Watching a Church Work

Imagine a large convention center with a huge main room and a slew of smaller rooms (they’re still big, but they can be divided with those big, moveable wall partitions). Imagine seventy or eighty people sitting in one of those rooms, with a few people at a head table and the rest of the people sitting in rows, with microphone stands strategically placed around the room. At the back are booths in which are seated translators for the delegates who do not speak English. If you could walk by those booths you would hear Spanish, French, Portugese, and other languages. Each translator is speaking into a microphone attached by cable to a headset worn by a delegate who is getting an almost simultaneous translation.

Now, imagine this legislative group doing its work according to Roberts Rules of Order: motions, amendments, points of order, speeches for and against, and votes. Everything has to be done in a way that ascertains as best as we can that everyone participates fully in the process. If you can imagine these things, you can get a sense of a General Conference legislative committee at work.

I sat in on the Higher Education and Ministry legislative committee for awhile, watching the proceedings. (In each of the committee rooms, there is a place separated from the main part of the room, for visitors and observers.) The committee was going through a proposed change to the Book of Discipline relative to leaves of absence for various categories of ministers (e.g. licensed local pastor, probationary member, other categories). Each of these pieces of legislation has a number – “Petition #80412” (I made up this number). One petition can be several pages long. The committee (or a sub-committee) has to go through it and decide whether to recommend approval, non-approval or amendment. The work is slow, detailed and extremely tedious. And remember, everything has to be translated, with adequate time for people to ask questions, make amendments, or do something else, in whatever language is theirs.

I confess, this sort of business does not stir my soul, but I deeply appreciate the people who are willing to take the responsibility. Never doubt that they are engaging in a labor of love.

The pressure is starting to mount. The committees have a lot of work to do and tomorrow (Sunday) is the deadline for getting everything ready for the plenary session. Even more, petitions approved by committees that had budget implications (i.e. were they going to cost money to implement), had to be finished and submitted by 5:00 pm today (Saturday). Talk about pressure.

Highlights for today? Our Kansas Area delegations went out to eat together this evening. It’s always a joy to sit down with friends. We had our Bishop Jones and Mary Lou with us as well. And Bishop Hutchinson of Louisiana preached at this morning’s worship and it was outstanding! He preached on the John 3 text, about Nicodemus and being born of the Spirit, born from above. It was really a call to remember the source of our life, individuall and ecclesially – to be filled with the Spirit once again.

So, how does all that legislative minutiae relate to life in the Spirit? I admit, I’m sometimes doubtful. It’s easy to blow off the business side of church life as unspiritual, therefore unimportant. But then I remember other meetings, not at General Conference, like the Board of Ordained Ministry, when one of our struggling colleagues needs some time off and they take “voluntary leave of absence.” And we’re checking the Book of Discipline to make sure we follow procedures. But of course, now it’s not just about meaningless legislation. It’s about someone’s life. And I’m thankful for the people who were paying attention in the legislative committee.

I still wonder how much of what we’re doing truly embodies the life of the Spirit. There is surely more to Christ’s Kingdom…

The Daily Grind

Now this is what General Conference is all about: legislation! Today the work of legislative committees began in earnest. Since I’m a reserve delegate, I’m not assigned a committee. I can observe, float around, watch.

I can also visit with people. Bishop Machado from Mozambique preached in the opening worship. A few of you may remember Thyrza Mucambe. Bishop Machado is her Dad. He can preach, let me tell you. He preached in Portugese and it was translated in English. Portugese and Italian are enough alike that I could pick up some of what he was saying before the translator put it in English. I saw Bishop Machado later and it was good to talk with him, if only very briefly.

I also saw Hilary Mawia’s dad, Bishop Mawia from Myanmar. We had a nice little visit. He’ll be in Winfield at the end of next week for Hilary’s graduation. It’s kind of weird being in Ft. Worth, talking to a guy from Myanmar about being in Winfield next week. Ah, The United Methodist Church.

The bishop candidates from the South Central Jurisdiction met for lunch today. I really like these people. There were lots of stories told around the table. Since most (maybe all) are or have been district superintendents, they swapped stories peculiar to being a DS. It was really interesting to listen in: very pragmatic, very administrative, problem-solving-type challenges. Very enlightening.

I had a couple of other really interesting conversations. Stay tuned for more on them, probably after General Conference. But now I should turn to the nuts and bolts of today – the legislative committees. It is a grind. Each committee breaks into sub-committees in order to get the work done. Petitions from all across the connection have come to a central office where they are assigned a particular committee (I won’t give you the list, but there are 13 legislative committees). There are thousands of petitions that are bundled and assigned and then the committees have to get through them all. Hence sub-committees. Their work is daunting.

What I’ve heard (but don’t know for sure, yet): the committee on the superintendency will recommend to the plenary session that the mandatory retirement age for bishops rise from 66 to 72 (70 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 30, you know). I also heard that they considered term limits for bishops. I think this one comes up about every 4 years.

The legistlative committees on church and society and faith and order (two different committees) really have their work cut out for them. These are the committees which get flooded with petitions about homosexual practice. Fun. Please pray for them. These matters are controversial and the folks in these committees will have some gut-wrenching moments.

Day three in the books.

State of the Church

General Conference always includes – at the beginning – speeches by a bishop (the Episcopal Address) and by a chosen lay leader (Laity Address). For the first time in the history of United Methodism, a Young People’s Address was added. So, until mid-afternoon today, we listened to representatives of the church share their assessment of United Methodism and their vision of the future.

For starters – the tone and style of these addresses. Denominational leaders tend to be understated most of the time in their formal addresses. Some pointed comments were made, but always in that…what tone is it? Guarded. Careful. Even when we’re making some sort of prophetic statement, we have to watch how we say it. Even when we “get spontaneous,” we do it in a planned, controlled way. It leaves one dissatisfied, maybe even a little cranky, like going to the soft drink machine and getting a class full of very flat root beer; no bubbles; no fizz.

The young people, on the other hand, were quite fizzy. They were, as one might imagine, much more forthright and strong in their assessments of our condition and bolder in their vision for the future. You know how young people are – all idealistic and such. They were well-organized and what they said had punch. They clearly called a denomination to set aside the old, tired, faultlines of Left and Right. We all cheered, of course, but do we really get what they are saying to us?

In some ways I was quite impressed with what our denominational leaders said today. We really do want to do things differently. We are all sick of business as usual. There was a powerful call to realize the abundant life we already have, rather than believing the myth of scarcity, thus being afraid to dream too big. At other moments during the day, my eyes welled with the tears of yearning. We use the term “United Methodist Church” far too often. It’s still about “Methodism” much too much; still too many assumptions about our denomination’s prominence.

One little rant: it bugs me the way we change hymn lyrics to reflect our concerns about “justice.” You know the old hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing?” One stanza says, “My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim…” It was changed to “My gracious Savior…” “Master,” of course, is rendered unuseable because of its racist or imperialist connotation. Ugh. Sometimes we just do silly, even absurd, things, offending one value (the historical integrity of a hymn) for the sake of another (avoidance of sounding oppressive). There’s a hermeneutical issue here: the particular connotation that I choose to give a word means that you will be limited in what you can say. Changing words like this is an act of power that strikes me as, in a way, an abuse of power. It is maddeningly self-righteous. I really, really, really wish we wouldn’t do that.

Opening Worship

Forty years ago (1968), on this very date (April 23), The United Methodist Church was born in Dallas, Texas. Today, we’re in next-door Ft. Worth, at the 10th General Conference since the merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church back in ’68. This moment in our history stood as a counter-balance to the theme of opening worship for General Conference, ’08. Taking that oft-used quote from Jeremiah 29:11, we are looking for “a future and a hope,” (or “a future with hope”).

As usual, we are off and crawling. Worship at 6:00 pm. I found myself thinking about watching Pope Benedict’s mass in Yankee Stadium last Sunday and comparing it with what I was witnessing tonight. Protestants easily stereotype Catholic worship as a combination of rote and pageantry. Although the dais on which the Pope sat and where the altar for the mass stood was huge, the service itself was, as liturgical services go, quite simple.

By comparison ours was oddly flashy: lots of “extras.” We always try in worship to demonstrate not only the make-up of our church, but also our intent to be inclusive. Like the Catholics last Sunday with the Pope in Yankee Stadium, we, too, celebrated Holy Communion in the Ft. Worth Convention Center. As usual, there was great music, with lots of visual (though not overstated) stimuli. The sermon by Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Annual Conference was solid. We are resurrection people. Our hope is not the vague, vain hope of “I hope so,” but the vibrant hope of people who know the resurrected Christ.”

A man announced that roughly 6,500 people had participated in worship. The convention center looked 80% full up in seating area. All the delegates sat/sit on the floor of the center, so the place was really full.

Worship behind us, we move to the opening exercise of the business side of Conference – enabling motions to set the bar, practice using the wireless voting pads, a check of security and then approving the various procedural rules so that the Conference can function. I said to one of the other reserve delegates next to me, “I really appreciate the people who have an eye for this sort of detail. I don’t.”

It’s midnight. Day 1 in the books. Our delegation meets at 6:15 tomorrow.

General Conference Ennui

I told my friends and students (who, of course, are also my friends) that I would blog about the United Methodist General Conference, so let me try a warm-up. Yesterday, during my morning devotion time, I settled on 1 Peter 1:8, “…and even though you do not see him, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”

For some reason, at that very moment the word “ennui” popped into my mind. Dictionary.com defines “ennui” as “a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom.” Quite unfelicitously, it gave the following example: “The endless lecture produced an unbearable ennui.” Ouch! Boring lectures? Impossible! I’ve never done such a thing.

Next thought (still yesterday morning during prayer): “I’m not even at General Conference yet and I’m already suffering ennui.” Now, some 28 hours later, I’m thinking that maybe “ennui” is not quite the right word. Yes, there will be boring moments as conference committees slog through petitionary tedium. But that just goes with the territory. My particular brand of ennui is not so much weariness from boredom.

Sadness. That’s it. It’s weariness from sadness.

For at least 2 months I’ve been receiving items in the mail: letters, a video or two, various other publications. They all plead with me to vote for (or against) something: for this person for Judicial Council; for this or that legislation; watch out for the cruel conservatives (IRD) who are taking over our beloved UM Church. This is the stuff I’ve been getting in the mail. Certainly I appreciate and can sympathize with the zeal of the advocates. I don’t want my “ennui” to trivialize their concerns, but, surely, we care about more in the church than structures and boundaries and who gets to share the ecclesiastical goodies. I understand that General Conference is a legislative body, but something still is out of focus.

Maybe my reading I Peter is just bad timing. It’s the opposite of United Methdoism in the United States at least. Here’s a suffering church. Here’s a church with no power (there are parts of United Methodism in the world in which the biblical stories are existentially real to them. They are living I Peter right now. But not us in the USA). Here’s a church filled with joy, even though they don’t have any of what we usually associate with a prominent church.

There’s also a picture in I Peter of history (read the whole book; it’s short and you’ll see what I mean). These are the last days. We’re at the end of the age. In spite of trials, we have joy unspeakable; it’s full of glory. Be ready to suffer and in so doing, you’ll be like Jesus. Don’t give up. The suffering is not forever. Judgment begins with the household of God. Don’t worry about the “fiery ordeal” among us, but gird your minds for action. Be disciplined. Be holy.

I do not like this juxtaposition: a wealthy, aging, declining bureaucracy scrambling for status, going through its four-year ritual, assuming that we’re really doing something that counts (after all, CNN will come and video us!); a poor, suffering, powerless, hilariously, absurdly, joyful, hopeful fellowship preparing to die but full of life.

I’m sure my mood will brigthen once I get to General Conference. I’ll be watching honest, sincere Christians working hard to make faithful decisions. I’ll participate in interesting, well-done worship. I’ll see people from around the connection that I know and love.

But when we leave on May 2, will we have done anything that even remotely links us with the I Peter church? That truly looks like Jesus’ kingdom? Please God, by your mercy…

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