June 01, 2016

By David Reinholz

John Wesley believed that Christian conferencing is a means of grace. This says when we do it properly, God is present and the conversations become holy. My belief is that God is always present when we gather for conferencing, but we can choose to ignore God’s presence in our conversations. Holy conferencing calls us to listen deeply to one another, allow all voices to have an opportunity to be heard, and to hold diverse opinions with love and grace.

In my experience, subcommittee work in our legislative committees represents the best and the worst of holy conferencing.

As an observer in the lay servant ministries subcommittee of the Discipleship Ministries legislative committee, I have been blessed to observe the best of Christian conferencing. Rev. Robert (Bob) Farr is the chair for this sub-committee. Bob serves as the Director of Congregational Excellence for the Missouri Conference and is the author of Get Their Name: Grow Your Church by Building Relationships. Bob knows something about building relationships in order to do the work of the church. It shows in his leadership of this subcommittee.

First of all, Bob leads with humility and no agenda. He is about doing the work with love and grace. Bob divided the subcommittee into small groups of about eight members each. One small group speaks French and has a translator with them. Another group includes a Russian speaker and translator. Yet another small group includes Portuguese speaker and translator. This is a very diverse subcommittee.

Bob allows time for the small groups to discuss a piece of legislation, ask questions, hear from experts in the room, and gain clarity. Bob slows the group process down if he feels people are confused or being rushed and solicits all voices in the room to speak and be heard.

The small group conversations in this sub-committee are exactly what Rule 44 would have allowed the entire General Conference to experience. In fact, this subcommittee discussed a petition dealing with human sexuality in small groups with grace and openness. One member of a small group was overheard to say “well…we know each other, so it was a safe conversation.”

Holy conferencing is at its best when we build relationships with one another. Holy conferencing not only builds relationships but it is effective as well. This subcommittee successfully reviewed 17 petitions and concluded its work early.

What about the worst examples of “Christian” conferencing? At the other end of the spectrum are legislative committees that allow manipulation of the system to advance a particular agenda. Rather than ensuring diversity of representation on sub-committees, delegates are allowed to self-select and “stack the deck”. Such efforts stifle open discussion and advance only the petitions supported by the “block”. Minority opinions are ignored or overruled.

Clearly, Robert’s Rules of Order can be used to limit discussion and steamroll legislation. I have seen ample evidence of endless wrangling over rules to effectively “filibuster” a legislative action. A political agenda can be pushed by a well-organized majority. These clearly one-sided actions will come back to the larger legislative committee and may be overturned, but it is likely legislative actions will be ill-informed and even exclusionary because of poor Christian conferencing.

At its best Christian conferencing builds relationships and allows for effective discussion. When done poorly Christian conferencing can be divisive and exclusionary. It’s up to the group and its leaders. Perhaps we all should remember the Presence in the room when we conference.

David Reinholz is the PNW Conference Associate Lay Leader and serves as the reserve lay delegate to General Conference. He is a retired USAF officer and former high school teacher. David’s passions include music and mentoring youth and young adults.