I don’t know what to do. I’m a United Methodist Pastor, who has no real history or heritage in UMC, so it’s easy for me to say, “let’s just leave.” And though I studied UM polity in seminary, I am far from an expert on it, and these are indeed complicated issues. I’m trying to be faithful to the denomination as I vowed to be when Bishop Sally Dyck laid a hand on me and licensed me in 2011. But I’m also trying to be faithful to my baptismal vows to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” With every fiber of my being I believe that injustice and oppression are presenting themselves in UMC polity and practice. I must resist.
This week I was at the Church of the Resurrection’s Leadership Institute, which this year was designed specifically to address the current conditions of a widely divided UMC and its future. Adam Hamilton may be among the most widely respected clergy in the system, and I applaud him for recognizing this and subsequently using his voice to stop the harm which flooded our General Conference in 2019, and for using his power to convene UMC leaders from across the world to ready ourselves for our General Conference in 2020. He is not standing in the wings, merely waiting to see what UMC delegates do. I applaud him for that. His church will be fine no matter what, but he has chosen to put himself right into the thick of it, and give his own blood, sweat, and tears to working toward a more just and united church. Though I often disagree you, thank you, Rev. Adam Hamilton for this work.
But I also left the Leadership Institute discouraged. There are many reasons why, but there are three primary reasons I’d need to get down in writing if only for my own sake, but maybe it will initiate some more thought and conversations in and with others. Here they are*:
- The legislation items outlined at the conference seemed ok on their faces (hard to tell because of how complex this is), but, one, it seemed we are poised to go to General Conference 2020 ready to present, prioritize, debate, and vote on them just as we have for 40+ years. What in us thinks that operating in the same systemic ways and structures of the past will yield us any different result than the abject harm it has yielded all along and came to a head in 2019? We cannot merely work on legislation and run it through the same broken system over and over. We need to design a whole new mechanism. When addressed in a Q&A last week with a panel of bishops last week, the answer was essentially, “well the rules of the General Conference are determined at the convening of the conference. In 2016 it took us three days to settle on the rules.” That’s not an acceptable answer. That is exactly why we cannot go to GC2020 working with the same mechanism. If we do, the only legislation we should be championing is one that allows immediate, amicable, fair, and equitable disaffiliation right at the beginning. Otherwise it’s “round and round you go, where it stops nobody knows”. We must imagine a new way of being. I am no Wesley scholar, but I believe he would be appalled at our lack of imagination in how to govern ourselves.
- I feel like the Council of Bishops is getting too much off the hook in all of this. They play a unique role in it, one that I am admittedly utterly equipped to handle, but they are also the key leaders in our denomination. In 2016 the General Conference stopped everything and told the Bishops that they needed them to lead. The Council of Bishops did the most United Methodist thing ever: They formed a committee. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but in my studies of both justice and systemic change, you can’t committee nor legislate your way to them. Seeking justice and systemic change through committee and legislation will always sift toward the lowest common denominator, which, quite honestly, for marginalized communities means bread crumbs at best, but more likely continued harm and oppression. We need bishops, both individually and as a council to step into the kind of courageous, bold, imaginative, and risky leadership they call us to all the time. We need progressive bishops to lead their conferences in clear and overt resistance to the Traditional Plan and to the prohibitions in the Book of Discipline that have existed for 40+ years. And we need the Council of Bishops to take bold moves to work with other leaders in the system to build a new mechanism, and it needs to be done by 2020. They don’t get to stand by and wait and see what delegations do while playing centrist games. I’ve seen Bishops not be afraid to close or reboot dying and dysfunctional congregations. I believe the same needs to happen denominationally. It requires great courage and imagination and we need the bishops to lead in it, not via committee nor legislation, but via bold, visionary, system upending leadership, and it needs to happen now.
- Which leads to reason three. We are out of time. It is insulting to me that after 40+ years of vicious debate, abject dysfunction, and massive harm, that we would be called to wait and be patient for another General Conference or two after 2020. Perhaps the most salient moment at the Leadership Institute came on Friday morning, when four Bishops stood on stage to cast vision for 2032. Bishop of Haller of Iowa began talking about clergy orders and care in 2032 and suddenly the naked emperor that is the UMC legislative and judicial system was exposed (keep in mind, I mean the systems here, not the people in them). Bishop Haller presides over clergy in Iowa, where a queer clergy person named Anna Blaedel is currently awaiting trial for simply being who they are. As Bishop Haller outlined clergy orders and care for 2032, someone shouted “What about Anna in 2019!” This began a round shouts of “what about Anna!” After about a minute it settled, the Bishop continued and nothing more was said.
And that’s just it. We are out of time, and nothing more was said. I want to be a team player, I really do. Unity is of course a beautiful and noble goal, but we are long past remaining a united United Methodist Church. Time is up. We cannot wait any longer for a broken system to churn out something beautiful, when what it will likely churn out is bread crumbs at best. There are a lot of good, right and difficult questions we need to address, don’t get me wrong. One of those I heard this week is “what about the agencies doing good throughout the world? We cannot risk those getting dissolved in schism.” Are we so lacking in faith that we think God can’t do the necessary work globally without our system? Are we so arrogant about the agencies we’ve created that we will continue to harm LGTBQ+ people in favor of our fear about those agencies? Another that was thick at this conference was “What about those in the middle who feel torn about where to go and what to do? Can’t we give them more time?” Quite simple, no. No we can’t. I’m sorry this is hard for those in that place. I’ve been there. But the truth is the harm to LGBTQ+ people is greater than the hard choice you face.
There are a lot of good questions that we do need to address and address with love and care. But there’s one primary question that can no longer get shoved under the narthex carpet. The primary question, the key question, the guiding question for everything in the UMC right now must be the one desperately cried out from the pews: “What about Anna?”
*Please feel free to kindly correct me on anything unfactual here, as well as chime in about your thoughts. This is merely what I saw and felt, and what my thoughts are. I think a robust conversations on these matters a extremely important right now.