A Tale of Two Church Legislatures: Priming... for a Future with Hope

Photo by Alex Upshur. Used by permission

As some of you are aware, my wife, The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards, is an Episcopal priest. She was also a deputy to the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church (a rough equivalent to General Conference for United Methodists). General Convention officially started July 5 and concluded July 12. Its Twitter hashtag, for those interested in following such things, is #GC77.

Having been deeply involved in our own General Conference (#gc2012) in April and May, I was interested to see how a different ecclesial body meeting in the same year might address some of the same issues we addressed (or, in some cases, didn't!) at our General Conference.

Indeed, the "big" issues for them were pretty similar. In fact, almost identical: Structure, declining membership in the US, budget cuts for their equivalent of "general agencies," and, of course, human sexuality.

But the feeling and spirit (not to mention the outcomes) of their process in Indianapolis were strikingly different than what many of us experienced in Tampa.

I've written before on this blog that I came away from General Conference hopeful, and that I witnessed the Holy Spirit do many amazing things there. I stand by all of that. I am hopeful for us. The Spirit did many amazing things there. And... this all happened in the midst of what many of would describe as the most negative, contentious, even at times hateful General Conference any of us can remember. Often some of us watching the events there unfold were asking ourselves, "Who are they going to go after next?"

By contrast, watching the TweetStream, occasionally the LiveStream, and, over the weekend, being present with folks and friends and family there-- my younger son was also on the floor as part of the Official Youth Presence-- the feeling of the General Convention was nothing like that of General Conference. The overall mood seemed generally serene, content, respectful, often fun, and actually hopeful through and through.
There were no undercurrents of "if we don't change everything right now, and in this particular way, we're doomed." There were certainly disagreements about many things. But everyone was treated with dignity and respect, by everyone else.

And everywhere-- not just in committee or plenary sessions. One of the hotel staff told one of the delegates-- "You are the first group of Christians I haven't had to get mad at. Come back, anytime!"

And, unlike the General Conference, the General Convention made some rather dramatic changes, even from what had been been proposed coming into the convention.

There were about 60 competing items related to restructuring, and two or three major proposals coming in about just how to do that right now. (Sound familiar?). After hearings on all of these, the Structure Committee leaders discerned the issue was the body as a whole was not ready for the question yet. So they developed and had multiple hearings on a proposal for creating a brand new group of folks not invested in the current structures to start meeting, provide a mid-triennial report, get feedback across the whole church from that, and then bring a unified finalized proposal to the 2015 General Convention for further consideration, perfection and possible adoption.
And that proposal passed, unanimously, in both houses ("Deputies," who are laity, priests and deacons, and "Bishops").

Yes. Unanimously.

It surprised even them.

But there it was.

Then there was the question-- many questions, actually-- about budget. Coming into the convention, it was unclear actually what the budget proposal was supposed to be. Several members of the body that had submitted the budget for consideration had indicated that the version that was actually published in the Blue Book (their equivalent of the ADCA) was not the budget they had actually approved. So even before the get-go, there were two versions going around.

Then the Presiding Bishop added a third-- a more "narrative" budget that was based on the Anglican Communion's "Five Marks of Mission." That budget, built with input from denominational staff and others, started from zero and asked "What kinds of things do we need to do if we're serious about engaging in these Five Marks across this church?" 

So now the Budget and Finance Committee had three different proposals coming in.

And after some hearings about this, that committee decided to scrap all three (in terms of actual numbers) but use the Five Marks framework to build a new budget there, on the spot.
And it involved cutting funding for denominational staff by about 25%-- a process the denominational staff were directly consulted about and both agreed to and supported. And they approved it. Approval for this wasn't unanimous in both houses, but it was pretty resounding. I'm sure there were regrets in some corners on some issues (cuts in communications budgets got a particularly harsh review on Twitter!), but the overall feeling across the floor about all of this was pretty positive.

Oh, and they stated their intention to find a new location for their church headquarters rather than continue at Church Center in New York City. (They did not, as some have rumored, put up a "For Sale" sign at 815 2nd Ave. as an act of desperation to "raise money." The stated aim is to find a location that is "more economical and more accessible to a broader spectrum of Episcopalians," which the imposing New York offices decidedly are not!).

Proposals about human sexuality were discussed thoroughly in both houses, with people on all sides of the issues often remarking that even where they strongly disagreed with the proposals before them, they appreciated the fact that they were being given a serious and respectful hearing-- and intentionally so. These conversations truly did no harm and often seemed to do good. While The United Methodist Church will not likely reach similar conclusions on these issues, we might learn a thing or two about the process of holy conferencing about them from our Episcopal siblings in Christ.

We know what happened with us. Advocates for specific re-structure plans would not budge to consider alternatives, so the General Administration Committee brought no recommendations to the floor. PlanUMC got cobbled together and agreed to, somewhat unenthusiastically, by 60% of the delegates, and then was declared "constitutionally unsalvageable" by Judicial Council. What the budget would be depended on the outcome of the PlanUMC votes, but then when PlanUMC was "blown up" it, too, had to be re-cobbled and re-approved at the last minutes, literally. And we proved ourselves completely incapable of having any civil conversation about human sexuality at any level-- either in committee or in plenary-- and so put all such legislative items at the end of the calendar where they were doomed to be tabled. 

How could two similar bodies with fairly similar polity, two similar sets of issues before them, and in such a similar time frame, be so divergent in how they approached and resolved these issues?

The Priming Effect
While there are without doubt many possible factors in these differences, let me suggest that at least one of them may be what neuroscientists and social psychologists call "priming."

Look at the cup of coffee at the top of this post. Notice that it's piping hot, nice and warm. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to be holding it in your hands, even for just a few seconds, on a somewhat chilly day. Got it?

Now, imagine that the person who gave it to you then asked you to look at some pictures of different people and have you tell them what you thought of them, just by looking at the photos.

Guess what. You may now be likely to think "warm thoughts" about these people in the photos. And on this chilly day, people who didn't get to hold that cup of hot coffee, for just a few second, or that may have been given a cold drink-- yep, they're likely to have much more neutral or negative thoughts about these folks.

Don't believe me? Listen to the study and the evidence on RadioLab. It's just one of literally thousands of studies that have duplicated pretty similar results.

What's going on? The brief sensory input "warm," perhaps combined with other unconscious non-verbal cues from the experimenter, "primes" or sets the baseline for what happens next.

And priming doesn't always have to be physical. It can be numerical. Numerical priming is often used by salespersons in negotiations on price for items whose value may not be concretely established. And they can even be attitudinal. If you start a conversation with a lot of negative imagery, for example, and then later in the conversation ask someone to evaluate photos of people, that will also lead to a greater likelihood that their evaluations of those photos will be negative as well. 

Possible Priming Effects before and during GC2012 and GC77
In my post "Beyond Death and Crisis Metaphors for the UMC... Please?" I noted how pervasively the rhetoric and language of death, decline and crisis had imbued media presentations, conversations and proposals for the future of the denomination both prior to and at the 2012 General Conference. The impression given by many of our leaders over a period of three years leading up to GC2012 and in major plenary presentations at GC itself was that this body had to act, right now, and both decisively and  dramatically, following a specific set of sweeping changes, including major changes to make our "ineffective" leaders "more accountable," else the denomination faced certain death in perhaps as little as two or three decades.

What might three years of conversation like that, reinforced by presentations on the scene, tend to prime? A sense of future with hope? A more passionate commitment to make disciples of Jesus to transform the world?

What had our Episcopal siblings been up to for the past several years? While this is not an exact quote of any one statement, I think it's a fair summary of what I've observed them saying and doing over the past several years. "We have real challenges to face, and real mission to engage.
No one of us has all the answers. We are in this together. We are not afraid. God is leading us as we listen to and 'respect the dignity and freedom of every person' among us, as our baptismal covenant calls us to do." 

What might three years of conversation like that, reinforced by the daily celebration of the liturgy and the modeling guidance of the leadership on the floor, tend to prime? 

Priming a Different Conversation in the UMC

If it is a future with hope that we seek as United Methodists, perhaps part of what we need to arrive there may be much the same as our Jewish ancestors experienced when their prophet, Jeremiah, told them about God's intention to offer just that kind of future. They were in exile at the time, you may recall. There was not to be any quick end to that. Instead, accompanying that promise of a hopeful future was a call: To work together for the welfare of the cities where they now found themselves. The hopeful future was not to be the outcome of any "organizational fix" the people would come up with.  It was rather to be the bountiful harvest of the fruit of lives lived with love of God and every neighbor. It wasn't to be about an anxious pursuit of the right structure. It was to be about the patient, daily confidence that as they loved God and one another, including real enemies, God was opening new doors.

I believe we do have a hopeful future before us as The United Methodist Church. I also believe that if this past General Conference was a wake-up call to anything, it was a wake-up call for us to begin placing as our first priority finding every way we can to get to know one other, work together, and respect and love one another across our global church, even and especially where we disagree, all the while trusting that as we pursue being body of Christ with one another, not being afraid, God is opening many new doors for us, too.

What if, during this next quadrennium, we United Methodists and our leaders started many new conversations about where we see the kingdom of God already happening across our Church? What if we were to create more opportunities for the witness of lives being transformed by discipleship to Jesus across the many cultures and places we may occupy on all kinds of spectra to be heard, honored, and respected? What if we found as many ways possible to live into our baptismal vow to "confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and serve him as our Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?"

What if we put "being the church" far ahead of trying to "fix the church?"

What might a few years of conversations and relationship-building with God and neighbor like that begin to prime among us both here and now and as we anticipate our next General Conference in 2016?