General Conference Day Six
I need to do a little research on my United Methodist history. Last night one of the presenters stated that the earliest delegated general conference was held in 1808. That was the first time people were elected and seated as representatives from their annual conference. But I am not sure when Robert’s Rules of Order and passing legislation as a way to structure the Book of Discipline became the order of the day.
I have been sitting in plenary session today. We are amending and referring, and substituting, and spending hours working on a petition to ultimately defeat it. I keep thinking of the deep issues facing us as a church, and just wonder if this method of being the general conference is becoming outdated and if there is a better way? I am presuming we have not always done it this way, even though it seems like it. But I find it to be slow, tedious and it becomes a procedural game. We are spending lots of time…but what are we actually accomplishing?
Congress has the same fault. There is a fundamental conversation about the role of government in our country, and we are attempting to have it through legislative policies and practices and it is not working. We are frustrated that in our nation no one seems to be leading and we cannot make headway on key challenges, and winning is more important that working for the common good.
Similarly, I see the church needing to have a fundamental convernsation about what does it mean for the United Methodist Church to be a global church, and how will we live that out together? How will be a church that is inclusive and welcoming to all, how will we be relevant in a rapidly changing world, and how will we face the financial challenges facing us. We are trying to solve these issues in plenary sessions of 1000 people debating and voting.
I just have to wonder about what God might be thinking about all of this and when did Robert get to be the order of the day instead of prayer and discernment?
We are voting on whether we should have term limits for bishops? So I am curious, what do you value about the role of the bishop? What do you think is the most important things the bishops do to lead the conference forward? By the way, the vote didn’t pass…they will still serve for life, but nonetheless I am interested in what you think? What do we need bishops to do for us to be the church God is calling us to be?
I am closing in on 20,000 steps today. That might tell you a little what I haven’t been doing. Sitting in meetings. The last time I was at Genreal Conference they worked us every day from 8am to 10 pm or later with no days off for 10 long days. This is the church who teaches the concept of sabbath. Even God who created the heavens and the earth rested on the seventh day to ponder on what had been accomplished the previous six days. Sabbath is a foundational practice for Christians to remind us that we are not in charge of the world but there is a God and we need to remember this God’s place and role in our lives and world.
The excuse for the church to keep the schedule it has for General Conference is that we have brought people together from around the world at great expense and we have so much to do, we cannot afford to take a day off just to rest.
After the last General Conference when they gave us no Sabbath, people complained, And so this year, the practice of sabbath was reinstated. So this morning instead of arising at 6 in order to be in my committee room by 7:45, I was out running at 8:15. I walked to church, worshipped, enjoyed a leisurely brunch with friends. Meandered through an art fair, rode a street trolley and strolled through a historic part of Tampa. It was a wonderful day to renew my spirit and enjoy the company of colleagues in a non-work environment.
The work to be done this next week is hard and complex. But I think we come at it renewed and refreshed for having had the sabbath time. And my experience has been the work takes as long as the time you give it. It is amazing what you can get done when we are focused and engaged, and that only happens when we have had time to disengage and recharge. And ultimately, the work we are doing here is all about what God is up to in the world and Sabbath helps us to remember this is not all our work. God might have something to say with what happens to and with the United Methodist Church. Maybe, just maybe, we can pay better attention to that Spirit having spent this day not in meetings!
General Conference Day Five
Holy conferencing can work. The committee I was observing had a complex piece of legislation to consider. There was not agreement about how to proceed. They did something unusual. Instead of using the legislative process that is at the heart of general conference, the two people who were identified with the opposing views had a conversation. They listened to one another to see where they did have agreement, and what were the core philosophical pieces on which they could find common ground. From there, they invited others into a process of holy conferencing. They asked permission of the subcommittee to take a small group to go off and talk about these key components and then together write legislation that they believed could be supported.
This team took the better part of an afternoon and morning to work. Again, they listened to one another to see what the concerns were that each needed to address. They gave on issues that were not critical that they knew the others could not support. They worked together to write legislation that they hoped would make a complex process simpler. After all this work, they brought back their proposal to the committee and it was passed with little debate.
I don’t know if the legislation will make it through the plenary next week. I don’t even know if it is better legislation than what is currently in the Book of Discipline. But I was impressed with the process. It gives me hope. People who disagree can come together to work for the well being of the whole church. I have often said how we live and work together as the body of Christ is as important as what we do together. Today I saw that in action.
Anthony DeMello writes: do you see how you are in a prison created by the beliefs and traditions of your society and culture and by the ideas, prejudices, attachments and fears of your past experiences?
I am realizing today once again how much we are a product of our context and experiences. We take our world view and want to generalize it and impose it upon the rest of the world. I ponder how do we live out John Wesley”s call for unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials and in all things charity. So what are the essentials of the faith in which we need unity. And are we from our particular context making something essential that are really are not?
We are debating today the covenant of clergy and should there be a mandatory penalty for breaking the covenant. But the penalty is being legislated for one particular action of breaking covenant. I find that covenant is by broken by clergy all the time. We are imperfect people living by grace. I have broken it many times myself when I have spoken ill of another clergy, when I did not respond to another’s needs, when I did not offer my best towards the work of the mission of making disciples. So is there a mandatory penalty for that as well?
What does it mean to be generous towards one another? How can we have thoughtful, careful conversations about what is essential and what is non-essential, and how can we name our own prisons of thinking and become more aware of how that shapes my actions./em>
General Conference Day Four
On Monday, I sat in an Academic Affairs Committee of the board of trustees of an university where we were authorizing tenure for professors. Around the table there were people from other fields who were trying to understand tenure, and what were the implications for the university in terms of a long term financial commitment to a person. The practice of tenure in university life is long standing and the primary purpose was to guarantee academic freedom, so that professors could not be dismissed capriciously for their opinions and ideas. It was to create a robust academic environment. And yet, the upside of anything has a downside, in that in the case of an ineffective teacher, there is now an arduous process to terminate them, and in essence a life long employment contract.
On Friday, I am sitting in the judicial administration committee of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church where they are working on overhauling the complaint process for clergy. This process is modeled on the justice system of the United States. In essence to remove a credential from a clergy, if they do not choose to act voluntarily it could require a church trial. It is expensive, lengthy and complicated. Again the intent of such a process was good. It was to protect freedom in the pulpit so clergy could preach and teach out of their convictions. At times in our history, this protection has been important as clergy have been engaged in working toward civil rights or preaching against military involvement. But now, I wonder about what we have done for a variety of reasons.
First of all, is the US justice system the best model for us to work our life as a church? Should be using more discernment and holy conversations versus committee on investigations and counsel for the church and clergy? Secondly, it just amazes me again and again, when we have such pressing issues as a church about how we are going to remake ourselves to be relevant to new generations, that good people are giving three days of their life to talk about the role of the committee of investigations. Aren’t there better things we should be doing? And in creating a process for chargeable offenses and church trials, does it just foster an adversarial relationship?
The church is having a major conversation right now about homosexuality. Many faithful people disagree about how we live out our Christian beliefs. For some clergy, to act in what they believe are faithful ways to the gospel, is categorized a chargeable offense. So do we really have the freedom to preach, teach and lead that the complaint process was set up to ensure, or is it being used to punish and remove from our midst those with whom we have disagreement? As more and more clergy are feeling called to act in ways as they name as faithful civil disobedience, there could well be a significant uptick in the number of trials. And from experience, every complaint process takes a huge amount of hours and energy on the part of district superintendents and bishops. Is this really where we want to spend our time? Don’t we have better things we need to be doing as a church? It seems to me that the system is already broken and trying to fine tune it makes little sense.
So what if we got rid of the complaint and trial process all together? I understand that healthy organizations have grievance processes so that the rights of the individuals are protected. We need something in place that hold clergy mutually accountable to a standard of practice as well as protecting any person by the abuse of power by a supervisor. But there has to be a simpler way…and a way that allows the clergy and church to work for change and justice in the world without being in fear of losing their credentials.
General Conference Day Three
It takes time and effort to be a global church. I am sitting in legislative committee today. We have people who speak a variety of languages and come from a variety of backgrounds. Just moving through the organizational process took significant time because we needed to make sure our translators had time to interpret so everyone could participate fully. We spent a generous amount of time to introduce the members of the committee to each other so we would have a sense of who is sitting in the circle, where each comes from and some of their story. It was important foundational work for building relationships in order to work together.
I am person who likes to think fast, talk fast and move fast. There were moments I was frustrated by how long everything was taking. But I have been on the other side of the coin as well where I have been the non-primary language speaker, and the needing the hospitality of the group in order to be able to contribute my voice fully.
I believe this is one of the key challenges we face as a United Methodist Church. The world is moving fast, and we, as a church, are having a hard time keeping up with changes sweeping across the landscape. I long for a church that is more nimble, agile, and flexible which requires thinking on your feet and taking action without having study committee after study committee. And yet, if we truly are going to be a global church with full participation and not just in name only, then we need to take the time to listen, to build community and to bring our varied perspectives and history.
I don’t know how to reconcile these two. Many days I feel like we don’t have the luxury of time. If we do not make significant radical change, I am not sure we will still be here. The aging and shrinking of our congregations is going to create a financial crisis that is heading toward us like a speeding bullet. And the implications of that is not just for the US church, but will have ramifications world wide. But without time, to thoughtfully and prayerfully discern God’s leading and the building of the community, what kind of church will be be and how will we decide well what changes to make?