Impressions from UMC Next (and for Conference Elections)

UMC Next - MichaelHere are a few first impressions from the UMC Next gathering last week and implications as we move towards the election of delegates this week.  I will assume that you have read the inspired key principles and heard about the two-fold strategy to “Stay, Resist, and Reform,” while engaging in “Negotiations for Dissolution” if this is deemed to be the most faithful option.

Impression 1.  I felt the tension in my own heart between these two strategies.  I was moved by pain caused by the actions of General Conference and empathized with calls for some form of separation.  And then, I heard powerful statements from African Americans and women who have stayed and struggled for justice and inclusion for generations.  To leave too quickly could dishonor those who have stayed and made such a difference by being prophets among us.  I was moved, for example, by the story of how one Conference elected women to go to General Conference, knowing that these women would be turned away because “laymen” meant “male.”  I am so glad that these women continued the struggle.  Perhaps, they can serve as inspiration.  Whether we ultimately schism or not, we need those committed to the cause and those willing to work together. There is strength in numbers.

Impression 2. We must find ways to model the church that we want to become. That means we must be intentional about inclusivity and honoring all voices at the table.  In this light, I stand convicted as one who is responsible for scheduling our Uniting Dinner on Wednesday Night at the same time as the Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) dinner.  My first response was that it was “unintentional,” motivated by wanting to meet before the elections on Wednesday night.  It was Maxine Allen, a true prophet among us, who agreed that it was unintentional and pointed out that we need to be intentional if we are to live up to the values we claim.  Yes, faithfulness to the vision given at UMC Next calls for much more intentionality.

Impression 3.   I am thankful that our leadership group, first for Uniting Methodists and then for UMC Next, has been open about our participation.  There were many at UMC Next who were reluctant to be open about their advocacy.  In this regard, I think of a conversation I had with Lynn Kilbourne as we were planning a rally for the One Church Plan at Annual Conference last year (that seems so long ago).  I expressed my thankfulness to be in a place, in terms of age and appointment, where I could be a vocal advocate without as much fear of consequences.  I asked Lynn if she was sure about taking a public stance knowing that some heat would come.  She confessed some concern, but then said, “It’s the right thing to do.” We need that kind of leadership as we work for a church that cultivates unity in love rather than uniformity by law and goes back to a biblical vision of making room for all, not just back to a time when discrimination was justified.

You are invited to join this holy work. As a step this week, please join us in electing a delegation that will represent the emerging vision that God is giving.  If you want to be a part of a more organized effort, let me, or any involved, know. There is a plan. We need to work together, or we risk a delegation that wants to perfect the punitive/exclusionary plan with little influence for an alternative vision. For one more impression from the gathering, I no longer want to use the term “traditional plan” because I do not believe it honors the living tradition of the church.  When it comes to honoring our tradition, we can do so much better.

Conference Resolutions and Unintended Consequences

IMG_4576Resolutions often bring hurt and harm. The process taps into deep emotions and strong convictions.  While sometimes necessary to move us forward, the process is also designed to divide. To build upon Bishop Saenz sermon at Annual Conference, this process pushes us into the perspective of disciples behind locked doors, motivated by fear, suspicions, and a need to fix things on our own. In this place it is hard to notice the living Christ in our midst saying “peace.”

After resolutions this year, I have heard colleagues express deep hurt.  I know how that feels and ask forgiveness where I have caused it.  For a personal example, I remember the time when my daughter, as a youth “member,” gave an impassioned speech against a resolution and then was accosted with both physical and verbal aggression.  She literally had to run away in fear.  And, I have noticed people express being hurt, in some cases, by people who express being hurt, in other cases. That’s the power of resolutions.

Much is being said about the hurt that came from the resolution affirming women in ministry.  In hindsight, I believe we need to reflect on this process that can so easily be used to inflict harm, often as an unintended consequence.  It is clear to me that there were intentions of good-will in the presenting of this resolution.  In conversations, the presenters called it an olive branch, a show of support, especially after the tension, and suspicions, around the amendments last year.  I believe we need to honor this effort and give thanks to them.

At the same time, I believe we owe deep gratitude to some of the women who countered this resolution.  While, in hindsight, there may have been other ways to handle it, some chose to excuse themselves from the bar of the conference (not leave the conference) and abstain from the vote.  This was an appropriate political response to a political offering. It was not breaking covenant. It was an action that made us all aware of a need for healing. It may have also saved us from a deeper discomfort. By their nature, resolutions invite opposition.  If it had gotten to that point, someone could have argued that much of the Christian world does not support this and offered a biblical rationale.  Women in ministry would have become an issue to be justified and defend – once again. This resolution was asking women to vote on their own legitimacy – once again.  I can certainly see why this was a problem, and why many felt like they had to come up with a response in the moment (and there was no time for much advanced planning). Again, we owe them our gratitude and continued conversation, not accusations and reprimands.

I have been shocked by the backlash. In most circumstances around resolutions, we fight and move on – sometimes even go out to dinner together. Why did this “fight” lead to such discomfort among us? What do we fear about the deep emotions and strong convictions expressed in this one? It reminds me of father-figures in my life telling girls to “calm down” while telling boys to “get tougher.”  Perhaps the problem for some is that these women didn’t just politely go along. Oh, if we could come together and laugh at the irony and learn from it.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. In hindsight, I believe that a statement of affirmation would have been appropriate, rather than calling for a vote. In hindsight, I wish some would recognize this, even if they don’t like the way the others handled it. I hope we can all try again in some other form than a resolution.  Together may we give thanks for the treasures of forgiveness and grace held within this “earthened vessel” called the church, full of fallible and flawed beings who are the reason for these treasures and who have the power to make them real.