By Rev. Mary K. (Sellon) Huycke
The morning after I left General Conference I felt strangely adrift. But, while finishing my breakfast, an NPR interview with author Sebastian Junger offered an explanation. His latest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging looks at how “the bitter experience of war can also cause people – citizens, not just soldiers – to feel extraordinary closeness, purpose and meaning in their lives.”
In the interview he remarked, “The odd thing about war – one of the many odd things about war is that the experience of combat produces an incredible human closeness between the soldiers involved. And when the soldiers come home, there’s this sort of existential loss of community. You’re not in the platoon. You’re not sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder with other people that you would die for.”
While General Conference is in no way comparable to war, I experienced the leaving of it with the kind of loss Junger describes. During those 12 days, I grew particularly close with delegates from across the Western Jurisdiction. We met each morning at 7 to review what had happened the previous day, share information, and discuss strategy. We used a text-based app to converse silently with one another during plenary discussions and a smaller group of us met each evening to debrief the day. Strong alliances quickly formed to meet the challenges we faced.
We came together to serve a common aim we dearly wanted – a church that would continue to honor the Wesleyan tradition of bringing together various perspectives and ways of interpreting scripture for the sake of serving the well-being of the world. While we maneuvered for that, other groupings felt differently and worked in a highly organized fashion to move the denomination in a direction where it interprets scripture in a single, agreed-upon way. It felt like a cross between the game Capture the Flag and the mini-series House of Cards.
I kept reminding myself to shake off the “us and them” way of thinking, but the energy it produced was seductive. It felt good to have a clear and commonly held objective. It felt good to support the others in our “tribe” and feel supported by them. Back home on Saturday, I found myself constantly checking in on social media to touch back to that community. I finally had to put my phone aside.
Although the divide in The United Methodist Church is fundamentally about the interpretation of scripture and our understanding of sin and salvation, how we currently approach our disagreement fuels anxiety, distrust and separation – it keeps the “war” going. Even though we all would say we hate it, keeping the war going provides focus, connection and a sense of belonging. It leaves you feeling like you’ve accomplished something, if only to run the race to the best of your ability.
I’m pondering in new ways Wesley’s words, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” I’d always interpreted that to mean loving each other; now I hear them as an injunction to find that thing beyond us all that we love so much, and want so much, that it will draw us past our differences of thought and understanding for the sake of achieving it. This is what brings vitality to a local church. It’s what we as a denomination will need to achieve if we are to find our way to a new and healthier way of wearing the name, United.
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.