May 10 2012
Kudzu Life: UMC General Conference Detox
I admit that I'm at least a little bit of a UMC polity nerd. I can't always quote paragraph and verbatim from the Book of Discipline, but most days I appreciate our organization, structure, and rules. I've served in 3 different Annual Conferences and I've grown in the way of Christ due to the clergy and churches I've served. I've also served at conference level on a board and know the wisdom of having a structure. So, I love the UMC for the ways it has transformed me and feel responsible for helping that same sort of redemptive living occur for others. For these reasons I value the polity and take interest and responsibility, where I can, for continuing a healthy, vibrant organization.
Like many, I watched far too many hours of the live feed, the Twitter quips/rants/raves, and the blogs during GC 2012. I LOVED the addition of technology to GC & was one of the 200 watching the @Gatordukie videocast as the GA committee did not end up with a majority for any reorganizational plan. I was one of the 1500-2000 that watched/participated from a distance in both plenary and worship sessions each day. Add in some direct cell texts to delegates or alternates, and even a phone call with one delegate friend who explained what I'd missed during a few hours away, and I don't even want to confess the hours I spent #Methodistdistracted. While I've followed other General Conferences before there is a vast difference between getting a few news stories at the end of the day and that sense of almost being there due to the technology. I appreciated some of the debate on social principles as that revealed variety of biblical and theological perspectives within the UMC. It is intriguing, and somewhat disconcerting, to me that we vote on theological matters! How do we maintain as a norm some of the Wesleyan Methodist theological tensions? I wondered what the vote would be if we voted about prevenient grace. Would it have a passing percentage of vote at GC? With our international and regional distinctions I suspect that GC might benefit from a "theologian in residence" who might share throughout the plenaries. Got a John Wesley "stand in" for our attempts at conferencing? This would be different than a bishop interpreting the rules of GC, but more like John Wesley's style of running a conference meeting. All in all, incredible, sometimes exciting, sometimes boring, and in all respects a most unusual GC! Though I didn't get the whole "show" I experienced the roller coaster of emotions with the debates, the various reorganizational plans, and the challenges of the hours, the tedium, and the hopes and fears of the delegates and a denomination.
The good of being at home or work and watching GC from the distance was that I could attend to my ministry, I could go to my son's baseball games, I could look after my garden, and enjoy good breaks from the legislation. That helped to nurture my soul, and reminded me to be in prayer for all of you caught in denominational politics. I can't tell you how often I watered my tomatoes and other vegetable plants thinking about you and hoping for your peace and calm.
GC was also a good reminder that legislation and polity are part of an international denomination. As a missions pastor I'd always thought that the international aspects of our denomination would be a great gift to the work here in the U.S., and might calm our political tendencies, but as I watched GC play out it seemed to be just another element of the challenge. Add to that the agencies lobbying their perspectives, the LGBT, regional factions, etc.... well, even by video and at a distance this stuff was rather clear. Perhaps at the GC level it too often looks like DC politics, and that is some of the heartache for all of us as there will be winners and losers in legislation as you petition, amend, and amend the amendments. Our challenge is that we don't just have a 2 party system in gridlock. Are we more like an 6 or 8 party system in gridlock?! I sometimes wondered if some of you standing at a GC mike shouldn't pull out a soapbox, show the viewing audience what group/caucus/position you are for, and then have your 3 minute speech. But, then again, your positions and true cause became rather obvious after a short time of viewing. I'm somewhat certain that true holy conferencing wouldn't be by Robert's Rules of Order, nor would it be so pre-determined in outcome by the percentages for, and against, agendas and caucuses. I often wondered where God was in the legislative, which I found to be an ironic question to ask during Easter season. I'm reinforced again in the belief that the transformational work of ministry really does happen locally, in contexts outsiders likely won't understand, and that there are huge challenges to creating a church structure that is denominationally appropriate and flexible to vital ministry in a congregation, campus ministry, or chaplaincy in a specific setting. Maybe that's why Jesus never bothered with much organization or structure for the Kingdom. The biblical dangers are that we can tend toward Babel, or king making/ king ruling that distracts from the King and the Kingdom, or follower arguments about who's going to sit in the 2 select seats on either side of the King.
Challenging stuff to have some form of order and structure that is true to Wesleyan Christianity and that maintains the General Rules. As the Judicial Council reminded us we may be bound by our many rules now in ways that will be a challenge to untangle. Yet, I'm hopeful there is still opportunity that our best days are before us. And this will not likely come from GC or legislative action, but through Holy Spirit at work in the Body of Christ.
I hope for any of us who banked everything on our particular opinions or positions being endorsed by GC that we'll realize that the Church, and our local church, will go on. I'd been mulling this over for a few days as I detoxed from GC. I was especially grappling with the trust issues and challenges that seemed to be present at GC2012. Committee work could allow a group to process more information and votes, but you'd need to trust the committees. When votes are affirmed through the consent calendar, and there is no debate or discussion, you vote away guaranteed appointments. I can certainly see the financial and accountability issues of this, though as a deacon I also know the challenge of retaining denominational identity and a place in a system. While most of this blog sat in draft for a few days a few bloggers have added greatly to my thinking about recent events. I hadn't thought of the impact upon chaplains and you'll find a good analysis regarding loss of guaranteed appointment. Howell's "13 Propositions" also serves as a good reflection after GC. Taylor Burton-Edwards offered a welcomed view of UMC optimism based on his experience and observations at GC.
During the GC I became more eager to be mission active in UMC opportunities around the globe, yet to also make special effort to build bridges within the US. While many of us talk of the challenge of knowing other clergy and trusting them, or their committee decisions, in a large annual conference like North Georgia, it was obvious that this is magnified between the jurisdictions. How might we better build bridges of mission and ministry, collegial relationship, and shared denominationalism between the US jurisdictions and the Central Conferences? Asked another way, how can we get beyond each of our soapboxes and provincialism in ways which would create a stronger UMC and stronger local expressions of vital Wesleyan ministry and mission?
As I continue to think about the UMC, our polity, and our conferencing, I'm optimistic while I also better realizing the limits and the opportunities of it all. Maybe if we are as passionate and energetic in our local ministry for making disciples for Jesus Christ we'll experience a Wesleyan Christian renewal that can never be legislated.
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