I can feel it coming; the dread, the anxiety, the deep and dark disillusionment, the feeling that all hope for progress and the advancement of the Kingdom is lost amidst bureaucratic wrangling and incessant infighting. Yep, I am talking about General Conference.
I know some folks really get into General Conference because of their love for the United Methodist Church. I know some people are passionate about the stances the church takes on various social issues as well as issues of polity. I know some people are passionate about the direction of the United Methodist Church and feel strongly about where the institution needs to be headed.
I have great respect for those people. I just am not one of those people.
I have been to two General Conferences and for me, that is two too many. When I served in local churches and as a Wesley Foundation Director I felt the same way about Annual Conference. I spent just enough time at Annual Conference for people to know I was there, but that was about it. I used to figure out when the breaks in between sessions were and I would show up and walk through the halls and smile and wave to people – just so folks would think I was there when in fact, I was not.
I know, I know, some will say I am shirking my responsibility. Maybe I am. But I honestly hate the constant fighting. It all feels useless. The same fights with the same people fighting the same battles and no one ever seems to win. And if one side does win, then hell has no fury like the side who loses. And that side will shout and scream and email about it all the live, long day. In fact, I kind of think some folks prefer to lose so that they can shout and scream about how they are persecuted and forlorn.
Yep, I am pretty jaded. And I don’t want to oversimplify the fights or to minimize the passion of folks on either side. I also do not mean to say I do not have an opinion on many of the struggles the United Methodist Church faces when in fact, I do. I just do not believe we will get to a place of greater effectiveness through institutional decisions or positions that are taken. We certainly haven’t yet.
But here is the bottom line for me. I believe that the locus of change and transformation occurs in local churches in local communities. When the local church is missionally engaged in loving people and working/advocating for the transformation of that community to achieve tangible change for and alongside people who are experiencing oppression and marginalization, then THAT is where the Kingdom of God is present and at work. And, I believe, that is where we as followers of Jesus should focus our energy.
To me, General Conference represents the exact opposite of this. It is the locus of all the fighting between those who run the institution and those who want to run the institution. One side is interested in preserving power while the other is obsessed with stripping that power away until they take over, and then they will do anything to preserve the power they took from those who once did anything to preserve it. General Conference gives lip service to the importance of local churches, but with all of the resources that organizations both within and outside the United Methodist Church that are poured into it, it is clear to me that far too many of our leaders believe change will come to the church from the top down. I vehemently disagree.
I was reminded of General Conference being just a year away (ugh) this past Sunday as my pastor shared some of the resolutions that are being brought to the Virginia Conference. The resolutions center on – what else – homosexuality and finding new and creative ways to exclude gay people and “purify” the leadership of the church. Nothing says “renewal” and growth like exclusion and purification – just look at how the GOP has grown in recent years as they have tossed out the moderates!
The resolutions were generated by Good News, an ironically named group of people within the UMC whose brand of good news for the church in recent years has been to whine about the impending doom our beloved institution faces. Thanks guys for reminding us, as if we didn’t all know. What else is ironic is a conservative group sending resolutions to other annual conferences to pass; aren’t conservatives the ones who so often are yelling about the agendas of outside groups meddling into the affairs of local churches and conferences? But let us remember this is General Conference – consistency and authenticity be damned!
Yeah, I know, liberals aren’t a heck of a lot better. Liberals don’t have blind spots, we have blind decades. But let us remember, whatever side you are on, the goal is control.
And to me that goes to the heart of the problem – we have sides who want to have control and who lack a vision for inclusion of the other side and what they value.
Now, let me be straight. I don’t really have a solution. If I had a solution then I would have to go to General Conference and try and work with both sides to move them closer to what I perceived as the solution. I have to go to General Conference anyway because of my work, but I honestly have no desire to offer up some kind of solution. I am not that smart and I am not that arrogant.
The main thing I have learned the last few years is this: I just want to do Kingdom work. And for my money, the locus of the Kingdom – the place where God and God’s people are at work loving those who are unloved and defending the cause of the poor and vulnerable – just ain’t General Conference. It is local churches where the action is.
So, General Conference will come (ugh) and thankfully go. Maybe some things will change, and some things won’t. The sad thing is that we are guaranteed that virtually no one will leave satisfied.