A Way Forward?

As most of you reading this will probably already know, yesterday our Council of Bishops put forth a plan for our Church to establish a commission to examine the paragraphs in our Book of Discipline about human sexuality, discuss these, and then bring back a comprehensive proposal to change the Discipline in hopes of maintaining unity in the church over this issue. The commission would be appointed by the Council of Bishops and is to be made up of diverse representation of the church. The Council of Bishops then may call a special called General Conference to deal with this issue or choose to wait until 2020 for consideration.

Some of asked why the business of the General Conference is so emotionally and physically draining. First of all the days are very long for delegates and our delegates have been experiencing long, grueling days since May 10th. The work of our delegates is very tedious and involves work that most pastors and laity don’t typically do. The long hours and the level of prolonged concentration makes for tiring work. Of course, many of the issues that have been discussed in legislative committees last week are emotionally sensitive which raises the level of tension, stress, and fatigue.

I believe there is another, less obvious reason for the great emotional fatigue experienced by General Conference delegates. I think much of it is caused by the extraordinary measures which are taken to avoid talking about the issues of human sexuality. In one way our differences about human sexuality dominate almost every vote, every nomination, and every parliamentary maneuver. Every day delegates and visitors are protesting the UMC’s stance on homosexuality, and it is being discussed around lunch tables, over coffee, and even on hotel rooftops. The one place human sexuality is really not being talked about is by our elected delegates on the floor of General Conference. The way this issue has been handled at the this year’s General Conference reminds me of a family in crisis that refuses to talk about the problem that EVERYONE knows needs to be dealt with. It is extremely stressful and fatiguing to avoid talking about something that needs to be dealt with.

I try to always be hopeful, especially about the church I love. I am hopeful that the process being led by our Council of Bishops will bring about the unity of our church and fidelity to our biblical, Wesleyan foundation. My concern is that this may ultimately be another avoidance strategy. Eventually the General Conference delegates will have an open debate about human sexuality. I know that this debate will be painful, difficult, and will bring about negative media coverage, however, it will eventually happen. The General Conference, however, has spoken. My prayer is that this will bring about the vital, open conversation we’ve needed to have for years. Perhaps a special called General Conference devoted to this issue will bring us all to the table to have this discussion.


As we went to bed last night Twitter was a buzz about a surprise meeting of the Council of Bishops. Unconfirmed reports were suggesting that the Council of Bishops was going to put forth a plan of separation for the United Methodist Church and possibly have a called General Conference in 2018 to handle this plan. This morning Bishop Ough of the Dakotas Conference spoke on behalf of the church. He talked of the gravity of our differences and the need to be creative in our ways of moving forward, however, the Council of Bishops did not put forward any specific or conceptual plans of moving forward. He stated that the Bishops plan to preside and allow the delegates perform their legislative function.

In many ways there is a beautiful spirit here at General Conference. The worship services have been uplifting, and the diversity of the UMC is on full display. The people here love the church and want what they believe is best for her. There is, however, a clear and visible divide over issues of human sexuality. There have been many calls for “compromise” and “meeting in the middle,” however, the non-negotiables  of either side make any real compromise seem implausible. It is likely that the church’s official stance on issues surrounding homosexuality will remain unchanged or be made even more stringently against it. Many pastors, some Bishops, and some Boards of Ministry do not agree with the Book of Discipline and have stated and demonstrated they will not abide by these parts of the Discipline. Many in the church are frustrated that parts of the Discipline are deliberately not being followed by church leaders.

The church leadership seems to be at an impasse. There are proposals before the General Conference that might allow churches to more easily splinter from the connection and proposals which could facilitate a splitting of the denomination. I have held for a long time that the United Methodist Church is better together, however, it is getting harder to imagine how we can move forward together. Toward the end of the day influential delegates stood to request that the Council of Bishops bring forth some plan to move forward. Some delegates are looking for our Bishops to provide leadership. At the end of the day, however, it will be the delegates who must decide which course we will take.

Pentecost and Websites

imageLast night I was sitting in the Discipleship Legislative Committee meeting and turned around to behold what you see in this picture. Translators working to interpret the goings on of General Conference in (at least) six different languages. This was a powerful sight to me, especially on the day before Pentecost Sunday. It is an amazing sign that we are a global church telling of God’s works in many languages. It’s also a powerful reminder that this is what our church is called to do: communicate the great works of God so that every person can intimately understand it.

This morning I was looking for a church to attend, so I pulled up the UMC.org website to find UM churches near me. Several of the churches near me didn’t have websites, their information wasn’t updated, and I had trouble finding the worship time for those who did have websites. I don’t mean to be picking on Portland. This is a reality for many UM churches across the U.S. in every community. In a world that speaks digitally, most churches are still speaking analog. I know that decent, updated websites, are not the end-all-be-all that will ultimately transform the world, but a well used Facebook page, and a focused effort to speak to a world walking around with supercomputers in their pockets would go a long way.

The Pentecost fire is, of course, much more than websites and social media. It is the power of God to proclaim God’s good news to the nations. It is a consuming fire which I hope will fall upon all United Methodist no matter what language they speak!

Minority Report

Minority Report was a spellbinding futuristic thriller starring Tom Cruise. The General Conference version of a minority report, I imagine, is going to be far less exciting. Today concludes the work of the legislative committees at General Conference. Thanks to friends who are delegates I’ve been able to learn how some of the legislation is fairing in committee. I received word last night that proposals to create an additional Conference which would encompass the United States church were narrowly defeated. These proposals (though they all handle it a bit differently) would organize the U.S. churches as a “Central Conference” on par with the current central conferences which are composed of all non-U.S. churches. One of the hopes of this sort of change would be to allow greater autonomy for United Methodist in the different parts of the globe. So much of the United Methodist Book of Discipline is dominated by things that only apply to U.S. churches  so our global churches are often operating by different rules because their local contexts need other kinds of guidance. On the surface this seems like a logical change. The U.S. church and other global churches seem to be organizationally on two different tiers. Making the U.S. a Central Conference would allow the Book of Discipline deal with global issues, and each Central Conference could organize around local issues and concerns. Of course, like pretty much every conversation at General Conference, the concern is what this might mean about the church’s stance on human sexuality. Some are also concerned because this would essentially add another layer of bureaucracy.

A proposal to make the U.S. a Central Conference was defeated in committee, however, there will be a minority report. When legislation is presented to the plenary (I’m basing this on a lot of assumptions, the reason I’m headed to Portland is to see how all this really works) there is a majority report which represents the wishes of those who voted in the majority, and there is a minority report if there were enough dissenting votes. Even though this proposal was defeated in committee, it still has a chance to be approved by the whole body of General Conference.

I’m torn on this proposal. It makes sense that we re-structure to become truly a global church. At the rate that our Asian and African congregations are growing and the rate that the U.S. church is shrinking there will soon be more United Methodist outside of the United States than inside of it. It might be better to organize globally now before this becomes the reality. Unfortunately the trust level seems to be so low. Political posturing and outright ecclesial disobedience seem to be our modus operandi these days. I pray God’s Holy Spirit will work to bring about a spirit of humility and raise this level of trust.

Great Leadership

There are twelve legislative committees at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, and yesterday they began their work. Last night I received word that two of my good friends have been selected to serve as chairpersons. My good friend Rev. Dr. Bill Allen was elected the chairperson of the “Conferences” Committee which handles legislation dealing with the connectional matters of the church. Bill and I were classmates in Asbury Seminary’s Beeson Pastor Doctoral Program in 2005-2006. He and his wife Kristen and family were our next door neighbors during our year of residency in Wilmore. My friend and colleague Rev. Robin Wilson was elected to serve as chair of the Discipleship Committee. You can only imagine how critical this committee is when you consider the fact that the United Methodist mission statement is “To Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” Robin and her husband Jeff are good friends of ours and will soon be our neighbors as we return to Mobile where they serve as Co-Pastors of Dauphin Way United Methodist Church. I also received word that another friend and mentor Rev. Dr. Lawson Bryan will be chairing one of the three sub-committees of the Financial Administration Committee. Lawson is our episcopal candidate and Senior Pastor of First UMC in Montgomery. I have served on the Academy for Congregational Excellence Board with him and have seen first hand his tremendous ability to lead.

The reason for all this shameless name dropping is that I am so grateful for the GREAT LEADERSHIP that these elections represent. If their elections are any indication of the quality of leadership on all our committees, I know we are in good hands. All three of these friends are sharp, fair, and outstanding in their leadership. I’m so glad that their talent was recognized by the other delegates serving with them on their committees. Give thanks to God for these and the others elected. Pray for God’s wisdom and favor to be upon them.

Standing Rules

The big news at General Conference (which I was able to watch via the umc.org live stream) yesterday had to do with debating the standing rules of the Conference. If you have ever sat through a standing rules discussion/debate you know just how tedious this can be. This is an important part of parliamentary procedure where the body (the General Conference delegates) determine the rules that will govern their debate, deliberation, and decision making process. The debate tonight was VERY tedious, but also VERY important.

This year’s rules will allow an iPad at each table which will allow delegates to digitally raise their hand in order to make motions, speak/against motions, or raise points of order. The tricky part is that until the body adopts new standing rules, they are still operating under the current standing rules which were adopted in 2012. About half way through the debate about the standing rules (using the new devices) someone reminded the chair that the current standing rules call for using hand held placards, NOT electronic devices. The chair had to call a recess so that the delegates could grab dinner and so that they could distribute placards. There also seemed to be some technical problems with the iPads. Hopefully they will have that fixed by the morning.

A few motions were raised to either remove or defer consideration of some of the standing rules, ultimately all of the Standing Rules passed except for one, Standing Rule #44. This standing rule would allow certain legislation to be discussed in small groups instead of being dealt with in legislative committees as is typical. The hope for rule #44 is that some of the most sensitive, hot-button issues could be handled through a more personal discussion based format instead of the formal committee process. One of the challenges of Rule #44 is that it would require a small group to compile the discussions of all the groups and then put together written legislation that reflects the general understanding of the discussions.

I appreciate the desire and spirit of Standing Rule #44, however, I’m not sure it will work as intended. We’ve learned in recent years about the ability and inability of different kinds of groups to function effectively. Legislative groups, like the gathering of 864 General Conference delegates, don’t function well as adaptive groups. Effective adaptive groups meet often, meet regularly, and have a high degree of trust built over time. I’m afraid the level of time and trust needed for a process like Rule #44 to work isn’t possible in the two weeks that General Conference typically lasts. Furthermore, Rule #44 may give a small group of persons a great deal of influence over some of our most divisive issue. Even though any legislation coming from this process would still have to be voted upon by the whole body, circumventing the typical legislative process may prevent a full vetting of legislation.

Robert’s Rule of order is a terrible way to lead a church, but it is pretty effective at managing conflict and trying to ensure fairness. Unfortunately these are two things the United Methodist Church needs today: effective ways of managing conflict and ensuring fairness. Winston Churchill, quoting another great thinker, once said, “…democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” I feel that way about how we run the United Methodist Church, it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others people have tried. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.