What happened in Tampa? Reflections on General Conference

In the avalanche of post–General Conference analysis, here is a sampling of excerpts — from extremely varied perspectives — that caught our eye. Just to be doubly clear, while we agree with some and disagree with others, we believe all these public comments are noteworthy in understanding the struggle for the heart and soul of The United Methodist Church.

–The Editor

 

• On the next-to-last day of General Conference (eleven days into the Conference …), one of my tablemates from Sierra Leone leaned over to me and asked, “Aren’t we here to talk about making disciples? When will we get to talking about that!” This woman’s keen observation summed up the conference and the state of the church for me: We spent eight million dollars, not to talk about our mission, not to strategize or prioritize, not to reflect theologically or discern collectively, and certainly not to envision a transformed world. No, we got together to talk about ourselves and who should get to be in charge. We voted, moved, amended, substituted, referred and deferred for hours … and sang and prayed for minutes. We talked around issues and at one another ad nauseam … but talked to one another very little. I cannot imagine that one delegate left this conference with a stronger understanding of, a better sense of, or a deeper commitment to making disciples for the transformation of the world than when they arrived. If anything, they left more confused, disillusioned and disgusted than before.

— The Rev. Dan Dick, Director of Connectional Ministries for the Wisconsin Annual Conference, for United Methodeviations (Link: HERE)

 

• Any plan for reorganization of the church needs to begin almost immediately and have broad buy-in from many voices, so that it arrives at GC 2016 with momentum and consensus already established. We must move away from the notion of proportional representation (i.e., areas with the largest membership get the greatest say) and ask instead which perspectives need to be represented in creating our new church. It may well be that constituencies that are entirely under-represented at the moment are key to the future of the denomination. Whatever we do, it must be crystal clear that the purpose of any plan is to enable ministry and not to consolidate power.

— New England General Conference Delegates (Link: HERE)

 

• The church is terribly dysfunctional. The General Conference demonstrated this dramatically. Distrust is the mood of every gathering. Our structure does not lend itself to revitalization of local congregations where “the action is”; in fact, the structure may restrict revitalization. I am not far along in my thinking about this issue, but there is no way for the church to continue with any degree of kingdom Witness as it is presently going. We seem to have forgotten that the Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church, therefore, we must “tarry” in prayer, waiting on guidance from and intervention and empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

— The Rev. Maxie Dunnam of the Kentucky Annual Conference

 

• Where did the chaos that derailed us come from? Some want to blame back-room shenanigans of people hammering out restructuring deals without everybody being at the table. We all need to remember to get together for the larger cause of holy conferencing and we all need to be at the table. The General Conference was hijacked by multiple agendas in an apparent effort to stall, filibuster, and question to death anything that came before it. It appeared that a deal was struck between multiple constituencies well before any protesters came on the floor that if things could get bogged down enough then we wouldn’t have to talk about sex and expose our utter division. How Victorian! What an avoidance of speaking a prophetic word to society.

Victorian-era denial of human sexuality has precluded us from being theologically relevant to our society. Worse, we can’t even talk to each other about it. No matter what side you’re on, was our silence acceptable? We chose to let our present 2008 language stand rather than speak theologically to a confused generation that has turned the Wesleyan Quadrilateral into an equilateral. Experience has unseated Scripture as the foundational starting point of our theological method. This isn’t a good strategy in speaking to the world. They will see us as do-nothing, irrelevant bystanders in a culture war for the soul of the cosmos.

— The Rev. Tim McClendon of the South Carolina Annual Conference (Link: HERE)

 

• Once again, the conservatives who control the votes of the General Conference were enabled in their efforts to block any kind of conversation and fair voting that might possibly create a “crack” in the wall of homophobia that grips our denomination. Political maneuvering that was clearly unethical was observed by others and (hopefully) reported. Those who were “sent to hold the line” in their resolve to declare homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” demonstrated their inability to incorporate the value of “reason” in their thinking and voting. How else can you possibly explain the General Conference’s stubborn insistence to reject all wording that declares that we are unable to reach consensus on the issue of homosexuality! In the U.S. church, this stubborn insistence is based on fear of change, fear of reality, fear of reason.

— Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (Link: HERE)

 

• Adam Hamilton shared that the United Methodist Church in America is in serious decline. In the last five years, we have had a 5.3 percent decline in membership of our American churches. We have also had an 8.7 percent decline in average worship attendance in the last five years in America. Most shocking was that in the last five years, the numbers of confirmations and baptisms have dropped by a dramatic 21 percent. Add to that the average age of clergy in America is 60, and my beloved United Methodist Church is in “deep weeds.” I have discovered after 25 years in ministry with people in recovery and my own recovery that breaking through denial is the first step toward healing. People seldom change when they see the light. They change when they feel the fire.

— The Rev. Jorge Acevedo of the Florida Annual Conference

 

• Amid worship that wandered off into dizzying theological deviations, the forbidding challenge of so many languages … and the impossibility of thoughtful, honest debate among a nearly 1,000-member committee of the whole in eight or nine languages, one thing united General Conference 2012: distrust of leadership by bishops.

Though we bishops spent four years — guided by some of the church’s best management minds — devising our Call to Action, the chaotic General Administration committee (the last General Conference prohibited bishops from presiding for legislative committees) threw out the CTA’s agency restructuring plan.

The bishops’ accomplishments? The Methodist Federation for Social Action received new life, the Board of Church and Society went home un- scathed by reform, and Good News and an un- likely clutch of agitation groups united against the bishops. A group from the Southeastern Jurisdiction, ridiculing the CTA as a power play by bishops, devised Plan B to thwart the bishops’ insidious oversight. Plan B, attempting some- thing unknown in the history of our connection — church by committee — got nowhere. A group then hastily concocted Plan UMC, a flaccid com- promise that limited episcopal participation. An episcophobic GC passed Plan UMC. The Judicial Council killed it the next day. Like it or not, our constitution gives bishops the duty of oversight.

— Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Annual Conference in The United Methodist Reporter (Link: HERE)

 

But the lack of trust has been present for far longer than that. The fact is that clergy and congregations don’t fully trust the bishops because we’ve experienced bishops at their worst. We’ve seen appointments made for political reasons rather than missional ones. We’ve seen pastors removed for speaking prophetically because folks with money convinced the bishop to remove them rather than the bishop standing up for the gospel. We’ve seen bishops engaged again and again in shutting down creative and exciting ministries that have great kingdom potential, but fall outside of the norms of what a church is supposed to look like under our current system. Congregations have experienced bishops failing to take the time to under- stand their issues and making appointments that are doomed to fail from the beginning, and clergy have experienced episcopal leaders that seem to have little compassion for the struggles they face in serving “clergy killer” congregations.

Most of all we have seen a Council of Bishops who have spent their careers as the consummate systemic insiders. For all of the rhetoric of creative leadership, many (if not most of you) have spent years serving on the very committees and boards that have failed to embrace change. The current boards and agencies, which have largely been groups that rubber-stamped staff initiatives and General Secretary priorities, have not been held accountable even though it is Council of Bishop members who are, by and large, the presidents of those governing boards. The bishops, more often than not, are a body who are invested in the same political process that got them elected in the first place, a network of relationships that seems un- able to truly embrace change.

— The Rev. Jay Voorhees, co-founder of MethoBlog.com, responding to Bishop Willimon in The United Methodist Reporter (Link: HERE)

 

• Prior to the recent General Conference, delegations of leaders from annual conferences of Africa, comprising the three African Central Conferences, came together for a prayer summit and strategic planning in Liberia, West Africa. The purpose was to intercede for the success of General Conference 2012, and to learn about critical issues that would be discussed at General Conference.

At that meeting, much prayer was offered for global Methodism and all delegates coming to General Conference. Leaders discussed the issues and how they might impact our common effort of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Each legislative committee, its role and function, along with all petitions assigned to it, were studied in the context of Scripture, their consistency with the 2008 Book of Discipline, and their implications to the future growth and development of the global Church. While leaving for the General Conference, a 24- hour prayer chain was in place across Africa and other parts of the world. God’s people were praying that the UM Church would remain true to the Holy Bible and remain united.

Looking back upon events at General Conference, and the role, participation and contribution of African delegates, we can shout with joy that the Lord, indeed, heard and answered our prayers.

We went home celebrating, with so much to praise God for. As a result of the time and resources in- vested in the prayer summit and pre-conference preparations, for the first time in the history of African delegates’ participation in General Conference, they were more organized, informed of the issues, and frequently took the floor at plenary to make meaningful contributions to issues being discussed that would affect the destiny of global Methodism.

Many African delegates took on leadership roles in several legislative committees; either as chairperson, vice chairperson, secretary, or chair of a sub- committee. Most importantly, for the first time in the history of General Conference, both an African delegate was elected to the Judicial Council and two other Africans were elected to the University Senate. With the presence of African leaders on these very important councils of our Church, it is hoped that the voice of African Central Conferences would be heard louder and be given listening ears by the General Church more than before.

— Rev. Jerry Paye-Manfloe Kulah of the Liberia Annual Conference

 

• WHEREAS there is no indication that given the present structure of our United Methodist Church the official policies and positions which deny full participation to LGBT sisters and brothers desiring to be in ordained ministry and which declare their lives incompatible with Christian teaching will change.

Looking back upon events at General Conference, and the role, participation and contribution of African delegates, we can shout with joy that the Lord, indeed, heard and answered our prayers.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the New York Annual Conference establish a Study Committee to study and evaluate alternative ways of being a Wesleyan Church, such as the creation of regional Central Conferences or of an autonomous Church or the formation of a new expression of the Methodist Church, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT we invite other United Methodist Annual Conferences or Jurisdictions or related United Methodist entities to network with us in that conversation, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT this Study Committee, which shall be represented by two members each from MFSA, MIND, Board of Church and Society, Commissions on Religion and Race, and the Status and Roles of Women and the Retired Clergy Fellowship, reports back to the New York Annual Conference their recommendations during the next three years for possible vote by the New York Annual Conference in 2015.

— Resolution passed by the New York Annual Conference

 

• We chatted about the widespread debate about numbers and vitality. This friend offered the reminder that the truest measure of spiritual growth is to see growth in “mercy and advocacy.” This led into a conversation about the Quakers, who were once a major part of the religious demographic in America. They are much smaller now (in the U.S., about 87,000 members), and yet they have sustained a remarkable clarity about their mission and identity; even non-religious folks recognize that Quakers are known for their charity and pacifism. Our conversation led to wondering about the potential for the future “quakerization” of The United Methodist Church: how would it be if we were smaller, yet clearer in identity and purpose, widely known for “doing no harm, doing good, and staying in love with God”? What if better was not bigger, but better was better—measured by mercy and advocacy?

— Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the California-Pacific Annual Conference (Link: HERE)

 

• I increasingly question the financial support by thousands of local congregations in the United States of our dysfunctional denominational agencies. The emperor has no clothes. Is it time to stop contributing to the emperor’s clothing allowance? … Continuing to fund our existing system, however, only encourages the status quo and inhibits efforts for renewal. While Jesus Christ will never abandon the Church universal, I believe that ultimately much of our current United Methodist system must die before the Wesleyan movement can be resurrected. The easiest and fastest way to hasten this death of many parts of our general institution is by the withholding of monies … To the best of my knowledge, no group within our denomination has even begun to have conversations about what happens next regarding the general church budget and financial governance. This lack of attention reaffirms the lack of leader- ship from the general church. We have only a few years to make important decisions. Who will lead the dialogue within our Wesleyan connection?

— The Rev. Andy Langford, senior minister of Central United Methodist Church in Concord, North Carolina (Link: HERE)

 

• The General Conference looked the future in the eye and blinked. The future is now upon us at the local level. Must the report of finance, property, and personnel continue to take up the lion’s share of Church Council agendas? Will those agendas continue to give last place to the congregation’s “longest stride of soul the church ever took — exploration into God”? (Christopher Fry.) Will effective worship, challenging nurture, recovery of small group ministry, radical hospitality, and radical out- reach continue to get a short shrift in most Church Council meetings? Would it be possible to invert the agenda and make evangelism, missions, and “holiness of heart and life” the meat and potatoes that the leadership of the church tackle? Could we immediately set aside a full day of retreat for seek- ing God’s vision for our branch of the kingdom of God, of which we are the “branch managers”?

Hope and change are not coming out of General Conference, but they can still come.

— The Rev. Donald Haynes, columnist for The United Methodist Reporter (Link: HERE)

 

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