Digging Deeper on the “Protocol” and Numbers

door-1178130-1279x1698
A mostly-closed door — is this “the room where it happened”?

Here comes an ultra-Metho-nerd post: unpacking a little more of what was shared by some of the folks from “the room where it happened” in the making of the “Protocol of Separation.”

Late last week, a team of people who come from different parts of The United Methodist Church– and may or may not represent those constituents– announced that they have drafted a proposed protocol for separation. As the Methodist connection everywhere has been loudly saying, this is NOT a deal, a promise, a package of legislation proposed let alone in effect, or a decision for the denomination. This is simply a proposed protocol for the delegates at General Conference 2020 to consider (among many proposals, some of which I’ve charted), which might help the division of denominational assets and liabilities go more smoothly, since a diverse group has already weighed in and agreed upon this plan.

We’ve all got roughly, oh, 40 million questions about this proposal, raging from how the team was selected and how they functioned to if it’s constitutional, feasible, or just to consider the protocol at all, and so on. This post addresses just one topic: where did those numbers come from?

This weekend, I was able to hear from a couple of people present at various portions of the mediation. This was indeed, as I suggested last spring, less like democracy or conferencing, and more like a multi-party negotiation, complete with intractable positions, intersecting and conflicting commitments, and nearly as much mystery and complexity as the Council of Jerusalem. When engaging in multi-party negotiation, especially when assisted by a professional mediator, the package deals and trade offs I mentioned in that previous post (see point 5) become key. Those of us outside of these closed-door meetings have no idea where dollar amounts came from, and now want to pass judgment on if the funds proposed are fair. That, unfortunately, is not how mediated agreements work.

Here’s what we’ve learned: the mediation team did NOT create a balance sheet of United Methodist assets and liabilities, assessing the relative value of each, and how much of that initial investment was made by “traditionalists” or “progressives” or anyone else, and how much debt might be incurred as assets of various sizes withdraw. Why not? Maybe it wasn’t feasible, maybe it would take too long, maybe we’d never agree on the dollar value of The United Methodist Building. It doesn’t really matter. The point is, the mediation team did not place a monetary value on anything, and we only confuse ourselves if we try to understand the money as representative of relative wealth and debt in the parts of the denomination.

Instead, the mediation team agreed upon a figure to work with to negotiate a protocol for separation: $40 million. Why $40 million? Because that’s the amount they were able to agree upon. That’s really all this number means, and in negotiation that matters, but outside the room it makes very little sense. And still, that’s the number the team identified.

From that $40M, the team eventually agreed to use $2 million to seed new non-traditionalist denominations that might break off from The UMC, and $38 million to seed the traditionalist denomination(s) that plan to break off (And then, in what I think will prove to be one of the prouder moments of The UMC, the mediation team decided to set funds aside to offer a tiny portion of restorative justice into the vast and unjust legacy of racism, colonialism, and discrimination enacted by the worldwide Methodist movement. And so of the $38M just named, the traditionalist denomination(s) will leave $13M behind for this fund and the remaining UMC will find an additional $26M for this purpose).

But how and why does the proposal divide the $40M this way? Why so much to the departing traditionalists and so little to any potential liberationist expressions? The answer is that the team negotiated a package deal, bargaining with seemingly unrelated things: money and vote thresholds. Initially, those representing the traditionalist movement wanted an Annual Conference to be able to vote by a margin of 50% plus 1 to depart from The UMC. The centrists and progressives, worried that this would allow many many Annual Conferences to withdraw, wanted that threshold to be 2/3. The more the money to departing traditionalists, the higher the voting threshold. Not pretty, but I asked how that sausage got made. In the end, the proposal is $38M to traditionalists departing (minus $13M to seek racial justice), and an Annual Conference voting threshold of 57% (in the US, and 2/3 in Central Conferences)– at which, folks estimate only 2-4 Annual Conferences in the US would vote to leave as a whole. Others withdrawing would do so as individual churches, members, or clergy people.

So there you have it: a little peek into a small portion of negotiation and mediation. I offer this to share information (it really helped my head stop spinning when I understood that the $40M was not calculated based on anything!), and not to discern if this is right or good or just or Spirit-breathed. That question is a longer and more subtle one, with which I will be wrestling for the next five months. I know I won’t be alone.

Three things I hold

balls-1464306-640x480I am a member of both my Annual Conference’s Delegation to General Conference 2020, and of our Conference Task Force exploring whether and how Methodists in New England might become a new and inclusive Methodist movement. Between juggling these roles and my own passion for the future of ministry in my local Methodist church and the wider Methodist movement, I’m having a lot of conversations and doing a lot of listening around where there is momentum, fear, energy, obstacle, hope, and tension in the Methodist connection. This past weekend, at the Bishop’s Day with the New Hampshire District, Bishop Devadhar asked me to say a few words and take some questions (as best I could) about the work of our delegation and task force. This is (roughly) what I shared. 

In both my work as a delegate and as a member of the Open Spirit Task Force– especially on my Task Force subcommittee exploring the “options” for moving forward as a denomination or denominations, there are three main things I hear and I know, and I hold as I consider what’s before us. Two I hear loud and clear, and all seem to contradict each other at times, but all are held before me and within me as I wrestle with options.

1. We can’t wait. Methodists in New England are done waiting. Many of the pathways for next steps include passing constitutional amendments, seeking to ratify them, maybe having another commission or study, then presenting a plan that can’t be presented within our current constitution, and approving that, and rolling it out, so that in four or eight or maybe twelve years, we’ll have this all resolved. But Methodist churches in New England are dying on the vine right now. Our churches won’t exist in 12 or 8 or even 4 years if we keep doing what we are doing. We are diverting missional energy into alternately defending the sanctity of the Bible and of covenants, and defending the marginalized, oppressed, and harmed, while some of us are trying to stay alive and allowed in The UMC. In the mean time, addiction and an opioid epidemic are sweeping away a generation of people in our communities, mass incarceration is destroying our already tiny racial diversity, rural poverty holds children in a death-grip, ICE is raiding communities within 100 miles of any border or coast (most of our Conference), the climate crises is literally eroding our towns and cities… you get the drift.

Traditionalists in our Conference feel they cannot stand one more day in a denomination that will suffer a gay bishop, while queer people and allies cannot endure another day in a denomination that oppresses trans, POC, and queer bodies and lives with impunity. Incremental justice is not justice, not for those who become the collateral damage of oppression. We are at a breaking point, and we have an opportunity for that to break us open into new life. We cannot waste it. I hear this loud and clear; I know it in my bones. I’m not spending my energy on any long timelines or impossible, incremental legislation.

2. Despite what the rest of the Methodist world might think or presume about us, we can never assume that the New England Annual Conference speaks or votes with one voice. We are different. Really different. And the strange fact is that Methodism in New England has seemed to thrive through (not necessarily despite) this difference. My ministry is made stronger by the churches and lay and clergy colleagues around me who are much more conservative than I. I hope the same is true of those folks’ ministries and me. But these divisions are real and are deep, and drive a huge part of the urgency to take action now. That action, however, can’t assume a monolith that moves in a single direction together– doing so would isolate, exclude, or force churches and people who find themselves in a minority position, and I defend that minority position, because I believe that’s the demand of justice.

To my siblings in traditionalist churches and espousing traditionalist viewpoints and theologies: I see you. You are not invisible. Your ministry and your presence are valuable to me and to the kin-dom of God. I will not support or vote for a course of action that would leave you isolated on a traditionalist island amid a vast progressive sea, cut off from other churches and from a denomination that would support and equip you. I wouldn’t want that if the tables were turned (as they are in the world-wide connection), and I won’t do it to someone else. That doesn’t mean I’ll cede a single drop of this liberation sea, either. Any path forward must give each of us the opportunity to be set free but still be equipped in the living out of our calling from God.

This same difference that we name in our Conference? That’s present in every Methodist community in every level of our connection. No Annual or Central Conference is a monolith; no caucus speaks as one. There is no “Africa” and what “they” want, no “LGBTQ people” and what “they” need, no “Western Jurisdiction” and what “their” vision is, or “conservatives” and how “they” will block it. The early Methodists built a big-tent religion, and that’s what we’ve inherited.

And this same difference is true in every local church in every community in our and every Conference. There is no local church that speaks with one voice, from the most conservative to the longest-standing Reconciling congregation. Any pathway forward that requires of an Annual Conference, and/or of a local congregation, a vote between this Methodist denomination and that one will be forcing people to divide from one another. That doesn’t mean we can’t or we shouldn’t; our differences are deep and our urgency is real. And that doesn’t mark the end; the early church was– eventually– stronger after Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways for a time, so that each could spread the good news (and see this post for a suggestion of how I think we could ease a portion of this harm). But this is painful. I feel that pain, deep in my bones, deep in my heart, loud and clear. I hold it while I wrestle.

3. The third thing I don’t hear loudly and clearly, but in a way that is more still and small, which means it’s unwise to ignore. The third truth speaks with a whisper into the urgency of decisive action and the painful depth of our necessary division: is it necessary? Because the thing is New England Annual Conference has been doing this– imperfectly, granted– for years. We have been living side by side, doing ministry side by side, transforming the world side by side, seeking justice side by side. We do not bring one another up on charges. We treat one another with respect. We value the ministry of others, regardless of their sexual orientations or theological commitments. We don’t always get it right– beloved community is messy and we are fallible– but we stick with it and with each other. We sit beside each other as I did with a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association on the Task Force and say to each other I don’t want to be part of a Conference in which you are not welcome, and I believe we mean it. We stand across the picket line from one another– as a neighboring colleague of mine and I once did– on marriage equality, and beside each other on workers’ rights. We find that our little communities are indeed big enough for more than one kind of Methodism, and that our witness can work, even when it varies by context.

This little truth flies in the face of the big, unbearable urgency, and our deep, painful differences. But that doesn’t make it less true. So what does that mean for our future, together or apart? And if we, stubborn New Englanders as we are, if we can find ways to be church together, what might we have to model for the rest of the connection and the rest of the world?

Three truths. Three often-contradictory, always messy things I hold in my body, in my mind, in my heart. It’s a dance, a juggling act, a confusing trifold mystery.

Fourth truth: so is God.

Sermon: Beyond the Worry

BBB promo 1“Beyond the Worry”

(February 17, 2019) As I prepare to travel to the Called Session of The United Methodist Church, I am not alone in feeling worry about the future of our denomination. But if God cares for the birds and the flowers, perhaps God gives us something inherently human, which will provide for us so that we don’t need to worry. (Jeremiah 17:5-10, Matthew 6:25-34)

UMC, this is the moment.

13417494_10209966845149268_1068720925712024772_n
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?

ashes
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.

Let the penalty fix the “crime”

shame hands face coveredHere we go again…

A month after the Board of Ordained Ministry in Pennsylvania stripped Rev. Frank Schaefer of his ordination credentials for officiating at his son’s wedding and refusing to state he would follow the entirety of the Book of Discipline in the future, the United Methodist Church is back at it again.

The New York Annual Conference announced the date of March 10 as the beginning of the trial of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree. Like Rev. Schaefer, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is an ordained United Methodist Elder. Like Schaefer, he has a son who is gay. Like Schaefer, he officiated at his son’s wedding. In addition, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is a former professor and Dean at a Divinity School in Connecticut, oh, right, Yale, and before that Drew. Where he taught such irrelevant courses as theological ethics and Christian social ethics. And literally wrote the book in the church’s witness to the world– Oh, just read about him here.

At least one friend has compared the coming trial to that time that the Ministry of Magic tried to interrogate Professor Dumbledore. Not a bad comparison.

I don’t want to get in to all that right now.

These trials have a sort of fatalistic nature to them. We all assume that the persons on trial will be found guilty. I’m not sure this should be the case– after all, the church says we can’t officiate at same-sex weddings, but does not take time to define sex, or explain how, in the absence of legal background checks, medical screenings and examinations, hormonal and chromosomal lab results and so on, a pastor is supposed to determine such. But I digress.

Let’s assume for a moment that Rev. Dr. Ogletree is found guilty of violating the unjust law as laid out in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. Where the real interest lies is in the sentencing.

Some clergy members who have been found guilty of such violations have their credentials revoked, as was the case with Rev. Schaefer (legal or not). But in 2011, the jury in the Wisconsin Annual Conference sentenced Rev. Amy DeLong (found not guilty of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” but guilty of officiating a same-sex wedding) with a twenty day suspension, and then charged her to research and write a paper addressing the nature of the clergy covenant, how it has been harmed and how it might be healed.

The old saying goes, let the punishment fit the crime. But DeLong’s “punishment” seemed more intended to fix or at least address the root problems in the alleged “crime.”

What if the jury in Rev. Dr. Ogletree’s trial took that approach? What if they used this opportunity not to punish Ogletree or scare others into compliance with laws they find unjust (how’s that working for ya?), but to address root problems in this issue?

Specifically, I would like to see the jury, should they find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty of a violation of unjust church law, instruct him to create or propose a system for dealing with charges that persons are self-avowed practicing homosexuals or have officiated at same-sex weddings, in ways other than trials. Church trials are a waste of time, money, human resources, and spiritual strength. They show the watching world that The United Methodist Church is divided and broken, and no better able to live together in difference and brokenness than middle schoolers on the playground. Yes, they highlight the injustices in the system and as such become a force for eventual change, but I fear there won’t be much of a church left by the time they’ve accomplished that work. If only we had a former Dean of a theological school, a professor of Christian ethics, an author who has researched the church’s witness to the world on social issues, and a pastor and parent with life experience to reflect with us on these things!

So that’s my modest proposal for the jury in the Ogletree trial: Find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty if you must (although try to see if you can get your terms and concepts around sex and sexuality and gender and gender identity somewhat consistent if you can). But then consider the injustice of the letter of the law. Consider the pain to the whole church and the whole world for as long as the world is still listening to anything remotely called “church.” Consider the resource and gift of the person in front of you.

Seek the Middle Way. Remain in connection. Work for justice and for healing.

Let the punishment at least try to start fixing the crime.

Reasons I Stay…

friends, hug, b+wDays like today, I think about the denomination of The United Methodist Church, and why I’m a part of it. Days that follow trials and verdicts, personal vendetta turned to personhood- and livelihood- stripping arguments and actions make it hard to remember.

There’s beautiful theology, and a structure that is imperfect but has room for movement (hey I used to be Roman Catholic, so I’ll take it!). There are great big denomination-wide programs that do amazing work all over the world, like the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

And there are people. Oh, Love Divine, the people. I love those people called Methodist. I love the vast network of Methodist(s) Federat(ed) for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries.

But the people, nearly all of the Methodist people I love, are hurting on days like today, and wondering why we stay “United,” and why any one of us stays in the denomination.

And so days like today, I have to stop thinking about my denomination, and start thinking about my local church. Amid rumors of schism or individuals leaving, what would happen in my local congregation?

There are two men in my church I think of in particular. Let’s call them James and John.  The one I’m calling James is an openly gay man, leader of some of our strongest mission programs, voice for inclusivity and justice, and occasional participant in things like Pride, and is actively saving all his extra cash for the next Reconciling Ministries Network Convocation. John, on the other hand, is chair of a couple of important committees, the go-to cheerleader for church revitalization and transformation, and has been known to give speeches at annual conference stating that he believes that the Bible says homosexuality is clearly a sin.

James and John have each said things that the other finds hurtful, or offensive, or wrong. They would, in isolation from one another, appear to be on opposite sides of a debate. Should each United Methodist have to choose to be Reconciling or Good News (a traditionalist group that believes homosexuality is sinful and wrong), they would most likely land in different camps. If our congregation voted tomorrow on whether or not to schism, James and John would raise their hands at different times, and the whole congregation would grieve the division between members held so closely to the heart of this local church.

Because, you see, James and John love each other.

James and John love each other more than they love agendas and arguments and “issues.” In fact, they love each other more than they love denominations and schisms and their understandings of what is right and just.

And Trinity United Methodist Church, at least for now, is the place where they grow in love for God and for one another, in their differences. It is the place where they love each other, and find out that love is more important than rules or ideals.

James. John. The love they have for one another as siblings in Christ, in a local congregation of The United Methodist Church.

They are a reason I stay.

The courage of couples

wedding rings 1Tim Schaefer takes the stand today.

Tim’s father, Rev. Frank Schaefer, was found guilty yesterday in a United Methodist Church trial for officiating at Tim’s wedding to his similarly-gendered partner six years ago. An inactive member of Schaefer’s church, angry because his mother and Schaefer had a disagreement which led to her being fired from her position as organist by the church’s personnel committee (SPRC, for Methopeeps), hunted down the marriage license and filed a complaint against Pastor Frank, just after his mother’s termination and just before the statute of limitations ran out.

Today, the jury will hear testimony to decide a sentence for Rev. Schaefer, which could range from a reprimand to being stripped of his credentials as a United Methodist clergy person.

Much has been made about Pastor Frank’s love for his son, which motivated him to officiate at the wedding. While this is beautiful and true, I rather think that all clergy should be motivated by their love of other people’s children as well. Nevertheless, Pastor Frank’s action is rightly heralded as heroic, courageous, and loving.

But what about Tim and his partner? What about the couple dragged into the spotlight for doing what couples everywhere long to do when they are in love and want to spend their lives together?

The sad fact is that when a United Methodist clergy person officiates at a wedding for persons who are of similar genders, that clergy person takes a risk with her or his livelihood. But the couple getting married takes a risk as well. Their names get printed online and flashed across TV screens. Their pictures are plastered on newspaper articles and church websites. Their marriage, relationship, sexuality, and very personhood are dissected, debated, shamed, and stigmatized. The counsel for the church yesterday used his closing argument to rant, not about a violation of church policy, but about the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality.

It takes a special sort of couple to be willing to subject themselves to such a spectacle, centered around what should be a celebration of their love and commitment before God and their loved ones.

I think this is why we see so many trials and cases in mediation involving pastors officiating for their children: Frank Schaefer, Tom Ogletree, Steve Heiss. The couple married have to agree to journey with their officiant into the dark pit of church policy, hateful rhetoric, and punitive judgements. It takes a trust that perhaps these children share with their parents. It takes courage on the part of the couples, to become the faces of the pain inflicted by the church’s injustice.

I have talked with similarly-gendered couples contemplating getting married, and we have discussed together (something I’ve never had to discuss with a heterosexual couple!) whether or not they are willing to be part of this frenzy, whether they want to take and disclose an action that could make their wedding day a political hot topic. Across the board, they have said that they did not want to be subjected to such public scrutiny, and I affirm their choices to maintain privacy and sacredness for themselves. The outcomes of those conversations are not mine to disclose; they belong to the couples themselves.

And so today I give thanks and I pray for the courageous couples who are so willing, who allow their love for one another to also be a call for justice, who invite the world to come barging into their relationships, so that God’s justice might one day barge into our church.

Today I give thanks for Tim.

Diary of a Delegate: rebuttal – Some More Equal than Others

I received a comment on my last post (and have received several mentions on Twitter) decrying my efforts with my colleagues as overly political, pushing an agenda, and even Machiavellian or Orwellian. My commenter wrote: “The only totalitarianism is the ‘progressive’ caucus forcing their will on the rest of the church. Disgraceful.”

Let me be clear: this was indeed a wild, crazy, political, how-the-sausage-gets-made, messy jumble. But if you’re looking for the “some are more equal than others” agenda, you are barking up the wrong side of the barn, my friends.

Make no mistake: the progressives were not the only ones caucusing, strategizing, and trying to make sure their “agenda” made it to the floor. We were not the only ones who huddled at the 4:15 break or the dinner hour. We were not the only ones who had been working for ten days to try to mold the United Methodist Church into the vision to which we believe God has called it.

We may be the only ones willing to blog about it, however.

I will not accuse my colleagues from differing theological perspectives of nasty politics. I will say however, that they had meetings out on the floor and behind closed doors. They were organized. They had powerful people and blocks of voters on their sides. They were, for nine and a half days, unstoppable. Their agenda– an agenda of silencing dissent, whitewashing minority voices, consolidating oversight (which we have learned is patently unconstitutional) and solidifying power in conservative demographics– was very clear and very much in force.

Let me share with you my agenda, particularly in the final evening, but really throughout the General Conference. I can only speak for myself, but I believe it was and is shared by many:

1. Provide for the ministries of the United Methodist Church to function well for the next 4 years. This includes equipping the general boards and agencies or whatever their successor bodies are with the resources and people they need to continue to be a vital voice and resource for our church.

2. Protect the voices of women, persons of color, the GLBTQ community (such voice as it has), and any others pushed to the margins. This includes advocating for a strong and thriving GCORR and COSROW.

3. Propose legislation that does no harm or mitigates harm. Oppose and try to prevent legislation that does harm.

4. Maintain a space in the United Methodist Church for social justice and prophetic preaching.

5. Whenever and however possible, cultivate space for all voices in the conversations, so that people are engaged in the process and the shaping of the future of their church. This includes a commitment to transparency and the honesty with which I blog about our process.

6. Stay within the proposed, smaller quadrennial budget, so as not to harm local churches in their ability to do ministry. Because…

7. In all things, remember that what GC does and how the UMC is formed matters only in so far as it equips local churches for the vital, transformational, contextual ministry they do. We have to help and not hinder churches in reaching more and more diverse people, lifting up principled and equipped leaders, being in ministry across socioeconomic, political, ethnic, gender, etc divides, and reaching out in mission to meet the needs of our global family. Or, you know, make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the church and the world.