Ten Tough Questions for General Conference 2020
by Bob Phillips
Since the spate of annual conferences in the summer I have overheard numerous questions about the state of the United Methodist Church, what General Conference 2020 will do (I have no idea), and what are the big issues that enable or impede some sort of positive outcome. Some questions I have been asked. Some questions I have asked. Some questions I have read from other sources that seem relevant. Some came from a recent conversation held with a conference delegation (not my own) consisting of lay and clergy who ran the table in opposition to the Traditional plan and wanted to have a presentation about the views of the WCA. As a local leader of the WCA I made the trip and presentation and was received with total graciousness and probing/constructive questions. What follows are ten of the most common questions I have encountered. Some can be seen as WCA “friendly” and others as not so friendly. Though I am a WCA member, I am NOT speaking officially for the WCA in these responses.
1. How many racial and ethnic minorities are aligned with the WCA?
No one knows. WCA gatherings have racial-ethnic diversity among participants. The Association of Korean UM Churches, consisting of a substantial majority of Korean congregations in the US, has aligned formally with the WCA. The 41 churches of the Chinese UM association likewise have affirmed alignment with the WCA. No African-American UM organization has done so, though several black clergy and laity serve in positions of leadership on the Global and regional boards. MARCHA, the Latino caucus for the denomination, publicly favored the One Church Plan, though with dissent. The North Central Jurisdiction Latino caucus rejected the MARCHA decision. Recall that for US ethnic-racial minorities issues other than and beyond gay marriage claim major interest.
2. Is the WCA willing to agree to a suspension of filing charges and trials until GC?
Yes, and no. Trials are a last step response to a prior action of alleged disobedience to the BOD. Trials are expensive in treasure, time and energy. The WCA hopes everyone will call a truce, drop their weapons, and allow GC2020 to deal with issues. The statements of the WJ and several bishops elsewhere that they will not address complaints filed over alleged disobedience have reinforced the serious doubts many traditional laity and clergy have for the current health and integrity of the connection and much of its leadership. If all agree not to violate the existing standards until GC2020 plays out I seriously doubt the WCA would affirm any reach-back efforts to kindle fresh trials for previous issues.
3. Has the WCA been planning to split the denomination or take over the denomination?
The WCA was formed in late 2016 to offer a unified and coherent voice to the denomination in behalf of traditional understandings of the gospel, theology, human sexuality and related matters. It counseled frustrated traditional clergy and churches to remain in the denomination until the GC2019 could address the sexuality issues. It officially counsels continued patience through GC2020 for those tired of the ongoing disagreements and sanctioned selective disobedience of some. Its efforts to draft a template alternative (and much smaller) BOD has been a clearly stated contingency for those whose conscience may not enable them to remain within the existing denomination after GC2020. A significant number of UM churches will make other plans no matter what GC2020 decides, unless the GC finds a win-win scenario that honors the conscience of all the ‘contestants’ and rejects any win-lose scenario outcome. Their efforts are legitimate, as are the much more extensive efforts of the Western Jurisdiction to explore a new Wesleyan expression if GC2020 proves dissatisfying to progressives. Also, the WCA and the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) have no legal, financial or joint-leadership connections.
4. Would not the UMC be spiritually weakened by splitting into groups with no liberals or no conservatives?
Yes, and no. A wide expanse of theological opinions (understood in Wesley’s term as matters not touching on salvation) has been part of the Wesleyan DNA. Some of that would be lost in a left-right split. Not all of that is bad. Traditional UM clergy and churches do believe the incarnation of Christ through the medium of the virgin birth happened, that the atonement for sin on the cross was a transcendent and eternal reality, the resurrection actually happened, and the return of Christ will be a literal intersection of time and eternity in the fulfillment of the Kingdom. They believe the new birth is a “must” and that ‘there is no other name under Heaven given among humankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). When the NCJ College of Bishops gave Bishop Sprague a pass to take such matters “seriously but not literally,” that was a theological bridge too far. That said, the church in whatever expression (for example) can retain affirmation in the second coming of Christ while affirming equally devout Christians understanding it in premillennial, postmillennial, a-millennial, dispensational or other ways. “Where there are two Methodists, there are three opinions,” remains true…except if one believes Jesus is physically dead, in which case the Unitarians would welcome you!
5. How can delegations composed of those who all align with one side of the sexuality debate meaningfully represent those conference churches and clergy whose voices have been excluded from the room (whether from the right or the left)?
Two unintended consequences have arisen from politicizing the delegate election process to sweep the ballot for uniformity on a single issue, whether from the left or the right. First, those who know they were consciously targeted for exclusion lose trust in the integrity of the process, loyalty toward the system, or buy-in to support whatever outcome. Second, focus on single issue agenda elections always guarantee gifted and effective clergy or laity with unique and needed experience and insights are shut out if they were excluded based on a single issue. Several delegations have no one whose birth language was not English. Some conferences have no effective church planter/grower or effective social justice ministries representatives. This was not intentional. It also applies to sweeps excluding more liberal clergy/laity over a single issue. Two steps can assist in dealing with these consequences. First, delegations are wise to establish listening sessions throughout their conferences prior to May, 2020, given primarily to listening to the voices of those for whom they will speak at GC…and the voices of those whom they may represent but for whom they will not speak. This also will reminds clergy and laity of the many issues other than sexuality the delegates will face, areas in which they hopefully will speak for all their constituents. Second, I strongly urge delegates to pledge in advance that they will not promise in public how they will vote (since one never knows) but that they will reveal how they did vote after this watershed conference, complete with reasons. Every layperson and clergy has a right to know not only that they were represented at GC2020 but how they were represented, especially since the future of the denomination is at stake. Transparency is an absolute requirement to nurture or to begin restoration of trust. As a delegate I shared my votes, and the reasons, during and after GC2016-19, not just about sexuality, and no death threats or mob violence ensued.
6. Is the Indianapolis plan (INDY) really the WCA plan and agenda in disguise?
No. It is the only plan created with a true diversity of players at the table (traditional-centrist-progressive). WCA has endorsed it, while holding its nose over some provisions. It is like the Brian Cranston line from the movie Argo (the rescue of embassy staff in Iran in 1979), when asked about the fake movie scheme to gain their freedom: “Yes sir, it’s the best bad plan we have.” The fact there is something in the plan that all facets like, that what one group likes another group dislikes, and that there are items in the plan that no one likes all combine to recommend its serious consideration. It also clearly has been presented as a work in progress, with invitations to offer suggestions for improvement and added insights. Conservatives who reject the INDY plan automatically because progressive and centrist hands help to craft it, and those who reject it simply because WCA was involved in its creation are united in a strategy that strangles constructive hope in its crib.
7. Doesn’t the WCA Discipline reorganize us like Baptists and end the connectional appointment system?
The existing connectional-appointive system is replaced by another legitimate connectional/appointive process that greatly empowers the local church and the collective annual conference. My experience of being affiliated in 7 annual conferences in 4 jurisdictions is that it now works about 70% of the time, defined as “first, do no harm.” The other 30% of the time is marred by mismatch, misunderstanding, poor alignment, theological misconduct or decisions rooted in nothing approaching competence. This is due to a broken and outdated system, not to evil people at the controls. Good people in a broken system produce broken products. If 70% is good enough for you, ask how you would feel if Delta airlines advertised that 70% of their flights don’t crash, McDonalds advertised that 70% of their customers don’t get food poison or that 70% of Toyota vehicles don’t have an axle break on the interstate. People who actually know the first names and stories of key people and events in the congregation will have increased and practical say on who comes, who stays, who goes and the timing of such change.
8. Won’t the vast majority of UM churches remain with the denomination no matter what, and isn’t the WCA over-estimating the number of churches that would leave if the definition of marriage and ordination standards are expanded?
That could happen. Between 2000-2020 the Presbyterian USA denomination will lose roughly 60% of its membership (2.5M to 1M) by their own count. Approximately 10% of the PCUSA has joined the new-formed Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, a traditional expression of the Reformed faith that does affirm the ordination of women, ecumenical relations, the role of science and faith, social justice and the like. Other congregations became independent, or united with some other existing conservative Reformed groups, although for most traditional PCUSA folks who considered that option the rejection of women in ministry by those denominations proved a show-stopper. Many individuals simply stopped attending Presbyterian churches, especially those with no strong history in that denomination. For traditional UMs, some congregations would go independent, some would align with the Free Methodists-Wesleyans-Nazarenes or perhaps other Wesleyan groups. If only 10% of American UM traditional churches aligned with a new birth Wesleyan expression, that would be about 655,000 people. Recall also that 80% of Americans who tithe their income to charity are evangelical Protestants and the financial support from that 10% could be closer to 20% of the annual denominational giving. Recall also that the Western Jurisdiction and some other conferences and collection of churches within conferences are preparing for a progressive new expression. Thinking through and preparing for such possibilities is an honorable public effort by theological progressives and traditionalists, lest GC2020 stumble into no firm resolution and chaos result.
9. What factors can help create the best possible outcome for GC2020?
Deal with confirmation bias – get the log out of your own eye and commit to understanding with empathy views and people with whom you disagree.
Confront contempt in language or actions – Avoid incendiary or contemptuous language. “I disagree with you because I think you are wrong, not because I think you are evil.” The failure to maintain that distinction is crashing our public political discourse and is seeping into the church. As a conservative I find talk about “being on the wrong side of history, anti-gay, hateful, bigoted, ignorant” to be examples of language that dishonors Christ. As a conservative with many non-conservative friends and family, I find comments about “unbelieving, Bible denying, spiritually compromised, false Christian, ‘spawn of Satan’ language equally hurtful to family in Christ with honest disagreements. Stow the nastiness and be willing to confront others of one’s own tribe who are slingers of zingers.
Commit to understanding both your limits of conscience and that of others – GC2019 was a disaster in large measure because little attention was paid to the conscience…of others. The Council of Bishops and many progressives paid no attention to the appeals from traditionalists that the One Church plan violated their conscience, choosing instead to rationalize and minimize those objections, until the freight train vote hit them while they were sipping mint julips on the train track. Many traditionalist leaders and groups paid no attention to the appeals of conscience from progressives that punitive and coercive measures crossed a line in expressing principled rejection of existing teaching as unjust. More disobedience, coupled with cooperation from numerous bishops and a US groundswell that preferred one-issue delegates over continued conscience violation was the result. Determine the limits of your conscience and that of those elsewhere on the spectrum and work hard to understand and honor those limits while creating a redemptive outcome.
Work to avoid win-lose scenarios and votes – It is almost certainly time for a Methodist mitosis, cell division within the body of Christ that conveys the essential Wesleyan DNA in two (or three) new birthed expressions of the church. Look at the various plans proposed, or those yet to evolve, with this question: Does this plan create a winner and a loser or do all equally win… and lose? Consider the plan options for departure, whether liberal or conservative, that those with whom you disagree would have to take. Would you like those terms of separation if applied to you? Think golden rule and avoid the spirit of punitive or vindictive financial/property assets ‘kicks out the door.’ That does not mean one must endorse outcomes that clearly do major and lasting financial damage.
Organizations fail into collaboration and typically fail back into conflict. Healthy collaboration occurs when all the stakeholders realize continued trench or guerilla warfare are worse options. The temptation is that during the collaborative process some stakeholders begin to rationalize the joys of renewed conflict under the assumption that their stand on a contested issue will win. What good is that if, at day’s end, no church is left standing? “It is not enough I succeed…others must fail” is a powerful emotional draw, but has not place among Kingdom attitudes.
10. Remember, the ‘wicked problem’ of the denomination far transcends sexuality
This last point is not framed as a question because of its truth there is no question. No matter what the GC decides, decline and irrelevance will continue to accelerate unless larger issues are named and tamed. Examples are trust deficits, miscommunication, theological conflicts/contradictions, ineffective organization, inefficient structures, disjointed training and education of clergy or establishing coherent ministry career paths. Organizations facing a wicked problem either tend to ‘fail into collaboration’ among competing stakeholders…or they just fail (see above). Nurturing trust and affirming the claim of conscience for all parties sets the stage not for failure but new birth.
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