UMC, this is the moment.

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Committee of the Whole chairperson John Blackadar presents the recommendation, while Will Green, presenter of the resolution “Action of Non-Conformity…” stands ready (my photo).

I try not to be too dramatic. Okay, maybe I try not to be needlessly dramatic. But I’m convinced that with hindsight it will be clear: This is the moment that a new structure for an existing denomination– or an entirely new denomination– will begin its birth pangs. I hope it’s that first thing, hear me. In any case, this is the beginning of the re-formation of The United Methodist Church.

In my previous post, I laid out how we got to this place, the in-breaking of the Spirit and the reclaiming of relationships as foundational to who we are as United Methodists ministering in Christ’s example and image.

And here is where we are: The New England Annual (regional) Conference has voted by a supermajority to take an “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.” You can read an article about that here, which also includes a link to the text of the resolution, or check out the one from the denominational news source.

This is not an act of schism. It is what it says it is: an action of non-conformity. It is a principled, self-differentiated stance. It is a position being taken that says We are United Methodists, and we wish to remain United Methodists. We wish to follow Jesus and the Wesleyan heritage, theology, polity, and connection of The United Methodist Church, but we will not agree to harm or discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity while we do so. However, because it was taken as an Annual Conference as a whole, it has massive implications for the global system of The United Methodist Church. Here’s why.

The Annual Conference is the basic body of The United Methodist Church (Discipline para. 33, Article II of the UMC Constitution). It is the body that holds in trust the property and assets of The UMC within its bounds (Discipline para. 2501). So, while the New England Conference has said it will not conform to the discrimination enacted by the General Conference of The UMC, and while we fully expect this (the first item of it, at least) to be ruled against the Discipline by both the Bishop and the Judicial Council, what power is there to make this body come into alignment with The UMC denomination? The latter “is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office, or location.”  (Discipline para. 141). Who does? The Annual Conference.

I pray that the New England Annual Conference remains steadfast in this self-differentiated position, saying simply that this is how we must act if we are to do the ministry of Christ in our region. We are excited about living faithfully in this place as United Methodists. We do not wish to leave the denominational body of The United Methodist Church. Our process- and resolution-drafting team considered actions that would directly lead to that, and rejected them. However, if other parts of the body decide that there is no room for our principled dissent within The UMC, then we could be forced to leave, taking every. single. asset. with us. Every church building (even those whose congregations might disagree, unfortunately, because their buildings and assets are held by the Conference). Every investment. Every warm, beautiful, breathing body who will have us.

And I’ll bet a nice, juicy, Big Apple that the New York Annual Conference would vote to do the same. Maybe Baltimore-Washington, too. Maybe others in the Northeastern Jurisdiction (bigger regional body). And this leaves the Northeastern Jurisdiction in an entirely unsustainable place. We need one another to be functional, to be whole.

Therefore, it is in the best interest of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, which will have its once-every-four-years meeting in July, to consider taking a similar principled stance together. I will advocate for the Northeastern Jurisdiction to commit to similar non-conformity with the Book of Discipline‘s discriminatory paragraphs if it can. And I advocate that we definitely send to the Commission being formed by the Council of Bishops a clear proposal for structural change in The UMC– change that allows Jurisdictions to adapt the Discipline to better equip regional, contextual ministry. In the context of the Northeast, that means no longer being complicit in the harm The UMC inflicts upon people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This proposal needs to communicate that without such structural change, the Northeastern Jurisdiction can no longer function because it could lose two or more Annual Conferences in their entirety.

And I’ll bet a nice, crunchy bunch of farm-fresh kale that the Western Jurisdiction will send a similar statement, especially since two Annual Conferences there have already passed resolutions akin to the one in New England. Maybe some or all of the North Central Jurisdiction is in the same place. And this leaves the denomination in the United States– no, actually, the entire global connection of The United Methodist Church– in an unstable place. We need one another to be whole.

We need one another spiritually, as well as logistically. All those assets, all those people, all those apportionment dollars and mission dollars. In one quadrennium, how much time, talent, gifts, service, and witness do the Northeastern and Western Jurisdictions, and a handful of North Central conferences contribute to the administrative support of The UMC? To missions and disaster relief? To communications, and publications, and seminaries, and general agencies, and all the ministry of the denomination? Are we, the denomination, willing to sacrifice that collective strength and witness and work so that we can control who gets to sign marriage licenses for whom, whether or not a church can have a ministry that “promotes the acceptance of homosexuality,” and how an Annual Conference upholds the high standards it places on its candidates for ordination?

In this moment, I think we have a powerful opportunity as a church and as a movement. Jurisdictional Conferences have not yet met. My hope is that many Annual Conferences, and their Jurisdictions, will take a powerful, principled stance. Let us join together in saying We are United Methodists. We wish to remain United Methodists. We seek to follow Christ in our ministry in every time and place. And we will not be complicit in inflicting harm or discrimination upon LGBTQIA people as we do so. There must be room for this principled witness within The UMC, and we implore the church to find a way to make it so. Because we need one another to be whole.  

It is my sincere hope that this moment is not the beginning of a new denomination, but the beginning of a more nimble one, with enough contextual flexibility to allow conferences like New England to be self-differentiated and principled in our rejection of discrimination. Whether or not this is the case, it will play out over the next five years. Will the Bishops’ Commission return a proposal for missional, contextual structure realignment for the world-wide denomination? Will that proposal pass a special session of the General Conference? A full session? The process of being ratified in all the Annual Conferences? If it does, then a newly-formed United Methodist Church is already being created. If it does not, then there is a new denomination gestating in this moment, waiting to begin its birthing.

How did we get here?

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Beloved friends and colleagues (Jamie Michaels and Cynthia Good) gift me with sackcloth and ashes in an act of repentance Thursday morning. Photo by Beth DiCoco, NEAC Communications

The New England Annual (regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church experienced a watershed moment this week– so many watershed moments that it’s clear this is not a moment, but a movement. I speak not only of the passage of an Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of our denomination, but of the whole way of doing Conference. Our agenda took significant hits, with some important presentations and actions cut and some significantly restricted and rushed, but this was because we took time to listen to one another, to tell stories and hold pain.

Most of the time at Conference was spent in out-of-order witnessing and truth-telling, circle process conversations about our identity as Methodists (and for some of us, about ways forward we could imagine for the church), discussion as a Committee of the Whole* without the pressure of a binding vote, and many instances before session was called to order, in clergy session, and in the full session, where people stood at the microphone surrounded by allies and voiced pain and hope and called the church to greater justice.

It’s beautiful and powerful, and I feel like I’m part of a real Conference body again, one that puts relationships over power, and process over outcome. But how did we get here?

Like so many watershed moments, this moment arises out of deep pain. The devastation that progressive Methodists felt and feel in the wake of General Conference cannot be ignored. Some held out, waiting to see if this GC would be different (and it was; it was worse). Some have slender hope in the Bishops’ Commission bringing a proposal that will structurally allow flexibility (in a minimum of two years). But for most, May 21 found us with aching hearts and spirits, wondering if there was a place, with integrity, for us in a denomination where delegates advocated for abusing children for the disobedience of being gay, used false information from the podium to withdraw from protecting women’s access to comprehensive health care, committed to making sure the denomination followed the Bible alone (a profound rejection of Wesleyan lenses of tradition, reason, and experience mediating the scripture), and proposed that the church endorse curriculum that only teaches creationism.

But that pain and confusion paled in comparison to the agony for queer and/or Latina/o/x Methodists the morning of June 12. And like many religious bodies, The UMC was forced to admit that there is a connection, a direct correlation, between institutions like ours that dehumanize queer people and people of color, that call homosexuality “incompatible” with Christian teaching, that have legacies of segregation and oppression of people of color… and the festering hatred that would motivate the shooter in the Pulse nightclub. With the blood of fifty people (that we know about, because there are so many more) on our hands as the Conference session began, we could not even repent, because we had not begun to stop the harm we ourselves create.

So we interrupted it. And that broke something open. And it can’t be the same anymore.

Once broken open, relationships, listening, love took over, and like toothpaste from the proverbial tube, couldn’t be put back away. Not only was the harm to LGBTQIA persons named, and the Conference asked to hold that pain and take action to stop that harm, but likewise the harm to people of color, to specific groups and caucuses and bodies like the Asian Commission, to women, to people based on age, to folks in the theological minority, to individuals. It was a sacred gathering, and a prophetic one.

On the specifically pro-inclusion actions of the Annual Conference: 

For almost two full hours Thursday morning, before the session could be called to order, LGBTQ Methodists and allies held the floor and poured out grief and agony and anger, and listened to one another, and came out fearfully and yet to thundering applause, and wept, and demanded of one another action. Later that same day, a time for circle-process conversation, which had been previously planned, allowed space for a group to form outside the main hall and have another conversation. That group also followed the circle process, passing a cross as a talking stick, naming what we were feeling and listening to one another. And then we discussed what we could offer to the Conference. The whole body was crying out for action, but what action could we take? We discussed actions that would equate to schism, and decided not to propose those actions. Instead, offered an opportunity to share with the Bishop and Conference leadership our way forward, we focused on four points:

  1. non-conformity with the specific sections of The United Methodist Book of Discipline that discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity
  2. refusal to hold or participate in church judicial procedures related to the above
  3. insisting that all clergy and employee couples/families receive the medical/retirement benefits for which they are eligible, regardless of the sexes or genders of the partners
  4. committing funds away from the discrimination named in 1 and 2 and into cultural competency training and advocacy to dismantle racism and homophobia

A small group met with the Bishop and named these four points, and came up with the process of using the Roberts Rules Easter Egg, “Committee of the Whole” to proceed. This particular process was proposed by my partner, Sean, and he shared some fascinating ways it had been used, including in the old New Hampshire Conference, to facilitate the discussion and eventual passage of a resolution for abolition. Meanwhile, another small group drafted language for the resolution itself, which I, ever the secretary to the revolution, wrote out in a shared document, and then other fast-acting folks arranged to have copied for the plenary.

The process allowed us to discuss the resulting resolution without the pressure of a binding vote on Thursday night, where it was overwhelmingly recommended back to the Annual Conference. Friday morning and into the afternoon it was debated and amended before its final passage.

What comes next is that this watershed moment has impact across The United Methodist connection. It’s not just those here in New England who will never be the same.

With the caveat that I can’t remember everyone ad don’t want to offend, I’ll try to give shout out to the vast team that worked on these pieces (let me know if i left you out):
Thursday morning action: Lindsay F, Johnathan R-C, Steve D, and countless speakers like Allen, Sara, Justin, Cherlyn, Val…, with special props to Vicki W, Casey C, Rachael F, Sean D, and others for their truth-telling. Cynthia G, Kim K and others for the burlap stoles.
Circle process team: Dodie S and gasp i can’t remember facilitating, about 15-20 people participating.
Process planning with conference leadership: Will G, Sean D, Kevin N, Julie T, Vicki W.
Resolution writing team: me, Kathryn J, Kevin N, Stuart L.

* Asked on Facebook why we used the Committee of the Whole process, my friend Will Green explained it well:

We could have done this in session. We could have immediately suspended the rules and gone for it right away. I’ll share a few reasons I thought the approach we took was a good idea… Becoming a Committee of the Whole allowed us to 1) protect the Bishop from having to preside over our Conference discussing whether or not to follow the Discipline (instead he was presiding over debate on the recommendation of a committee) 2) have a discussion during which people could not amend the resolution, thus creating space for a cleaner conversation 3) have conversation prior to having a binding vote 4) take the closest thing to a straw poll that Robert’s Rules will allow 5) keep us from having to limit the number of speeches (which again could have been done with suspension of rules), 6) on a symbolic level, make a tribute to our forebears in the New Hampshire Annual Conference who used this same procedure to find a way to debate the abolition of slavery when a Bishop would not allow it (not that OUR Bishop was saying this, but there is precedent for past Bishops blocking us from acting on resolutions that they feel go against the Discipline)… That was my general thinking anyway, but there were many other ways we could have handled this.

Only Love Can Do That

FullSizeRenderSaturday night, I had an experience that I can only describe as something between a conversion and an affirmation, while sitting (briefly) on the floor of the Church & Society 2 legislative committee. Grace at General Conference? I know.

I came in as a substitute for my friend and a member of our delegation, LaTrelle, who had given her all as the chair of the most challenging sub-committee at General Conference (no exaggeration). After presenting all of her committee’s legislation with all she had, she tagged out, and as a reserve who has spent months and months studying the legislation of this committee, I was able to step in for the last 40 minutes of the session.

I knew there was a chance that the committee would address a proposed resolution that utilized very bad theology to enforce extreme gender binaries and diminish the identity and humanity of transgender persons who transgress those binaries. I had done some research to help prepare others to speak to it, and really hoped it wouldn’t come up. But sure enough, it came to the committee floor with the recommendation of the subcommittee, and with not a lot of hope that it would be turned down. My hand shot up immediately, and I carried my notes to the mic. My speech was not recorded, but this is my best re-creation:

My name is Becca Girrell, and I am a clergy reserve delegate from the New England Annual Conference. I paused, a long, deep sigh of a breath. Something shifted inside me. 

I urge you to vote against this appalling resolution. Petition 60845 is harmful, unloving, and unchristian.

I have come prepared. I could tell you all about how this resolution stands in direct contrast to what we say about gender in the Social Principles; there we say that no gender is superior to or inferior to another. I could tell you about how this resolution stands in direct contrast to the message of Jesus, how by inserting hurtful language specifically directed at an already oppressed and marginalized group of people, we are standing in exactly the opposite place as where Jesus stands, which is always for, and more importantly with, the marginalized. I have come prepared with statistics about suicide rates and violence and the murder of transgender people, statistics meant to shock you and sway you, and I can tell you all about the brutality inflicted on transgender persons.

But I’m not going to tell you about any of that. I sighed again, breath. I put my notes down and held the mic even closer. I smiled, and the smile lingered on my lips. 

Instead, I want to tell you about my family.

I want to tell you about all the fun and all the love my family shares. I want to tell you about my two children from my previous marriage. And I want to tell you about my husband, my best friend, the love of my life, my friend of more than a decade. He’s an adult convert to Christianity and to Methodism. He is gifted and called. And I know I am biased, but he is the most gentle, loving, unassuming, grace-filled, spirit-led, passionately-Methodist, magnificent person I have ever known.

He is also transgender. Silence. 

I am not confused about that. My children are not confused about that. And I assure you, my husband is not confused about that. He knows who he is. He knows, through and through, that he is created in God’s own image, as we all are. He knows and has claimed– and here I do need my notes, because this is a direct quote from paragraph 161 E of the Social Principles– the right every person must have, to the opportunities and freedom for ethical self-determination. I looked up as I put down my notes again. I could see the observation section, the silent, rainbow-clad people on their feet, and Sean seated in the front row, his hand lifted in the simple sign for ‘I love you.’ 

Language like this resolution denies the humanity of people like my husband. It inflicts harm on people like him, and on families like mine, by suggesting confusion and inferiority where there is none. I urge you to vote no on this dangerous, divisive, and harmful petition.

I returned to my seat in the silent room, my eyes dry, my breath calm. No one spoke. The chair called for the vote. Petition defeated, by seven votes.

There are many, many times– maybe even most times– at General Conference, when I am tempted to lead with the righteous anger or the indignant confusion, or the cold, brutal statistics that I think should sway people. There is a tightness in the chest then, and tears of anguish or rage or all of the above. But this time, I led with something else. I breathed into a fathomless Breath that Pentecost-Eve. And I breathed out love.

Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing less than the endless, unconditional, mutual love that my partner and I share. Nothing less than the raw, open vulnerability of my own humanness, my own belovedness. Nothing less than a call to the heart, my heart, their hearts. Nothing less than the plea to see one single beautiful transgender person through the eyes of their loved one.

Maybe it was only this one time. Maybe it’s dangerous to believe that it works. But no one seemed to expect the vote to go the way it did. Everything similar was about a ten vote margin in the other direction. For three minutes, one Pentecost-Eve, love won.

And if I can choose to lead from love that one time, however subconsciously, however unintentionally, if I can risk my own vulnerability enough and be wide-open enough that all I show is love, if I can trust that love will be the only force that can break through and transform and leave me dry-eyed and calm in the midst of a storm of ignorance and fear… then I could choose that again. And again. And again.

Something whispers, you know this. This is what the Gospel is. This is what is sacred. This is the only path, the only Way. Only love. 

Hate cannot drive out hate, Dr, King says. And maybe it can’t sway votes, either– nor can anger or statistics or the righteous indignation of my own denied humanity. Only love can do that. Only love.

A Letter to NH Governor Hassan

friends, hug, b+wOn Monday, Governor Maggie Hassan (NH), issued this statement through her communications director: “The Governor believes that the federal government should halt acceptance of refugees from Syria until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees, including those from Syria, is as strong as possible to ensure the safety of the American people.”
As a concerned citizen, as a Christian, as the New England Annual Conference chair of the Conference Board of Church & Society, I wrote this letter to the Governor, signed by twelve United Methodist clergy in New Hampshire. An abbreviated version will also be appearing in the Valley News in the next few days. The letter is being sent by mail, and by a link to this post, to the Office of the Governor. 

—–

Dear Governor Hassan,

As United Methodist faith leaders in the State of New Hampshire, we write to urge you to reconsider your position, which calls upon the federal government to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees within the United States and, by extension, our state.

We want to thank you for your deep concern for the safety of the residents of the U.S. and of New Hampshire in particular. As one of our elected leaders, it is clear that you take your responsibility to public safety seriously and thoughtfully, and you are to be commended for that.

There comes a time, however, when the cries and the suffering of our siblings in the human family cannot be ignored or denied; our response cannot be delayed or deferred. Recognizing the unity and interdependence of humanity, we are obligated to respond from the greatest parts of ourselves, not from the fears which would restrain us. These are the very fears on which terrorism seeks to prey.

It is fear that would check our compassion, fear that causes us to withhold our welcome. As a nation, our process for screening and evaluating those seeking amnesty as refugees already is thorough and arduous. Halting the resettlement of refugees to re-examine that process, at this moment when the need is so great, is a fear-based reaction that delays justice—and justice delayed too long becomes justice denied.

But fear does not have the final say. There is another way: the way of love. Love drives out fear. Loves sees the children and adults fleeing violent regimes as our own children, parents, siblings, friends. Love moves individuals to open their homes, schools to open their classrooms, faith communities to open their piles of donated clothing and household goods, and yes, government bodies to open their borders. Love refuses to sleep at night in the “Land of Opportunity” while huddled masses of people yearning to breathe free are held back behind miles of red tape. Love refuses to enter a season of celebration—of community, of family, of the presence of the Divine with us—while those most in need of that embrace are told there is no room for them at any inn.

As we prepare in our communities for even the possibility of receiving refugees, we find in fact that we are drawn closer to one another—faith communities, service organizations, public institutions, and individuals work collaboratively to extend hospitality and welcome in our homes, towns, and regions. The people of New Hampshire are strengthened by this work, not diminished. We are at our best, strongest, most resilient, most connected, and most compassionate selves when we are working together for the good of others.

Governor, we hope and we pray that you will continue your deep care for the well being of the people of New Hampshire, and will extend that same, unrelenting compassion and passion for justice to those who are not yet among us. We hope that you will be moved by love beyond the fears pressing around us, and will boldly lead our State in wise, thoughtful, open-hearted welcome to those refugees who seek, like all of us, to live in safety and peace.

Sincerely,

Rev. Rebecca Girrell
chair, New England Conference Board of Church & Society
pastor, Lebanon United Methodist Church

Rev. Dr. David Abbott, New Hampshire District Superintendent,
New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

Pastor Marilyn Ayer
pastor, Chichester United Methodist Church

Rev. Sharon Baker
pastor, Moultonborogh United Methodist Church

Rev. Casey Collins
pastor, Milford United Methodist Church

Rev. Virginia Fryer
pastor, Bow Mills United Methodist Church

Rev. Tom Getchell-Lacey
pastor, First United Methodist Church of Gilford

Rev. Barbara Herber
United Methodist clergy, retired, Gilford

Rev. Philip Polhemus
United Methodist clergy, retired, Meredith

(and 3 other active and retired United Methodist clergy in the state of New Hampshire)

Signing this online version:

Rev. Geisa Matos-Machuca
pastor, First United Methodist Church, Manchester

 

Sermon: Crumbled Grace

ash wed“Crumbled Grace”

(September 6, 2015) A woman came to Jesus, begging for healing for her child, and she was Syrian… I mean, Syrophoenician. Dare we believe, even in the face of global crisis, that the smallest act of love, the smallest scrap of grace, makes a difference? (Mark 7:24-37)

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.

Reflecting on the Social Principles Consultation

My notes on the "Nurturing Community" section.

My notes on the “Nurturing Community” section.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to the offices of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church. There I participated in a Consultation on the Social Principles, one of eight planned meetings “to consider a process about how to make the United Methodist Social Principles more succinct, theologically founded and globally relevant.”

At these consultations, participants looked at the Social Principles– statements The UMC makes on various topics (read the text online here) in small groups and asked:

  1. What role do the current Social Principles play in enhancing the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church?
  2. How much or how well have the current Social Principles served to empower mission and ministry in your geographical area?
  3. What might globally relevant Social Principles look like?

The consultations in Washington were live streamed and recorded, and you can view much of them online at this channel. I can’t find the place where we discussed marriage, sexuality, and abortion, so I can’t link directly to that. If you’d like to hear me rattle off on some other stuff, you could jump to 57:00 in the 1/16 11 am session (ecology), 19:55 in the 1/17 morning session (corporate responsibility), or 28:55 in the 1/17 afternoon session 2 (restorative justice). Although for my money, the winner for the whole consultation was Sunny’s “Social Principles for Texans” in that same video, 34:30.

It’s actually fairly easy to summarize what our group in particular and I believe the consultation overall thought about these questions.

1. What role do the current Social Principles play in enhancing the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church?

On almost every issue, we felt that the ministry and mission of The United Methodist Church were enhanced by the Social Principles because they indicate that our church says something about important challenges in our world. We gave thanks that ours is a church that clearly and emphatically opposes the death penalty, that defines abuse as verbal, psychological, and sexual in addition to physical, that calls for just economic practices and so on. However, in nearly every social principle, we found ways in which the ministry and mission of The UMC was harmed by either not being strong enough on a position, by being too United-States-centric, or by using language and upholding positions that are hurtful and inflict harm on people.

2. How much or how well have the current Social Principles served to empower mission and ministry in your geographical area?

Again, on almost every issue, individuals could point to examples of using the Social Principles to educate and advocate in their contexts. We heard from one another about opposition to gambling, calling out usurious lending, advocating for organized labor, and on and on. We gave thanks for the 1908 Social Creed of The UMC, and the rich history of our denomination in the struggle for justice in labor and economics particularly. Again, however, we also heard examples of places where the Social Principles have undermined local ministries, most notably and predictably, by driving away and harming LGBTQ persons in our communities and circles of beloved ones.

3. What might globally relevant Social Principles look like?

Our first and simplest answer to this question: SHORTER. Our group felt that in order for the Social Principles to be relevant worldwide, they would need to

  • Be shorter— less is more
  • Name values (principles), not behaviors (positions)
  • Be positively worded— state what we believe, not what we oppose or fear
  • Be statements that incorporate theology and human dignity we can’t just re-state a universal statement of human rights, but say something unique to us as people of faith
  • Contain only that which is applicable cross-culturally or world-wide

We do feel that this is possible, and that there is much The United Methodist Church specifically can say about most or all of the issues named in the Social Principles. In addition, the current Social Principles contain specifics about living out these principles (where we manage to articulate them) in ways that are contextual. As I describe at 32:45 in this session, our group suggests that we have this shorter, worldwide set of principles and then hopefully many books of resolutions (The UMC currently has one Book of Resolutions), specific to different contexts and cultures, including United States’ culture(s), which are contextually written, time-specific, and give relevant examples.

Finally, it is important to note that the goal of these Consultations is not to amend or re-write any of the Social Principles. The feedback from these Consultations is being summarized and crafted into a proposal to the next General Conference (in Portland, OR, in spring of 2016), to then develop a plan for how to update, amend, or re-write the Social Principles. Yes, we all just love the glacial rate at which institutional change happens. Fortunately, nothing stops any United Methodist anywhere in the connection from writing and submitting their suggestions for re-writes and changes. My experience at the Consultation convinced me of the need for shorter, values- and theology- driven, positively stated, world-wide relevant re-writes to each and every Social Principle. 

So I’ll be over here, working on just that.