St Louis Day 4

I keep saying this… it was another long day.

In what seems like Groundhog Day, everything that was approved and voted upon on Monday also had to be voted upon on Tuesday. The same people voting on the same things… twice.

By now, you probably have read what happened:

  • The petitions related to the pension plans passed.
  • The traditional plan passed (405-395). There were a few amendments made but It still seems problematic.
  • The “Taylor” Disaffiliation Plan passed.

The question for us all, now, is “what does it all mean?

Before we adjourned, the Traditional Plan was referred to Judicial Council. That referral for declaratory decision (is it Constitutional) will happen April 23-25, 2019. The Committee, Chair, and Parliamentarian refused to let the Traditional Plan be divided for approval (divide the question). When it comes time to be reviewed by Judicial Council that becomes a pretty good argument for making the entire Traditional Plan inseverable. If any of it is unconstitutional, all of it is.

I cannot help but imagine that the disaffiliation plan that passed will be brought before Judicial Council, too.

All that means that we’ve probably just spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million to learn a few things:

  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to operate in a global context without every part of our church having the freedom to adapt for context.
  • Our polity was written to keep us together, not break us apart. It was also written in a time that assumed a US-majority church with minor global representation.
  • It also assumes that people would come to the table with good intentions and a desire to move forward, together.
  • The people who have been bringing the major petitions for the past quadrennia–traditional plan, Plan UMC, etc keep having their plans ruled unconstitutional. Maybe it’s time to read our polity, especially our constitution, before submitting major changes to our polity. Also maybe it’s time to pay attention to the names that keep appearing on petitions that wind up unconstitutional.
  • Finally, for the record, we need to own that a flawed, incomplete plan for unity that could not make it through the Commission nor the Council of Bishops on its own merits is what became the petition that passed (and presumably will be declared unconstitutional a 4th time). It’s well-documented elsewhere how this sketch was included as a third proposal from the COWF.

So, what’s next? I think we wait and see, from a denominational perspective. There’s a conservative group that is meeting in a week. They said prior to St. Louis they are exiting unless the traditional passed unamended. It passed but amended and with questionable constitutionality. We’ll see. The Western Jurisdiction read a statement that says a lot without saying anything definitive other than they will continue doing ministry as they have been. Adam Hamilton has also said via Twitter that he is speaking with Bishops and other church leaders about what happens next. He suggested a meeting would happen after Easter.

I also think it is worth watching what the church does with the referral motion regarding alleged unethical activity–vote buying and bribery. I’ve heard rumors of this off and on since I was in seminary. Is there evidence? Can any connections be made? Who knows.

From a local church ministry perspective, all I can say is continue to serve God, see the world as your parish, and care for each other. Love and worship God. Tend to those who are hurting, especially those who sting a little more sharply today. Also, pay attention to help any who feel vindicated by the decision of this week–that we help remind folk of our essential unity in Christ. There were no winners this week.

Our bishop said it better than I:

Also, I witnessed and was moved by this singing last night. Check it out.

Singing post- GC

Finally, watch how you are investing your time. A dear clergy colleague had a birthday yesterday. While I missed that we were having a delegation meal, I went with others and celebrate her life and ministry after we concluded. It was life-giving.

St. Louis, Here We Come Pt. 3

On my third trip to St. Louis, a mission trip, I remember hanging out downtown–where the old train station had become a downtown mall—the 90’s analogue to today’s “food halls”. The only thing that really sticks in my mind is that this was the first place I saw a shop where they “made” the fudge in front of you. A few of things I reflect on:

  1. You’ve got to pour it all out of the bowl before you start.
  2. You’ve also go to work quick before the fudge cools, otherwise it doesn’t fold. It just breaks.
  3. If you do it right, you’ll wind up with something yummy.
  4. The culinary arts are more of an art than a science.

For us in the Church and those at General Conference:

  1. I don’t think the average United Methodist, lay or clergy, realize the amount of politicking that has gone on in the run up to St. Louis and will happen. Informal sidebars, strategy luncheon, and daily briefings. They’ve already started and the conference doesn’t begin until Saturday! Rather than invite only meetings, secret deals, and strategizing why don’t we do all of our conferencing out in public, before the body of General Conference and the world? Get it all out on the table. Sure, go into executive session if you want but “the light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it.”
  2. Four days is not a long time to conference—three when you realize that Saturday is a day of prayer and preparation. Three days to try to get 50% + 1 to agree to a way forward for The United Methodist Church. Just like the fudge will cease being malleable and foldable once it cools. The closer General Conference gets to Tuesday night’s adjournment, the more rigid I think folk will become.
  3. This is a precious opportunity to truly discern how the Holy Spirit is guiding us. I remember reading about the year General Conference voted to ordain women. It came as a surprise to the General Conference and when it came to the floor, no one thought it would pass. It wound up passing overwhelmingly.
  4. There has been a lot of time and energy spent trying to read the tea leaves—straw polls, surveys, and research performed. I’ll let others proclaim the gift of divination but it seems to me that there are ways for the people called Methodist in America (and the world) to stay united and do faithful ministry in their various contexts. We just need to trust God and each other, believe that God is in the midst of all this, and have the courage to lead and let others lead, as well.

St. Louis Here We Come, Pt 1

Well, General Conference is drawing nigh. Three years of prayer and hard work (and angst-ridden discussion and let’s not forget the politicking and posturing) all draw to a close… or at least find their next articulation… this next week.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking about the other times I’ve been in St. Louis–a family vacation, a mission trip, and an ecumenical young adult conference. From these, several images come to mind. Here’s one. I’ll reflect upon the other ones, later.

Gateway Arch

Of course, the first time anyone is in St. Louis, they are transfixed by the arch. It. Is. Big. How does it stay there? How does it keep from tipping over or sinking into the banks of the Mighty Mississippi?

Traveling with my family as a 5th grader, I could not fathom how to get to the top… to those windows. Who knew that there was an elevator that could move diagonally! I remember laughing with my mother that I thought I could see the Rockies from that outlook. Of course, I couldn’t. But I remember these childhood images and fragments of conversations. The span of years makes them begin to blur. But a question I had then, I still have:

Why is the Arch of St. Louis the gateway to the west and not a stylized bridge spanning the river? This seems to fit better the story of westward expansion.

A gateway is a break in a fence or wall. Anywhere anyone can cross the Mississippi River could be considered a “gateway to the west”. Why not make the arch across the river–a modern day Pillars of Hercules? If we were trying to tell the story of westward expansion wouldn’t a bridge be a better symbol?

In my mind, I’ve been thinking about church and the metaphors of gate and bridge. Do we think of the church as a gate… a guardian… of faith? Or do we think of the church as a bridge… that which connects a someone to a life with Christ?

Gates can be good–when well marked, they provide clear points of entry for people seeking a way in or through. But they can also be considered control points–keeping people out unless they pass muster. This begs the question–does the Spirit and Christ’s Church need check points and bottlenecks that regulate entry and exit? In some sense it seems the answer is “yes”. We have Scripture and the Creeds that create a well delineated boundary for us. They tell us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Where the metaphor of gate fails the church is when we place ourselves in the position of the gatekeeper. It is powerful temptation to feel it is our ultimate power to decide who is in and who is outside the Body of Christ. Yes, 2,000 years of Spirit-guided tradition has given us what Wesley would say are the “usual” ways God and the Church operate .I find it precarious and not a little bit dangerous to put myself in the role of ultimate arbiter of who is in, who is out; who can pass through the gate and who cannot.

Bridges seem a little bit different. Yes, bridges are located in specific places, thus they are their own point of control. But the metaphor is that of helping someone get across a chasm, not blocking someone from passing. Sure, there will be more than a few trolls under bridges that try to exact a price in order to cross but at its best, bridges are just there silently serving their roll as people pass. If we think of the church as a bridge of faith–helping someone get from where they are to where they need to be in their walk with Christ–then we are not the gatekeeper as much as we are the conduit for the Spirit to move.

Looking forward to this called General Conference, one of the things that has kept surfacing in my prayers has been this–how are we helping to connect people to a life with Jesus and how are we inhibiting it? Yes, I direct that towards questions before the General Conference but I also direct that at all of us and our demeanor, at our motivation, and at the way in which we view one another. In social media, in news accounts, in public and private conversations–can we be the bridge and not the gate? Can we be the conduit of God’s love and grace and let God be God?

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.

What to Do Now That Security of Appointment Is Back

Ever since it passed on a consent calendar vote, without being debated on the floor of General Conference, it seemed odd. If not that, at least unsatsifying. One of the hallmarks of who we are as United Methodists went away without even a dissenting vote. No one “on the floor” (read: a voting delegate) realized what had happened until their smartphone erupted with text messages reminding them that they just consented to do away with the concept of security of appointment.

Two different attempts were made to use parliamentary procedures to ask for a debate and reconsideration. But the body had moved on.

In the midst of all the maneuvering, a question was asked to the Judicial Council, does the end Security of Appointment violate the restrictive rules regarding the general superintending roles of our bishops as well as a clergy person’s right to an appeal? And now we know the answer: Yes it does.

There was much I found troubling about the doing away with security of appointment language. I was concerned for women and ethnic minorities in the appointment process. Though there was a path proposed to bring a complaint against a bishop, who would risk such actions and how many lives would have been tragically altered through unwise or not completely informed decisions. Additionally, itineracy is a covenant. The basics of the covenant have been long honored: United Methodist Churches receive a pastor. Congregations will love, support, and follow their pastor’s leadership. Likewise, clergy agree to go where sent. Unless we choose to seek appointment outside the local church, we do not get to submit resumes (at least theoretically); we do not get to choose. But we promise to go trusting God’s wisdom and once in place that we’ll do the best job we can as long as we are there.

All the conversation about “guaranteed appointment” (a misnomer) is what to do about people who do not go where they are sent (or leave when they are sent someplace new) and what to do about people who do not do the best job they can where they go. But there’s another side. The proposal was that effectiveness in current appointment would having bearing on future appointments. This is true now. Have a record of churches not paying apportionments? Then you are not as likely to get a pay raise when you move. Now a lot of this is motivated by the United Methodist Church having a glut of clergy. Furthermore, there’s a projected bubble when our recruitment efforts to replace the retiring baby-boomers are coming online while our baby-boomers are hanging around longer than excepted, thanks in part to the Great Recession.

Medium term, that bubble will go away and decisions based upon a consistent supply-side surplus will be seen as having been short-sighted. Because the covenant remains intact, there will not be a wave of younger clergy (younger in age or younger in years of service) unwilling to go where sent because of anxieties over potential for being effective in a context. Security of appointment goes away and I imagine many aspiring young clergy might choose another path until something more to their liking becomes available. Indeed, I’ve know several young clergy who possessed gifts and grace for the office of elder but sought deacons orders, not because of nature of calling but in order to maintain control over work and living circumstances.

I believe that security of appointment abiding will also continue to serve as a tool for recruiting younger clergy. Some of my younger clergy friends feel such a zest for ministry. They feel that since they are not given appointments they think they “deserve”, older clergy are some how blocking them from where they should be in their own 20 year plan. But this serves as a reminder about collective wisdom. Contrary to what we want to believe, we do not always know what is best (I can say that with some since of integrity now that I’m 40). But to continue to say, “give your life to God and the United Methodist Church” and to be able to respond “you’ll have a place to serve” is important. Very important.

In an age where more and more churches are station appointments and not circuits, where  the main articulations of  connectionalism to the local congregation are apportionments and itineracy, to do away with one moves us closer and closer to a congregational polity. And with that congregational polity, is a call system where churches vet clergy. It also says yes to individual wisdom over collective wisdom, to say, implicitly, that we do not trust that God moves in an appointive process.

In an age that values youth and outside the box thinking, we need to affirm that with experience comes wisdom. That what is sometimes perceived as inaction is actually impatience on the part of the observer.

But that’s not to say there doesn’t need to be change.

  • We need to help well-intentioned people who do not possess the graces for ministry exit the process before they have $100k in debt.
  • We need to help people who feel trapped in their jobs. 20 year old seminary debt, a degree that serves no purpose other than working in the church, and a system that necessitates not having the “nest egg” of equity built up in owning a home are all tough circumstances. We called these people into such circumstances. We have some responsibility for helping people transition into a sustainable post-ministry life.
  • We need to answer ontological questions of ordination: is it just access to the pulpit or does some kind of change happen? I think we might have a clue on this one as it seems Judicial Council has not affirmed pragmatism at any cost.
  • We need to give well-meaning servants who have never had the chance to shine access to a paid sabbatical that large-church pastors often receive so that they, too, can continue as faithful servants.
  • We need to find ways to bring our younger clergy along… traditioning them, having their voice heard and validated as we move forward together. I’m not certain this means appointing young people to places of high stress. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the concept of 10,000 hours comes to mind here.
  • We need to continue to move towards a concept of adaptability being a primary skill in an appointive system where a clergy person has all the tools to develop new skills based upon the needs of the appointment.
  • We need to think through remuneration. If we are moving back towards parsonages, do we need to reconsider superannuate homes? Should there be a cap on compensation? Should the floor be higher than it currently is, especially considering student loan debt levels for seminary.
  • Do we need to re-embrace the notion of cooperative parishes and multiple clergy on circuits, tangibly affirming that we are stronger together than we are apart?

There is plenty of time to prayerfully consider these questions, assessing both our needs as a denomination short and long term as well as discerning how God would have us move and be.

Do Nothing General Conference?

Once the Judicial Council ruling about Plan UMC came down on the last day of General Conference, it began. People were saying that millions of apportionment dollars were spent and nothing got accomplished. And now that Judicial Council has overturned the General Conference’s action on doing away with Security of Appointment (Guaranteed Appointment is a misnomer), the accusation has only amplified.

But it’s simply not true.

While I understand frustration, General Conference ultimately did what it was supposed to. Folk came together to perfect our Book of Discipline. They passed a budget. They listened to our episcopal leaders as they guided and lead. They worshipped. Somewhere in the midst of committee meetings, plenaries, sidebars, caucusing, meals, and cups of coffee God was experienced. Sometimes it was powerful and sometimes the still, small voice.

Just because the ultimate result of all the intense holy conferencing was, ultimately “No”, it does not mean General Conference failed. It does not matter whether the issue at stake was issues of human sexuality, security of appointment, or the structure of our general church the people of the United Methodist Church gathered for Holy Conferencing and came to group of decisions that are now reflected in our polity. Am I happy with all those decisions? No. And I think that anyone who said they were perfectly happy with all that went on in Tampa would not be telling the whole truth, much like those who would claim nothing happened are not being entirely truthful.

The words enshrined in what will be the 2012 Book of Discipline do not represent the final word on who we are, just who we are right now. And it is an imperfect volume–it represents conciliar statements that seem to sometimes contradict each other. But that somewhat misses the point: in our ordination vows we are asked “will we uphold” our polity, not “do we agree with”. A small but important distinction that belies the call to respect collective wisdom over individual wisdom and group process over isolated decision-making.

In that collective wisdom the United Methodist Church did the following in Tampa:

  • Affirmed our ecumenical ties
  • Began the process of healing wounds caused by the United Methodist Church’s involvement in the removal of Native American People from their lands
  • Approved a “leaner, meaner” budget
  • Shrunk the size of many of our boards. Hopefully this move will mean greater oversight–which implies more meetings (not less, and thus not necessarily a money-saving measure).
  • Developed a fund for training of young clergy
  • Made the beginning steps for recognizing that we are a national church structure trying to live into the reality that we are a global church… without trying to duplicate the role of the World Methodist Council
  • and much… much… more…

And that makes sense because the People called United Methodist are a People on a journey. We haven’t arrived at the perfect life of holiness but that doesn’t mean we stop trying, either in our spiritual lives, our communities of faith, or our denomination.

In 3 and 1/2 years, the People of the United Methodist Church will gather in Portland, Oregon for two weeks. There will be powerful worship, many committee meetings, plenaries, sidebars, meals, coffees and even caucuses. Maybe we’ll learn to behave better, listen more, trust more by then. Maybe we’ll even remember that the Book of Discipline allows for the Council of Bishops or the General Conference to ask Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality of proposed legislation. This would save everyone time and anxiety.

I’d be willing to guess right now that we will not all agree with everything that comes out of GC2016. But we’ll uphold it, try our best to perfect it, and all the while loving God and each other in the journey.