Broken Circles, Shattered Hope

Our worship setting - photo from Marcia McFee's Facebook

Our worship setting – photo from Marcia McFee’s Facebook

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.
Me and my friend Will before the Ordination Service. I may have cried earlier that day...

Me and my friend Will before the Ordination Service. I may have cried earlier that day…

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.

An Invitation from the New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church

Here is the full text of the motion I made, as amended and adopted by the 2014 session of the New England Annual Conference:

An Invitation

The New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church strives to be an inclusive conference that celebrates, develops, and affirms God-given gifts for lay and ordained ministry. We commend our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry in their work of discerning wisely, fairly, and prayerfully the readiness and effectiveness of those seeking to be accepted as candidates, commissioned as provisional members, and ordained as deacon or elder.

Whereas, we oppose all forms of personal bias and discrimination, including institutionalized discrimination written into our Book of Discipline, as criteria in evaluating potential clergy members, even as we confess our complicity in systems of exclusion;

Therefore, be it resolved, that the New England Annual Conference affirms the following statement:

We believe God calls all persons to lay, and sometimes LLP, Associate Member and ordained ministry. We grieve instances of systemic discrimination, prejudice, and unjust practices that cloud the discernment of this call within The United Methodist Church. The New England Annual Conference extends our invitation to people who wish to explore if their call to ministry might be affirmed and/or lived out in the New England Annual Conference.

While we do not promise to accept such persons into candidacy or membership, we do promise to discern in the Spirit with justice, fairness, and consistent standards to the best of our ability, and we entrust our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry to act accordingly.

Be it further resolved, that the New England Annual Conference encourages its churches, Board of Ordained Ministry, and/or District Committees on Ordained Ministry, upon request from a candidate/potential member, or an individual inquiring on their behalf, to extend a written invitation to individual ordination candidates or potential members, inviting them to apply for membership in the New England Annual Conference, in accordance with Disciplinary and Annual Conference requirements.

In the 18+ hours since this motion was adopted, I have already been moved and amazed by the statements of relief, thanksgiving, and joy from those who have been marginalized and harmed by The United Methodist Church. I’m thankful to have been part of this action of the Conference, and hope and pray that this might be the beginning of a new chapter for New England, for those living at the margins, and for The United Methodist Church. Justice and joy, friends!  – Becca


A Call for In-Home Separation

house dividedPerhaps I thrive in what others call “broken homes.” Not that I’ve had a lot of choice in the matter. A child of one divorce and a participant in another, it seems that separation is just part of my life. I can rage against it or not, but it simply is.

I live in a church home that’s divided too.

The United Methodist Church, like so many others, seems on the brink of another schism, this one over questions of homosexuality: whether open and partnered gay and lesbian persons can be ordained and serve as pastors, and whether United Methodist clergy and churches can participate in the blessing of “same-sex” (whatever we eventually decide that means) weddings. Recently, 80 mostly-anonymous traditional clergy people called for an amicable separation of the denomination, citing, like any good celebrity, irreconcilable differences. Responses have included people pledging unity, recalling the importance of honoring our vows, and calls for staying together no matter what, for the sake of our children (our ministries/the people being served by ministries).

Painful as it is for me to flog to death the metaphor of marriage and divorce, having traveled that road myself, there is something that I think we can learn from couples and families who try to live in their differences together as a way of avoiding, or of discerning in the lead up to, divorce:

The value of in-home separation.

For some couples, there are just a few things that they simply cannot talk about, work out, or engage in together, yet their shared resources, family, and life together might still work well. These couples opt for an in-home separation, sometimes as a time to work on their differences and attempt to come to reconciliation together, sometimes to remain in the same space while they do something for a time (like raise children, or run a business together), and sometimes when reconciliation fails, as a stepping stone to more literal separation. This typically involves some shared space and some individual space, and a set of agreed upon guidelines.

Before we file the papers for the Great Divorce of The UMC, I’d call us to deeply consider how we might live together in one home, in the midst of our divisions. As Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck writes, “Having watched countless couples work for an amicable separation, it doesn’t look like too many can pull it off when it just involves two people, much less 11 million.” Perhaps it’s worth it to try for something less than full separation, at least at this time. I think there are several ways to accomplish this (and that’s fodder for plenty more blog posts), but to me the most promising involve the creation of an United States (or Jurisdictional) Central Conference/s, and a two-volume Book of Discipline, with the option of emending the second volume in each Central Conference. Kind of a way, I hope, of holding together those things we do well– our ministry and mission, our Social Principles (SOME of them– I’ll get to that), our ways of funding and equipping local ministries across the globe– and allowing one another the grace and space to carry out our ministries in our contexts. As Wesley would say, in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.

How and when does in-home separation work well?

  • When all parties agree to it (this could take some time to accomplish)
  • When there are agreed-upon, possibly mediated, guidelines about whose space is whose (like which powers belong to General, Central, Jurisdictional, and Annual Conferences) and how those guidelines will be respected
  • When there is the possibility to put on hold conversations or arguments that the parties know they can’t resolve now. If a couple cannot discuss sex without screaming at one another in front of the children, then they need to take a break from discussing it outside of the structured counseling/mediation setting until they grow up have some new perspective.

When is in-home separation not a good idea?

  • When abuse is present.
    And I think we need to ask ourselves if such an in-home separation is possible, because in the church, the maltreatment of LGBTQ persons is abusive and dangerous. Many persons who are LGBTQ and allies have already left the “home” to escape the abuse suffered there– in local churches, in Conference structures, in the Social Principles– and avoiding all conversation while the patterns of abuse remain unchallenged serves the abuser, not the abused. Can an in-home separation be wide enough to create space for safety? Can there still be conversation to address, call to question, and begin to change the unjust and harmful dynamics of this relationship? I hope and pray it’s not too late. I hope and pray we stop yelling long enough to find out.

What do you think? Can we children of a broken home give one another the space to live together?

Sermon: Loved Much

Members of the Conference join the preacher in song. Photo by Rosemary McNulty

Members of the Conference join the preacher in song. Photo by Rosemary McNulty

“Loved Much”

(June 16, 2013) The scandalous actions of the unnamed woman at the feast reminds us that all are welcome in Jesus’ presence, and all invited to pour out all our grief and loss, and bring our full selves, that we may be made well. (Luke 7:36-8:3)

With gratitude to Bishop Devadhar, Pastor Rebecca Lambert, Rev. Dr. Jungsun Oh, and the people of the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church


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.

A Year Ago…

Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS

Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS

A year ago, I broke a loaf of bread.

A year ago, grace again was shortchanged, voices again were silenced, division again went unnamed.

A year ago, hearts broken and sealed and scarred over were broken again in places familiar and new.

A year ago, the Body of Christ was broken.

And so I broke a loaf of bread.

I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t my action.

It was the action of a body, a community, a family, a Christ. Wounded and hopeful, hurting and despairing, fragmented and one.

A year ago, as we always are, we were broken.

And we broke bread together.

And I was broken open.

Somehow, some way, this breaking of bread– something I do at least once a month, something I  participated in thousands of times– somehow this changed me.

I found, in the breaking and sharing of bread, in the reflection on the chaos and frustration and agony and fragile hope of General Conference, a deeper sense of my calling.

A year ago, I was broken open. A year ago, I was called anew.

I set my feet on another path. A path running parallel, or nearly so. A path to someplace deeper.

I found a depth of passion I didn’t know I had. I renewed a sense of vision and purpose that had dried up and hardened, like our scarred-over yet fragile hearts.

Lifting the broken Body of Christ, tears in my eyes. Photo by UMNS

Lifting the broken Body of Christ, tears in my eyes. Photo by UMNS

From that place of brokenness, or broke-open-ness, life could never be, entirely, the same.

Seeping up from the cracks was a need to advocate for deeper justice, to live with deeper conviction, to delve more fully into faith an ministry and compassion and peace.

I spoke out when injustice happened. In my denomination. In my church. In my home.

I spoke my true heart. I said the hard things. I let myself feel what I was feeling.

A year ago, Someone broke down my defenses, demolished my protections and stumbling blocks (and made it harder to tell which were which).

And in the past year I have watched a new movement grow. I have witnessed the elation of church doing it right and the crushing betrayal of getting it so wrong. I have relived the pain of the past and envisioned hope and purpose for tomorrow. I have been a better pastor, and Methodist, and person of faith. I have struggled more deeply and trusted more fully, or really, really tried to.

In the past year, I have found my truer self, uncovered pain and vulnerability I didn’t know I had and tapped a depth of strength I didn’t know existed. I have seen my children grieve, and let them surprise me with their resilience. I have mourned the loss of love. I have celebrated it in new and beautiful places. I have seen cruelty in ways I never imagined, and received compassion from unexpected sources. I’ve made friends who changed my life. I’ve lost friends who had touched it deeply. I have shattered all my understandings, and learned from life what grows out of that rubble.

All because of a loaf of bread.

A year ago, Christ’s Body was broken.

And when we take hold of that reality, it takes hold of us. When we lift up the pieces of the bread, the body, the world, broken and wounded, we are lifting up parts of ourselves. When we live into the broken places, we find ourselves in them, seeking transformation and new birth and needed healing.

A year ago, I broke a loaf of bread.

A year ago, I didn’t know how broken I was, or how broken open I could be.

A year ago, I broke the Body of Christ. And Christ broke me open too.

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.


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