Friday, February 8, 2019

2019 General Conference, Day -15 #umcgc

I have been asked a few times about how one prepares for General Conference. Back in 2016, I wrote about what the election process looks like; since this year's delegates were elected at that time, I won't rehash that process here.

The process of preparing for this General Conference has been somewhat unique. While the top elected clergy and layperson serve on the quadrennium-long Committee on Episcopacy, most of us who serve on the North Georgia delegation assumed that our work would be done following the 2016 General Conference. The reality of the special called session, and the related decision from the North Georgia Conference to decline to reengage the election process and thereby send the 2016 delegates to the 2019 conference, meant that it was time to get the band back together.

Delegates do not just show up at General Conference without having spent a significant time in preparation. Each conference has its nuances, but all delegations spend significant time meeting, discussing, and praying about the work that will happen at General Conference. North Georgia, thankfully, takes the work of preparation very seriously, and so in addition to monthly day-long Saturday meetings in preparation for the 2016 conference, we have met regularly for similarly lengthy meetings in the days leading up to the 2019 conference.

The meetings preparing for 2019, I think, have been especially meaningful. Besides times of community-building, which is important, the delegation has engaged in meaningful conversation about where the denomination is headed, how our local churches are reacting, and how to hold onto a meaningful, just unity in the face of divisive forces. I am grateful to the chair of our delegation, Mathew Pinson, who brought in Ellen Ott Marshall, professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation at the Candler School of Theology, and the Rev. Hal Jones, President and CEO of the United Methodist Children's Home, both of whom have extensive experience in group dynamics and conflict transformation. While just about everybody on the delegation has strong feelings about all that has brought us to 2019, framing our time together around transformation--together--has been key.

On the personal front, the preparation has involved a lot of reading and praying. I have read summaries, of course, but I also feel that I have a responsibility to be familiar with the intricacies of each plan and petition, so the Advance Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA) has been a continual companion recently. The ADCA is well over 200 pages, with more than 100 pages detailing legislation and supplemental material.

What's more, the complicated nature of what the church is attempting to do at the 2019 conference means that reading the plans (as lengthy as they are) is not enough. There are constitutional implications, as the Judicial Council has noted, so I've been re-familiarizing myself with the Constitution of the United Methodist Church. There are, likewise, groups lobbying for various plans, and there is legislative strategy flying about related to how plans are rolled out. I've been in conversation with friends and colleagues across the connection about all that is to come. These relationships--all around the world--have been invaluable, as they have helped me broaden my perspective and helped me to see implications for the outcome of the 2019 conference beyond my own home conference.

Let me share just two more interesting dynamics about what preparation for this conference looks like. First, I've spent a significant time preparing my primary appointment, Decatur First UMC, for the conference. As a church with a diversity of viewpoints--but one which sits in an area known for its high population of LGBTQ persons--it has been an interesting season. I am really grateful to be serving such supportive churches (including North Decatur UMC) at this time, but I will be honest in saying that it has been particularly difficult preparing the churches I serve, because I am honestly not sure what I am preparing them for. We all know what plans are on the table, but we also know that the plans can (likely will) be amended, and so whatever emerges from the 2019 conference will certainly not look exactly like anything in the ADCA.

Second, it has been an interesting experience being on the receiving end of any number of emails from people in North Georgia who want the delegation to know that they support the Traditionalist plan and the "gracious exit' provision. I probably get four a day. Thankfully, most of these emails have been civil. I have noticed that much of the communication I receive comes from a small number of churches. What's more, I have received a number of emails that have been sent to only the voting delegates who will be present at General Conference (i.e. excluding those who will not be present). I find this dynamic fascinating, as--to my knowledge--there is no public document that lists only those who will be present. Until blogging and preaching a few days ago, I had not publicly shared that I would be a voting delegate. Only communication within the delegation has listed who would be going to St. Louis and who would not. The only conclusion I can come up with is that someone within the delegation has been involved in encouraging laypeople in North Georgia to contact the voting delegates with this particular message; to my knowledge, no one else has had the list but the members themselves. Of course it is well within the rights of folks within the delegation to share this information--and it is certainly no state secret that I'll be serving in this way!--but these specific dynamics help me understand the inspiration behind the email onslaught to be less-than-grassroots.

So, that's what the preparation has looked like. It takes a long, long time to be prepared for General Conference, and that's on top of--you know--the regular pastoral load. I'll be blogging more about the plans themselves in the days ahead. Stay tuned. And keep praying that God's will may be done.
Previous posts:
Less than three weeks until General Conference

Monday, February 4, 2019

Less than three weeks until General Conference #umcgc

I'm yanking the starter cord on this old broken-down blog in preparation for the special called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, now less than three weeks away. I will again be present for this session, which is in St. Louis, and as was my practice in 2016, I plan to blog each day of the 2019 session, and on occasion in the days before. I think it is helpful to pop the hood of the church every now and again and allow others--particularly the members of the remarkable congregations I serve--a view into how decisions are made at the denominational level. I also think that it is good to think through how our connectional relationships and public theology influence our daily lives as United Methodist Christians.

Having read back through my blog posts from the last round, I can see some differences between how I approached 2016 and how I am approaching 2019. Probably the most significant difference is that while there were two occasions in 2016 where I got to sit in as a replacement delegate for a day, this time I will be seated as a voting delegate the whole time. I am not quite sure yet what that experience will be like, but the gravity of the work the church is doing is not lost on me. I feel inadequate to do that work, of course, but then that's sort of the whole point of Christianity, so it's probably good that I acknowledge the inadequacy on the front end.

Another difference is that I am trying to spend as much time as I can spiritually preparing for General Conference. In 2016, it being my first conference, I had no idea what to expect. And while this special session is its own animal--one nobody has experienced before--I now have a little more perspective on the kind of spiritual and physical toll that the conference can take. I don't mean to suggest that I left the 2016 General Conference having lost my loyalty to the United Methodist Church or my faith in Jesus. It's just that the heaviness of it all, the occasional back-room dealings, the fact that much of what went on did not feel holy: it beat me up pretty good. For reasons that are both structural and related to the specific struggle that nearly split the church, I have described the 2016 General Conference as one of the lowest points in my spiritual life. It's not that I have never experienced personal tragedy; I could show you the scars to prove otherwise. It's just that when I have experienced personal tragedy, I didn't have professed Christian people--leaders, even!--tell me that I deserved it. What's more, my own spiritual discomfort is dwarfed by that of many of the LGBTQ folk who have been on the receiving end of this conversation.

For what it is worth, as we prepare for the 2019 conference, I am coming in with a sense of peace, because I know that General Conference doesn't get to decide who God loves (everybody, by the way), and because I am learning that when things seem the most knotted up, when it seems like there is absolutely no way forward, that is the moment that God makes a way. I saw it happen during the 2016 General Conference, as we suddenly agreed to let the bishops lead us through this mess, even when it seemed like the whole thing was about to fall apart. I definitely saw it happen during the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, as we elected five excellent bishops and experienced an honest-to-God miracle; if you are interested in that story--and on how I dealt with preaching in a dry season--you can listen to this episode of Dan Wunderlich's great podcast, Art of the Sermon.

I hope this series of posts is helpful and that it adds some context to the usually-entertaining but sometimes-toxic commentary that happens on Twitter around General Conference. In my next post, I'll talk about what the extensive preparation for General Conference looks like, both how our delegation has prepared and how I've been preparing, personally. In the meantime, in these final days before the General Conference convenes, I hope you'll join me in prayer: for our beloved United Methodist Church, for the 864 people who will be serving as delegates, for the LGBTQ folk who too often are treated as the subject of conversation rather than full participants within it, and--in particular--for those who have not yet experienced the life-changing and life-saving love of Jesus. The church exists for them, after all.