UMC NEXT

June 03, 2019

DAY ONE

The first day of UMC Next was characterized by worship, testimonies, and discussion. I am so grateful to the congregation of the Church of the Resurrection for hosting this time together, and for those throughout our connection who serve on the convening team. With only weeks to prepare, volunteers have assembled nametags, provided documents, arranged for catering, designed worship, and organized our time together. Although participants paid a $50 fee to cover some of the expenses, I know COR has provided substantial funds to make this possible, and for this I am grateful.

 
Just a constant reminder of the Holy Spirit present at COR!

For those who are interested in getting a sense of what is going on through selected quotes from speakers, I invite you to follow #umcnext on Twitter. (For those who are new to Twitter, you can click "latest" on the top of the screen to get the latest tweets on top if you want to check it throughout the day.)

Here are a few highlights from our first day.

The Convening Team introduced 5 priorities for our time together:
  • We will not accept the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference
  • We are committed to being a church of justice and inclusion for all people
  • We call for the elimination of the incompatibility language and restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons
  • We are committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity that passionately embraces both the evangelical and the social gospel as we seek to follow Jesus Christ
  • We believe this vision is the path to a hope-filled future for the United Methodist Church

Desired outcomes for our time together, as defined by the Convening Team, are:
  • To bring together a diverse group of church leaders from across the U.S. to strategize together about the future of the Methodist movement
  • To respond with some urgency to the actions of the 2019 General Conference and the adoption of the Traditionalist Plan
  • To develop and share strategies for resisting the enactment of the Traditional Plan and/or energize a new movement in the Wesleyan tradition
  • To develop next steps for individuals, congregations, and annual conferences to take action between now and the 2020 General Conference 
Other than this, there is no pre-determined plan for moving forward. Rev. Adam Hamilton made it clear that we are not convening to hear about a plan that has already been formed, but rather to seek to engage in spirit-filled conversation and discernment to determine the best course for our denomination.

Following a time of worship and some powerful testimonies, we moved to table discussions. Work had already been done to place people at tables so each table had broad diversity. My table has 8 people. Among these (and allowing for overlapping categories) are: two African-Americans, one lay person, one local pastor who does not have a seminary degree, one gay man, one woman in a same-sex marriage, two young adults, one who works in campus ministry, one deacon who serves a church with a trans-gender senior pastor, 3 men and 5 women. Each person comes from a different part of the country, as far west as Montana and as far east as New Jersey. I think the team that organized tables did a pretty good job at achieving diversity!

We were given time to discuss our choice of three questions:
  1. What renewal of the church excites you so much that you would support and work toward it? A new idea? vision? possibility? way of being? organization?
  2. What do you want to continue in the next phase/expressions of Methodism?
  3. What would a successful transition to the next Methodism look like for your congregation/conference/group?
With 78 tables (including 2 bishop tables), there were a large number of responses generated to these questions. We should have a summary document of these answers tomorrow. I'll try to highlight some of the comments I heard at my table and in the reporting time that followed:
  • A great sense of injustice in the aftermath of GC2019, coupled with guilt that by remaining in the UMC, we are complicit in this.
  • A call that the UMC has failed to keep the vows we take at membership "to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves."
  • A reminder that this is not just about equality and inclusiveness for LGBTQ+ individuals, but for all who have been and still are oppressed within the UMC - including, but not limited to, people of color and women. Fighting for inclusion is not new for African Americans and women, for example.
  • As Wesleyans, we are called to Do No Harm. We are doing harm, and this has to stop.
  • There is a tension between a sense of great urgency and a need for individual churches to have conversations. Some churches are ready to leave now; others identify as progressive combatibilists and will need time to decide if they will stay or leave; many haven't even had the first conversation, so need to determine where they are
  • We need to claim and lead with our Wesleyan roots (including open Communion table, personal and social holiness, prevenient/justifying/sanctifying grace, and commitment to social justice), which are tied to theology, not structure 
  • A call for a new Methodism; achieving a "good divorce" with the help of a mediator

I think we did a pretty good job of getting the conversation started today, and look forward to seeing where this leads us tomorrow. From what I heard at my table and in the reporting time, many people here are convinced that our denomination is broken and cannot be mended without a separation.

Of course, throughout all of this, I am always asking: What might this mean for our congregation? It is far too early for me to begin to answer that. Right now, we have an opportunity to listen to many voices who have not always had an opportunity to speak. We also have an opportunity to reflect, to pray, to ask questions, and to imagine what something different looks like. While there is a sense of urgency, there is work that must be done before we can even describe what new thing we imagine.

I want to thank all of the members of my congregation who have taken the "sugar packet" survey. We've had 110 responses so far, which is amazing! I will eventually share the results: however, I would like to have as many members as possible take the poll, first, which means that we will need at least one Sunday to invite people who don't frequently check their email to learn about it. 

Finally, I'd like to share some of the quotes I heard today that struck me as important:
  • Our charge is not to do less harm; our charge is to do no harm.
  • Harm is different from discomfort. The appropriate response to harm is to stop and try to repair those conditions. We need to call to the center the harm that has been done to marginalized people.
  • Grace is not the same as pleasantness. Nice people are not always gracious people. Grace requires forgiveness and repentance and calls us to repair harm.
  • Be mindful of whatever privilege you have, and pay attention to how much “space” you are taking up.
  • Maybe, just maybe...God has something to say to us this day. Our hope is in nothing less than Jesus Christ.
And then there's this little gem:
  • Clergywomen in the UMC make $0.84 for every $1.00 that clergymen make.
    • This was reported by the Commission on the Status and Role of Women for 2015.
    • That same year, COSROW reported that in the Central Texas Conference, clergywomen made $0.74 for every $1.00 clergyman made. (We have some amazing clergywomen leaders in our conference. Does this sound unacceptable to anybody else?)
On that note, and with great hopes for our future, good night!

DAY TWO:
I'm staying at an Airbnb about 20 minutes away from the Church of the Resurrection, and was surrounded this morning with reminders of God's love and grace:

Did I say surrounded? I felt very loved as I headed out the door for a long day, filled with worship and discussion - lots and lots of discussion!

Today, we worked to narrow down the approach that we want to take as we move forward. (Spoiler alert: we haven't chosen one, yet!)

During our time, we are using Mentimeter to get immediate visual results as we weigh in on questions that are asked. This helps us gauge the room very quickly, which is valuable and necessary, as our time is short.

As a preface to working on next steps, it was acknowledged that "the next expression of Methodism will fail if we do not address the elephant in the room: racism." Our table groups were asked to answer the following questions:
 
  • How can we address the issues of systemic racism in your church and annual conference?
  • How can this new expression of Methodism seek to not do any more harm regarding issues of race and ethnicity?
  • How do we address classism that keeps certain voices excluded from the conversation?
At my table group, we discussed how so many of our churches are predominantly white, and how this also affects conference events. As I considered this, I thought of our Conference Council on Youth Ministry (to name just one example). If the students who apply for this leadership group come from predominantly white churches, how can we increase the diversity of youth leadership in our conference? My son attends a middle school where the demographic is 24% Caucasian; my daughter's high school is 8% Caucasian. The zip code of our church is about 60% Caucasian, which is close to the percentage for our city. But our church is over 90% Caucasian, which I believe is not unusual for United Methodist churches in the Fort Worth area. How can our churches best address issues of systemic racism, when we have such a low level of diversity? What can we do to increase our diversity?

We also talked about how conferences can do a better job of preparing churches for cross-cultural appointments, as well as receiving a female pastor, or female senior pastor, for the first time: "Conferences have to stop dropping us into appointments without preparing people for it."

Following this, we began the work of vetting three options for UMC Next, beginning with Dissolution. Our group likened this option to a mediated divorce (later, someone said it was perhaps more like both parents died, and the children are dividing the inheritance). We were asked to consider the pros and cons for this choice, as well as practical steps that would be necessary for this route. To give a very brief summary of my group's discussion, I will say that this appears to be an attractive option for laity/clergy/churches/conferences who are tired of fighting. They do not believe the outcome on the question of inclusiveness regarding LGBTQ+ will ever change, or will not change before too much more harm is done. The situation we are in is too painful, and we need to divide the church, possibly finding some parts of our institution, like UMCOR and Wespath, that we can continue to both share. This option would require all parties to come to the table and come to an agreement. It would also require constitutional change, which is difficult to achieve.

These same three questions were then asked of a second option: Disaffiliation. In this option, churches would leave according to the disaffiliation rules that will be part of the Discipline in January of 2020 and would then affiliate together to form a new thing. The new rules include paying the last 12 months and the next 12 months' worth of apportionments and funding pension responsibilities according to the annual conference's calculations. Some concerns about supporting this choice include: 1) there is subjectivity built into the process, and a lot depends on how the annual conference is willing to work with churches that want to disaffiliate; and 2) these rules could change at General Conference 2020. There is also a concern that some churches who want to leave will not be able to afford this. As a solution to a justice issue, this seems problematic. On the positive side, there is a sense that this is the option that gives us the most creative freedom to create something new. Although it is perhaps the most difficult solution, it is one that allows for unlimited options for a new expression of Methodism.

Both of these options involve churches leaving the connection, which is hard. One speaker acknowledged that this is extremely difficult and requires a deep level of conviction. While many are unhappy with the decisions made at GC2019, will churches take the difficult step to leave the connection? At my table, many felt that their church would. One person said, "We need to stop the bleeding; otherwise, it will be death by 1,000 cuts." Another said, "There is a clear message that we are not wanted. When someone doesn't want you, you do the best you can to get out of the relationship and make sure no further harm is done." 

The final option we considered was to Stay, Build Community, Resist and Reform. It was clear to me as I talked with people throughout the day that some feel that this is our best option. They do not think many churches in their conference would choose to leave but believe there are many in their conference who would work together to resist the non-inclusive nature of our denomination. If we are organized in our efforts, we can be more effective than we have been in the past. Others have zero desire to pursue this option. Their churches are ready to leave; and they will leave, even if UMC Next decides to put our energy into resistance from within. Some are concerned that too many will leave if this is the option we choose, our force will become weakened, and when we are finally ready to admit that this will not work, we will have lost so much of the strength and momentum we currently have. Some say their conscience will not allow them to stay and remain complicit in the sin of exclusion and injustice that the church is guilty of. Others want to stay because we have so many shared assets (including physical and ministry assets) that they value. Some are in conferences where they think it will be just too difficult to leave and are uncertain if their church will agree to be a part of a new expression of Methodism that is not geographically located near their church.

My words here capture just a portion of the points discussed today, and I sat at one table among 78. Significant time was spent in discussion of all of these options. All of these paths have significant pros and cons. All of them require work. The options to leave feel riskier; however, the option to stay also feels uncertain. What is our best path?

Tonight, the convening team is sorting through all of the reports they received on all of the table conversations we had today. A poll was taken to get a sense of how the body weighted these plans; however, the body had difficulty deciding the best way to ask this question, taking into account a number of variables. I personally did not feel that we truly gained a sense of what the body wants. If anything, we affirmed that "it's complicated." We did not end today with a clear decision.

One point that was made today was, "We are not a leadership group; we are a group of leaders." As I understand it, we are not a committee of 618 who will shape the future of this movement. The purpose of this gathering is to have these conversations to capture the desires of centrist and progressive UMs from across the U.S. to see what we want to do in the face of the adoption of the Traditional Plan. This body is not charged with mapping out a new plan by noon tomorrow. However, I do expect that tomorrow, we will come closer to understanding where this group will put its energies and have a sense of what our next steps are.

Sitting at a table with people from a variety of conferences that are not my own, and none from my jurisdiction has been so valuable. I've gained some understanding of how decisions made at General Conference affect United Methodists in different parts of our country, and how no "solution" will be uniformly embraced or applied. There are a great deal of nuances across our connection: this is not a simple division of "progressives" and "traditionalists," and the discussion needs to be about more than just LGBTQ+ inclusion.

The end of the day felt expectant to me, as there is a sense that we are nearing the end of our time and we are all hoping to accomplish something that will give shape to our future. I pray that this is so, and invite you to be in prayer with me as we conclude the UMC Next meeting tomorrow morning.

Click here for the original blog posts titled, "UMC Next: Day One" and "UMC Next: Day Two"
 

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