UMC General Conference Delegates are Mature Christians

By Walter Fenton

2012 General Conference delegate. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

2012 General Conference delegate. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

When a narrative is repeated often enough, whether it’s true or false, it can begin to shape reality. For the past several years The United Methodist Church’s General Conference (GC) has often been portrayed as a place where people come with “their swords drawn” to “fight” over sensitive issues like the church’s teachings on human sexuality and marriage. People who hear this narrative can be forgiven if they conclude our quadrennial gathering is a violent political brawl.

To be sure, some people allow their emotions to get the better of them. They end up saying or writing things they regret, or we hope they regret. These ill-considered remarks often come in blogs, in responses to blogs, and in Facebook posts. The people who write them are equal opportunity offenders; the hyperbolic and inflammatory remarks come from conservatives, moderates, and liberals. But very rarely, and thankfully, do United Methodists at GC engage in this type of behavior, particularly when face-to-face.

Of course GC delegates are passionate. GC is not a gathering of Stoics. We’d all be very disappointed if delegates were not passionate about convictions deeply held. However, they are respectful of one another, and they are particularly so when it comes to debating the most sensitive issues.

By virtue of their elections, the clergy and laity who serve as delegates are well respected by their peers. They’ve been shaped by the UM Church and most have served in it for years. And a good number of them have been elected numerous times as GC delegates. They are mature, political, passionate, thoughtful, and gracious Christian people attempting to serve their church well in a critical time. The same can also be said for most of the other United Methodists who show-up to impact GC.

So it’s unfortunate when the prevailing assumption about the GC delegates is that they’re boorish and likely to say or do something offensive if they’re not repeatedly reminded to act like adults. But that appears to be the impression of them when one reads the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA). The ADCA is the important 1488 page document that contains the rules for GC and all the petitions set before it. U.S. delegates recently received their copies, and all United Methodists can see it by clicking here.

This year, in addition to the rules and petitions, the ADCA contains some pages it could’ve done without, namely, the approximately 20 pages near the front that comes very close to treating the delegates like teenagers doing their first stint on a student council or a mock United Nations.

Six pages of this section are dedicated to teaching them “How to be Interculturally Competent Delegate[s].” They get a tutorial on the meaning of terms like “culture,” “inclusion,” “justice,” “diversity,” and “intersectionality.” And they’re introduced to the “Cultural Diversity Wheel,” so they can plot out their personal identity in the “Four Layers of Diversity in the UMC.”

A little further on they get some “Ground Rules for Authentic Dialogue,” that include admonitions like, “think before you speak.” Several pages later they’re asked to, “listen respectfully to others without making negative comments,” and “wait until a person has finished speaking before starting to speak.”

In another section entitled “Tips from Young People’s Ministries,” the delegates receive “guidelines” for engaging young people. These consist of things like, “accept them as children of God,” “listen,” and “learn from them.”

A few more pages on and the delegates get a tutorial on “holding conversations around sexual orientation and gender identity.” Among several other “guidelines” they’re instructed “not [to] assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past.” Best to ask your fellow delegates, “‘what pronouns do you use?’ You can model this practice by introducing your name and your pronouns when you meet someone new.”

And just in case the delegates have forgotten the pronouns it helpfully lists the options, “feminine: she, her, hers, masculine: he, him, his, and gender neutral: they, them, theirs.”  (See my colleague Tom Lambrecht’s blog on this subject.)

And finally there’s a page of “tips” on how to treat people with disabilities. One tip manages to patronize while informing the delegates not to “patronize or talk down to people with disabilities. Treat adults as adults.”

Obviously, there’s little here to disagree with, but it’s embarrassing when we think we have to treat delegates to the highest decision making body in the church in such juvenile terms. Until proven otherwise, it seems far better to assume the vast majority of GC delegates are mature Christians, careful when speaking, not easily offended, and self-confident enough to inform others when a colleague says something they find offensive.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News. 

Comments

  1. Pastor Fenton,

    I appreciate your defending of the delegates. However, this article raises a couple of questions for me:
    1) Historically, GC has been interrupted by various groups, attempting to place their specific concerns/causes ahead of others. What plans are in place that will make 2016 any different?
    2) If there are no plans in place to control or compartmentalize protests, how can we, in good faith, look forward to this assemblage?
    3) As I understand scripture, there is only one who is identified as the “author of confusion.” If this gathering is either programmed for failure or programmed to provide disproportional attention to minority concerns, are we not already conceding defeat?
    I ask these questions from a sincere, but pragmatic point of view. The UM church does not come to this GC in a strong internal position. To encourage high expectations seems disingenuous and misleading.

  2. Jeanine Alexander says

    Please be happy when effort is taken to affirm human dignity, and express extravagant generosity, by intentionally respecting and honoring all people. I applaud this ADCA effort.

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