This Isn't My Church?

>> 10 May 2012

I'm not entirely sure I know what I'm doing here in Blogger anymore, it's been so long since I've posted.  I need to go back and clean out some old stuff, figure out what's happening, but for the moment, I'm taking a page out of some other books and posting my UMC General Conference reflections.  It was an interesting and emotional ending to my seminary experience, so we're talking a lot of words, and they may not be worth reading but...  Here's the TL;DR sum-up: You know, I give a lot of lip service to Christian love, but I have to say - my time in Tampa, time on Twitter, and time on the Live Stream really made it sink in, just how important it is.  When it's not there, well, you know it.  And, BTW, it's God's church.

Also, click on the post name - it apparently isn't super obvious from the home page that there's a jump.

“This isn't my church.” It often seemed that I was surrounded by this phrase at General Conference 2012, from conversations overheard in the lobby of the hotel, to online blogs, to a plethora of “tweets” in the “Twitter-verse,” to even saying it myself once in a text message to a friend. These words were uttered by delegates, observers, General Agency workers, and your “Average Joe” church-goers on all sides of every major issue, meant to express frustration with the conversations, the state of the church, and the state of the voting process. Most commonly, I heard it from people who grew up in loving congregations and were taught that all people, regardless of race, gender, or anything, are loved by God. These same people came to General Conference 2012 and felt as though their voices were silenced, their very presence marginalized and, at times, even hated. Coming into General Conference, I was confident in my understanding of what the United Methodist Church was, and what it meant for me to be a member, though even now, looking back, I'm not sure I can define what I thought. In the aftermath, I found myself not only reconsidering what it means to be a part of the UMC tradition, but also questioning whether it was where I truly belong.

Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors
When I entered the School of Theology, I knew I was poorly versed in scripture and fairly knowledgeable about church history and the major philosophers and theologians of the last 2000 years. What I didn't realize was how absolutely ignorant I was with regards to the Methodist tradition. I knew about John and Charles Wesley, but in hindsight that was apparently the grand extent of my Methodist knowledge. I am exceedingly glad that I chose to take my Methodist classes in the first year of my seminary education; they provided me with a sense of direction, however vague, gave me the strength I needed to survive a difficult field education experience, and helped lay the foundation for me to find my own place within the Connection that is the United Methodist Church. Most importantly, it helped me to define and gain confidence in my own theology.

I fell in love with what was presented to me as the United Methodist tradition and turned my “nerdy” enjoyment of political process to the study of church polity. Asked in that first year to argue in favor of one thing that should be kept the same and one thing that should be changed in the Book of Discipline, I apparently found the itinerancy and guaranteed appointment to be the most important issues, issues that were reflected in my second paper for this class. Strong in my opinions that the pulpit should be used for prophetic witness and that congregations should be reliant on themselves for survival rather than their pastors, but also in that the church structure has failed too often in making sure pastors remain effective in their call, my stance has changed little over the last three years. I found myself still very much in support of the itinerancy, and very much against guaranteed appointment.

What I realized during my time at General Conference, however, is that in the grand scheme, I really don't care all that much about guaranteed appointment or the itinerancy. I don't care that much whether there's a “set-aside bishop” and, provided there are legitimate means of accountability and ways for voices to be heard, I don't care whether more decision-making power lies with the bishops or with the boards and agencies. As much as I love Wesleyan Arminianism and will defend it steadfastly, I ultimately don't even care that much about it. I have my opinions on what the best way forward is with regards to each of these issues, of course, but they aren't the heart of the issue, except inasmuch as they help to form the identity of the UMC. Instead, what was called into question so often was our denominational commitment to the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” motto, and I discovered that a simple catch-phrase may represent to me the most important aspects of our tradition.

On previous papers for this class, I had difficulty choosing what legislation to write about (and this is, in fact, why the other two papers focused on different legislation). The same problem remained true at General Conference, as I spent most of my first day in General Administration, most of my second in Higher Education and Ministry, and pieces of both in Church and Society. I knew what issues were the biggest for the denominational identity, and for that reason they were most important to me. Some were important on a personal level, some only because I wanted to see which way the tides were turning in the denomination, but none of the legislative actions seemed to take precedence in my heart. I was active on Twitter during General Conference (even managed to more than double my following through #GC2012, in fact), and reviewing and reflecting on my posts, I've realized that the things I was most impacted by were not the actual decisions being made, but rather the responses to those decisions by delegates, visitors, and bishops alike. The bibliography included with this paper is included not because of citations, but because each of the voices had and continue to have significant impact on my experience of General Conference.

I am a woman and I am a young adult, but I am straight, I am white, I come from an upper middle class family, I am extremely well educated, I am world traveled, I have the influence of many different denominations in my background, I have lived in many parts of the country, and I am politically and theologically moderate. Though I do not think my opinion will always prevail (especially in the more liberal Boston University setting), I have absolutely no fear of not having my voice heard. I reference Twitter above partly in humor, but also in acknowledgment that even as an observer who knew only a few people at General Conference and was not involved in any “Back Room” dealings, my voice was heard. Intending only to provide periodic updates to friends not in Tampa, I was “re-tweeted” and eventually “followed” by liberals, conservatives, delegates, observers, young adults, and the middle-aged. My voice, in all of its sarcastic turns of phrase, factual statements and inaccuracies, and opinions both loving and scathing, was most definitely heard at General Conference, if only by a small and still narrow segment of the population.

Throughout General Conference, however, there were those who felt they were not only not being heard but even being silenced. There were those who refused to hear any voices but their own. There were those who claimed inclusivity but were oblivious to the voices they excluded. There were those who, in their rejection of exclusivity, failed to realize when they embodied the very traits they claimed to reject. There were those who manipulated others and those who acted at the whim of a delegation, agency, benefactor, or otherwise. Most delegates were clearly aware of some of this and some were aware of all of it; a few may have been mostly unaware. I don't know how much of this I would have seen had it not been for my somewhat invisible status as a young adult visitor, my connections on the floor and in the agencies, my occasional internet breaks in the lobby of the hotel, and my presence in the world of tweets and blogs. The hardest part of the situation was recognizing that I wanted to equate it to a bad day in US politics, and understanding at the same time that what I was witnessing was an abundance of people doing what they thought best to save the UMC and restore its identity.

Through all of this, I wondered where the Wesleyan ideal of Christian love had gone. When those who supported the IOT/Call to Action refused to work with the people from Plan B and MFSA, I wondered who had decided the decisions should only be made by one group of people. When I watched Central Conference delegates being guided in their voting, I wondered if the church had forgotten to let the Holy Spirit move within it. When price-tags were placed on the heads of seminarians, I wondered when and why ministry had become only about ordained elders. When Americans made sarcastic comments about being the minority at the next General Conference, I wondered what was so wrong with being a minority. When the statements were made that not everyone deserved God's grace and that homosexuals ought to be stoned, I wondered when we became not merely mutually accountable, but also hateful judges and executioners. When MFSA said that they had not been included in Plan UMC discussions, I wondered if our definition of inclusivity was limited by who or what we were willing to include. When I read accusations of hate (not entirely dissimilar to the statement I made two sentences ago), I wondered when we forgot to look for the logs in our own eyes first. When I received e-mails talking about how we need to reclaim the church for the young people, I wondered what would happen to the older folks. When we started saying “this is not my church,” I wondered when it ceased to be God's church.

To state the obvious: I am not God. I have a hard time believing, however, that God hates anything so much as hate itself. To be truthful, while I can accept a God who hates certain actions and the evil that dwells within some people, and I can accept scripture with liberal application of experiential interpretation, I could never worship a God who hated any person or encouraged hate towards any people. I do not know what in my life has prompted this in me, but despite my privileged upbringing and the potential for complacency that puts in me, I have spent much of my adult life arguing for the side of the minority, whether in agreement or simply in defense of that side's right to exist. I saw a lot of love for God at General Conference, and perhaps even more love for the United Methodist Church. I certainly saw a lot of love for the self; scheduled holy conferencing, “agree to disagree” legislation, and Plan UMC aside, I was unimpressed by the large number of people who seemed determinedly unwilling to compromise. The pain that continues to exist across the church body post-General Conference is evidence of an extensive failure to love one another, however.

The Aftermath
My own experience of General Conference was not as negative as the above would have one believe. It was painful and often maddening, but it was the perfect capstone to a complicated seminary experience, which was also sometimes painful and maddening. I still don't know exactly what my future ministry context is going to be, or who will be on the receiving end of that ministry, but over the past few weeks, I've realized a few things. One of those things is that I don't have all the answers, and my ideal UMC may never and maybe even should never exist. In theory, I knew this, but in reality it has taken seeing the continued reactions of other United Methodists to what happened at General Conference for me to embrace it.

There are those who, through the mist and shadows, are able to find, celebrate, and even emphasize the good from General Conference. There are those who continue to cast blame for failure and live in fear of what the church is becoming. There are those who think the United States need to become a Central Conference and those who believe the United States need to split from the Central Conferences. There are those who believe we need to divide based on various doctrine and/or polity lines and there are those who believe we must remain one United Methodist Church at all costs. There are those who believe that 2016 will solve everything, and there are those who have given up hope and are threatening to leave the church tomorrow. There are those who continue to say, “This is not my church anymore!”

I can honestly say that I don't know if the church should stay together. Throughout the history of not only the UMC but also Christianity in general, splits have often been the impetus for much needed reform on both sides of an issue. As was the case in both the Reformation and the Methodist Episcopal Church, the separations served in prophetic manners. The Methodist Episcopal Church eventually reunited, and was the better for it, though one could make a strong argument that many of our modern problems exist between those same two sides. If a split were to happen, I can't say whether structure, finances, episcopal power, clergy roles, homosexuality, and/or inclusion of Central Conference voices is the most important issue, most needful of prophetic witness. If a split were to happen, I'm not always even certain I know which side I would fall on. What I can say is that the church seems to be having an identity crisis, and if it can't get its act together, it will continue to founder. The churches that thrive are those that offer their congregations something concrete, whether conservative or liberal in the theological and political realms.

I think that, regardless of context, my role has to continue being what it has been for a long time. I recognize that I have power; if not officially, then it is at least the power I was born into. I recognize that there is a lot I can do with it, both good and bad, and that my own desire to see true unity in the UMC means that I can unintentionally contribute to negative power dynamics. I also recognize that as we are right now, we don't have one identity, and that in the effort to form one, all voices must be heard and respected. I have the ability to speak up and hold people accountable when they are not listening. I have the ability to go into any setting and model the same Christian love I would hope to receive, by opening space for a multitude of voices and empowering people to speak and be heard. All ministry settings have the potential to be miniature General Conferences; there are always people who may struggle to be heard, there are always people who don't realize their words and actions are hateful, and there are always people who practice hate in the name of God (or morality, or politics, etc). I can live with a church that is misguided; we may work towards perfection, but that doesn't mean we're there yet or that we will never make mistakes. I can't, however, live silently with a church that disrespects, dismisses, and even hates segments of its population.

The assignment of this paper was twofold: to reflect on how my General Conference experience reinforced/redefined my understanding of the United Methodist tradition and to discuss how my experience relates to issues within my current or intended context of ministry. I'm not entirely sure I did either of these with real coherence, and this is because General Conference was such a difficult experience for me. It is one I continue to grapple with, and one that continues to mess with my already in flux plans for the future. I do not know what my future context will be, and I do not know what the church will or should look like when the next General Conference comes around. My idea of the United Methodist tradition is equally complicated, recognizing that it has gone through so much change since it began. What was created in 1968 is not necessarily my favorite version of the doctrine and polity, but it is the only one I have ever been a part of. All of that being said, the one truly important part of our tradition, whether you engage in mission to the outside world or are a “Sunday morning” Christian, whether you are Arminian or Calvinist, US citizen or international, male or female, gay or straight, so on and so forth, is Christian love. We all love God and love our church and profess to love creation, and probably think we love each other, but at some point we forgot (or never learned) how to live into that last part. Without question, that is the one thing that I want to bring to people.


Sara Gallagher 10/5/12 9:22 AM  

This was absolutely riveting, Cassie. I miss getting to talk to you! You are such an interesting person and the thoughts you've written here are profoundly challenging. Keep writing!

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