Tuesday, May 8, 2012

General Conference: An Early Reflection

Now that General Conference is a few days behind me, I have found that when I reflect on the experience with friends and colleagues, I may not sound too hopeful for our denomination.

The last evening of General Conference was chaotic. A restructuring of denominational boards an agencies (Plan UMC) had been declared unconstitutional. Early in the evening there was a move to refer Plan UMC for further perfection. There were many who disagreed with a referral of the legislation, since the Judicial Council had not only called it unconstitutional, but unsalvageable. The call fro referral was eventually tabled, and the legislation "died". The General Conference delegates spent the rest of the long evening, passing legislation that would reduce the governing boards of boards and agencies of the church. These changes, brought the UMC in line with the adjusted budget. General Conference was adjourned about 11:00 pm on Friday, May 4.

Through the two weeks, I saw more back room "politicking" than I cared for. Coalitions and groups allied by shared interests "worked" delegates with their views. I watched delegates reading verbatim from talking point sheets and I saw groups gathered for debriefings and directions. "Plan UMC" was, itself, the work of small group of delegates that did not consult with the wide-ranging constituency of the church.

I had a sense that many had come to General Conference to be the "winners". Unfortunately, when participants come into a setting determined to "win", it means that someone will most certainly "lose". Worse yet, those with unmoving polarized positions left little room for productive conversation or healthy compromise.

At General Conference, there was a lot of emphasis on "Holy Conferencing". Delegates practiced it and covenanted to be in a spirit of Holy Conferencing. It seemed to me that the model only extended to a more polite discourse, with very little agreement to listen openly to all sides. Even with the cautions to keep the conversation "holy", there were harsh words spoken in both the legislative sessions and in the plenary session.

Where is the hope? There certainly is hope. First, this is the church of Christ and not of a group of delegates who worked out United Methodist polity. Thanks be to God. The church will survive. The question might be: Will the United Methodist Church survive. One bishop "tweeted" the day after General Conference that what we are witnessing is the birthing process of a new church. It's not easy; it's messy and painful.

I have found the greatest hope in the grassroots efforts of the local church. As the General Conference rolled on, around the world, people worshipped in our churches and reached out to feed, cloth and house people. At First UMC of Brighton, we prepared planting beds for a community garden.

Disciple making and transformation of the world will not come with polarized politicking. It will come with each hand held to take another, each word spoken in kindness, each moment given to listen to another's story.

I may not sound too hopeful when I talk about the experience, but I have not lost hope in the people of the United Methodist Church nor hope in what God will do through us.

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