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Today Bishop Ough, the incoming President of the Council of Bishops, spoke to the General Conference and the Church. While I appreciate the humility the man showed, this was not the speech I wanted to hear. I wanted pastoral comfort. I wanted direction. I wanted leadership in a way that moved the church forward. Instead, we heard, “It’s not our job to lead. We’re sorry that we got caught with our proverbial hand in the cookie jar. It’s our job to preside, though. Coming up with an idea is your job.”

We need the grown-ups to enter the room spiritually mature, big-picture, selfless leaders to provide the leadership the Holy Spirit has inspired within them. I don’t mean that to sound as condescending as I am afraid it might. Yes, we have some amazingly faithful leaders who have been as faithful as gifts, graces, skills and circumstances will allow. Yes, there’s always the shenanigans here and there, but by and large we have been led to a place where we seek to do good. We’re human, after all. Though there are these good intentions to do lead and do ministry, we are stuck. 

I do not know when we got stuck. At some point in time, probably in such a subtle fashion that no one noticed, we decided that winning an argument was more important than finding a way forward. We decided that supporting our friends in their work was more important than releasing people around the globe to do the vital work of ministry. We felt it more important to protect our own interests–and our own chances at next quadrennium’s election–than to find a way to do ministry in a way that is authentic to the Gospel of Jesus and is responsive to a cultural context.

There’s been a lot of talk about the decline of the church in the United States. We wonder why things do not change. Today, for example (as my friend Dalton Rushing pointed out) we spent a large part of our afternoon arguing over whether or not an optional Special Sunday included a “may” or a “shall” when it came to taking up an offering. Lest we forget, our world has changed and the church has, as a whole, not been able to respond. In contrast, there are tremendous stories across the US of thoughtful, creative ministry that is capturing not just the imagination but transforming the lives of young adults. Writ large, the numbers tell a different story.

Part of this slow-to-change nature is because our structure. We are not that flexible nor are we that responsive. After all, we only meet every four years. I cannot tell you the number of decisions that have already been kicked down the road to 2020 referred to an agency or board for them to study for four years. They are to come back with a response that may or may not be accepted by the General Conference. Part of this seems to be inspired by “not on my watch” sensibilities. Part of it seems to be a resistance to any change that might alter the current but slowly eroding detente between the liberals and conservatives in the UMC. And, yes, part of it might just happen to be that there are folk satisfied with the way things are.

[side note: Here’s an idea… how about we create a rule that the first action of a General Conference is to consider any petitions that were referred to it from the previous General Conference? That way, folks might stop kicking the can down the road referring as a means to defeat a petition.]

I’ve spent the past 2+ years leading a church to rethink ministry. They have journeyed together through some of the hardest decisions a congregation can make–to sell a beautiful, landmark building so that more, new people can be reached for the Gospel of Jesus. More than that these faithful, gracious people agreed to let their old ways of understanding church fall away so that something new might, in turn, take shape. All of this is in order to make more, new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

This is good, faithful, kingdom-oriented work. It is also scary stuff. It puts so much up in the air that, literally, the only thing a congregation has to cling to is their faith in the living Christ that invites all into new life. We, the General Conference, need to have a profound enough faith to trust God will provide if we take faithful steps to renew our ministry with the world. We have communities full of people asking, “why?” and we’re too busy with our own internal squabbles.

Through my congregation’s journey I have truly come to know in a real way that the local church is “where it’s at.” Much of what we vote upon at General Conference will not seismically impact the reality of my congregation. I will stand up Sunday morning and seek to provide hope found in Jesus that inspires graceful action. Monday, folk will go to school, work, & marketplace. They will offer grace where they find a little space, a little light. Folk will pray. Folk will serve. And next week they will do it all over again as they try to get it a little more right than they did last week. In the midst of that we pray more folk want to be part of that intentional, gracious pattern of life. Soon, they will receive a new church planter and I will move on to my next place of ministry. All of this, in order to faithfully lead.

Simon Sinek differentiates between the leader and the boss. See below:

 We have enough bosses. We need leaders listening  for God, willing to serve alongside, praying for inspiration, and clearly articulating a Spirit-infused vision for our Church.

As I go to bed tonight, I am hopeful. Our bishops have been asked to lead. Apparently, they are taking this invitation seriously. Only the bishops of the United Methodist Church know what will be offered tomorrow as they seek to lead this group of people who try so diligently but ultimately get it wrong more often than we like to admit. May their God-inspired words not only offer hope but bring unity to us in a way that surprises us all.

Speak, God. May your Spirit move among us. 

Welcome to the 2nd Week of General Conference! A few words about today:

John Street UMC

Let me geek out on history a bit. Today the General Church voted on the Trustees of John Street UMC in Manhattan. Why is this important? Because it is, literally, the first Methodist Church in America. I loved reading about this place in the history books. It was started because Barbara Heck caught folks playing cards. She thought they were all going to hell so she coaxed someone into preaching to them. As the church was founded, Robert Strawbridge would preach in his British redcoat uniform, taking his sword off and placing it on the pulpit. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons he captured people’s attention!

These days, John Street is an important church, not just because it is in the financial district but because young people are moving into Lower Manhattan at a rapidly increasing rate. We need the church there. I pray they are effective in their faithful ministry of presence and outreach.

#Blacklivesmatter

I had the privilege of sitting in, again, for some of our delegates. As we were coming together after lunch, we had our first protest of this General Conference. It last 20 minutes. Yes, General Conference costs $1,388 dollars per minute. And sometime we need to let voices be heard. In this case, it was a 20 minute reminder to me, at least, that I am white, male, heterosexual. That gives me an awful lot of privilege before I even open my mouth. Sometimes I need to be quiet. Sometimes I need to create space for others to feel like they are heard, even if all that can be mustered is a cry of frustration or the tears of heartache.

Challenge to Judicial Council

Now this is interesting. We have a challenge to the Judicial Council for a ruling of law as to whether or not central conference delegates have to be elected. Taking the person who made the request at face value, it seems as if folks are claiming that in some Annual Conferences in the Central Conferences, there aren’t elections but appointments to delegations–appointments made by bishops. Involved in those challenges were complaints from central conferences read by someone from the U.S. Coercion, fiscal malfeasance. It makes one sick if it winds up being true. I hope the Judicial Council rules soon.

Look at all the rumors surrounding me every day:

About the time I was thinking about going to bed, Twitter perked up. The progressive caucus was posting that there’s a possibility that the Council of Bishops would entertain a called session of General Conference to consider and vote upon “amicable separation”. I literally don’t know what to say about that. If true, it would be expensive–an order of magnitude that ministries would have to be curtailed to fund it. Remember General Conference in 2016 costs $1,388 per minute. Several General Conferences ago, Bill Hinson (one-time pastor of Houston FUMC) floated this idea and the General Conference balked. Instead, they stayed late into the night on the last night of General Conference affirming the unity of the Church. Could this be a trial balloon by our bishops simply force the church to face the sobriety of what keeps getting banted about? Is this their King Solomon moment? Is a rouse by Love Your Neighbor to force a hand that, in reality, no one wants? I. Literally. Do. Not. Know.

I’ve got to think that cooler heads will prevail. We’ve got to remember that there’s more we have in common than that which divides us. Pray tonight. Rest well. Rise tomorrow renewed to speak words of grace and hope. 

But first, I might cry.
There’s holy work to do tomorrow. But, first, let’s run the numbers….

Vital Signs Important Numbers:

  • Steps Taken: 6,758
  • Times when I’ve wondered whether or not our leaders ate the wrong brownies at snack break: 1
  • Times I’ve been to Blue Star Donuts they were sold out: 2

“Bring in the Southpaw”

I had a distinct honor today. With several of our delegation being away to celebrate either their own graduation or the graduation of a family member, North Georgia had to deploy its entire reserve delegation that was on-hand at the end of morning worship. This meant I had to step into the Conferences Committee. Many items came through this committee, including Jeremy Smith’s petitions on creating a free, searchable online digital Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions to be available the year prior to a General Conference. There are two we wrestled with that I want to bring up:

  • What to do about the number of Jurisdictions, number of Bishops, and how their salaries are funded: rather than trying to piecemeal this or offer something that could be incongruent with the work of transitioning to a more globally relevant church, they setup a task force. I know it sounds like the typical churchy thing to do–call more meetings–but this was brilliant. A result of true Christian Conferencing.
  • Commission on Separation: it was lunchtime and almost at our hard stop. Our subcommittee chair asked us to begin looking at a petition. When we turned our Daily Christian Advocates (book of petitions) to the page she told us, the room filled with a combination of gasps, sighs, and “oh…..”. We didn’t get to conference about it fully but you could feel an energy in the room. I glanced down at my book and the paper seemed to turn a few shades lighter. I have never dealt with dynamite or a grenade before, but I can imagine. All of these petitions are serious an impact the lives of faithful Christians. But this one? Wow. Lunch came and went. We went back into full committee and spent the rest of the afternoon voting on 41 different petitions. Then, the Commission on Separation Plan came. Again the room–this time the full committee–felt the seriousness. There were a couple of speeches followed by a successful motion to table. You can read the full text here. I’m someone who has been outspoken on Church Unity. And while it might literally break my heart if the United Methodist Church schismed, I did find it something less than satisfactory in not having a more definitive statement from our committee. I even offered to un-table it if there was time, in order to have a more substantive conversation and, hopefully, a statement made on the unity of this part of Christ’s church.

$20 Million for “Charter Churches”

I spent the better part of the legislative committee time until Saturday present in the Financial Administration committee. This group works on petitions relating to pensions, investments, and our budget. Our budget now includes a plan that has the proposal of taking $20 million dollars outside our current structure and work with a group of entrepreneurs to oversee a group of strategically identified congregations and pastors. This is to see if we can stem the tide of declining worship attendance (and giving) in the United Methodist Church. It feels very similar to Charter Schools. I have three concerns:

  • Why is this $20 Million not taken equally (or even equitably) from all program agencies? Why disproportionately take from GCORR, GCRSW, and GBCS? This feels intentional. See Lane’s post.
  • How can there be a modicum oversight from the General Church in this use of apportionment funds? Maybe make this a special program of Path 1?
  • Can we not have this $20 Million paid out each year over the quadrennium at the prior years’ apportionment payout percentage? My daughter goes to a great school in Atlanta. It could be better if the state and city fully funded what the law says. A few miles away is an excellent Charter School. That school gets all of its funding regardless of the school system’s budget or needs. It must come off the top. My child’s school loses teacher positions, programs, and opportunities. It doesn’t seem fair for children. It doesn’t seem fair for churches.

That said, I’m not against this proposal. As a matter of fact, I think it is a good idea. After all, what we are currently doing isn’t working so well (a complex problem, I know). There’s no need to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just be aware of unintended consequences and precedence set.

“Sine Die”

We ended the day a 9:30pm. All committees had to cease work at 9:20pm, finish with a brief worship service, and go home. All petitions not placed on a calendar or sent to the plenary is left as unfinished business.

Vital Signs Important Numbers:

  • Steps Taken: 10,063
  • Hours spent in committee today: 8 hrs, 10 min.
  • “Press ‘1’ if yes, Press ‘2’ if no. Please vote now”: countless….

Hospitality in Communication:

We saw it this morning if you were watching the live stream. Moses Kumar, head of GCFA, got so excited about the ministry of the United Methodist Church, someone had to walk on stage, stop him, and remind him to slow down. I would have died of embarrassment if it had been me. But not Moses. He was too excited?

Why do this? Because while most of General Conference is conducted in English, not everyone speaks English (and even fewer people speak English-only). To facilitate that, General Conference is instantly translated into eight languages (English, French, German, KiSwahili, Korean,
Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Swahili). This requires slowing down–something every USAmerican from the southeast save me has no problem with. 

Folks don’t do this intentionally. But we do need to be reminded to slow down our natural speech rate. I witnessed something today. One of my more conscientious friends got called out for speaking too fast. He wasn’t being inhospitable. It’s just that he was so prepared for his work that he spoke of each petition by its 6-digit assigned number as if he were calling out my name. It can be difficult to remember that not everyone is prepared as you are–especially delegates wrestling with language differences or reserve delegates sitting in who had not prepared for a committee.

Vote Up, Vote Down, Adjourn Early

Watching the #umcgc Twitter hashtag thread, several things became readily obvious. The first was problems with committees using technology to vote. Then there was confusion over voting–did a “yes” mean “no” when voting on a matter a subcommittee voted non-concurrence? Also, folk were getting sick. One of the committees adjourned early when the chair passed out. Word is folk are skipping meals and getting dehydrated. Drink your water, people. Candler was nice enough to offer slick water bottles. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Vital Signs  Important Numbers

  • Steps Taken: 9,064
  • Legislative Committees Observed: 2 (Financial Administration, General Administration)
  • Indigo Girls Seen: 1 (Emily)

Rule 44

And on the third day….

Much has been and will be written about Rule 44’s demise, the tea-leaf reading thereof, and what would have happened should it have become part of our rules. I’ll leave that to others. 2 little pieces that I somehow missed both in my own reading and the pro/con rhetoric:

  • 2012 General Conference asked for a different way of talking about matters. With the numbers of times I’ve already heard “this is my Xth General Conference”, many of the people who asked for this are the people who said “no” yesterday.
  • If it had become one of the Rules of General Conference, that didn’t mean it had to be used as a decision tool. Another vote would have had to been taken to push a petition into the Rule 44 process.

One more comment on Rule 44. Wednesday morning’s plenary was chaotic. Yet again, there were more Points of Order and Points of Information than there were speeches for and against. Even I, fancying myself as something of a parliamentarian, got lost in some of the machinations. The sad part about it is, the conversation got lost, too. No one could listen to each other. Conferencing came to and end as it morphed into something. The body spoke, yes. But something was lost in the process.

Committee, Subcommittees, Plenary (or, I’m Just Petition, Yes I’m Only a Petition and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill the Banks of the Willamette River) :

Speaking of processes…. This fascinates me.

In order to process the many petitions sent to General Conference, each legislative committee divides into various subcommittees. The Financial Administration Committee divided its membership and work into three subcommittees:

  • The Budget- determining 
  • Pensions and Investments
  • Everything Else

The subcommittee I observed yesterday was the “everything else” one. I’ve got to take my hat off to my friend Mathew Pinson. He did a fantastic job processing (that’s the term) legislation. He put forth petitions in a way that allowed for healthy, civil conversation, he did not “mansplain” or condescend. And the committee reflected that. People listened. Conversations were had. I’m not going to say that any opinions were changed but there were real, thoughtful conversations. I appreciate that.

Here’s just a few of the things an “everything else” subcommittee would consider:

  • Whether or not to require all Health and Welfare agencies within the United Methodist Church to join the United Methodist Assocation.
  • Whether or not to create a separate apportionment line item for Central Conference Theological Education
  • Whether or not People employed by an Annual Conference (or General Agency?) must adhere to and profess a Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith.
  • Whether or not a congregation aligning as “Reconciling” or “Confessing” could receive apportionment dollars.
  • Whether the auditing filter ought to be altered so that apportionment and general church funds can be better directed to address the HIV/ AIDS pandemic.

When the full committee comes back into order, each subcommittee will report on their recommendation. The full committee will be able to take the recommendation and affirm it, alter it, or vote it down. There’s the opportunity for minority reports and whether something goes onto a Consent Calendar (large numbers of petitions that overwhelmingly passed out of committee and are affirmed en masse) or is discussed on the floor of General Conference. For more on this, see Dalton Rushing’s post: here.

Process and the Holy Spirit

Once again, I’m a process person. I think the Spirit never disregards good preparation (thank you, Don Saliers). Decision best happen when heart and mind meet, not one overriding the other. If we get so involved in process–even as we begin each day with worship, end each day with a devotion–is there a chance that we miss out on where God wants us to go? God is in the process. I believe that. I also believe that so are our subjective opinions and preferences, our human desire for recognition, power, acceptance, and control. Pray for each delegate, those who are officers of the committees, and our bishops as they lead.

Vital Signs Important Numbers

  1. Steps Walked: 6,872 (notice the downward trend?)
  2. Hours of uninterrupted sleep: 8:30 (the most since Joy’s been born, save when sick)
  3. Slices of “Always Sunny in Portland” Pizza left behind after asking for a takeout box: 2 (2 and 3 probably related).

An interesting day as we began our process in earnest:

Preach, Bishop

One of the hallmark moments of a General Conference is the Episcopal Address. One bishop is selected by the Council of Bishops to address the General Conference and world in a pastoral tone. Bishop Gregory Palmer preached a word that was hopeful, inspiring, truth-telling, and convicting. He reminded us of our prior sins, including our complicity a “Mutually Assured Destruction” model of decision making–something I have thought of as “fighting over the ash heap”. He reminded us that the world needs hope, that the church deserves better & God deserves better. You can watch the full address here: https://www.facebook.com/umcgeneralconference/videos/1274865645874998/

It was one of those sermons you didn’t want to end–partially because you wanted him to keep on talking and partially because soon would come the call to change. I pray we change.

Rules

The first act of the body was to debate Rule 44 (the alternative discernment process). See infograph below (thanks Jeremy)


The interesting part was not whether Rule 44 would be sent to the Rules Committee. The interesting part was the procedural parliamentary tricks that went on. The motion was tabled (a way to put away a motion because no one wants to talk about it). There’s one problem: in Europe and parts of Africa, tabling means to begin conversation not ending conversation. So the tabling motion was reversed. There were more parliamentary maneuvers, more points of order, and the hearing of amendments. The Rules Committee will report back Thursday morning.

Christian Conferencing

The first thing committees did today was not elect officers. They spent a little over an hour talking about their context, impediments to fulfilling the Great Commission, and what is it that excites and frets about a globally-structured church. What a great idea! I’m sure some were bored and wanted to get to business. To pray together, listen together, and discuss a matter than will require no vote was a wonderful way to begin. Folks got to hear where people were coming from. They might have even been brave enough to be vulnerable with one another.

Financial Administration

I’m sitting in on the Financial Administration Committee. This is what I will be staring at for most of the next week.

Here’s my view:


This committee will work on our budget, on matters related to our Pensions Program (including divestment petitions from companies profiting from the occupation in the West Bank as well as companies profiting from fossil fuels). Activities today were to only elect each committee’s officers–a chair, a vice-chair, a secretary, and any subcommittee chairs if they are needed. A couple of interesting things happened in Financial Administration. First, the committee inadvertently elected someone who was not actually on the committee. There had been a discrepancy between the preliminary and final committee rosters. So they had to elect a vice-chair twice. Also, there was a request early on that paper ballots be counted open and in a public fashion so that members could see how votes were tallied as each ballot was read and counted. There was an assumption that this was a global norm (something I’ve never seen in any voting I’ve been a part of). They got done early, elected 6 people who were all qualified folk with prior experience in this committee.

Trust

I have been spending much time and thought processing what I’m seeing and hearing. I’m not at a place of final, definite answer but I keep coming back to a place where it seems as if folks do not trust each other. On the one hand, how can we. There’s so many new faces and new stories. That said, we share a common faith tradition and we can trust that which has been passed onto us. Even still, we’ve spent more time than necessary arguing points of order and points of information. The moments of celebration are few and far between. Maybe we ought to watch Bishop Palmer’s address each morning before arriving at the Convention Center. 

Here’s my question: do we trust God to work through this General Conference and the individuals constituting each delegation? If not, then we’ll continue status quo and not much will change. Caucus groups will cheer small victories that seem like big wins for their donor base while the rest are left feeling something less than satisfied. Folks will have to settle for a United Methodist Church that is something less than what God would imagine for it. I do believe most here want to work towards this and are doing so within their current constructs. Still, it’s going to take some God-inspired imagination to change.

I implore my colleagues to continue to assume everyone operates with sincere intentions, that we maintain high standards for respectful dialogue & activity, including that  we continue to listen fully before we speak, and that we see our work in the midst of the grand sweep that is God’s activity in the world. We’re never left to our own devices. The Spirit still abides. The Spirit still moves. Thanks be to God.

Vital Signs Important Numbers:

  • Steps Walked: 7,800
  • Meals at Food Trucks: 1
  • Refills of my water bottle (Thanks Candler): countless.