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…

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