(Shared with the Florida Conference Delegation on January 9, 2016 at First UMC in Lakeland, Florida)
“So what do you think will happen at the General Conference?”
I am often asked that question these days. Underneath the question there are a variety of unspoken emotions: fear, anxiety, sadness, anticipation, excitement. It is a question that is voiced this year, and perhaps this year there is more urgency, but it is one we have asked for years.
I first began sitting in delegations to these conferences in 1996. I was 39 years old. I was always honored to be sent to these conferences, but they were always spiritually challenging to me. In 2010 and 2011, I had the sense, because I had participated in a number of them, that if I were not elected a bishop I might very well not attend another one. A part of that was making a place for others. A part of that was how demanding the work really is for those who are called to it.
At my last two general conferences there were two lay persons, and I have been thinking about them as we approach Portland. Both were in the General Conference delegations. Neither is a United Methodist today. Both came to the General Conference with one focus: in one instance full inclusion of gays and lesbians, in the other ending the relationship with the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Both left the conference deeply demoralized, even disillusioned.
That is a good word for how you approach this task: disillusionment. The illusion we may take into the GC with is that we are leaders and that our arguments will prevail. Sometimes they will. I think I have spoken on the floor of GC four or five times. I am not sure that I persuaded the body of my perspective on any of those occasions!
So if you are going to GC with one issue on your mind, I want to challenge you and say that you are distorting the purposes of Christian conferencing. I would say the same to the protestors who will surround the bar of the conference, with passions about a number of subjects.
There will be several hundred people on the floor of the GC in Portland. You will shape the Book of Discipline and adopt the budget for our denomination— a significant portion of that which will be funded by Florida. You will elect leadership. You will worship and pray and sing. And you will meet amazing Christians from all over the world.
You are a part of this delegation because people respect you. They are placing the future of our church, from a human point of view, in your hands. They trust you. And a part of that trust is your own willingness to learn, to listen, to be in dialogue, and to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
I hope your sense of who The UMC actually is will be enlarged by the time you leave Portland. We are a global church. There are amazing leaders in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The 2024 General Conference will be in the Philippines. GBGM is opening offices in Argentina (I will be there in early April), Korea and in one of the French-speaking countries in Africa. You will hear speakers by translation in a variety of languages. In one of the General Conferences I intentionally sought out a legislative subcommittee which was led by an African delegate whose primary language was French. I wanted to get on his turf. I hope you will have some of this experience.
Back to my opening question: “What will happen at the GC in Portland?” Beneath this question are two more specific ones:
- Will the church change its language around human sexuality?
- Will we stay together as a church?
I can honestly say that I don’t know how most of you will advocate or vote on the first question (human sexuality). Some of you have been open with me. But most of you were not elected because of one issue. You were elected because people know that you love the church and that you are a leader in our annual conference.
I can say that I hope you will go to Portland with a desire to unify the church. I say that because as a bishop I placed my hand on a Bible four years ago and promised to seek the unity of the church. I say that because I can hear the prayer of Jesus in John 17 (“I pray that they may be one, so that the world might believe that you have sent me”). I say that because there is a lot that would be lost in our division.
And we have been here before.
I have been given a copy of a text edited by Bishop Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist bishops, entitled The Causes, Evils and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions. The book first appeared in 1792. When the church divided in 1844 over slavery, it was recovered and published in 1849. It has been released and made available to our church again this spring.
Here is a word, for leaders, within that small book:
When young and ungrounded Christians do, by their errors, pride, or passions, disturb the church’s peace and order, it is the pastors that are usually first assaulted by their abuses and, therefore, are most impatient and exasperated against them. It would be well if we were so innocent ourselves, so that our consciences need not call us to inquire whether this is not partly the fruit of our own miscarriages. The church’s peace lies chiefly in our hands, and if we miscarry, and won’t understand instruction, nor bear admonition, nor do our parts, how little hope will be left of our tranquility. The body languishes when the physician is as bad as the disease (64).
(Note: You might translate some of the above language into our terms—-immature Christians, for example, or clergy instead of pastors)
In that text, written in the 1790s and republished in the 1850s, there is a sober reflection on the outcomes of division:
Our divisions hinder our strength. If you untwist a cable, how weak is it in the several parts of it! A threefold cord is not easily broken, but a single one is. Divide a strong current into several rivulets and how shallow and weak will the course of the water be! They hinder our doing good in public: that which concerns many must be done by many. But how can two, much less many, walk together, if they are not agreed? That which one does the other seeks to undo.
None are more crossed in their ends and designs than contentious people. We have not the mutual benefit of each other’s resources, houses, the many ways of accommodation and help for each other, as previously we had.
What will happen in Portland? We have been here before!
Last week, as the SEJ College of Bishops met here in Florida, we were thinking and praying about, among other agenda items, the upcoming General Conference. Bishop James King of South Georgia commented: “The anger that is in the world is in the church. And the fear that is in the world is in the church.” And Bishop Lindsey Davis offered this insight: “I wish our General Conferences did not fall always on the same year as the Presidential elections! Because they do, they often mirror them!”
And of course this is beyond a particular denomination. Andy Doyle, a bishop of the Episcopal Church in Texas, has said, “The culture wars have created a great lie within the church. That lie is that if we are not in agreement on the issue of sexuality, then we must not be united….Unity is never rooted in our agreement but in God.” (Church: A Generous Community Amplified, 94.)
Lastly, I want to define my ministry of spiritual leadership and shepherding with you in the time before, during and following GC.
- My interest is not in persuading you about your voting. That is your conscience. And you are called to have a formed and informed conscience by reading and conferencing together.
- My interest is in knowing how it is with your soul, leading up to and during the GC. So I will be there and at any time in Portland you want to talk, I will be available.
- And after GC…recently again the bishops reflected on the question…
What will happen on the Sunday after the GC?
Well on the Sunday after GC, in Miami one church will feed the homeless. A church in Tampa will also feed the homeless. In Jacksonville people will arrive early at one church to take communion. We will sing hymns and say the creeds and with every kind of musical instrument offer praise to God. The Word will be proclaimed in Creole and English, Spanish and Korean and Portuguese. Children will be baptized, and new persons will take vows of membership. And, on the Sunday after GC some churches will have UMYF in the afternoon.
In other words, life with go on. This is important. General Conference is not Armageddon. I noted earlier that the future of the church is in your hands, from a human point of view. But of course we do not understand the church, fully, from a human point of view.
When I was beginning in ministry, a part of our liturgy for baptism and membership contained these words:
The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time,
for the conduct of worship,
the due administration of God’s word and sacraments,
the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline,
the edification of believers and the conversion of the world.
These words can still be found in our Hymnal. The church is of God. The church will exist, and even flourish before, during and after General Conference.
General Conference is not about the survival of the church. It is the way we come together to work on our mission to reach the last, the least and the lost with the gospel. It is an imperfect way. It is not the only way, but it is our way and has been from the beginning.
May God enlighten you, protect you, strengthen you and use you for the good of this church and the mission of all of her people: to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.
*Note: I am grateful to several members of the Council of Bishops, who have expressed some of the ideas contained here, in particular Rosemarie Wenner, Cynthia Harvey, Julius Trimble and Bill McAlilly. I am grateful to Molly McEntire and Sue Haupert-Johnson for the invitation to address our delegation. And I invite you to join me in prayer and support of our delegation, lay and clergy, to the General Conference.