Delegates not Representatives
Guiding Question: “If delegates are charged to go to General Conference to confer (Holy Conferencing) with one another about what is best for the life and ministry of the United Methodist Church; how can they be signing statements taking a position before they have been involved in the process of conferring (Holy Conferencing) with others?”
In Heather Hahn’s UMNS report on the Alternative Plan to the Call To Action, I saw this:
General Conference delegations from at least three annual (regional) conferences have endorsed restructuring. Two endorsed the Council of Bishops’s document, “For the Sake of a New World, We See a New Church: A Call to Action,” which outlines suggested changes including the proposed church restructure. A third, the North Texas Conference, has endorsed the Call to Action recommendations.
Wait…what? I had seen these announcements but I hadn’t really put together that they were endorsing specific policy changes ahead of General Conference. While Hahn is careful to say that they have merely endorsed “restructuring” it seems like three large delegations have “officially endorsed” the Call To Action set forth by the Interim Operations Team and other affiliated bodies of the United Methodist Church. Let’s see what they mean:
First, the Iowa delegation did not endorse the CTA specifically…it endorsed the Bishop’s letter for study and discussion.
Our delegation specifically endorsed the document for study and discussion in the wider Church and wishes to challenge all General Conference delegates to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider this document and its implications for our denomination…The Iowa delegation recognizes that there will likely be many changes to The Call to Action proposals from the Council of Bishops but found this document to be very helpful in describing the need for significant changes in structure and alignment of the United Methodist Church.
That is a far cry from “endorsing the Call To Action” as it has been framed by the umcalltoaction.org website. Iowa endorses the letter that outlines the situation, while not endorsing the specific policy changes. They have left that to General Conference where there will be “likely changes” that come from Holy Conferencing. That’s fine, endorse a letter for their annual conference to study and discuss. No problems from this armchair.
But from my friends on other delegations, it seems that Iowa’s action was referenced in other delegation meetings and they were encouraged to endorse the CTA because “look, Iowa is doing it.” And if we look at the reciprocating statements, they’ve gone beyond what Iowa did:
The Rev. Ellen Alston, head of the Louisiana delegation said, “While our members have many ideas about specific actions and structural details, our delegation is in complete accord that the Church needs to refine our focus for mission and effectiveness. We are not currently seeing the results the world needs and our Church aspires to achieve, but we are profoundly encouraged by a new spirit that is emerging with passion for outreach that will make a positive difference.”
Louisiana thus endorsed the Bishop’s Letter “in spirit” but not in “specific actions and structural details.” Again: they have not endorsed the Call To Action’s specific recommendations. But they went beyond “endorsing for study and discussion” and endorsed the document. Still pretty fair. The Bishops have said it. They have authority. No problems, again, from this armchair.
“[T]he delegation is also of one mind that the recommendations for general church structure and governance changes, including the merger of nine of the general agencies led by an Executive General Secretary, are “essential”…
Really? So North Texas not only affirms the Call To Action but has already decided before General Conference that the structure should go through? They are endorsing the specific policy proposals as a group. Even as they endorse it, they admit that changes will be made:
[T]he 30 member delegation from the North Texas Annual Conference voted unanimously to support the basic recommendations of the Connectional Table, knowing that the related legislation will be perfected with some changes made at General Conference.
Zzzzzzzz…For readers up til now, it seems mundane. “So what that elected delegations are voicing their support?” Yeah, pretty boring post so far, right? And if we were Congress that would be fine. We elect people to voice their convictions, right? Snoozer of a post here! Where’s your usual “rants” (to put in the language of a clergy colleague earlier this week)?
Here’s where it gets interesting. A delegate from another conference asked me:
“If delegates are charged to go to General Conference to confer (Holy Conferencing) with one another about what is best for the life and ministry of the United Methodist Church; how can they be signing statements taking a position before they have been involved in the process of conferring (Holy Conferencing) with others?”
We are not electing representatives to Congress. These are not people sent to represent our already-laid-out interests and are there to advocate for us. If we were emulating the outside world, then we should expect our battle lines to be drawn beforehand: there’s a winning side and a losing side, and we hope that our side wins.
But as I’ve written before, that’s not the Church. Because we elect delegates not representatives:
You are not representing our conference. You are a delegate. That means we have delegated our collective authority to you. You vote your conscience as a delegate and pay no heed to “representing” your state. Authority has been delegated to you, take it and vote as a United Methodist who loves [his/her] church.
When we send our delegates, they are sent for two weeks to BE the church, to engage in holy conferencing, to discern what is best for the life and ministry of the United Methodist Church. Holy Conferencing is not mere perfecting the documents, as the above delegations imply. It means that we come with all we are and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, engage with each other and come out after two weeks with a living document that guides millions of Methodists for four years.
As retired Bishop Pennel related back in 2007:
Conferencing is our way of being engaged with spirituality, mission, governance and fraternity. It is a time when we, as United Methodists, come together for worship, prayer, Bible study and the conduct of our business in a grace-filled manner. We believe that truth emerges when we, as a priesthood of believers, come together to listen to one another and to be open to the nudging of the Holy Spirit.
How can we be in Holy Conferencing if our delegations are “unanimous” in their approval of specific policy decisions beforehand? How can we be in Holy Conferencing if we come with our tinted glasses already on, with groupthink giving us additional inertia?
This lonesome pastor out in rural America wonders if delegation endorsements of specific policies is in error and if it is in violation of the call to be in Holy Conferencing and, if I may go further, if it is an obstacle to the Holy Spirit guiding our hearts and minds.
What say you? Discuss.In case anyone thinks this is my own tinted glasses against the CTA, I would also call out any delegation that endorsed the Alternative Plan that I personally support. This is about standards of conduct, not political posturing.