(The picture is of the backside of the screen – sometimes Joe’s view as a marshal)
I have cried and I have prayed. I have hugged friends in heart-broken agony. I have sighed with relief and then worried about what is coming. Ah…General Conference. You are a stress test.
I have felt the Holy Spirit moving throughout and then felt that we had turned our back on that prompting. And then had to be convinced that the spirit could indeed move again.
And, Friday came and I said goodbye to the Commission on the General Conference. What an amazing experience it has been to have chaired this incredible group. It’s just hitting me that I may never see some of these people again – ever here in this world. It’s easiest just to avoid the goodbyes, but sometimes you can’t. Goodbye, dear friends; Goodbye, people that have served with me. If I didn’t hug you today, here is my hug.
But for now, here are some of the ways that General Conference tested my stress level.
Friday, we tried to work through 78 pieces of legislation. Just for the record, in 2012 we left 71 pieces which were never acted upon. We got below that number this year. But we tried parliamentary maneuvering to save time which took more time than just acting would have. These things are very frustrating. And then we did a very bad thing by requiring that all legislation be considered in committee and acted upon by the GC in the future. Wow. Just Wow. I wanted to try to amend that one to insert the language (not considered by committee in the last two GCs, but supported overwhelmingly at the end of 2012 by adding it to a report and not the Discipline. Oops.) that all petitions must have the support of some body within the church. There should be some vetting prior to arriving in the lap of the petitions secretary. But no vetting was acceptable – and yet we are going to consider every petition! Again – Wow. Just. Wow. They have no idea what we have done to our volunteers and future General Conferences. My apologies to all (even though I voted NO!!!)
Accusations that a bishop is telegraphing how to vote with his fingers. Seriously – this one was bizarre. (However, years ago in my very first Annual Conference as secretary, I was accused – anonymously on an evaluation sheet – of telegraphing the votes before they were announced. I think I must have been smiling at Joe occasionally – but it had nothing to do with votes and more to do with being in the secretary’s chair for the first time and really appreciating his support.) Similarly the bishop may have been fiddling with his fingers but I seriously doubt he had time to worry about signaling votes. As I said, it was really bizarre.
But while on the subject of bishops presiding: This one isn’t a direct quote, but the way I heard what some of the bishops were saying: “Yeah – I was wrong and possibly totally messed up that vote, but we can’t fix it now.” This does not bring me comfort.
Not that the bishops haven’t had plenty to put up. We started early with challenges to the bishop used in political ways (uh…remember that Rule 44 which was part of the original rules report that passed by majority had to get a super majority because someone pulled it out of the original rules and then challenged the bishop when she said it should be treated as the other rules). Later challenges were ugly and then people fussed when they were ignored. What part of “Christian Conferencing” is this? I need to remind myself that we actually chose numerous times NOT to Christian conference – first by rejecting Rule 44 and then by not considering that we do this as a part of General Conference. (Thanks to leadership on the Conferences Legislative Committee – this was never brought to the floor. I wasn’t there to hear the discussion and I can’t decide if I’m glad about not being there or not. I might have had some influence or I may have just been miserable.) If not for the leadership of the bishops – through prayer, gentle pleading and occasionally just good presiding – I’m not sure we could have done much resembling Christian Conferencing. Best “hot tip” from Bishop Sally Dick trying to respond to delegates frustrated that we were moving too slow: “You could just not come to the microphone.”
We got very tired of Points of Order that weren’t about any rule and Points of Information that were speeches in favor or against. And it had to be explained that “Point of Information” actually means you’re asking a question – not answering one that you think someone should have asked.
So, our plenary action was not a highlight of Conference, but there were good moments. The youth reading their statement of unity warmed my soul. Worship in many languages and incredible music were uplifting. Coming to the Maxline stop from the hotel each morning (at 6 am!) and seeing folks heading with me to meetings allowed me to meet people I might not have otherwise seen. Dinners with friends. I had the tremendous blessing of rarely being anywhere where I didn’t know someone. That is a contrast to my first General Conference where I knew virtually no one outside our conference.
The West Virginia delegation were committed and active, and “Group Me” messages made me smile. The prayers sent out by the conference each day were a wonderful reminder of our connectedness – as was emailing the DCA to Bishop Grove and his daily words of support.
We had two times of sharing – one in our legislative committee and one at our table – that were surprisingly good. The table one wasn’t very well directed but those of us who know how to do that kind of thing stepped up and people were more open to sharing why they felt the way they did than I expected.
And I loved all the people who knew me as “Diane’s mom” and “Connor’s mom.” The connections are amazing. And the young people (and not so young people) are awesome.
So, what’s next? I need to reflect when my brain is not so fogged from lack of sleep. My initial reaction to Wednesday’s vote to accept the Bishop’s plan was one of cautious hope. We did not destroy the church THIS time. I had never allowed myself to think that splitting might be the best thing until the debate and defeat of a motion by Adam Hamilton to follow the bishops’ plan. But the agony of that moment was intense and I began to think that holding a divided church together might not be the best thing.
Will the talk be effective? I don’t know. I didn’t hear a lot of give from either of the extremes at this conference. But here lies my hope and my fear. What the bishops are trying to do is the same that the Commission envisioned: let the middle ground have a voice. There are a lot of us that love the church and see it as much more than the things that divide us (not to in any way imply that those on the extremes don’t love the church.) But, my fear is that we are losing the middle because of the extremes. We are being forced to choose sides by the way we vote. Nuance (and conversation, apparently) are to be feared because they might drive us from our truly heart-felt position.
So, while I hope that the conversations the bishops will lead will allow us to reach a place where we don’t use the Bible and the Discipline as a weapon; where we can rise above the culture and challenge those who try to motivate people by finding a common enemy; where we truly look for the image of God in each person in our path, our record of doing this isn’t great. And we will still have to come back to this place (General Conference – not necessarily Portland) and take votes which will create winners and losers. I’m pretty sure that’s not the way Christ intended for the Kingdom to look. I do hope the process will prove me wrong. There are things that we can not do, but God is Able (blatant plug for the song commissioned for GC and distributed to all the delegates).
I’m headed home – back where churches will gather on Sunday and sermons will be preached. There will be baptisms. There will be new faith commitments. There will be new disciples created for the transformation of the world (Fortunately, the challenge to our mission statement was successfully overcome!). There will be mission events and there will be chances to look outside our walls. And there will be some squabbles over the color of the new carpet and who didn’t clean up after themselves. Church life goes on.
I’m exhausted (6 hours of sleep most nights ending with 3 last night.) I could probably sleep for days – but won’t. Life is waiting. I’m grateful for a God who doesn’t need sleep. A God who doesn’t need points of order. A God who doesn’t need us to be perfect – though we United Methodists know it doesn’t hurt to try. God is able. And I will rest on that.
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