Editorial: Exasperation and Frustration in Tampa

By Rob Renfroe

Bring 1000 delegates together from all over the world. Spend more than $8 million. And meet for nearly two weeks and what do you get? Not much.

General Conference 2012 will be remembered as the time that The United Methodist Church admitted many of its problems, stood on the threshold of opportunity, and failed to do anything about it.

It will be recalled as the Conference that most revealed our divisions and our distrust and our dysfunction. And it will be remembered that way by conservatives and liberals and those who claim to represent “the center.”

Traditional, evangelical United Methodists can be glad that we maintained our biblical, compassionate position regarding human sexuality. A strong attempt was made for the Conference to affirm a petition that had been rejected in committee which would have emphasized that United Methodists have differing opinions regarding the practice of homosexuality. However, it was defeated by an even greater margin than a similar proposal four years ago. The United Methodist Church continues to be the largest mainline church to stand upon the clear message of Scripture and with 2000 years of Christian doctrine that all persons possess inherent sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

This was not accomplished easily. There were demonstrations that stopped the work of the Conference. There were charges by GLBT leaders that persons supporting the church’s position were guilty of spiritual violence, hatred, and discrimination. And there was the ever-present, large sign paraded inside the convention hall by UM pastor Amy DeLong, recently found guilty in Wisconsin for performing a same-sex union for two women, proclaiming “The UMC Is Bullying Me!”

What you can be very proud of is that everyone associated with Good News, whether in private meetings with Bishops and the Committee on Calendaring or speaking on the Conference floor, spoke with compassion, clarity, and class. In fact, more than one progressive leader has communicated to us gratitude for the grace we showed in all of our communications, verbal and written.

And we can be grateful that the African delegates are no longer content to play the role of a junior partner. They provided effective leadership in the legislative committees and on the floor of General Conference on a wide range of issues. We in the West often fail to realize that the center of Christianity has moved to the south and to the east of the United States. And those of us with a kingdom perspective believe that the Church in general and The United Methodist Church in particular will be better as our leadership reflects that change.

But most delegates and observers left Tampa with a profound sense of dismay and disappointment. We should have guessed what was ahead when the Conference took five hours of plenary time to perfect the rules before any real business was conducted. The Conference’s willingness to argue over the smallest of details, unconcerned that the schedule for substantive issues was being compromised, foreshadowed that the following days would be contentious, frustrating, and unproductive. Later when the nearly one thousand delegates spent an entire hour debating which was the better terminology – lay servant or lay speaker – it was obvious that there was not the self-discipline or the leadership necessary for General Conference 2012 to serve the church well.

The most anticipated and possibly transformative issue before the Conference came in the form of three serious proposals for the restructuring of the general church. Each proposal called for more accountability and greater cooperation among our General Boards. Leaving for Tampa, we all felt that something would be done. Maybe not the plan that we favored, but some plan would pass that would no longer allow the Boards to be kingdoms unto themselves run by General Secretaries who for the most part have no real supervision or accountability to the greater church. Amazingly, none of the three plans received enough support to come out of committee and neither did a compromise proposal. Beginning on Wednesday and finishing on Saturday, the committee was not able to work together sufficiently to put forth any plan at all. And it appeared that nothing would be done.

The Conference made special allowances for a small group of committee members to go back to work and they came back with a hybrid plan that no one thought was perfect, but most thought was a step in the right direction. Something had been done! Or so we thought. The final day of Conference, only a few hours before the Conference was to conclude, the Judicial Council ruled the plan unconstitutional. Efforts to rehabilitate or refer the plan for future study were defeated.

Some delegates, those who support the work of the most liberal boards that the plans would have curtailed, were actually gleeful and cheered when the Judicial Council’s ruling was read. The overwhelming emotion on the floor, however, was disappointment. There was also the lingering question on everyone’s mind: are we really this inept and dysfunctional?

Four years ago an official study of the church was commissioned by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. Its findings were given to the Interim Operations Team which was tasked with the creation of a structure that would be more likely to create vital congregations. And it failed. The plan failed. The IOT failed and our leaders failed.

There is great soul searching going on in the Council of Bishops. I think before this Conference many thought that our problem was structural and hoped one of the three plans would take us to a better place. But they now know differently. We are divided. We are dysfunctional. We distrust each other. And they must know that many of the delegates present in Tampa and the people they represent distrust them. How else do you explain that the Conference refused the bishops’ request for a set-aside bishop to oversee the administration of the church? How else do you explain the majority voting to take away the bishops’ lifetime appointments and requiring them to be re-elected only if they deserve to be? To be effective the vote required a two-thirds majority and so it failed to become church law. Nevertheless, a clear message was sent.

We missed an opportunity in Tampa. And it was painful to be there. Frankly, I was embarrassed to witness the ineptness and the pettiness of my church.

But, it’s just possible that another opportunity is before us. It just may be that General Conference has provided the wake-up call our church and our leaders need. They have to know that another Conference like this one will be demoralizing – even deadly – to The United Methodist Church. One more like this and we may never recover.

It’s time for our Bishops to lead. It’s time for them to say, “Enough.” We have argued about sexuality for 40 years and we have spent an inordinate amount of time and money, giving a minority opinion the opportunity to change the hearts and minds of the majority of United Methodists. It hasn’t happened. And it’s not going to happen – at least not for many years to come. It’s time to say, we are not going to let this one issue dominate our agenda any longer.

And it’s time for our Bishops to create a plan that will hold the General Boards accountable – and to make sure that they are populated with persons who represent the heart and soul of The United Methodist Church. For forty years the message has been made clear. We are not a left-wing, liberal, progressive (call it whatever you like) denomination. Most United Methodists are Wesleyans. That means we love people and we believe what the Bible clearly teaches about Jesus Christ being the only way to God, and about the importance of scriptural holiness – even when it comes to marriage and sexuality.

And we want our Boards to create resources and to make public statements that represent us and that we can actually use in our local churches. Quit foisting a partisan agenda on us that may play well in northern California or Vermont but does nothing except confirm to the rest of us that you have no idea or no concern for the convictions of traditional United Methodists. We’re tired of it. And more and more of us are getting to the point that we will refuse to pay for you to thumb your nose at us and our beliefs.

Those who have eyes to see, let them see. GC 2012 is a watershed moment. We can’t act like it didn’t happen. We can’t act like it doesn’t mean anything. It means everything. It means time is short and unless our leaders understand this moment, we may never recover.

But if they do, and I am praying that they will, they will find a church that is waiting to be called to life. They will discover that we have not forgotten who we are. If they can move us beyond these internal battles that distract and divide us, they will discover a church that is willing to be faithful to the Gospel and sacrificial in sharing Jesus Christ with the world.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.