By Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler
May 13, 2016
Watching General Conference from afar has been a surreal experience. I’m grateful for the livestream so I can follow plenaries from my office, the library, or the comfort of home; and I feel very much a part of the team thanks to the hundreds of text messages that are shared with our delegation and other Western Jurisdiction delegates every day. That being said, the best part of this technology, for me, has been the ability to worship with the general conference. I’ve been moved by the diversity of liturgy old and new, the different languages represented, the deep thoughtfulness and extraordinary organization of the worship planners, and the profound and lasting faith proclaimed by preachers and worship leaders.
I must say, though, that the biggest challenge I’ve encountered, participating through technology rather than in person, is the Twitter feed that automatically shows up next to the screen showing what’s happening at General Conference. Even in the midst of incredibly beautiful worship, the conversation on Twitter is primarily criticism, complaint, and snarky responses to other tweets. These negative comments appear to come not from the outside, not from non-United Methodists critiquing the way we do church, but from United Methodists unhappy with the way things are going in the UMC.
The sentiment is understandable: certainly we, as a church, are not all we are called to be, no matter which “side” of the issues one is on. And yet, for this southerner, it feels an awful lot like we’re airing our dirty laundry to the world. And what’s more: I’m not sure anything is being accomplished through these tweets except the lowering of the collective morale and the dampening of everyone’s hopes that this General Conference might be different.
Part of what has transpired through these first few days is the majority desire not to use Rule 44 to discuss legislation about human sexuality (or anything else, for that matter). And I wonder if these two things might be related: Rule 44, flawed though it may have been, was designed to help people have conversations about legislation, rather than simply exchanging positive and negative soundbites. But we, as a church, seem to be incapable of conversation at this point: we are well-versed in 140-character digs, accusations, and generalizations, but we don’t seem to be listening to one another; and I wonder if, at the same time, we are failing to listen to God.
What strikes me as being so profound, such a monumental loss, is that these snarky conversations do not take a break during worship. Instead, every song sung, every word spoken, is criticized. Someone is unhappy with everything. I wonder if we have become so engrossed in fighting for our causes, or more likely fighting against other causes, that we are unable to even worship. I fear that we’ve forgotten how to open ourselves to the Spirit, to trust that everyone present – our worship leaders included – is doing their very best to be faithful. I wonder if we’ve forgotten that God is bigger than our preferences in language or our individual agendas, and in the process, we’ve closed ourselves off from the work of the Spirit in our midst.
I’m so thankful that I can participate in General Conference from afar, but I can’t say that it’s been good for my Spirit. Until we can stop fighting long enough to worship, my hopes for change in the UMC are slim.
Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler is the United Methodist pastor to Issaquah & Sammamish, WA (USA). A graduate of Southern Methodist University and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Schindler was ordained elder in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference in 2010.