St. Louis General Conference Day 1

Coming into this General Conference all the preliminary conversations around today’s Day of Prayer was something of a head-scratcher. There were not a whole lot of details about what would go on… other than that prayer would happen. And I’ve got to say, I was really impressed with how boldly our leaders embraced investing a whole day to pray for guidance, wisdom, healing, and vision.

It was truly an inspired act to divide the day’s time into representative prayer times reflecting the diversity of our church—a denomination whose roots are in the United States but now has a footprint across the globe. Bravo.

I was in awe of the vast amount of times we as United Methodists repeatedly sat silently asking the Spirit to guide our words and actions in the coming days. We United Methodists are not exactly known for our ability to sit quietly. We’d rather roll up our sleeves and join God’s activity in the world, doing our part.

We closed with Communion.

There were a few things that caught me off guard. First of all that we are in the former home of the St. Louis Rams threw me. The space is so big… but the acoustics were remarkably good! I imagine that they have more than a few concerts in the space. The audio crew knew what they were doing. Also, being that we were in such a big space there was a large gap between the delegates on the floor and “gallery” in the 100 level seats (see photos below).


I’m guessing the reason for the gap was to ensure that the proceedings of the General Conference could go on uninterrupted. A couple of thoughts/ notes:

  • Those round tables outside the bar are for the delegates to be able to have their meals on site and not at the same place as their workspace.
  • Those same tables would be excellent places for reserve delegates to be allowed to sit in case called upon to serve.
  • You might see that the last row of tables inside the bar are set up for members to be seated but they are empty. You’ll be glad to know that delegates were not skipping out. Those tables were not assigned anyone. They are extra.

I found the above printed on the back of our name badges interesting. Maybe they were there before but this time they seem more prominent. I felt safe… but it also felt a little weird… a little militant.

The afternoon was spent going over parliamentary procedure. Boring? Yes. Informative? Definitely. I think I agree with someone I saw on Twitter who commented that after the presentation on proper parliamentary procedure a) we as a body don’t understand parliamentary procedure and b) there’s probably more than one legislative strategy that is going back to the drawing board because we’re going to a “by the book” with a professional parliamentarian.

A lot of folks have been messaging me today asking a form of “how’s the spirit in the room?” Truthfully, I can say I do not know. First, the size of the room makes it difficult to get a sense of how people feel. I think another part of that is that everyone is anxious. We’re not overly joyful—folks understand the seriousness of the reason we’re here—but there’s not any mean-spiritedness either. At least not that I can see/ hear. Yes, the politicking is present and caucus groups are busy doing their work but we haven’t done any legislative work, yet.

A few things to pray about this evening and tomorrow:

  1. Pray for the election of committee officers tomorrow. The outcome of that process will literally make or break this General Conference. That should happen rather early in the day.
  2. Also, pray for the polling of the body on the priority in which petitions are taken up by the body. This will be important.

Lastly: Judicial Council ruled on 2 more petitions tonight. Petition 90052 and 90078 have been declared unconstitutional. You can read the story (with links to the ruling and petitions here.

St. Louis Here We Come, Pt. 2

My second visit to “The Gateway to the West” was an ecumenical college student gathering. It was a great event but the one thing frustrated most is that when it came time for New Year’s Eve worship with Communion, we had to gather as different branches of Christianity. The Orthodox and Roman Catholics gathered in their respective spaces. The Episcopalians and Lutherans gathered in another space. Everyone else–including United Methodists–were herded into the “Reformed” worship service.

Reformed!

Someone didn’t do their homework. We are the spiritual children of Wesley, not Calvin and Zwingli!

So more than of few of us United Methodists crashed the Episcopalian/ Lutheran service–the service that represented better which branch of Protestantism we descend from.

I remember talking with some fellow “crashers” of that service and they talked about how uncomfortable they felt in that worship service. I think that was the first time I ever felt a sense of mourning that we as a tradition were drifting away from our uniqueness and into , as the military calls it, “General Protestant” territory. We have an amazing story, and wonderful tradition, and have added much to the mosaic of Christian strains. Do we mourn the fragmented nature of the church? Of course. At that event where we did everything as an ecumenical body but the brokenness of the humanity meant that we could not gather around the same table to celebrate the Eucharist–the very symbol of our oneness with Christ and each oher.

Reflecting in that event all these years later two thoughts come to mind:

  • We need to remember our roots–we are the spiritual children of the Wesley’s. We are, at our roots, a renewal movement within the broader stream of Anglicanism–the home of the via media, a church both Catholic and Protestant. We will spend the next week as a denomination trying to do what no other denomination has done: maintain a global denominational structure, embrace representative democracy as a valid expression of collective wisdom, and find resolution to questions of unity and ministry with people identifying as gay or lesbian. To successfully navigate this next week, we’ll need to lean into our roots and origins.
  • I still reflect on the yucky feeling of the brokenness we felt as we gathered around our various denominational tables for that closing worship service. How many people would come to a relationship with Christ but because of an impoverished visible witness of unity in Christ, they think the Church is nothing but a room full of hypocrites? How many times do folks leave church because we seem to do too good of a job fighting over things that do not ultimately matter instead of practicing hospitality in Jesus’ name and encouraging one another in practicing our faith?

Sunshine Covenant

I know I don’t blog much anymore. This is in an intentional choice. Its not that I have nothing to say, its just that one of the benefits gifts of now being (a shade) over that seemingly magical number of 40 is that I’ve finally learned that not every thought I have merits publication. That, plus the number conversations and blog posts that have turned into someone else’s doctoral dissertation or published article, has caused me grow more circumspect. But I digress.

I’m writing today about some thoughts–questions–I’ve had that might actually be beneficial for our larger and beloved church. This came from a Facebook conversation regarding this article from the United Methodist News Service regarding a closed meeting of the major caucus groups whose issues include human sexuality.

The tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) version of that article is this: the major caucus groups met with the General Commission on General Conference (GCGC–sounds like a wanna be club from the East Village, eh? Maybe there’s a skit to be done for YouTube). This meeting was to talk about what would be in bounds and out of bounds for General Conference and how to avoid what happened (or rather how to avoid repeating what didn’t happen) in Tampa at 2012 General Conference.

I like the fact that GCGC met with these groups. That shows forethought.

I like the fact that GCGC met with the caucus groups together–and that the caucus groups agreed to do it. That shows some degree of trust.

What I didn’t like was that the caucus groups and GCGC met in closed session. For many reasons, this is not good. To the point, it violates the spirit of our polity, which encourages open meetings for every meeting except for where closed session is required–legal matters, violation of confidentiality in property matters, deliberations of Judicial Council, and human resources deliberations (SPR, District Committees and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry, Cabinet Meetings, Committee on Investigations, etc) discussions all come to mind. There’s not much else but I imagine there could be more.

The meeting of caucus groups with GCGC is not one of those explicitly allowed closed meeting.

Some context: three years ago, I had the privilege of being a reserve delegate to General Conference from my Annual Conference. Because I was a reserve delegate, I did not have the responsibility of being in on any committee meetings–I got to witness much as I floated between committees, helping where I was needed. During the plenary sessions I spent my time in the stands, available should the head of our delegation need a clergy person to fill an empty seat. This gave me the opportunity to take in a lot, as well. I saw dedicated, faithful people do their best to try to practice the tenants of Christian Conferencing with friends and strangers, sometimes struggling through the slow pace or even lack of translators. I also saw determined lay and clergy present to advocate for various issues.

Note: in the spirit of transparency, yes, I have participated in earlier years in the work of denominational, General Church-level caucuses–several of them and around varied and diverse issues. I don’t do this so much anymore, not because I disagree their work but because I think that someone needs to be able to stand up and speak with clarity, conviction, and credibility for the broad United Methodist Church that I love and in which many people of different views live, move, and have their being.

What my friends and I were chatting about on Facebook this morning could be summed up this way:

Wouldn’t it be wise to have all of our meetings related to General Conference be open meeting?

Here’s some thoughts:

  • What would it be like? To whom would it apply? This precept could include:
    • the General Commission on General Conference?
    • Council of Bishops (as their work relates to General Conference)?
    • Connectional Table (again, work relates to General Conference)?
    • Standing Committees of General Conference?
    • Legislative Committees?
    • Study Commissions?
    • General Agency meetings (that relate to the work of General Conference)?
    • Include the executive committees of above groups?
  • I think I read somewhere that there was going to be some process for seeking feedback on petitions being perfected by a committee. How could the new process be transparent and accessible? Could there be reporting out of that process for everyone to see?
  • Is there any way to curtail informal groups meeting well into the second week, taking on the role of legislative committees after the committees have ceased to exist? This is not to squelch the movement of the Spirit or collaboration; its just to make processes open. The memories of 2012 restructuring proposals that found themselves resurrected after all committee work ended needn’t fade too fast.
  • Is there any way caucus groups could go through some type of declaration process (maybe they already do)?
    • They could formally declare, by some deadline, that they are an official caucus group,
    • They could identify what issues they are addressing,
    • They could share who are their major donors.
    • These declarations could be made public and accessible.
  • Could there be some way to shine light on the work that happens more often than I am comfortable with regarding–let’s be kind and call it hospitality and awareness raising. To a certain degree this is well, good, and even needed. But somewhere, and I’m not all too certain where the line is, this morphs into something heinous that the People of God should not be near. Can we do better?

I’m not naive. I know that sometimes the best ideas happen when folks share a meal and have informal conversation or pray together to discern God’s will. The digital version of this could be comments on Facebook or a hashtag thread on Twitter. I don’t want to discourage this. There’s simply this two-fold sense that we can do better than we did in 2012 and that somewhere in the heat of trying to “win” we lose sight of the collateral damage we do to the Church and how those who are looking on see us. If we can do a better job of watching over one another in love with this matter, it could make all the difference in how we conference and, more importantly, our witness.

I’d love your thoughts and to have a conversation.

update: a few typo corrections (I told you it had been a while since I blogged) and to clarify transparency re: caucusing.