The Great Divorce: Tension and Schism in the UMC

dreamumc-one-yearThis blog post is part of a synchblog today on the topic of schism in the UMC. Please share your thoughts here, on the DreamUMC website, on your blog or facebook page, and tonight at 9 pm eastern on Twitter as we chat together.

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Sadly, I have recent experience with splitting up.

It’s not easy, and it hurts more than anything I’ve experienced– a profound loss akin to the death of a loved one. A complex and roiling issue, filled with technical, procedural, emotional, psychological, and spiritual transformation: this is the road of divorce. It’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone.

At the same time, I can attest that sometimes a relationship becomes unhealthy, un-fulfilling, unloving. Sometimes, separation, while painful, brings new life and more beautiful, vibrant hope than either party has known.

I’ve never been a huge supporter of the idea of schism in The United Methodist Church. I recognize that there are many times when I exclaim “I’m done!” or “I’m getting out!” I see the efforts for inclusion thwarted again and again, and the uniquely Methodist understanding of grace eroded away. I hear my ecumenical colleagues lament struggles within their denominations, but talk openly about their sexuality, or see them tagged on Facebook, officiating weddings for their gay or lesbian congregants, and want to weep (okay, sometimes do). But I remain. I recognize that this urge to quit is born out of anger and pain, not my best place of discernment. I stay because I believe history is too full of schism over people of color and women, and I want this to be the time we learn to embrace God’s children as they are. I stay because I want to leave no one behind. I stay because there is much I love about the UMC, not the least of which is the love that binds us together, a deep commitment to engage in struggle together.

I suppose I say to myself, in the words of the Indigo Girls: “I still believe, despite our differences, that what we have’s enough. I believe in us, and I believe in love.”

I wonder, though.

I wonder, because my ability to minister effectively in my community and my context is being severely undermined by words in the Book of Discipline that do not offer love and grace, but condemnation and dehumanization. Even while my local church welcomes and embraces all persons, and even while I have vowed to officiate weddings based on the love, maturity, and commitment of the parties and not their genders, even so, simply calling my friends, loved ones, family members, congregants and community members “incompatible” makes it nearly impossible to extend the love and blessing of Christ. I wonder because so much time, effort, and resource goes into trying to change the Book of Discipline in a handful of paragraphs, or to stonewall any changes, that our witness and mission as a global denomination is hampered if not completely halted. Most of all I wonder because we cannot even agree that we are in disagreement. We can’t acknowledge our differences openly and with vulnerability (by saying, for example, that people of good faith disagree about homosexuality). If we can’t say we have differences, how can we believe Love is enough, despite them?

Weeks like this past one have me thinking maybe schism wouldn’t be so bad. But then I think about how it would play out. It starts to feel like arguing over china. But sometimes plates have sentimental value, and sometimes people need a way to eat. How would agencies and committees be allocated? Who “gets” the Board of Discipleship and its work? Who “gets” the Committee on Relief? Oh, we’d figure it out, I’m sure. But if the publishing house and the Board of Global Mission are plates and cups and wedding gifts, what I really worry about are the children.

I worry about people in local churches.

Take my local church. We are not a reconciling congregation, although every so often, the background conversation begins that we should do the work to search our beliefs and values and make a statement about sexuality and inclusivity. It would not be unanimous, but there would be large support. Mostly, I think folks haven’t’ done it yet because they don’t want to leave any loved ones out. So where does that leave this small but vibrant, progressive but cautious, inclusive of queer people and of traditionalists, congregation of beloved children as their parents argue and split and divide the shared property? I can’t answer that question, but it makes me heartsick.

There are a couple of reasons why I think we can remain together, and should at least try:

becca-at-protest1. Our strength is in our diversity. The nearest United Methodist Church to the one I serve is six miles away. It is a more conservative, traditional congregation with a more conservative, traditional (male) pastor (until July 1 anyway). My colleague and I can be found at the Vermont State House on marriage equality days, wearing our clerical collars and standing on opposite sides of the demonstrations. But on days when there are rallies for workers’ rights, economic justice, or health care access, we can be found side by side, partners in the religious and spiritual task of seeking justice. When someone comes to my office, expressing dismay that the church where I serve– or I myself– is too liberal, I gladly give them the contact information for the church in Barre. Every so often a person comes in to Trinity, having tried the church in Barre and finding it “too conservative,” and finds a happy home in our congregation. Together, these two United Methodist Churches serve the needs and build the gifts of people who are and may be United Methodist in this area. We need each other.

2. When I worked on the reproductive rights subcommittee at General Conference, we found that a great number of people from a huge variety of contexts, backgrounds, and beliefs could come to the table and discuss abortion in fruitful ways. We reached an impasse every time we tried to proscribe what doctors and patients should and should not do. But every time we refocused on who were were as United Methodists and how we were called to be in ministry before, during, and after crisis pregnancy, we were able to reach a closer consensus despite our vast differences. When we listened to each others’ stories and asked what our proactive, loving, spiritual response should be, we could live in harmony. Despite our differences, Love was enough.

Here’s what I think we should do.

1. I think we need– right now, at the next General Conference– enabling legislation to create a United States Central Conference. This will allow The United Methodist Church to hold some things in common– our articles of faith, our boards and ministries, our local congregations, and yes as of this most recent General Conference, our Social Principles. It will allow every Central Conference to amend the rest of the Book of Discipline, and the way is is lived out, to take into account their local context. I think Jurisdictional Central Conferences could work, but that leaves a lot of southern progressives in a tough spot, in strange solidarity with northern conservatives. It is the only way I believe we can remain united, however, allowing us to hold essentials in unity, non essentials in liberty, and all things in deep grace and love. This change necessitates a second, no less important one…

2. We need to remove all proscriptive language from the Social Principles. As the UMC tries to make the Discipline more global, this is the only way forward. As a positive example, this is what we found about discussing abortion. We could all mourn the circumstances that might cause individuals to consider abortion, but we could not make any statement with consensus about calling for an end to practices, supporting or not supporting organizations that provide access to medical care including abortion, and so on. Let that be a local, contextual response. So, while paragraph 161 of the Discipline says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and I imagine we would keep arguing about that, it cannot further state that “self avowed practicing homosexuals shall not be appointed to serve as ministers in the UMC.” See the difference? The latter is proscriptive, and is more rightly a conversation for a more local context.

3. Consider this a trial separation. Can we give one another the space to live and serve in love in our contexts, equipping each other but not constraining the ministry that needs to happen? Or has too much damage been done? Can we live with or change the “incompatibility” language? Can we live with the liberty of our siblings in the movement? Can we heal the pain of the past? If not, can we use this breathng space and the time and space we need to more amicably consider how we would move forward together and apart?

Today, for now, I hold on to hope. Love is my favorite name for God, and so when I consider our divisions, I have to hold out for the power of Love. Despite our differences, what we have is and can be and I hope will be enough. I believe in Love.

In Loving Tension (of Ogletree, McLee, and the UMC)

dicipline ipadI get headline notifications on my smartphone from both NBC news and the AP. This means that I can have Olympic results spoiled, know who won a country music award for music I dislike, and be in the know about the deaths of celebrities I’ve never heard of, all in nearly real time (which is about 2 hours behind Twitter). Huge, huge news happened this week, but I noticed something curious.

My smartphone was silent about it.

I didn’t receive a single update about the three states voting on marriage equality this week. I can’t help but think that giving equal rights to all people has become something of a given. A less interesting headline than which animal won the Kentucky Derby (I hear it was a horse of some kind).

Sadly, not in all places.

Also in the news this week, the United Methodist Church is charging a clergy person with violating the Book of Discipline by officiating the wedding for his son and his now son-in-law. Stop me if you’ve heard this one (or read about it on Hacking Christianity, or the New York Times).

The matter surrounding Rev. Dr. Ogletree yet again highlights the division and discrimination lurking at the heart of the denomination I love. But this case has hit me in a different way than previous instances, stirring up a multitude of emotions and reflections that I will flesh out in the next few blog posts.

dreamumc-one-year1. As ever, questions of trial and dissent call to the forefront discussion of schism within the United Methodist Church. This will be the subject of Monday’s blog post, which is itself part of a larger synchblog (many bloggers discussing the same topic on the same day), and a DreamUMC twitter chat that night.

2. I’m fascinated by the focus on the fact that Rev. Dr. Ogletree officiated the wedding for his son, as if this makes the action more pastoral and beautiful and blameless. I want to explore this.

3. Like my friend and colleague Vicki Flippin (see below), I too have a story about saying no– or at least not saying yes. It is time to confess and seek further healing.

4. I have various and sundry thoughts about what is and is not prohibited by the institution, and how impossible it is to uphold this unjust law, even if we wanted to.

5. I love people.

I’m going to start with #5.

The New York Times article referenced above names some elders in addition to Rev. Dr. Ogletree. In particular, it focuses on the response from Ogletree’s Bishop, Bishop Martin McLee, whose response has drawn heavy criticism from progressives. Additionally, the article cites Rev. Vicki Flippin, who offers her own love letter in response, as one of two clergy in the New York Annual Conference openly stating that they have officiated at same sex/same gender weddings.

Both Bishop McLee and Rev. Flippin are friends of mine. In fact, It sounds ridiculously silly to me to not use their first names.

Both Martin and Vicki are friends of mine.

Vicki and I met this past year as we were both Fellows is a young clergy leadership development program through the Lewis Center. Our group met three times over the past nine months, and have stayed in contact on facebook in between meetings. Vicki is compassionate and intelligent, with a quick and friendly smile and a deeply loving heart. After our first meeting, we each drew a name from a hat and prayed for that person until the next meeting. I was happy to learn that Vicki drew mine. She’s also a passionate voice for justice and inclusion, and I cannot wait to hear her preach at Reconciling Ministries Network’s Convocation in August. I’m proud to know her and so proud of her words and actions this past week especially.

Martin was a District Superintendent in my annual conference, and we served together on our conference’s delegation to General Conference last year. An alternate delegate, Martin was frequently my go-to person when I needed to step away from the floor (like right after this happened), and on at least one occasion– when the body refused to even discuss security of appointment, but summarily dismissed the concerns of women and persons of color– was the set of broad shoulders upon which I unabashedly cried. Long before the Northeast Jurisdiction got a chance to meet him as a candidate, our delegation interviewed Martin and heard his vision and passion for the future of the United Methodist movement. I was proud when our conference nominated him, and proud to support him as a candidate for Bishop. I told people of his passion for justice and inclusion, and I stand by that conviction still. I wept when he was elected, and consecrated, and then again, later and alone, when I realized this meant he wouldn’t be part of our Conference any more.

As I said above, I’ve said “not yes” to marriage equality, and it broke my heart. Knowing and loving Martin, I can only imagine how much this breaks his (I preached about this a little here).

I’m not excusing or condoning the way his response has played out thus far.

I’m also not saying that I feel betrayed and abandoned by him, either.

First and foremost, when I see this case, and I see Rev. Dr. Ogletree whom I don’t know but imagine I would like and respect, and I see Vicki whom I am so proud to call colleague and friend, and I see Martin whom I love as well, I can only stand with an open and hurting heart. No speculation, no elation or anger, no judgement or excitement, only compassion and complexity. This is the connection. This is the Church. These are the people called Methodist. Bound, in ways we can only begin to grasp, to a structure, to a movement, to the Divine.

And to one another.

Jurisdictional Dreams

On July 23, DreamUMC hosted a Twitter Chat to reflect on the recent Jurisdictional Conferences of the United Methodist Church. In my opinion, this was one of our most exciting and fruitful conversations so far.

We began by asking people in Question 1 to name the highs and lows from their Jurisdictional gatherings, or from watching those gatherings from afar. Because I was moderating, I did not respond, but have written a separate blog post about what I saw as the highs and lows of the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference. Overall, I could summarize my hope for “more” in the words of one chat participant, who wrote, “I wanted to reflect that following jurisdictional conference via twitter and news outlets made it feel like a lot of regional navel gazing… I was hoping for jurisdictions to do something more missional rather than focus on the internal business of the UMC for itself.”

Despite this frustration with relative “stuck-ness” in the conferencing sessions, many participants celebrated moments of fun and joy in the midst of the conferences: singing, dancing and worship were lifted up, bishops elected and assigned, and several people rejoiced at prophetic legislation by the Western Jurisdiction (and a similarly-themed resolution in the Northeast Jurisdiction), calling for faithful ministry with persons who identify as GLBTQ, regardless of any prohibitions in the Book of Discipline.

Still, there were moments of pain and distrust, especially in the South Central Jurisdiction, where many grieved the situation surrounding the involuntary retirement of a sitting Bishop.

Some frustration revolved around a lack of diversity among nominees for both episcopal offices and for boards and agencies, and persons chosen/elected for those roles. One person reported that the Western Jurisdiction nominating report came back 80% white. Question 2 invited the twitter participants to engage the question: how did/does your Jurisdiction lift up gender/ethnic/age/sexuality/etc diversity (or have room to improve)? While many people celebrated the diversity of episcopal nominees across the country, and some historic elections, the deeper conversation pointed to a need for diversity beyond tokenism. One person tweeted, “diversity more than electing ‘firsts’. Must push ourselves to truly embrace diversity, not just check off a box.” Another reported that the Northeast Jurisdiction “filled retired bishop slots w/ same demographics of newly elected bishops (white female, white male, african american male).” Others raised observations about the wider church: “I am weary of diversity being an issue in elections of bishops. We should be looking at diversity in the LOCAL church,” and “diversity is also new people vs. folks who have served for years on boards, delegations. We should b more inclusive there 2.” One person reminded us that diversity and privilege can intersect but not necessarily cancel each other out: “White men can be the voice of diversity, too. It’s in their works and policies, not their skin color.” Preach.

For Question 3, we invited people to imagine the best ways to continue the conversation and where we might go from here, in the wake of the big-church gatherings. Many participants immediately spoke to the importance of focusing on the local level. “To the local churches and to the streets. Enough conferencing it’s time for action!” one person wrote. Authentic spirituality and deep faith at the local level are what matters, and from there, the movement builds from the grassroots up. Another participant pointed out, “we have to continue to raise concerns in church gatherings at the local level – starts with who we send to AC every year.”

Many, many voices spoke to the desire to continue the DreamUMC conversation, which we certainly intend, and to build upon it with local gatherings r networking/workshop type events. Using technology is essential to strengthen these efforts, including streaming events and gatherings, connecting across denominational lines, and building more comprehensive online interaction for people to engage beyond facebook and twitter.

Long range, participants hoped to keep up the good work. One wrote: “continue dreaming, include more people in the discussion, write legislation for #gc2016, mission.” Another person got others talking with the suggestion: “Continue by working to make #dreamumc an approved caucus for JC/episcopal endorsement purposes.” This generated conversation around what a DreamUMC caucus would look like and how to move beyond the perception of just being about one or two issues: “But we r so diverse that I worry this being labeled ‘what the younger people think’ #ifwewereacaucus.” A reply: “Feel u; 1 of my concerns all along re: #dreamumc Need for relevancy & structural change not just young thing #ifwewereacaucus” (my new favorite hashtag, by the way).

Finally, with Question 4, we focused on one way in which the conversation continues, forming work groups. Right now, we are still in the process of organizing people and the topics of interest they named, but the list of group is on facebook (which, I realize, doesn’t work for everyone– another aspect of what we are working on). We are looking into options for a website, google hangouts, and other technology fixes, while also hoping to have some face to face gatherings where those are possible.

Diary of a Delegate: Northeast Jurisdiction recap

I’ve been home from the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church for a little over a week and a half, and I’m still mentally unpacking (although I actually did unpack my suitcase after almost a week).

As I wrote earlier, I did have some hopes and dreams for NEJ.

From my perspective, the highs of the NEJ gathering centered on one event: the election as bishop of my colleague, Rev. Martin McLee. Martin– ah, Bishop McLee– is a passionate and compassionate preacher-prophet, and his voice as leader of the New York Annual Conference and as a member of the Council of Bishops will benefit the church as a whole. Martin’s words following his election were prayerful and inspiring, and in the following break, Methodist music rock star Mark Miller took over the piano and the conference enjoyed an impromptu hymn sing. At the service of consecration for Bishops McLee, Webb, and Steiner-Ball, I wept copious and happy tears.

The lows of the conference for me had a lot to do with the lack of fulfillment of those dreams I had named. I did not find the worship and bible study time to be spiritually nourishing, and left the room nearly every time we sang, because the hymns were so loaded with noninclusive language and poor theology. I was jarred by the bible studies, particularly the one the last morning, which featured a couple of images that were triggers for me (pregnancy/child loss and weapons, not things that put me in a very worshipful mood).

More importantly, I failed to see us use our time for holy conferencing. While we passed one piece of legislation affirming ministry with GLBTQ persons and allies in the northeast, we did not have any fruitful conversation on that or any other topic, in my opinion. I had hoped in that earlier blog post that the discernment around episcopal nominees would allow us to “spend huge amounts of time asking ourselves: what are the needs of the United Methodist Church in our region as we seek to live out God’s calling for us, and what sort of leaders and leadership can help us get there?” I didn’t see or hear that conversation anywhere. I know we had a lot to do, with 19 candidates to interview all in one day. But the conference is made up of less than 300 delegates (277 to be precise, a number burned in my brain by our 30+ ballots…). There should be time over meals or in and around legislative sessions to be intentional about gathering outside of our annual conferences, to connect with others in our region, and dialogue about what we might be looking for in episcopal leaders or people to serve on boards and agencies (without campaigning!), or to discuss the particulars of being United Methodists in ministry in the northeast. I’d love to see us use our time very intentionally, to create connection that can break down barriers and ease some of the distrust that many people lifted up coming out of the conferencing session.

I’m not sure how Jurisdictional Conference sessions are put together, but I am interested in creating greater space for conversation and connection in 2016. Thoughts?

Link love

Here is an column about the #DreamUMC movement I wrote for UM Reporter.

I’m still working on a summary of last week’s chat– hopefully by the end of the day, and Jeremy is hard at work on the break down of work/interest groups. Stay tuned to the facebook page and twitter account!

We All Have a Dream…

The DreamUMC conversation is more than two months old, and growing in some exciting ways. We are putting words and ideas to action, and finding new partners across denominational lines.

Background

Coming out of the 2012 General Conference, many delegates, volunteers, and folks who had followed the proceedings from afar looked for a way to continue a broad conversation about the United Methodist Church and the directions into which God is calling us. Using the social networking platform of Twitter, we created space for this communication through the account @DreamUMC and the corresponding hashtag #DreamUMC. The central goal is to have the communication and vision building be as open, grassroots, and participatory as possible. We fundamentally believe that there is something inherently Methodist about seeking out, listening for, and valuing every voice, rather than assuming direction comes from the top. Sometimes—often, even!—the Spirit speaks boldly through the people one might least expect.

Every two weeks, Monday nights at 9 Eastern, we have participated in moderated Twitter chats or “tweetups,” where people follow the same hashtag at the same time, and respond to discussion questions. Three separate people from two different Jurisdictions have moderated the chats, and participation has been strong, with the number of people tweeting declining, but the number of new tweets and secondary level questions increasing as the conversation goes deeper. The chats are archived on a Facebook page so that people who can’t tune in at that time can read the questions and responses later. Often, one or more person summarizes the conversation (here’s one of my early summaries) for people to read.

Challenges and Benefits

Certainly there are challenges and drawbacks to this method; not everyone is able to use Twitter and Facebook or comfortable in those platforms. Our conversations have been tipped toward United States based individuals (although we have several participants who sign in from Europe or Africa), and most popular in those under 40 (although there are again many active participants who are young at heart if not in years). Overcoming these limitations to being inclusive with respect to age, geographic, and socioeconomic status remains a top priority.

The benefits and advantages are stunning, however.

One might expect the conversation to be monolithic theologically, or to point to particular polity positions. This has not been the case. In the open conversation forum, participants have voiced widely diverging opinions, beliefs, and positions, and returned to engage with one another two weeks later. Sharing insights, the people tweeting have offered up a wide range of creative, forward-thinking ideas on a range of topics from the major lessons of General Conference to the need for theological and spiritual formation in local churches, from the essential qualities of an episcopal leader to spreading the message and model of DreamUMC’s open-source conversation.

Focusing the conversation

With people weighing in from around the United States and around the world, both during the chat and on their own time, the folks of DreamUMC have begun to identify key areas of focus for conversation and action moving forward, including building toward a United Methodist Church that is more connected to its Wesleyan heritage, has a stronger focus on discipleship and development, more inclusive, and more equitable globally. For weeks, we have discussed the need for education and formation in local churches, and for the development of lay and clergy leadership at all levels of the church. We have also heard frustration about the divisions, exclusions, and process-related technical details that keep us from being as effective as we can be in mission and service (like debating almost all critical topics using Robert’s Rule of Order rather than living into a more open and holy conferencing style).

These areas of interest are exciting to think about as the conversation continues. The plan is to invite participants to place themselves on one or more teams and work intentionally around these topics, while continuing the wider discussion about the United Methodist Church as a whole, and where the Spirit is leading us in the months and years ahead. For a full list of the topics we’ve lifted up, or to add a topic that should be included, please visit the DreamUMC Facebook poll.

Ecumenical dreams unfolding

One of the most exciting developments in the DreamUMC movement is not limited to the UMC. At the recent Presbyterian Church, USA General Assembly, a conversation began on Twitter that was very similar to the conversation that we had experienced at our General Conference. One United Methodist, following the PCUSA tweets, mentioned this similarity, inviting the participants there to peruse the conversations that we’d been having through DreamUMC, and suddenly @WeDreamPCUSA / #DreamPCUSA was born (you can read Rev. Andy Oliver’s perspective on the launch of this sister movement here).

Within days, new hashtags and user accounts popped up for other denominations, including the United Church of Christ (@DreamUCC and #dreamucc), the Episcopal Church (#Acts8), the Disciples of Christ (#dreamccdoc) and a broader ecumenical gathering, @MainlineDreams / #MainlineDreams. Together, we’ve begun to think of ourselves as a movement not unlike the “Arab Spring,” in the term Andy coined as the “Mainline Summer” (there’s a short summary of the known movements so far here by Rev. Emily Heath).

Dreams carry forward

My personal hope for this wider movement is well stated by Emily when she calls for a “new chapter in mainline Christian renewal.” That’s what we’re talking about here: reconnecting to the things that make us Christian, that give us power and purpose as the Body of Christ, and that inform and shape us in our various theological and historical foundations. In talking with a friend from another denomination this morning, we reflected that the ecumenical movement has historically focused on either mergers or, more typically, on sharing in mission. What if this time, we focused on a different kind of mission: to reclaim and reinvigorate mainline Christianity, to engage with a culture hungry for meaning and purpose and connection, and to offer what the church as a whole has found in Christ, trusting that individuals will flock to the particular and distinct denominations with which they best resonate?  Can we, this summer, this year, at this season in the church, open a conversation at all levels and in all places, hearing, discerning, and sharing where God is calling the Christian church into a new and more relevant, vital, connected future?

Now that’s a dream I want to live into.

DreamUMC – a Pentecost Vision (sermon video)

“Dream UMC – a Pentecost Vision”

Sermon, now with 100% more video!

(May 27, 2012 – Pentecost Sunday) A movement is underway to help shape the future of the United Methodist Church by inviting and including as many voices a possible. Using the social media tool of Twitter (follow @DreamUMC and #dreamumc), anyone and everyone can share their hopes, visions, and strategies for the denomination, and listen to the dreams of others. Can we hear a worthwhile message in the midst of this “holy noise,” or will we write off the dreamers as drunkards and fools?

so, as is fitting for a Pentecost experience, I’ve never done it this way before…

Link Love – DreamUMC

Here’s a great article about our DreamUMC conversation. Our next chat is in a week: May 28, 9 pm Eastern (not 10 pm, as initially stated in the article).

I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

Monday night was magic.

We had our first Twitter Chat for #DreamUMC, the conversation born out of the strong desire to keep shaping the future of our denomination in the wake of General Conference. You can read the full archive of the chat here, or you can view bullet points of answers to the questions we discussed (and some unofficial demographic info) at the facebook page.

First of all, wow! There were 171 people tweeting, and many many more I know who were “lurking,” or as I call it, actively listening. We sent 1,272 tweets, not including retweets. That’s a lot of conversation in an hour! Although dominated by younger voices, the conversation spanned generations, came down fairly even on gender representation, included voices of clergy, laity, and folks between the two, and crossed the U.S. pretty well. We have some work to do yet on inviting the voices of persons of color and reaching out to hear our siblings in the movement from around the world. But there is a lot of energy for movement and hope in this body.

Especially as the conversation got started, what was amazing to me was the passion of the participants. Here, ten days after General Conference ended, people were still filled with pain, regret, brokenness, and grief. Here, despite the brokenness and raw pain, people were still filled with vision and hope and excitement for the future of the United Methodist movement. Such deep pain and deep joy, woven together often in the same person, speaks volumes for the vibrancy and heart of the UMC. As the conversation concluded, the call to continue and progress in our work together was overwhelming and joy-filled. I have rarely felt more in the presence of the Holy Spirit doing a new thing, and never while staring at pixels on a screen.

Reflecting on the conversation, I want to try to synthesize what I heard. We asked three questions, and some themes emerged from the responses.

Question 1: What did you learn/take away from General Conference 2012?

In response to this question, this is where I experienced a lot of pain and brokenness. Many tweets lifted up a new or renewed understanding of our  division as a denomination, and several spoke directly about lack of trust. One person wrote “Trust issues abound and we have no idea how to heal them.” Others spoke of the power imbalance in the denomination, and disillusionment with this power. “Manipulation (from all parties and sides) carries more influence than Holy Conferencing.” Many tweets lamented the legislative process, and how it seems to be in the way of the true work of the Spirit and the forward movement of the church. “Movements cannot be legislated,” one wrote, and another: “it is wrong to expect reform to happen @ the structural level.”

Many people lifted up both the blessing and challenge of being a global church– or as I’ve recently had reframed for me (in this excellent post by Wes Magruder), an international church that wants to be a global church. The beauty and diversity of the global Methodist movement breaks down when we try to articulate theology and polity across radically different contexts. As one person put it, “I learned that theology is contextual and structure probably ought to be too.”

Still others took away hope from the General Conference. “God is not finished with the UMC!” was a frequent refrain. People celebrated new connections and friendships, and the sense of not being alone, in either the feeling of sorrow or the passion for ministry we share. Many celebrated the desire for change and the opportunity for conversation and hope. Much as we may try to Methodologize  (think I made that up) our movement, that doesn’t stop the Holy from breaking in. As one person wrote: “even when we think all hope is gone, the Spirit has a tendency to show up and surprise us!”

My husband snapped a picture as I got ready for the chat. He informed me that the glasses were a must.

Question 2: How has this new knowledge changed your Dream (vision or hope) for the United Methodist Church?

The next time I am feeling discouraged about the state of the world in general or the church in particular, I promise myself that I will read through these answers again, or just ask a fellow dreamer to tell me their dream for the UMC. These answers were beautiful. Still much pain laced through them, but such amazing and faithful dreams.

Broken dreams were named: “I’m struggling to see how a schism will be avoided,” one person wrote. In another place, a participant would add “I think it’s already happened.” Trust issues were raised again: “I now realize that in order to move forward, we need greater trust. Far too many folks became us vs. them.”

The need for localized contextual ways of being the church was named and lifted. One person summarized this feeling well: “I have become much more in favor of regionalism/contextualism. Annual conferences and local congregations need to be unbound,” while another wrote “I wouldn’t have understood it before #GC2012, but I’m all for a US central conference now.”

Many, many of these dreams envisioned openness and inclusivity for all people, some naming especially the GLBTQ community, but many leaving a wide-open statement– regardless of any division. “I am now even more passionate and committed to building relationships across cultures and other barriers…without agenda,” one participant wrote. Another said, “I (continue to) dream/hope that the UMC will be UNITED, but in our diversity, not just our name.”

The dreams included a deep need for personal transformation and formation as disciples, and the hope that personal transformation would expand out into a transformed way of being and relating to one another. “It has made me more determined to teach Wesleyan theology, more determined to share Wesleyan formation, less fearful,” said one tweeter, while another wrote that we need “less ‘fixing,’ more constructive listening and discerning what a holy life and life together may be.”

In this part of the conversation, one person wrote that General Conference convinced them to go all-in and seek ordination, to get deeply into the system and work for change. Another wrote that GC convinced them to abandon the ordination track and fully embrace and claim the power of lay leaders within the church for transformation. It struck me as wonderful that both articulate a sense of transformation and purpose and calling, and it highlights for me that the call to ministry has to do with our gifts and passion, not our titles or position on the laity-clergy spectrum.

Question 3: What’s one achievable change that would make the UMC a bit closer to the church you dream about?

Here the conversation was at its most powerful for me, as people’s passion was channeled into positive, practical visioning. What I learned is that there are lots of people who see the same way forward I do (I think it has a lot to do with contextualizing our theology and practice, through some form of national or regional central conferences for the U.S.), there are many people who have other or additional creative ideas for transformation. Nothing gives me more hope than passionate people who also can think proactively.

Wordle WordCloud of the Q3 answers (online here)

There were many cries for a U.S. Central Conference, something for which I’ve never heard a huge groundswell of support before. But as I mentioned earlier, the tension of trying to live globally (not internationally) amid massive cultural differences really tied our hands and hearts at this conference. One person put it this way: “A US Central Conference free to set our own standards around the issues that divide the global church. That is it.” Another wrote, “Ditto, US central conference. &, quit trying to motivate US church w fear. Motivate w love (good news).”

Many spoke to the need for refocused ministry efforts at the “church” level, and one person emphasized that we need to “expand our idea of ‘church’ to include non-conventional forms of ministry (campus ministry, non-profits, on tap groups, etc).” Another sumarized this need, saying: “invest in the local church, focus less on ad campaigns and expensive meetings and more on the work of the people.”

Still more voices lifted up the need for justice-seeking local ministries: “quit trying to legislate for holiness and rather emphasize social holiness,” said one, and another, “go back to some of our roots of leading social change instead of following it.”

I was especially heartened by the numbers of people describing a need for deeper theological education and spiritual formation at all levels of the church. One participant wrote of the church’s need for “much more serious commitment to Wesleyan theological education. We need more curriculum based on theology AND context.” Another put it this way: “new emphasis on practical theology at local & general church level, a theology of ‘doing’ church-aka being the body of Christ.” This theological formation– from the grassroots up, not the top down!– impacts our entire way of being as a movement. Said one individual: “Return to Wesleyan tradition. more local autonomy, more Lay leadership, prevailing GRACE, full inclusion, I could go on.”

Very practical, short term suggestions called for the elimination of dashboard metrics tools: “Dashboards (obsession only with the quantitative) creates a distorted view of kingdom building that is consumer driven.” Others called for term limits for bishops and for delegates to General Conference. And of course, there was a call to reinstate the Conference Cookies.

One participant invited us to dream up “a radically different way to do GC2016. I have no idea what that looks like, but we need to start imagining now.”

Many goals were personal and connectional, speaking to the heart of what Methodism is, in my opinion. Some were general: “Encourage more collaboration & working together rather than fighting against each other.” Others much more personal: “I’d really like to be in meaningful conversation with our sisters and brothers in Central Conferences.” Still others focused on the #DreamUMC conversation itself as a place where change needs to happen: “reach out to my CC friends and people of color to make sure that the tweet chat has a wider range of voices.”

One person concluded with a simple goal, “Stop worrying about our fears….just do ministry….” I’ve found that at any level of ministry, this is the best advice.

Conclusion & Looking Ahead

For many of us, this conversation was only the beginning. As the hour drew to a close, people expressed joy and hope through the process, “It’s like a Holy Spirit wave!” one person wrote, and I agree. Another person wrote that Twitter gave them a whole new understanding of Pentecost, and I can’t help but see how much of this conversation, and the form in which it is happening, will shape my sermon for that holiday next week. I concluded the time feeling uplifted, hopeful, and heard (which is ironic, since as moderator, I kept most of my opinions to myself– a challenge for this raging extrovert). And I felt and feel deeply blessed to be part of a church and a movement filled with so many passionate people who love and serve Christ in radical, hope-filled, life-changing ways.

We plan to chat again in two weeks, on Monday May 28th, 9 pm eastern.

And as often as we need to in order to equip ourselves, organize our thoughts, and hold one another up in grace and hope.

Diary of a Delegate: in the end, Hope.

In the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box (from Hesiod’s Works and Days), Pandora opens a container from which all the world’s evils spill, never to be contained. But there is a glimmer of possibility, because last of all things in the box is the most powerful force: hope.

Perhaps for those of you who attended or followed General Conference with me, that’ll preach.

As my earlier posts attest, there were all manner of ills that spilled out of the box of General Conference, and by Friday morning I was counting down the hours until I could go home and plot my exit strategy from my beloved denomination. I could no longer live in a church that would silence voices, consolidate power, diminish grace, bargain away accountability, tread upon biblical interpretive lenses, and call my friends incompatible and worse.

But last out of the box, from a most unlikely place, hope.

The creative chaos that ensued after the Judicial Council struck down Plan UMC was a breath of fresh air. And we all know that breath, wind, and Spirit are the same, right? Ruah. Pastor Deb, from North Broadway UMC (a friend on Facebook) described it, saying, “Divine creation loves holy chaos. There was a Spirit of freedom in the room…” Indeed there was.

What was so perfect about that moment was that what we’d been feeling and saying all along was proven true: there actually is something inherently un-Methodist about consolidating power in the hands of a few, and people don’t tend to like big huge plans that are made without their voice and involvement, especially in a movement that was once upon a time so grassroots.

But we all agree– change is needed. And it’s clear now that this change can’t be hierarchical, can’t be made by one or two people behind closed doors, and can’t be limited to any particular group, with some token demographics thrown in. Change has to be transformational from the inside out, from the grassroots up. Change has to be transparent and invitational, with many voices at the table. Change has to be free and freeing.

And #dreamUMC was born.

All over twitter, this is what people were clamoring for. Young people, yes, but people of all ages. GLBTQ and allied people yes, but people from all demographics. Women, people of color, progressives, moderates (lovers of the Adam Hamilton Amendment, which I now call AHA), and yes, even some conservative caucasian looking males.

We all want a conversation about the future of the UMC, what it should look like, how it should be shaped, and how we get there. And we all want a voice in it. And the chaos in the void of a defunct plan gives us the space for the Spirit we need to have it.

This isn’t a young people thing. Oh sure, we’re kind of starting it, and it’s on twitter, which is our sandbox in many ways. But see, the thing is, we objected to plans that were made without our voices, so we’re not going to silence anyone else’s. And speaking as a progressive, I object to the marginalization of many unique voices; I’m not going to push aside a theologically diverse voice at this table.

Here’s where we will start: next Monday night at 9 pm Eastern time, we will have a TwitterChat. If you’ve never done this before, you just need to sign up for twitter and search the hashtag (that’s the little # followed by word/s) #dreamUMC. You may also want to follow the account @DreamUMC (you can also “like” us on Facebook). At 9 Eastern, we will have a prayer and then ask some questions for an hour. I’ll start with something like “what did you take away from this general conference?” Over time, with monthly chats, we hope to build a conversation around what is needed for the future. We may one day craft legislation or make a motion, but for now, we want to have a conversation– a conversation as big and broad as twitter can manage.

You’re invited. Whoever you are. We are trying to build a United Methodist Church that has room and freedom for all voices, and springs from the Spirit’s leadings. If that speaks to you, come speak with us.

We have a window, a light at the end of the tunnel, a sliver of hope at the end of all other things. This is the time to dream.

I close with some of aforementioned Pastor Deb’s observations, used with her permission:

  • The body has taken authority and the reformation of our structure will be driven by vitality at the congregational level that is contextual and incarnational. Vital congregations cannot be legislated, or mandated, or created by statistical reporting. The Spirit has begun to empower the people.
  • The attempt of a few people to write a plan for the whole denomination from their social location of power and privilege has been soundly refuted. We are a connectional church, and our connectional structure worked at a very critical moment in our life.
  • A great deal of time and money was wasted over the past 4 years by people preparing a plan that placed too much power in the hands of too few people. There was an arrogance on behalf of those who prepared this plan, and their efforts to exclude the voices of the less powerful did not prevail.
  • Those who support a church that fully affirms and includes GLBT persons will begin to live in disobedience to the formal authority of the church. 40 years is long enough to wait for permission to do the right thing. The pledge many of us made to uphold The Discipline while disagreeing with it will be refuted. It is time for organized, thoughtful, sacred disobedience.
  • There are young leaders in this church who have a better idea for restructuring and reformation. They’re already planning to meet on Twitter, (a radically open forum) and you can expect some enabling legislation from them at the 2016 G. C. Closed door deals between powerful people will not shape the church of the future.

It is a good time to be a United Methodist. I do not think it will be an easy time. The backlash will be fierce. But I do believe that the Spirit of God, free and radical and creative, might have captured again the heart of the people called United Methodist. I pray that many will join in “occupying” the church with risk taking, bar crossing, rule breaking ministry that brings the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ to many, many new people.

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