Three Days in the Grove: Reflections on Annual Conference and Related Matters

 

IMG_4415

There were beautiful parts of this year’s session of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, held on the campus of Grove City College. These beautiful parts to which I refer practically brought me to my knees in grateful prayer:

The sound of over a thousand voices singing grand songs of praise during worship;

The ordination and commissioning of precious souls who are as gifted as they are called;

A Retiree Celebration that provided a heartwarming honoring of retirees, all of whom have served the church with faithfulness, creativity, and integrity for a long, long time;

A Memorial Service that celebrated the lives of our conference’s honored dead, who breathed their last breath during this last year (but who, at present, are more alive than they have ever been);

Preaching that elevated my spirit and illuminated the goodness of Jesus;

Testimonies that reminded me of the transformational impact of the Gospel;

Youth whose vibrancy regularly inspired a sense of abundant life;

The setting of pastoral appointments for another year of ministry;

The leadership of a Bishop who teaches me something every time she leads;

Moments of prayer and tender conversation with amazing people, many of whom I only get to see once a year;

Friends (like Joel Garrett and Erica Rushing) going out of their way to minister compassionately to my spirit.

In the aftermath of Annual Conference, some participants make it a sport to denigrate the entire experience, which always feels to me like both the mistreatment of a portion of sacred ground and a dishonoring of many people who sacrificed a great deal of time and energy to put the experience together. Our collective heart would probably beat in healthier fashion if we began with gratitude rather than cynicism.

I will certainly acknowledge, however, that I experienced great pain at Annual Conference this year—perhaps a deeper and more unsettling pain than I had ever experienced in that context. I know that I am not alone in that. Progressives experienced the pain. So did Traditionalists. So did the LGBTQ+ community and its advocates. Many things led to the pain, not the least of which was a burgeoning sense of a division among people related to the denomination’s official position on homosexuality—that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching,” which has led the denomination to continue its prohibition of the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the hosting of same sex weddings in United Methodist sanctuaries.

Traditionalists maintain that this position represents a necessary honoring of orthodoxy and the Biblical understanding of marriage. Progressives assert that it represents an institutionalized bigotry and a marginalization of people based on an irresponsible adherence to biblical legalism. This spirit of division manifested itself dramatically this last week at Annual Conference, particularly around the work of electing our delegates to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. At those 2020 Conferences, the issues of human sexuality and denominational structure will once again figure prominently.

The following are my personal reflections on what transpired this last week. There is nothing official or sacrosanct about these reflections. Nor am I insisting on my own rightness. (There is already way too much of that going on.) I offer these reflections simply to broaden the conversation, deepen our shared sense of accountability, and hopefully clarify my own heart on some of the matters at hand.

Here are my reflections.

We elected a remarkably gifted and extraordinarily faithful delegation to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. The clergy and laity on the delegation bring strong convictions, abundant giftedness, and a wealth of experience. They will serve the church faithfully, prayerfully, and with a comprehensive devotion. I am honored to be alongside them in the work of the delegation, and I will learn much from them. They are my friends, and many of us have stood together in important places over the years. I have been praying for them since the moment they were elected. I am particularly grateful that Rev. Alyce Weaver Dunn is the chair of the delegation. Her stellar leadership will be a profound blessing to all of us. In fact, it already has been.

We elected a delegation that does not reflect (or represent) the complexity and theological diversity of Western Pennsylvania. This is where the pain begins. In a time when people feel a sense of urgency about clarifying boundaries and battle lines, tension is heightened and processes become distorted, or at least exaggerated. This year, the exaggeration at hand is a delegation that is disproportionately Traditionalist. This fact takes nothing away from the gifted delegates we elected. It simply generates a marginalizing and disenfranchising sense of voicelessness on the part of many in Western Pennsylvania who feel that their convictions will not be valued or honored fully, particularly at General Conference. The delegation will need to be attentive to this.

The 16 people from the delegation who will travel to the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis (12 delegates and 4 alternates) include one Asian American and no African Americans—meaning that, in the election process, we were not as attentive to racial diversity as we have been in the past. I do not believe that this reflects intentional racism on anyone’s part. Please hear that. But there is such a thing as institutional racism—a systemic devaluing of racial minorities that finds expression when processes and systems bend toward a particular strategy that ultimately excludes or marginalizes people of color (such as when an election process becomes fixated on a particular theological perspective at the expense of fair and necessary representation). A posture of privilege might inspire some to dismiss this point as irrelevant. My sense, however, based upon several personal conversations, is that many African American United Methodists in Western Pennsylvania experienced a deep sense of institutional harm at Annual Conference. We dare not allow ourselves to become dismissive or cynical about that.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association of Western PA, a strategic Traditionalist group in the Conference, mobilized effectively and had a significant impact on the elections of delegates. In fact, the six clergy and six laity elected to General Conference were precisely the twelve people that appeared on the WCA’s list of endorsed possible candidates. In Western Pennsylvania, many women and men whom I greatly admire and whose leadership I value have become members of the WCA because their deeply held convictions and prayerful discernment have led them in that direction. Which is to say, it is not my intention to demonize the WCA or its leadership. But I will express this heartfelt concern: There is always the potential for great relational and spiritual harm whenever any group, irrespective of its theological persuasion, begins to have a disproportionately weighty influence on the decisions of a community. In such cases, the group often becomes a self-appointed arbiter of discernment, which can only result in a truncated collection of priorities. While I respect the WCA’s convictions, I hope that we as an Annual Conference will recognize the urgency of making certain that we avoid the kind of one-dimensionalism that ignores the reality of who we are.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association of Western PA, in one of its recent letters, singled out five leaders in Western Pennsylvania for whom NOT to vote in the elections for General and Jurisdictional Conferences: Sharon Gregory (our Conference’s faithful Lay Leader); Diane Miller (a longtime overseer and supporter of Missions in the Conference); Amy Wagner (our Conference’s multi-gifted Director of Congregational Development and Revitalization); William Meekins (former District Superintendent and Assistant to the Bishop, current pastor, and one of the most courageous voices for Christ-centered justice that this Annual Conference has ever known); and, finally, yours truly (a humble District Superintendent who is simply trying to keep it real). We were put on the list of “objectionables” because, at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, we stood in support of what the WCA describes as the “progressive” (an adjective that I find inaccurate) One Church Plan—a plan for which I did indeed vote. Of all the plans that remained, I saw the One Church Plan as the best option to ensure the existence of a denomination that could make space for a diversity of perspectives on matters that, in my opinion, do not strike at the root of Christianity. I also saw the One Church Plan as an opportunity to remove language from the Book of Discipline that, irrespective of the righteousness of our intentions, has become weaponized against a segment of humanity that has already been marginalized and excluded.

Because of the way we voted, five of us made the WCA block-list. This was not a hatchet job on the part of the WCA. They did not disparage our character and made clear in the letter that we are loved (which I appreciated). But it was indeed a calculated political maneuver rendered for the purpose of keeping out of the General Conference voting the voices of leaders whose convictions on human sexuality might not be in alignment with the WCA’s corporate understanding of orthodoxy. I suspect that members of the WCA would defend themselves by saying that, since their goal was to preserve what they understand to be orthodoxy by influencing who gets elected, the end justifies the means. But there is a destructive consequence when a group moves intentionally from “please consider voting for these people” to “please DO NOT vote for THOSE people.” Such a tactic corrupts community, undermines both the integrity and the potential of colleagues, and elevates hegemony over orthodoxy.

I hope that the members of the WCA, no matter how justified they feel in their actions, understand that their block-list was wounding to the people named. It felt like a punitive response to our commitment to do exactly what we were entrusted by the Annual Conference to do as delegates in 2019—specifically, to vote our prayerful conscience with the most attentive discernment that we could bring to the table. As a member of the larger delegation for 2020, my challenge now is to open my heart to some wonderful people on the delegation whom I dearly love but who may be connected to a WCA that publicly advocated for my not being elected to the very delegation of which I am now a part. I pray that my friends on the delegation (and my friends in the WCA) will hear my heart and join me in the vulnerability of navigating this complex territory.

Finally, I will share with you once again some words that I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Special Called Session of the General Conference in February. They are words about what I am choosing to believe at present:

I choose to believe that my Traditionalist friends are driven, not by hatred, homophobia, or bigotry, but by their conviction that souls, eternity, and biblical truth are at stake.

I choose to believe that my Progressive friends are driven, not by irreverence toward Scripture or by an eagerness to accommodate cultural trends, but by an unwavering passion for a history-altering liberation and justice to which they believe the ministry of Jesus absolutely points.

I choose to believe that my Centrist friends (and, yes, I believe that there is a Center place in all of this) are driven, not by a refusal to “choose a side,” but by the belief that the saving grace of Jesus Christ makes possible a wide and durable unity in which divergent viewpoints can breathe the same healthy air.

I choose to believe that my LGBTQ+ friends are driven, not by a desire to diminish the church’s emphasis on sexual holiness, but by their recognition of the fact that their sexual identity is an integral part of their personhood and by their desire to be seen, not as an “issue” or as a group of “incompatibles,” but as souls within the Body of Christ who are called, gifted, and equipped and who long for relational covenants and spiritual wholeness like all the rest of us.

Most importantly, I choose to believe that Jesus is still Lord, and that God cares about the ministry and mission of the United Methodist Church even more than we do—FAR more than we do, in fact. Furthermore, I choose to believe that our current struggle has not taken us beyond the boundaries of what God can redeem, reshape, reconfigure, and restore.

 

 

Choosing to Believe: My Archway Into Life Beyond General Conference

the-arch-1230166

In the aftermath of the recent United Methodist General Conference, I choose to believe some important things today as an evangelical centrist, a heartbroken unifier, and an embracer of gracious and justice-minded orthodoxy within the United Methodist Church.

I choose to believe what is best about people in the midst of our serious divisions. Some would call this either naïve or morally irresponsible—or both. But I see it as my only way to breathe healthy air at this point in the journey, especially as a District Superintendent in the church.

I choose to believe, for example, that my conservative friends are not driven by hatred, bigotry, or a crippling homophobia in their support of the United Methodist Church’s current restrictions related to homosexuality. Rather, the conservatives with whom I relate are driven by the conviction that souls, eternity, and Biblical truth are at stake, and that to love homosexual people authentically means something far more unpopular and complex than affirming their choices. (I desperately hope, of course, that my conservative friends will have a profound sensitivity to the fact that their stance, irrespective of its motive, lands as something oppressive, abusive, and contemptuous upon the hearts of LGBTQ+ people, their family members, and their advocates. Such a sensitivity will help my conservative friends to approach the current negative responses to General Conference with a more durable patience and a more nuanced understanding.)

I choose to believe that my progressive friends are not driven by an irreverence toward Scripture or an eagerness to dismiss Biblical teaching in order to accommodate societal trends. Rather, the progressives with whom I relate are driven by an unwavering passion for a history-altering liberation to which they believe the ministry of Jesus points, somewhere way beyond what they interpret as the incomplete and culturally-conditioned Biblical condemnations. (I desperately hope, of course, that my progressive friends will have a profound sensitivity to the fact that many conservative United Methodists are just as heartbroken concerning our bitter divisions, even though they occupy the majority side of a winless debate. Such a sensitivity will help my progressive friends to approach the current conversation with righteous and well-stewarded anger instead of abusive insults and bitter vituperation.)

I choose to believe that my centrist friends are driven neither by a cowardly refusal to choose a side nor an idolatrous fixation on preserving the institution. Rather, the centrists with whom I relate are driven by the belief that the saving grace of Jesus Christ makes possible a wide and durable unity in which divergent viewpoints can live and breathe together, and that none of those divergent viewpoints necessitate a severing of our connection in the mission to which all of us are called. (I desperately hope, of course, that my centrist friends have a profound sensitivity to the anguish that is taking place to their left and right and an awareness of the fact that their position may sound like an abdication of leadership to some on both sides. Such a sensitivity will help my centrist friends to nurture deeper relationships across the spectrum.)

I choose to believe that my Christ-following LGBTQ+ friends are not driven by a desire to diminish the the church’s emphasis on sexual holiness. Rather, the LGBTQ+ friends with whom I relate are driven both by their understanding that their orientation is an integral part of their personhood and by their desire to be seen, not as an “issue” or as a group of “incompatibles,” but as souls within the Body of Christ who are called, gifted, and equipped, all the while longing for relational covenants and spiritual wholeness like all the rest of us. (I desperately hope that my LGBTQ+ friends will know the love of God in tangible ways in these hard days through the ministry of caring people, so that they might not be further crushed by a debate that is often dehumanizing for them.)

Most importantly, I choose to believe that Jesus is still Lord and that God cares about the ministry and mission of the United Methodist Church even more than we do—FAR more than we do, in fact. Furthermore, I choose to believe that our current struggle has not taken us beyond the boundaries of what God can redeem, reshape, reconfigure, and restore.

Therefore, I choose to remain in this broken, imperfect part of the Body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. I choose this messy, heartbreaking, and important journey with progressive, traditionalist, and centrist Christ-followers, many of whom have forgotten more about discipleship than I will ever know. I choose to embrace the struggle of it all, not with cynicism, but a strong conviction that the struggle is worth it (as it so often is in the life of God’s church).

What I have written here will strike many as being woefully inadequate, a theological or moral cop-out during a time that demands a clearer sense of certainty; or a deeper commitment to Biblical faithfulness; or a more passionate pursuit of justice and radical hospitality. If that is your take on what I have written, then perhaps you are right.

Then again, perhaps God is utilizing United Methodism as a sacred instrument by which to announce to a politically, racially, culturally, and philosophically fractured world that there really is a better way forward—that there really is a countercultural and rugged unity that is as gracious as it is urgent.

United Methodist General Conference 2019–Day 4 (Final Day)

Mike DuBose

(Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service)

Just before morning worship today, the Western Pennsylvania Delegation to General Conference received heartbreaking news. Faith Geer, a member of the delegation, had breathed her last breath after a lengthy journey with cancer. Faith, a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Allison Park, desperately wanted to to be here in St. Louis but was unable to make the trip because of her failing health. Her death ushered all of us into the depths of instantaneous grief.

I met faith back in 1990 and have long been grateful for her leadership, her vision, her organizational acumen, and her sacrificial service to the United Methodist Church at every level.

As Bishop Cynthia came to pray with the delegation, I heard an encouraging whisper in the depths of my soul, reminding me that, in Jesus Christ, struggle and death are never given the final word to speak. Faith Geer knows that now, better than all of us. I am convinced that she is more alive than she has ever been.

So, thank you, Faith, for the the graceful stewardship you practiced over your well-lived life and for allowing your journey to bless so many others, including mine.

As the General Conference gathered in plenary session to take action on Monday’s legislative recommendations, most of the morning was devoted to a debate of a “minority report” which called for a re-visiting of the One Church Plan (which is the plan that removes the current restrictive language about homosexuality from the Book of Discipline and allows pastors, congregations, and Boards of Ministry to come to their own contextual discernment about how best to care for marriage and ordination). Yesterday, while working as a legislative committee, the delegates opposed the One Church Plan (53% to 47%). This morning, if the plenary session had approved the minority report, the One Church Plan would have replaced the Traditional Plan as the point of focus for the delegates.

The minority report was not supported by the plenary. The percentage of the vote was the same as yesterday—roughly 53% of the delegates voted not to support the minority report, while roughly 47% voted support. The rejection of the minority report brought the delegates back to the Traditional Plan, which is the plan that maintains the current language about the “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching and the current ban on both same sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The Traditional Plan also institutes a more rigid accountability in this regard for clergy and bishops.

On Monday, the General Conference requested a declaratory decision from the United Methodist Judicial Council, whose job it is to rule on the constitutionality of United Methodism’s actions, practices, decisions, and policies. More specifically, the General Conference asked for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan (vis-à-vis the United Methodist Church’s Constitution as contained in the Book of Discipline).

Today, delegates received a report from the Judicial Council, declaring that ten petitions related to the Traditional Plan are either unconstitutional or in violation of the church’s established polity.

As a result, the rest of the afternoon today was devoted to the tedious but important work of debating and amending the petitions in order to make them both practically workable and ecclesiastically constitutional.

Here’s the long and short of it all.

This afternoon, in an urgent moment that I experienced with breathless trembling, the General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan as the Way Forward for the denomination.

A little bit later on, delegates approved a petition on disaffiliation, which, in time, will provide a means by which a United Methodist Churches can leave the denomination with their property.

I will refrain from trying to describe all the details of our remaining hours together following the adoption of the Traditional Plan. Never has the phrase “you had to have been there” been more applicable.

Many delegates wept, deeply and uncontrollably, anguished by what they believe to be the church’s sanctioning of a dehumanizing mistreatment of sexual minorities.

Many delegates sat in quiet gratitude, believing that an orthodox understanding of Biblical sexual ethics had been rightly and decisively honored.

Many delegates were outraged, initiating disruptive protests and actions of dissent.

Many delegates were caught somewhere in the middle—weary, vulnerable, stunned by the intensity of all that was happening around them.

Emotions ran high this afternoon, and intensified emotions tend to generate amplified responses. We saw plenty of those: Legislative stall tactics designed to prevent the plenary from getting to all of the Traditional Plan’s petitions; shouts of protest designed to remind the church that it has caused deep pain; debate undergirded by palpable outrage.

It would be easy to approach such dynamics with a spirit of harsh judgment. But I would encourage you to pray your way out of such a spirit. After all, many delegates saw this vote as a matter of life and death for the church’s ministry. Their hearts were broken by the vote. Their vision for the future had taken a huge hit. Their anguish poured out as heightened remonstration. I would like to think that the church I love is durable enough to cover such behavior with countercultural patience and gracious understanding. After all, this is family, and family members love one another even in their most raw and vulnerable moments—especially in those moments, in fact.

How did I vote personally? Normally I don’t answer such questions publicly. It leads too easily to labeling, categorizing, and distorted perceptions. But this is a unique moment in the church’s history. I feel that I owe you at least the offering of transparency. So, here goes.

I did not vote for the Traditional Plan at any point. I was part of the 47% that voted for the One Church Plan (and the Connectional Conference Plan before that). I was in the queue to speak in favor of the One Church Plan this morning, but was not called upon.

My vote will disappoint some of you. It will encourage others. (Please, I beg of you—honor my transparency by resisting the temptation either to chastise my vote or to celebrate it.) I have great love and admiration in my heart for people all across the spectrum—those who voted my way and those who didn’t. But, here’s the deal: I am an evangelical follower of Jesus Christ who believes the Bible is God’s inspired Word but who also believes that the saving grace of Jesus creates sufficient space for divergent conclusions about how Biblical teachings are to be understood, interpreted, prioritized, and applied.

What drew me to the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan is that I found in both of them at least three convictions that spoke profoundly to my heart:

  • First, the conviction that our most durable unity is found in the person and work of Jesus, not in the uniformity of our theology of sexuality
  • Second, the conviction that the church’s current stance on homosexuality is doing far more harm than good in the human community
  • And, third, the conviction that United Methodist Christians can have a far greater impact for the cause of Christ if they remain connected, in spite of their theological differences

But all of that is moot at this point. The Traditional Plan is the officially adopted way forward for our part of the Body of Christ. (I will lay aside the constitutionality issues for now, since I believe there are enough constitutional portions in the Traditional Plan to make it workable.)

So, what now?

Most of that we will have to figure out together over the course of the next year. Some people (and I am one of them) are greatly unsettled by some of the implications of the Traditional Plan’s petitions. But tonight is not the time to navigate all of the particulars. There will be plenty of opportunities for that in the days ahead. For now, allow me simply to offer a few priorities that are emerging from the weary but still-hopeful heart of this humble pastor.

  1. Open your heart to the fact that many souls are devastated by the church’s decision to adopt the Traditional Plan. Over the last two days, I have received over thirty e-mails and Facebook messages from people in my network of relationships who have begun to question their relationship with the United Methodist Church. Some have already made the decision to leave. I am asking you to be sensitively and prayerfully aware of pain that is probably not very far away from you.
  2. If you are a traditionalist, I greatly respect the sense of gratitude that you most likely have for an outcome that supports your heartfelt theological convictions. But, please, do not rejoice in this, as though the vote were a victory in a battle. Instead, allow the pain that others are experiencing to soften your heart and remind you that, if one part of the Body of Christ is suffering, the entire Body of Christ is suffering.
  3. Reach out to those in your family and church family who are broken over this. Help them to know that they are seen, heard, and valued. If you are a progressive, reach out to the traditionalists who have been wounded by the dynamics of our divided church. If you are a traditionalist, reach out to progressives who are now living in a denominational plan that feels painfully disenfranchising to them. If you are a centrist, reach out to the people on either side of you.
  4. Be intentional about building respectful and attentive relationships with the LGBTQ souls whose lives intersect with yours. If they have heard anything at all about what has transpired within the denomination, they most likely feel particularly vulnerable or marginalized at present. Your willingness to love them and to be loved by them may be some of your most urgent discipleship in the days ahead.
  5. Commit to making your church a place of radical hospitality for all people, irrespective of your stance on homosexuality. Start conversations in your church about what it means to communicate to every person who walks through your church’s doors that, no matter who they are, they are in a place where they will be honored, protected, and loved.
  6. Whatever your theological persuasion, resist the temptation to become so absolutely certain of your own rightness that you lose the capacity to engage with the hearts and minds of those on the other side of a variety of issues. We are a diverse church, after all, where Jesus is busy sanctifying conservatives and progressives, gay people and straight people, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We cannot afford to waste time bowing at the altar of self-certainty.
  7. Finally, breathe in and out the Gospel Truth—that Jesus Christ is still Lord; that he loves us with a love that will not let us go; and that nothing has transpired that has taken us beyond the scope of what God will beautifully redeem.

No matter your theological perspective, friends, I am alongside you in this. My deepest desire is for the authentic connection of our hearts as we learn from one another, nurture one another, and follow Jesus together.

Thank you for journeying with me through this General Conference. Thank you for being the church with me. Thank you for your prayerful encouragement. Thank you for reminding me of why the church is worth the struggle and pain.

United Methodist General Conference 2019—Day 3

5c7489bab2cee.image

(photo by J.B. Forbes)

It was a very painful day. Some of us agreed that it felt like there was a spirit of death in the place, no matter where people stood in their convictions. And I felt complicit in it.

The day started with worship, during which we prayed words together that ushered me into a deeper conceptualization of the faith by which I long to walk:

Faith can be cloistered, an in-house debate
An object to study, a reason to hate
Faith can be closets with things put away
A good bit of talking with nothing to say

But when faith is a lifetime instead of a day
A constant rebirth, not a token to pay
If faith is the worldview beyond the decree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

As we offered those words in unison, it was a moment of personal repentance for me, an opportunity to carry to the cross my tendency to reduce discipleship to a matter of debate—a fresh chance to lay at Jesus’ feet my “good bit of talking with nothing to say.” I quietly prayed that this Christ-follower (and Christ’s church) would become more passionate about seeing faith as a lifetime journey instead of an episodic paying of a spiritual token.

The General Conference spent the entire day engaging in its work as a LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE. This requires just a moment of procedural explanation. In the work of a more typical General Conference, the delegates are divided into several smaller legislative committees. Each one of these smaller committees is assigned a variety of petitions categorized under a particular ministry area (Church and Society; Higher Education; Faith and Order; Discipleship; Financial Administration; Global Ministries; General Administration; Local Church; Superintendency; etc.) The purpose of each legislative committee in a typical General Conference is to review and refine the legislation assigned to it and then to make a recommendation to the entire General Conference which would then take final action on the legislation.

In this special called session of the General Conference, since all of the legislation is somehow related to deliberation about the denomination’s Way Forward, the decision was made to have just one legislative committee to which all of the delegates would be assigned. In other words, the plan was for the entire General Conference to become a legislative committee for a designated period of time, so that all of the delegates could work on refining the legislation and then vote on what legislative recommendations to carry into the plenary session.

Today, the General Conference engaged in its work as a legislative committee, addressing all of the legislation entrusted to its care. The deliberation and debate were frequently difficult and, at times, excruciatingly painful. The delegates, some with extraordinary vulnerability, all with passionate conviction, shared their stories, their hopes, their fears, and their perspectives, all for the purpose of determining legislative recommendations that will demand final action at tomorrow’s plenary session.

Here is where it gets painful.

As a legislative committee, delegates ultimately took the following actions:

  • Supported the Traditional Plan—meaning that the Traditional Plan (which both maintains and intensifies the denomination’s current ban on same sex weddings and ordination) will come to tomorrow’s plenary session for final vote
  • Opposed the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Simple Plan, all of which would have removed the Discipline’s current language related to homosexuality and created safe space for a wide variety of convictions within the denomination  (There is a chance that the One Church Plan might find its way into tomorrow’s plenary session, but this will require the approval of a minority report, which is an uphill battle in this case.)
  • Supported two disaffiliation proposals which would institute a process by which United Methodist churches could leave the denomination with their property
  • Requested a ruling from United Methodism’s Judicial Council on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan (about which delegates should receive information tomorrow)

What am I able to say about all of this by way of personal reflection? Not much at this point. I am weary and burdened—even broken—tonight.

Many traditionalist United Methodists view today’s legislative actions as a necessary preservation of what they believe to be a timeless Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. (I am praying, however, that their hearts will not permit them to rejoice, given the devastation that others in the denomination are experiencing.)

I also realize that many people in the United Methodist portion of the body of Christ are weeping tonight. Weeping because they no longer know what their place is in the church. Weeping because they feel isolated, excluded, abandoned, even demonized. Weeping because they believe that Jesus is walking with them but that his church isn’t.

All evening long, I have been reaching out to people in my life who most likely experienced today’s legislative actions as something hurtful. I encourage you to be attentive to those same people in your life. They are there, after all, probably somewhere nearby, hurting and uncertain, wondering if you see them—really see them—and wondering if you really care.

I am not inviting debate with this post (since there has been enough of that already). I guess more than anything else, I am inviting your desperate prayer for the United Methodist tribe. Irrespective of your theological stance, allow yourself to be heartsick, tearful, and undone by the anguish of a church that is fractured but hopeful; broken but beautiful; sinful but messily and awkwardly sanctified.

United Methodist General Conference 2019—Day 2

Paul Jeffrey United Methodist New

(photo by Paul Jeffrey, United Methodist News Service)

Sunday morning worship at General Conference today was richly evocative and unsettlingly thought-provoking. Bishop Kenneth Carter, President of the Council of Bishops, preached in a manner that built a creative bridge between the Biblical imagery of transformation and the present challenges facing United Methodism. Bishop Carter began the sermon in this fashion:

If you take a moment to look around the room, it will become clear to you very quickly that your story is not the only story…The good news is that God has a story too. It is the story of a God who salvages what we have discarded and redeems what we have labeled unclean…God’s story is about creation.

Bishop Carter went on to share his personal memories of how the churches that he served became contexts of reconciliation that bore witness to God’s ability to create astonishing unity amid stark diversity:

Some of the most conservative and progressive people I have ever known occupied the churches I served as a pastor. They sang in the choir together. They cared for the homeless together. They served on committees and studied the Bible together…And when they disagreed on the interpretation of Scripture (imagine that!), they looked for the heart of the person with whom they disagreed, reminded themselves of their shared dependency upon the saving grace of Jesus, and stayed together…Can God do this again? Can God abolish the dividing wall between two communities? Could these be three days during which Jesus might resurrect us and lead us into new life?

The cynic (and I can be one of those if I am not careful) might conclude that Bishop Carter was simply priming the pump for a conversation about the One Church Plan, which is the “Way Forward” plan endorsed by the Council of Bishops. But I experienced the sermon as something much deeper than a homiletical argument for a denominational plan. The sermon spoke a Biblical truth into my consciousness that I desperately needed to hear this morning—that the scandalous grace of Jesus has a way of keeping people together and connecting hearts across a variety of divides.

Bishop Christian Alsted, who serves as Bishop of the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference, presided over the morning plenary. Bishop Alsted wisely and pointedly reminded us of the nature of our gathering:

This is not a football arena over the next three days [referring to the fact that we are meeting in the arena where the then-St. Louis Rams used to play]. No, for the next three days, this is Church, and we are a community shaped by the person and the work of Jesus Christ.

The rest of the morning was devoted to a presentation of the three denominational plans developed by the 32-person Commission on the Way Forward. As part of its presentation this morning, the members of the Commission reminded the delegates that the Commission’s role “was not to pick a winner or to choose a side but to explore new possibilities that magnify the United Methodist Connection.”

The three plans, already familiar to many of the people reading this post, are these:

The One Church Plan (the values of which are a generous and flexible unity, a contextuality for missional vitality, and a durable honoring of the connectional nature of United Methodism)

The Connectional Conference Plan (which is the most structurally complex of the plans but also the one that frames our future in a theology of connectionalism that envisions a “big tent” with smaller tents within it)

The Traditional Plan (which is built upon the values of unity in doctrine, consistency in practice, and an intensified accountability)

Following today’s lunch break, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Resident Bishop of the Raleigh Area, led the General Conference in a prioritization process, the purpose of which was to assist the General Conference in determining the order in which delegates will address the numerous legislative petitions. In this prioritization process, the 70-plus petitions were grouped based upon their content and purpose. Each “bundle” of petitions was then voted on by the delegates as being either “high priority” or “lower priority.”

The prioritization process resulted in the following “top five” legislative priorities for this General Conference:

1. Pension liability petitions from Wespath (United Methodism’s pension and benefits agency)

2. The Traditional Plan (and its related petitions)

3. A proposed disaffiliation process (i.e., a means by which to exit the denomination)

4. A second proposed disaffiliation process

5. The One Church Plan (and its related petitions)

Voices from around the Connection responded to this “top five” list in different and important ways. Some lamented the fact that a concern for unfunded pension liability, as institutionally significant as that issue might be, would top the priority list. Some celebrated the high position of the Traditional Plan, believing that this indicates a majority support for the plan’s emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. Others lamented that the Traditional Plan was prioritized so highly, believing that its place on the list signals a continued and institutionalized injustice against the LGBTQ community. Still other voices expressed concern and sadness that two disaffiliation plans made it into the list of top five priorities.

Personally, I am uncertain of what it all means. Perhaps I am still processing and pondering the way in which the dust is settling after a long and demanding day. What is abundantly clear is that hope and heartbreak are breathing the same air at General Conference, as are traditionalists, progressives, and centrists. We are a complicated, messy, global, often-divided, and strangely beautiful tribe. I long for an authentic and durable unity that reflects a shared subordination to the Lordship of Jesus and yet remains expansive enough to avoid both theological myopia and institutional idolatry. Our corporate vision for such a thing, however, remains painfully elusive.

Having cared for the pension liability petitions this afternoon, we will turn our collective attention to the Traditional Plan tomorrow morning following worship. I anticipate the kind of extensive deliberation that ushers the delegates through the complexities of parliamentary parlance and into the vulnerable territory of differing Biblical interpretations and disparate theological convictions.

As I prepare for tomorrow, I am thanking God for the way in which this long day ended—with a time of joyful interaction and bread-breaking, shared by most of the people who are here from Western Pennsylvania (delegates and volunteers, visitors and prayer warriors). These precious souls have taught me more about faithful discipleship than they will ever be able to understand. Their voices tonight reminded me sweetly…

…that Jesus is still saving the world…

…and that our United Methodist tribe is worth the sometimes-devastating struggle.

Tonight, that is enough.

United Methodist General Conference 2019—Day One

unnamed

(photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service)

Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “prayer does not change God, but it changes [the one] who prays.”

Today, the United Methodist 2019 General Conference began precisely where it needed to begin—in the transforming and often-mysterious rhythms of prayer. Led by the Bishops of our church and a gathering of beautifully-gifted musicians, we spent the entire day navigating important and complex spiritual territory through the ministries of prayer and fasting.

We prayed for the various global expressions of United Methodism, each of which has sent delegates to this conference.

We prayed for our denomination—for its witness, its healing, its faithfulness, and its mission.

We prayed for one another, naming our personal hurts, hopes, and needs, all the while offering them to the Divine Heart.

We prayed for the LGBTQ souls in our midst who, irrespective of the outcome of this General Conference, are often talked about and talked around in ways that are painful and dehumanizing.

We prayed for the volunteers who will minister to us throughout the conference with their hospitality and administrative efficiency.

We prayed for an anointing of the America’s Center where the conference is taking place, that God’s presence would be felt in every room, in every conversation, in every circumstance.

We prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

day-of-prayer-1-bishops

(photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service)

I cannot tell you exactly how long it has been since I spent an entire day in the work of prayer, but it has certainly been a while.

Late in the afternoon, our prayer led us all the way to the Lord’s Table, where we found supernatural nourishment in the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. It makes spiritual sense, I guess. After all, we had feasted on the presence of God in prayer all day long. How could we conclude the feast at any other place but the Holy Table, where spiritual food becomes mystically tangible.

Following Holy Communion, we ended our day together with a time of administrative orientation, including some parliamentary training. It was helpful and important, especially given the legislative work that we will begin tomorrow. But, to be honest, throughout the orientation, I kept losing myself in prayer—quick, spontaneous, quiet petitions. Perhaps it was a lingering reluctance to leave behind the sweet hours of prayer I had experienced all day long.

At one point in the day, I ran into some members of the prayer team from Western Pennsylvania who have made the trip to St. Louis simply to bless and deepen the General Conference with their focused ministry of prayer. They had nothing but words of gracious encouragement for me. Throughout the morning and afternoon, I received over twenty texts and e-mails from people in Western Pennsylvania letting me know that they are holding me (and us) in fervent prayer. I cannot even put into words how much it means to me that so many people are praying. It makes prayer feel less like an activity and more like a sanctified connection of manifold souls.

Were all people praying for exactly the same things today? No. We come to this place, after all, with different priorities, perspectives, and convictions. Even so, our communal prayer in the name of the Triune God felt like a unifying preparation for the vulnerability and diligence that our work will require in the days ahead. It was the kind of day that compelled me to believe even more deeply in what Scripture teaches—that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

A few weeks back, I wrote a prayer to be used at one of our General Conference delegation meetings. I found the prayer on my iPhone this morning, and, during today’s lunchtime fast, I prayed the prayer over and over again in a quiet corner of the convention center, simply for the purpose of allowing my heart to be shaped by its petitions. I share that prayer now with you in the hope that it will deepen your spirit of intercession. Thank you for reading this post. And please, friends…

…keep praying.

Holy God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who both transcends time and occupies it; who is intimately present with us in both our solitude and our conferencing; who has built the church on the rock of a grace-shaped faith, and who will preserve the church so that not even the power of death will prevail against it:

 We have prayed and pondered for many months, and now we come together…

 Many voices;

 Many perspectives and temperaments;

 Many different hopes, fears, and longings;

 But with hearts joined in a common love for Jesus and the ministry of his beautiful church.

 We come with a spirit of repentance, desperate for a fresh encounter with your cleansing grace that is greater than our sinful rhythms and our distorted priorities.

 We come in a spirit of vulnerable availability, eager to hear and to be heard; to see and to be seen; to love and to be loved.

 Come, Lord Jesus.

 Come, be the center of our discernment and our deliberation.

 Come, be the thoughts that we think, the words that we speak, the air that we breathe.

 Come, Lord Jesus.

 Come, be the window through which we see one another differently; through which we recognize one another’s sacred worth; through which we glimpse what your church can be at its most vibrant.

 Come, Lord Jesus.

 Come be the Window, the Word, and the Way Forward.

 Come, Lord Jesus.

 Amen.

 

When Faith Is a Window Instead of a Wall

GC2019-St.LouisArch

Words are flowing freely and in many directions as we move into the 2019 General Conference.

Words of hope.

Words of anger.

Words of conviction.

Words of fear.

Words of unity and separation; of solidarity and schism; of galvanization and gracious exits.

Words.

I have no more words to offer, which is perhaps best. Even my prayers at this point have become wordless sighs of intercession for a church I dearly love.

So, in this blog post, instead of prosaic words, I offer something far less practical.

A song.

It is a song about faith, at its worst and best. Perhaps more descriptively, it is a song about the transformed perspective that Jesus makes possible.

I am singing the song quietly these days, in the hidden chambers of my soul, somewhere beneath all of my words. I hope that the song becomes something like breathing for me throughout the days of General Conference, so that I will be inclined to discern more windows than walls, more rebirths than tokens.

Here is the song, feebly offered. I pray that it is an encouragement to you.

Window
(Words and music by Eric Park; Performed by Tara and Eric Park)

Faith can be nothing but a means to an end
A ticket to heaven, a creed to defend
Faith can be curtains behind which we hide
A withering tree with no forest beside

Faith can be shallow when depth is required
A bed to crawl into when souls become tired
Faith can be awkward, an out-of-tune hum
A lifeless equation that leads to no sum

But when faith is a window instead of a wall
A lens to look through, not a speech to recall
If faith is the forest instead of the tree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

Faith can be cloistered, an in-house debate
An object to study, a reason to hate
Faith can be closets with things put away
A good bit of talking with nothing to say

But when faith is a lifetime instead of a day
A constant rebirth, not a token to pay
If faith is the worldview beyond the decree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

Faith is assurance of things we hope for
Faith is conviction of things we can’t see
Faith is the journey our ancestors died for
Faith is the pathway to wisdom

Faith can be nothing but a weapon to wield
A rope that is fraying, a very thin shield
Faith can be strident when love is desired
A license for judgment that’s long since expired

But when faith is a window instead of a wall
A lens to look through, not a speech to recall
If faith is the forest instead of the tree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

And when faith is a lifetime instead of a day
A constant rebirth, not a token to pay
If faith is the worldview beyond the decree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see