Friday, May 18, 2012

General Conference–A Post Mortem

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on The United Methodist Church’s General Conference in Tampa since it ended a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t there, but I watched it on TV.

Well, not TV exactly. I watched far too much of the live streaming on my laptop, downloaded the app to my phone and followed the twitter stream as it lit up and cooled down and then lit up again for the entire time GC was in session. It was instructive to watch from a distance and remain (somewhat) detached. My training in Sociology kicked in and I was utterly fascinated by what I was observing.

Here are a few brief thoughts:

1. Our system isn’t broken – it works just fine. Seriously. The system we have is designed to prop up and perpetuate the system we have. It was put in place to ensure its own survival. And in Tampa, it did just that! Albert Einstein famously said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Tampa proved that in spades. Don’t be surprised we didn’t change anything substantive. We aren’t built to change. Be UPSET! Be ANGRY! Be DISAPPOINTED! But don’t be surprised.

2. We’re too big. The United Methodist Church is simply too big to be run the way its run. We are a world-wide church trying to function like a regionally franchised department store. One of our strengths is our world-wide connection. One of our weaknesses is our world-wide connection. That became obvious at General Conference when so many divergent worldviews clashed in such dramatic ways. It was obvious when our language barriers brought discussion, worship and communication grinding to a halt.

3. The future of The United Methodist Church will not be decided at General Conference. The future of the Church is and will be decided at the local church. I think we know this and at times it becomes something of a rallying cry. But we need to recognize it as truth and act accordingly. I’m a bit saddened by how distracted I became by the General Conference coverage. I’m refocusing now on my parish. That’s where ministry will happen. That’s where discipleship happens. That’s where lives will be changed. That’s where justice will roll down like thunder. And if it doesn’t, then someone needs to step aside and its probably me.

4. It costs way too much money. One figure I saw put it at $8 million – not including travel and expenses for delegates. That’s a lot of money (alert: understatement). I have a proposal for General Conference 2016 – how about we skip it? What say we take the $8 million and use it to tackle the world’s water problem. We couldn’t solve it, but we could make a serious dent in a global problem AND make a huge impact for the Gospel as well. And … we’d accomplish more than we did in two weeks in Tampa. [Hey, its a thought.]

5. Change will hurt – a lot. The system will not reform itself. We know that now. At least not until its too late. I think change is coming and I’d suggest we buckle up because its going to be a wild, wild ride. When [and if] change does come, its going to be really painful and the system may not survive the trauma. And you have to ask yourself if something good and Spirit-filled might come out of that.

~ Godspeed.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In Life … There Are No Guarantees

The 2012 General Conference has just voted to “do away with” guaranteed appointments. Essentially that means, Elders in The United Methodist Church in good standing are no longer guaranteed a church to serve. That decision now rests in the hands of their Bishop.

I clearly remember Bishop Yeakel explaining this part of our covenant in very simple terms: "I promise you that you will always have a place to go. You promise that you will go where you are sent." I have never forgotten that. I have never refused an appointment when offered, in part because I felt it was a fundamental part of that very clear covenant.

Covenant is important. Its more than a contract; it’s a holy coming together of two parties who agree to live in unity and faithfulness together. If you are going to change the covenant, you have to get the agreement of all the parties involved.

General Conference has taken up the issue, as is their prerogative. They put a measure to end guaranteed appointment on the CONSENT CALENDAR. First, let me say that something of this magnitude should have never been on the consent calendar to begin with. That is poor leadership and bad discernment on the part of those planning the legislative sessions.

Second, twenty years ago now, I entered into this covenant. General Conference didn’t enter into it for me. I DID. Given that, it isn’t up to General Conference to amend that covenant on my behalf. Especially without a vote. Something like a “grandfather clause” would seem appropriate for those of us who entered into this covenant in good faith and now see that covenant radically changing before our eyes with little or no say in the outcome.

Fundamental questions need to be raised: "If there is no guaranteed appointment, shouldn't I have a great deal more to say about where I am appointed?" This new change to the Discipline creates a very healthy imbalance of power. Pastors are, more than ever, “one down” in the relationship with the Bishop and Cabinet regarding appointment setting.

"Are Bishops going to be held similarly accountable by the Jurisdictional Conference and the Committee on Episcopacy?" Clearly, we are demanding of clergy a level of accountability to “effectiveness” that isn’t being demanded of those in higher levels of authority in the church. This only contributes to the imbalance I mentioned before.

This was posted on a General Conference bulletin board of which I am a part: "I've served under a Bishop (now retired) who would not have used this as intended. It would have been used as a weapon against pastors who disagreed with him, who didn't "fall in line," or who were not willing to pay proper obeisance. I have no doubt about that at all based on his actions in other situations.
I have to say that the fears we've been hearing from the floor of GC are justified in some cases."

I love The United Methodist Church. I am a United Methodist by choice, not by birth or upbringing or accident. I believe this church can and will survive. I believe her best days can be ahead of her. I believe we can have more dreams than we have memories.

Am I fearful? No. Fear has no place in the work of God. Am I concerned? Yes. How will we recruit young clergy into ministry on the promise of a maybe? How will we guard the treasured place that minority pastors, female pastors, clergy couples and others have in our Connection? Are we more concerned about “effectiveness” or “management?”

The General Conference action is only a couple of hours old. I haven’t processed all of the implications of this yet. I haven’t figured out if the attempts at “checks and balances” will accomplish what they intend. That will come in the next few days and weeks.

I find myself repeating … “we are more than conquerors through [Christ]who loved us.”