General Conference in Tampa made history as the most expensive ($1,500 per minute!), least productive, most fatuous assemblage in the history of Methodism. Sunday evening’s “A Celebration of Ministry” fiasco was a metaphor for our nearly two weeks at church expense: four hours of belabored supplication by the General Commission on Status and Role of Women, five Ethnic National Plans, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, United Methodist Men, Girl Scouts, Africa University and a number of other agencies I can’t remember. A subtheme of that long night: even though we can’t cite specific fruit, please don’t force us to change or to expend less on ourselves.
Even after suffering this abuse, General Conference succumbed to the agencies’ pleadings. In a post-GC blog, Mike Slaughter (who with Adam Hamilton eloquently—and futilely—warned GC that we must change or face certain death) told the truth: “Our denominational systems continue to resist change by protecting archaic structures. From our seminaries to boards and agencies, institutional preservation was a strong resistant influence throughout GC. Entrenched organizational bureaucracies resist accountability …”
By Sunday night’s end most of the exhausted delegates had fled the hall. In a letter (as yet unanswered) the next day to the Commission on General Conference, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward (who had languished in the wings with dozens of missionaries and deaconesses awaiting commissioning) complained that there was “no coordination of the overall event … it was disjointed, repetitious, and random.”
To be fair Bishop Ward, the Commission on General Conference, in its inability (once again) to plan an affordable, manageable, productive General Conference shows no worse dysfunction than any number of our general agencies. Besides, your criticisms imply that Sunday night was a CGC failure.
My organizational guru Ron Heifetz speaks of the “myth of the broken system.” Heifetz argues that all systems are “healthy” in that systems produce what those who profit from the system desire. Though the CGC can’t produce a complicated, large scale, two week convention, the CGC produces a General Conference that protects those in positions of power in our church.
“Want to insure that nothing will change and no one ever asks, ‘Now what exactly does your board produce for the advancement of the kingdom?’? We can give you that—General Conference, Tampa, 2012.”
Some labor under the delusion that bishops actually play a role in planning and directing General Conference, in overseeing programs of the church, in guiding the direction of our connection. Truth is, bishops not only have no voice and no vote at General Conference, we have no role in producing General Conference—and it shows.
Amid worship that wandered off into dizzying theological deviations, the forbidding challenge of so many languages (the few representatives from vanishing German Methodism got translations of the Daily Christian Advocate at the cost of $60k per delegate, even though they all speak better English than I), and the impossibility of thoughtful, honest debate among a nearly 1,000 member committee of the whole in eight or nine languages, one thing united General Conference 2012: distrust of leadership by bishops.
Though we bishops spent four years—guided by some of the church’s best management minds—devising our Call to Action, the chaotic General Administration committee (the last General Conference prohibited bishops from presiding for legislative committees) threw out the CTA’s agency restructuring plan.
The bishops’ accomplishments? The Methodist Federation for Social Action received new life, the Board of Church and Society went home unscathed by reform, and Good News and an unlikely clutch of agitation groups united against the bishops. A group from the Southeastern Jurisdiction, ridiculing the CTA as a power play by bishops, devised Plan B to thwart the bishops’ insidious oversight. Plan B, attempting something unknown in the history of our connection—church by committee—got nowhere. A group then hastily concocted Plan UMC, a flaccid compromise that limited episcopal participation. An episcophobic GC passed Plan UMC. The Judicial Council killed it the next day. Like it or not, our constitution gives bishops the duty of oversight.
Delegates headed home (travel cost, almost $2 million), some embarrassed at having produced little in response to the loss of three million United Methodists in the U.S. since 1970, but serene that they had resisted all attempts to modify the size, cost and duration of General Conference and had protected the church’s bureaucracy. Welcome to church by committee.
Meeting with despondent young clergy at General Conference, I begged them to exercise spiritual discipline, to take their eyes off GC and focus upon the Holy Spirit’s primary arena, the congregations where they will preach next Sunday. I counseled Adam and Mike to go home and expand the networks being equipped by Church of the Resurrection and Ginghamsburg Church—our sole hope for Holy Spirit orchestrated church-wide renewal. No thoughtful restructuring, no accountability for growth and discipleship will come out of GC. Ever.
Cheer up depressed bishops! Having been resoundingly rebuffed by General Conference, bishops are now free to focus upon their annual conferences and those local churches and productive clergy (many of whom are too busy and too impatient to be delegates to GC) who are responsive to episcopal encouragement for risk-taking, visionary leadership.
While General Conference dithered, the Council of Bishops drastically reorganized, streamlined and economized our work, realigning ourselves to lead vital congregations. Effective bishops are not awaiting General Conference permission to lead the UMC into a more vital future. Now that General Conference has snubbed the bishops’ attempt to renew and to lead the general church’s moribund mechanisms, perhaps we can recommit to the historic practices of the episcopacy— preaching, teaching, and guarding the faith.
And the next time one of you has the temerity to whine about waste at General Conference, the loss of a couple of generations of young Christians, the ineffectiveness of a general church board or agency, or the infidelity of Methodism in retreat I will say, “I share your concern. It’s a shame you weren’t in Tampa.”
The good news is that the mission of Jesus Christ will not be defeated. With us or without us, he shall get the church he demands.
William H. Willimon is bishop of the UMC’s North Alabama Conference and author of the recently released Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Abingdon).