The bishops actually listened and now delegates have a month’s reprieve to come up with a better way forward…and perhaps it begins with a better question.
Yo UMC, let’s kick it
UMNS reported yesterday that the Council of Bishops is withdrawing the call for a Special General Conference on May 8th, choosing instead to hold listening sessions for a month and then make future plans at their late April meeting, saying:
“Much has been learned over the past few weeks and the extended timeline will allow for even deeper listening by the bishops at the general church level but also in our residential settings,” Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Council of Bishops president and leader of the Louisiana Conference
I’ll admit my first response was “really? That’s not at all what we asked for!” I was part of a group of delegates that endorsed an open letter calling for better Christian Conferencing at the Special General Conference, along with a few suggestions for better legislation to consider. Our letter called for different content and processes for the Special General Conference—not to cancel it! Argh!
But after reading more closely and reflecting with some cooler-headed friends, my first response was in error—an overreaction—because, it turns out, the bishops did exactly what we asked for. The path ahead is for GC delegates to honor that leadership by participating in the work.
Time to rock a mic like a vandal
Between now and April 22nd, bishops are to lead listening sessions with their delegations and general church affiliations (bishops serve on general agencies, often as Presidents of the boards or attendees). Their original approach was to have a one-day, short-agenda session to pass some technical solutions for their job as bishops–it turns out that wasn’t as helpful to delegates as expected.
While the bishops may have goals for these sessions, I would hope the goal is to accomplish what the Rev. Molly Vetter, jurisdictional conference delegate from Cal-Pac, said in response to this news. Quoted with permission:
Does this mean we can shift from technical solutions to institutional concerns during a pandemic to bigger questions of who we are and who we want to be? 🤞🏻
Rather than a laundry list of things to help bishops keep episcopal authority, a different list that solves a wider variety of polity questions would be more useful, sure, but short-sighted.
Instead, as the Church struggles to re-emerge after a year of rolling lockdowns and scares and swirling pandemics, we need some creative space and holy conferencing to intentionally commit to responding to this upside-down world.
A month with a souped-up tempo
In Disney’s Moana, her ancestors became risk-averse and buried their canoes, becoming settlers rather than explorers. Moana came along and said to the people we’ve buried our canoes for too long, and we’ve forgotten who we are meant to be. She lives into the explorer mode and saves her people. They transform and ride the ocean again, from one person with one conviction.
We need these Moana-level suggestions right now. I’m grateful the bishops have chosen to commit to the chance to collaborate after a long season of executive actions, and I’m hopeful our delegations participate and work across AC boundaries to remember who we are called to be.
But let’s not lose sight of the place where the sky meets the sea: we need to figure out how to make these things happen. We cannot sit in aspirations and relegate the implementation to the bishops: we have less than a month to work across delegations to have common process suggestions like “we must do X to get to Y.” We can work on our “Why” but we need to conclude with a robust “How.”
We need feasible plans that you can vision and feel, and that comes from the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of those at the table—we need to show up to be channels for that Spirit.
Check out the hook…
As we participate, delegates do need to keep on the pressure and conversation about electing bishops and electing General Church board members. Again, in the UMNews article, the statement is reiterated that elections of bishops can only happen after General Conference—that’s not a settled question, and repeating it like it is isn’t helpful. We need some UMC constitutional scholars to opine about this question in the coming month so the bishops have a clearer understanding (or a second opinion beyond Bill Waddell, maybe?).
As I’ve written previously, go ahead and schedule elections. The Judicial Council has proven they won’t de-consecrate bishops, and the fact they are operating at all when they don’t have a quorum (by the letter of the Discipline, half their team had to resign as of January 1, 2021—they didn’t) means they aren’t as stymied by literalism than the bishops might think. And if the rigid constitutional scholars aren’t stuck–then goodness, let’s let polity serve the Methodists, not Methodists serve the polity!
But virtual elections in the summer are proving to not be the greatest choices for such important decisions. It might be that late 2021 or early 2022 will be far enough along in the vaccination track that small regional gatherings are appropriate. While I’ve criticized this in the recent past for General Conference, since elections would only be happening in jurisdictions (as in the USA), the global issues of inequity of vaccine and gathering access wouldn’t factor in as much.
Regardless, keep up the conversation about episcopal elections and board member nominations because I believe both can happen and hope scholars can come forward with some clarity.
We better hit bullseye, the WCA don’t play
The withdrawing of the May 8th Special General Conference had one really nice effect: it effectively shut out the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s attempt to pass the Protocol on a non-debatable and non-amendable ballot.
The WCA had been pushing hard for the May 8th session to add the Protocol to its list of legislative items, saying that their new denomination (the “Global Methodist Church”) would start then and then we could all get on with our lives. The bishops called the bluff: if you can start the GMC, then why don’t you? There’s still time for churches to disaffiliate before the annual conference season begins for 2021, and certainly for 2022. Get on with it, then!
This doesn’t mean the conversation is over or that the WCA has the hot sauce to actually start the GMC: likely the WCA will just try again at the April meeting. Kicking the can and blaming someone else is a fundraising strategy, for sure. But they do actually have an opportunity to let their “yes be yes and their no be no” and start their denomination now instead of later.
Here’s the reality: the Protocol is YEARS long, not a quick moment or decision. It’s a long timeline! So a delay of a year on the UMC side should not stop the WCA from doing what they feel they must do: start something new! Live up to your own standards and what is asked of you by your membership! This is what I’m asking us to do as delegates with the bishops too.
The WCA loves to swoop in after perceived or actual failures of UMC leadership—their actions are more like those of scavenger birds that pick at corpses rather than eagles that soar above and inspire. They are very good at reacting, not leading. My hope is that this opportunity leads to the bishops choosing to fill the leadership void rather than leave it to be filled by the WCA, which will bring new energy and life to the injured church, and which will keep us from being picked apart on the side of the road.
Yo man, let’s get out of here
So we now have two action items:
- If you are not a delegate to General or Jurisdictional Conference, contact your elected delegates and let them know what your hopes would be for who we are, who the church is to be, and how to get there. Soon because the April 22nd meeting is coming up soon!
- If you are a delegate to GC/JC, collaborate across AC lines and be ready to participate in the structured conversations so that we participate in the gift of time that the bishops have given us. Bring to mind “who are we, who do we want to be, and how do we get there?”
Thanks for reading, commenting, subscribing, and sharing on social media.