As I mentioned yesterday, I was elected one slot too late in the balloting at the 2015 North Georgia Annual Conference to receive a per diem during my time at General Conference. So I'm draining my business reimbursements this week (and I am footing some of the bill, too) so that I can be present. I am also unlikely to see much, if any, time sitting on the floor as a voting delegate. So you might be asking, why would I bother to leave my family for 10 days to come to General Conference?
You would be asking a good question. During an hour of turbulence on the plane ride over, I was wondering myself! And since arriving in Portland, I've been doing a good bit of reflecting on this question. Why am I here?
Part of the answer is: I don't know. I'm just being honest. I wonder, a little bit, what I am doing here. I don't have official responsibilities beyond supporting the North Georgia delegation and learning what I can. The rest of the answer, though, is that on my way home from annual conference last year, I got no less than five phone calls from long-time delegates saying, in effect, "I know you're disappointed you didn't get elected earlier. You really should still go." I'll admit that this advice stung a little bit, since I wasn't sure how I was going to afford it.
But I talked with my spouse and my church leaders, and we decided I should come. My prayer these last few days has been, "God, show me why I am here." That said, there are a few things I can say about my time this week.
1. I expect to learn. The global church is a remarkable thing. As one bishop put it recently, the United Methodist Church is the only denomination which is seeking to be both democratic and global. This is a difficult tension, and it will play out in difficult ways this week. But I'm not so one-issue-focused to lose sight of the beauty of our connection. We have much to learn from one another! And I look forward to learning more about how the church works on a global scale.
2. I expect to worship. One of the blessings of having all our bishops and many of our church leaders in one room is that the worship this week will be excellent. I have worried, in the past, that we were wasting money by spending so much time in worship. That's a short-sighted view. You can legitimately worry about wasting money--we are spending $10 million dollars this week, people--but I don't think you ever waste when you worship.
3. I expect to assist. The North Georgia delegation to the General and Jurisdictional conference has worked very democratically. I've never felt lesser-than because I was elected after our General Conference slate of 11. I've been a full participant in our discussions (sometimes feeling like I've spoken too often!). And because we've worked together in this last year, I'm familiar with many of the issues coming before the General Conference. I expect to help our delegates as they need more information about Disciplinary matters or context for various legislation. My role here is not primarily one of advocacy. It's a role of service.
4. I expect to be frustrated. Already, there's a significant amount of commotion about Rule 44, a process which would put the delegates in conversation with one another. While one might argue about the specifics of this rule--a legitimate concern--we won't do this. We'll just probably vote it down. In addition, because of the way that the 2012 General Conference played out, many of our church leaders are playing their hands much closer to their vests this year, not wanting to publicly discuss their intentions or specifics of their proposed legislation, believing (probably rightly) that this will leave less time for critique. That's a horrible guiding principle for discerning the work of the Holy Spirit.
5. I expect to be surprised. I hope--believe, even--that God will show up in unexpected ways this week, both in my own life and in the life of the church I love. I don't have high hopes that the Discipline's language about sexuality will change; I wish it would, but I just don't think it is going to happen. But perhaps I could be surprised? Perhaps, even if we remain stuck on this issue, God will show up in other ways. I pray so.
In all of this, I'm pretty convinced that we need significant change in the church, and that if God does a new thing with the General Conference, it's going to be in spite of ourselves rather than because of ourselves. But, then, isn't that what God does best?