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A Serious Language Barrier

I spent most of this afternoon sitting in on the Faith and Order legislative committee at General Conference. This is the committee that is considering all the petitions relating to theology and doctrine, along with several petitions about homosexuality and its compatibility with Scripture and Christian tradition. You can see all the petitions here:  Download 1.Faith and Order

Say what you will about these petitions. I certainly have my opinions about them and it was probably a good thing that I was a silent observer! What struck me most about the debate of the subcommittee dealing with homosexuality and ordination, however, wasn't so much the content as the dialogue itself. Imagine, if you will, a squared up series of tables where about 30 or so delegates are sitting. About two thirds of the group are American Methodists, while a third are from other countries–mostly United Methodists from Africa. Every time someone speaks, two or three translators–who are also sitting at or around the table–need to translate it into French for the Africans, or from French to English for the Americans. People speak in short bursts of sentences, wait for translation, and then move on. It's a painstaking process to just get the words out and heard. 

But that's not the most difficult part of the process. What really became evident to me as I listened today was the fact that even if we're using the same language, we use words quite differently. Take the word "inclusion," for example. One African delegate wanted to clarify what that word meant to everyone else around the table. The translation made it frustrating for him and everyone else but it was an honest question. Several American delegates got up and tried to explain it, but each gave a different definition based on their particular perspective. For some, inclusion means that everyone is welcome in as they are and celebrated while, for others, inclusion is just the first step in a larger process where we are accepted as we are but we're not called to stay that way. For some, inclusion means participation while, for others, it must lead to transformation. The African delegate kept trying to get his question clarified but the committee chair eventually ruled his question as "inflammatory" and stopped him cold. I wonder how his translator handled that…

This seems to me to be a microcosm of the underlying problem of much of the dialogue here (not all of it, mind you, but much of it). We United Methodists have a serious language barrier. One delegate talks about the "quadrilateral" as the way we interpret Scripture (on a level with tradition, reason, and experience) and another delegate holds up Wesley's dictum that the Scripture is primary with the other three acting as lenses. One delegate talks about inclusion with the mantra "all means all," while another reminds us that inclusion isn't valuable unless it leads to transformation. We are seriously divided on issues like the authority of Scripture, the meaning of Jesus, the reality of resurrection, the nature of sin, and a whole host of other issues and terms we define quite differently. Even the people who don't need translators to hear one another can't really seem to understand each other. And sometimes, when we try to define the terms, others are quick to rule our definition as out of order. 

I spent a lot of time walking around the convention hall today pondering this serious language barrier and wondering if it can ever be breached. It's more like Babel than Pentecost–everyone speaking their own language but no one being able to understand the words. I am doing my best to look for the good things here and there are indeed signs of hope in many places. But like the bishops have been saying throughout the Conference, only a movement of the Holy Spirit is going to enable us to revive this Church. Only a common language will enable us to move forward. Pentecost birthed a church in the beginning. I think we need it again if we're going to continue! 

How About a Call to Discipleship?

We just finished hearing the report of the Call to Action committee, which was presented by Adam Hamilton and others on the floor at General Conference. For those who may be unfamiliar with CTA (as I'll refer to it henceforth), it's a proposal by a task force convened by the Council of Bishops to propose measures to increase the vitality of United Methodist congregations and, as a result, to stop the denomination's precipitous decline. The presentation began with some staggering numbers: 

  • Over the last five years, membership in the UMC in the United States has declined 5.3% (424,000 members)
  • Worship attendance has declined by 8.7% over the last five years (291,600 less on an average Sunday than five years ago)
  • Baptisms and confirmations of children and youth have declined by 21% over the same period. 
  • Only 15% of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. are considered to be "highly vital," a designation which is marked by:
  1. Effective pastoral leadership
  2. Multiple small groups and programs for adults, children, and youth
  3. Worship that connects across generations
  4. A high percentage of spiritually engaged laity in leadership 

The vast majority of our congregations do not meet these criteria for vitality. 

The upshot of all this, according to the report, is that in 25 years our denomination will no longer have children and youth in our churches, and in 50 years we will no longer exist if the current trends are not reversed. 

The Call to Action task force thus offers the General Conference four proposals for vote in the next few days as a means of re-vitalizing the United Methodist Church (or at least slowing the decline):

  1. A ten year focus to create and sustain vital congregations.
  2. Allow annual conference to restructure themselves to fit their local contexts.
  3. Restructure the denominational agencies to foster flexibility and collaboration.
  4. Invest in leadership, including raising up the next generation of clergy (52% of UM clergy are ages 55-72)

The General Conference will be voting on these initiatives, which are more complex than I have outlined here. But here's my two cents…

A lot of the energy in the proposal is around clergy–making clergy more effective, getting more clergy, raising up younger clergy, holding clergy and bishops accountable. As a clergy person, part of me celebrated this. I like being held accountable and I think it's a good idea to raise the bar on standards for the conduct of ministry. But here's the problem–this won't reform the Church anymore than better clergy would have reformed the Anglican Church in Wesley's own day. Methodists never were a clergy movement in the beginning. They were first a discipleship movement. As my friend Steve Manksar of the General Board of Discipleship tweeted during the presentation, "We don't need more clergy, we need faithful disciples of Jesus Christ." 

CTA talks a lot about raising up clergy, but their primary answer for doing so is designating money to send young people to seminary. Again, I liked seminary enough to go twice. But clergy depth is not generated in seminary. If you go to seminary to learn the faith and learn to live it out, that's way too late in most cases! I was blessed to be raised in a church whose primary focus was about shaping me as a disciple of Jesus Christ. While I may now disagree with some of the doctrinal principles I was taught there, I will always be grateful for the expectation that was given to me to grow in faith. It was the church that gave me the tools to do that long before I ever darkened the doors of Asbury Seminary.

Come to think of it, the clergy of the church I grew up in weren't even the primary ones who shaped my faith. It was the non-ordained disciples who did so–Mrs. M who taught us in Sunday School; Brian, my youth leader who showed up at every one of my concerts and took me to his house for dinner when Ididn't know where my next meal was coming from.  There were the elders of the church who taught me the historic doctrines of the church, and the myriad people who prayed me and my sisters through the death of my mother and slipped groceries into the car when no one was looking. 

I didn't know it then, but they were the church. The pastors were awesome but it was the church full of disciples who shaped me and made me who I am today. I have not forgotten. 

When I became a United Methodist, I was intrigued that Wesley had a method for doing what the folks at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Butler, PA did, and then some. The class meeting was the place where the church happened and grew in early Methodism–the place where lay persons, led by lay leaders, stirred one another to Christian perfection by looking each other in the eye and asking, "How is it with your soul?" It was in the class meeting where empty seats welcomed visitors seeking faith. It was in the class meeting that people banded together to be in mission to their neighbors. It was in the class meeting that vitality was measured one disciple at a time. 

I wonder what would have happened if Call to Action had recommended that the way to vitality in our future is to return to the best methodology of our past? What if the report had said, "We are calling on every United Methodist Church to engage in an intentional process of making disciples of Jesus Christ in every age group using the best practices of a movement? What if we developed a system for making disciples–a clergy supported but lay-led system–that was less concerned with counting butts in the pews and more concerned and fully focused on growing a kid, a teenager, an adult into a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? My guess is that you wouldn't have to go fishing for effective leaders, lay or clergy, at that point. You would only have to launch them into the world! 

The closing image of the report was a video about a church that was closing. It was a kind of "don't let this happen to you" image. There were lots of empty pews throughout. Maybe that's not a bad image if it means that they're empty because everyone is out announcing the kingdom. That's an image of the future I can get behind! 

The Rules are the Rules (unless they’re not)

RulesAt the end of last night's session of General Conference, presiding Bishop Larry Goodpaster looked pretty frazzled. He was tasked with facilitating the part of the conference that is usually the easiest–setting the rules by which the Conference would do its work. Roberts' Rules of Order are usually the gold standard for these kinds of meetings, but there are sometimes things that go beyond Roberts that involve some negotiation. At stake last night were a couple of proposed amendments to the rules that would 1) Limit the end time of each day at Conference to 9:30pm so that delegates can actually get some sleep, and 2) barring protestors from being inside the bar of the conference. The debate was, at least to my unpracticed General Conference observational eye, an exercise in political posturing with debaters for and against the motions saying a lot by saying very little. 

See, there's a subtext here at General Conference that few talk about but everyone understands. The liberal/conservative divide is present in nearly every conversation. Last night's subtext about rules had to do with who would really control the debate at General Conference and how. There is a deep and palpable mistrust when someone from either a "known" liberal or conservative conference stands at the microphone to propose an amendment. The layers of amendments seem to make it difficult for all the delegates to know exactly what they're voting on. And so, as the afternoon begins, we still don't have the rules in place. Tonight we'll hear back from the rules committee about amendments and next steps and more wrangling will no doubt ensue. 

What fascinates me, though, is that all this anxiety comes immediately after we have had two dynamic sermons calling the church to follow Christ and do ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is talking about kingdom redemption while we're debating the rules for having a conversation. I wonder if all this "grieves" the Holy Spirit because I know it grieves me. Edwin Friedman once said that an anxious system always gives strength and opportunity to the extremists. General Conference would seem to be a classic case. Agendas and counter-agendas will continue to rule the day here, which means the conference feels like being slowly and repeatedly hit with a big stick–not enough to hurt you but enough to cause you a constant dull pain. 

I wonder what would happen here if someone decided to chuck all the rules and call us to just worship and pray for the next few days? Heaven knows that most of the things that get decided here (or don't) in the next several days don't ultimately have much of anything to do with life in the local church. I would rather hear more preaching than more amendments. I would rather hear from my African brothers and sisters how their focus on evangelism is igniting a wildfire movement of the Spirit in their countries. I would rather open the Word than the Daily Christian Advocate. We will never legislate our way to health. The rules will never save us–only Jesus can. I just wish we were paying him a little more attention. 

The Road to Nowhere?

Tampa-airport-parking-mapI arrived in Tampa yesterday for the start of the United Methodist General Conference–our quadrennial gathering of UM clergy and lay delegates from around the world who meet to set policy and the direction of the church for the next four years (at least). I am here in two roles: first as an elected reserve delegate and second as a communicator for the Rocky Mountain Conference. My job is to blog and Tweet and Facebook back to the Conference on what's happening here. In that role, I am to be a dispassionate reporter of what is seen and heard. But here, on the Bob Kaylor blog, it's all about personal observation–unfiltered, reactionary, and usually not thought through thoroughly (say that three times fast) before it gets published. Let the reader beware. 

Anyway, I arrived yesterday on a pleasant flight from Denver on Southwest (yes, it's worth the extra $10 to insure an aisle seat). Arriving at the Tampa airport, I called for the shuttle and was told, "It's right outside, all ready to go." Well, the promise proved to be more of a premise. Some colleagues and I actually waited for about 30 minutes until the right shuttle showed up. We climbed aboard for the trip to the hotel. What we didn't know, however, was that we were about to enter a kind of passenger purgatory as the shuttle circled the airport four times, each time returning right back to where we started. It was another 30 minutes before we actually left the airport. The Talking Heads song "Road to Nowhere" was running loops in my head. 

As we rode back and forth across the scenic Tampa airport (scenic, if palm trees and pavement are your thing), I began to muse that this could easily be a metaphor for what is about to happen here over the next 11 days or so. We have all arrived from around the world, we're all beginning a journey together, but there will be times where it seems like all we're doing is circling the issues and continually returning back to the place we started. All the legislation, proposals, and studies; all the wrangling and debating and kvetching may swell into one long chorus of the road to nowhere. We were joking about it on the shuttle, which was filled with delegates–the gallows humor of those who have been down this road many times before. 

But, then again, it's the first day and just like the beginning of baseball season, everyone here thinks that there's a chance–even a small chance–that something great will happen here. I'm hopeful that it will, but I tend to be pessimistic sometimes (you know the definition of a pessimist–it's an optimist with experience). I hope I can push that aside as the conference opens with worship in a little over an hour. Worship may be the one thing that we all want to do well, and it may very well be the only way we're ever going to stop circling and start moving forward. Even in the midst of a mammoth convention center filled with all the trappings of corporate culture, God can show up and great things can be done. 

I'm hoping that at the end of this General Conference, when it's time to head to the airport,  the shuttle runs straight. I'm hoping that during the Conference, the Spirit leads us that way, too. 

A Modest Organizational Proposal

 by Rev. Kent Ingram, First UMC Colorado Springs

Reserve Delegate to General Conference

How we are structured is important. But maybe not that important.  As I read through the many pages of proposals for different structures of the United Methodist Church I had a deep, sinking feeling.  This may not make any difference at all.  We will spend countless hours debating, perfecting, approving, and implementing a new organizational design.  But will it, really affect the way you and I do ministry as laity or clergy in our local churches?  I am trying to be not too cynical about this, but…

So I don’t have a grand proposal to organize the church that will cure what ails us.  But I do have the beginning of an idea that might force a structural change, and I’d like to offer that as a place to begin another conversation.  Before I begin, let me say that I do believe in the connection.  I do believe that we can do some things better together than we ever can alone.  I do believe that it takes concerted, unified efforts to change systems of inequality and oppression. I am not asking us to abandon our historic social concerns and just focus on ourselves.  But I also believe that a hierarchy acting in a disconnected way from the local church will enact little effective or long lasting changes.  In other words, we need the local churches to be the “feet on the ground” for significant social change.  We can model the change we support.

Having said that, I want to remind us that the Call to Action Committee claimed that the adaptive challenge to the United Methodist church is:

“To redirect the flow of attention, energy and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Part of me wants to laugh, or perhaps cry, to think that we spent thousands of dollars to figure out that the flow of resources should be directed to strengthening churches rather than judicatories.  But any of us in the church at the local church level has understood that often we are treated as if we are there to serve the conferences and not the other way around.  But I digress…

So how do we focus on fostering vital congregations?  I think it begins with our leadership. I want to ask some hard questions.  These questions are not directed at any individuals, but to the system.  What happens if out Bishops see as their primary responsibility to pastor, teach and equip “their” congregation?  By that I mean the members of their annual conference, particularly the clergy.  What if the ministry of the bishop centers on teaching us, leading us in worship, challenging us to grow in our understanding of the faith and to deepen our commitments to the ministry of the church?  Sort of like what we clergy do with our congregations.

I have been in the ministry for over thirty years.  Not once have I received communion form my bishop. I have been in services where they presided, of course.  But never have they looked me in the eye and said, “Kent, this is the Body of Christ broken for you…”  I yearn for settings where the Bishop can engage their congregation in deep discussions of the church and of beliefs, so we can better teach our folks.  I want to work side by side with the bishop in a mission project, well you get the point.  If, as I tried to argue in my last blog, one of the functions of a church in the wilderness is to learn their story, I can think of no more important role of the Bishop than to be teachers of the faith. What if the main job was to pastor the pastors?

As far as District Superintendents go, what if they take seriously their role as the extension of the Episcopal office?  What if they are the onsite folks who can help us in specific ways to do our ministry?  Here is where the accountability piece comes in for me.  I need to be held accountable, but frankly my local church will not hold me accountable for the things that are important.  They want to know if people like me, are my sermons interesting, do I get along with older people, do we pay our bills…if so then things are fine.  I need to be held accountable for dynamic and transformative worship.  I need to be held accountable for mission and outreach opportunities in our community and the world.  I need to held accountable for learning and discipling opportunities that are deep and meaningful.  I need to be held accountable for the pastoral care of our folks.  But this can’t happen with a once a year visit. I need someone who knows our church ministry well enough to point out what we do well, and then help us in our weaknesses.

Here’s one of my heresies.   I think we don’t have ENOUGH bishops or ENOUGH District Superintendents.  If we want the flow and energy of the church directed to local ministry settings, we need to have enough leaders in place to lead.

I see a place for the larger work of the church being done by our Episcopal leaders.  But it’s what they do in addition to their primary responsibility.  We have elected wonderful bishops to perform the managing of the church. This idea requires that we elect bishops who can lead, teach, pastor and hold accountable their congregation.

So, if we begin there, how does a structure look that supports this type of Episcopal ministry?  Are our leaders serious about redirecting the flow towards the local churches, or will we be concerned about the power, position and prestige of the office of bishop?  I am aware of the danger of putting too much power in the hands of the general boards and agencies.  I am aware that the bishops would ask me, as one has already asked, what responsibilities do I give up to do all of this?  I said, you give up what doesn’t get done!

I know this is sketchy and incomplete.  I have no “big picture” to offer that is any better than any of the other plans.  But I am convinced that no real and lasting change will occur until our leaders lead theologically and until they lead locally.

I am looking forward to your ideas, thanks for the discussion.