By Rev. Mary K. (Sellon) Huycke
I’m not a rule breaker. I’m not someone at the forefront of marches or instigating movements. As a leadership coach, my work is generally behind the scenes, helping people and groups be present to Spirit and one another as they discover and live their calling. I value open, respectful conversation and mindful decision-making. How we go about our work with one another is just as important to me as the work itself.
Perhaps that’s why I felt so called to raise my name as the Pacific Northwest’s head clergy delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Wesley’s “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” was so much a mantra in my head that I had sheets of washable tattoos printed for the team and small “do no harm” tattoos ready to pass out.
I realized very quickly at General Conference that, when it comes to human sexuality, there is no agreement about what is “good.” Each side’s “good” feels like harm to the other. Traditionalists and progressives alike fear for their ministries and the very life of their churches, should the other “side” prevail.
General Conference plenary sessions were, for the most part, exercises in talking AT each other. Minds were made up. Sides were chosen. There was no curiosity, no openness or even desire to see what new thing God might reveal to us all. Cold calculation and manipulation replaced collaborative improvisation. Meanness lurked just under the surface, delighting in the game of winners and losers. All of it was done in line with the rules. We played by the book as we harmed one another.
I experienced Jurisdictional Conference very differently. The overwhelming majority of delegates, myself included, did not come with our minds made up. Despite letters and emails and conversations from caucus groups wanting us to elect an “out” bishop, most came not knowing for whom they’d vote. Most came wanting to elect the person who seemed best suited for the work of helping our congregations be mission outposts of vital ministry in our communities.
We asked tough questions of the candidates, focusing on how they compensated for the “flat side” of their leadership. As elections went on, Karen Oliveto remained the top vote getter, and side conversations about the implications of electing an “out” gay bishop grew. As one of the facilitators of an all-delegate conversation about what this implied, I was awed by people’s respectful openness – open both with their views and to the views of others.
Throughout Friday, votes remained divided primarily between three clearly gifted persons, each with a very different leadership style and ministry background. I wanted to know who could best lead our congregations into missional ministry; who had the most experience in leading a large organization in partnering with its community in ministries of mercy and justice. After another Q & A with the remaining three candidates, I solidified my decision. The voting results revealed that others had, too; there was now a clear leader.
On another day, the candidates’ answers might have led us to a different decision. But on that day, the Spirit seemed to rest strongly on one individual and the two other candidates withdrew with leaderly grace.
In our final vote, there was only one candidate, Karen Oliveto. Twelve of the 100 delegates present chose not to vote. The remaining 88 voted to elect her.
Like we so often are in The United Methodist Church, we were not fully of one mind. However, we embodied what I wish for our communities of faith: open, grace-filled conversation that seeks to find God’s path to Spirit-led, Christ-centered ministry that increases the well-being of the world. We broke the law as written in our Book of Discipline, but we behaved as a discerning community of Christ.
“Do no harm” is not a possibility. People on all sides of the conversation are hurting. Any action or non-action will hurt someone. The leadership task for us all is to fully live both risk and responsibility. Willingness to risk it all for the sake of new and renewed life as persons find their inherent worth not in the approval of others or what they produce or how much they achieve but simply because they are a human being, beloved of God. Willingness, too, to take responsibility for the disruption and pain resulting from what’s required of us when we live that work out in our various contexts.
The elected delegates have chosen a new bishop in the West, a bishop they and I believe is called by God to serve in this capacity. The sky is not falling. But, our action will disrupt the denomination, as well as many of our congregations and clergy.
I find myself in the position of being part what others experience as a pack of radicals bent on self-serving defiance of church law. Had I not been there, perhaps I’d wonder about that myself. However, I was there. I know differently. Now, like the rest of the church, I am called now to pause, listen, and hopefully discern together what new thing God’s Spirit is birthing into the tradition of our United Methodist Church.
On our final morning together, Bishop Stanovsky described the Resurrection as something which introduced novelty into tradition. In that long-ago moment, some welcomed it, some fought it, many didn’t know what to make of it. The more I look to scripture, the more I see that theme repeated. I keep pondering a variation of a question Bishop Stanovsky posed and offer it to your reflection as well, “How does God’s newness find its way into the world in our day and age. How do we tell if is of God, and should we believe it is, what are we to do?”
Mary K. (Sellon) Huycke works as a leadership coach for clergy, congregations and judicatory bodies navigating change and transition. She has served as a DS and as pastor in settings ranging from new church start to redevelopment and co-authored several books, the most recent being Pathway to Renewal.