Anyone growing up in my generation cannot fail to remember Joni Mitchell’s 1969 mega-hit Both Sides Now.
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all
Yes, I can finally say that I’ve seen both sides now. And it’s all the same to me. Within the next several months both the Detroit and West Michigan Annual Conferences will vote for this motion, “Be it resolved that the (Detroit Annual Conference/West Michigan Annual Conference) of The United Methodist Church agrees to take all necessary action in order to create a new conference to be the legal successor to the two existing conferences in the Michigan Area of The United Methodist Church.”
I spent the first thirty-one years of my ministry in West Michigan. I served amazing congregations, made close friends among clergy and laity, watched local churches grow into vital centers of ministry and rejoiced over individual lives that were transformed forever. Now, after almost two years in the Detroit Annual Conference, I can say exactly same thing.
From both sides people are people. United Methodists in West Michigan and Detroit have the same hopes, dreams and passions. Some claim that each conference has a different culture, but in my experience, there are many cultures within each conference as well as within many of our districts. After all, the line separating the conferences is artificial. The truth is that from both sides, United Methodists make disciples by loving and advocating for all, especially those on the margins, those left behind and those who are not welcome in other faith communities.
Yes, our conferences have attempted to “merge” in the past without success. The reasons are many and varied, and the emotional effects still linger. I voted for the merger each time. However, I am convinced that our 2015 vote may be our best chance to risk getting out of the boat and doing a new thing for the sake of the kingdom of God. There are three primary reasons why I believe a new conference is part of God’s hopes and dreams for United Methodists in Michigan.
1. It’s all about mission.
Creating a new conference is not about clergy and laity and their particular comfort. It’s about how United Methodists can best reach new people for Christ.
- A new conference will facilitate better appointment-making than two smaller conferences, both of which have been declining in membership and attendance for years. With a larger pool of clergy, the Bishop and cabinet will have greater success in appointing the pastor most equipped to serve a particular church.
- We’ll be able to adapt our conference structure and use our conference staff to resource local churches more effectively.
- We can better collaborate, connect and support each other in ministry across the state.
- We can use the wisdom and energy of our episcopal leader more wisely by no longer having to duplicate every agency and expect her/him to do everything twice.
2. It’s all about trust.
This time we are voting to create a new conference without having the details fleshed out. I’ve heard some people lament the fact that we will be voting without having everything “in writing.” However, if we are willing to trust each other and our leaders, we can move forward in faith, confident that by creating one new conference instead of merging two “old” conferences, it’s no longer going to be “them” and “us,” but “we.”
We may weary of the marriage analogy, but the similarities are intriguing. Many of us grew up with a view of marriage where two people fell in love with one another and became engaged because there was a level of trust between the couple. Pre-nuptial agreements that made it clear who was bringing what assets to the marriage were not as important as the bond of trust that everything can be worked out. Living together as a “trial” before making a commitment to marriage was neither acceptable nor necessary.
What United Methodists are asked to do in Michigan this spring is trust enough to know that each conference freely offers unique assets to a new conference. Furthermore, when it’s not about us but about pooling our financial, human, administrative and spiritual resources to become more than we ever could become individually, we can then let go of “us” and “them” and give as well as receive.
Having lived on both sides now, I have observed the unintended consequences of the trust factor that has kept both conferences for the most part separate. In 2013 Gary and I were appointed to the Detroit Conference. We were thrilled with the opportunity to serve in our sister conference because we are “both sides” kind of pastors. We’ve made many friends in the Detroit Conference over the years and believe that God is a part of the appointment process.
Retaining our West Michigan Conference membership, we understood that we were not able to vote at the Detroit Annual Conference. However, we soon discovered that we would be relegated to the balcony and not able to sit on the main floor with our local church lay delegates. We are grateful that someone recognized our dilemma and moved that all West Michigan clergy be able to sit with their Detroit colleagues because they trusted that we would not vote. It sent an important message to both conferences that if we are to become one, we need to begin trusting each other now.
If we only vote to form a new conference if all the details are worked out to our individual liking, we’ll remain stuck in the past. A new conference, faithful to God’s call, will emerge as our bishop and elected leaders make the best decisions they can on our behalf. This new conference will fulfill its potential when we have the collective will to see from both sides.
3. It’s all about risk.
A favorite quote by Andre Gide reminds me how important it is to live faith: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” It’s not easy to move beyond the safety of our own conference boats, isn’t it? We don’t know exactly what this new conference will look like, and we don’t know how we are going to find our place in something larger than our experience. It will no doubt even be a bit messy as we live into a new reality because that’s how all adventures of faith start out.
However, if our leaders as well as all United Methodist clergy and lay persons in Michigan are willing to risk emptying themselves and be open to the movement of the Spirit, we will be far stronger together than separate. If we vow to be transparent and humble and are willing to lose sight of the shore for a while, we will discover new and deeper dimensions of spiritual growth, outreach and evangelism. If both sides discern that now is the time to formally join hands and hearts to bring in the kingdom of God in Michigan, then who knows how far God will lead us?
Let’s risk losing sight of the shore and create something new: a new Conference focused on mission and ministry in a new world!
Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all