Wednesday, February 27, 2019

General Conference Follow Up: What Now?

I have had a practice of blogging every night following General Conference sessions so that folks have something to read the following day. Last night, I just couldn't do it. I needed to be with friends and colleagues who are family to me, as we grieved and processed and supported one another and cussed a little bit (maybe that was just me).

I have received more texts and emails and Facebook messages than I can count. If I have not been able to get back to you, it is because the volume is just too high. Please accept my apology. Everyone wants to know what to do now. It's a really good question. Here's how I am processing all we've been through in the last few days, and what I plan to do.

1. Pray. This is always my first response, and it is not a pat answer. Pray for the church, pray for our divisions, pray especially for those who have been hurt in the last week, particularly LGBTQ people. We've done real damage as a church. If you don't see it, you aren't looking hard enough.
2. Go on a news fast. Stay away from secular media. For one thing, secular media always does a terrible job of interpreting the nuance of religious life. For another thing, we're getting creamed in the media (and mostly deservedly so). I joke sometimes about the church down the street that has to put on its sign, "We're not like those other Baptists." I never dreamed I'd have to put on our sign "We're not like those other United Methodists."
3. Cry. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of beliefs about human sexuality, if you aren't in deep pain about the state of our denomination, you need to check your pulse. Our congregations are strong. Our way of doing church at the denominational level is deeply broken. I have already lost members this week who cannot abide to be within the United Methodist Church any longer. I wish I had taken a video of what was happening in the room in the moments following the passage of the (deeply flawed, mostly unconstitutional) Traditionalist plan. As LGBTQ delegates and observers cried out in pain, some people simply ignored them, some delegations danced, others laughed. I watched American delegates make cash payments to multiple delegates from the central conferences, presumably to secure votes. In all of this, I was reminded of the words of Amos 5, in which God says something pretty stark about all of this: "I hate your religious festivals. Your assemblies are a stench to me."
4. Wait. Wait to see what comes out of the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church. Because the traditionalists knew they did not have enough time to push through enough amendments to the pre-vetted legislation to make it constitutional, they just passed what they had, knowing much of it would be ruled out of order by the judicial council (essentially the UMC Supreme Court). I struggle to see how pushing the passage of something so already-declared-unconstitutional is a faithful witness (or how one could vote for something like it with integrity), but the good news for those of us in favor of full inclusion of LGBTQ people is that most of it will not stand.
5. Don't wait. Don't wait to advocate for your siblings in Christ. The fate of the United Methodist Church is at stake. Yesterday, with all its hoopla, felt a little bit like the funeral for a church. Don't let it be. For one thing, our LGBTQ family need to know we love them despite the harmful actions of the church. For another thing, if we don't get this right, we'll lose the next generation of Christians, straight and otherwise. Younger people, by and large, do not want to be a part of anything that reeks of homophobia. Count me among them.
6. Celebrate. Celebrate that for all its pain, General Conference cannot take away your joy in Jesus. It's counter-cultural, I know, but it's a great witness. I will tell you what I am celebrating. Full inclusion of LGBTQ people is no longer a leftist position. It is decidedly centrist. Over 70% of US delegates voted for the One Church Plan, which would have allowed for contextual differences. Nearly 60% of US delegates voted for the Simple Plan, which would have allowed for a complete erasure of all language in the Book of Discipline that speaks against our LGBTQ siblings. That's huge. Progressives and centrists (and count me in the latter camp, for what it is worth) banded together this week like I've never seen before.
7. Rest. Be good to yourself.  I know for many faithful United Methodists, this has been a draining week. I heard that something like 30,000 people we watching on livestream! Remember that taking sabbath is a command from God, not a suggestion. And the reason you need to rest is that we have serious work to do, friends.  I'm more energized than I have ever been, and I am through slow walking. If God is for us, who can be against us? Rest up. It's about time to giddy up.
8. Run. General Conference 2020 is around the corner. To my North Georgia friends, you only have a few days to self-nominate. Do it here. We must have a strong slate of leaders. Please, please consider running. I'm running. You should, too. Do it. (Clergy, you have to sign into data services in order to self-nominate).

I'll have more to say. I need to finish packing and get the heck out of St. Louis. I do love the United Methodist Church. I have hope for the United Methodist Church. But we have miles to go before we sleep. For now let me just say that it has been such an honor to represent the church this week and to have been elected to this place by my colleagues. I may wish to forget this last week because it was so awful! But I'll never forget the honor of having been elected in the first place, particularly that my colleagues were willing to trust someone so young. I'll carry that honor with me the rest of my life. Thank you.

Monday, February 25, 2019

General Conference Day 3: What to say? #umcgc #gc2019

It was a really hard day at General Conference. Hard is not the right word. Painful. Sad. Harmful. For those of us who have advocated and worked on behalf of full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings in the life of the church, today was a gut punch, one that was many years in coming. You could trace that gut punch back to 2008, perhaps, or 2004. We voted down the very plan that 2/3 of our bishops recommended (though it will likely come up as a minority report tomorrow).

I have been thinking a lot today about the sins of the fathers. For as much as I have heard more traditionalist delegates say, "Oh, it's the same percentage against same-sex marriage every General Conference," as if the needle has not been moved on the issue, the truth is that the composition of the delegates changes each quadrennium. Just as marriage equality gains steam in the United States, more and more delegates from outside the US are coming to General Conference. All of this has put us on an unsustainable course for a church with democratic, connectional polity. And we set up this global arrangement without so much as a study committee! I am all for the worldwide church; I worked professionally in mission for years, for goodness sake. But I am not for using the nature of the worldwide church to push agendas. I don't think we should use the church at all. The church was not made for us. We were made for the church.

We knew from our prioritization work on Sunday that the Traditionalist plan had the most support of all the plans (beyond necessary pension adjustments). I was not surprised when it passed. The thing that surprised me the most today was the support for the exit provisions. Including the traditionalist plan, we voted to support three of them. Three! As I wrote yesterday, loosening or eliminating the "trust clause" is a radical departure from our Wesleyan roots. These petitions have not received final passage yet--we were dealing with all legislation today in committee--but I suspect at least one of them will pass tomorrow, provided the petitions pass constitutional muster (and I suspect they will). The whole day felt a little bit like an episode of the Twilight Zone: not because things were horrific, but just because they were so weird. For as much as the traditionalists fuss at the progressives for talking about the way that the African delegations vote as a block, the delegations from Africa largely did just that. You can sit in the stands and watch certain American delegates (including from my delegation) working the members of the various African delegations. I don't begrudge the Africans for voting how they want. I do begrudge the American delegates for instructing African delegates how to vote and for offering financial incentives. It's not like colonialism. It is colonialism. And I have to say, the unwritten rule that we must not call out these practices as what they are--which is to say, sinful--has gotten us to a place where the church is on the precipice of schism. No more. I will not sit idly by as these people harm the church I love.

I sometimes get dinged by those with whom I disagree about full inclusion who say that I'm just "letting the culture take over," as if I were somehow unable to differentiate the waters in which I swim from the Clear Teaching of Scripture, such as it is. I wish those people could experience General Conference, and how toxic its own culture has become. Hanging onto integrity and advocating for those on the margins is often the very definition of counter-cultural in this work. I don't mind getting dinged. And I don't mind disagreeing with people. But the harm we are doing to beloved children of God is downright violent. I'm running out of my own ability to stomach it.

I won't go into many more of the specifics of the day. I am still pretty angry about the trajectory of the day, and I have discovered that writing while angry is rarely a good idea. (I may wake up tomorrow and wish I hadn't written about the colonialism bit! But I doubt it). James Howell has written a helpful summary of the day, including word we're hearing through the grapevine that the official United Methodist seminaries plan to pull out of the denomination if the Traditionalist plan passes. We will learn more tomorrow morning about the constitutionality of the plans we passed today, though we already know that the traditionalist plan is full of problems.

What I do want to say is this. To my LGBTQ friends and family: you are seen. You are beloved, by God and by me. And I am broken-hearted that you are so often treated as otherwise, especially by the church. I am not done fighting for you. I will not be done until homophobia is dead. I suspect I will never be done. I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry.

Let me say one more thing. I am so grateful for the many prayers of the people who love me. The church I serve probably got tired of me talking about the upcoming General Conference as if it were some impending doomsday. The truth is, I have come to understand that my need to talk about General Conference in the last few months was really about my need to say to the people I love: "I really need you to pray for me. This is how you can best love me right now." I have to say, my family and friends and church have delivered. I really feel those prayers. For as hard as today was--and for as heartbroken (and just downright exhausted) I am--I am not afraid. I do not know what the future holds. I continue to be concerned about dissolving the trust clause and the likely decision of our seminaries to pull out. I don't know what form the United Methodist Church will take, nor do I know if traditionalist churches will leave (as I suspect) or some new, more inclusive denomination will be formed at some point down the road.

I do not know any of this for sure. And yet I can honestly say that I do not have fear about what will come next. This is a remarkable thing for me to say, and I have been reflecting on it tonight. I tend to be scared of everything! But I do not have fear about the work that God will do through me, nor through the congregations I presently serve, nor through the church. For as dark as things seem, I know--I know--I KNOW--that God is for us, and if God is for us, who can be against us? How else can you explain this honest-to-God expression of Pentecost?

Tomorrow will be an important day as we conclude our work. The judicial council is set to rule on several provisions. With General Conference, it isn't over until it's over, and even then it isn't necessarily over. I am reminded that at the end of the day, our hope is in Jesus, whose love confounds even the General Conference. What will emerge, I do not know. I do know that God is still God, and people still need Jesus. Resurrection happens. Hold onto hope. I am holding on, too.

Waking TO Doctrinal Amnesia?: Why the Trust Clause is Theology and What Will Happen if it Disappears

The 2019 called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church is underway. While the premise behind the conference--and the Commission that preceded it--involves maintaining as much unity as possible in a church with significant disagreements about human sexuality, much of the conversation of General Conference surrounds the concept of a "gracious exit." Before I talk about my significant concerns about this concept, let me offer a bit of background.

At present, all property is held in trust for the denomination by what is known as the "trust clause." This clause has, throughout history, kept many individual congregations and annual conferences within the fold of the United Methodist Church. As Lovett Weems reminds us,
Were it not for the property trust clause, virtually every white United Methodist church in Mississippi would have left the denomination in the 1960s. This is not hyperbole. It is reality. I was there. Today those churches are among 1,000 churches led by an African-American bishop that contribute significantly to the rich diversity of United Methodism.
"Gracious" or "graceful exit" is language that has been used to describe proposed legislation that would lower the threshold for a congregation or annual conference to leave the denomination (and in some cases, change the body responsible for approving such an exit). The thinking, as I understand it, is that whichever direction the denomination goes this week and beyond, there will be those unhappy with the direction and/or unwilling to remain United Methodist. A "gracious exit" plan would allow congregations or conferences to leave, either to become independent entities or to join with other congregations and conferences to form a new, autonomous denomination. While there are varying standards of how these congregations would leave (involving various thresholds for congregational votes and different amounts of money that congregations would need to pay to the denomination), the basic idea is that churches could leave the denomination by paying their share of unfunded pension liability, however such a thing may be calculated.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), the leading group of traditionalists in the church, has argued that before any plans are discussed, the General Conference should vote upon a "gracious exit" proposal. What's more, the Traditionalist Plan and Modified Traditionalist plan both contain provisions that would allow congregations to leave the denomination. Others--including a coalition of traditionalists, centrists, and progressives--have argued for some level of exit or split, but the energy behind this movement is undoubtedly coming from the traditionalists, and in particular, the WCA; it's notable that the signers of the "United Methodists for a Gracious Exit" proposal include many of my own conference's most outspoken traditionalists. What's more, the Reconciling Ministries Network, a group which advocates for full inclusion of LGBTQ people, has issued a statement arguing against exit provisions, arguing that "LGBTQ-affirming United Methodists do not want to leave the UMC."

Given this context, I want to acknowledge my own deep reservations about any plan that includes the ability of a congregation or conference to leave the denomination. As Weems says,
It should be hard for a congregation to withdraw from their denomination. The burden of proof should be on those seeking to leave and take a congregation with them. After all, those interested in leaving have many other options for themselves among churches and denominations that share their beliefs and values, including some Wesleyan traditions.
It is true that "loosening" the trust clause--either temporarily or permanently--may sound like a convenient way to allow for relieving pressure on a denomination which feels that pressure in visceral ways. The problem is that in doing so, the church would do irreparable harm to the very embodiment of our unique theology of connectionalism and holiness: the trust clause.

Perhaps it sounds absurd to talk about a legal agreement--a paragraph in the Book of Discipline--as an embodiment of theology. If we take a step back for a moment, we can see how something as pedestrian as the trust clause has, at its root, theology. I would even say that the trust clause is, at its root, theology.

One of Wesley's gifts is his ability to connect matters of faith to everyday life. While Wesley may have never used the phrase "personal and social holiness," these ideas are continual threads throughout his sermons and writings. What is more, Wesley's faith was an embodied faith, one that existed not only silently within the head and upon the heart, but one which had its expression in acts of care and compassion for others. Take a look at this sign, which hangs in the New Room in Bristol and describes Wesley's social commitments:

This list is hardly a narrow one, and it echoes many of the Social Principles which are to guide the lives of United Methodists. As the 2016 Book of Resolutions points out, "Such involvement is an expression of the personal change we experience in our baptism and conversion." My point here is that theology does not stop being theology when it exits the brain through the hands. Our theology is made manifest in the work we do and in the nature of the church--which itself does not exist apart from the inspiration of the Spirit. Wesley would call this work "fruit." The trust clause, then, is part of the work we do. It is part of our fruit. It is central to our understanding of holiness: that I love you too much to let you go, even when when we disagree. Our fruit is holiness! This does not mean that we try to be as pure as we can be. It means we are to be as loving as we can be.

This fruit is being challenged. While a number of the plans presented to the General Conference include exit provisions, I have deep reservations about each of them, completely independent of any theological issues surround matters of human sexuality. To undo or loosen the trust clause is to undo or loosen much of the core of our Wesleyan theology.

There are practical concerns. There are already law firms advertising with local churches who may consider leaving the denomination. While the case law has so far protected the denomination (and acknowledging that I am not a lawyer!), I have heard from attorneys connected with the UMC that any loosening of the trust clause will give room for increased possibility that the trust clause will be eviscerated in court, leading to what would essentially be the dissolution of the denomination. What's more, if a church votes 70%-30% to leave the denomination, does the exiting church receive 70% of assets, or 100%? This is hardly an issue of money and assets alone. Questions of unfunded liabilities remain, too.

And yet I am actually not that concerned with the practical concerns of loosening the trust clause. I am particularly concerned with the theology of all of it. Yes, the trust clause is made manifest in a legal arrangement, but at its core, it is among our most central and distinctive theology: we are all in the same boat as followers of Jesus, and when divisions and disagreements appear, we must figure out how to deal with them. To do any less is to fracture our witness as followers of Jesus--and children of Wesley.
Edit (2/25/19, 7:08am):

I had not seen this paragraph from GCFA related to the nature of the trust clause (you can see the original document here), but this sums it up nicely:
No United Methodist church stands alone. Each United Methodist church is part of a larger connection of shared purpose and mission that has been in existence for hundreds of years. And this connection is at the core of what it means to be United Methodist. You and your church are part of something much larger than yourselves, something you can be proud of as Methodism reaches the world over to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

2019 General Conference, Day 1: Prayer and Preparation #gc2019 #umcgc

After nearly three years of waiting, we finally reached the day that the General Conference convened and we spent the day, well, waiting. I actually think that's a good thing. Each of us has been in prayer, individually, but we have not prayed together as a general church since gathering in 2016. A day of prayer and preparation was warranted.

My own day of prayer started at 4 o'clock in the blessed morning when something (honestly, I think it was the Holy Spirit) woke me up and told me to pray. So I spent much of the morning alternating between wanting desperately to go back to sleep and praying desperately that God would help us through this difficult time in the life of the church. I seem to be praying a lot of prayers of desperation lately--not that my life is in crisis, or even that Christ has somehow fallen off the throne. It just all seems so stuck. I have been remembering something one of my father's friends once told him: "if you ain't hurtin', your prayers ain't got no suction."

Even with waking up so early, I was almost late to the opening of the day of prayer at General Conference this morning. I just couldn't get myself out the door. I really think...well, no, I know...there's a part of me that just does not like having to walk into a situation that I know will be difficult. Does anyone like walking into difficult situations? Our conversation about the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church is often quite harmful, and when people I love believe diametrically opposed things about all of this, I struggle to find the energy to engage in conversation that I know will involve conflict. Conflict isn't bad, of course. It just hurts. So let's just say that it took me a while to get my socks on this morning. Before I left, I wrote a quick update to my United Methodist friends (and--especially--the churches I serve) on Facebook:

Arriving at General Conference proper is unusual, especially for an introvert like me. The room is full of people I sort-of know, though I often forget the place from which I sort-of know somebody. In our United Methodist world, there are also people we sometimes call "Metho-famous" which is to say people like me geek out when we run into them, but you wouldn't push past security to get an autograph or anything. The problem is that I sometimes can't remember if I know somebody because they're Metho-famous or because I actually know them. Such is the challenge of doing work in a large, diverse, and global denomination. I did get a chance to briefly catch up with old friends and with some pastors in other conferences I know and admire, which included taking a selfie with James Howell in the middle of a ridiculously long line (it was a kind gesture and made me feel like a million bucks).

We spent the morning learning about the missional needs in various areas of the church: Eurasia, Africa, the US, and the Philippines. This may be a subtle point, but I really appreciated the fact that the conference specifically named the USA as a missional context. Too often, the church has behaved as if the US is the norm and everywhere else has a context; this fact is actually baked into the Discipline, which remains a problem. Today, we talked about the unique challenges of the US context, including the scourge of mass incarceration and the epidemic of gun violence. It was a reminder of the importance of the work we do as a church. It was also sobering. All of this makes me want the church to stay together to tackle these important matters.

I stopped by, during lunch, a presentation from the Uniting Methodists, an unofficial group hoping to maintain church unity by passing the One Church Plan. This was also a meaningful time of gathering, singing, and hearing stories. I wish we did more sharing of stories at General Conference. God does not act through arcane theology, after all. God acts through stories--through people--and the more stories we hear, the more we see God at work.

Speaking of God being at work, after lunch and one more missional context presentation, we entered into a time of directed prayer, and two particular acts of prayer stood out to me. First, Bishop Cho encouraged us to pick one simple word (I chose "hope") and to spend ten (whole!!) minutes in silence, meditating upon that word. I have done centering prayer before, and I have done silent prayer before, but I've never done centering, silent prayer in a room with so many people. I have to say, it was a powerful experience. And while ten minutes is a long time to essentially pray one word, I have to say, it was a peaceful experience, energizing even, and I was sorry when the time was up. The other act preceded our taking Communion, in which we passed the peace with one another and were encouraged to speak with others in our delegation, to ask forgiveness for any way we'd wronged them, intentionally or otherwise, and to offer forgiveness for the same. It won't surprise you to know that on the North Georgia delegation, we have quite a diversity of theological viewpoints. Sharing these moments of reconciliation really reset the tone in the room. It was powerful.

Beyond prayer, there were a couple of important things that happened today that could impact the direction of the conference. First, we learned that the conference has hired a professional parliamentarian to guide our work. He gave a detailed explanation of Roberts Rules of Order, which prompted this tweet from me:

In all seriousness, one of the things that has plagued General Conference is years past is complete lack of understanding about Roberts Rules. We can debate whether this is the best way to do church business (I would argue that it is not), but Roberts Rules has its place and actually protects the will of the minority. And if these are our rules, we need to live by them. So it was a helpful presentation. Once things get moving tomorrow, we'll see how we do.

The second important thing that happened was that the Council of Bishops announced that they were challenging two petitions which would (depending on your perspective) either increase accountability within the Council of Bishops or unfairly remove the discretion offered to bishops in matters of enforcing church discipline. Late this evening, the judicial council--working with remarkable speed--determined that these two petitions are, in fact, wholly unconstitutional. You can read the decision of the judicial council here. This is a big deal, as it goes to the heart of the enforcement mechanism of the Modified Traditionalist Plan. The rest of the Modified Traditionalist Plan remains essentially unvetted by the judicial council, and it certainly has a possibility of passing the General Conference, though it likewise has a chance of also being ruled unconstitutional. I'm not attorney--and I do not serve on the judicial council--but it seems likely to me, based on the rulings of the judicial council in previous sessions, that significant parts of the Modified Traditionalist Plan would be ruled unconstitutional if it were to be enacted. The One Church Plan, on the other hand, has requires only 3-4 small technical fixes to be entirely constitutional. The One Church Plan is the plan for which I am advocating, though mostly I am advocating for God to show up and surprise us all.

I said two important things happened this afternoon, but the truth is that three important things happened, at least for me. Back home in Atlanta, our six-year-old was running on the painted driveway of a relative, slipped, and busted her chin wide open. One trip to urgent care and six stitches later, she's fine, thank goodness. But this dad is feeling the preachers-kid-gets-hurt-while-dad-is-at-a-church-meeting-because-of-course-he-is guilt.

It's not yet 9pm here, and there are still events going on here in St. Louis, including opportunities to rally for the One Church Plan and chances to get to know some remarkable clergy and lay leaders better over dinner. But the truth of the matter is that I am all introverted out. So rather than push it too hard on the first day, I am off to spend some time in prayer and then I am off to bed. Our worship tomorrow begins at 7:30am, and then we'll start the work of prioritizing potential legislation to amend as necessary. I'll explain that process tomorrow, as it will involve an interesting set of legislative needs, including electing a chair for the 864-member committee of the whole. I hear that Connie Clark from the Tennessee Conference happens to be a state supreme court justice, so that seems like a no-brainer, but we'll see. In the meantime, as you gather for Sunday worship, remember those of us at General Conference--and pray that God might surprise us all.

Friday, February 22, 2019

2019 General Conference, Day -1: What This Conference is Really About #umcgc

A fascinating post popped up in my "Facebook Memories" this morning. It turns out that exactly seven years ago, I received this shipment in the mail.

In 2012, my spouse, Stacey, and I were preparing to lead a team to Uganda to work with the HUMBLE School and district superintendents in the East Africa conference who were training local clergy leaders. I have to say, I have rarely been so moved as I was watching the sacrifices made by those training to become clergy and--in particular--the district superintendents, who accepted an extraordinarily difficult assignment despite the fact that it carried with it a paycheck of $0.00.

One of the requests we received in advance of our trip was for 2008 Books of Discipline (BOD) of the United Methodist Church, and this in spite of the fact that immediately following our trip, the 2012 General Conference would functionally render the 2008 BOD moot. The request from the East Africa conference office acknowledged this fact, but conference leaders wanted the 2008 BODs nonetheless, deciding that slightly outdated church discipline was better than no church discipline.

I find it fascinating to be reminded of this memory on the day that I travel to St. Louis, where 863 other delegates and I--along with scores of observers, staff, volunteers, and reserves--are gathering to discern a way forward for the United Methodist Church, despite our different understandings of human sexuality. Ostensibly, the purpose of the conference is to discern a way forward on human sexuality. The truth is that the conference is necessary because we are desperately trying to figure out how to be a global church.

I love the global nature of the UMC. Some of the most committed Christians I have seen in my life exist outside my own national context. I am carrying with me, this week, one of my most prized possessions: a wrist watch which was purchased for me at a used goods store outside of Kampala by a district superintendent with whom we were working. The watch has never worked, but it does not need to remind me of time; it reminds me of love. When I received the watch, I had just given this DS my copy of the Pocket Book of Worship of the UMC. I had another copy at home, so I did not think twice about it. His response, upon receiving the pocket Book of Worship, was to break down in tears and immediately find a way to offer me a gift, as well. All these years later, I am wearing the watch at General Conference. Love is greater than time--or distance.

The business of being a global church is very difficult. 30% of the 864 delegates who will gather for General Conference are from the continent of Africa. 60% are from the United States, with the remaining percentage primarily from the Philippines and Europe. Human sexuality is understood differently in these different contexts, just as many, many matters of life and faith are understood differently in different contexts. And if, as it existed for many years, the United Methodist Church were still a church primarily located within the United States, the matters the 2019 General Conference will be discussing would have been decided already.

I certainly do not mean to say that the United States context ought to be privileged above others. I just mean that the driving issue of the 2019 conference is not human sexuality, as we often discuss it. The driving issue is how to be an international church in a time of great change.

Count me as one who is grateful for the international nature of the United Methodist Church. I worked professionally in Christian missions before accepting my call as a pastor. I do not desire to be a part of a church that privileges its own context above all others. But it remains the fact that too often, the church has used its own international nature to further the goals of its more ideological segments, while ignoring the fact that the United States is just as much of a context as, say, Uganda.

I know that one of the core issues before General Conference is whether marriage can be a contextual issue, or if it is--at its core--doctrinal. I understand the deep concern of my more traditionalist siblings on this matter, having changed my own mind about LGBTQ people and relationships along the way, subsequently becoming a supporter of full inclusion. My only response is that if it is true that the polity of the United Methodist Church is a fundamentally democratic one, involving elections of clergy and laity and quadrennial gatherings which form church law, then all of our theology outside of that which is enshrined in our church constitution is inherently contextual, as it is dependent on quadrennial votes by delegates who represent not all areas of the world, but those areas where the United Methodist Church is present. If our theology were not contextual, why on earth would we need to apportion delegates by size of annual conference and gather every four years?

I do not mean to suggest that human sexuality and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church are not central to the coming four days. But I do hope that we will remember that these conversations do not happen in a vacuum. We continue to discern how to be an international church in many different contexts: a worthy goal, but a significant challenge.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

2019 General Conference, Day -4: How You Can Participate in #umcgc

The special, called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church is just around the corner. Even in a normal General Conference year, it can seem like decisions made at the General Conference level happen *to* United Methodists rather than happening with input and participation from local churches and members. This year, with high stakes for our beloved denomination, that feeling is even more pronounced.

But there are a number of ways in which all United Methodists can and should participate in the General Conference process. The UMC website has put together a helpful list that I hope you'll check out. Let me highlight a few ways in which you can participate in the conversation.

The first--and most important--way to participate in General Conference is to pray. I know this answer sounds like a throw-away response. It is not. Prayer is the most important way anyone participates in General Conference, delegate or otherwise. As United Methodists, we believe that prayer has the power to change things. Offer to God your worries, your concerns, your hopes, your fears. As I have tried to spend a lot of time in intentional prayer in recent weeks, I find myself praying that the church would be one, as God is one, and that we would more closely live up to our calling as laid out in Micah 6:8: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. I also find myself praying that God would surprise us in St. Louis--and that the church would not be so focused on arguing with one another that we miss the surprise.

I hope you'll also pray for the enormous number of people it takes to put General Conference together, scores beyond the actual delegates. Pray for the bishops, the technical folks, the secretaries, the denominational staff, the observers, and the people most affected by the decisions that will be made. I would also ask you to pray for a special measure of clarity and stamina for those present. With such weighty matters before the General Conference--and such a contracted time frame--I do worry about the physical well-being of those who will gather.

The second way to participate is to follow the gathering, live. This is another good way to be in prayer for the conference, as it will give some context to the things for which you should be praying. Beginning Saturday, you can watch the live-stream at this link. Do know that Saturday's program is scheduled to be a day of prayer. Potential plans will begin to be ranked in terms of priority on Sunday, with further work Monday and Tuesday.

You can also follow along with the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtags #umcgc and #gc2019. Let me offer a few tips for following the conference in this way.

The blessing of Twitter is that it democratizes things, in a way, allowing people from all over the world to participate in an extremely important discussion and provide context, experience, and perspective. The problem with Twitter is that the democracy it creates is not necessarily representative. In other words, by giving everyone a voice, the General Conference Twitter stream is not necessarily representative of the feelings of the delegates, nor of United Methodists as a whole. If 2016 is any guide, there will be plenty of people who are not even United Methodist who participate in the Twitter conversation later this week. What's more--and I wish I were kidding about this--I would not be the least bit surprised if some of the Russian troll farms that have been in the news in recent years take the General Conference Twitter stream as an opportunity to lob rhetorical bombs and use the stream to divide us. There are also US-based accounts which use fictional characters and anonymous accounts to participate in the conversation without the integrity of acknowledging who is behind the arguments being made. It's my practice to mute any account that claims to be satire, parody, or anonymous. If you can't stand behind your words, you aren't helping the conversation.

I guess what I am saying is that I do find the #umcgc Twitter stream to be helpful--and I will be participating in it--but you need to take it with the proverbial large grain of salt. What's more, if you decide to actively participate in the feed, be advised in advance that General Conference brings with it very strong emotions. Of course strong emotions are involved; this is God's church we're talking about! As one of my former bishops liked to remind us, "tweet sweet." That is to say, participate fully, advocate as you feel led, but remember that there are real people behind those Twitter handles. The teachings of Jesus as to how we are to treat our neighbors don't get suspended just because the General Conference is in session. I try to follow my own advice about Christian communication, limiting my tweets to that which is true, kind, and helpful (acknowledging I do miss the mark sometimes). You might also find this short Twitter thread from the writer Kirsten Powers to be helpful.

National news coverage is a given during any General Conference year; this year, I expect there to be an out-sized amount of coverage. Be wary of news headlines, especially from secular news organizations, as they often misunderstand the nuances of religion. You'll find more nuanced coverage from organizations like the Religion News Service and our own, excellent United Methodist News Service.

I'm almost done, but let me say one word about direct advocacy with delegates whom you don't personally know, especially by email. This is just me talking, but I am just not moved by a bunch of versions of the same form letter. I probably get five of these emails a day, and they tend to be from the same small number of churches where, I suspect, someone has coordinated a letter-writing campaign. I do not mean to suggest I don't have interest in hearing from folks. I just mean that copy-and-paste campaigns don't really tell me much of anything about what the Holy Spirit is calling the church to do. At this point, the most meaningful thing you can do for those who will be going to General Conference is to pray for them. If you'd like to go a step further--and I would encourage you to do so--you might consider letting the delegates within your sphere know that you are praying for them to be sustained and inspired by the Spirit of God.

Finally, as you participate in this important time in the life of the church, there is one vital piece of information you must remember: despite moments where it may seem otherwise, the love of God is not up for debate. There is nothing General Conference can do to change the way God views you, nor the way that God views all people, as God's beloved children. It is true that the story of the church is the story of human fits and starts, but it is also the story of constant, constant divine love. No matter how things play out over the coming weeks and months, have hope: Jesus still reigns.

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.
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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.