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.

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