Friendly & Congenial. Focused. Spiritual (at times). Pivotal. Diverse. Seeking Leadership. Contentious (at times). Lacking a sense of Urgency for major change. Hope.
These words summarize my feelings about the upcoming General Conference as I return from the Pre-Briefing for General Conference delegation leaders. The pre-briefing was held January 19-21 in Tampa, FL at the site of the General Conference gathering in late April. It was structured to provide delegation leaders and others with insight into the schedule and facility details of General Conference, plus a preview of some of the main issues and proposals to be acted upon. Cody Collier and I attended as delegation leaders from Missouri, with Amy Gearhart (a delegation member) there as part of a presentation / discussion on ordained ministry recommendations. Sherry Habben also attended as our conference’s director of connectional ministries and communications.
Some of the major areas where legislative action is proposed were discussed. These include: Leadership changes coming from the Study of Ministry, along with a proposal for accountability of bishops (including a single setaside bishop); General church restructuring, based upon the Call to Action / IOT work and alternative proposals; Worldwide church proposals; Budget plans for a 6.06% reduction; and Clergy pension plan changes. We also spent some time discussing holy conferencing and working through how to discuss “challenging issues” such as the church’s positions regarding homosexuality and abortion. In all, it was an active preview of key areas that will take 1,000 delegates from all over the world 10 days to work through.
In reflecting upon this experience with the pre-briefing, certainly I have a better idea of what to expect when 18 of us from Missouri (14 elected lay & clergy delegates plus 4 alternates) join over 980 other United Methodist delegates (and many observers) in Tampa on April 24. The setting is very nice and the convention center will be fine. Hotels are pretty close. While I’m not looking forward to being away from my family and business for almost 2 weeks, I do anticipate the important work, hopefully spiritled, that we will be doing. It’s exciting to be part of what may be one of the most important, even “pivotal”, conferences to the future of the United Methodist denomination. Prayer will HAVE to be a major part of our lives, as only God can provide the stamina and discernment that will be needed.
Back to the words at the beginning of this article. You would expect the gathering to be friendly, congenial, focused, Spiritual, and diverse. And, this year, pivotal. But the last three are areas of concern for whether we really will undertake the kinds of change that I believe are necessary to revitalize the church. Many of the studies on the church recommend changing leadership models – in developing clergy leaders, in Episcopal leadership, and in the leadership structure including general boards & agencies. Yet there is a great deal of push-back. The discussions on these could become contentious. There also is danger of contention regarding emotional issues regarding the church’s position on many social issues, perhaps distracting delegates from focusing upon the “main thing” of enhancing our ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Finally, I sensed from some of the discussion that many attendees at the pre-briefing did not recognize the urgent need for changes, but worried that changes might be too disruptive. Yet in this pre-briefing there was enough discussion of all points of view, including those advocating major changes, that I will look forward with Hope and prepare diligently for the actual Conference to come.
Part of my hope and prayer is that as we work through all the issues and proposals, we can stay focused upon five Key Principles: 1. The “Mission” of the church to make disciples comes first; 2. Congregations are where disciples are made; 3. Leadership must be developed, supported, and held accountable; 4. Younger generations must be reached, along with more diverse people; 5. The spiritual Movement of Methodism must be recaptured based upon mission and purpose, discarding old ways if they don’t work.
Finally, I returned home even more aware of the urgent need for prayer by all of us -- delegates, pastors and laity in all congregations throughout Missouri, joining with bishops and other Methodists around the world. Bishop Schnase has written devotional blogs for the days leading up to and including General Conference, and the Upper Room has devotional material as well. These will assist us all in focusing upon the “New Thing” that God wants to do in and through the United Methodist Church. And it can only happen through the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives, in our congregations, in our leaders, in our delegates, and in our work at General Conference. THANKS for your continued prayers and hopes for God’s work through our church.
And THANKS AGAIN for your leadership!