By Ben Gosden, Special Contributor…
Thoughts from a young pastor as General Conference 2012 comes to a close:
Grace and peace to everyone who has worked so hard to make General Conference 2012 happen. A special thanks to all of the leaders, delegates, bishops, agency representatives and lay people who gave up two weeks to serve our beloved United Methodist Church.
I’m a young pastor serving as an associate in a downtown church in the heart of Middle Georgia. I’ve only been in ministry for two years, and I graduated seminary in May 2011. So to say that I’m a little green is an understatement.
However, I am a student not only of ministry, but also the history and polity of the United Methodist Church. I’m not on my conference’s delegation (who would ever elect someone with such little experience?); but I have followed the developments leading to General Conference and have prayed not only for my conference’s delegation, but also for the delegations representing our global connection.
So for what it’s worth—and with special humility, since I’m writing this before General Conference, not knowing the particulars of how things came out—I’d like to make a couple of requests of our connection in the aftermath of the Tampa gathering.
1. Can we let give political divides a rest?
I know General Conference is when caucus groups across the connection spend a lot of time, money and resources on whatever hot-button issues need to be championed. I can appreciate that. But change is on the horizon for the entire connection—all of us included—so can we please check the partisan and divisive language at the doors of the Tampa Convention Center? Scoring points and playing politics will do nothing but hurt the adaptive process we need to undertake as a 21st-century denomination.
2. Can we focus less on structure and more on discipleship?
Once we settle (at least temporarily) the issue of structural change, can we please focus on our real problem—namely, discipleship? The thing is, we can’t depend on General Conference to ultimately address the issue of discipleship. This will have to happen within every local church and station of ministry.
Disciples of Jesus Christ do not magically appear from legislative reform. They come through time and effort being spent together—held accountable in mutual love and formed by the practices of the Church and in the ways of Jesus Christ. This comes as the result of grassroots efforts being shifted toward the hard and often messy work of disciple formation. It’s not top-down and we have to stop convincing ourselves that we can restructure ourselves to more naturally form disciples.
3. Can we learn to trust?
I’ve only been in full-time ministry for two years but I can tell you it doesn’t take much time at all to learn that clergy do not trust one another.
Clergy can’t trust bishops because bishops want power without accountability. Bishops and district superintendents can’t trust clergy because clergy want freedom and certain guaranteed rights without accountability. These are over-generalizations, but you get my point. Our whole system is built on the shaky sands of suspicion and lack of trust. Change means that we’re going to become something different whether we like it or not. So is it possible to find ways to break down walls of distrust in favor of working together—or, dare I say, learning to be connectional?
I have great hope in the United Methodist Church. I’m 29, and I’ve vowed to devote my life to serving the connection because God has called me to do so. And I still believe that a Wesleyan approach to the Christian life offers great hope in a modern America searching for a spiritual voice.
I work with young adults in my local setting and I’m always astounded when they come and tell me, “I’ve been out of the church since I was a kid but there’s something about this church and the Methodists that just brings me in.”
At times, I’m tempted to shout back, “Are you crazy? Just wait until you get to know us better!”
I suppose my greatest hope is that we’ll move to a place where we can actually listen to more stories like this, and listen better to one another, without the noise of bickering drowning us out. If God is the God of Cross and Resurrection, then I’m still convicted that our best days are always in front of us.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is associate pastor at Mulberry Street UMC in Macon, Ga.