General Conference 2019
As we were driving northbound Friday morning to General Conference in St. Louis, there was laughter and joy as four pastors from Alabama gathered into a small Toyota Camry, telling stories and catching up as old friends often do. I was the outsider of the group – these three had been friends for decades, longer than I had been alive they made sure to remind me. I listened as inside jokes were passed around and updates on family were shared. Despite my outsider status, these three long-time pastors welcomed me into their fold, explaining where their nicknames originated and giving me cues of when to laugh at each other (often, I soon realized!). There were good snacks, too.
But there was also a sense that something significant was going to happen in our lives and to the people we love. Our beloved United Methodist Church was “Holy Conferencing” to discern the direction and future of the Church. As most know by now, the discussion surrounded whether or not our LGBTQI+ sisters and brothers could be ordained into the United Methodist Church and whether UMC pastors could perform same-sex marriages. Obviously those two actions had deeper implications into the acceptance or lack thereof, of LGBTQI+ people/practices.
The conservative branch of the Church, made up of a strong, but minority presence in the United States, with the addition of an equally strong and majority global presence voted for the Traditional Plan. Keep the language and enforce the rules. While traditionalists wanted to maintain the language “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”, they were quick to also affirm words found in the very same paragraph of grace for all:
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
Conservatives implored all to see their position not as a rejection of people, but a rejection of actions contrary to their view of Scripture and God’s best for human flourishing.
Centralists and some progressives, compiled primarily from the United States, with the support of the majority of bishops, prayed and hoped the One Church Plan would pass. This plan would allow each church and clergy person in the UMC to discern through prayer, to make decisions locally and contextually regarding same-sex marriage. No church or clergy person would be forced to do anything differently, but this new plan would allow those in specific contexts to minister according to how they felt God was leading. It was a middle way, they believed.
Certain progressives, though, didn’t think the One Church Plan took matters far enough – if we are to affirm the rights of our LGBTQI+ brothers and sisters and fight for their place at the table, why would context dictate this affirmation? While the argument that those in Africa, who obviously are in a different cultural context than the United States, could minister in their own cultural context by not allowing same-sex marriage, the One Church Plan would even allow two congregations in the same town in the United States (arguably the same cultural context) to take differing positions. For some progressives, this was outrageous.
Yet, the One Church Plan was truthfully the only other practical option besides the Traditional Plan, and so anyone who differed from the Traditional Plan, it seems, took the best option they had and voted for the One Church Plan.
The numbers were close. When you hear “the majority voted for the Traditional Plan”, it can sound misleading. The Traditionalists took the day at 53% to 47%. Put 100 people in a room, divide them, directing 53 to one side and 47 to another and the truth is with the naked eye you couldn’t tell which group was larger. If I’m on one side, 47 people disagree with me. If I choose the other, 53.
The church was divided. The church is divided.
Two years ago, I was a privileged to be part of a group of young clergy who met with our Bishop monthly. Our Bishop is always gracious with her time and the fact that she spent one day a month investing into our lives speaks to her character and leadership. One month she asked us to bring her one suggestion for a way forward to our church’s impasse on same-sex relationships. I was humbled she would ask our opinion, for we were young clergy. I didn’t have any good suggestions, but I did offer one hunch (ask Ken about this word – one of those insider jokes, I found out).
Knowing how our Presbyterian and Episcopal sisters and brothers wrestled through their ugly divorces, I wondered if we could be different. Truthfully, I didn’t see a solution that kept us together. Maybe it was my non-denominational upbringing that didn’t impassion me to want to fight for the unity of the United Methodist Church at all costs. Maybe it was the influence of my studies where I saw that the Methodist Church since the days of Wesley hasn’t been as united as we might assume.
Whatever the reasoning, I wondered how we might love and bless each other despite our differences, even if that led to a split. Could I fundamentally disagree with my sister or brother regarding our views on same-sex marriage and ordination and still love them in Christ, still support them, still engage with them? Now, this might not look like the church as we know it today. I might have to love them from a distance. But love nonetheless.
This thought influenced my perspective coming into General Conference 2019. I guess I wasn’t as hopeful as some that we could reconcile our theological and biblical differences in four short days. Those that tried with three minute speeches on the floor, enlightening us to the true way to read Scripture, failed. Even with people I fundamentally agreed, I found them off-putting and I found myself disinterested. Move on, I would whisper to myself or others, as we would watch from the bleachers above, sipping on our $5 Cokes and popcorn.
It was odd, I thought, that we were Holy Conferencing not in a sanctuary, a place of worship, but a stadium, a place where people went to be entertained. Truth be told, some of the delegates’ speeches seemed geared toward entertainment for those watching via livestream, Facebook clips or the evening news, rather than for the “building up the body” as the Apostle Paul urges.
We were told multiple times we had to be finished by 6:30 p.m. Tuesday evening because the dump trucks were coming into the arena to unload dirt for the imminent Monster Truck Rally the next day. Frustrated by the tediousness of Robert’s Rules of Order, some suggested putting the most liberal and most conservative bishop in Monster Trucks – the lone survivor gets the church.
Forgive me, I digress.
As I was saying, minds had been made up. Of course, not everyone who had an opinion put in the necessary time to study and humbly pray in preparation for this Holy Conferencing. But I would graciously, maybe naively, deem most did. And so, these four days weren’t about trying to change minds.
As I saw it the four days were to lovingly and respectfully vote on direction of the Church as individuals felt the Holy Spirit was leading. This obviously needed to be done with humility, as who can claim to positively know God’s will? God is bigger than that, my friend Karl Barth would remind me. We always must be open to the possibility of being wrong. Yet, those voting were commissioned to do the best they could.
The four days had another purpose though, too. It wasn’t just about setting direction, but also setting free. If the majority went in a direction many, or even one, could not follow, there was a visionary call for grace in their exit. A gracious exit, it was lovingly called.
If churches and individuals, in good conscious, could not adhere to whatever was voted – the Traditional, One Church, Connectional or Simple Church Plan – then most agreed that they should be able to leave in the most gracious of all possible ways.
As I mentioned to our Bishop two years prior, I thought this was best. Unity is important. Unity should be fought for. Yet, were we really united? And should unity be lifted above all? For all practical purposes, it looked like the two groups could not reconcile, so a gracious exit made sense.
Speaking of gracious exits, one night as we were exiting The Dome where the Conference was being held, we walked outside to be greeting by members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Truly not on either side of the issue, these men were filled with hatred and disgust. Armed with slurs, end-time heresy and homophobic slurs, all Methodists could agree on at least one thing - these men were not following the way of Jesus.
As we walked by them, one man shouted from his bullhorn to our friend, “You weirdo!” Not the worst name in the book, I suppose. And if I was to admit, that name stuck for the rest of our trip (you have to have a laugh or two amid tense times). Our next friend wasn’t so lucky. “You homo! You should be ashamed of yourself!” That name didn’t stick, for reasons you might imagine. The irony was that this man was a traditionalist. While it gave us a chuckle at dinner that night, it goes to show that true hatred doesn’t discriminate.
And of course, we must remember not to make the people of Westboro Baptist Church the enemy, for “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church…”, as the Book of Discipline tells us. And I think that guy Jesus we follow said something about loving your enemies.
Loving your enemies. Could we do it? Can we do it?
I guess that’s the reason I write. I haven’t told you my position and I hope you can’t guess from this post. If you want to know, I’ll tell you. But a tweet, Facebook rant, or even a post like this usually doesn’t help to persuade. And persuasion isn’t really the point, is it? I’d rather share a meal, or better yet, get some espresso and dialogue with you. Hear your perspective. Share mine. Find where we agree. Love where we don’t. Respect one another no matter how wrong we think we are.
I write because in the dialogues, or more appropriately, monologues, I’ve seen since Tuesday night I haven’t seen much loving of enemies. Not much loving of those who disagree. And I wonder if that goal of a visionary call for a gracious exit has already been forgotten.
As we move into the future of the Church – not the United Methodist Church but the Church of Jesus Christ – can we not disparage one another to the point of no return? Weren’t we to gather in St. Louis to lovingly discern and make the best of it? There were no winners in this, we know. One side got its way, but a generous interpretation would conclude they voted under Godly conviction, not hatred or spite. One side didn’t get enough votes for their plan to pass, but why does that now make them the villain? They firmly believe this was God’s desire for justice.
Let me be clear – I’m not saying both are right. I’m weary of postmodern influence on our faith and the lack of objective truth. Truth matters. And I think there’s plenty at stake in this debate. I hold strong convictions that I believe are significant for life and faith.
What I am saying is that we are fallen people. Broken. We don’t have all the answers. And most of us are trying to seek God’s will for our lives. Yes, some of us use faith for personal gain. Or we don’t like change so we proclaim tradition in the face of anything new. Others are too blinded by cultural forces. Some want to sin and will make any excuse they can do to it (don’t think this reveals my position – we justify and rationalize all sorts of wrongdoing). But more often than not, by God’s grace – and only by God’s grace – we hear that still small voice and try to follow. We try to discern His will for our lives. His will for humankind. His best. His way. His direction. His path.
Don’t fall prey to the straw man arguments. Don’t be tempted by the easy tweet, or quick reply. Don’t break relationships with your traditional or progressive friends. Don’t punch Westboro Baptist (as our friend was tempted to do!).
So, let’s disagree. Let’s hold to our positions with the vigor they deserve. Let’s be passionate. Let’s speak truth. But let’s also be humble. Let us love.
And in this divorce of the United Methodist Church, let us love one another well.
We could have stayed home. We could have live streamed General Conference into our office computers or even our living room TV’s. We could have avoided the cold (it’s freezing in St. Louis compared to Alabama – I guess I’m becoming a southerner!). We could have avoided the ten-hour days sitting in a committee meeting, avoided the cost of hotels, food and gas.
But we went. And we learned something in our going. Not about the Conference. But about relationships. About love. I mentioned earlier the four of us pastors had to cram into a small Toyota Camry. Boy, it felt small for those 12 hours we drove. There was a torrential downpour on the way up. On the way back we ran a red light, jumped one median, and detoured because of a mudslide. I was praying for the second coming!
Our drive home was still fun – those guys can make anything fun - but it was also more serious. You see, we didn’t agree on what just conspired. Some of us were elated with the direction the Church was taking, others were deeply hurt. Severely. But we spent those 12 hours talking about it. Talking through it. Arguing. Disagreeing. Disputing. Working through it. Crying. Understanding. Appreciating. Respecting.
In the end, I think we found ourselves loving one another.
And out of that love, we learned how to love others.
We stopped at a Cracker Barrel to grab a bite to eat. 8:00 p.m., another four hours until we were home. You know how it is when you stop on a long road trip – you want to be in and out. Only it wasn’t our night for that. We had a “rising star”, sewed on the front of her apron – a newbie. No worries, I had once worked at Cracker Barrel my last semester at college to pay for my honeymoon, and so I assured Britney she’d be fine.
She wasn’t. Soon after taking our order, we heard the crashing of dinner plates on the floor. No sweat, it wasn’t our order. Only Britney didn’t come back. For 20 minutes the four of us as well as the table next to us waited in confusion. Finally, the manager came out, apologized, said Britney had a mental breakdown and needed to go home for the night. Dinner was on the house. We had to re-order and wait another 20 minutes.
I don’t know about the other guys, but I thought about just getting up and leaving – eager to get home to my wife and son. But we were hungry, so we sat and waited. Dinner came, and to our surprise, Britney was back. She apologized for everything. She looked a wreck. Thoughts of her story and struggle flooded our minds. A few more mistakes and about eight trips to the kitchen and back, we finally had our full meal.
Now look - it’s not a big deal. You and I receive bad service all the time. So hear me when I say we’re no heroes. But you wouldn’t blame us if we put a few $1 bills on the table, or nothing at all, and walked out.
But our pastors did what our pastors do best – show grace even when it’s not deserved. That’s the definition of the grace, isn’t it? Pulling out $40, we handed her the cash and stood up to embrace her. Truth is – she said thank you, but it wasn’t a reaction you’d see on the Hallmark channel. Maybe she was too distraught to embrace the grace that was given her in that moment.
But that’s not the point. The grace was extended. And in those last hours on our trip home, I began to wonder…...
Maybe the future of the church looks like what happened at Cracker Barrel. Four pastors who passionately disagree on many issues, including same-sex marriage and ordination – four pastors who may not even call themselves United Methodist going forward, showing the love of Jesus to a broken world, a world in need of grace…….