What I will always carry in my heart from General Conference were the kairos moments, when heaven and earth became one, God became incarnate in our gathering, and hope for the future reigned.
- I was so proud of the 50 teenagers and young adults who were active delegates and definitely made their voice known. It was a unique experience to sit between 2 of those outstanding young people for 10 days, West Michigan Conference lay delegates Becca Farnum and Joel Pier-Fitzgerald.
- Last week Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of the Republic of Liberia, first female head of state in Africa, and an active United Methodist, addressed the conference. Johnson, the product of Methodist education in Liberia, is leading her country back to economic and social health after years of civil war. She pleaded with us to continue our support of Liberia through our prayers, mission giving, presence and defense of human rights.
- The Hope for Africa Children’s Choir from a United Methodist School in Uganda in the East Africa Annual Conference was a living example of hope. Inspired singing, lively movement, wide smiles and pure energy rocked the Forth Worth Convention Center.
- We saw a moving video about Justa Mamani from Bolivia, who was able to give her children an education because the United Methodist Church is marketing her sewing skills in the Women’s Enrichment Program. There were few dry eyes when Mamani herself walked out on the stage in native dress and charmed the conference by her inexpressible gratitude to the United Methodist Church for giving her family hope for the future.
- The saddest moment of General Conference for me came when delegates voted not to soften language in the Social Principles where it states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. For years I’ve been praying that our Social Principles would at least acknowledge that faithful Christians are deeply divided over homosexuality and that we are humbly seeking to learn together about God’s mysterious gift of sexuality. When demonstrators were graciously allowed to share their witness on the floor of General Conference, the pain of disciples of Jesus Christ who have felt rejected by the United Methodist Church pierced my soul. Hope remained, however, as bishops and delegates pledged to remain at the table together in dialogue.
- In an effort to support Nothing But Nets, we began a friendly competition between annual conferences to see who would make the biggest pledge. At the same time, Bill Gates, Sr., co-director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, addressed the conference and announced that he would match the highest pledge. Last Friday we learned that West Ohio had pledged $80,000!!! With the Gates Foundation matching funds and pledges from the other conferences, we raised $428,030, thus saving 42,000 lives from the killer disease of malaria.
Of course, the major task of General Conference is to enact legislation on behalf of the United Methodist Church. Here’s my top ten list of the most important pieces of legislation passed. I urge you to go on the web site: www.gc2008.umc.org to read about the hundreds of other petitions.
- Strengthening the worldwide church by setting the stage for the possibility of the United States and the Central Conferences becoming regional conferences, where they might be able to adapt structures and polity to their geographical region. We did this by making changes to our constitution and authorizing a study committee to develop a plan over the next 4 years.
- Clarifying the definition of church membership: General Conference voted to give local church pastors the responsibility of discerning the readiness of persons to take the vows of membership. Those who were opposed to this petition believe that pastors and congregations should faithfully receive all persons who are willing to take the vows of membership. The petition passed by only 12 votes.
- Retaining most of the same language about the practice of homosexuality and reaffirming the prohibition against clergy conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.
- Granting eligible local pastors the right to vote for delegates to General and Jurisdictional conference (it’s taken many years for this to happen!)
- Approving $2 million additional dollars to fund theological education in Africa
- Adding the words “for the transformation of the world” to the mission of the United Methodist Church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
- Creating a new hymnal for the United Methodist Church (it passed by a very close vote because many felt that hymnals are now outmoded)
- Streamlining the process for candidates for ministry
- Adopting a new “companion litany” to our Social Creed (see attachment: it’s also been put to music!)
- Reducing the number of bishops by one in 4 of the 5 U.S. jurisdictions in 2012 (including our North Central jurisdiction) and preparing for the addition of new bishops in Africa
Conclusions about General Conference
We were not in Forth Worth to enact legislation but to be the living embodiment of hope for our denomination. We were not in Forth Worth to create more bureaucracy but to carve paths of vital faith through the wilderness of the status quo. We were not in Fort Worth to luxuriate in the pools of the rich but to wade into the cesspools of poverty, despair and oppression. We were not in Fort Worth to do business as usual but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
We were not in Forth Worth to sharpen the differences between us but to open the floodgates of dialogue and the possibility that we may be the ones God is calling to change. As Bishop Hee-Soo Jung reminded us, we were not in Forth Worth to cling to either holiness or hospitality but to practice both holiness and hospitality so that all people might claim who God created them to be.
As for me, I am in the process of assimilating my experience so that I can be a more effective leader here in West Michigan. I already have a few ideas:
- I am eager to start new churches in the Grand Rapids District, including urban and ethnic churches.
- I desire to work with local churches to develop goals in the 4 focus areas of our denomination.
- I’d love to have a charity basketball game in our district to benefit Nothing But Nets: clergy vs. laity! Anyone want to lead the effort??
- I will continue to encourage churches to plan vital, experiential worship no matter what the style, knowing that Sunday worship is the gateway into the church for most people.
- I want to challenge local churches to cultivate spiritual formation within the church with the goal of moving outside the church to be in mission and ministry.
- I pledge to keep the doors of the United Methodist Church open to all people. All means all.
There is a burning in my spirit. I will be faithful to whatever God calls me to do be. May that burning light your spirit as well, this Pentecost Sunday and forever.