Post-SEJ Emotions

Jurisdictional Conference is over and I am so excited to welcome Bishop Jonathan Holston to South Carolina. As a part of the SEJ Committee on Episcopacy that made the assignment I can share with you that he possesses EVERY characteristic that we need in SC: He is a leader that I have personally seen at work; has a proven track record of results with a grace that bridges every constituency; and is so well organized that he will aid us in these transitional times as we have changed our AC structure and much of our AC staff and bid farewell to Bishop Taylor and Rusty. Hear this: South Carolina hit a homerun in his assignment to us! It is his coming here that gives me hope in the midst of my personal pain.

Yes, I will personally replay all of the details of the episcopal election process and ask all the “what-if” questions. I feel gut-punched, but I know that I am blessed to come back to South Carolina. I love Christ and the United Methodist Church. Am I disappointed? Of course. Am I thankful? Oh, yes. I am so grateful for the South Carolina delegation and annual conference. You worked tirelessly. You gave of yourselves in so many ways. Please hear your name said in a prayer of thanks from me! Your names are so many! My family and I are so thankful for your love, prayers, and support. I hope I didn’t let you down – my biggest “what-if.”

There are machinations and maneuvers in any election, even in the church, but this delegation held together and exhibited both the grace and strength of the South Carolina Annual Conference. I know that I shocked you and many others with my concession speech yesterday. I felt that the Holy Spirit clearly wanted me to respond to the growing crescendo of a desire that we have a more diverse College of Bishops. Well, you and I know that I fit this bill, but a lot of others see me and think “white guy.” Some have said “he’s just an ‘Indian wannabe'” or that mixed blood doesn’t count.  Well, S.E.R.N.A.C. (South Eastern Regional Native American Caucus) endorsed me. So those that question are calling both my and their integrity into question.

But, the pain of racism runs rampant among us all, doesn’t it? Church and society. Will the malaise or the revival of the United Methodist Church be hastened by a desire for leaders who fill a certain racial, gender, or theological quota? I don’t think so, and I’m NOT disparaging anyone who was elected. I’m grateful for each person’s gifts to the church. I must, however, speak up for the SC Committee on Native American Ministries. Our slogan and misson is “Making the Invisible, Visible!” Bishop Cho fits this description. He is the first Asian person elected a bishop in the SEJ and is a person of great character and spiritual leadership.  We did not, however, elect our first African-American female bishop. Sharma Lewis, an effective leader, was the target of rumors. We didn’t elect Ivelisse Quinones, a gifted Hispanic person either.

This is the reason I rose to tell everyone to vote for Bishop Cho. He and I could have gotten stalemated for a number of ballots and, who knows, somebody may have been hoping for such a thing. Of course, momentum was his and it may not have even mattered. Nevertheless, I felt the need for a good servant of the Lord like Bishop Cho to be elected.

I still feel called of God, wherever that takes me. That supercedes whatever anyone else thinks. I’m going to head to Mt. Mitchell and be alone with God for a few days. I love what I’m doing as a DS and I want to serve Bishop Holston in every way possible. I love South Carolina United Methodism!

You want to know what this feels like the day after? How would you feel if right after hundreds of people consoled you, a bishop of the church, probably well meaning, said to you something like, “You would have been elected if you had been quiet about the Council of Bishops and the Call to Action.” More was said but you get the drift. Well, my Mama and Daddy raised me to have integrity. Yes, I spoke out against what I thought was a violation of our history, theology, and polity. I knew it would cost me votes, but it was the right thing to do.

Everybody says bishops have a lot of pull in who gets elected, but I’ve taught UM history, polity, and theology. We have never had a consolidated power group or person running the whole church. Even Francis Asbury excused himself and allowed the conference to vote in the James O’Kelly matter of 1792. O’Kelly supported a clergyperson’s right to appeal their proposed appointment. The conference wanted a balance of powers with both a strong episcopacy and a strong conference. Whenever we have erred either way and granted more power to the General Conference over the Council of Bishops or vice versa, we have had a church split.

That’s a fact and I pointed it out pre-General Conference in a number of settings and publications none of which were personally solicited, and I’m ecstatic that the Judicial Council ruled the way they did. I had hoped that Plan UMC was a way to balance things out, but was rightfully worried about its constitutionality. I’m about ready to say that the UMC needs to hold a month-long constitutional convention and redo a lot of things.

But I’ll say two things for sure: You cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution, and the Church is of God and will endure until the end of the age.  In spite of all of my emotions today, from tears and utter sadness to overwhelming peace – the same peace I felt as I spoke to the SEJ yesterday, and as I sat down then, I have hope today. Yes, I know this hope is a bit tenuous right now. I trust the Lord, but am a little gunshy about trusting people at the moment. I am sorry if this seems more like a rant than an observation. I know that I am too close to this and I have very little objectivity right now. Grief is talking. The 12th anniversary of my Daddy’s funeral was Tuesday, and today would have been my Mamma’s 95th birthday. But if I’m anything, I’m real. What you see is what you get. I want to be a faithful servant of the Lord in our beloved church and I’m simply voicing my perspective.

Maybe it would help tone down my comments if you read the words from my  short speech on the first day of the conference. Here it is and I hope you glean more hope from this public personal debriefing than despair.

After General Conference I reread Walter Brueggeman’s book Hopeful Imagination about the Jewish Exile, and just a month ago Gil Rendle spoke at our Annual Conference about the Wilderness.  Their common theme is that these events actually fostered times of great renewal and hope in the midst of lament and crisis for the Israelites.  I think that our tenuous situation today is similar, and much like what Wesley faced in the Church of England. How wonderful it would be if we could recognize the power of God in the midst of all the gloom and doom we’ve heard! Who wants to get on a sinking ship? God’s in the resurrection business!

Remember the scene in Mark 5 when Jesus attends the funeral of a little girl? Jesus dismissed the crowd of professional mourners who thought that He was nuts because He said the child was asleep, not dead. Then Jesus invited only the people who were desperate – her parents – and the people who were faithful – a couple of his disciples – to witness the miracle. Miracles occur in the presence of desperation and faith where God gets center stage.

So we can either wail without hope as United Methodists, or be desperate enough to trust only in God. Wailing doesn’t help. It distracts. It acknowledges neither God’s power nor the possibility of new life. Once the wailers were gone, Jesus did his work and the miracle was astonishing in its simplicity. Like a parent waking a child for breakfast, Jesus gently spoke the Aramaic equivalent of: “Wake up, little one – Talitha Koum.” Where the wailers proclaimed death, Jesus spoke life. Where they grieved loudly, He quietly took the little girl by the hand. Where they laughed with contempt, He celebrated with joy. They were ready for her funeral; Jesus told them to feed her breakfast!

In a sense, John Wesley did the same thing. He spiritually raised the dead when he took 18th century England by the hand.  God produced new life for thousands, and fed both souls and bodies.  The world is still longing to hear a word of hope, and the United Methodist Church can speak it like no other!  The Episcopal leadership we choose will shape that.

Following Christ’s example in Mark 5, I think a bishop must be present and available to others, and then be willing to go even deeper into people’s stories and situations.  Bishops must recognize opportunities for the work of the Holy Spirit even when many only see an occasion for wailing. I want to be a bishop that reaches out to our churches and our world with a word of hope, and echo the words of Christ: “Talitha Koum! It’s time to wake up!”

On to Junaluska!

Episcopal elections are less than a week away and everyone is making their selections for their top 5 nominees for bishop. It is an interesting time as a nominee, and I desire your prayers for me and all the other nominees. Please pray also for all of the annual conferences that will receive new episcopal leadership and the SEJ Committee on Episcopacy that does the assignments. Pray for our current bishops who may or may not be assigned elsewhere, too. Good matches make for good ministry!

I have no doubt about my call, but our system wisely confirms the calls of everyone from local church candidates for ministry all the way to bishops. You can’t self-proclaim God’s call in the United Methodist Church without holy conferencing and group affirmation! This year the process of voting will be different in the SEJ. We will have electronic balloting that hopefully will shave off a day from our schedule. There will be time to take breaks and conference/discern together, but, no doubt, things will be at a faster pace than we’ve ever seen before. The plan is for 16 ballots to take place next Wednesday and 16 next Thursday. Whew! Then next Thursday evening at 8:45 p.m. assignments will be announced by the Committee on Episcopacy and at 9 p.m. all the bishops will meet with members of their new/old annual conference at selected locations. Friday morning, July 20, will be the Consecration Service for the new bishops at 10 a.m.

My prayer is that we provide enough time and space in the process to listen to the Holy Spirit and each other. There’s the temptation to go to Junaluska with a slate of 5 based solely upon the election materials that have been sent out, nominee’s websites, mailings, their presentations at the SEJ D.S. meeting and at General Conference in Tampa. At Junaluska the nominees have 4 minutes to speak to the conference, then spend 10 minutes each with the delegations. We also have an opportunity next Tuesday night to speak to the SEJ racial/ethnic delegates.

The issue of discernment is very important. Very often I base my decisions on pre-conceived notions or the limited exposure I’ve had with people. That can be misleading and lead to wrong decisions. So what I’m seeking is God’s will and looking for grace in the whole process. We, after all, are judging people! Is this person someone we want to elect, or is it another? Impartiality and fairness are often all that we ask from those who judge us. When we want someone to help assess our plans or point of view we hope they will be thoroughly objective. If we really want advice and not just someone who readily agrees with us, we must demand that we be given the truth, as much as it hurts.

But, who is without bias? From one culture to the next, we have different and often opposing standards of what is acceptable. These opinions vary as much as families, schools, colleges, and churches do. Indeed, every institution, by its very nature, has its own set of prejudices. Every annual conference has its own character and culture, too.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s reality. In some sense of the word, prejudices can be helpful. A pre-judged framework of values and customs sets the course of civilization and protects much that we hold sacred. One writer said it aptly, “Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room.” An annual conference’s clarity about episcopal expectations can make transitions and expanded ministries more facile and attainable.

But, as helpful as prejudices and customs are, should we Christians be that set in our ways? Shouldn’t we hate the word “prejudice?” It reminds us of past sin and pain in the separate and unequal prejudicial mistreatment of people. Someone has said that the older the prejudice, the hardier, so hardy that some can be considered perennials. Some prejudices keep coming back year after year, perpetuating ill will.

So, how do we separate good prejudice from bad bias whether it be in an episcopal election or a civic one? Maybe the answer lies in the way we judge, open-mindedness, and how much objectivity we have. Perhaps another way to foster good prejudice is by tempering our bias with compassion, “Except for the grace of God, there go I.”

The judge glared down from his bench at the prospective juror. “And just why is it,” he asked, “that you don’t want to serve on this jury?” The man replied, “Well, judge, I’m biased. One look at that man convinced me that he is guilty.” The judge scowled and replied, “That man is not the defendant, he’s the district attorney.”

To judge appropriately, whatever we do, we need to be very careful. So let’s be careful with one another next week. I trust the Lord and our means of conferring with the Body of Christ in our decision-making. This will be my last post before the balloting starts. May Jesus’ wisdom inform us so that we share the Mind of Christ. Thanks for your prayers and for a united bias for God’s will to be done.