I love Annual Conference.
No, really. I always have. I love gathering with laity and clergy from the New England region, reflecting together on what it means to be faithful United Methodists in this time and place, praying and worshipping together, caring for the life and order of our church together, laughing and crying and singing and venting– it can be a bit of a Holy Chaos, but usually one somehow imbued with the Spirit.
This year was different. This year was like nothing I have ever seen.
The theme of our Conference was “Circle of Hope,” but we did not spend much time united in a circle, and I’m sure there are not many who left Manchester NH with much hope on Saturday. Instead, I came home with baggy, bloodshot eyes from days of tears (and not just the usual ones at the memorial and ordination services) and a throat hoarse from the many, many times I jumped to my feet and exclaimed “point of order!”
It seems like my colleagues, friends, allies new and old, and justice-loving circle of Methodists did a lot of exclaiming. There was much to exclaim about. The universal consensus seems to be that the worship was good (it was– the memorial service may have been the best ever), and that the business was horrible. There may also be a consensus that Becca and her friends were too loud, too engaged, too emotional, too often at the microphones, dragging out the business and discussion and amendments during the frustrating conference. I’m getting a lot of that feedback, Monday-morning-quarterbacking style.
But looking back, I can’t think of anything I’d change. I didn’t do all the things, but I was at the mic a lot, and my friends and I together made up most of the speakers at this year’s session.
Together, here’s what we did (skip the bullet list if this gives you a headache– more reflections below):
- We objected when the rules about voting were changed verbally to be other than what they were in writing (and questioned why and how this happened), especially since this change would have made it easier to “bullet vote,” a politicized way of voting for fewer persons than there are slots on the ballot, to drive one name toward the top without lifting up any others– this also comes with the suggestion that maybe there are only one or two people in the entire Annual Conference that the voter feels would be adequate to serve on a General Conference Delegation. The rules were suspended eventually and the more just (pre-published) rule of having to vote for a full slate was reinstated.
- We insisted upon discussion rather than a simple rubber stamp when the Conference Camping and Retreat Ministry Team reported on the painful recommendation to close Covenant Hills in Vermont– a decision made without input from a single Vermont United Methodist nor a single youth. We successfully tabled the motion to close the camp, but it was brought back, and we spoke against the misrepresentation of data under which the motion was reconsidered, the vote re-taken, and the camp discontinued. We offered amendments– in vain– to the way proceeds from a hypothetical sale of a camp would be used (a totally unrelated resolution, we were assured), to try to assure that a majority of funds would be designated for some sort of camping or youth ministry in the area of the camp that was sold.
- We objected when the Committee on Nomination/Leadership was gutted down to only the members of the Cabinet (for non-UM speakers: the Bishop and District Superintendents– clergy who already hold the vast majority of the power in the conference, including decision-making power over where other clergy are appointed) and the lay leader and nine lay people selected by the lay leader. This is the team that would then choose the next lay leader, and fill all the memberships of teams and committees in the entire conference. This change was approved with some sneaky moves last year, but never came with any corresponding changes to the rules. So we insisted instead that the rules which were in place had to be followed and that therefore Nomination/Leadership had to be the work of the (primarily lay) people of the conference, with massive representation from people chosen by their own racial/ethnic caucus to represent them, and could contain no more than two of the nine District Superintendents. That team did some excellent and fast work by the way.
- We passed a handful of legislation seeking to make the church and the world more just. One piece of legislation will make the lay leader and associate lay leaders elected positions with open nominations, voted upon by only lay people. For some reason, more powerful clergy people objected even to this.
- When it appeared that we would not have enough time for all the business before us (this was the shortest ever agenda for our Annual Conference, in a year with more, and more emotionally laden [ie camp closure] business than usual), we moved to consider an extra session, but that was tabled until a set time to see how much progress we made. That time mark came and went, the motion for an extra session not brought back as promised, and then a motion was taken to adjourn. We objected to the broken promise. Eventually we– along with more than half of the room full of exhausted frustrated people– voted (twice) against adjourning while there was an open motion on the floor, because process matters.
And that’s the thing. Robert’s Rules exist to protect the body from bad process, and to make sure that there is space for the discussion that needs to happen, empowerment for the voices that need to be lifted. Not everyone can navigate the rules or pull their thoughts together quickly. I have had dozens of people thank me profusely for speaking up because they were intimidated or didn’t know how, for holding us accountable and making sure the process was transparent. Yep, that’s my liberal agenda right there! It didn’t get me elected to General Conference this time (first alternate to Jurisdictional Conference), and that’s okay. It is still the cause of justice.
I’ve also had people critique me, scowl at me, offer veiled and unveiled criticism of me for knowing and using the rules and for being passionate and emotional about the many issues I spoke to. These folks are mostly part of the power of the conference leadership, while the ones thanking me are mostly the shy or marginalized folks.
But if you ask me, being emotional is not a bad thing (although it’s often a mechanism used to undercut the otherwise valid points of people who are marginalized due to their race/gender/sexuality, ala the hysterical woman, the angry black woman, the crying sissy boy)– in fact, it is an important part of what it means to be United Methodist, in the tradition of having one’s heart strangely warmed. And knowing and using the rules of order doesn’t make one Machiavellian (especially when it comes at personal loss), but makes one a good keeper of the order of the church in pursuit of greater justice, which happens to be a pretty decent paraphrase of part of the role of an Ordained Elder.
So, in case there’s still confusion:
Every time someone sidesteps or over-steps the marginalized, every time someone stifles holy conversation or the ministry of lay persons, every time someone uses the order given us not to guide and protect but to circumvent and then consolidate power and privilege, every time someone allows prayer or a call to follow Jesus to be hurtful rather than to build up the body, I will be there– objecting, amending, opining, and advocating. Every. Time.
I took a vow to “lead the people of God… to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people.” I took a vow to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” I am not overly emotional, or seeking attention, or overly ambitious, or just being obnoxious. I am an Elder in The United Methodist Church.