General Conference Dispatch (April 23-29)

Grand Rapids District Superintendent and Delegation Chairperson Rev. Laurie Haller shares her daily experiences at General Conference

Greetings from General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Florida!  It is 8:30 a.m., and we have already begun voting on petitions brought to us by the 13 legislative committees, which worked diligently all last week.  I have been writing a daily blog while at General Conference called GC Dispatch and am including those 7 blogs here.  If you would like to receive the daily General Conference update prepared by our West Michigan Conference Director of Communications, Mark Doyal, and which includes my blog, please click here to register.  Click here to watch live streaming.

Please hold all of our delegates in prayer as we make critical decisions on behalf of The United Methodist Church.

Blessings,
Laurie

 

Sunday, April 29, 2012
Fix All

Every time I turn on my computer these days, I receive the following message, “Warning! PC Cleaner Pro has found 43,940 problems with my computer, including 2,049 system errors, 12,954 junk files, 23 privacy protection issues, 985 Malware problems, 5 PC Optimizer/System Tweaks, and 3 System Performance Problems. To fix the remaining 43,940 issues, click the “Fix All” button.”

Someday, when I have time, I’ll “fix all” on my computer with the click of a button. O, that it would be that easy to “fix all” in The United Methodist Church. It is Sunday, our Sabbath day at General Conference. I actually slept 8 hours last night instead of the 5-6 hours a night last week and the 5-6 hours a night I’ll get next week. Our bodies, minds, and spirits are numb because of the intensity of our work. We need a psychic break.

I speak for all of the delegates when I say that we love The United Methodist Church so much, we care so much about this legislative process, and we are so invested in the future of our denomination and our world that we just want to “fix all” – now. As results of legislative committee votes become known today, we realize that it’s not all going to be fixed.

One of the big surprises is that none of the restructuring proposals were approved by the General Administration Legislative Committee, prompting a liturgist in the worship service I attended this morning to say “We are United Methodists, and we are going nowhere!” The congregation erupted in gales of laughter, which reminded me of a quote by May Sarton, “We are able to laugh when we achieve detachment, if for only a moment.” That moment will be over tomorrow.

In my Superintendency Legislative Committee we had another extremely close vote yesterday on a major petition which would remove retired bishops as members of the Council of Bishops and make them members of the Jurisdictional College of Bishops out of which they were elected. Right now retired bishops are members of the Council of Bishops (COB) with voice but no vote. The rationale is partly financial, with some concerned about the cost of sending retired bishops to the twice a year COB meetings. Others believe that retired bishops wield too much influence in the COB. Still others value and wish to retain the experience, wisdom, and mentoring that retired bishops provide for their younger colleagues and for the church at large.

fter breaking up into small groups for discernment and extensive discussion as a full committee, we narrowly approved the petition, which will go to the plenary this coming week. This scenario has been repeated dozens of times in the other 12 legislative committees.

I am so proud of The United Methodist Church for the way in which we make decisions. We allow any group, local church, or one of our 12 million members to submit a petition for consideration. We insist on inclusivity, even though we don’t always practice it perfectly. We attempt to hear all voices, although some speak much more than others. We devote countless hours to legislation in committees then bring the petitions again to the plenary. A simple majority is needed for approval, except in the case of constitutional amendments, which need to be approved by annual conferences as well.

Several weeks ago we read in the news that Pope Benedict approved a crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most of the 57,000 nuns in the United States. Evidently, the women are straying too far from Catholic doctrine, on gay marriage, abortion, and women’s ordination. The Vatican’s attempt at silencing liberal dissidents seems to “fix all” because of the authority of the Pope cannot be challenged. The result, however, is that with every retrenchment the Catholic Church loses more of its brightest, most passionate, and most faithful advocates for social justice and shalom. Does the Pope really believe that with one click he can “fix” the women as well as the church?

In The United Methodist Church we allow for freedom of thought and differences of opinion. In the end, however, General Conference will make decisions that will hurt, disappoint, and alienate some. We will not “fix all” with one click of our electronic voting pads. My prayer is that instead of trying to fix our denomination, we will instead focus on fixing ourselves. When that happens, the rest will fall into place.

Fix me Jesus, fix me Oh fix me,
oh fix me, oh fix me Fix me Jesus, fix me
Fix me for my home on high Fix me Jesus,
fix me Fix me for the by and by Fix me Jesus, fix me
Fix me for my starry crown Fix me Jesus,
fix me Fix me for a higher ground Fix me Jesus, fix me
Oh fix me, oh fix me, oh fix me Fix me Jesus,
fix me Fix me Jesus, fix me Oh fix me
(African American Spiritual)

Saturday, April 28, 2012
The Parking Lot

The last day of legislative committees found delegates working intently, purposefully, and prayerfully. We took 20 minute breaks every few hours, but much of the time we continued informal strategizing out in the halls. In the local church we call it “parking lot conversations.”

Such conversations are often suspect. Parking lot conversations before church meetings may result in new agendas items that are presented in committee meetings without having gone through agreed upon channels and are intended to subvert normal processes. Parking lot conversations after church meetings often focus on complaints about decisions that are made, but they can also be a normal way to process information.

At General Conference parking lot conversations are an essential part of our work. Faced with a mountain of material that must be dealt with in a sort amount of time, delegates often spend breaks reflecting upon what we’ve just done, bouncing ideas around, and figuring out how to break up log jams.

I participated in many parking lot conversations this week with legislative committee members, but sometimes the best way for an introvert like me to process information is to have a parking lot conversation with God. Last evening during our dinner break I picked up a subway salad and walked by myself for an hour along Tampa Bay. Clearing my mind of the day’s work, I watched and listened.

  • Flying fish joyfully leaped out of the water: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
  • The outline of a manta ray gliding just beneath the surface was barely visible: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
  • Pelicans dive-bombed into the water for fish: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people, but please be a little more gentle than pelicans.” (Mark 1:17, with liberty)
  • A homeless man was lying in the sidewalk sleeping: “Lord, when did we see you…?” (Matthew 25:37)
  • People are biking, walking, and running: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” (Habakkuk 2:2)
  • A mound of trash floated along the edge of the water: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:18) 

After my bayside conversation with God, my spirit was restored, and I was ready to participate in the evening Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People. God is not through with me yet.

My parking lot conversation at noon today was at a Justice Rally outside the Convention Center. The theme of the rally, sponsored by The UMC’s Task Force on Immigration and state and local groups, was “Profit From Pain Is Inhumane! Dignity Not Detention.” Many people are not aware that the private prison industry in the United States is growing and is being used to incarcerate immigrants.

The rally focused on opposition to the building of a 1,500-bed private immigrant detention center in Broward County, Florida. Over 350,000 immigrants are jailed in the United States, enduring terrible conditions, separation from their families, and treatment as criminals. Organizers claimed that the private prison industry is investing in putting more people into prison by encouraging state governments to send them prisoners and guarantee occupancy.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño, chair of the Immigration Task Force, said, “We believe that the for- profit prison system is a major contributor to the detention of immigrants without due process of law. This system contributes to the growing criminalization of entire migrant communities giving rise to racial profiling and the demonization of migrant communities. We believe this to be immoral and antithetical to our Christian faith.”

Another rally speaker said, “If you want to impress Jesus, you will advocate for the poor, the hungry, homeless, and the prisoner.” I turned to a friend and said, “This is where we find hope.” I thank God for a church that is not afraid to speak out against injustice and oppression wherever they are found.

It was quite a parking lot conversation, and it restored my perspective as we went back to our legislative petitions. When the last petition was voted upon, we offered our work to God. Our legislative committee was grateful for the clarity and energy to do the best that we could, at the same time recognizing that it was not perfect. We were prayerful and discerning and listened carefully to all voices. Somehow God used us.

Tomorrow is our Sabbath, a time for resting our weary bodies, minds, and spirits. Next week our legislative decisions will come to the plenary where they will be refined, bandied about in more parking lot conversations, and finalized. What will we have to show for all of this effort? Two new books! The Book of Discipline 2012 and The Book of Resolutions 2012.

But the new books are nothing compared to a new beginning, a new spirit, a new attitude, a new hope, a new vitality, a new commitment to shalom, a new church. God is not through with The United Methodist Church yet. I can’t wait for the parking lot conversations that lie ahead!

Friday, April 27, 2012
God Bless You

At the end of worship last night we were asked to lay hands on and offer prayers of healing for one another. With my seat mate I asked for prayers for all those in our world who are experiencing disappointment, despair, oppression, and hurt. I was thinking especially of the personal privilege granted during the evening plenary to Mark Miller, a gay man and delegate. Miller expressed deep pain resulting from small group holy conferencing the day before. During dialog around homosexuality, several people experienced rejection, shame, and even bullying by others. After Miller invited delegates to stand who have loved ones, family, and friends who are homosexuals, Bishops Hays offered a beautiful prayer.

My heart was pierced to think that some of our brothers and sisters might feel disenfranchised from the body of Christ. I was also remembering the previous night when Rev. Adam Hamilton described that one of the primary goals of the Call to Action is to raise up and invest in a new generation of clergy, specifically 2,000 young clergy in the next 10 years. Certainly, the health of our denomination is directly related to the effectiveness of our clergy. However, I have always been convinced that the power of The United Methodist Church is in the laity. Laity are our most under-utilized resource. We will rise or fall as a Holy Spirit-led movement because of laity who witness, model, teach, and encourage others by their grace, faith, and spiritual courage.

Every vital, healthy church that I have ever experienced is filled with laity who are trained, equipped, and empowered to use their spiritual gifts to grow the church. Those laity are pastored by clergy who are willing to adapt their leadership style to share ministry. Energized laity who envision new ministries that align with the church’s mission, find others to join them, and make a difference in their community and the world are the lifeblood of the church. How is it, then, that we speak of redirecting so many resources to young clergy development when the nurturing and equipping of laity, both young and old, will likely yield far greater results? Why do we keep alienating tens of thousands of highly gifted and faithful GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) lay and clergy by inviting them into leadership only if they promise not to make a commitment to love another for life? And why is it that some of our United Methodist pastors will not permit partnered gay persons to become members?

The truth is that we can no longer afford to hoard ministry to ourselves and exclude those who are different, whether it’s gender, sexuality, skin color, socioeconomic status, or anything else. Obviously, it hasn’t worked for the last 40 years. Where might we be today if everyone was welcome to eat and drink at the table in the kingdom of God?  All of that was running through my mind when I left the plenary hall after worship and witnessed several hundred people wearing rainbow stoles and lining both of the main exits of the convention center. They were young, old, men, women, homosexual, heterosexual, lay, clergy.

Instinctively, I laid my hand on the first person’s head and said, “God bless you.” I went all the way down the line of 40 people and moved over to the other side. Even longer lines of rainbow stoled children of God stood at the other exit. Compelled to go there, I could not stop without blessing each one. Just as Jesus healed by touch, so touching their heads was meant to be a sacramental act of healing. When I touched heads, some smiled, some looked into my eyes, others looked straight ahead, and still others remained with heads bowed. Some had tears in their eyes or streaming down their faces. “God bless you.” “God bless you.” “God bless you.” All were fully present to the moment, including me. I was transformed.

The next moment I was heartsick. Watching delegates and visitors stream out of the exits, I saw some people totally ignoring those wearing stoles, as if they were invisible. Others wore steely or annoyed expressions on their faces and would not make eye contact. Several were chatting with friends and appeared not to notice. Some seemed sympathetic but did not know how to respond. A few stopped to interact. Years ago I decided that Jesus does not allow any of us to make exceptions about whom to love. Every day I struggle with the implications of that decision, but I am more clear than ever that if God can love a person like me, then I will covenant to love and honor everyone, with God’s help. God bless you.

Thursday, April 26, 2012
The Legislative Life

We got our feet wet with a few no-brainers, like a petition that clergy as well as laity are eligible to become bishops and another petition that district superintendents not serve in their own conference but in adjoining conferences. Then we hopped right in to episcopal term limits.

I am a member of the Superintendency Legislative Committee, which has 62 members. There are lay and clergy members, and U.S members and members from Central Conferences outside the US. We have a white clergywoman chair, an African clergyman vice-chair, and a white lay young adult male secretary. Since you are likely a United Methodist, you understand the high value that we place on exclusivity in everything that we do. We have a number of translators for those whose first language is not English, and those of us who speak English are learning to speak slowly. We are all mindful that every voice matters and is needed in order to reflect the fullness of The United Methodist Church.

We have 43 petitions and 3 long days to thoroughly digest, discuss, and then refer, amend, approve, or disapprove each petition. 5 petitions deal with term limits for bishops, one of which comes from our West Michigan Annual Conference. Last June we approved a petition that says, in part, “Bishops of The United Methodist Church shall be elected for terms of 4 years and are subject to re-election by the Jurisdictional Conferences that elected them….

Our process today included breaking up into small groups to carefully consider all 5 petitions, how they are alike and how they differ. My group had 5 people, none of whom were from the U.S. except for me. I learned that central conferences have varying practices around episcopal term limits. In Germany bishops are elected for 4 years and can be re-elected for another 8 years for a total of 12 years. In Poland bishops are elected for life as they are in the U.S. In the Ukraine bishops are elected for 6 years but can serve no more than 12 years. In Nigeria bishops serve within their own annual conference with a term of no longer than 8 years. My international colleagues in this small group all agreed that our denomination needs flexibility around term limits between U.S. Jurisdictions and Central Conferences because of our unique contexts.

After lunch we engaged in philosophical and heart-felt discussion about the purpose of term limits for our bishops. What does it mean to be a bishop? Is the episcopacy another order, or are bishops simply elders who are elected for a period time and then go back into a local church?

Should there be episcopal term limits because of accountability, ineffectiveness, finances, power, or something else? It was important to hear from an African delegate about how power is often misused among leaders in Africa. Others reminded us that that continuity of effective leadership contributes to vital ministry at every level of the church.

We recognized that terms limits might result in unintended consequences for bishops who are women and/or people of color. We also acknowledged that legislating episcopal effectiveness as a way of dealing with ineffective bishops disregards our responsibility to carefully discern the gifts and graces of episcopal candidates before they are elected. It also lets us off the hook for providing appropriate accountability, mentoring, and coaching for active bishops.

The petition upon which we voted would be an amendment to the Constitution of the United Methodist Church and said, “The bishops of The Methodist Church elected by the jurisdictions, the active bishops of The Evangelical United Brethren Church at the time of union, and bishops elected by the jurisdictions shall have life tenure a term of office limited to eight years, with the possibility of one re-election. Each bishop elected by a central conference of The United Methodist Church shall have such tenure as the central conference electing him shall have determined.”

The vote was 25 for the amendment, 28 against the amendment, and 7 abstentions. There is a provision for a minority report signed by 10 persons or 10% of the legislative committee membership (whichever is less) who voted against the proposal. They must notify the chair within 2 hours of final committee action. The committee and minority reports will be submitted and presented together in the Daily Christian Advocate and will be considered in plenary next week.

The legislative life continues. It’s late afternoon, and we have now moved on to the set-aside bishop, which is generating equally lively dialog. Please continue to pray for all of the delegates, that we will be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit as we make significant decisions for the future of our beloved church.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012
DISCIPLINE

As I listened to Bishop Peter Weaver’s Episcopal Address this morning, I heard him reference the importance of local churches engaging in “disciplining” ministries and finally made the connection. “Disciplining, “disciple,” and “discipline” are interrelated.

What compels people to become disciples of Jesus Christ today is not ultimately bridge clubs, softball teams, or working in soup kitchens, although each of these activities may open a door to the church.

What people are searching for is discipleship. They yearn to hear the stories of Jesus, learn what it means to give themselves away for the sake of Christ and the world, and then make a conscious decision to live in Christ-like discipleship. Bishop Weaver put it this way, “Do we want calcified Christians or crucified Christians?” I much prefer the latter.

When we say that we are a disciple of someone or something, it means that we adhere to the teachings of a particular person or system of belief. In the same way a disciple of Christ submits to the discipline of Jesus, the Master Teacher and Savior. No one doubts that a life of faith entails the rigor of discipline.

Few of us will ever approach John Wesley’s discipline, but we carry his legacy within us as United Methodists. As we heard this morning in the Laity Addresses, in order to live for Christ, a part of us has to die. Do we have the discipline to let go of pride, envy, status, riches, or security in order to follow Christ? What spiritual disciplines do our local churches have to practice in order to transform themselves into agents of hope and healing in our world?

United Methodists seem to have a love/hate relationship with the idea of discipline. Perhaps it’s because our denomination is guided by The Book of Discipline. Certainly, we need rules so that we can order ourselves as a denomination. In fact, we spent last night and much of the morning haggling over the rules that will guide our General Conference 2012. Despite the silent pleas of some to “just get on with it,” we understood the importance of ensuring that effective systems are in place to facilitate our work and, ultimately, our mission. At the same time, we must not let The Book of Discipline drive our mission. Legislative committees were organized this afternoon. I am in the Superintendency Legislative Committee, and I pray that the legislation we pass will be a catalyst for the adaptive change mandated by our mission, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Mission should drive discipline (especially The Book of Discipline) and not the other way around.

Last weekend I spent 2 days with my grandson in Sarasota. Ezra is a curious bundle of energy who can get out of control at times, like most 3 year olds. Like the time when we were shopping for clothes and Ezra insisted that we buy him 2 nondescript plastic cups that were worth pennies. I outfitted Ezra with many summer clothes, but he didn’t care one bit. Despite dozens of gentle and then very direct reminders that we would not buy him the cups, Ezra carried them around the store until the bitter end when he dissolved into a massive fit.

Ezra doesn’t know this yet, but discipline does not burden us. Rather, it lightens our load. Ezra is most fortunate to have parents who know what is best for him and lovingly teach him self-control. Discipline helps us to become mature healthy persons who are able to delay gratification and say “no” to ourselves in order to say “yes” to what is far better. In the same way, the hours we spent in the last 2 days perfecting our rules will free us to function more effectively in the days ahead at General Conference. Pray for us!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012
INTERSECTIONS

“Look for the intersections,” we were urged this morning in a briefing for young people, women, and people of color. When we welcome people who are at the margins of our church and world to the center, the intersection that results moves us to a collective future. Those at the margins are our agents of change. Yet the patterns of intersection that we create also expose an interlocking web of exclusion that threatens to divide if we are not self-aware and intentional about inclusion.

Earlier in the morning we had a meeting for chairs of the delegations. It was only after we started that the leaders realized there were no translators available for delegates for whom English is not their first language. It was one of those glitches that happen in a large and complex international conference, yet it also made a statement about our US dominated denomination. In addition, we were startled to hear that some conferences from other countries did not have full delegations because of visa problems, and almost all could not afford to pay travel costs for reserve delegates. A built-in inequity will not allow full and equal representation of all our constituencies.

The mid-morning briefing emphasized the fact that our church does not reflect our world. The percentage of people of color, young people, people whose first language is not English, and women in The United Methodist Church is far less than that of our world. Harriet Olson, Deputy General Secretary of United Methodist Women, reflected on words of challenge offered by 16 year old Sam Sim, a reserve delegate in his conference. She said that there will be 10 more General Conferences (every 4 years) before Sam reaches the age of the average member of The United Methodist Church, 56.

She asked, “What will the world look like 40 years from now? What will The United Methodist Church look like 40 years from now? Most important, what will General Conference do in the next 11 days to create the church of the future, where The United Methodist Church truly reflects the world that we are serving? How can our denomination intersect with tomorrow’s world if we don’t begin right now? Can we create a transformed world that Sam can live in and lead 10 General Conferences from now?”

As we begin working in legislative committees tomorrow afternoon, I am committed to looking at our task with new eyes. I pledge to look at all of our petitions through the eyes of those who are marginalized and often relegated to the back of the room rather than through my own eyes. And I am going to ask different questions, “What role does gender or ethnicity play in this petition? Does the petition unwittingly pit one group against another? Are we using language that unintentionally hurts or excludes others? Who will the petition benefit? How can we assure that all voices are heard in the discussion? How can we respect and honor cultural differences?”

I pray that in the next 11 days all eyes will be peeled to the margins so that we can seek shalom at the intersections of General Conference.

Monday, April 23, 2012
WELCOME UNITED METHODISTS!

A big smile crosses my face as I walk toward the baggage claim at the Tampa airport on Saturday and see the sign, “Welcome United Methodists GC 2012.” As I retrieve my suitcase, I chat with 2 Africans who were on my flight from Atlanta, are serving as translators, and are headed to a 5 hour orientation. The woman says, “It’s so much easier for the international delegates to follow what’s going on when they don’t have to worry about understanding every nuance of the English language. It is a joy to help them.” I can’t wait to meet other new friends from around the world and be inspired by their faith and witness.

On Monday I register and wander through the empty plenary hall, praying for each delegate, worker, volunteer, and visitor. I imagine what it will be like during opening worship tomorrow with thousands of United Methodists uniting hearts in praise and possibility.

There is a fierce wind all day in Tampa, a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is moving for a few weeks in to blow us out of our complacence onto the Potter’s wheel for God to mold and shape over the next 11 days. I see ReThink banners fluttering all over the downtown area. I wonder what the citizens of Tampa think when they read them. I see children playing in a park. How will The United Methodist Church influence their future? I see welcome signs in local restaurants. Will we be signs of grace as they serve us?

How will this General Conference make a difference in our local churches?

  • If the Call to Action restructuring proposal or an amended proposal passes, the emphasis on directing attention toward the creation of vital local congregations will filter down to increases resourcing of local churches.
  • If the petition for a “set aside bishop” is passed, residential bishops will spend most of their time helping to create vital churches in their own conference(s).
  • If General Conference supports the continuation of ethnic initiatives and the creation of new churches, the ripple effect of the energy and vision of new faith communities will revitalize our existing churches as well.
  • If the guaranteed appointment is removed or altered, raising the bar on clergy effectiveness will ensure more skilled clergy for our local churches.
  • If General Conference approves the $603,100,000 proposed budget, the 6.6% reduction over 4 years will slightly decrease general church apportionments for local churches.

Most of all, the attitude, passion, and focused vision of this General Conference will change our denomination – and the world.

 

 

 

One thought on “General Conference Dispatch (April 23-29)

  1. Thanks Laurie,

    Many thanks for the insight, the lessons learned and the inspiration to look for “our” rooms where we can move forward and be closer to God.

    May God bless you abundantly in the time ahead as you move to a time of transition and change. You will continue to inspire and be inspired.

    Blessings,

    Jim

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