By Alan Heath, CEO, UMR Communications…
Halfway through the second week of General Conference, I sat down to record my observations as a first-time attendee. I was not a delegate, only a very interested observer with little or no context other than attendance at many Annual Conferences in North Texas. I made some observations at that time which I would now like to revisit.
First, I observed we are a global church. That was apparent as I observed delegates, especially from Africa, and heard several speeches for or against a topic that had to be translated. But it is apparent to me that while we are a global church, we are not a unified church. We certainly are not a “United” church. The fact of our global nature also underscores the variety of divergent views within our church.
I observed that General Conference was a time of celebration. That was underscored, especially in the first part of the week as we acknowledged and celebrated numerous ministries that touch literally millions of lives around our world. However, I was not prepared for the spontaneous celebration that was observed by delegates and others opposed to the reorganization plan when the unconstitutionality of that plan was announced to delegates late on the final day. “Party spirit” rather than celebration may be a better description, bringing to mind the words of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 3:1-5.
I also observed that business sessions could be extremely tedious. That continued to hold true through the rest of the conference. It’s the way we have chosen to do business. It’s not efficient and one could question whether it is effective. I don’t know what percentage of legislation was finally acted upon. At the beginning of the last day, 80 percent (including consent agenda items) had been addressed. But only one-third of non-consent items had been addressed. It makes you wonder that surely there must be a better way.
Another observation reinforced through the remainder of the conference was that Twitter was constantly abuzz. In fact, it was difficult to keep up with the GC2012 Twitter feed, especially during times of controversial topics and floor demonstrations. And anyone having access to the live feed could comment as if they were actually present. It is hard to predict what kind of impact technology will have on GC2016 in Portland. But serious thought needs to be given to using new and developing tools to enhance the ability for the General Conference to do its work.
One more observation also held true through the end of the conference: Words do make a difference. Here are just a few: incompatible, agree to disagree, unity, transformation, Methodist, guaranteed appointment, repentance, areas of focus, restructure, committee, commission, reform, establishment, death throes and birth pangs.
Actions and activities of the last three days of General Conference significantly affected my last two observations. I had observed that “divergent views were gracefully accommodated” and “there’s a sweet spirit in this place.” While those observations held true for the majority of the time I was there, it was far less apparent during the demonstration on May 3 and the aftermath of the Judicial Council announcement on May 4.
The group that marched into the delegate area was there to express their pain and disagreement with the decision to maintain the current wording in the Discipline of the church’s official position on homosexuality. They refused to vacate the area when asked to do so by the presiding bishop and there was some concern that it could have turned into an ugly confrontation. But the overall situation was resolved peacefully as a result of conversation with the group by four bishops during a called early break for lunch.
Then the Judicial Council decision created a degree of chaos and disbelief. Many delegates left feeling the two weeks had been a total waste with very little to show for their efforts.
That is a look back. What about a look forward?
I do not subscribe to the fatalistic view that our denomination is no longer relevant. I knew going into this conference that it would be “historic,” though not in the way it turned out. However, I also know this conference was undergirded with the prayer support of perhaps millions of people. I know the Holy Spirit was invited to be present. I know that Jesus said that wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, that He would be there too. I also know that there was much important work done at General Conference, although much of it may have been procedural and mundane. My prayer will continue to be that God will show us a path forward so that we can truly fulfill the calling He has given to all of us.
We still have a structure in place that allows us to move forward. We have a budget in place that will require all areas of that structure to rethink how they do ministry. But most of all, we have a church made up of thousands of local congregations where the real work of the church takes place. Changing structure will not create vital congregations. Providing more financial resources on the local church level will not guarantee vital congregations. Changes of wording or not changing wording in the Discipline will not generate changes that lead to vital congregations.
Only the Spirit of God blowing though His church and touching the hearts and minds of those who are called United Methodist will lead to those churches opening their doors to the millions of potential disciples who have yet to experience the fullness of God’s love and grace. General Conference has come and gone. And God continues to work within our midst.