By Skylar Marston-Bihl
As a novice on the PNW delegation to General Conference, I find myself wondering what words we might all need to read as we near the special session of General Conference in February. I am confident that I am not alone in feeling trepidation about the coming conference. Methodists are approaching these days with disparate hopes and fears; it will be an emotional experience. Beyond the reality of little sleep and high stakes, hangs the nature of who we are as The United Methodist Church.
As I look to the future of our denomination, I find myself reading through our past. I’m taking a course on United Methodist history, learning about how the early Methodist movement was one of outreach to those on the margins of society. Its early successes were among indentured servants, free Blacks, slaves, women, and those economically impoverished who responded to the counter-cultural message of inclusion and liberation through the love and grace of God.
Yet, as we began to build structure and governance into our ministry, we created systems that reflected human society rather than God’s kin-dom, replicating society’s ways of power, control, and exclusion. Methodism has always existed with this tension, between the grace flowing through all people and the structures that exclude people called to the leadership of our church. February 2019 is another point in the church’s history of tension.
This week, I encountered a relevant line in one of my Methodist history textbooks: “Some have wondered and still wonder whether Methodism does its best thinking by ballot and under time pressure.” This was in reference to Conferences held in the early 1780s as Methodism was still finding its footing in the American colonies and burgeoning country, but I can’t help but see the parallels to the General Conference in February. Once again we have gotten lost in the human-based politics of it all. Conferences can be opportunities to choose as a community to go on to perfection in love, or they can be disappointing ballot counts.
I understand that at the crux of it, we are asking what it means for our church to live into God’s call on our lives as Christians. I am well aware that asking ‘why can’t we all just get along’ oversimplifies the realities of our societal and church systems and our part in creating and perpetuating them. But as I look to February, I am focusing on where and how I have experienced God’s love and grace in my life. I am striving to be ready to hear the ways others are experiencing this love and grace in theirs. And I am faithful that whatever happens to The United Methodist Church, God is bigger than our institutions. Love is bigger than our structures and our fraught attempts to follow the Way of Jesus.
A wise District Superintendent once told me that God was at work in the world before the Methodist Church, God is at work now through and despite the Methodist Church, and God will continue to be at work whatever comes. I know the potentially momentous impact of the coming special General Conference is real, but I also know that my faith rests in this active, actually momentous God.
I pray that we may remember the initial message of inclusion spread by Wesley and his followers, calling us into greater love. And I hope that we will choose to be partners with God’s love, and not a barrier to it.
Russell Richey, Kenneth Row, & Jean Miller Schmidt. The Methodist Experience in American: A History. Vol. 1 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2010) 51.
Skylar Marston-Bihl is a lay member of First United Methodist Church in Olympia, Washington and a member of the Pacific Northwest Conference delegation to the 2019 General Conference. Skylar is also the first-elected lay delegate from the PNW Conference for 2020.