Expanded Prayers for the UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s Clergy Session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference. Read the specifics of Judicial Decision 1321!

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women, a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference actions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case by setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of the Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC and is the voice of General Conference.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue. Our most urgent prayer in the timeline is to pray fervently for the Judicial Council.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

Judicial Council Book Pic

Pre-General Conference Hope

John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

For at least the last decade in the UMC, we’ve been beating to death the idea that, according to the numbers, the church in the U.S. is taking a beating and declining toward death. Two of my children who are young United Methodist clergy are quick to point out that this message has dominated their entire ministry, from seminary to the present, and it still swells larger without offering enough fruitful direction or hope. We continue to receive data that confirms the impending “death tsunami.” We also continue to be inundated by articles, workshops and seminars in response, with a repetition of familiar themes: How we got into this mess; How we can still avert catastrophe; How we must change everything (or change nothing); and the ever-popular, How death always precedes resurrection.

Like my children and perhaps so many of you, I am weary of the rhetoric. Not because the trends aren’t real. Not because I haven’t sometimes shared in these anxieties, and responses. Not because we shouldn’t think critically and strategically. Rather, because conversation must ultimately give way to necessary action, and I think now is the time to simply get back to being and doing as Christ calls us.

And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

We have a straightforward call, summed up well by the UMC as: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission is not conditional. We didn’t choose to carry it forward because it carries a wholesale guarantee of success, or an assurance of longevity, or institutional security. At least I hope not. Regardless of the circumstances, and even if the UMC one day ceases to exist, the Lord still calls us today to simply make disciples for him. And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

With this in mind, like the first Christians, the first Methodists, and certainly like those United Methodists at the forefront of missional growth around the world, let’s have both a discerning faithfulness today and also a holy disregard for worry over tomorrow. Let’s refocus on the present task, which is for each of us to continue to be in the making as the Lord’s disciples, and to participate in the making of more, new disciples. It will require a healthy level of humility: to be “in the making” is to admit that we’re unfinished. It also means holding ourselves to an expectation of real-world fruitfulness, since being “in the making” implies that Christ is intentionally forming us into some new future something as a people. It doesn’t sound easy but we can do it. We are uniquely equipped as United Methodists for it because, like John Wesley, we proclaim that any and every person can actually change, in behavior and attitude, heart and action, through God’s prevenient, saving, and sanctifying grace.

In other words, we must not define ourselves as an institution that is “in the declining,” “in the grieving,” or “in the dying.” Instead, we are “in the making,” a people and movement that can be grounded in the ongoing creative action of God. My passion for the church, and my vision for General Conference 2016, is for a return to this kind of disciple-making. Not merely to try to slow the impending death tsunami or to gain back statistical ground. Not merely out of a sense of self-perpetuation. But out of a desire to live the very hope of Christ.

As we hear on the way to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11:25-26 — and as we proclaim in every United Methodist “Service of Death and Resurrection” — the plain truth is that Jesus is the Lord of Life. Even more, he promises to share his Life with his followers, so that a true disciple of Christ never dies. If that’s so, then Jesus goes on to pose the one question that could possibly remain: “Do we believe it?”

I believe it. I think most of us do! I believe this promise should drastically alter everything, especially this upcoming General Conference. It should empower the ministry of our church to shape disciples. And it should invite us, above all, to pursue a life in the making with Christ Jesus and with one another. The theme of GC2016 is “Therefore go” from Matthew 28:19. Will we be in the making, or will we lament our divisions and prepare for schism at this General Conference. It depends on what or Whom you believe!

GC Logo

 

GC 2016 and Peacemaking

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab different arms, legs, whatever and finding each time that a prosthetic appendage came loose. The man in the water kept yelling, “Save me!” In frustration, the would-be rescuer said, “I would, if you would only stick together!” I wonder if that’s an analogy for the United Methodist Church and what God is trying to say to us. It is one of the big questions as we go into General Conference 2016. Will we split? Will we opt for a solution that gives local options on hot-button issues, or will we stick together?

Our connectional identity as a denomination promotes unity over schism. In my mind, that’s the identity of the whole church: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Bishop and friend, Tom Bickerton, recently wrote a book that he has shared with General Conference delegates and the whole church, What Are We Fighting For? Its subtitle says a lot: “Coming Together Around What Matters Most.” He uses stories and anecdotes in a winsome way that promotes a win-win outcome for the UMC.

Tom and I might arrive at different positions. I honestly don’t know. One thing I do know is that his question is a good one: what are we fighting for? To some his question is about much more than a peripheral issue. It connects to bedrock non-negotiable tenets of the faith. To others, human sexuality debates are about the nature of God and God’s love for all humankind, and that’s also non-negotiable. These positions beg the question: Can we stick together?

Many people have already given up hope for a peaceful resolution for our church. They’re coming to Portland “loaded for bear.” Many want to collaborate and find ways to move forward as a church. Others are holding fast to their positions because they feel certain that some issues are already decided in God’s mind and theirs, and don’t even want to be civil toward those who differ. Many want to disrupt and hold the conference hostage. I think most of us want the Holy Spirit to envelope the convention center and light the fire of revival that will move us past this extremely personal and heart-wrenching issue.

I am reminded of the late Dr. Scott Peck whose book The Road Less Traveled begins with the line, “Life is difficult.” He was right about that, especially concerning our denominational struggles. His best book, however, is titled, A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. He says that the first stage in achieving real community is “pseudo-community” where everyone gathers together and glad-hands each other in superficial ways at Christmas, family reunions, or General Conference. There is an air of “How’ve you been?” or “Wow, it’s so good to see you.” He says that this huggy stage can last a short time or forever. I think that the UMC is way past a shallow pseudo-community unless we don’t know which side another person is on. If we don’t know, we sort of “fake it” and smile and steer clear of any conflict. Pseudo-community is the story of much of Christendom’s intra-familial and interpersonal squabbles.

The second stage can last a short or long time, too. Peck appropriately calls it “chaos.” Some groups, denominations, and families stay in chaos. How long has the UMC been in the chaos stage? It’s been a long time, at least since 1972. How much longer can we stand it? There are folks, however, who feel this is one of those subjects that is worth the chaos, no matter how long it takes. To follow Scott Peck’s advice, we must let chaos run its complete painful course or we’ll never appreciate or arrive at the next place on the journey to true community.

The third stage is called “emptiness.” It can also last forever or not. It is a place where persons still have their differing opinions, but they are able to survive the tension because they care more about the other person(s) than they care about the presenting problem or themselves. Many are at that point in the UMC. It is a place of valuing, not demeaning, a place where “sacred worth” is a reality. It is rare to see such “emptiness” around human sexuality debates. Our words sometimes slide over the “sacred worth” language of The Discipline and we accent the “incompatible” part of the sentence. Both sides need to tread carefully and allow a holy emptiness to settle upon us. But we need to move on. Staying in emptiness seems laudable, but it can also be a depression-filled place of inertia.

Of course, the last stage is “community.” Scott Peck doesn’t describe it as a homogenous place where everyone thinks alike. Instead it is a place and space where there are distinctions or diversity of opinion, but there is also a unity. Unity is hard to define because it is seldom seen. We talk about it. We promote it. I’m oft to say, “I believe in the unity of the church,” but what does that really mean or entail. What is that going to look like or make me do? My personal biggest fear is that some who assume they have arrived at “community” have actually slipped back into “pseudo-community.” If there’s no honest dialogue and valuing then it’s a sham which by definition is pseudo.

So, what do you think? We can choose to move up and down, and back again on these stages of community. We can stay in places along the way too long or not long enough. Is there hope to reach emptiness, or are we stuck in chaos? I daresay most of us would prefer to go back to the superficial stage of pseudo-community than accept what’s happening now. But, maybe we can count all this contention and process as a holy gift. We have a real chance to have a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in Portland if we actually try to move through these stages.

You can’t legislate “community.” It has to be experienced. I long for the day when we reach it, and pray we’ll stay there for a real long time!

Community

 

If You Haven’t Got a Prayer, Pray Together!

Prayer has been on my mind a lot in the past few days. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the whole denomination to pray for General Conference. Our congregation has had many illnesses and deaths. We had a 14 hour prayer vigil last week for a marvelous thirteen year old who had a kidney transplant. I have found myself in the last few days praying at bedsides, over the telephone, and with people in hallways of the church.

Yesterday one of our ESL teachers had a medical emergency and fell unconscious on the floor. It was time to pray. Whenever nudged, we shouldn’t just say “Let’s pray about it,” but try to do it right then and there. Saying we’ll pray is only as helpful as we do it. Praying is like rocking in a rocking chair. If you don’t rock, it’s just a chair. Saying “I’ll be praying for you” is just a nice salutation unless we actually do it!

The one quality that gives me the sense that my prayers have gone further than the ceiling is focus. By focus I’m talking about “fervor,” I guess. Fervor isn’t just excitement or desperation. Fervor is more than getting worked up about something. When Powerball got to a billion dollars there was a lot of fervent let’s-make-a-deal prayer, but that was a shallow kind of prayer that only lasted a short time. When someone does something with fervor it isn’t a passing fancy or whim. It is dedicated, serious, constant, and passionate.

But appropriate and effective fervent prayer is easier to identify than to define. It’s something you can tell, though. At least that’s my experience, but even Biblical writers had a hard time with this. For instance, the Greek adverb ἐκτενῶς (EKTENOS) or “earnestly” only occurs in Luke’s writing in the New Testament, and both times it’s about prayer! It is first found in Luke 22:44 concerning Jesus praying earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then it is found, again by Luke, in Acts 12:5 about Peter being imprisoned and about to be executed. The exact quote in Acts is, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” It’s interesting to me that Luke, the doctor, is the only Biblical author to use this adverb. It makes sense, though, since doctors often know the urgency of things better than the rest of us.

As I have found myself deluged by life, it is earnest prayer that gives me a sense of peace. God and I have an actual conversational dialogue rather than a one sided Tim-toned monologue. When I pray earnestly I can tell it’s working when my voices wanes and God’s gets stronger. I quit listening to myself, and listen to God.

But, the most unique lesson that I get from Acts 12:5 is that the whole church was earnestly praying for Peter. A dedicated group of Believers passionately praying about the same thing is almost too marvelous to comprehend. This corporate expression of prayer bathes a church and its ministries in God’s power. A church-wide conversation with God has to result in a rich fruitfulness. How I long for that to happen at the United Methodist General Conference 2016.

The best hymn I know to help us get “prayed up” for whatever is before us is # 492 in The United Methodist Hymnal, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” by James Montgomery. It goes like this:

1. Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.

2. Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.

3. Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.

4. Prayer is the contrite sinners’ voice,
returning from their way,
while angels in their songs rejoice
and cry, “Behold, they pray!”

5. Prayer is the Christians’ vital breath,
the Christians’ native air;
their watchword at the gates of death;
they enter heaven with prayer.

6. O Thou, by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way:
the path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray!

Amen!

 Prayer pic

General Conference elections

Friends, colleagues, and church family, in anticipation of this year’s Annual Conference and elections for the 2016 General Conference, I felt compelled to share the following message with clergy in South Carolina.  I want to share it with you as well and ask you to start praying, or to continue to pray, for all of our delegates and for our whole Connection.

Friends,

I have had a lot of folks ask me if I want to be elected as a delegate to General Conference. I understand the reason for the questions. After coming so close to being elected bishop in 2012, I told our jurisdictional delegation that I was “done,” and it was a good reflection of my feelings in the moment. But I have also never ceased to try to discern God’s call and to offer faithful service at all levels of the Connection. God willing, I have 13 more years to serve and I plan on doing it! I look older than I am!

After much prayer, I am not ready to give up the hard fought efforts that I think are necessary to preserve and renew the UMC. With so many people trying to push the denomination into intractable corners, we must be extra vigilant to maintain our identity. One of the issues coming up in 2016 is a subtle approach to split us into a regional polity that would allow UM’s in one region or another to have their own separate Book of Discipline. It is a circuitous method to move towards local options that are the antithesis of our connectionalism.

On hot-button issues this brand of congregationalism, in my opinion, would make lawyers extremely happy and could ultimately cause a mass exodus of faithful United Methodists who would rather stay together.  This was evident during the four years I spent as a member of the Worldwide UMC Study Committee, which was established by the 2008 General Conference to engage these very issues throughout the global church, and it remains so today.  I want to keep working for our denomination to find fresh ways to serve new, younger, and more diverse people without compromising the core values of our beliefs. I firmly believe in a mission statement that makes disciples for Jesus, and affirms through the Connection that “Together We Can Do More!”

So, as you vote for clergy delegates, please prayerfully consider voting for me. I love being back in the local church as the pastor of St. John’s in Aiken, but I still feel gifted and called to serve on the larger stage of our denomination. I need your help to speak up prophetically. I agree with Wesley: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be liberty; in all things, charity.” We are at a critical juncture of discernment in the UMC as we carefully define the essentials and the peripheral. Thanks!

Tim McClendon

Involvement in the United Methodist Connection

Effective local church pastor; Delegate to 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 General Conferences; District Superintendent (8 years); Conference Parliamentarian (21 years); Chair, Annual Conference Restructuring; Denman Evangelism Award recipient; Exec. Comm. Bd. of Ordained Ministry; Member of General Council on Ministries; Native American Forum; GBHEM Native American Scholarship Committee, SC AC Comm. on Native American Ministry

Connectional Table (8 years); World Wide Nature of the UMC Study Committee, Taught “Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit” and “UM Discipline and Polity” at Candler (12 years), and UM History at Lutheran Seminary; Chair, SEJ Rules Committee, and two quadrennia on SEJ Episcopacy Committee (second longest tenure on the comm.); 2011 Candler Distinguished Alumni Award; current member of General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR)

General Conference and BOD legislation writer for 4 General Agencies of the UMC; published in Circuit Rider numerous times; and author of “A Potter’s View” Blog which has been frequently cited on UMC.org

Two Simple and Central Questions for the UMC

There’s an old story of a rabbi in a Russian city at the turn of the twentieth century. One night he was wandering around aimlessly questioning his faith in God and his calling to ministry. In the midst of his despair and lack of direction on that bitterly cold night he wandered into a Russian military compound. It was off-limits to any civilian. The bark of a Russian soldier broke his brooding thoughts, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” The rabbi replied, “Excuse me?” The soldier asked again, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” After a brief pause and the dawning of enlightenment that came from the soldier’s questions, the rabbi responded in a most gracious tone, “How much do you get paid every day?” The soldier shot back, “What does that have to do with you?” The rabbi then said, “I will pay you the same wages if you will ask me those same questions every day: ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Why are you here?’” When faced with an identity crisis these two questions will help anyone get back on track!

We all need to answer these two questions, but this weekend they are especially important for the United Methodist Church. This coming Saturday Bishop Melvin Talbert is supposed to conduct a marriage ceremony in Alabama for a homosexual couple against the advice of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the North Alabama Annual Conference and the Executive Committee of the whole denomination’s Council of Bishops. While I affirm the sacred worth of all people and the fact that we all stand in the need of Christ’s grace, another issue at hand is one of ecclesiology, and hence identity, for our denomination.  Are we headed to schism? Will we live and be in covenant with one another? What are we doing? Why are we here? Bishop Talbert is answering from one perspective while the General Conference and the Council of Bishops has answered from another. What say you?

Here are my thoughts: God holds us together, but so does the Book of Discipline of the UMC. Walk with me through a few pertinent paragraphs of our Discipline as we ponder Bishop Talbert’s actions or the actions of others who might be tempted to do likewise. Paragraph 340.2(a)(3)(a) says that pastors  can perform marriage ceremonies “in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.” Neither the state of Alabama nor the rules of the UMC allow homosexual unions. Furthermore, Par. 339 defines “Pastors” as elders, etc. which would have to include bishops of the church since they are elders consecrated for a particular task. Paragraph 403 states: “Bishops and superintendents are elders in full connection.”

Some say that Bishop Talbert’s actions will not violate church law, and that the situation is a moot point, because the couple was already legally married in Washington earlier this year and his intention is merely to perform a “ceremony.”  But things get complicated as one follows the Book of Discipline on the matter.

First, what about permission to do such a service in an area under another clergyperson’s charge? Paragraphs 341.4 and 341.6 are instructive in terms of our polity and procedures. Paragraph 341.4 states that no pastor (remember that Bishops are pastors) can hold a religious service within the bounds of a pastoral charge other than the one to which appointed without consent of the pastor of the charge. In this case the pastor of the charge is Bishop Wallace-Padgett and though Bishop Talbert appropriately contacted her about his plans, she told him that he did not have her permission.

Second, does it matter if what Bishop Talbert is doing is just a “Blessing Service?” Par. 341.6 clearly says that “Ceremonies that celebrate (italics mine) homosexual unions” are off-limits. Maybe the Judicial Council will rule that the General Conference will have to define what a “ceremony” is or what “celebrate” means, but for the time being it’s pretty clear: any service that even “celebrates” such a union is non-compliant. Plus the UM Constitution in Paragraph 16.6 gives the sole right to “provide and revise” the hymnal and ritual of the Church to the General Conference. Therefore, if anyone, including Bishop Talbert, tries to perform a “Blessing Ceremony” for a homosexual union then they are essentially creating a liturgy/ritual that the General Conference has not approved. Any such action by a bishop would be in direct violation of Par. 403.1 that states that bishops are “authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.” This, of course, would be an ipso facto violation of Par. 2702.1(d) which is “disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.” The same would be true for anyone, bishop or not, who would try to rewrite General Conference-approved liturgy.

This gives rise to the nature of any official denominational complaint or charge against Bishop Talbert. Is he violating Par. 341.6 and 2702.1(b), that prohibit a United Methodist clergyperson from conducting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,” or is he violating Par. 2702.1(f), which is defined as “relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor”? In this case, the undermined would be the Bishop of North Alabama and at least the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops if not the whole Council. These are key questions that speak to larger issues of covenant and our connectional polity.

The United Methodist Church is a covenantal body bound together by allegiance to Jesus Christ and our vows as lay members and clergy to be loyal to the United Methodist Church and uphold it by our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This loyalty to the UMC is most clearly postulated in our Book of Discipline. As a denomination we are at a critical ecclesiological juncture. Will we be a covenantal body with an episcopal polity or shift to a “free church anything goes” polity? Will we be able to stay in covenant with one another? These are the ultimate questions that the Bishop Talbert situation beg – “Who are we?” and “What are we doing?”

Even the way that complaints against bishops are handled is troubling in answering these questions. Bishop Talbert is a member of the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops yet seeks to violate the discipline and order of the church in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Even if a complaint is made by persons in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, South Central Jurisdiction, North Central Jurisdiction, the Northeastern Jurisdiction, or any Central Conference, the case will be remanded to the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops per Par. 2704.1(a). This process is evidence of the disunity within the church and may even be a planned exercise to further fracture our denomination or expose regionalism. My plea is for us to stay the course and remain faithful to our covenant as United Methodists. Yes, we should love everyone and hold all persons of both sacred worth and in need of grace, but in doing so we must not trample underfoot our identity as a connectional church.

General Conference 2016 is lining up to be historic for our denominational future. There must be thoughtful discernment as we prepare. How can we preach the unity of the church universal if we ourselves don’t live it? Who are we and what are we doing here? How we answer those two questions will either lead us to “Gospel Disobedience” as coined by Bishop Talbert or Obedience to the Order and Discipline of the Church. Which is it? As an elder in the UMC, I know what I have already promised. It is not a question of one over the other. For me, it is both/and by the grace of God that is for all and in all.

Church Conflict and United Methodist Zeitgeist

Church conflict hurts the Gospel. Duh! Who would want to be one of Jesus’ followers if this is how we treat each other? As a District Superintendent I spend a lot of time dealing with disgruntled pastors and church members. It is the infamous triangle: “We can’t talk directly to each other so we’ll dump our issues on you.” Well, in our connectional system that’s the way that the dots connect, and DS’ are major dumping grounds. A healthy outcome largely depends on how I respond to the conflict.

If I get reactive there’s more tension. If I take one side or the other, things get worse. If I do nothing, I come across as either uncaring or incompetent. What’s the answer in a Rabbi Edwin Friedman Generation to Generation sort of way? Non-anxious presence. If I can relate directly with the conflicting interests and coach either to view the situation from a new vantage point, there’s hope. All it takes is a little bit of change to deflate the tension. Reactivity doesn’t help. I have to remain as neutral as possible defecting in place with the different sides while modeling Christ.

Would it have helped if Jesus had got into a shouting match with Pontius Pilate? Of course not. He was quiet. He was secure in himself and it showed. Oh, if we could act like that when things get hot. If we could just chill out and trust the Lord and speak from his perspective to each other. Even better would be to listen to each other with Jesus’ ears.

This isn’t just about local church conflict or conflict in general. This speaks to some of our United Methodist scorched-earth tactics and intractable rhetoric that threatens to divide the denomination. I’ve been reading through Gil Rendle’s book, Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement. I am vividly reminded of our utter failure to conduct holy conferencing at General Conference 2012.

Rendle speaks about our legislative attempts to enact change: “We enact or we deny change through democratic practices. Changes are pushed or resisted by strong voices, interest groups, and caucuses. It is critical to note that in the United Methodist denomination there is no authoritative head leader with positional authority to make declarations and change the balance of competing legislative preferences (pp. 21-22).” What I get from this is that we are a group that likes group-think, but places a high value on arguing about everything.  We have a system that purposefully includes challenges to every issue and all discussions. However, there is one Book of Discipline and only the General Conference can change it. Our last General Conference clearly exposed that we are many conflicting constituencies, and every four years we try to make sausage out of all of the inputs.

No matter how much you agree with the statements coming out of the Western or Northeastern Jurisdictions about “Gospel Obedience” over obedience to the actions of General Conference, this regional diversity of opinion is a problem in a covenantal, albeit argumentative, body like the UMC. Gil Rendle accurately points out that groups who attempt to legislate change cannot do it! He puts it this way: “It has taken a good bit of time for leaders to understand that additional rules will not set a rule-bound people free (p. 23).”

His suggestion to foster our denominational return to being a movement is a starting place, but comes up short in my analysis: “Rather than additional rules, we need bold people. While organizations do not have the capacity to break their own logjam of rules and norms, individuals do (p. 23).” He spends the rest of the book asking questions and offering guidance for how individuals can break the rules while honoring them – no small task. He admirably says that rule-breakers who help nudge the UMC back to movement status must question our whole system of rules in light of our mission. The mission is the driver of everything. My problem is that “bold people” are still people, and, in the words of my late father, “There ain’t nothing original about original sin.” Bold people can sin boldly. Everybody needs redemption.

Now, I don’t want to make short shrift of Rendle’s book. It is engaging and has great images from another favorite book, The Starfish and the Spider, but it leaves me ill at ease. Rendle basically says we need enough differentiated leaders who will break our rules for missional purposes. Yes, how nice, but that’s not how we do things. I have stated before that I believe the UMC needs to have a one or two-month constitutional convention and do what Rendle’s book title suggests and get Back to Zero, in other words, start over. However, when I hear the notion of bold individual rule breakers I foresee internecine warfare over what the mission of the church is exactly. I see reactivity going nuclear. I see schism without a mission because we can’t agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day.

Ah, now maybe this is where I find hope. Where Rendle comes up short is where most of us, especially me, miss the mark. “Individual” rule breaking is all about “me, me, me, and my agenda.” Where is the “United” in our denominational name in that? Sounds more like “Untied” than “United” Methodist Church. It all depends on where the “I” is placed, doesn’t it? I want to get back to zero and start our denomination over, but want to keep from turning the endeavor into a my “I” against your “I” issue war. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “missional” or not, if we’ve shot each other up in the process. That’s an oxymoron that can’t be fixed.

It may sound simple, and I know it’s not, but I want to suggest that every denominational and local church conflict does not hinge on our personal determination of what’s missional, or what is God’s preferred cause de jour. It strikes me that we may need to follow the example of Christ and take up a cross and crucify every one of our causes until we discover what is Jesus’ cause. Until we do that we’re just going to keep going around in circles arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong, and letting the Judicial Council sort it out. I’d rather preach Jesus without any elaboration than hear the mixed signals of 9 million individual rule-breakers. If we don’t have a single voice about anything, even General Conference, maybe it’s high time we listened to the Holy Spirit. Chill out, non-anxious presence, defect in place – Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God…” Amen to that!

GC 2012 Observations

General Conference 2012 has come and gone and I am recovering. I wonder about our church’s recovery. This was my 5th rodeo and it felt like the most ornery bronking buck ever ridden. Dr. Scott Peck wrote an analysis of community building that stated that there are 4 stages: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and community. We started with pseudocommunity, “Hail fellow, well met,” and saw moments of truce along the way like during the Service of Repentance toward Indigenous Peoples. Dr. Peck says some groups stay in this safe place so that they avoid airing their differences.

However, United Methodists aren’t afraid to move out of truce mode and tear at the fabric of harmony. The Rules Committee report should have been a dire warning of what to expect. It usually is a breeze and takes a few minutes. It took a couple of hours this time. It set the tone of intractable deliberation. We hit the chaos stage and pretty much stayed there until Friday night when GCFA’s final budget reports were being made. I could feel the calm of emptiness fall over the most contentious General Conference that I have witnessed. Maybe then, and only then, did we approach true community and because of money of all things. How sad!

Where did the chaos that derailed us come from? Some want to blame back room shenanigans of people hammering out restructuring deals without everybody being at the table. We all need to remember to get together for the larger cause of holy conferencing and we all need to be at the table. The General Conference was hijacked by multiple agendas in an apparent effort to stall, filibuster, and question to death anything that came before it. It appeared that a deal was struck  between multiple constituencies well before any protesters came on the floor that if things could get bogged down enough then we wouldn’t have to talk about sex and expose our utter division. How Victorian! What an avoidance of speaking a prophetic word to society.

Victorian-era denial of human sexuality has precluded us from being theologically relevant to our society. Worse, we can’t even talk to each other about it. No matter what side you’re on, was our silence acceptable? We chose to let our present 2008 language stand rather than speak theologically to a confused generation that has turned the Wesleyan Quadrilateral into an equilateral. Experience has unseated Scripture as the foundational starting point of our theological method.  This isn’t a good strategy in speaking to the world. They will see us as do-nothing, irrelevant by-standers in a culture war for the soul of the cosmos.

The ruling by the Judicial Council has now put up an almost impenetrable wall around the agency silos. In the JC’s opinion only the superintending body of the Council of Bishops can offer guidance to the agencies. Doesn’t everyone know that the agency boards all have bishops on them now and their presidents are bishops? Episcopal presence and the possibility for supervision hasn’t been lacking. Paragraph 427.3 has been in operation although ill achieved. I’m not trying to lump all bishops or agencies into an ineffective amalgamation, but the Judicial Council ruling makes it almost impossible for us to ever do a new thing.

The only means left to gain alignment among the agencies could be very damaging in the long run. Money! If the JC says that only the bishops can have oversight of the agencies then all that the General Conference can do is cut off the money. This sole option will either create more competitiveness or cooperation among the agencies and I plead for the latter. By the way, I’m grateful for the work that a few of our agencies did to help craft a way forward. I plead for the bishops to continue in exercising their spiritual and temporal authority. God help us if this ruling means that the status quo remains! I am devastated that, except for a few changes, all we need to do is keep our 2008 Book of Discipline and put a 2012 sticker over the date. That is not acceptable, but it appears to be reality.

We may have just witnessed a historic tipping point of our denomination into the morass of failed enterprises. I pray not and pledge myself to work for us to regain our theological identity and traction as a movement. We will never, however, get to true community unless we let chaos do its painful work and then we embrace an emptiness where we give up our self-interests. What I experienced at GC2012 was the worst example of filibustering do-nothingism for the sake of selfish recalcitrance: “If you don’t play my way, I’m taking my ball and going home.” This wasn’t the first time the middlers of United Methodism were shut down.

It’s happened before. Is there much difference between hardliners- whether liberal, conservative, young, old, male, female, US, or Central Conferences? I guess that we all have non-negotiables about which we won’t budge. However, irreducible positions seldom move forward – most are stuck in the past and claim that it’s the future, and the real problem is that’s it’s supposed to be a shared future and taking hard-line sides doesn’t help. Some dare to say, and I heard this over and over again at GC2012, “It’s my church. I’m taking back my church!”  It’s God’s church not ours.  If anybody thinks that it is theirs, remember, it’s not.  Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build MY church.”

I pray that we can get beyond the past two weeks.  We must never let General Conference be hijacked again.  The basic rule of parliamentary procedure must be operative:  “The minority must be heard, but the majority shall prevail.”  I believe the majority is in the middle and wants what’s best for the church.

At the Brink of GC2012!

Tampa, Here we come! General Conference 2012 is going to be eventful. The means of grace that we call conferencing is something that I look forward to. Will it be holy conferencing?  Yes and no. This isn’t my first rodeo, as the saying goes. As a five-timer I pretty much know what to expect. There will be high moments and low moments: protests, proclamations, wrangling, maneuvering, manipulation, honesty, transparency, duplicity, and the wonderment of first-timers caught in the cross-hairs of our own version of the “Hunger Games.” Quite a few will say, “They call this being the church?” I say give yourself to God first and then to the whole experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t get cynical and don’t react too quickly or harshly when you think Satan has showed up. It’s probably just you or me being us.

My Daddy gave me some sage advice when I thought as a teenager that my wild shenanigans were unique in the annals of time. He said, “Son, do you think that your two older brothers never tried that? Do you think I never tried that? Do you think your uncles and your grandfathers never tried that? There ain’t nothing original about original sin!” That was one of my first theology lessons, and a good one. At GC2012 Jesus and the Bad Guy will both show up and will mostly be seen in us. I would guess that’s been the case at every General Conference. We can think we’re doing something earth-shattering and new that’s never been done before in the history of Christendom and, guess what, it’s probably been tried already. Sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t. Hey, Dr. Tom Frank already said that the CT/IOT restructuring plan looks exactly like the Evangelical Lutheran one from a couple of years ago. So whether you’re on God’s side or the other side don’t think that what we do in the next two weeks is so important that it can’t be undone in 4 years! Permanency isn’t something to hang your hat on in a church that wants to be a movement more than an institution.

Sure, I take it all very seriously and I believe in miracles. I’m going to Tampa with faith and expectancy. I’m just trying to take a “chill pill”  and blow off some steam before I get there. We all want the Call to Action to work but let me repeat that I am convinced we cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution. I don’t care if it’s the CT/IOT plan, Plan B, MFSA or whatever “new” thing we attempt to come up with in the General Administrative Legislative Committee. Certainly, structure can impede or facilitate making disciples, but in my little corner of the world our deficit in evangelism is not due to bloated agencies or whether or not the pastor has a guaranteed appointment. Our problems are on the personal want-to level. We do what we want to and most around here would rather talk about sports than Jesus.

I guess my point is this to everyone headed to Tampa. Blow off your steam now, rest up, and don’t be shocked if we witness the same-old-same-old. Hey, I’m already a little bumfuddled that all the fancy language and stuff in the slick “Call to Action” booklet that we were sent is hodge-podged in at least 3 different legislative committees. The non-residential set aside bishop is petition #20314 and it’s in Superintendency. By the way, the petition’s rationale is a bit contrary to what I’ve seen recently that says the set-aside bishop is primarily intended to help the Council of Bishops. The petition’s actual rationale says, “A fulltime Council president will give face, voice, leadership and continuity in strengthening and aligning the United Methodist Church’s mission and implementing the Call to Action. It will aid in reconnecting our Church local to worldwide. It will facilitate our work ecumenically as well as in public arenas. This petition …”  Anyway you slice it the rationale for a non-residential COB president sounds a lot more than just sitting on the sidelines and helping the COB – face, voice, aligning the church’s mission, implementing the CTA. Methinks the Book of Disipline (Par. 509.1,2) says that the face and voice of the UMC is General Conference. Just saying.

Then there’s petition #20980 that will be in General Administration. It is the meat of the CTA in terms of restructuring, but the power to allow the 15-member Center and GCSO to run the church is tucked away in petition #20374 and #20375 and they are both in the Conferences Legislative Committee. These two are constitutional amendments that will allow the GC for the first time in our history to delegate its authority to lesser units of the church.  One petition’s title is “Action Between General Conferences” and the title of the other one is called “Action on Funding Between General Conferences.” Yes, indeed, it would be grand to be more “nimble” (Any guesses on how many times we’ll hear this word at GC?) and be able to rearrange structures, agency mandates, or budgets between GC’s, but the last time I checked General Conference is in charge all the time, not just when it’s in session.

Anyway, I’m trying to get it all out of my system now so I can be a part of the coalition of the willing when I hit Tampa. As Jesus said, “Be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” We’re at the brink. Ready or not, here I come, with both eyes wide open!

Hunger Games, Holy Week, and GC 2012

I went to see “Hunger Games” and was  taken by the message of vicarious suffering.  Twenty-four “Tributes” age 12-18 like Katniss Everdeen represent their districts in penance to the fascist regime of Panem. Katniss exhibited selflessness in volunteering to take her little sister’s place in the horrendous “games” where each boy or girl is asked to fight to the death until one victor is left alive. As much as I was intrigued by the overtones of the movie and impressed enough to purchase and read the series, I was appalled by the violence perpetuated by the Panem government on and by youth. I was most taken by the line said by Donald Sutherland’s “President Snow” dictator character as he was speaking to his aide-to-camp Seneca Crane. It was concerning Crane’s management of the games and his  TV ratings-gaining preferential treatment of Katniss. President Snow said, “Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear.” Crane is eventually killed because he is accused of fomenting hope over the regime’s fear.

This got me to thinking about Holy Week. Perhaps the reason the Palm Sunday crowds turned fickle is that they were cowed by fear and not inspired by hope. The Roman Empire’s manipulation of outcomes is clearly evident in both Holy Week and in “The Hunger Games.” The name of the country in “The Hunger Games” is a take-off of the Roman Empire’s phrase panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses/games.” It was a plan and method that the Roman Empire used to control the populace through a diversionary false reality. Yelling at blood sports kept people from forcefully dealing with the real issues of corruption, oppression, and despair. Panem in “The Hunger Games” does the same thing through their TV-streamed crowd control of televised teen murder. Panem and the Roman Empire are essentially synonymous. What takes them both down is hope.

Christian hope is the fuel for revolution in both the spiritual and political realm. If we believe in the Resurrection all fear is gone, as the old hymn puts it. Without fear and filled with hope we are more than undefeated. We are victors! But our weapons of revolution are not of this world. We will not use Katniss’ bow and arrows. Earthly weapons are of no value in fighting evil regimes or ideologies. Remember what Jesus said to Peter in the garden of Gethsemane as he swung his sword at a soldier, cutting off his ear: “Put your sword away, Peter. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Jesus promoted the power of love over the love of power and earthly weapons.

A devotional writer that I’m reading said it better than I: “The weapons of our warfare are not destructive, they are constructive. They include things like humility, forgiveness, resisting evil with good, holy attitudes, the Holy Spirit within us, and the even more offensive ones – the Cross of Christ, the Word of God, and the prayers of the saints. Jesus won this showdown in the garden of Gethsemane. No one really knew that but Jesus. His victory didn’t look like a victory. Neither do ours. When we turn the other cheek, offer to go the extra mile, forgive someone a thousand times, humble ourselves in the sight of humanity and  God, pray on our knees, and quote from the Word, it doesn’t look as if we win. But we do. The enemy trembles. He would much prefer that we go back to his style of battle – evil for evil, sword for sword, spite for spite. Satan knows how to fight on those terms. He has no idea what to do when his greatest offenses become the showcase for God’s greatest mercies.”

As I think about “The Hunger Games,” Holy Week, and even the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church I want to claim hope over fear so that I remain constant in faithfulness to Christ. I cannot use Panem’s weapons or diversions. I need to yield to the Holy Spirit and Christian Hope. Hope overcomes fear in Panem and against the rhetoric of crisis that is rampant in our church. This Holy Week, just three weeks before we are about to be subjected to the smoke and mirrors via panem et circenses at General Conference 2012, we need to pledge to avoid worldly weapons, parliamentary end-arounds, spiritual manipulation, and coercion. Jesus’ hope is positive, vulnerable, and relies on God rather than political machinations.

The observations and questions asked by the devotion are so helpful to me right now: “How do you fight the good fight? Are your battles a reflection of the Spirit of God within you? Or are they consistent with the spirit of this world? One will lead you to victory, the other into darkness. You will encounter a battle today, as you do every day. How will you respond? Make sure you look a lot like Jesus in the garden.” These are the questions that I will ask myself as we head to Tampa for GC 2012. Keep hope alive! Hope wins!