Wednesday (May 2) at Annual Conference

It's been an eventful day so far at General Conference, with several actions that have significant implications for the way our denomination is structured and the United Methodist Church's influence in the world. Here are some of the highlights and links to detailed articles. 

  • Delegates voted in favor of adopting the compromise "Plan UMC" with some amendments that tweaked the plan. You can read an article about the plan and its impact here. The plan was also referred to General Council on Finance and Administration for a look at the plan's financial impact and to the Judicial Council for a ruling on the constitutionality of the changes. Assuming those go through, the framers hope that the changes will consolidate the work of the General Agencies and increase accountability. 
  • The afternoon began with a look at resolutions having to do with opposition to Israeli settlements in Palestinian land. The petitions called for a resolution of opposition and financial divestment in companies that supply Israel with equipment and the means to build illegal settlements in the occupied territories. The debate was passionate on both sides, both from those who support divestment and those who oppose it. The General Conference voted for the resolution of opposition, but voted against divestiture. 
  • Voted to refer the alteration of the Social Principles to reflect the worldwide nature of the church to the new General Council on Strategy and Oversight. 
  • Voted to change the title of Lay Speaker to Lay Servant. 

The delegation enjoyed a wonderful social time at dinner at a local restaurant. The evening ended with worship. 

Minding the Sheep

Sheep_pen_470x350I've been here at General Conference for a full week along with delegates and observers from around the world and while much work was done in legislative committees over the past week, this week the real work begins as legislation is brought to the plenary. Yesterday I had the chance to take some time off and spent the morning worshipping at Hyde Park UMC here in Tampa. Bishop Will Willimon from North Alabama Conference, in his inimitable blunt and frank style, preached a strong message on John 10:11-18, the famous passage that reveals Jesus as the Good Shepherd and we as his dumb sheep.

That's an interesting and apt metaphor for what's going on here in the plenary. Ironically, the voting delegates on the main floor of the plenary are separated from the rest of us by a fabric fence that runs the whole way around them–a thousand Christian of different colors and dispositions all penned in like sheep. On the stage and presiding over the proceedings is the Council of Bishops whose symbol of office is a shepherd's crook. The shepherds in this case preside over the sheep, but it's the sheep who do the voting and deciding via electronic keypads. Indeed, half of the delegates in the sheep pen are pastors, which is another word for shepherd. The shepherds are also sheep, so…well, you get the idea. 

Many of these shepherds/sheep have their own ideas of whether the flock should go left or right (let the reader understand). Indeed, some will want to stray no matter what the shepherds say. Some of the sheep here are biters and some are the docile type whose brand is their victimhood. The sheep form sub-flocks and talk about how all the other sheep are idiots. The bleating and biting has already begun and, by all accounts, it promises to get worse as the week goes on. 

Bishop Willimon reminded us yesterday that there are two important realities in the Gospels that the sheep need to hear today–two truths that will both guide and critique the work within the General Conference pen. The first is Jesus' definition of who's really in charge: "I am the Good Shepherd." All other shepherds pale by comparison. Whatever we do here, if it fails to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the real leader, we are destined for disaster. A lot of the sheep here think they know what Jesus is up to and want to herd the flock in his stead but, as the Bishop put it, the first step in being able to really follow Jesus is for each of us to state an important reality: "I am not the Good Shepherd." Only Jesus can lead us, and the way he does so is by laying his life down for the sheep. Any shepherd that isn't willing to lay down his life for the sheep isn't a shepherd at all, but a hired hand (John 10:11-13). Any would-be sub-shepherds will need to have the same mind as Jesus, who sacrificed himself and his own interests for the good of the flock, from the temptations of the wilderness all the way to the cross. That's an attitude missing in many of these debates. 

The second reality has to do with the Good Shepherd's assessment of his beloved sheep, which he offers at the moment he lays down his life for them: "They don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). Maybe we ought to admit that in the midst of all this wrangling and politicking that, in the end, we don't know what we're doing. We don't know what the future of the United Methodist Church will be. We don't know if any the proposed reforms, if passed, will make any difference in the end. Despite all appearances to the contrary, we really don't know what we're doing. We like to think that Jesus' word from the cross only applies to those who nailed him there out of hatred and self-interest, but we're guilty of hatred and self-interest, too. Maybe if we admitted that we don't really know what we're doing, we'd do a lot less legislating and lot more listening to the Good Shepherd in worship and prayer. 

I once gave a children's message where I was making the same essential point that the bishop was making–that sheep are pretty dumb when it comes right down to it. One of the children stood up and said forcefully, "Sheep are not dumb!" Her grandpa had them on his farm and she was convinced that they were smart. Subsequent studies have revealed that, indeed, sheep aren't that much dumber than any of the other barnyard animals. But barnyard animals need to be constantly cared for, fed, and protected. They can't generally survive in the wild on their own. Intelligence is always a relative term, whether you're talking about sheep or people. No matter how smart you are, you're still a sheep and you need a good shepherd. 

I remember watching a pre-General Conference briefing several months ago when, after 45 minutes of rolling out proposals for structure and process, one of our bishops finally said, "And where does Jesus fit into all of this?" That's the dumb question that defines the problem. The sheep want to try and bring Jesus into the pen. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wants to lead them to an altogether new pasture. 

My prayer this week is that we'll spend more time asking the Shepherd than debating with the sheep–that maybe the ethics of the sheep pen will be replaced by the ethos of the Good Shepherd. 

Let the sheep say, "Amen." 

The Way of the Gauntlet

One of the more interesting aspects of General Conference involves the act of just getting into the Tampa Convention Center. Outside are a myriad of folks dressed variously in t-shirts and with scarves that represent a variety of causes. There are the pro-Life folks with orange “Do No Harm” shirts, those wearing rainbow stoles advocating for full inclusion of LGBT people, the conservative folks with their papers. Everyone wants to put something in your hand–a flier, a handout, a sticker, a button. It kind of makes you feel like a rock star running through paparazzi for the moment you walk through the gauntlet because everybody wants your attention. Of course, rock stars would have people to carry around all the junk they get handed.

Most conversations here at General Conference have an angle. Everyone’s got a cause and, in many ways, it’s a bit of a microcosm of the wider political divide in the country. It’s not a little ironic, for example, that the Democratic convention will be here later this summer where there will undoubtedly be even more people handing out stuff and protesting across the street (here, there’s a tent set up across the street by a group that advocates for LGBT inclusion). Then, I would imagine, that space will be taken up by some conservative caucus group.

We are constantly hearing the voice of the extremes here–the religious equivalent of Fox News or MSNBC. I’m reminded of Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s famous dictum about family and organizational systems when he says that (and I’m paraphrasing) a lack of clear vision and differentiated leadership always gives strength to the extremists. Without a clear and cohesive vision, countries, denominations and families will all be driven by those with the loudest voices and the most anxious approach to life.

The way things are done here at General Conference (like the US Government system after which our polity is modeled) always means that someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. The rhetoric is peppered with a lot of we-they statements, images of battle, and the woundedness of those who lose. Every issue has winners and losers and while we vow to stay together afterward you always know the fight will be rejoined again at the next committee meeting, conference, or caucus.

Not posing a solution here, but I wonder if there’s a better way to do all of this. Robert’s Rules of Order make meetings orderly, but do they enable real dialogue? Speeches for and against aren’t the same as having a cup of coffee together. The Conference has attempted to have “holy conversations” around some of these issues, but all the delegates complained that the time for them was too short–have to get back to the meeting and the legislation, after all. We apparently always need a referee to help us decide things, so we’re left to communicating ideas through fliers and t-shirts and scarves that mark us as belonging to one side or another. Walking the gauntlet becomes a substitute for walking the long road together.

This week has been all about legislative committees but, beginning Monday, we’ll be dealing with a lot of major issues on the plenary floor where there will certainly be more at stake, more emotion, more passion, more of a desire to win. The sentiment around here is that it’s going to be pretty intense but hopeful that it won’t be ugly. The gauntlet line will get longer, no doubt, and the protests more vigorous.

Before I headed out from the hotel this morning I was watching the Today show, which would be interviewing Rodney King on this day before the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots sparked by his King’s brutal beating by police officers and by their subsequent acquittal. I was reminded of King’s word to the city as the riots raged: “Can’t we all just get along?”

That’s a fair question whether you’re in the midst of a riot or a religious meeting. We are called to be peacemakers and not political hacks.

At Tri-Lakes UMC, we have talked a lot about the fact that while our culture wants to fall somewhere along a continuum between conservative and liberal, Jesus is really nowhere on that grid. He’s calling us to a completely different way of being.

It’s a way of following instead of fighting. It’s the way of grace instead of the way of the gauntlet.



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!