Focus 2: What Makes a Successful General Conference?

By Elizabeth Glass Turner –

How can we move toward a common goal successfully together? That endgame may mean significantly different things to various factions in St. Louis. The problem isn’t that we can’t work together. It’s that we’re working towards different ends. To minimize those differences disrespects everyone involved. 

As United Methodists of different convictions we may be willing to work together, but underneath that sentiment is the dread often felt in a dead-end relationship: where is this headed? Is it sustainable? How do we resolve our significant compatibility issue? What if we’re loathe to stop working together but we are working towards different ends? 

So rather than successful outcomes – because those vary widely depending on who you ask – what are the attributes of a successful General Conference?

A successful General Conference will be one in which honesty is practiced with humility. 

The constituents, organizations, and movements present need to be extremely honest about their intentions, goals, and convictions – no matter what that means for the future of how we live and worship. Fear of divorce can lead to a lack of bluntness, the inability to frankly and simply express oneself. But the honesty must live and breathe in the ecosphere of humility – humility does not mean capitulation. Humility also doesn’t mean setting aside conviction. It means the willingness to serve another with whom you disagree while you live your conviction with integrity. It means holding the door open for someone who has made your life difficult.

A successful General Conference will be one in which the worldwide nature of the church will be celebrated as central to the United Methodist identity rather than an appendix to its agenda. 

Eleven years ago international delegates to General Conference faced challenges like receiving their preparatory materials months after North Americans did. They sometimes were asked to vote on oddly worded amendments in English or proposals after having the content translated twice, such as from English to French and from French to Swahili. Rather than embrace global delegates, some North Americans, seeing their presence as a hassle, promoted the idea of giving them their “own” conference – a gross failure of basic inclusion.

Finally, a successful General Conference will be one in which decisions are made. 

What a simple sentence: what a complex proposal. If honesty is practiced with humility, some decisions need to be made. Sometimes the worst outcome is one in which millions of dollars and work hours are spent in order to tread water. The worst case scenario is that blood pressures will skyrocket and mud will be flung all so that nothing changes – a dysfunctional and untenable position.

A failed General Conference has little to do with whether or not The United Methodist Church chooses to continue to exist in its old form or in new iterations. A failed General Conference will be one in which honesty is swallowed by the desire to appease or to protect the status quo; in which humility is swallowed by a sense of entitlement; in which disrespect is shown in the mode in which business is done; in which the worldwide nature of the Body of Christ is resketched with North American features; and in which no clear, coherent, time-bound decisions are made in any direction.

If we’re really honest, what do we want this to look like in four years? If we’re really honest, what is it likely to look like in four years? What decisions will help those to be one and the same thing?

Elizabeth Glass Turner, a frequent contributor to Good News,  is managing editor of Wesleyanaccent.com.  

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