Tag Archives: General Conference

And So, We Press On: A Post-General Conference Reflection

The 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church has just concluded. I think it’s fair to say that no one is walking away from St. Louis with a resounding victory for their respective cause. Yet I can’t bring myself to conclude that General Conference was a total waste of time and energy (I’ll say more about that later.)

So, just in case you’re still wondering what’s going on, the purpose of this gathering was to somehow move through our glaring differences over homosexuality. The United Methodist Church at this point is nearly divided in half between traditionalists/conservatives who uphold our current restrictions on marrying and ordaining lesbian and gay persons and moderates/progressives who want to make room for their full inclusion along with all LGBTQ people.

I had a hunch before this General Conference session that nothing certain and decisive would be accomplished. Why? It’s because we have been gridlocked in this debate now for 47 years. Our inner dynamics have not changed enough to make room for anything substantially new or different. Even though the Traditionalist Plan passed, basically keeping our current restrictive language on homosexuality while tightening the enforcement of our rules, our future is far from certain.

Now that said, there are two major narratives coming out of General Conference, and I believe neither of them are altogether true or helpful.
The first and most passionate narrative says that the United Methodist Church is now dead. We have closed the doors on LGBTQ people. We have turned away and turned off an entire generation of young people who fully embrace LGBTQ people. In so doing, we have set our church backwards, pushing it headlong into its grave.

In response, let me say that I too am feeling the brokenness, anger, bitterness, and despair with those of us who have wanted— and still want!— a fully inclusive church. Some who have been in this struggle a lot longer than I have are understandably devastated. What happened is not at all right. It’s unjust. It’s not righteous, loving, or Christlike. And I would say, it is blatantly unbiblical to be this discriminatory against our LGBTQ neighbors. I make no apologies for being that blunt. We are living under bad church law. Period.

BUT, I am not sounding the death knell of the United Methodist Church. Not yet. I’ll say more about that after dispelling the second narrative that is coming out of General Conference.

The second narrative, especially promulgated by the press, is that the United Methodist Church is now a far more conservative church who has severely tightened our grip on the ban of same-sex marriages and gay and lesbian ordinations. One headline I just saw says that conservatives have retaken the United Methodist Church!

This, too is not at all accurate. While it’s true that the Traditional Plan won the day, it has major flaws that could very well be struck down by our Judicial Council (the UM equivalent of the Supreme Court). So, this may result in one of two possible outcomes. The Judicial Council will either gut what was passed, leaving a badly truncated plan without much substance, or the Judicial Council could rule the entire plan out-of-order, leaving us where we started. In either case, it’s widely believed that at that point, the conservative bloc of the United Methodist Church will leave and begin a new denomination.

So what then?

If for nothing else, General Conference was a much-needed exercise in showing ourselves and the world, once and for all, who we are, who we aren’t, and what we’re we’re committed to. It was a sober reality check. For many people, including myself, it has given us stronger resolve to be the church in these trying days.

In summary, nothing right now is for absolute certain.
77BFB3B8-A7FD-4C03-9C09-3AC311E487DEWell… nothing except for one crucial thing: we will press on to be the church of Jesus Christ. I find myself now in the same place I was before, perhaps more so. I am and I will be a shepherd of a church who fully embraces and includes all people, no matter their race, nation of origin, gender, age, ability or disability, sexual orientation or identity, economic status, or legal status. I make room for all people at my table, committed to nurturing them into the beloved children of God they are. And there is nothing— no denominational standard, no scare headlines, or dire warnings of doom— that will stop that mission. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. It’s the way he lived his life. And until the day he returns in glory, or I die and meet him in Paradise, I will walk in his footsteps.

As I mentioned yesterday, we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that expanse between cold, hard reality and the hopeful future we know is possible. Right now, that gap is feeling especially tragic. Yet I will stand in it, push ahead, and join hands with all people of goodwill who share my heart. Together, we will be the church for and with all people.

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The Church Is a Whore, But…

The late commentator Charles Krauthammer once said that in the newsroom there are always some favorite stories of historical figures that people love to tell, and everyone knows the origins of these tales may be somewhat apocryphal, but we dare not check! They’re that good.

The same is probably true of this famous quote often attributed to St. Augustine:

“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

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It may be a misquote of something else Augustine said, or it could be totally apocryphal, but I dare not check. It’s that good… and timely, especially in this moment. (By the way, if you are more scholarly than I am and are tempted to dispel the myth, please don’t spoil it. At least not right now!)

It’s a timely reminder for me and for many fellow United Methodists as we watch the proceedings of a special General Conference Session that is focusing on THE major issue that threatens the future of our church’s unity: homosexuality. I’ve written about this elsewhere, just in case you’re not familiar with what the hubbub is all about.

For me, this season of the church’s life is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and demoralizing. Many of us, who make up almost half of the United Methodist Church, want to see a church in which all perspectives on homosexuality can be honored. Just as importantly, we want a church in which those who are LGBTQ could finally have a full seat at the Lord’s Table, especially in terms of marriage and ordination. At the same time, those of us who cannot accept that kind of inclusiveness would also have a full seat at the table. We want one United Methodist Church with enough room for all of us.

Well, the chances of this happening are not looking very good right now. From what I can surmise, we’re either looking at 1) a far more conservative-leaning church; 2) an ideological split, leading to separate denominations; or 3) no major decision of consequence leading to more angst, uncertainty, and a nasty splintering apart of the church.

Our problems are manifold and maddeningly cyclical:

  • People of different views are talking past each other, don’t really understand the other, and fundamentally don’t want to be associated with the other.
  • Ideological factions are fighting for the power to “own” the namesake, spirit, direction, and resources of the church. It’s truly a struggle over power.
  • We’re insane. We keep using the same means and tactics to solve our problems, each time expecting a different, elusive result.

I have to confess, I have given serious thought to throwing in the towel and giving up on the United Methodist Church for good. I’ve even had fleeting thoughts of giving up on church altogether, at least this manifestation of it. My reasoning: after spending all this time and money for nearly 47 years, all the while doing great harm to people who are LGBTQ, why bother anymore? Surely, I could offer my gifts and graces as a pastor to something that is more functional and less harmful to people I love.

Yet… yet… just tonight, I had three conversations with non-Christian friends and family members of mine. Amazingly, they all said the same thing:

Keep on keeping on.
Be the shepherd and mentor God has called you to be. Don’t give up.
Shine the greater light. Keep yourself open to truth and growth. It will serve you well.

Keep in mind, none of that came from the church. All of it was said by non-Christians, my wider “church family.”

So, I’ve consigned myself to that wonderful, perhaps apocalyptic reflection of St. Augustine: the church is a whore, but she is my mother.

The United Methodist Church, with all her ugly warts, terrible inefficiencies, and gross inadequacies is far removed from the kind of faithful church I want her to be. Yet she is my mother. Admittedly, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I’m far removed from the kind of faithful son of God I should be, too. Perhaps she’s a reflection of me, and I of her.

Still, the United Methodist Church is my mother. She is the church who birthed me through the waters of baptism when I was 18-years-old. God used her to call me into ministry. She’s nurtured that call and has had a huge hand in shaping me into the person I am today.

There have been times when being a disciple of Jesus has meant rejecting the aspects of this mother I can’t stand. On a few occasions, I’ve even had to shout a clear  “Hell no!” (literally) to some of her tendencies, attitudes, and values.

But this mother of a church still loves me. (Now I really, really wish she loved some of my other siblings in Christ as much as much as she loves and makes room for me! However…) She’s still here. There’s lots of good in her. I can keep doing some real good with her. Even when she’s got her priorities and focus out of whack, she still does great things. Somehow, the world is a better place because of her.

Oh my Lord, she’s a whore! And yet the Lord knows that and still insists on calling her his bride. There’s no doubt about that. So yes, the United Methodist Church is my mother, and I’ll always be her child, even if that means the possibility of one day striking out in a different direction. But for now, I will continue to struggle with her, for her sake, mine, and for the sake of the world that Christ died to save.

At this moment we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that long expanse between cold reality and the desired future we know exists. In the end, when all is said and done, the struggle will have been well worth it. That’s God’s promise. And as hard as it is to say right now, she, this sordid church mother of mine, is worth it, too.

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What Kind of United Methodist Church Will We Be? (A Late Hour Reflection)

This is the question haunting my beloved United Methodist Church: what kind of church will we be? As the delegates from our worldwide UMC connection meet as a General Conference over the next four days in St. Louis, MO, this is surely the question of the hour. After their work is through, what kind of church will we be?
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It’s almost too painfully cliché to ask this question, let alone write (yet another!) blog post on it. So why bother?

Well, I am still stunned— in awe, really— that the most compelling visions for what the United Methodist Church can be and should be are so incredibly disparate. Many are struggling for a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ people, in marriage and ordination, especially. Many others are struggling for a church that upholds biblical authority, particularly as it pertains to traditional understandings of human sexuality. These are two different visions from two very different starting places of concern.

And yet, I find a glaring irony behind these disparate visions: we would be loath to find any General Conference delegate who does not cherish both an inclusive church and a church formed under biblical authority, no matter their starting assumptions! That may seem incredibly obvious to all who have been deep in the conversation, but it’s clear from the pre-General Conference rhetoric I’ve seen that many of us still don’t really appreciate that about each other. One group believes that they possess the most genuine vision of what real inclusiveness is all about. Meanwhile, another group claims to have the true, faithful grasp on the Bible’s teaching regarding human sexuality, that they are the ones who truly uphold biblical authority. Yet we all claim to walk as inclusive, biblical Christians, obviously with varying understandings of what this means!

So it’s now a tug-of-war between which vision of inclusiveness and biblical authority will garner the most votes. And again, as it has been since 1972, this fight will result in winners and losers, all equally claiming to be in the right, on God’s side, of course. Except this time, there is the strong gumption, on both the progressive and the conservative wings of the church, to part ways, if their respective vision of “what kind of church we will be” does not prevail.

It’s deeply troubling for me to even imagine splitting apart like that.

I have to confess, I do not know what will come of things, and that has me feeling quite anxious right now. I know I’m not alone in harboring this kind of fear. If you’re still reading this and have a stake in what’s happening, you’ve probably got some share of the anxiety bug, too. Just admit it!

So I offer both myself and you a biblical thought that just might ease off the anxiety and lead to the best future for the United Methodist Church, come what may.

“…we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
‭‭1 John‬ ‭4:16-18‬

John Wesley quoted from the biblical book of 1 John a lot, especially when talking about being perfected in love. Deeply profound passages like this one certainly explain why.

We all know it, and yet we easily forget it. At the end of the day, and in the great Right Now of our lives, it all really does boil down to love, or a lack of it. If we want to understand love, then go deeper in God. If we want to understand God, then go deeper in love. Daring to surrender ourselves to this intimate power of Love, a Love we all hunger for, forces our shadows of fear, judgment, and rejection to simply fade away into the nothingness they really are. All that’s left is the bond of God, made known in God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for one another, gathered within the sacred “love dance” of the Triune God.

The presence of fear, suspicion, anger, accusations, side-taking, ideological banner-waving, and self-righteous crusading, is the conspicuous absence of love. I know that sounds so naïvely obvious. Yet for Christ’s sake and ours, could we not pause long enough to call out all this shadowy behavior for what it is— the rejection of Love for the expediency of power— and reclaim God who is Love, and Love who is God? Could we claim Love to effectively exorcise our demonic tendencies to glorify our positions, stances, and political tactics to the detriment of our brothers and sisters? Let’s try it.

Looking at things again as I bring myself back down from my lofty “love” perch for just a moment, it may very well be that a unified church is simply not possible. If we’re honest, we don’t have a “United” Methodist Church now. I have desperately wanted us to remain one united church. I still do. I’ve prayed and worked for it.

If it’s simply not possible, we may be forced to painfully admit it and own up to our failure. It may very well be a sober admission of “it is what it is.”

But no matter where we find ourselves, even between the most gaping ideological divides, we still have the opportunity to be the living incarnation of Love towards one another. If that alone could happen— if we could truly grasp the depths of Love for one another— it would be a powerful witness. And then, the crucified Christ who embodies our collective sin and failure could be glorified in our midst, even if his Body is still broken on the cross of our shortcomings.

If we simply let it all go, rest in Love, and unconditionally give this gift to one another… If we could put flesh to the presence of God who is Love among us, then maybe… just maybe… we could all discover the glimpses of a compelling vision for what the whole Church could be, no matter what becomes of our beloved United Methodist Church.

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Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: We Must Do Better

Since 1972, whenever the General Conference of the United Methodist Church convenes for their quadrennial gathering, the issue of homosexuality has taken a quite visible, central place. We live in a strong tension between those who press our our church to fully recognize and bless gay and lesbian relationships and those who believe that homosexuality is not in keeping with a biblical understanding of love and marriage.  Equally pressing is the debate over whether or not openly gay and lesbian people can serve as pastors and if pastors and congregations can conduct and host same-sex weddings.

For the past 40 years, the United Methodist Church has maintained these basic standards in our Book of Discipline:

  • All people are of sacred worth and that we must not reject or exclude gay and lesbian people. Nevertheless…
  • …the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
  • Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals shall not be ordained or accepted as candidates for ordained ministry.
  • Pastors are prohibited from conducting same-sex weddings, and churches cannot host them. These are chargeable offenses.

Just this week, the General Conference voted to maintain our current denominational stances for at least another four years. But that wasn’t without lots of demonstration, advocacy, an attempt at dialogue and numerous petitions to change the UMC’s stances and policies.

I have heard church leaders predict that the General Conference’s decision could very well lead to a split in the UMC or to the exodus of deeply disappointed laity and clergy. Only time will tell, of course. This issue has certainly created similar schisms in other Christian traditions.

Now, I don’t want to use this post to debate the issues. I have already laid out my thoughts and reflections on homosexuality in previous posts. But in the confines of a nutshell, I hold a carefully considered, nuanced understanding that homosexual relationships are outside of God’s will and intent for human sexuality. I derive this from my reading of Scripture as God’s Word, informed by tradition, reason, and experience. I believe this while also passionately including gay and lesbian friends, neighbors, family members, and church members.

So you might easily assume that I am overjoyed and relieved by the General Conference’s decision to maintain our current language and policies on homosexuality. You would assume wrongly.

You might assume that I want gay and lesbian people and and others who want to change our church’s position  to cease and desist– to shut up and conform, or get out. Again, you would assume wrongly.

By now, my conservative brothers and sisters might be assuming that I’ve “caved in to a liberal, pro-gay” point of view. Once again, they would assume wrongly.

However, as I stated yesterday in a Facebook update, I am deeply torn by the General Conference’s handling of this issue.  I wasn’t there, but from what I gather, all of this was handled quite badly by “both sides” of the homosexuality debate. Once again, the same debate played out like a bad rerun. One side passionately battled to move our church away from current stances and policies. The other kept their ground, fighting to further solidify the church’s current position. At their core, both sides operate out of an  all-or-nothing approach. Each side is highly reluctant to fairly and openly understand the convictions of the other or to even slightly concede that perhaps there is a degree of credibility and integrity with both positions that might lead to an alternative way forward which upholds both Scriptural teaching on sexuality and the inclusion of gay and lesbian people.

From what I can see, several things went wrong this year.

First, just as in years past, there were several gay and lesbian advocacy groups on hand to demonstrate, hand out literature, and in general to be a visible proponent for change. As delegates went in and out of General Conference sessions, they had to move through groups of people singing, praying, and donning signs, clothing, and stoles advocating change. They were by no means violent or invasive. But they were quite vocal and at times purposefully disruptive to the sessions. At one point yesterday all non-delegates were asked to leave because of all the disruptions. In years past, there have even been arrests when protesters refused to abide by Conference rules.

I believe these folks have a right to be there– to be heard and seen. They stood for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot ignore them or their message. They sought to do no harm to anyone.
However, while their presence posed no threat, their approach was not at all helpful. Let’s face it, most people’s hearts and minds are not changed by loud, forceful demonstrations. For folks who don’t hold a strong opinion, approaches like that can come across as intimidating and overly-zealous. For people who do hold a strong opposing belief,  these demonstrations only calcify their position.

Earlier in the week, there was an attempt at “holy conversation” on homosexuality between people of opposing views. All delegates were divided into large groups presided over by a bishop and were encouraged to dialogue. I very much applaud the effort. But I also know from hard experience that genuine, sincere dialogue is an extraordinarily delicate form of remedial communication. It doesn’t happen easily. If dialogue is forced, rushed, or if folks insist on using the dialogue table as a subtle form of advocacy, then dialogue quickly falls apart.

And fell apart it did… badly. These holy conversation sessions were delayed and shortened because preceding legislative sessions went longer than anticipated. I also suspect that participants were not adequately prepared for how to dialogue and what to expect. As a result, some groups’ dialogue devolved into debate. I’ve seen enough of these debates to know that both sides say hurtful, unfair things. As a result, these “holy conversations” left many participants feeling wounded.

Then through the legislative process there were some high profile attempts to change or add to the language on homosexuality by stating that as a denomination, we are divided on our understanding of homosexuality and that we agree to disagree. No one seriously doubts that reality! But for various reasons, that was also voted down by the Conference.
So, in the end nothing was changed. In the coming years, we’ll see what was lost or gained.
But I am torn by the fact that nothing was offered to guide our church through this great divide on human sexuality. We badly need that! I grieve for those who feel hurt and betrayed by the General Conference’s decisions, even if I cannot fully embrace their positions. I grieve that as denomination we are no closer to building unity on this issue, even in our diversity. That is everyone’s responsibility, not one side or the other.

I am dismayed that once again battle-hardened positions on homosexuality yielded very little wiggle room for other, more subtle ways to approach this very complex issue of homosexuality. Bumper sticker slogans and one or two sentence policy positions don’t cut it. This is going to take extensive, open conversation and a willingness to embrace perhaps an entirely new paradigm of thinking concerning homosexuality that takes into account the primacy of the Bible and the very real experiences of gay and lesbian Christians. We need both, not one or the other.

I just pray that it’s not too late, that God hasn’t already left us to our own vices of division and mutual exclusion. But until we know that for sure, let the peacemakers do their work with urgency and grace…

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