Thursday, November 10, 2016

On Church: Episode 24, Lay Leadership

In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about the joys and challenges of working with lay leadership in the church, including strategies for recruiting good leaders and setting them up to lead.

Monday, October 10, 2016

On Church: Episode 23, Clergy Health and Wholeness

In this episode, we welcome the Rev. Monica Harbarger, the Executive Director of United Counseling in Birmingham, AL. She talks with us about clergy health--such as it is--and strategies for maintaining mental health, even as clergy.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

On Church: Episode 22, Navigating Controversial Topics

In this episode, Dalton and Matt talk about navigating controversial topics in preaching and in church life. Matt thinks we should have titled this episode "You won't believe what TD Jakes did!" but that's a ridiculous title. I could have titled it, "Mostly Bleeps. Some words."

Monday, September 5, 2016

On Church: Episode 21, Popeable

In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about the genius of Pope Francis, whose influence has reached into the protestant church.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

On Church: Episode 20, Change

In this episode, Dalton and Matt talk about how to navigate change from a pastoral perspective, especially in a new appointment or call. Listen below.


Monday, August 8, 2016

On Church: Episode 19, When Christian Culture Attacks

In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about the trappings of Christian culture, which so often actually end up being Christian consumerism.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Way Forward, Using Things We Already Have

When I was in elementary school, a well-known artist showed up at assembly one day and asked us to bring in things from our homes that weren't getting enough use. There were some guidelines--no couches, no cars, certain colors preferred--but he said little more than this.

A few weeks later, after we had collected what seemed like a mountain of things, he showed up again, took the pile outside along with some paint and a giant canvas, and created an enormous collage painting of a dragon, the school's mascot. The lesson for the students, we were told, is that we already have within us the solution to many of our problems, if we are willing to be creative with how we craft those solutions.

It strikes me that there is wisdom in this way of thinking for the United Methodist Church. We clearly are at an impasse, having "nearly cut up the church with a rusty knife" (to quote one of our bishops). The Council of Bishops is leading the way in helping us to find a way forward, whether that way includes schism, changing values, uniformity of covenant, or something else. The current way simply isn't working. Besides the fact that we are currently spending $10 million dollars on our quadrennial meetings, at which less and less seems to be getting done, the denomination is losing its influence in the USA, there are questions as to financial impropriety in places outside the US where audit practices differ, there are untenable structures that allow for cultural adaptation of the Book of Discipline in some places but not others, caucus groups wield unbelievable power, we compress four years of decision making--in a culture that is changing ever more rapidly--into ten days every four years . . . I could go on.

Something must give. Everyone knows it, and we do not seem able, in our current form, to do anything but behave like children without leadership. I would argue that General Conference felt less like we were about to cut up the church with a rusty knife and more like many delegates with ideological agendas were swinging hammers at the glass bowl of the church, hoping to collect as many shards as possible, not realizing that piles of sharp, broken glass are no good to anybody.

Something must change, but perhaps the solution is already baked into our polity! Within the United States (the location of our discontent), the church is already divided into jurisdictions. In fact, it is the existence of these jurisdictions that seems to be creating the most division in recent weeks, as the Western Jurisdiction has--for the first time, and in defiance of certain parts of the Discipline--elected a "self-avowed, practicing homosexual" to be a bishop of the church. We already allow the jurisdictions to perform a vital part of our polity--electing bishops--but when they pass statements of non-compliance, or do some such thing in opposition to the General Conference, we squawk and squawk about the breaking of covenant. The truth is that the covenant, as currently laid out in the Discipline, is untenable, for it allows regional expressions of polity in some ways (in recognition of the unique cultural environment of the central conferences--and in the election of Bishops in jurisdictions) while maintaining the General Conference as the only body that can speak for the church.

I am not intending to pass judgment on either side of this issue. There are plenty of people who feel strongly about the righteousness of the Western Jurisdiction consecrating Bishop Oliveto, just as there are plenty who feel strongly about the necessity of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. I am not one who feels strongly about any of this. Far from being wishy-washy though, my concerns are practical; clearly something ain't working.

The practical solution, I would argue, involves giving jurisdictions more power to function as they already are: as places to gather where we can actually know one another, build relationships, and work our way through, together. In my own jurisdiction, the Southeastern Jurisdiction, I have been extremely impressed in the ability of the jurisdictional delegates to work together in a spirit of unity AND diversity. When the SEJ elected five bishops in one day, we did not do so because some caucus group was pushing the elected slate. We may be a largely conservative jurisdiction, but we worked together across traditional theological lines because we value diversity AND because many of us actually know one another. We were able to come to quick agreement about who ought to be elected, both because of our shared culture and because of our already-existing relationships across annual conference lines. We elected five very different people as bishops of the church, with a range of ethnicities, genders, life experience, theologies, etc. And we did so with a sweet spirit that I continue to be sustained by. I may not have voted for all five of those who were elected bishop, but I am convinced that we elected the five that God would have had us elect.

Moving toward a jurisdictional focus would have three extremely practical benefits. First, moving this way would allow the delegates to know one another, giving more room for the Holy Spirit to work. Second, this approach would mirror the way the central conferences already work, removing a significant differential in the way our polity functions. Third, it would allow those in more conservative jurisdictions--my own, for instance--to worry less about what is happening out west and more about what disciple-making looks like in our part of the world.

There are also practical concerns to this solution. There would need to be reworking as to the relationship of bishops to the church. Currently, bishops are superintendents of the whole church; we would need to rewrite part of the constitution of the church to emphasize the work of jurisdictional colleges of bishops over and above (not not to exclude) the work of the whole Council of Bishops. We would need to discern what our shared mission as a denomination would look like; I could see us holding on to Global Ministries, Wespath, and other agreed-upon agencies. We would need to decide how the University Senate would function across the jurisdictions. Other General Agencies would need to shift to meet changing times. Most critically, we would have to ensure that we are not simply creating one more layer of bureaucracy in an already overly-bureaucratic church. Importantly, with the possible exception of the function of the Council of Bishops, these concerns are all changes that are needed in the UMC, regardless of our present conversation about sexuality.

The biggest practical concern, I believe, is that there are those who have turned the voting blocks present within the jurisdictions and the General Conference into weapons of power. Some of these groups identify as progressive, and others identify as conservative. Regardless of the agenda, it will not be easy for those who wield these weapons--nor will it be easy for their deep-pocketed donors--to turn loose these weapons. Perhaps this dynamic makes the Bishop's Commission a fool's errand in the first place. But I am not willing to let go of my great hope for unity within the church--an issue I have spent hours praying about and working on during my short ministry--without one more try.

Yes, these are real practical matters we would need to work through. But any solution is going to take "redefin[ing] our present connectionality" (to quote the Bishops), and it seems to me that using things we already have--namely, our jurisdictions--would allow the spirit of unity to continue in the United Methodist Church, giving flesh to our relationships, and allowing us to re-focus our efforts on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

So what do you think? What are the barriers to moving towards jurisdictions as the solution to our present crisis? And what are possible solutions for each barrier?

(Image used by permission. (c) Christian Schnettelker.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

On Church: Episode 18, Why We Worship

In this episode of the podcast, Matt and Dalton talk about why--and how--we worship: not alone, but corporately.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Church: Episode 17, The Fringe and Me

In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about fringe groups, especially Westboro Baptist Church, and how the church is called to respond to these groups.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On Church: Episode 16, The Power of Storytelling

In this episode, Dalton and Matt talk about the power of story in the life of the church.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

On Church: Episode 15, How We Got to Where We Are on LGBTQ issues

In this episode, and in the wake of General Conference, Dalton and Matt talk about the history of LGBTQ issues in the United Methodist Church. They also speak to the Rev. Cynthia Meyer, who shares her story of being brought up on charges for being an ordained United Methodist pastor who is openly gay.

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.

Monday, May 16, 2016

On Church: Episode 14, General Conference Madness

In this episode, Dalton reports in from the General Conference session in Portland, OR.

General Conference Day 7 #UMCGC #UMC

So. About Saturday.

Saturday was a really hard day. I did something I don't usually do. I sat down during the lunch break, and I broke down in tears.

I cried for an hour. I've not done that since I was a child.

It was our last day in legislative committees before entering plenary sessions this week. The most controversial legislation usually bleeds into the last day of committees, as delegates understandably don't want to deal with the difficult stuff until they have to, so just about every committee was dealing somehow, in some way, with the issue of human sexuality.

But I did not weep because "my side is losing," as those of us in favor of full inclusion have sometimes heard. I came into General Conference knowing this matter would not be resolved, and that we'd leave as we came, hopelessly divided.

I wept because I didn't seriously believe there was will within the body to make things worse. I didn't expect the Judicial Administration committee to recommend "mandatory minimums" for clergy who perform gay weddings. I did not expect the Conferences committee to reject every single plan to acknowledge that the United States has a cultural context, just as the central conferences do. I didn't expect Church and Society B to get so ugly that some delegates laughed over the idea of "gender identity" rather than the dealing with the substance of trans* issues. I didn't expect the Local Church committee to recommend--albeit on a close vote--legislation obliterating the trust clause that holds the church together, even in tension. In other words, I expected division, but not an attempt at destruction.

And for as heartbroken as I am at our divisions, I am even more heartbroken that we so often rely on closed-door tactics, misdirection, and manufactured chaos to get our way. What is more, we sometimes treat our colleagues in the central conferences as pawns, not giving them full input into the life of the body--we don't even print the Daily Christian Advocate in all the languages necessary for delegates from the Central Conferences to read proposed legislation!--, just so that we can achieve our own political ends.

All of these legislative matters are not set until they are passed (or not) by the plenary this week, so there is continued hope that this General Conference will be known as something besides the play off its theme: "Therefore No." There is also a significant chance that the Judicial Council will step in to rule some of this legislation--particularly the "mandatory minimum" piece--unconstitutional. I pray, with passion, that we are able to stay together, as I believe we are stronger when we are in connection with one another. But regardless of where we end up, our division makes me weep. I am praying, this week, for renewed hope, but I am having to mine deep.

That said, I still have great #HopeForTheChurch:

The remarkable church I serve, North Decatur UMC, put together 80 UMCOR health kits yesterday, on Pentecost, as a birthday present for God's people.

Congregations all over the world gathered yesterday, as they always do, to praise God, to teach the Gospel, to share God's love.

Passionate people advocate for the things they passionately believe--not despite the Gospel, but because of it.

My Christian colleagues--those here, and those back home in North Georgia--work for that which they discern to be God's will.

Missionaries, serving all over the world, share the love of God of all people in all times and in all places.

I could go on. You can read this thread on Twitter to learn more. I am trying my best to withhold judgment on where we are as a church until the week is over. The middle of a General Conference is not a good time for discerning where we are; there is still plenty of time for the Holy Spirit to make something of the broken process of General Conference.

But would you pray? No matter where you stand on matters of full inclusion, or ordination, or unity, this is a dangerous time in the life of the United Methodist Church. It is a time of great possibility, but it is also a time fraught with danger, as most possibility is. Pray, friends. Pray.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

General Conference, Day 6 #UMCGC #UMC

According to our rules, Sunday is a Sabbath during--and from--General Conference. I intend to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, particularly after what was a very, very difficult Saturday here. I'll have more to say tomorrow morning. In the meantime, you can read my most recent post at Ministry Matters at this link.

In the meantime, blessings to you on this holy day.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

General Conference Day 5 #umcgc #umc

I got called up to the big leagues yesterday with a one-day contract. With some of our delegates out of town at family graduations, and another delegate under the weather, the head of our delegation called me over first thing yesterday morning and let me know that not only would I need to sit in to replace a delegate that morning, I'd need to do so all day. After worship and plenary, I would sit in the Conferences committee as the committee dealt with deciding whether to send legislation to the floor about denominational restructure.


So I sat. And let me tell you, I felt something very visceral yesterday as I walked past the bar of the conference and took my place at one of the tables designated for the North Georgia delegation: there's a lot of power at that table, in that voting bar, in those committees. In our polity, the General Conference is the only body that can speak for the church. And in the United States, it is the only body that can change church teaching and structure. To be a part of that discussion--and, indeed, to be one who decides--is to participate in a very powerful act with very few controls, beyond a few Constitutional provisions and a fair amount of systemic disfunction.

I don't want to make too much of this, but I did not expect to feel quite the way I did in those discussions. It's bewildering, trying to keep up with complicated matters of theology and practice, and then to have a say in whether they become church law is quite humbling. When I agreed to "run" for General Conference (in as much as we run, anyway. Really, what I mean to say is that when I agreed to not turn down an election), I didn't quite realize what it feels like when you're in the room, making the decisions, making the votes. I only sat in for a day; I can't imagine what it feels like to do this for two weeks.


I am also beginning to understand the desperation some people feel when they aren't able to get traction for any of the issues about which they care. As someone who feels passionately about church restructuring (I know, not the sexiest topic), it was meaningful for me yesterday to be able to vote on a number of restructure proposals aimed at increasing flexibility in the church and helping us create a path forward. But none of the proposals related to church restructure passed. Not one. Unless there is action on the floor of the General Conference to reanimate one of these petitions, there will be no restructure, no way forward for flexibility on matters that are unique to the United States. And, friends, I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I wanted to stomp my feet and pound my fists and yell, "If we don't change, we're going to die!" Basically, I wanted to act like a baby.

But the thing is this--and this says more about me than anything else--I feel so passionately about this issue that it is often really difficult for me to abide anyone not seeing things my way! And yet, while I am quite certain we've got to change, just because I am clear in my own mind about what that change should look like does not mean I am right. But if I am honest, I will admit that I really like to be right!

I know I am not unique in this reaction. I see it play out on the floor of General Conference again and again. And it seems to me that this unique combination of passion and power can mold a person in one of two ways. Either a delegate is confirmed in her humility, remembering her worth ultimately comes from her relationship with God and not from her power, or he learns to play the game in craftier and more insidious ways, caring less about tactics and more about getting his way.

In the final analysis, every General Conference is consequential. It's just the case that the biggest consequence may be in how it reshapes not just the United Methodist Church, but the delegates who are involved in its reshaping.

Friday, May 13, 2016

General Conference Day 4 #UMCGC #UMC

We finally got underway yesterday, after two-and-a-half days of wrangling over the rules. Once we finally dispensed with Rule 44, the General Conference was able to break up in legislative committees and start the work of plowing through legislation.

The committee I'm sitting in on this week, Faith and Order, has divided itself into two subcommittees: Doctrine and Ordination/Praxis. Each piece of legislation assigned to Faith and Order is, in turn, assigned to one of those subcommittees. The subcommittee, using its own version of Roberts Rules, goes down the list of legislation, one at a time, debating, amending, and, ultimately, deciding whether to deciding whether to support each petition. This process takes some time, as you can imagine, and can be a little messy.


The challenge, for those of us who are reserve delegates, is how to observe what is going on in subcommittee, as this work happens around tables rather than from the dais, meaning that there are no microphones used, and translation happens with someone speaking into the delegates' ears, rather than through the headsets as usual. Different committees deal with this dynamic in different ways. In Faith and Order, thankfully, Bill Arnold (the chair) helpfully arranged the subcommittees in different corners of the room and then extended the bar of the conference so that we were able to hear most of what happened, including discussion about various petitions and the action taken.

After several hours of this work, the committee came back together to take action on legislation as a full committee. Quickly, the complexity of the work before the General Conference was clear. Several petitions, passed unanimously in subcommittee and without controversy, had to be tabled in the full committee because another committee somewhere along the line had amended language relevant to the petition, and the group had to wait until there was clarity on the new language. Even so, Faith and Order got through several petitions yesterday to be added to the consent calendar for General Conference, likely to be voted on next week (because Rule 44 did not pass, the calendar is completely up in the air as of this morning, so we should have a better idea soon when all of the voting will take place).

One aspect of this process to remember is that just because a petition doesn't pass at the subcommittee level doesn't mean it dies. The full committee votes, and if a petition doesn't pass but has at least 10% support, those in favor can file a minority report which can also lead to legislation appearing on the floor of General Conference. There are other legislative tricks, too, so that legislation can find ways to appear on the floor later in the session even if the legislative committee doesn't act on it the first week.

In other words, as it relates to the rules of order, it's Robert's world. We're just living in it.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

General Conference Day 3 #umcgc #umc

You might think that parliamentary procedure is irrelevant, but if you have mastery of Roberts Rules, you can get just about anything done at General Conference, or hold up a piece of legislation you don't like indefinitely. That's the intramural skirmish we saw yesterday morning, as we debated, then tabled, then un-tabled, then recommended amendments to Rule 44, which I blogged about yesterday. The complexity of putting together a global gathering this enormous and expensive means that the successful delegate will have among the skills in her tool belt the ability to thrive in chaos. Particularly if you can offer clarity in the midst of significant confusion, you'll do well here. It's concerning, but for those who have been delegates for decades, it's old hat.

Beyond, well, tabling and un-tabling Rule 44, we spent the day in committee meetings. The General Conference receives hundreds of pages of legislation, and it doesn't all just show up on the floor of the conference to be voted up or down. Much of the first week of Conference is spent in legislative committees. There are twelve of these committees, and each petition is referred to the committee relevant to its topic. Each delegate, in turn, is assigned to one of the committees, and the first thing that happens is that they gather for introductions (not of everyone on the committee, but around the table) and some discussion around the global nature of the Church. After a couple of hours of this discussion and a break, elections begin. Here's how they work.

A bishop convenes the committee for election of officers. In the case of the Faith and Order committee, the committee I'll be sitting in on this week, Bishop Scott Jones convened the body and invited nominations. There were four. Ballot books are passed out, delegates vote for the chair, the ballots are collected and counted, and if there is 50%+1, the chair is elected. In our case, Dr. Bill Arnold of Asbury Seminary was elected chair on the second ballot (while I've been critical of one piece of legislation Arnold has written, he's a good scholar, by all accounts a good guy, and I trust he'll do an even-keeled job). Nominations open again for vice-chair, secretary, and any sub-committee chairs that might be necessary for the group. I understand that there have been phone calls among delegates for months preparing for these elections, so what looks organic can sometimes be manufactured. Beginning tomorrow, these legislative committees will start working on individual pieces of legislation. Today was just about getting set up.

During these committee meetings, those of us who are reserve delegates and visitors gather in the back of the room, behind the voting bar, to observe. While the committee was in conversation around the table, of course, the reserves had the opportunity to do so as well. Like many conversations here at General Conference, the topic of conversation among my seat mates turned to sexuality. I found this conversation remarkable. During our conversation, we were able to push and pull, tussle a bit and learn more about one another. To one of my conversation partners, the idea that I could support full inclusion of LGBT persons from a Biblical perspective was mind-blowing; he assumed, I think, that I had just decided the Bible was wrong. So the chance for me to be able to talk about some of my Biblical foundations for full inclusion was important, as it was for me to hear some of his frustrations about how the conversation related to full inclusion seems to ignore Scripture (he's largely right).

We'll see how these conversations go this week--or if they go at all--as we talk, again, about Rule 44 this morning.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

General Conference Day 2 #umcgc #umc

Day 1 of General Conference is in the books, and we're already behind schedule. To understand why, you've got to understand some of the dynamics at play behind the scenes.

When you arrive at General Conference, you're thrown into a system full of hundreds of people you don't know. You're expected to do business with them, work with them in committee, push and pull and occasionally tangle with them, but what seems impossible for people to do--with some good reason--is to trust them. I certainly understand some of the reasons for the lack of trust; besides the fact that it is hard to trust people you've just met--and, in many cases, whom you'll never see again after the close of General Conference--there have been a number of power plays and shenanigans throughout the years. We have, at times, behaved in less-than-holy ways. So you can understand where some of this lack of trust comes from.

If that lack of trust comes from the Ghost of General Conferences past, it is made manifest in the debate over the rules that will guide our time together. In other words:


And this is what we did. The General Conference spent all evening debating the rules, such that while we were scheduled to adjourn at 6:30pm, the presiding Bishop had to call for a recess so that people could eat, and then we all marched back into the main hall at 8am to further discuss the rules. It was maddening.



Now, the rules matter--and they matter a good bit. If somebody doesn't like the way a legislative matter is treated later in the session, you don't want them to be able to point back to the rules and say, "But you didn't do what you said you were going to do." So we went in depth and talked a lot about the rules: particularly Rule 44, a proposed rule that would remove agenda items related to human sexuality from the normal legislative process and craft a new discussion and consensus-building model to deal with these petitions. It's a controversial rule, with a number of people (including many in my own delegation) saying it's unruly and improper for General Conference, and others arguing that this kind of decision-making process isn't authentic Christian conferencing. I'm in favor of the Rule 44 approach, mostly because I'm willing to try anything once, but I understand the concerns. The Conference ultimately decided to punt on 44 until tomorrow. We'll discuss it in the morning.

And while the rules matter, what drives me batty is the constant use of Roberts Rules to delay, to disrupt, and to argue. We do these things well as Methodists. A number of times, points of order were so nonsensical that I had to turn to my neighbor and ask, "Wait, what is he trying to say?" And while it took us hours to sift through these parliamentary inquiries, with the exception of removing Rule 44 so that we can talk about it tomorrow, the Conference ultimately changed . . . absolutely . . . nothing. They passed the rules as written. It was not an auspicious start to our time together.

Thankfully, rules debates aren't the whole shebang. Conference opened with a remarkably powerful service of worship, in which the bishops spread out all over the main hall and served Communion. Remind me to alway stay within sight of Bishop Peggy Johnson whenever we sing. She may have been my favorite thing about General Conference today, as she danced and signed along with the music.
video

It was not a day without speed bumps. The new delegate orientation session started 45 minutes late because, well, they forgot to find a speaker for it. The lights in the main hall are broken and working at, maybe, 30% capacity. Sound and video issues cropped up every now and again. A protest during Communion, while born from a good place, demonstrated a deep divide in our understanding of the Open Table.

But despite the speed bumps, I am starting to find my hope. I watch talented clergy and committed laity lead the church, I watch Bishops demonstrate love for God and neighbor, I sit and joke with colleagues who have poured into me more than I can say, and I remember that even when things feel the most stuck, God is at work.