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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ What A Successful Conference Looks Like

It is the season of punditry.

So goes life as a U.S. citizen who belongs to The United Methodist Church. General Conference cycles match up with the presidential election cycle: every four years, we encounter heated tempers, technicolor bluster and threats to move to Canada. This year the hype in the United States is reaching near radioactive levels of intensity. Beneath the strident cadence of religious and political talking heads lies a current of fear – not unwarranted: will the radioactivity evaporate our identities, leaving only our shadow imprinted on the wall?

Those who lament that public discourse has gotten out of hand have a point. On the one hand, as the historical hip-hop musical/runaway success “Hamilton” reminds us, our nation’s DNA is laced with potent personalities arguing for the best way forward. As caustic as presidential debates may get, no one has once again died in a duel at the hand of the Vice President (yet). On the other hand, it’s like a splash of cold water to view old footage from 1980’s political debates. The change is astounding. Something is qualitatively different.

The past few days Twitter has been cluttered by pastors, District Superintendents and Bishops praying for a “successful” General Conference. In 2016, what does a successful General Conference look like? Does it look like one where parliamentary proceedings avoid giving the floor to anyone with a spray tan and blueprints for a giant wall? Does it look like a gathering with international media coverage that manages to avoid protests, riots and arrests? Does it look like a gathering with international media coverage that manages to foster protests, riots and arrests?

Does a successful General Conference look like #itstime, #wearemore, or #faithfulumc? (The #wearemore hashtag is the branding apparatus of Bishops with ulcers who are attempting to remind everyone that this is a long road trip and we are more when we are together, regardless of who is squabbling in the backseat because “he’s looking at me funny!” The question is whether the grave topics under consideration at General Conference are mere backseat squabbling or whether #theyaremore than that.

What does a successful General Conference look like? A lack of blow-up’s, a hopeful kick of the can down the road? A presence of confrontation, an urgent appeal for honesty and resolution?

How do you have a successful conference when participants are wedded – for a variety of reasons – to positions they feel they must hold at all costs?

The problem with pluralism is the evaporation of telos. How can we move toward a common goal successfully together? That telos, that goal, that end-game, means significantly different things to us. The problem isn’t that we can’t work together. It’s that we’re working towards different ends. To minimize those differences disrespects everyone involved.

In the case of human sexuality within The United Methodist Church, for instance, it doesn’t shut down the argument to proclaim that the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled: many religious bodies – significant ones – still practice a mode of spiritual formation that reflects a traditional stance on marriage and sexuality, including the Roman Catholic Church under the popular leadership of Pope Francis, conservative Judaism, and many branches of moderate Islam. And so United Methodists of different convictions may be willing to work together, but underneath that sentiment is the dread often felt in a dead-end relationship: where is this headed? Is it sustainable? I care about this person, but do we have a significant compatibility issue? What if we’re loathe to stop working together but we are working towards different ends?

So rather successful outcomes – because those vary widely depending on who you ask – what are the attributes of a successful 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church?

A successful General Conference will be one in which honesty is practiced with humility. The constituents, organizations and movements present need to be extremely honest about their intentions, goals and convictions – no matter what that means for the future of how we live and worship. Fear of divorce can lead to a lack of bluntness, the inability to frankly and simply express oneself. But the honesty must live and breathe in the ecosphere of humility (not that humility means capitulation). Humility doesn’t mean setting aside conviction. It means the willingness to serve another with whom you disagree while you live your conviction with integrity. It means holding the door open for someone who has made your life difficult.

A successful General Conference will be one in which respect is shown in the mode in which business is conducted. If business is interrupted (a great deal of time, energy, money and travel go into planning General Conference) by special interest groups, be they the Green Party, Right to Life, or GLAAD, then it is fair to ask if the behavior embodies respect for the gathering, however much one might agree with the platform of the protesting group. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to non-members of The United Methodist Church demonstrating on the floor during business. This becomes potently illustrated if you conduct a simple thought experiment: would you vote to allow non-United Methodist members to demonstrate on the floor during business if they came to demonstrate on behalf of a certain presumptive presidential nominee? (Or would you vote to allow United Methodists to demonstrate on the floor during business if they came to demonstrate on behalf of a certain presumptive presidential nominee? Here I suggest the convened body should have a say, and not just the presiding chair.)

A successful General Conference will be one in which the worldwide nature of the church will be celebrated as central to the United Methodist identity rather than an appendix to its agenda. If non-English speakers’ perspectives are dismissed, because of the content or because of their place of origin or race, then respect will not have been shown. Eight years ago international delegates to General Conference faced challenges like receiving their preparatory materials months after North Americans did. They sometimes were asked to vote on what in English were oddly worded amendments or proposals after having the content translated twice, such as from English to French and from French to Swahili. Rather than embrace global delegates, some North Americans, seeing their presence as a hassle, promoted the idea of giving them their “own” conference – a gross failure of basic inclusion at best, and reminiscent of the days of American segregationalism at worst. An intentionally “international” opening worship service serves to highlight the global reach of the denomination – but perhaps in a similar way to highlighting diversity at the Oscars.

As the World Methodist Council reminds us, Wesleyan Methodism has deep, historic roots globally. The Council, which includes The United Methodist Church in the denominations it represents, brings together at least 80 denominations from over 130 countries involving over 80 million people. General Conference is not a time to practice geographical hubris with a colonial residue of paternalistic impatience. Simply put, despite all the “ministry of monitoring” that goes in to making General Conference inclusive, how many members of General Boards and Committees are North American? For all the talk of sharing power, North Americans seem particularly loathe to do so.

Finally, a successful General Conference will be one in which decisions are made. What a simple sentence: what a complex proposal. If honesty is practiced with humility, some decisions need to be made. Sometimes the worst outcome is one in which millions of dollars and work hours are spent in order to tread water. The worst case scenario isn’t, as actress Gwyneth Paltrow would put it, a “conscious uncoupling.” The worst case scenario is that blood pressures will skyrocket and mud will be flung all so that nothing changes – a dysfunctional and untenable position.

A failed General Conference has little to do with whether or not The United Methodist Church chooses to continue to exist in its old form or in new iterations. A failed General Conference will be one in which honesty is swallowed by the desire to appease or to protect the status quo; in which humility is swallowed by a sense of entitlement; in which disrespect is shown in the mode in which business is done; in which the worldwide nature of the Body of Christ is re-sketched with North American features; and in which no clear, coherent, time-bound decisions are made in any direction.

Go, therefore, to your committee meetings and plenary gatherings, to the visitors’ gallery and the restroom, to planning sessions and café tables, and consider your conversations, plans and prayers with these questions in mind: if we’re really honest, what do we want this to look like in four years? If we’re really honest, what is it likely to look like in four years? What decisions will help those to be one and the same thing?

…on earth, as it is in heaven.