Overhead in General Conference 2012 plenary:
Delegates consider legislation at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose, digitally altered by Jesse N. Love
Business as Usual | By Joan Holms
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend the first week of General Conference this year. I was there, along with Kristina Gonzalez, as an observer on behalf of the Western Jurisdiction Inter-Ethnic Coordinating Committee. We were tasked with working toward diverse representation in leadership, particularly where the church restructure plan was involved. While there I experienced the best of The United Methodist Church. I saw our sisters and brothers from around the world coming together to share their passion for God and the church. I experienced worship that informed and inspired. I saw United Methodists with hearts open to one another, despite cultural difference and language barriers, and working to see that all voices are heard, included and invited to the table.
Sad to say, I also experienced the worst of the church. I saw many who believe the church ought to operate no differently than the world outside our doors. I sat, amazed, as some of my sisters and brothers utilized manipulative strategies to ensure their voices prevailed and others were silenced. In particular, as the sub-committee which considered the legislation for restructuring the church was first formed, racial ethnic persons from the United States had no representation. It was only after much debate that three racial ethnic delegates from the US were added to this original group of 15 (for a total of 18) to take on this important work. When the subcommittee had completed its work and brought a proposal back to the full committee, about half of the sub-committee members found ways to derail the process, undoing the work of those who had labored honestly to create the most just and inclusive plan they could come up with given the limited time they were allowed. Most shocking to me was the way they effectively worked to “run out the clock” by asking irrelevant questions so that the committee would not have time to consider other options. I can’t imagine how demoralizing that must have felt for delegates who were sincerely attempting to do good work, especially those who were attending their first General Conference.
This experience reminded me of a sermon I once heard. The preacher spoke of demonstration farms on which new techniques are perfected. As farmers in the community are passing by, they can see for themselves how well (or not so well) the technique is working. Hopefully, they will discover that this new way of farming is something they want to incorporate into their work.
The preacher suggested that we ought to think of the church as a “demonstration community”. As we go about the business of being church, those who are “passing by” can see how well (or not so well) the community is doing. Ideally, those outside the church will discover that there is something different about this community we call “church” and they will want to join us. Hopefully, they will discover that “business as usual” is not the order of the day.
Sadly, there are many at General Conference for whom business as usual is the default position and I find this deeply troubling. I am saddened to know that there so many leaders in the church who think that “winning” (in the name of God) at any cost is OK. I’m not naive, but can’t help but wish that it was otherwise. I am saddened as I reflect on the ways in which we continue to hurt one another and still claim to be doing the work of God’s Kingdom.
As for the church as a “demonstration community?” Just as the unsuccessful experiment doesn’t cause farmers to give up on innovation, unsuccessful interactions at General Conference do not cause the church to give up on being a loving and inclusive community. The good news? God doesn’t give up either. God continues to energize and empower those who would move us toward greater inclusiveness. I believe voices which have been silent for generations are being heard and will continue to be heard in greater and greater numbers.
The world is passing by. I pray they will find a United Methodist Church that states that God’s love encompasses all God’s children – and then perhaps we can all act as if we believe it.
Joan Holms also serves as the chair for the Commission on Ethnic Ministries for the PNWUMC.