In 2011 and 2012, then Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase spent a lot of time and energy working on Plan UMC, designed to restructure the church at the General Church level (i.e., how we do General Conference and the General Boards and Agencies). It was met with contentious debate, and after some watering down it passed. Then, right before everyone went home from Tampa, word came back that it was ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.
In 2016 Bishop Schnase was called to be part of the Commission on the Way Forward. He said no. They called again, and he said thanks, but no thanks. He was called a third time and told this could be an opportunity for the church to move forward in a new wayrather than being stuck in polarizing debate. He relented and participated in work of the Commission on the Way Forward meetings, helping craft the One Church Plan, which was approved by the Council of Bishops and sent on to the Special Called Session of General Conference. Not to have a repeat of 2012, they checked the One Church Plan with the Judicial Council beforehand and got the thumbs up that it was constitutional. Spoiler alert: The One Church Plan never got out of the gate.
At the close of General Conference, I saw Bishop Schnase and said, “I guess the next time someone asks you to invest your time and energy in developing a proposal to restructure the General Conference you will be a little reluctant to accept.”
He shrugged and said, “Well, at least I got this out of it,” showing me the red One Church Plan button in his hand.
It’s not as though our current Bishop Bob Farr has been on the sidelines. He put a Herculaneum amount of effort into preparing United Methodist Churches in Missouri for this conversation. But it’s not just bishops: 178 volunteers in Missouri stepped up and gave 3,752 hours to help assist with this Conference for the good of the church.
A friend of mine who is a highly-regarded journalist posted a story on her Facebook page about the General Conference session in St. Louis. Her numbers were a little off, but she certainly conveyed what went on at the meeting accurately.
Then the big reveal: She had written the story 31 years ago. It was a report from the 1988 General Conference session that was held in St. Louis. The debate, the comments made, the outcome, the protests … it was eerily the same.
While serving as Missouri Conference editor for the previous four General Conference sessions, well-intended people advised me not to “focus too much on the gay thing” in my coverage. And because General Conference usually focuses on all aspects of the church, it is easy to talk about other things. When giving interviews to secular media, people would go out of their way to talk about the good work of the church instead of this topic. But this special session related only to rules regarding how the church restricts openly homosexual people from becoming clergy and prohibits same-sex weddings. There wasn’t anything else on the table.
I saw Rev. Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection the morning after the conclusion of General Conference. It was his proposal in 2016 that got the whole Commission on the Way Forward going. His idea was for a smaller, diverse group to work together to develop a plan so that people with differing ideas on this issue could exist within the same denomination without spending time tearing each other down every four years. What he, and everyone else got, in the end was simply a mini-version of General Conference, with all of the unifying parts taken away and nothing left but contentious debate that pushed people further apart.
Post-conference, Adam Hamilton looked despondent.
“I’m hopeful for the church,” Hamilton said. “I’m hopeful because I choose to be hopeful. I don’t feel hopeful. I feel depressed.”
I hope this issue doesn’t depress you. If this column already has, you might want to skip ahead to page 30. Personally, I’m looking forward to our own Missouri Annual Conference Session (see pages 36-37) where we’ve learned to give each other respect and work together through our differences.
By: Fred Koenig, Editor