(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)
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.
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:
- What role do the current Social Principles play in enhancing the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church?
- How much or how well have the current Social Principles served to empower mission and ministry in your geographical area?
- 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.
This week, I am heading for Washington, D.C., to the United Methodist Building. Did you know that The United Methodist Church owns a building next door to the Supreme Court? We do, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s the home of The UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, and there I will be receiving some training for my role as the Chairperson of the Annual (regional) Conference version of that same body, and then attending a Consultation on the Social Principles.
It’s that latter part of the trip that has me very excited.
The UMC’s Social Principles are not church law, but rather the denomination’s statements of reflection and position on issues of social justice or concern in the world. The United Methodist Church, a global denomination, struggles to agree upon and live out such important statements in a widely diverse and multi-cultural global context. Recognizing this, the 2012 General Conference entrusted the Board of Church and Society to develop a process and a set of recommendations for reimagining the Social Principles in a 21st-century, global context. These consultations, held all over the world, are bringing together members of The UMC to pray, discern, reflect, and dialogue together about how we might live into that calling in this time.
I’m excited and honored to be a part of this conversation. I think it is a hopeful and necessary step in our denomination’s role as a vital and relevant denomination today. If we are to continue as a church, we must be connected to the justice concerns of our time, in a way that is sustainable, contextually relevant, and grounded in our heritage and theology as United Methodists.
But it’s more than that. I believe that conversations along these lines hold some of the answers to the debates within the denomination. My experience at the 2012 General Conference on the reproductive rights subcommittee taught me something amazing: when people of diverse opinions gather, hear one another, share deeply, and then turn their hearts to what they can agree upon on a very controversial issue, God’s work is done. We found, every time we tried to proscribe local, contextual action about abortion, that we were unable to agree. But every time we articulated what we values and believed about human life, parents, babies, families, and so on, we could agree. Around the world, across the political divides, we were united in our convictions and principles, but divided on how those played out. And if our polity (church governance) structure allowed us to live in this way, I believe we could be both more united as a body, and more contextually nimble and relevant to carry out ministry in all times and places.
This week, I am praying for vision for The United Methodist Church, and for new hope and connection as we gather and dream and discuss and discern. In invite you to join in that prayer.
(December 7, 2014) The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God speaks comfort to us first and foremost, while we wait for justice to unfold. In a time when we see much need for justice and healing around us, let us not rush to DO something to try to fix it, but hear and give comfort as we can, so we can better face the darkness around us. (Isaiah 40:1-11)
At the conclusion of the sermon, I played Mark Miller’s new song, “How Long?“
(November 30, 2014 – First Sunday of Advent) In the wake of more racial injustice, and in the face of pandemic illnesses, what does it mean to hold out hope? Can we hear the sacred longing in our own cries of “how long?”, and cling to the Advent promise that Christ is and will be present with us? (Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19)
(August 17, 2014) In the face of the death of Michael Brown and the ongoing tension and violence in Ferguson, MO, we hear the story of the Canaanite woman, shouting after Jesus for justice and grace, asking for even the scraps that others might overlook. Where are the scraps of justice and grace? (Matthew 15:21-28)
If you are using firefox as a browser, it sometimes doesn’t like to play the audio file and will tell you it is “corrupt.” I assure you the preacher is not! Please try another browser. I don’t know why it does this.