THOUGHTS UPON ANNUAL CONFERENCE
by Stephen Fife
I admit it. I left Annual Conference in a funk. Good thing we headed to Walt Disney World the next day because I was spent. Three days of uneasy tension is enough for me. It must have shown because I have had five pastors call me and ask me if I was okay. I kept saying I’m fine even though I knew deep inside I wasn’t fine. Now some two weeks later it still bugs me and I am still not fine. Perhaps it is because I have neither the stomach nor the fortitude for politics. Some might say my skin is too thin and my heart is too big, but it has served me well thus far so I will keep my skin and my heart. Anyway I thought expressing some random thoughts that I have had since Annual Conference might help me process some of my own emotions.
Tension, apprehension, and distrust. Many years ago when I was a younger clergy person I ask a mentor how do we know if the candidates for ordination or commissioning are ready? Their reply to me is that we put our trust in the Board of Ordained Ministry to do their job. They have a huge responsibility and carry with them this responsibility. I have never served on the Board of Ordained Ministry but I have been chair of the District Committee of Ordained Ministry for several years. We do not make decisions lightly and take a lot of care in how we process things in the District. Every single candidate we meet is prayed over, prayed with, interviewed thoughtfully, and discussed thoroughly. We do not discontinue a candidate lightly. I trust that the Board of Ordained Ministry operates in a similar way. This year Annual Conference began with a bang in Clergy Session. In all my years of coming to clergy session at Annual Conference we have never gone into closed executive session. I talked to ministers who have been ordained for 40 years. They don’t remember ever going into closed executive session in clergy session. That ended this year. I am not going to disclose any information around this other than my fear that we no longer trust our Board of Ordained Ministry to their work. I left late that night wondering where all our trust in one another had gone.
A tale of two lunches, two apps, and two sides. I hear the word unity a lot. It’s even in our denominational name…”United.” The trouble is that it is not true. Our clergy aren’t united. Our laity aren’t united. Our churches aren’t united. Our Annual Conference isn’t even united. We had half our Annual Conference at the WCA lunch and half our Annual Conference at the Reconciling Ministries/UMCNext lunch. (The irony was not lost on me that these two lunches were in rooms next to one another. One on the left side and one on the right side.) Half our Annual Conference used the WhatsApp to vote and half our Annual Conference used the Remind app to vote. (Also could spend another whole blogpost on how technology is affecting our politics.) Half our Annual Conference cheered the election and half our Annual Conference was deflated. We had a vote to disavow the Traditional Plan and it failed by 20 votes. 360 to 340. (Also could spend another whole blogpost on how politics are affecting church politics.) Half and half. This is not unity. This is the opposite of unity. Everything we approached at Annual Conference was a winner take all approach. When the progessive/centrists clergy ran the table for delegate elections, I turned to a colleague and said that is what we in the south would call “A good ole fashioned butt kicking.” (I really used another word for butt, but since we are a PG blog I will go with butt.) We are divided, but we don’t have to be.
A word of hope. Even in the division. Even in the mistrust. Even in the two sides. There is a hope of something different. I have been crystal clear on my viewpoint on the way forward for The United Methodist Church. I have not wavered and I am not wavering now. There has to be a new vision of a what the denomination(s) will look like in the future shouldn’t be bound to one church. We have to allow for multiplication not division. Multiple expressions of what it means to be Methodists. This is something no other mainline has been able to do. In every other case it is fighting until one side leaves. I do not want to see this with us. I do not want a future of eating dry chicken lunches in separate rooms. I do not want a future of an app on my phone telling me which way to vote. I do not want a future of me versus you. I love my colleagues and want to see them flourish. I pray that my colleagues want to see me flourish as well. I want us to be Paul and Barnabas. My hope is that the UMC can be different. We can say to each other I set you free to go do ministry in a different way. But this will not work unless we are willing to work together to set this up for everyone. We have to stop with the winner take all approach when it comes to the UMC and come back to how can we make this fair for everyone. I know several pastors are feeling this way and I pray that more begin to be willing to work together from both sides so we can create something new. It really is the only way forward.
The Rev. Stephen Fife is an Elder in the Louisiana Conference. He received his M.Div at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. He currently serves at First United Methodist Church in Columbia, Louisiana. Stephen is married and has three beautiful daughters. He enjoys reading, daily prayer, liturgy, and spiritual formation. Currently, Stephen is studying Counseling and is pursuing intersections between Spiritual Direction and Mindfulness Based Counseling. He also blogs at leadmindfully.org and you can follow him on twitter @methodistmonk.