Optimism after GC2012

Ted Lyddon Hatten's "Question Mark Butterfly,"work in progress
at the "baptismal shore" of General Conference 2012.
Myrrh, mustard seed, glass, river rock, salt and sand form
the image of the butterfly with the continents in its wings.
For some of you, this may come as a surprise.

I am genuinely optimistic about our future and work as The United Methodist Church after the conclusion of the 2012 General Conference.

It surprised me, too. 

But there it is.

I have more hope for us now-- both as a network of institutions and as a force for discipling people in the way of Jesus than ever before. 


And what appeared to be the moment of the total collapse of the work of this conference is largely responsible for that.

So let me start with what happened starting around 4:15 last Friday, May 4.

The energy in the room before the word came from Judicial Council was, essentially, resigned, tired, and flatlined. That itself was a bit odd, considering how contentious the conference had been up to that point. But right here, in what could have been close to the closing minutes, there was what felt like a dead calm. There was a new structure, and the body had recently completed the finishing touches on the budget to underwrite it, but few seemed particularly passionate about it, or much of anything else at that moment. 

Then the word came from Judicial Council. The plan adopted by General Conference on Wednesday was now, on late Friday afternoon, declared "constitutionally unsalvageable." At first, there were gasps of disbelief and shock.  The Secretary of the  General Conference, Fitzgerald Reist, simply had no words to describe this or its effect on us. This was nothing less than a traumatic word for everyone, no matter where they had stood on one plan or another. A recess was called to allow essential leadership groups to determine some way forward, and many left the plenary room, almost in a daze. 

But after the daze wore off-- and it didn't take long-- a veritable explosion of passion broke out in many directions. Everywhere I went, literally from one end of the convention center to the other, no one was resigned anymore. No one was tired anymore. Energy was way, way up. Everywhere. 

And with that, so were conversations-- across all kinds of lines, now spontaneously breaking out all over the convention center, inside and out. Everywhere.

Holy Conferencing with intensity, purpose, and passion. And, incidentally, without Roberts' Rules of Order!

(A post for another day-- why do we gather leaders across the global church and tie them down to consideration of legislative minutiae when we could actually have far richer conversations like this?) 

I don't think anyone was exactly celebrating the sudden overturning of PlanUMC. Some were visibly shaken, maybe even almost crushed at the collapse of all this hard work. Others seemed relieved that the adopted plan was no more. Still others were furious with denominational leaders and the creators of the various other plans for not having vetted the plans with Judicial Council before presenting them for deliberation or approval by the body. All feelings were strong.

I myself was just amazed watching all of this, walking around and talking with folks, seeing what I could learn or absorb of what was happening for them in these moments.  With no voice or vote, and as General Conference Staff for worship, I could not and did not take any sides throughout the conference, and certainly not now. The one kind of intervention I made was to try to redirect a few conversations where I could away  from blame (wherever that came up) toward helping folks ask, "Okay-- so what are the next steps you CAN take to make something constructive out of this situation?"   And, "What do we learn from this so we don't make whatever mistakes led to this result going forward?" 

I also experienced that whole thing as a wake-up call in my own soul that gave me renewed energy and determination to work for increased collaboration around worship issues across all kinds of lines. I ran into Cathie Kelsey, Dean of the Chapel at Iliff, and we began talking about how I and/or GBOD could be supportive of her work and Iliff's work.  Just after that, I found Jorge Lockward from GBGM and we started talking about how he and I would seek to collaborate in the coming quadrennium, as we had done in 2011 in Thailand. We are starting to talk and dream about possibilities in Kenya. (He had already been thinking about this, and I had met and had a conversation with a DS from there after the Act of Repentance). We'll see what the Spirit and our respective agencies make possible for us. 

That was my experience in the moment. It was a rising of hope and possibility and energy that something other than what we had previously asked or imagined might be open to us now. It was an opening-- one that I would personally describe as an opening in the Spirit. I will never forget those few hours or how they felt. And I will always be grateful for the leadership of Bishop Max Whitfield for guiding the body through this extraordinary time.

And still, several days later, with time to reflect on what happened in those few hours after a really difficult conference overall, my sense of optimism has not waned. In trying to understand why that has been so, here is what I've come up with so far.

1) We now know, in our bones, just how dramatically untrusting we are of each other across the global church. That may sound like a counsel of despair, but I really see it as a counsel of hope. Because there is a real answer to distrust-- building real relationships. The grand thing is that we have both the technology and the personal capacities to do this-- and do it persistently and well over the next four years. And I believe a lot of us coming out of this experience have the will and passion to pursue it, too. 

2) Related to that, we get it in our bones now that we really are a global church. We are no longer and can no longer act like a US church with global appendages. We really can and must view each other as full partners in ministry across the globe and across the US jurisdictions, diverse as we all are, each bringing our significant gifts to share and exchange and no longer to control or dominate. We in the US have consistently downplayed the value of the gifts of our Global South partners, and parts of the US have consistently downplayed the gifts of other parts. All of that will end, in part because those who have been treated before as less than full partners will insist on full partnership going forward.  

3) We came out of this General Conference with restructured and repurposed boards at many of our general agencies-- a shift from mere representation to "representative, competency based governance boards." This is huge-- and it will be a bit of a learning curve for all agencies that have undertaken it. But from my work with non-profits in United Way, I am convinced it will be of major benefit to our operations and effectiveness. Governance boards will meet more often and have a better understanding of the work we actually do, and so be able proactively to develop the policies general agencies need to be sure that work is as finely tuned to supporting the adaptive challenge as it can be. 

4) We do want to restructure even more dramatically-- and we have an opening now to develop those plans in ways that 
take the voices of our growing central conferences and younger clergy worldwide seriously, expanding dramatically on what the work on Plan UMC had already begun to do. A huge part of the problem coming into GC2012 was that we had at least three distinct competing visions for structure, all developed by different groups largely centered in the US with different interests. We have the opportunity now, as the PlanUMC process improvised onsite showed us, to generate a global and cross-generational process around how the structure supports the outcomes we say we want it to achieve before we get to General Conference in 2016. I trust our Council of Bishops and Connectional Table will lead us to do just that, starting very soon. 

5) We realized at this General Conference the real value of the first General Rule-- Do no harm. That it took us doing some real harm to get to that realization was sad and painful. No one can be proud of that. We can only say, "Lord, have mercy." We can only turn to our sisters and brothers, look at each other, and, say, "God in your grace, turn us to you to transform the world" as indeed we sang in our Act of Repentance on April 27. The First General Rule was no longer historical rhetoric here. It was something we would remind ourselves of repeatedly. That we did so, I, for one, praise God. 

6) The new president of the Council of Bishops is Rosemarie Wenner, from Germany. She brings a deeply global perspective to leadership in the Council. And that is exactly what our bishops and all of us across the Church need now. You can hear her articulate this global vision here. It is also a thoroughly missional vision very similar to what Bob Walters, DCM of the North Katanga Annual Conference, Democratic Republic of the Congo, describes as the approach many of our African Conferences have been longing for us all to take, here. And it complements brilliantly the way German layperson and GS of GBGM, Thomas Kemper, describes the work of GBGM now-- "mission from everywhere to everywhere." I can't wait to see where and how she leads the Council and our Church over the next two years. 

7) If we didn't know it before, we must know now that our primary calling is a call to discipleship to Jesus and to discipling others in the way of Jesus wherever we are, and that we can and must accomplish that call in the power of the Holy Spirit with whatever resources or structures we have at our disposal. While some of us may be thoroughly disillusioned with the capacity of General Conference to do some things, my sense is far more of us are more convinced than ever of the power of the Holy Spirit to guide, direct and empower us all in both our local and our global contexts. 

We made some false steps leading up to and during this past General Conference, to be sure. We need to learn from those. I believe we can. Indeed, we have already shown that we are.  I am committed to doing what I can to reflect that learning in my work. 

But the Spirit has opened up for us many new possibilities through and despite what we did there. We can and I trust will build on those, as the Spirit continues to lead. 

If you know me, you know it is odd that I have come out of this whole thing optimistic. It feels very odd even to me. 

The optimism I have doesn't mean I underestimate the difficulty of the work that lies ahead of us for the next several years, even decades. This will be very hard, and I am convinced it may feel very discouraging and maybe even counterproductive at times.

But at least now, I think we have a much clearer idea of what the shape of that work is. It isn't perhaps what any of us might have expected. But I have a firm confidence that the Spirit will lead and empower us to engage it, chastening us and forgiving when we wander astray. 

Thanks be to our Triune God, the Holy Spirit has not stopped striving with us yet.

Can you hear the voice of God? "Follow me," says Jesus.

Spirit, may we trust and follow where you lead.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards